Collaboration, co-operation, co-construction, choice….

At EducampTheTron today, one of the discussions we had centred around collaboration. In our schools we are all grappling with it; teachers collaborating together to create learning programmes, students collaborating with each other on solving problems and teachers collaborating with students to co-construct learning.

A few questions cropped up which I thought were worthwhile jotting down. Not that I have any answers but maybe this will spark some thoughts.

two girls working together. They are in a school playground, with a large paper map they have designed. They have a robotic car which they have programmed.

How far do the tasks, projects, problems – call them what you will – that teachers set, lead to real collaboration? Are we providing tasks that allow for collaboration or cooperation? Do we allow for students to make real choices about what they learn? Do we co-construct learning with our students?

Often we create tasks with elements that students can divide up so each person has a different section to complete. This is cooperative. When does cooperation move to collaboration? Does it need to – are both essential skills that students need to develop? Is one necessary for the other to happen? What place does peer feedback play? How can reflection lead to more effective collaboration and learning? If each person has their own space to work in and they know that what they complete has to fit into what the others are doing, then they need to communicate and negotiate to ensure that the connections are effective and the outcome is successful.

If I ask a group of students to explore a topic and come up with a presentation to show their learning, do I provide them with enough scope to choose their area of inquiry, to work together not just in terms of sharing out the work (co-operation) but also to collaborate on the research, the findings and the outcome? Do they develop the skills to question each others findings, critique them, wordsmith text, wrangle with meaning and hone arguments, trial tools to show learning and make decisions together, bringing each person’s particular strengths to the table to help them all learn?

A year 13 class is working on a collaborative social justice issue. This is a ‘collaborative’ project. A group of up to 6 students work together to design a social action campaign to argue their case. Alongside this they also have to produce some individual evidence of their learning. My first wondering is what the optimum number for effective collaboration is? My second is how the task is scaffolded so that students develop the competencies and skills to collaborate effectively. What does that look like? If the task is poorly structured it will lead to confusion, and a lack of understanding about how to approach it. There is also a perception amongst kids based on previous experience that ‘group work’ is unfair – some kids do all the work whilst others slouch, but they all get the same mark. This leads to a reluctance to engage or some members of the group protecting what they have done and not sharing.

One of the people in our discussion today is a computer science student and she explained that in peer programming, a more advanced student works with a less accomplished student on a project. They learn together as they develop the programme and inevitably go more slowly. Who gets most benefit? The mentor or the mentee? As a business model, she suggested that it was not necessarily cost effective with two people doing the same job. But it builds sustainability in the long term and it has been well documented that we learn more through teaching. The Tuakana Teina model has already been adopted in many schools where students work together – a mentor and a mentee – to support each others’ learning in a zone of proximal development.

Let’s examine an example of co-construction and choice. In a Year 13 language class students study a set topic and produce an individual piece of work. There is some choice given to the students in as much as there is a list of possible issues to discuss and sometimes, if there is a particularly interesting topical issue e.g. election, natural disaster, social issue, there may be scope to deviate from the usual list. Students then have some explicit teaching to model language, sentence structure and content before they go off to put their learning into a finished product. There is also some opportunity for feedback during the planning process from the teacher. But what if that topic – chosen by the whole class – doesn’t suit some students? How does that affect their engagement in it and subsequent outcomes? The difficulty here for the teacher is having potentially 30 students all studying a different topic – how do they structure a task so that students will meet all the language criteria to achieve a wide scope of topics? How do they provide the content? How do they provide a context for the language that is needed?

How can digital technology support both of these scenarios? Collaborative tools in Office 365 or the Google Suite as well as a range of teamwork platforms such as Trello or Evernote allow students and teachers to work asynchronously, to share documents, to assign activities, to choose appropriate media to find content, analyse it and critique it and to give feedback.

But how much input does the teacher need to provide? A degree of re-thinking of what ‘we have always done’ is needed. Collaborative projects need scaffolding, they need a solid rubric that provides clarity about the task and the required end product. Teachers need to work alongside the students, checking in regularly with them, questioning what they are doing, observing the interaction and mentoring where necessary to help develop critiquing skills, provide effective ways to give each other feedback and to be demanding of what students are doing. Jeffery Heil talked at the recent Google Summit about having regular, staged check ins to keep kids honest. He says that it is important to have a concrete achievable goal, so students don’t get lost in the process with frustration. Left to their own devices they will leave everything to the last minute – don’t we all? It’s human nature! But when a teacher who is used to providing content and leading the activity in the classroom finds themselves in a mentoring role, where they are facilitating groups of students or individual students, they may feel a sense of redundancy and assume that students don’t need them. My fear is that teachers assume that students, by the time they are in year 13, know how to work collaboratively. Because the digital tools enable students to work together at home there may be a temptation to let students get on with it on their own and use class time to get on with other work which is more teacher centred.

