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Pathways-ED: It’s not just another project!

“You mean that you don’t have any scheduled classes on a Wednesday?” I asked wondering what was happening here.

“That’s right, the students spend that time doing their impact projects,” the Principal replied. “We call them the Impact Projects and it gives them a chance to bring their learning together and apply it for a practical purpose.”

I had been invited to participate in the celebration evening at the Albany Senior High School. Thinking about it as I headed across the Harbour Bridge, I wondered if this would be like so many of the many Science Fairs I had attended, or the other efforts I have seen where students generate hugely disproportionate amounts of energy and fun but produce not a lot – never mind the quality, or the warmth.

I was sure that what I was about to see would not challenge the amazing activity I had once seen at High Tech High in San Diego. There the students were nearing the end of the semester and this school, located in buildings in an old and historic naval base, had developed a project-based approach. Students were too busy to talk to me but they took time out to quickly explain what they were doing, etc. It was greatly impressive as they gave voice to the learning they had. Mature scholarship and youthful inventiveness characterised the typical project.

In New Zealand many tertiary programmes, especially in IT, have a requirement for a keystone project towards the end of the course. Would the high school projects be like these but perhaps at a lower level?

Well, was I in for a surprise. I saw that evening some of the most advanced and mature work I have ever seen high school level students produce. It was remarkable.

Microsoft had agreed to publish an app developed by one student that simply but incrementally taught a learner the basics of music theory. It was clever in its conception and beautiful in its execution. Clean lines, simple instructions. The student was articulate both about the IT and the music. Other music projects included performance, original compositions and, the building of a “copy” Les Paul guitar. To this last student I was able to chat about a concert I had seen Les Paul give in a jazz club in NewYork. We shared an enthusiasm.

Another student saw his project develop out of his after-school / holiday job in a surf store. He had set about developing the complete array of programmes and IT services needed to run the business especially the customer end of it – using barcode for stock control, an interactive and youthful internet store (increased turn-over = ten-fold). This was IT, business, strategic thinking, all wrapped into a very smart piece of work.

It was appropriate that in that very week where those daring young men, sailors in their flying machines were bouncing around San Francisco harbour, a further project had built a small craft that lifted out of the water on foils. The group had encountered issues, all tackled and resolved as the project unfolded.

There were dance performances, art projects (original painted shoes, a graphic novel, an origami chandelier), environmental projects (I loved the recycled furniture project – from inorganic collection to art work) and so on.

What was the point of all this? Well, quite clearly in the face of such explicit evidence of learning, some excellent teaching had occurred. But that seemed minor in light of two more important elements.

There had been extensive engagement with the community across this array of projects. Business, local government, tertiary education providers, retailers, primary schools, and sports organisations both local and national. This is just a sample. Students were faced not only with finding a confidence in doing this but also a security about their own learning as they interacted with busy people. The school had confidence in these exchanges which might have caused some nervousness in a more conventional setting.

The other exciting element was that the students were clearly demonstrating the qualities and skills that are so often spoken about as the soft skills of employment. Certainly they are the skills sought by tertiary education providers as students move into the higher levels of learning and qualifications. Team work, strategising, planning, implementing, setting of goals, ability to think creatively, to be articulate about technical knowledge and suchlike are the key outcomes of a good grounding in the basic skills.

Schools such as Albany Senior High School are leading the way in showing that having confidence in the quality of your programmes and in the the teaching / learning dynamic of the school then liberates the students and allows them to use new learning and develop new skills in ways in which the quality of the activity is nourished by personal interest, need and passion. I say need because one student had realised that she was light in physics given the direction her interests had developed – she saw an opportunity in her project work to do something about this.

Perhaps all this was summed up for me in a comment from Lucy in a reflective piece that looked back on her Impact Project experience – “The highlight for me was being able to learn from Amy.” This captured the essence of a good programme where the teacher stood aside and students saw the real lifelong learning resource -those around them.

Proud parents and grandparents, excited and animated young people, teachers who knew their job had been well done – education at its best.


Published inAchievementSecondary EducationSkillsTechnologyTertiary Education


  1. Linda Russ Linda Russ

    I understand the elation that Stuart experienced when he saw the engagement, passion and outcomes from a group of young people absorbed in their learning. At Foundation Studies at MIT we have also adpoted a project-based learning approach for our Level 2 and 3 programmes – and it is humbling to see what students are capable of when they are given the opportunity to follow their interests and take the learning in their own direction. My regret is that so often our “structured” teaching approach squeezes out the creativity, passion – and dare I say it – learning?

  2. Alison Wakelin Alison Wakelin

    As a parent of one of the foundation pupils at ASHS and also our youngest daughter is a present pupil, we have nothing but praise for the school and the innovative way the management and staff work with the pupils, the parents and the community in providing an environment that both stimulates, teaches and also (in some cases most importantly) enthuses the students – meaning a large percentage of the young adults leave the school more prepared and aware for what the big wide World actually holds for them… those that may be less academic seem to revel in the chance to search for the profession or job that best suits them, whilst still being able to have the guidance and advice from the school and the knowledge that, if this avenue they work on in their Impact Project is not actually what they had expected or wish to continue on with, they can explore another avenue in the next term/Impact Project.
    The sooner we give the young adults this opportunity ( providing correct ‘follow-up’ and guidance is available by the school/s, teachers, staff etc) then the more productive society and less self-absorbed teenagers we will see entering our communities and workplaces throughout New Zealand.
    This younger generation seem to feel that they are older than those of the past, in some ways this may indeed be true BUT sometimes it’s to their own detriment. By giving them the skills to go along with that ‘cocky’ and strong willed attitude, and by bringing them into the realization of what life outside school/in the workforce actually means BEFORE we actually ‘throw them to the wolves’ so to speak… we are giving them a gift far greater than just their A B C’s and some Maths etc… we’re giving them life skills that they can indeed use to succeed in the future they are such a major part of for all of us!
    Thanks for helping our children to see the brighter future life holds x

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