week 6: PLD (learning solutions Y2PRT)

Yesterday I attended a workshop for 2nd year secondary teachers aimed at supporting us through the registration and accreditation process. It was the first of 4 workshops spread throughout the year, with this one being fairly generalised and giving us an opportunity to co-construct the foci for the remaining workshops.

In addition to the networking opportunities and the chance to share experiences with other teachers at a similar stage, there was a lot of valuable information, particularly with respect to student-centred learning approaches, inquiry-based teaching, and recognising and collecting appropriate evidence for the PCT registration criteria.

One thing that was especially highlighted for me was that although this blog provides a great platform for reflecting on and sharing my practice, I am not using it frequently enough and I need to make a lot more time to update it.

The purpose of this blog is to make my teaching practice visible to those who are not in my classroom and to provide a space to reflect on my practice in order to improve it. I need to stop seeing it as an extra thing to be done when I get time, and actually start to make the time.


In our groups (of 4 or 5) we began with talking about the considerations required to place ākonga at the centre of their learning. What do we need to know, provide, or do in order to create a learning environment that allows differentiation for the different students in the room, that can cater to a range of personalities, learning modalities and interests.

I was impressed by the degree to which the kaupapa of HPSS incorporates so many of these things, making it much easier for individual teachers to provide conducive conditions for learning in a differentiated, personalised way. It’s not automatic, but it provides an extremely supportive environment for what is very challenging work. Almost everything on our initial brainstorming lists is provided for within the infrastructure and organisational structures created at HPSS, including the kind of professional environment that encourages a huge amount of meaningful collaboration. I’ve only been here 6 weeks and I realise I’m beginning to take some of these features for granted.

We were lead through different activities by different members of the Learning Solutions team, lead by Siliva Gaugatau. Between them we got a good overview of their expertise in areas such as relationship building, Te Kotahitanga, data analysis, differentiation, and inquiry-based practice.

Although none of it was exactly new, I found some of the speakers offered some different suggestions or approaches. It was great to have a reiteration of important principles, some insights into the different kinds of evidence we might be able to gather to show we are meeting the criteria for professional registration and strategies for making use of that evidence (because what is the point of gathering data if you don’t use it?).

I’m looking forward to the next one in May.


week 2: big project egg-citement

One of the learning contexts at HPSS is Projects (Big Projects for Yr 9/10, Impact Projects for Yrs 11+).  These projects are student-driven responses resulting in an action, product or resource to provide a solution or innovation to an identified real world challenge.

Today we launched an introductory project to provide a structured scaffolded project to enable new students to understand the processes of the projects strand. The senior students in our hubs who have done projects before are able to develop their skills in taking on leadership roles.

Students need to decide on how to organise their groups, delegate tasks which may include research, design and process/budget management roles.

The initial challenge involves an egg and a perilously steep ramp down the main stairway, namely: to transport the egg safely down the ramp and survive impact with a barricade at the bottom of the ramp. They are given a design brief and a booklet including structure for the inquiry process of designing and constructing the vehicle.

As a project guide, I am there to provide guidance but not answers. The kaupapa of big projects is to allow ākonga the opportunity to take leadership roles, learn to collaborate well, as well as achieving an outcome though their own ingenuity and perseverance.

While in future projects students will elect particular projects to be involved with, the initial one is being done within hubs (mine have decided on boys and girls groups) which provides another good opportunity at the start of the year to build the hub culture and team spirit.

week 1: building a learning community

HPSS groups its students into learning communities as an organisational structure. These communities are an analog of the ‘house’ in other schools, but they function quite differently to most other high schools that I’ve experienced. There are currently 3 learning communities during the foundation years, but this will be expanded to 5 as the school’s roll grows.

Within the learning community, each student is part of a learning hub of up to 15 ākonga, from all different year levels. Students stay in the same hub throughout their time at HPSS and, as far as is possible, will have the same learning coach throughout that time (there is some disruption and rearrangement during the foundation years as new cohorts and staff arrive each year). An overview of learning hubs can be found here.

The idea behind this is that all ākonga have a staff member that knows them well, is involved in their learning and with whom they can share their personal challenges and victories. The smaller group allows the ‘learning coach’ (the entity formerly known as “form teacher”) to form stronger relationships and to have a deeper knowledge of their hub group. There is a restorative framework to allow for escalations of pastoral issues, but the learning coach plays a far greater pastoral role than in most secondary schools.