I would welcome your thoughts. There are more questions than answers in this post. How do you enable true collaboration and provide choice for your students?

Two girls in a school yard collaborating on a project using an ipad

Photos by Anne Robertson taken at Broadlands School. Permission to publish obtained.

Oxfam Trailwalker 2017

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It was a tough day out on the trails yesterday. A 6am start was a new experience for us and we’re not sure whether we like it! The new route meant that we could move our way up the field before the single track stuff started so we didn’t get stuck behind slower teams.  After that, though, apart from the ‘Aussie Boys’ and ‘Dad’s (Dodgy) Army’ who we played tag with, we were pretty much on our own. It was a bit lonely, especially in the dark, so checkpoints were a very welcome sight. A 7am start in the past has always meant that we were in amongst other teams, we had targets to aim for, people to joke with, chat with, share the journey. On the other hand, we saw the sun rise over Ohope – a beautiful pink glow in the sky rising to full sunshine and a hazy blur over the ocean as we walked along the beach.

The new course promised to get most of the hills out of the way in the first 50kms, but 1500m of ascent is quite a lot and it was not all over! The remainder of the course included plenty of ups and downs on uneven terrain in the dark on tired legs. But that is Oxfam Trailwalker and that is the challenge!

The weather this year was so much kinder than last year! But it was hot and exposed, especially along the beach and over to the airstrip where there was no shade. This certainly had an impact on us.  As is always the case, we all hit walls of varying sizes at different stages of the walk but we worked together to support each other through the bad patches.  Sadly, Jo had to make the painful and very difficult decision to retire after 65km as she suffered some dizzy spells and we were about to walk into the darkness and into an area with no cell phone coverage and no road access.  So just three of us set off from Rewarau Road, after a tearful goodbye, determined that we would see it through.

Feet covered in blisters – Jo and Shelley had adopted the stylish sandals and socks fashion statement early on to reduce the pressure on toes and heels! – sore hips, knees, calves, shoulders… (we are a set of old crocks!!) we trudged on. Our mantra was “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…”. One foot in front of the other in the pool of light from our headtorches.   I think at one point Shelley counted a thousand steps to estimate when the next KM marker was, just to focus her mind on something other than the pain! I know I sang the CORE waiata in my head to keep my rhythm and momentum up. Kilometres went by in silence as we focussed on our own battles in our own heads (especially up the hills) and then someone would say something and spark a conversation which kept us going for another few kms.

Our chant as we entered each checkpoint was as much to rally our own spirits as to announce to our support team that we had arrived. We think it also raised other people’s spirits as everyone commented on it.  The line “We are strong and we are keen” was changed after we lost Jo to, “We are running out of steam” as we definitely didn’t feel strong or keen at that point!

We also found it useful to set ourselves a target – there was a danger when Jo had to retire that we would lose momentum as she is such a motivator in our team.  So we focused on a time by which we really wanted to be off the course, worked out if it was realistic given the terrain and the speed we could physically manage at that point, and kept it in mind as each kilometre passed.  We had two targets – an ideal which was probably slightly unrealistic, and a fall back which was more realistic.

It worked. We were buggered but we did it thanks to the good pace we had set when we were a full team of 4 with Jo and the sheer bloody mindedness, determination and just a hint of craziness of the whole team from start to finish. There is no “I” in TEAM, there may be a “ME” but “MATE” is the whole thing. And mates work together, look out for each other, laugh together, cry together, know when to be quiet and when to cajole and when to tell it like it is.

Not sure if we will embark on another Oxfam Trailwalker – between us we have done more than 10 with different people. We make regular donations to Oxfam as monthly donors, so we may bow out and turn to different challenges. It was a gruelling and very emotional 20 hours 54 minutes. A big shout out to our support team, Rob, Nigel and Nathan who kept us fed and watered, put up with the tears, the frustrations and the demands we made of them.  They are as much a part of the success of completing 100km as we are.  A shout out too to the teams who supported us with their banter, encouraging words, kind words, and understanding when they could see we were struggling.

Oxfam Trailwalker is a test of friendship, teamwork, coping with uncertainty, frustration, and digging deep inside yourself to find reserves you didn’t know you had.  But it also brings out the best in people; in times of adversity (and this year was not the first time we have had to deal with adversity on an Oxfam Trailwalk) we learn how to support each other, we give –  not just things, but ourselves, our emotions, our energy, our passion.  I think we left everything out there on the course in Whakatane yesterday, like many other trailwalkers, and we are better people because of it.

Thank you Jo Munn, Shelley Mackay and Paula Klein. I am proud to call you my friends, sisters in arms, fellow adventurers, mischief makers ….

