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Theme three

The nature of professional learning activities to date

Building on prior learning

A commitment to whole-school professional development

How professional learning was structured

Resources that supported professional learning

Barriers to professional learning for NZC implementation

Release of the draft curriculum in 2006 and the revised curriculum in 2007 set in motion considerable and ongoing discussion and debate as teachers worked through curriculum issues, and schools and principals decided how to implement the new curriculum according to their own particular circumstances.

While there was a widespread view in the case study schools that NZC largely continued a sense of consistency of direction but also gave more freedom to make adjustments at the school level, principals and very experienced teachers also recognised that the new curriculum required paradigm changes in pedagogy. Boards had an expectation that teachers needed and would take opportunities to learn about the intent of the new revised curriculum, starting with what the school was already doing. In most schools, boards had input in the broad direction of change but devolved leadership of the day-to-day implementation to the principal. Boards and principals saw that ongoing professional development of teachers would be necessary to change the school’s enacted curriculum.

Building on prior learning

Prior to the arrival of NZC most of the case study schools had already been engaging in whole-school professional development through local schooling improvement clusters. Most of the primary schools were involved in two or more contracts; intermediate schools tended to focus on professional learning relating to literacy and numeracy, with one or two other contracts; secondary schools tended to be involved in contracts that included other schools in a cluster or were in an externally led programme such as Assess to Learn (AToL).

These clusters had supported the development of strong networks among teachers in a school, and between different schools. Teachers talked with each other and observed what was happening elsewhere and related what they saw to their school. The Numeracy Project for example, a contract of three or more years, taught teachers about the power of data-informed decision making, which, in turn, impacted on teaching practice and school organisation. Projects such as Numeracy, Enviroschools, and the ICT Professional Development clusters were mentioned as sharing a common thread of improving student learning through school-wide thematic planning and increased use of student-centred pedagogies such as formative assessment and inquiry-based learning. Many school leaders and teachers considered these learning experiences offered a baseline platform to bring to their exploration of NZC.

A commitment to whole-school professional development

Across the case study schools there was a commitment to whole-school professional development to initially develop a shared understanding of NZC. The professional development typically involved all teachers, whether full-time or part-time, and teacher aides. In many cases it also involved the boards of trustees.

Some differences between sectors reflect differences in the ways these schools are organised. For example, in the intermediate schools, whose student cohort turns over by half each year, consultation and discussion typically included school board members, the lead teaching team, and nearby secondary or contributing primary schools, with the principal advising and co-ordinating the various discussions. At the end of this process a number of main goals for student learning were developed.

Much of the professional development undertaken by secondary teachers has traditionally been at the departmental level. Working in cross-curricular teams to explore NZC allowed these teachers to think more globally about education and to focus on how the school might more holistically meet learner needs. Changes in internal funding structures supported whole-school professional learning in preference to teachers individually applying for funding for external professional development as they did in the past, often with little evidence of change in student achievement.

In contrast, most of the primary schools already had a culture of school-wide professional learning, therefore their approaches to the new curriculum tended to centre around ongoing in-house professional learning sessions for all staff.

All schools tried to balance the whole-school professional learning culture with individual teacher interests and needs. The benefits soon became apparent. Teachers said that time spent learning together had been the most useful part of implementation. It was helpful to have knowledgeable teachers mixed with beginning teachers where all could learn with each other. In-house professional development inspired and empowered staff to streamline their curriculum approaches and teachers were able to experiment with their different ideas for approaching the new curriculum. One of the main benefits of whole-school professional development was the ongoing learning conversations that teachers had in and around the school, the shared conversations helping teachers take ownership of identified targets.

Principals ensured that the professional development was “tailored” to what the school community wanted. For example, if the focus was the development of academic excellence, the principal might analyse achievement data looking for trends and deficits so that the school could explore ways to meet specific targets and school-wide quality standards.

Many primary and intermediate teachers were also supported to visit other schools, contributing to collaborative professional learning and collegial relationships. The focus of such visits was likely to be the development of key competencies, inquiry learning, professional reading, or the philosophy behind the new curriculum.

