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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.



Talk-ED: Keeping the register: who should be let in to teaching?

Stuart Middleton
10 September 2012


The continued debate about the use of unregistered teachers, this time in the Partnership Schools, seems to me miss the point of the real issue.

On one level it is clear that people who work in schools should be subject to a set of criteria that ensure so far as is possible, the safety of young people. The importance of this is constant at all levels but has increased intensity with the younger students. Police checks, established identity and perhaps other tests of character are important and a “registration” process is one way of maintaining a standard across the education sector.

But when the demand that teachers in schools be “registered” is code for a view that teachers in schools should have qualifications from the current set that typifies teachers then the argument breaks down. If the educational outcomes of schools is to change, and I hear no arguments being pursued that this is not the case, then we do need to think through the question of “who should teach in schools?” This is not the same as saying that all teachers in schools be registered.

With younger students there are many schools in the country that would benefit from having a wider set of language skills reflected in their teaching staff. Te Reo Maori, Pacific community languages, the languages of migrant groups are all very special in their contribution to the language development of young members of different communities and to the richness of an education in New Zealand for all young students.

Teachers trained in the Pacific who have fluency in both English and a Pacific community language are available and would add greatly to the effectiveness of education in linguistically diverse settings. But the current registration process seems to get bogged down because of its pre-occupation with course approval. (Health has the same issues.)

At the secondary level, much of the work currently being done indicates that many students when offered the opportunity to engage in what many still persist in calling “vocational education” (so as to mark it out from “academic education”) will make better progress and reach higher levels of attainment across the board. But this requires teachers who have a different career trajectory from the traditional school to university and back to school track that the conventional qualifications imply.

Such people do not sometimes meet the criteria for “registration” because of the courses they have undertaken. But they are needed as teachers and given a “clean” background ought to be able to work in schools without financial penalty

At all levels there are roles for people to work in different ways to contribute to effective education outcomes. Short bursts of input in specialist areas, the instruction in specialised settings that broaden the education experience, and specialised contributions from people whose lives are spent predominantly outside of the school and such other people all have contributions to make. They are, if their backgrounds are appropriate, “fit to teach”.

This all adds up to saying that teaching requires a set of people with wide skills to bring out the best in a set a young people with wide needs, interests, aptitudes and capacity to make progress.

I promised some more snippets from my recent reading about Finland.

There are in Finland five kinds of teachers who work with students in the K-12 part of the education system:


  1.     kindergarten teachers working in the one year kindergarten programme (age 6) prior to starting school (age 7);
  2.     primary school teachers responsible for years 1-6 (age 7-13) in the 9 year comprehensive schools (they usually teach at one grade level and only teach several subjects);
  3.     subject teachers working in the upper levels of the basic school (ages 14 – 16) in the subject disciplines such as maths, physics, chemistry etc;
  4.     special education teachers working with individuals and groups  throughout the comprehensive schools;
  5.     vocational education teachers working in the upper secondary vocational schools.


So perhaps Finland has built into its system greater diversity. But there are some tough requirements too. All Finnish teachers must hold a Masters degree, introduced in the belief that teaching was a scholarly activity that should be based on research. Interestingly, there is only one teachers’ organisation in Finland to which 95% of all teachers at all levels from kindergarten through to university teaching belong. This implies a parity of esteem that we have yet to achieve.

Believing that we need a wider group of people in teaching does not lead to an inevitable loss of standards but rather could lead to a general increase in both standards and quality both in terms of input through teaching and outcomes through learning. With what we know about the importance of teacher quality, this bears thinking about.



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Pathway-ED: Pondering on pay and pathways

Stuart Middleton
18 March 2011

It is always good to hear that industrial disputes involving teachers have been settled and agreement reached on pay issues. Such drawn out issues are disruptive, distracting and distressing for teachers who want to get on with the job. They are also critically important. The quality of a settlement is a key factor in teacher recruitment especially of young New Zealand potential teachers and although there are other factors that impact on recruitment the promise of a fair and competitive remuneration is a big influence.

Details are yet to be announced but media reports suggest that the settlement is based around a simple equation that says that a degree of any kind plus a teaching qualification will pull a greater salary than simply a teaching degree.:

$ [(Degree) + (Teaching Qualification)] > $(Teaching Degree)

Media reports also suggest that this is intended by and large to head off primary teachers and restore the advantage secondary teachers had prior to the introduction of pay equity. This is surely simplistic analysis because the formula will apply to quite a number of primary teachers (probably as many as 30%) and we can expect their next pay round to attempt to secure the same conditions for that group in the interests of pay equity.

I must comment on the restoration of the importance of the Christmas Holiday that separates primary education from secondary education. What is it about a 50 day break that requires distinctly different qualification profiles on each side? The excessive emphasis on qualification type and on remuneration based on shoe size and the number of Christmas holidays were all argued against in the days of the quest for pay equity. Now it’s back to the future or is that buck to the future?

No one can argue against the value of a degree in general regardless of the fact that a portion of any degree will be unrelated to the disciplines subsequently taught. My degree qualifications include English, French History, Philosophy and Anthropology. I taught French (briefly and badly) and English (rather better I think). I have never formally studied business but I teach on an MBA programme and supervise doctoral students on a range of topics some related tangentially to education. There is a general value to general degree education that is greatly to be encouraged – a liberal education indeed demands it.

But to claim that this should trump a degree in teaching is a big call (and rather denigrating of such degrees). Has enough thought been given to the place of a teaching degree for secondary teaching? When there is such an inexorable drift towards vocational degrees in the university it might well have had a valuable place.

And there may be some unintended consequences to this settlement if it has been portrayed accurately.

We are inevitably going into a phase of development in secondary education that will require the senior secondary school to expand the pathways available to students.  There is a call for much more opportunity for students to engage with career and technical education at an earlier point. Conventional academic education designed to get students to the starting gate for a university / degree programme remains important but finally there is a realisation that a growing number of students are not well served and in many cases not at all by this single focus. This raises the issue of who then is needed to teach in the secondary school of the future?

If secondary schools are to have an increased capability in the delivery of the trades and career and technical programmes then the degree + teaching formula qualification doesn’t work. The people required for this will be those undertaking teaching as a second career. Does that ring a bell?

One of the historical, clear and hurtful divisions within the secondary teaching community was between technical teachers and the rest simply because their experience and qualifications were not given equity with the degree qualified teachers required for subjects of the conventional academic canon. I taught many technical teachers in my early years as a teachers college lecturer. They brought a wealth of experience from the world of work and life in general into the classroom. More importantly they taught applied subjects on the basis of long experience in applying them outside of the classroom – real teaching about real world activity. We know that large numbers of students responded to this and were able to access secure futures from it.

But we solved all that – a points system awarded them degree equivalence and promoted them into G3 to get equivalent pay (on reflection that was quite patronising). We then stripped a huge amount of the technical education capacity out of the school and looked for degree-qualified teachers to teach technology (which might have been much better served by attracting technologists who often don’t have degree qualifications – this does go around in circles.)

If an unintended consequence of the increased focus on degree + teaching qualification as the entry ticket to secondary teaching is a more constrained ability to provide that expanded set of pathways to students, the only way open to students will be to access those options outside of the school system (in polytechnics or private training providers or industry based training for instance). Alternately, the capability to provide for that group of students will need to be brought into the school through the development of innovative pathways to tertiary and industry-recognised qualifications. Trade Academies and suchlike developments are already starting this process.

Finally, I am again wondering whether teacher pay and student pathways are both impacted on negatively by the continuation of a sector-based approach to education. But that is another story.

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