Photo by Photos4Sale Thank you

Photos in slideshow by Anne Robertson and Photos4Sale Event photographers  CC-BY-SA

Copyright for Innovation


Large copyright graffiti sign on cream colored wall by Horia Varlan  CC-BY

A few weeks ago I attended a panel discussion about copyright and how fair use of media, copyrighted material promotes or inhibits creativity. It was hosted by the University of Auckland Law Department.

A panel of international experts on copyright and innovation led the discussion about copyright, fair use of intellectual property, open access and how it all works in the media, education and business.

Below is the Storify of the evening.

But how does all this apply to schools, teachers and students?

Mention copyright in staff rooms and people’s eyes usually glaze over.  The only real exposure most teachers have to it is in ignoring the poster over the photocopier warning them about what percentage of a book they can legally copy!  Some schools have a vigilant admin person who manages all the photocopying and enforces the rule strictly, in other schools the law may as well not exist.

Drama and music departments have a better understanding of copyright laws as it directly impacts the work they do.  Some media is available for use in an educational context but the limitation lies in that the content cannot be published or presented to the public. It may be possible to perform plays, use musical scores, sing songs within a school context to an audience composed of people within school, but as soon as you invite an outside audience in you may find yourself breaching the terms of the copyright unless you have sought permission to use it. (

So far so clear.  But what about films? I know that films are used extensively to support learning in many subjects. They are also used as ‘end of term fillers’. The philosophical and pedagogical rights and wrongs of this I will not go into here. However, it is clear from the guidelines on the TKI page Guide to copying and showing films that the showing of films should be for educational purposes only.

“You may not show a hired or purchased video/DVD in your school simply for entertainment purposes. For example, you can show the film Shakespeare in Love when it relates to your drama course, but you may not show it to your drama class merely to entertain them at the end of term.”

And you cannot copy the film multiple times to enable every student to have their own copy, nor can you make it available on the school learning management system. Read more at Electronic copying and works on the internet.

OK, so all this is well and good, and the law is quite clear if we bother to find out about it and pay any attention to it.  But there are areas around use of media and ownership that are less clear (or more open to interpretation).

Who owns what you produce as a teacher for your students?  At any time of the day or night, term time or holidays?

The answer is simple: your employer. The Board of Trustees. Not you.

What does that mean?  It means that legally speaking anything that you create in the course of your employment has to stay in the place of your employment when you leave and you cannot take a copy of it with you. WHAT?!  My work, my time, my blood, sweat and tears, my creativity, my imagination!

How does not being able to share my work fit with Kāhui Ako (Communities of Learning)? How does it encourage collaboration across schools and between teachers? How does it encourage me to be creative, spend my time working on great resources if I can’t keep them? How will anyone know if I take a copy anyway? Who is going to stop me?

Well the answers are, it doesn’t and nobody. Unless you start to sell them and make megabucks, or if you take them and don’t leave a copy behind for your colleagues to use and they are left in the lurch.

So, how can I legally own what I feel I morally own because I created it?

A CREATIVE COMMONS policy provides teachers and schools with a way forward.  Put simply, if a school adopts a Creative Commons Policy, then the BOT maintains ownership of resources but agrees that those resources can be shared as long as they are shared under the same license.

So what about images and media that you and your students use in your work? How do I know who has created media on the internet? Who owns the photos in “Google Images”? How do I know what I can use and what I can’t? How do I attribute ownership?   Creative Commons provides answers there too. There is heaps of ‘free to use’ media if you know where to look.  In Google images, go to Tools and then Usage rights to get a return of open source images.  Photos4Class is a great one to send kids to as it inserts appropriate referencing too.  The Creative Commons website has a heap of links to open source resources as well as useful information on how to appropriately attribute and reference media you have used.  Saying “Retrieved from Google Images” just doesn’t cut it!  Or take your own photos and use them and apply a Creative Commons License. Encourage your kids to be creators rather than consumers.

Nobody is very likely to prosecute you if you use an image or a piece of music that is not yours to use unless you are particularly unlucky. Although, there are plenty of examples when that has happened, especially where music is concerned. And I have heard plenty of teachers and students say, “But how will anyone know if I have used a photo, a video, a piece of music?” and “Why should I care?” and “Will anyone really stop me?”

But it comes down to trust, to values, ethics and morals. The values of citizenship that we instil into our kids, that are enshrined in our school charters, that we live and work by everyday.  Taking what is not legally yours without asking permission is theft. Pure and simple.  Using media that is created by someone else without attributing it to them is just bad manners and shows lack of gratitude. And as educators we have a responsibility to model good practice.

It’s all over now!