I have found this approach to pastoral care refreshing. As a form teacher at previous schools, I found it challenging to make time for my form class amongst the competing demands of subject teaching, the busy school calendar and the restrictions of a timetable which considers form class to be just a time to take the roll and read the notices. In most schools a lot of the real pastoral work is done by stressed out deans and focuses on the squeakiest wheels, while the form teachers tick the names off and make sure to follow up on uniforms and overdue detentions.

The model that HPSS has adopted reflects our aim to encourage our students to see themselves as part of wider communities. In addition to check-in times each morning, there are three extended hub sessions that can be used flexibly for a variety of different activities, including pastoral care, team building and assistance with strategies for challenging modules or classes.

Every student has a teacher who knows them well, has built relationships with their parent(s) and/or caregivers, and whom will support and encourage them to make good decisions about their learning. Having just started here, I am still in the early stages of building these relationships, but I can see amongst my colleagues some great examples of strong connections with students and their wider whanau.

At a previous school, as is common, there were parent/teacher meetings once a semester, usually toward the end. I would have 5 minutes to meet with some of the (usually more engaged) students’ parents and discuss their child’s progress. They would be dashing from 1 subject to another for 6 or 7 five minute meetings (or twice that if they have a couple of kids at the school) and trying to assemble a picture of their child’s progress based on the perceptions of their different teachers. Some of this was useful, of course, but – with a lot of my classes being single-semester options – I met with most of my students’ parents only once. There was a certain amount of email communication, but the priority given to forming and strengthening the communication and connection between school and home was low.

The contrast with HPSS was immediate:  In our first week, our only student contact was in individual education meetings with ākonga, matua and kaiako.  I met with the 14 different families of my hub students and got to know a bit about their kids, their home lives, their concerns and their expectations.  While it took several weeks to learn the names of the 24 boys in my form class last year (and only meeting the families of a couple during the year), I already knew the names of my hub group and had a good sense of their personalities from their first day back.

Their first week back as a school (a.k.a week 2) was turned over to induction and community building activities.  As I tweeted:

Relationships are the first priority at HPSS. As our esteemed possum principal puts it:

We’re firmly of the view that if you believe that strong relationships are central to learning then you need the structures, the commitment of time and the processes to build those relationships.

This is a great start to the school year for new and returning students alike. A chance to get oriented, to re-connect with friends or (for newer students) to make connections and begin friendships, free of the instant stress and cognitive load of ploughing straight into the academic year.

The other thing, perhaps the key thing, about the hub model is the chances it creates for leadership. With the smaller size of hub groups and the slightly larger groupings within communities (several hubs might do some activities together, for instance) or even as a whole community, there are a variety of different leadership opportunities, meaning that as our ākonga mature and become more senior they will have more opportunities to show leadership. I noticed this during week 2, with many students showing the confidence to lead activities in different contexts throughout the week.

Relationships need to be nurtured, and schools are beginning to become aware that creating structures which allow the necessary time and attention to be put into forming and building learning relationships is important. HPSS is finding that beginning this process from day 1 (before worrying about the actual learning part) is worth the investment.

week 0 – welcome to your new school

Tihe mauri ora!
Tēnā koutou katoa

Ngā mihi nui ki te kaiako
Ngā mihi nui ki te iwi katoa kia tenei wahi nui nei
Ngā mihi nui ki te whānau o te kura

Ko Te Aroha te māunga
Ko Waihou te awa
Ko Mataatua te waka
Ko Ngāti Pākehā te iwi anō hoki
Ko Ngāti Awa te iwi anō hoki
Ko Whakatōhea te iwi
Nō Ngarua ahau
Ko Stephen Watts rāua ko Anne Watts ōku mātua
Ko Mic Watts tōku ingoa
Ko Aia Dowsett Watts tāku tamāhine e whitu tau

Whakawhetai mātou ki a koe mo tou mai
Titiro tātou i mua ki te heke mai whai i roto i tenei wahi
Nō reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa

On Thursday the new staff were inducted into the school and warmly welcomed by the Senior Management. So far, the process of learning about the very different way HPSS operates has been gradual and low-stress, as long as you are able to cope with uncertainty. What I mean by this is that while from the outside it may appear as if things are being made up as we go along, there are some great systems to assure that module planning can happen flexibly and responsively while retaining robust links to the curriculum through structured planning based on learning objectives linked to themes.

