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McAuley High School – Community problem solving

McAuley High deputy principal Louise Addison shares her own and her students’ experiences with community problem solving and how this links to the future focus principle.

McAuley High School is a Catholic School for girls in the Mercy tradition, located in Otahuhu, a decile one community in South Auckland.

  • 88% Pasifika
  • 6% Māori
  • 4% Asian
  • 2% Middle Eastern/African/Other

Community problem solving has encouraged five Pasifika students to form a group to support others to aim for excellence. These students had all achieved excellence in NCEA level 1 in 2012. They started by looking at national and regional Pasifika NCEA statistics with Louise, and were shocked at the achievement disparities between different ethnic groups. They also identified that the majority of the targets for improvement were based around achievement in NCEA. There didn’t appear to be an expectation for Pasifika students to achieve excellence. As a result, they set up Pasifex to share their learning with other Pasifika students.

“If we can, you can.”

Pasifex’s goal is to share the learning strategies behind the success of Pasifika students at McAuley High School. It supports Pasifika learners to aim for excellence as a way of reaching their full potential in their academic studies. At present they run workshops twice a term before school to support year 11 students to achieve excellence in NCEA. Louise acts as coach and mentor, guiding the students through the problem-solving process and helping them determine and implement a range of options. Whilst in the initial stages she was very involved in planning and implementation, as the students have become more confident and developed the necessary skills, she has been able to reduce the amount of support she provides.  

Pasifex has set up a wiki to make their workshop material available to students from other schools. They have developed a questionnaire to help students decide if they are ‘aiming for excellence’. They have also written information sheets for parents and students. The girls are currently translating these into Pasifika languages. They plan to add information for teachers on how they can best support Pasifika students to achieve excellence.

In May 2013 Pasifex ran a plenary session at the Pasifika Youth Conference.


You can see the video if you download the Flash plugin.

WMV icon. Pasifex movie (WMV, 36 MB)

Supportive learning environment

A key part of the McAuley High School vision is to realise its potential as a learning community. This suggests a connectedness between all learners – teachers, students, and their parents. Pasifika students at the school achieve well above national and decile achievement rates, and a key part of this success is the supportive learning environment. Community problem solving (CmPs) gives Louise and the students the opportunity to share the successes and challenges of the Pasifex group within and beyond the school community. CmPs allows students to develop a strong sense of advocacy and empowerment, linking them to their community and shaping their future as young Pasifika women.

Whilst the school has participated in Future Problem Solving in the past, this group is trialling the community version of this gifted and talented programme. Louise would like to see this expanding beyond the trial group in 2014 because of the real benefits she sees in terms of student engagement and achievement as well as ‘real world learning’.

Impact on student learning and achievement

The students say this project has deepened their understanding of what “excellence” thinking is and how it can be developed. It has challenged them to use the skills and knowledge they have gained across their subjects in ways that align with a project-based approach. It has given true meaning to ownership of their learning and of their futures. They have enjoyed being involved in real world, authentic concerns “solving issues that are present in my own community that have a lot of relevance to myself” and “helping others to improve.”

“As well as teaching and helping year 11s, I am helping myself,” says one of the students. “I know what I didn’t do well last year and work on it this year.”

Louise outlines the benefits she sees for students:

  • Empowerment - the students know they can make a difference beyond the classroom and beyond the school. They get the opportunity to challenge negative stereotypes about Pasifika achievement that may be present.
  • Learning in action - how to respond to an issue, debate, work as a team. This includes reflecting in, on, and about action, as well as responding to setbacks. CmPs also allows specialisation – the students have decided on individual roles and they support each other in these.
  • A meaningful long-term impact – beyond NCEA results. Students can see the benefits of ‘excellence’ thinking in a wide range of contexts and have developed the ability to use these skills in new situations.
  • The opportunity to converse with students about meaningful issues on a regular basis. This has enabled Louise to hear deeper student voice on a range of issues than she normally does in her role as mathematics teacher.
  • Developing an understanding of what it means to be a member of a school community, a member of the wider South Auckland community, and a New Zealand citizen.

Shifts in teacher practice

Louise says she has been able to work alongside these students, to have an open agenda with them, rather than a fixed set of learning objectives. She has enjoyed hearing about the students’ learning journeys, what motivates them, and what makes them want to give back as part of this process. She has also enjoyed sharing her own learning journey with them and the “just in time” learning opportunities this programme provides.

“There are clear links,” Louise says, “between this problem solving model and teaching as inquiry as well as to the social sciences curriculum.”

Louise teaches mathematics to three of the Pasifex students so she can see them as learners in a wider context, rather than solely as mathematics’ learners. “The students see me as a fellow conspirator, problem solver, and learner,” she says. “We are all developing our understanding as we go along”.

“Sometimes you just have to take the leap and build your wings on the way down.”
Kobi Yamada

Challenges and surprises

Getting the workload balance right for both teacher and students can be a challenge, however Louise never ceases to be amazed by what students achieve and say. “Sometimes it’s really different to what I think, and I have to rethink how it is from their perspective. For example, the girls’ observation is that some teachers are open to all students achieving excellence while others, they feel, select students beforehand and only teach a select few.”  As a result of this discussion, the Aiming for Excellence workshops were opened to any student, regardless of their current or previous levels of attainment. It enabled Louise to have staff-wide professional learning conversations about teacher actions that encourage or discourage students to aim for excellence. According to Louise, the rewards definitely outweigh the workload.

“Students will learn best when supportive adults push them slightly beyond where they can work without assistance.”
Dr Carol Tomlinson, University of Virginia

Advice for others

The students often quote one of their guest speakers, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” They recommend other students take up this “amazing opportunity” to be future problem solvers. “Stay persistent throughout,” says one student. “It will pay off.”

Louise enjoys the flexibility of the programme and advises others to “keep it fluid”. She recommends it to any teacher as a way of "indulging your passion for meaningful learning – both your own and your students".

“Students are not inheriting the future, but shaping it.”


Published on: 19 Jun 2013