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Learning design principles in future-focused schools


Maurie Abraham.

Maurie Abraham is the principal of Hobsonville Point Secondary School in Auckland. In this blog, the second of a two part series, Maurie shares five learning design principles that support future-focused learning based on his US school visits. He then offers suggestions for bringing these principles to life in New Zealand schools and classrooms. 

What I discovered from my US school visits

What principles guide the design of learning?

  1. Learning should be personalised.
  2. Learning should be authentic.
  3. Learning should be connected.
  4. Learning and design of learning should involve collaboration (between teachers and with students).
  5. Learning should address dispositional development.

Other observations

  • Student at computer with teacher supporting.
    A clear set of principles needs to drive learning design and learning decisions.
  • Makerspaces are key spaces in schools.
  • To promote learner agency, build in time in the weekly schedule where students have responsibility to make good decisions and self-regulate. Do not water this down to the lowest common denominator as the majority of students will miss out because of the few who cannot self-regulate.
  • A learning design model with a common language of learning is vital in providing frameworks and rigour, but students (and staff - as all are learners) must be scaffolded through to be comfortable within that framework.
  • Students do not need an adult in front of them supervising their learning at all times. Some learning can be a blend of teacher and on-line learning or of teacher and unsupervised sessions. Requiring students to take responsibility for their learning in such a way helps to prepare them for life after school where such responsibility is a necessity.
  • Restorative practices that develop trust and responsibility and require empathy and self-regulation support the development of vital 21st century dispositions.
  • Internships and externships provide wonderful opportunities for authenticity in student learning.

Please access a fuller blog post for each of the schools:

How can you reflect the five key principles of learning design at your school?

1. Explore models of project-based learning

In 'Future directions in New Zealand schooling: The case for transformation' (Centre for Strategic Education, 2017), McIntosh argues that project-based learning is a model that meets the requirements needed to transform teaching and learning (p.14). A clear model that all staff understand and commit to and through which students are scaffolded is essential to provide rigour and prevent low quality experiences and outcomes. The following links could be a good place to start:

2. Provide opportunities for learning to be connected across subjects

Students working at computer.

Even with a traditional, single-subject timetable it’s not difficult to change mindsets and school practices to enable students to establish connections. Schools could start by determining common themes that could drive learning contexts across the whole school or particular year levels. This would, at least, allow all subjects to connect to the common theme. Regular meetings could be held for the common teachers of each class to discuss how learning could be connected across more than one subject.

Students could work on high-interest projects which they have had a say in creating in classes timetabled for 2 or 3 of their subjects. Completing one piece of work, drawing on several subjects and being supported by several teachers will not only result in a quality outcome and deeper learning, but reduce workload for students and for teachers. Perhaps departments could be required to find times to run their meetings when necessary, rather than having them scheduled.

3. Allow students to help determine the context in which learning could take place

Teachers would still take responsibility for developing the important learning/achievement objectives but invite students to be design partners in determining the context.

Rather than informing a class that they are studying migration and that they would do this by learning about Victorian English people and their migration to and settling in New Zealand, a social studies teacher could explore with students the concept of migration and establish its worthiness of study. They could then invite students to suggest which example of migration from across history, or in the present, they (individuals, small groups) they would like to explore to increase their understanding of this concept. Teachers and students can design activities together which allow the important learning objectives to be met.

4. Provide multiple opportunities for students to provide evidence of their learning 

Two students carrying out a science experiment.

If all students have to write an essay to show their understanding of an important science concept, then those who are poor essay writers will not do well, despite perhaps having a high level of understanding of the science concept. As long as the learning objectives can be met allow students to show their understanding, whether it be by essay, piece of art, spoken word. This is a key principle of Universal Design for Learning

5. Include some contact or experience with the community or expertise from beyond the school in learning programmes

At the very least, this could be a guest speaker/facilitator but can include off-site visits, individual/small group mentor relationships, on-line communication and connection with expertise, or a client relationship.

6. Encourage the public exhibition and discussion of student work

This could be presenting findings back to the class with high expectations of how to make a quality presentation and how to provide quality feedback but can include presenting to students from outside the class or at another school, parents, and mentors and clients who have been involved in the learning.

Think about where these presentations should take place. The school might be appropriate but so might a community space (library, parks, malls), a conference, or place of work.


Secondary schools need to emphasise the learning process, thinking skills, creativity, and dispositional development rather than solely learning a defined set of concepts.

The common approach across all schools I visited was that student inquiry and a rigorous process of project-based learning underpinned their learning model. All models of learning connected learning areas across a high-interest project.

As well, all models included elements of student choice whether that be choice in context, choice of inquiry process, or choice of how to evidence learning.

Learning that is personalised, authentic, and connected locally and globally prepares students for their lives in the 21st century. It is centred on co-constructed high-interest projects, drawing on a range of specialist subjects, with opportunities for hands-on application and partnering with the community. There is a genuine outcome from the learning and students are partners in designing the learning.

Guiding questions – Ngā pātai ārahi

How well does your school reflect the five key principles of future-focused learning?

What more could your school do to reflect the five key principles?

You might like ...

What is future-focused schooling?
In this blog, the first of a two part series, Maurie shares three principles of future-focused schooling based on his recent sabbatical. 

Maurie Abraham's full sabbatical report
Maurie's full sabbatical report can be downloaded from the Educational Leaders website. 

Have you seen?

Future focus spotlight 
Our future focus spotlight looks at the future focus principle, helping you design a curriculum around significant future-focused issues such as sustainability, citizenship, enterprise, and globalisation. Find short videos, group activities, and opportunities for personal reflection.

future focus