Last 9 Instagram Posts; 1st January 2017

This time last year I started a photo blog. The challenge was to post a photo every day for the year. 2016 was special because it was a leap year and the hashtag I used was #366photos2016

Yesterday was my last post on that blog. I was reluctant to press the button and post as I have enjoyed finding a photo each day. Sometimes I had to choose from so many that it was hard and I confess to cheating and posting more than one or making a wee collage! Other times, I got to the end of the day and realised I hadn’t taken a photo at all. Those times were rare as I always have my phone in my hand in case there is a photographable moment! When that happened, I either found a subject within shooting distance of my chair, or I edited a previous photo that had relevance for the date.

Yesterday, I had a wee look back at the first posts of 2016, then flicked through to some mid-year posts. How had I already forgotten about some of the things that happened?  The blog will always be there to go back to and serve as a record of 2016 but I am wondering how I can save my ‘story’ in a more tangible way.

I have had a go at creating a ‘book‘ with BlogBooker.  As with all sites the free version is quite limited and I can only export to PDF so it is a bit ugly. It’s a start though. I’d really like to be able to create an ebook but haven’t found anything yet that will easily export the content in my blog directly.  Doing a Google search pulls up all sorts of suggestions but most are plugins that only work with the .org version of WordPress or they are links to sites which have since demised!

I recently saw a link to a blog in a tweet from a friend of ours in which he talked about ‘flickring’ his flickr photos.  I’d love to do that to my photos but my flickr photos are badly tagged so I don’t think I’ll be able to do it easily, nor do I think I have the technical knowhow to do it!

Anyway, lots of food for thought and exploration.


Prize Giving: Celebrating success or stigmatising failure?

boy standing on a rock above the clouds at sunset
On top of the world

It is that time of year; successful students, arms full of certificates, trophies, books and envelopes stuffed with book tokens, stumbling across stages all over the country.  Principals praising the students for their engagement, their tenacity, for overcoming challenges, balancing the pressures of academic study with sport, the arts, community service and coming out victorious and ready to take on everything the world can throw at them.  Student leaders waxing lyrical about the love and commitment shown by their teachers and mentors and the support their peers have provided on the rocky road through school.

It is indeed a time for celebration and well-justified too. But as I watched Prize Giving at my son’s school yesterday evening I couldn’t help but think of the 90% of kids who don’t have their successes celebrated in such a public way.  The ones who are expected to sit through the ceremony to collectively celebrate the school’s successes but who don’t win prizes.  I wondered who it is all for.  What is the purpose?  Don’t get me wrong, I truly believe in celebrating and sharing success but I believe in recognising everyone’s successes in all their guises.  And I’m not convinced that a rewards system is the best way to engage children in learning.

George Couros writes eloquently on the subject in this blogpost “The Impact of Rewards” so I won’t repeat what he has said but I will offer this quote from Alfie Kohn:

“In short, good values have to be grown from the inside out. Attempts to short-circuit this process by dangling rewards in front of children are at best ineffective, and at worst counterproductive. Children are likely to become enthusiastic, lifelong learners as a result of being provided with an engaging curriculum; a safe, caring community in which to discover and create; and a significant degree of choice about what (and how and why) they are learning. Rewards–like punishments–are unnecessary when these things are present, and are ultimately destructive in any case.” (Alfie Kohn, The Risk of Rewards)

And I have severe misgivings about a system that ranks students with a top ten system.  What criteria are used?  Are they open, transparent and fair?  Massey University education researcher Jenny Poskitt says;

“If you want to motivate and inspire kids to strive for excellence in all endeavours, they need to perceive that it’s fair, need to know what the game is and how to play it, to be inspired. If it’s not fair, or they don’t know how to get it, then it’s not going to motivate them.”  (Schools allay fears over school prizes)

In my experience the value of awards decreases for those kids who constantly get them whereas for the kids who never get them the damage to their self-esteem and pride is significant.

One of the things my husband and I had to do yesterday was persuade our son to attend the prize giving evening. He wasn’t getting an award.  None of his friends were getting awards. None of his friends were planning on attending.  The school releases the students at lunch time with the expectation that because they get the afternoon off they should attend the prize giving evening.  He didn’t see why he needed to sit through 2 and a half hours of speeches and a litany of names being read out and prize winners traipsing across the stage (many of them more than once).

He said it made him feel stupid and useless and reinforced his sense of ‘failure.’  We assured him that he is not stupid, reminded him of his skills and achievements.  The things he does like coaching a junior hockey team, and putting himself out there as an umpire, like teaching himself to play the guitar from Youtube videos.  We tried the arguments that it wasn’t about him, it was about sharing and recognising other people’s success, the school’s success and being proud to be part of that collective.   He wasn’t buying it!  And, to be honest, I get it. We have always supported the school prize giving in the past and we have always encouraged our boys to attend.  I have spent 30 years as a teacher attending prize giving occasions and I have occasionally questioned the need for them but, on the whole, just accepted them as a part of the school calendar. But he was so distressed about it that it really made me think.  I wondered as I watched how he was feeling, what impact it was gong to have on his motivation to learn, did we do the right thing in making him come?

