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Developing learning dispositions

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Tim Thatcher, from Wellington College, discusses how he helps students to develop learning dispositions - including self management skills, problem solving, and reflection - through inquiry learning.

Professional learning conversations

These questions and suggested actions encourage you to reflect on your own school context.

Enhancing the relevance of new learning

The NZC states (p9) that:

"Students learn most effectively when they understand what they are learning, why they are learning it, and how they will be able to use their new learning. Effective teachers stimulate the curiosity of their students, require them to search for relevant information and ideas, and challenge them to use or apply what they discover in new contexts or in new ways. They look for opportunities to involve students directly in decisions relating to their own learning. This encourages them to see what they are doing as relevant and to take greater ownership of their own learning."

  • What are the learning dispositions that your school has identified as important skills for your students?
  • How are you developing the learning to learn principle within your school curriculum?
  • What ideas and strategies from the film could you use to help students develop stronger learning dispositions? 


I find that the most enjoyable type of subjects are those in which learning doesn’t feel like you're learning. It’s an intuitive process, not just an end point. Something where you’re working with the teacher to reach an answer to perhaps an open ended question. That’s the best type of learning I find.

So it’s important for students to have opportunities to reflect, so that they can recognise areas or shortcomings in areas that they can focus on for the future. Especially areas in terms of self-management, learning skills, homework, and communicating to others. Also allows them to build up skills in being self-critical so that when they get to the senior school go more in depth into projects.

The junior programmes are all project based learning programmes and they start with [an] open ended inquiry question. So for example our current one in year ten is how can technological products contain elements of the past and the present? So it’s an open question with no fixed solution. The purpose of that is they will need to identify the issues and come up with an unknown answer.

With the inquiry based project, or the project based learning, they are forced to negotiate with others - they are forced to get out of their seats and put themselves in a variety of environments such as workshop, computer room, the library, and the classroom - so that gives an opportunity to develop self-management skills. And especially with juniors self-management skills are often under developed. So if they’ve got poor self-management the project cannot be completed so it’s absolutely crucial (especially in technology and arts) that their self-management skills are developed because without those they will not find any success. Also with the open ended question, and the project based learning intent of that is to get them into a situation where they reach some sort of crisis where they cannot find a solution (the solution is not easily apparent for them) and then with intervention from me and an open ended question I can allow them to find the answer that they could not otherwise find. So it’s a mixture of risk taking, and challenge, and just providing them with lots of opportunities to manage themselves and interact with others.

Then the reflection at the end of each project (or different stages of the project) allows them to identify the weaknesses in their learning skills and how they came about finding success - how they came about solving problems by improving their self management, and improving their focus. It’s quite complex but kind of makes sense.

It’s a mixture of risk taking, and trying to find some sort of serendipity sort of a happy accident and trying to teach them to manage themselves so they keep persevering and trying to find solutions that otherwise wouldn’t be apparent to them. With the junior students we have explicit discussions about self-management skills and why it’s important to take risks, innovation that sort of thing. Those discussions are often full class discussions and trying to find areas of real life that we can apply those skills. So they have a really explicit opportunity to reflect on those learning skills.

With senior students it’s more just me playing the devil’s advocate. When we’re critiquing their work and their progress and asking them questions which make them slightly uncomfortable, and slightly unsure, and not so much what the answer is. It’s more getting them to that situation where they’re being self critical and try to be self critical for them. It’s often like when I went to university with my Masters degree and then I left my Masters degree and started practicing as an artist I could always hear my lecturers’ voices in my head. You know as a devil/angel on my shoulder, and kind of providing different viewpoints on what I was doing, and I see that as my role with my students as well. Trying to provide an alternative voice.    

Published on: 09 May 2013