If you’re someone who needs to know ahead of time exactly what you’ll be teaching and to whom over the next year, then I can imagine the experience being somewhat unsettling. Happily there is a lot of support in place for n00bs and I am very fortunate to be paired up to teach modules with experienced HPSSers Claire Amos and Andrea Tritton who are both extremely supportive and knowledgeable about the process.

On Friday I delivered my first mihi whakatau, leading the party of new staff into our pōwhiri (see above). It was a great experience, despite some trepidation, and went well (at least, I think so). I will need to discuss the structure with a fluent speaker, as time constraints meant I relied more on Google translate than I would have liked, but I tried to verify my sentence structure by searching out similar phrases from the web.

It also led me to do some thinking about my identity and the appropriate way to express my whakapapa. I have a little Māori blood in me, but I know little nothing really of the specifics of that whakapapa beyond the iwi those tupuna belonged to. I felt it appropriate to identify with the waka of those iwi, as the first vehicle in which my blood arrived in Aotearoa, but not to adopt the maunga or awa/moana of those tribes because having grown up far from those lands, I do not belong to that landscape. I instead chose the significant landmarks from my childhood in the Piako – Mt Te Aroha and the Waihou.

Although it’s only been 2 days, I feel like I’m getting a good handle on the structures and systems of HPSS in a general sense. I can tell there is a lot to learn, but so far colleagues have been very good at avoiding overwhelming us with information and prioritising the most important things to begin with.

Next week we will have individual meetings with ākonga from our learning hubs and their parents. It’s great to start the year with an opportunity to meet parents and begin building strong relationships. I’ll talk more about learning hubs, pastoral care and the dispositional focus of the HPSS curriculum in oncoming posts.

It’s been a great first week and I look forward to the next…

identity part 2: emergence, confidence

In my first post on the HPSS term 1 theme of identity, I went over my conception of the basis for consciousness, which is the vital core of one’s identity but is only a fraction of one’s self. A biological learning system awaiting input.

It is the input that creates identity, emerging gradually through the years and through billions of minuscule interactions with the world and other people. Learning is not only what our brains were made to do, it is literally what makes us who we are. We begin in the womb and we can’t help it.

As a self, a teacher, and a parent, this developing an identity thing is a fascinating and delightful, yet very fraught, process to experience and observe. For all of our sophisticated neural hardware, we still operate on the Primate 2.0 operating system, and so we must contend with the rigours of hierarchy built in to enable effective group co-ordination. This means that any group of us will naturally organise according to more or less self-confidence and that these dynamics change in any given social grouping.

Confidence is a very important component in our identities: Too little and one will never have any fun, too much and one might hurt oneself. It is important because it greatly regulates our motivation and ability to play and experiment and thus to learn. In order to create ideal spaces for learners to learn they need to feel confident to play and experiment safely.

So, as we accumulate and build our confidence (and repair the various damages to it) our identity forms and develops. You can think of it as another layer of skin: It is soft and absorbent at birth, but gradually hardens, thickens, scars, and etc…  which links nicely to the introductory tattoo exercise Claire and I are working on for the intro to our module on NZ art and literature in a few weeks… hmmmm

F. Hundertwasser, c.1998 (inverted)

Hundertwasser believed that one has 5 skins: the epidermis, the clothing, the house, the social identity, and the earth-ecosphere. I find this a compelling idea and a good way to think about my identity and my place in the world.

So that is a potted tour of my conception of identity. The next task is to collaborate on building two modules for the first semester to explore the concept through an English/Art lens and through a Biology/Art lens. I am looking forward to this…

identity – part I: consciousness

The school’s theme for term 1 is identity, so it seems like a good idea to think about my own starting concept of the nature of identity and the kind of thinks which might make good starting points for examining what identity is and how we might embody our identity (or identities).

Firstly, as an artist, identity is one of personal fascinations and is at the core of much of my artplay.

Magnetic Tape Reader – Mic Watts mixed media on board, 175mm x 230mm, 2015

Having been infected fairly early with an obsession with uncertain landscapes of reality through Philip K. Dick, the twilight zone and 1st year philosophy papers, I have long been interested in the emergent nature of the mind. Within the black box of our skulls, bio-electro-chemical signals pulsing thousands of times a second through a hyper-connected substrate result in the sophisticated physical experience of personhood that we live each day.