The more I heard the word ‘success’ the more I wondered whose success we were celebrating and why we were doing it in the way that we were.  The more I heard the word success the more I wondered about its opposite: failure. If the students on the stage were successful, are all the rest failures?  Of course they are not, but if you are a kid sitting in a theatre who isn’t getting a prize watching those that are being lauded, how would you feel?

The New Zealand Curriculum vision is to develop confident, connected, involved, lifelong learners. The demands of living in an ever changing 21st century world require competencies and capabilities such as resilience, adaptability, communication skills, empathy, flexibility, problem-solving and creativity.  Qualities and dispositions that are difficult to measure.  So no prizes.  But the 90% who didn’t get celebrated yesterday evening or indeed around the country right now probably have them in shedloads.  Who recognises them?  When does anyone tell them they are valuable and worthwhile members of society, that the skills they have are worth celebrating?

In schools all over the world  the ‘industrial model of education’ is being shunned because it is no longer fit for purpose.  Is the end of year “Prize Giving” ceremony just a hang over from the industrial age?  Do we see the tradition of it through rose coloured spectacles?  Is it the tradition that we hold so tightly on to?   Because we’ve always done it that way?  We live in a knowledge economy where content is freely available, the way we learn is changing, the things we learn are changing, the way we assess is changing.  What does ‘success’ now look like?  Will the way that we celebrate ‘success’ change?   I wonder.



Korero make the world go round

Time seems to be in short supply at the moment and blog posts are at the bottom of the pile of mahi! I have so many ideas to write about but need time to organise my thoughts into some sort of coherent stream.  
Today though, I want to note a couple of things very briefly.

The day started with discussions with the rest of the interview panel for the appointment of our CoL leader. I am the BoT representative for my school and feel very priveleged to be on the panel. It is allowing me a unique perspective of the whole process and as well as being able to support the community it will help me when I work with CoLs in the future. I was a little apprehensive at first but am now looking forward to the whole process. Exciting times. 

After that I headed to Rotorua for NetHui just in time to catch the end of the discussion about Maori ICT.  I then joined in the korero about Digital Inclusion and Collective Impact. They were fascinating discussions and it was enlightening to hear the stories from outside an educational setting. Too often, as educators, we are blinkered by the ivory towers of the institutes of learning we call schools! 

I just wish more teachers could have been there. As we strive to make learning more authentic with real world contexts to prepare students for life, the connections we make with business and other sectors of the community are increasingly important. NetHui facilitates those conversations and enables the connections. The tweets tell the story until I have more time to process my reflections.

RE-TYING THE TEACHING KNOT – The Learning Lesson Series

bowline knot in blue caving rope speckled with pink on a wooden benchI came across this blog from a link on Twitter.  First of all, it resonated with me because I love tying knots – a superficial ‘pull in’ to reading but it just shows the power of a title. As I read it, though, I related so closely to the story. Learning is all about the people in the room, about how they learn, when they learn and why they learn.  Teaching is about constantly considering those learners, reflecting on what you do, re-thinking practice and adapting or even re-inventing what you do to meet the needs of all your learners.

Read on:

“Today, you will learn to tie a bowline knot,” I say. Then quickly add, “Mastery for the lesson I am teaching is you tying the knot three times without assistance. My goal is to have everyone achie…

Source: RE-TYING THE TEACHING KNOT – The Learning Lesson Series

Te Marama Pūoru Waiata Māori – learning for all

On my way back from EducampBOP yesterday afternoon I listened to the Mixtape on RNZ.  I hadn’t realised that following on from Te Wiki o te Reo Māori there was a Māori Music Month.  I can be forgiven for not knowing about it as this is its inaugural year and there hasn’t been a lot of mainstream media coverage about it.  The guest on the Mixtape was Rob Ruha  who “is from the East Coast, and is recognised as a leader of traditional Māori music. He has a unique style of which has been described as an eclectic mix of soul-roots-reggae with a touch of RnB, rock-blues and jazz” (see article).

This afternoon I listened to the Mixtape of Moana Maniapoto and one of the things she said struck me – she introduced herself as a musician, a songwriter, always learning and she went on to say that her life has been about storytelling whether through music, documentary making or writing in general.

I have talked before about the power of storytelling for learning. Recently I was involved in a Facebook conversation about the relative merits of teaching handwriting in primary school. As usual, there were many opinions and I have written about this before too, so I am not going to revisit it. But one of the comments that was made was that learning how to read and write brought Europe out of the Dark Ages and another said that people will not be able to contribute to society fully if they don’t know how to read and write. It was also said that not knowing how to read and write would seriously hinder a person’s ability to learn.