How professional learning was structured

Teacher-only days were seen to be “powerful” because they enabled teachers to focus on ideas for an extended period of time. Schools would like to have more of them. It was common for principals and senior teachers to intentionally use a range of pedagogical strategies within meetings, as a way of modelling strategies for teachers to use in their classrooms. Examples included “Think, Pair, Share” or forum groups to illustrate effective teaching and learning approaches. Similarly, many leaders planned ways of working that would support the recognition that the underpinning values of the school and of NZC, and the key competencies, applied to staff as they did to students.

Some schools also used short weekly or fortnightly sessions, where teachers looked at broad goals and articulated what these could look like in practice. Some secondary teachers were very proactive in creating professional learning groups that might meet, say, once a week, half an hour before a meeting, or after school on an ongoing basis. In some schools teachers would change to a different learning team each term. It was common for secondary teachers to devise a school-wide shared language with which to talk about their professional development emphasis. For example, in one school a school focus on lifelong learning was referred to as “learning lifelong”, the professional development groups became “critical inquiry groups”, and faculty or special portfolio group chairs became “lead learning coaches”. Staff at secondary schools consciously used this language with students and shared their learning to reinforce the notion among students that teachers, too, were learners. Teachers also worked together to develop resources that could deepen their shared understanding of the key competencies.

Invited speakers could be used to provoke teachers’ thinking and to confirm the staff’s emerging philosophies and ideas about effective teaching and learning. Similarly, professional readings were often distributed as a basis for school-wide discussion. Most schools reported that it was useful to have outside experts come in to give guidance as to whether or not the school was on the right track, especially with respect of incorporating key competencies into programmes of work, developing charter themes into unit planning, and assessment.

Although teachers noted that they gained the most from in-house discussions with their colleagues, they also believed that high-quality professional development occurred where they had access to knowledgeable experts, and where they could trial new approaches within their own classrooms, and visit one another’s classrooms to observe, learn, and discuss their ideas.

Resources that supported professional learning

While the MOE planning template was generally seen as helpful, school leaders said it was vital to translate what the template meant for each particular school. Some primary teachers felt it would be helpful to have the support of school advisers as they undertook their school review. Particularly helpful resources included the Shift Happens video, set articles, and MOE booklets provided in implementation packs—specifically Assessing Key Competencies, and From NZ Curriculum to School Curriculum. Also helpful were guides for websites such as Curriculum Online, Strategies for Getting Started. Digital stories about “early adopters” of the key competencies, sourced from Te Kete Ipurangi (TKI), were useful and inspiring. Additional TKI help mentioned by some teachers included the Living Heritage website.

Conferences such as U-Learn were seen as helpful by teachers who were able to attend these, with some sessions led by international/external speakers being particularly inspiring. Recommended professional journals included: set: Research Information for Teachers; Curriculum Matters, Kairanga, and the Curriculum Leadership Journal. Secondary teachers recognised value in participating in online communities and subject associations. Some mentioned Rose Hipkins’ background paper on key competencies (PDF 653KB), which had been examined by the whole staff.

A number of teachers said they needed more help with resources, specifically when adopting integrated and inquiry approaches to learning. They would like access to: exemplars of these approaches; resources linking the revised curriculum to learning progressions; and more direction from the MOE with suggestions as to how a school might approach the new curriculum. Some teachers also wanted help with ideas for translating NZC into specific learning areas, and, in particular, clarification of the achievement objectives for English. Many wanted exemplars or resources that showed what a plan could look like that integrated values, key competencies, and learning areas to reflect the intent of the new curriculum. Teachers also wanted suggestions for assessment and felt they needed more help with techniques to work out learning progressions.

Barriers to professional learning for NZC implementation

Other priorities hindered some school’s commitment to the exploration of NZC. For example, where behavioural issues loomed as a problem, NZC implementation might be seen as a lower priority than addressing these. One intermediate school principal said that, with a current wider whole-school focus on literacy and numeracy, whole-school exploration of the final version of NZC would need to wait.

Published on: 30 Mar 2009