My exploration of identity and consciousness has lead me down a recursive rabbit hole toward the concept of recursion. At many different levels, it seems apparent that a crucial element of the richness of human cognitive experience is not just that we think, but that we are able to think about our thinking – metacognition. We are able to reflect on the content of our minds and to recombine this content imaginatively.

One of the key nudges of my train of thought along this track came from a thought experiment from one of my philosophy papers in my first year at university:
1. Imagine that you wake up one morning and inscrutable aliens have cleanly and painlessly separated your left foot from the rest of your body (who knows why they do these things?). Which part would you identify as still being you? easy: your body, right?
2. Unfortunately the aliens aren’t finished and the following morning your head and body have been separated (somehow the alien’s tech can keep both alive). Which part is lost now?
3. Those pesky aliens return the following night and restore your body, but they replace your brain with an exact (atom-for-atom) copy. Would the person who wakes up in the body be you?

I am recalling from a long time ago, but the gist is there: To begin questioning exactly what our minds are and where they reside. Most would agree that the where is ‘in my brain’ but the what is a bit more tricky. How does our internal, subjective experience of self-ness arise from the dizzying activity of our neural structures and patterns? Do other people experience things similarly to us? How does the picture our (skull-enclosed) brains build based on our perceptions reflect the ‘true’ world outside the skull? These questions are not easy to answer once you begin to pick the whole thing apart…

“If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

– Emerson M. Pugh

From the inside of my mind it seems that experience consists of an interplay between perception and memory. Perception – a picture of one’s current situation in time and space, based on sensory inputs – triggers various responses from memory – information from past experience which may assist a mind in formulating a response to the perceived situation. The more we perceive and remember the wider the variety of potential responses a mind might call upon in any given situation.

These processes (both perception and memory) are insidiously recursive, and the recursivity of the underlying neural structures gives rise to the capacity for metacognition and the ability to think about how one thinks.

Language, as a subsystem within this mental environment includes a significant degree of recursion – especially in English (which provides a variety of grammatical structures for recursively nesting clauses – such as this one – at different levels) – which enable us to formulate highly complex ideas and structures.

My conceptualisation, then, of identity, rests on the foundations of several layers of structure:

  • Hardware:
    – at base, the energy of the universe, structured according to laws of physics…
    – some of which is congealed into matter formed into chemical structures…
    – some of which  is self-organised into biochemical structures culminating in bodies with brains
    – which develop complex information processing architecture, conducting electrochemical signals
  • Software:
    – these signals form complicated patterns in order to convey and manipulate coded information based on external input signals and internal neural processes…
    – allowing an individual to experience and act within their environment and community…
  • Subjective:
    – this experience, via some blurry neural magic, results in an emergent phenomena called consciousness

And – despite all of this taking place within the warm, mushy darkness of a human skull – feels very much like being an evolutionarily advanced ape on a rocky planet orbiting a small star in a far-flung arm of the milky way.

This, roughly, is the basis of the mental model inside my brain of what, where and how my self is…

hello world

The buck has stopped.

I have waded through my teaching career so far proclaiming – to anyone who will tolerate it – my sincere belief in the need for a reconceptualisation of education and an examination of the many assumptions that no longer apply in the ways they did even a decade ago, let alone the way they did when the institutional forms of (most of) our schools were forged (50-200 years ago). At its core, my dissatisfaction with the status quo arises from aspects of the organisation most schools employ of separating their students’ learning into subjects taught by specialised departments. Specifically, the way in which this specialisation disconnects various learning areas from each other and scrambles them across an arbitrary timetable which students then need to assemble into a working model of their universe.

I think that the ideal outcome of a good education is a connected-up picture of the world, a conception of one’s place, past and future, a diverse and useful set of skills for operating in the world, and importantly, a metacognitive awareness. If this is the end goal, does it make sense to send our students from English to Biology to Art, without paying any attention to how these subjects overlap or relate or connect? We expect them to absorb scattered nuggets of knowledge across all of these disconnected subjects and from this to assemble a working mental model of the Universe. It’s like being given assorted pieces from 7 different jigsaw puzzles and asked to make a picture.