So this is the nub of this post.  Why do these people think this is the case?  And how does the emphasis reading and writing meet the needs of all our learners?  It is true that up until relatively recently, while reading and writing have been the main ways that we have accessed ‘knowledge’ in educational systems in western societies, there have been people who have struggled to learn and progress.

My contribution to the conversation was that for generations we learned through storytelling and song which developed active listening skills, the ability to communicate orally, articulate ideas and responses to stories and retell them.  They were adapted and embellished on the way, maybe to fit the context of the situation or maybe because some details had been misinterpreted or misunderstood and people filled the gaps to make the story work.  People learned how to craft language and think on the spot and they were creative, they used verse, songs, jokes and prose.  The places we listened, often alongside a  ‘master’ as he/she went about their trade, or around a fire or in the kitchen or in the fields meant that we spent time with our community elders and built connections and relationships, learned respect and shared ideas.  And listening to stories helps our learning because it activates not just the processing language parts of our brains but the sensory and motor aspects too.  And telling stories is just as powerful for learning as we have to articulate what we mean, we have to process our thoughts and organise them.  I know we do that when we write too – I have edited and re-organised the paragraphs and my ideas in this blog post as I have written, but when we speak we have to do that on the go, dynamically as people listen to us and they can question and interrupt and ask for clarification.

Now I am not saying that reading and writing hasn’t enriched learning, it is an essential tool in the education box and we should make the most of what it offers us.  However, the emphasis over the last century or two has been on the written word and the process of writing as a means of learning.  And I think that it has been a barrier to learning in terms of how we measure learning for many people. Their learning in school, the ability to pass exams has been almost entirely predicated on reading and writing. So if we have a child in a class that finds it difficult to read or write,  we make them do more of it so they can catch up. If they don’t reach a certain level of literacy they will not be able to access ‘learning’ across other subjects, even maths because they are all based on reading information and then writing about it.  My boys are creative kids with heaps of ideas, they both struggled with the physical aspect of forming letters and making their writing legible. They were slow at writing so they stopped thinking up big ideas, or at least writing them down because it took too long.  So they never really explored their ideas, articulated them, ordered them and crafted them fully to the satisfaction of their teachers in an essay format.  Fortunately, my boys are ‘good’ readers so they developed a wide vocabulary,  they identified how to form sentences and worked out how language works through the range of genres that they read.  If they had greater access to typing and being able to use a computer for their writing the barrier for them may have been removed. If they had been able to record their voice and speak their ideas out loud rather than writing them, how might that have affected their learning?

20150930_223616Remember that the very first way of communicating was through gesture and voice, through songs and images. The rhymic nature of poetry and songs stimulates the brain but also the body so that we move and sway in time, the words somehow stick in your brain, just think how much easier it is to learn a poem with rhyme and rhythm than one without and how the words of catchy tunes rattle around your head without you even wanting them to!   So my boys also loved listening to stories; we read often to them and they had tapes and CDs which they listened to in the car or at bedtime.  The power of listening and how it impacts on the ability to memorise (I won’t say learn because they are very different)  was reinforced once when I came upon my eldest at the age of 3 ‘reading’ Winnie the Pooh. He had memorised the words from the tapes he listened to regularly and from us reading to him and was ‘reading’ to himself, turning the pages as he went!

As a language teacher, I have frequently bemoaned the paucity of listening skills amongst the young people coming through to me in my classroom as well as the unwillingness of students to articulate their ideas orally unless they have had time to craft ideas in written form first.  As we have assigned more emphasis to reading and writing, to decoding words on a page we have neglected to understand the power that the spoken words has on children’s ability to learn.  When children come into a school they have spent 4-5 years listening and developing oral language. They have amazing memories, they can retell stories, they are good active listeners and mimickers. They have learned as they have watched their parents, elder siblings, caregivers, and asked countless Socratic questions about the world, life, and the meaning thereof.  So,what do we do? We put a pencil in their hands, we sit them down, we tell them to be quiet and we teach them to read and write.  I am being harsh.  I know that primary schools do so much more than that and I am well aware of the constraints that schools are under to ‘deliver’ the curriculum and ‘meet the standards’ and I am not going to go into any of that now.  But I think you get my meaning. They get out of the habit of ‘listening’ and speaking and they become over-reliant on reading and writing.

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© Copyright Ewen Rennie and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.


From symbols painted on cave walls, on skins, carved into wooden posts and stone pillars to the artistic calligraphy on vellum of the monks, to the printing press and then to typing and word processing, language and, more importantly, communication have informed the way humans have lived, adapted, survived and flourished in an unpredictable world.  But language developed orally, it was honed and refined by people talking to each other. As we have travelled more widely, explored new places, tasted new foods, seen spectacular and interesting new sights and immersed ourselves in different cultures, our vocabulary has grown to reflect those new experiences.  Language absorbs and assimilates new words to represent new inventions forming them from old words, trying to capture the spirit of the object and how we interact with it and the affordance it has with our lives.

