This is the sixth article in the series Baskets of Knowledge from Aotearoa New Zealand, which highlights insights from a totally different education system about what is possible in transforming our education system. Read the first article here.
In addition to the Learn, Create, Share process developed by the teachers at Pt. England Primary described in the previous articles, another important aspect of the pedagogical approach is to ensure that students are operating at their curricular level. Burt explained, “It gives you the horrors when a teacher isn’t leveling the kids right. There are instant behavior problems when kids are working on the wrong level.” Burt asks that when teachers send students with behavior problems to see him, that they also send the Chromebook with examples of their reading and math so he can review physical artifacts about their learning. He checks to make sure students are engaged at the right level. “It can be as boring as toast with no spread on it if a kid is being asked to do something he already knows how to do or has no idea how to do.”
In the U.S., this phrase of “leveling” might be considered similar to “zone of proximal development.” There are eight curricular levels that stretch over 13 years of schooling with the assumption that students will be at different places in their learning. The New Zealand modern pedagogy schools I visited do not assume that students will all be at the same place based on their age.
Leveling is done through Overall Teacher Judgement (OTJ), a core element of the New Zealand education system. Teachers are expected to make judgments about student progress based on multiple measures, drawing data about student learning and progress from multiple sources, including observation, formative assessments, and standardized assessments. At Pt. England, the grades are organized into grade level teams with approximately five teachers working with 150 students. This creates a collaborative environment where teachers are developing their understanding of students, assessment literacy, and instructional practices all the time through dialogue with their colleagues.
Pt. England uses a platform called the Teacher Dashboard developed by Hapara to to support the Learn, Create, Share cycle of learning. The information management system needs to support the grade level team of five teachers in monitoring all 150 students’ progress. Burt described their overall system to track student progress as “less structured and more fluid,” with teachers using Google spreadsheets to help them make Overall Teacher Judgement about where students are on the curricular levels.
Of course, teachers in the U.S. use their judgement all the time as well. However, traditional schools tend to use non-moderated grading scales with points for assignments and behaviors that all wrap up into letter grades or even a Grade Point Average (GPA.) In primary schools in New Zealand, the OTJ is about determining where students are along the curricular level. Again, within the autonomous school policy, it is hard to identify standard practice. However, all of the schools I visited held up OTJ as an important aspect of the system, as it creates opportunity for teachers to identify the level students should be working on and where there need to be interventions; use the data to analyze their own instruction; and engage in evidence-based inquiry to improve their practice. When done collaboratively, OTJ also becomes a moderating process and an opportunity for organic professional learning as teachers exchange their expertise around helping individual students move forward.
A final point about leveling. In several schools I visited, including Pt. England, some students were in “extension.” It is equivalent to students who might be considered gifted or talented in the U.S. or simply ready to do much higher level work because of being raised in high income, highly educated households. Extension provides students with additional challenges while also allowing them to be in the same classroom with students at similar ages and development. The goal is simple: make sure every student has opportunity to be engaged in something meaningful and challenging.
A Reflection on Teacher Professional Development
Before readers jump to an assumption that teachers in New Zealand are receiving higher salaries, smaller classrooms, or better pre-service, its important to point out that they aren’t. In fact, the New Zealand principals with whom I spoke clearly share the same frustration that American superintendents and principals do: Initial teacher education (pre-service) is simply not meeting the workforce needs of modern schools with modern pedagogy based on the science of learning.
As Burt put it, “It’s up to the schools to train teachers. They don’t come in with a strong understanding of how people learn.”He said the two things new primary level teachers need to bring to the school is digital fluency and sufficient domain instructional knowledge. “We want people who bring in a balance of pedagogical capability plus domain knowledge.” He added that the craft of teaching is better developed through real-world experience supported by mentor teachers.
He noted that secondary schools have a slightly different problem. Teachers bring in specific domain knowledge but not domain instructional knowledge. They rarely have adequate understanding of the connections across domains or pedagogical understanding.
Burt is very wary of education reform jargon. He warned against the false dichotomy where modern pedagogy is described as the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage. He said, “A lot of the ideas floating around are rubbish. Teaching isn’t one thing or another. It is an inquiry-based intervention. It’s a constant process of inquiry into practice. We look at evidence based on student work and progress and then explore how it relates to our own skills. The real challenge is once you see an area of growth, what the dickens are you supposed to do about it? That’s why collaborative environments are so important for teachers. We need each other.” He is worried that too many new teachers arrive without understanding the concept of teaching as inquiry introduced in the National Curriculum.
He worried, too, that new teachers underestimate the evaluative capacity they need to understand why students are struggling or not progressing, “Teaching is an intervention. We know where students are and where we want them to get to. The important step is figuring out what will help them get there.”