Students arrive at school pre-installed with a mental model of the universe. It is our job as teachers to help them accurately develop that model to ever more sophisticated degrees, focusing on areas which hold the greatest interest and(/or) usefulness for the students. It is difficult (or impossible) for a busy teacher to co-ordinate content with other departments in your average high school, there is simply too much complexity for teachers to be able to take the time to integrate their curricula.

My view is that this, combined with the economic drivers underlying the funding of these departments based on student numbers, causes departments to compete for “ownership” of subject matter and the funds that accompany students choosing to study it. For instance, take ‘Art Design’ (Visual Art) and ‘Design and Visual Communication’ (Technology); there is a huge overlap in both the skills and content being taught under these banners and thus a lot of opportunities to combine and customise curricular standards from both paradigms and to tailor course design to meet a wide variety of design contexts and approaches in a unified way. Too often, departments are trying to attract students in one direction or the other instead of seeing it from the student’s perspective where they might benefit most from a course combining the approaches of Art and Technology. A student can be accepted into an architecture degree with an excellent DVC or Art portfolio submission, but for the best chance of acceptance into such a fiercely competitive course surely a student would be best served by a portfolio which showcases both their artistic and technical design skills in a consistent and focused way?

This doesn’t just apply to subjects that have obvious intersections of skills or content but, with a bit of thought, connections can be found between any two subjects with a bit of thought. Whether you’re thinking of historical statistics, the physics of sport or the economics of agriculture, there are a multitude of lenses that can be focused on any given topic or area of interest and brains are built for making connections. In my opinion a school’s goal should be to train students who have both a broad range of skills to choose from and a good general knowledge of the world in order to assess which approaches to any given situation will be most fruitful in achieving a desired outcome.

Of course every single school has a different management structure and a different set of inter-departmental (and, usually, inter-personal) dynamics so there are differing degrees of co-operation between departments, but in most cases the crucial lack is in the time and space for colleagues from different departments to plan and collaborate both within and outside of the timetable. I had 8 year 9 classes, last year, two terms each, two lessons a week (minus holidays, sports days…). These students bustled from subject to subject, from paradigm to paradigm through an arbitrarily structured timetable to land occasionally in front of me. I would do my best to instil the finer points of “using a compass” (a hasty revision of my aspirational lesson plan of “drawing isometric circles”) while contending with a crowded, uncomfortable classroom, profound disinterest, a lack of equipment and the gnawing feeling that there must be a better way to do this. There was certainly no hope of my connecting whatever it was they were learning in any of their other subjects to what they were learning in mine, just the 55 minutes between that bell and this bell and then see you next week…

There are a great many reasons why a new, idealistic (yet pragmatic), savagely handsome, bespectacled and bearded, art teacher might not be able to walk into a long-term relief role in a grammar school technology department and immediately begin breaking down department walls and connecting up the learnings of teh students all around, and needless to say, I did not. And I reached the end of that road at the end of term 4 last year. And now I’m to begin a new journey, down a new, long-and-winding road, which brings me to your computer screen: My new job.

All my excuses, you see, are now gone. In diagnosing the systemic challenge of teaching students about a connected-up universe in a connected-up way within a departmentalised institution delivering a pixellated curriculum, I have sketched out a problem that has the inertial weight of strong public interest, millions of dollars of ministerial and private funding, political and professional contention and the combined resources and connections of generations of old boys pitted against anything but incremental change. Any individual teacher caught in this maelstrom might only play a tiny part in helping to bring about change while working within that system.

Now, though, I have somehow found myself in an entirely different landspcape of professional possibility, and responsibility. Because, contrary to all my previous imaginings and hopes, I now work at Hobsonville Point Secondary School.

I have followed this school’s progress since teacher’s college when I stumbled upon a blog post by Steve Mouldey about the downright indecent things they were doing with the New Zealand Curriculum and post-it notes. It is a public school in a new, modern (PPP-funded) building serving the new housing development at Hobsonville Point, destined for a roll of ~1350. I have joined the staff as the school enters its 3rd year of operation and welcomes a new cohort of year 9s to join the year 10s and year 11s who have been there for the last year or two respectively.

There is much to read about how the school operates and many future blog posts for me to talk about my perspective of it as I get in amongst, but for now, I am happy to find the buck resting at my feet, laden with the weight of a responsibility to prove the value of my ideas about learning and to contribute to the positive life journeys of as many of my fellow travellers as possible.

Boa viagem!