When we listen we hear nuances; tone of voice, feeling, volume, accent, we can sense mood and emotion, we can also see the facial changes and the gestures that people use when they speak and we make connections.  When we talk we have to think on our feet, search for words sometimes or explain our way around a word that we can’t quite remember or that we don’t know.  We adapt our own tone for the context, for our audience, and we make eye contact and build connections.  We also have to listen actively so we can recall what has been said, interpret it and respond.  ‘A picture paints a thousand words’ and listening conjures up a million images and feelings and emotions.  So why would we limit ourselves to writing and reading?  Why would we limit our learners to a narrow range of ways of learning?

What is exciting today is that our means of communicating are becoming richer at an exponential rate.  The technological advances that brought us Gutenberg’s printing press in the 1400s and disrupted the world of learning and acquisition of knowledge have continued apace, and now we have a range of different media that we can use to communicate and be creative.

It is important that we start to ascribe a more equal importance to all means of communicating so that all our children can learn in whatever way works for them. We have a responsibility to provide them with all the tools at our disposal, let them make their own choices and not hinder their learning because we are fearful of change.  Just because we’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean that it is the best way. Equally, it is important not to adopt new ways of doing just because they are new.  We should question and reflect, consider what they add to the mix, use them with caution but embrace the opportunities they offer for learning.  It is not the tool alone that helps us learn, it is choosing the right tool at the right time for the right purpose.  But the toolbox needs to be full and it needs to be open and accessible.


So, to go back to the start and Te Marama Pūoru Waiata Māori – just as with many cultures the habit of storytelling through song, waiata, chants, stories and poetry has been an important way of passing knowledge and cultural ways of being and doing down through the generations.  Language is a key component of the sense of identity because language can never be truly translated word for word into another language.  Māori, like many languages existed for generations only in its oral form, passed on and enriched through song and stories. My strong belief is that it is important that we do not lose our oral languages, or we lose sight of who we are and where we came from.  So embrace storytelling in all its forms –  written, visual and oral and why not listen to a few waiata and find out more about Te Marama Pūoru Waiata Māori.

This waiata called Rariri from Rob Ruha is very powerful and retells historical accounts of the East Coast forces that supported the Kingitanga, the Pai-mārire faith and the people of Tauranga-Moana in the battle of Pukehinahina (Gate Pā) and Te Ranga from the perspective of the families, hapū and iwi that stood against the crown and its Māori allied forces.



Rātū, 19 o Hōnongoi 2016

This week our task in Te Puāwai is to record and share our journey integrating some of the classroom commands into the classroom or home. Our kōrero must include the following:

1. A list of the different commands in te reo Māori that you have been using

2. What challenges you faced integrating these commands into everyday conversations

3. What benefits or growth you may have noticed as a result of speaking the commands in te reo Māori rather than in English

4. What are your next steps, what will you do next to continue learning and using more te reo Māori in your class or home

Over the last few weeks I have been working on integrating as many Māori kupu into my mahi as possible.  Working at home doesn’t make that easy – I can hardly talk to myself! Well, actually, I do! I have post it notes all over my office with kupu and kiwaha written on them and I say them out loud to myself whenever I look up and see them.  We have a morning coffee Skype group and always start off asking each other ‘Kei te pēhea koe?’ and responding appropriately. Renee helps us work out words we don’t know, which is great.

20160630_193331When I send emails to schools and colleagues I try to use the appropriate greetings for the time of day such as ata marie, morena, kia ora…  Last week we ran a workshop for a group of schools and we incorporated a few of our greetings and commands. e.g. saying hello and introducing ourselves, e tū, e noho, whakaporowhitia, he whakaaro anō ā koutou, kuamārama koutou.  I think the main difficulty was that the group of people were all Pākeha and so using Te Reo sounded quite unnatural and the teachers didn’t respond until we repeated in English so we didn’t get the immediate feedback which encourages more language.

The use of the target language followed immediately by English has been a constant tension in my world as a language teacher.  It is generally accepted that immersion in a language is the absolute best way to learn but, of course, that leads to people, however open they are to learning, frustrated when they don’t understand.  My life in the classroom has been one of hand gestures, role play and generally looking bonkers as I jump around acting out my own version of charades to try to get across what I am trying to say to my students!  By following up with an English translation, accepted wisdom is that learners don’t bother working out the target language as they know that you will say it in English eventually. But I guess that at the moment the aim of my using Te Reo in workshops is not necessarily to teach others but to learn myself, become familiar with using the language and to develop ways of working which are culturally responsive.  And although I still feel a bit awkward using Te Reo, as I become more confident, it is getting easier.  A positive by-product is that by integrating Te Reo in my everyday and working life it becomes embedded not only for me but for others, and starts to become more of a ‘lingua franca’ in this supposedly ‘tri-lingual’ and ‘bi-cultural’ country!

Next steps are to keep going and using Te Reo when and where possible.  I had an interesting situation last week when in my role as a BOT member I had a meeting with some Māori students and their whānau.   I was very conscious of the fact that the BOT are all Pākeha and I wanted to greet the students and the whānau in a culturally appropriate way. It is difficult to know what the impact was but I would like to think that it made a difference.  I have decided too, after reading one of the “strategies for learning” posts in the Moodle course that I will write the date in Te Reo in my notebook each day and as I am trying to post a photo a day this year on my blog, that I will start writing the date in Te Reo – could be a challenge but it will make me think every day!

Here is today’s blogpost – Ra 201, Rātū, 19 o Hōnongoi 2016

I also made a video to practise and embed the commands into my (very slow) brain!

Time to think

20160505_212235-1.jpgI’ve been doing quite a lot of walking/running recently and it provides me not only with a well-needed brain break from the computer, leg-stretch from a chair and eye break from a screen but also time for my brain to slow down and stop thinking. Well, maybe not stop thinking but it helps me to filter my thoughts, get them in some sort of order through disordering them, breaking them up and somehow putting them back together again. I don’t necessarily gain any answers but they get “un-piled”!

Data has been top of mind in my work in the last few weeks. What is data? Despite myself, but also because I am a competitive soul, I can’t go for a walk or a run anywhere without trying to do it faster than the time before. I find myself calculating how many minutes it takes me to walk a kilometre, how many kilometres I can walk in an hour, was it faster than last time, slower, was the terrain similar, how much should I take off for stopping to take a photo, should I take anything off? If I hadn’t had to wait 45 minutes in the gully while everyone went through the hole in the rock, and then another 20 minutes for people to cross the river and climb the 3m rope climb how long would I really have taken to walk/run 23km and how would that equate to a half marathon…? But it is clear that those calculations are not just based on pure numbers, on data, they are based on human action, on nature, on the terrain, on feelings, on emotions, on abilities and competencies and relationships. Relationships between people and the environment, on rational and irrational fears, on prior experience and knowledge and understanding.

Take this weekend, for example. As part of the event I participated in we had to squeeze through a hole in a rock wall to get out of a gully. ‘Squeeze’ is an interesting concept – it was clearly not that small a hole as plenty of large-ish men got through with relative ease. My prior knowledge and experience of caves and caving meant that I was unafraid, eager, in fact to face the “challenge”. People around me who didn’t have that knowledge were fearful, anxious, uncomfortable. Feelings that were made more acute by the wait and the conversations and the “chinese whispers” passed back – the “fishermen’s tales” – “the hole is tiny!!” with hand gestures that indicated the smallest of gaps. But with support from those of us who did know, with encouragement, explanations and modelling of how to do it, with patience and with care everyone got through.

If this had been a test for which we were being assessed, I would have got top marks. My prior knowledge meant that the test was easy, my experience and my preparation meant that I had no problems slipping through. I may have also gained extra credit for being a “leader”. For others it was not the case, they may have been ‘judged’ not to have got top marks because they hesitated, or didn’t slide so gracefully through, or took too much time.

Personally, I think their achievement was all the greater. The obstacles they overcame to get through; emotional, physical, rational, irrational made their achievement more meaningful. Give me a situation where I have no prior knowledge, no confidence, no experience, irrational fear and I wonder how I would have fared.

So, how do you measure that sort of data when you assess people in academic tests? How do you compute immeasurable data such as emotions, human nature, social background, with knowledge and experience to make meaning, build connections and create pathways for learning?

This evening, I was talking with some friends. Both teachers and ex-colleagues. One of them is a drama teacher and some of her students do extremely well. Students who don’t do so well in other subjects. Students whose motivation for coming to school sometimes is simply because they have drama that day. Part of her inquiry this year is looking at why those students are motivated and engage in drama but not in other subjects. She said that one of the things she does is talk to her students about who they are, about their families, what they like doing, what their parents do, how many siblings they have, where they are in the family, what they do when they aren’t at school, where the family comes from, who they live with, who they spend the most time with; she finds out what makes them tick. She builds a relationship with them, trust, respect, interest, she cares. That’s what makes those kids come to school. That’s what makes those kids do well in drama.

So, in schools we need to look at our students, not just as they are in front of us, but who they are in their family, their community, their social groups, what they do in the classroom, of course, but what they do on the sports field, in the arts, in the community. Build on their experience and use all of that information, that data to gain insights, and generate meaningful action to personalise learning for them, give them and their whanau a voice, a stake in their decision-making and the pathways they choose.  That is the rich data. It’s not all about test scores. It’s about who we are, it’s about building relationships, making connections, trust, respect, humanity.