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Primary students think about being healthy

Focus key competencies: Thinking (lateral thinking, critical thinking)

Learning area context: Healthy and physical education


This health education unit started off with the teacher asking his year 2–3 students what they thought they needed to do to be healthy. He suspected that they would only name physical dimensions of wellbeing and that is what happened. Most students focused on their levels of physical activity and what they ate. They thought that eating fruit and vegetables, running a lot, and drinking milk and water were important to their health. These things obviously do help but the teacher wanted to encourage his students to think in more connected ways about many different types of influences on their health (systems thinking and lateral thinking are two possible names for "joined up" thinking across dimensions that, on the surface, don't appear to be connected at all). NZC emphasises the holistic nature of wellbeing and he planned to use the curriculum model of hauora to prompt them to think more widely about what it means to be healthy. In a series of lessons, the four dimensions of hauora were unpacked. The NZC idea of hauora was originally derived from holistic Māori concepts of wellbeing. It explores wellness through the dimensions of physical wellbeing, social wellbeing, mental wellbeing, and spiritual wellbeing. Students’ thinking was surfaced and recorded via discussions, pictures that they drew, and simple accounts that they wrote about activities that they already did, or could do, within the four dimensions. As a class, examples were developed and children were asked to identify similarities and differences for various activities that they did.

After all this lateral thinking the teacher wanted to know if students’ concepts of wellbeing really had been broadened to encompass more than just the physical dimensions of health. He read a book called Flabby Cat and Slobby Dog (Willis & Ross, 2009) to the class. This picture book follows the lives of a cat and dog who live together and spend their days eating, sleeping, and watching TV. Over the first half of the book they become fatter and fatter. While watching TV they discover their distant relatives, a wolf and tiger and decide to set off to visit them. Through their long journey they become slim, sleek, and trim and at last become comfortable with who they are. Students were asked what they thought the main message of this story was. The teacher hoped that the students would critique the predominant focus on physical health and pick up on the idea of being comfortable in their own skin as a way of thinking more broadly about wellbeing.

Initially the students did say it was important to stay fit and healthy, that eating too much food was the reason cat and dog had got fat, and by going off on their journey they learnt a lesson that they hadn’t realised was needed. The teacher then prompted the students to think about how the other dimensions of hauora played out in the story. The friendship between the pets was one idea that came up but the students still thought that social wellbeing wasn’t a main component in the animals’ journey to becoming more comfortable with themselves. The teacher tried again. Building on the final angle of the story—feeling comfortable in one’s own skin—he asked the students to think about what made them feel really comfortable with who they were. Again he prompted them to use the four dimensions of hauora. This time the range of responses showed that the students really had begun to broaden their thinking: their ideas included having family and friends, relaxing (including sometimes watching TV), reading books, having a “good mind”, and generally being who you want to be. Even the physical dimensions of wellbeing had been broadened to include activities such as going for a long walk and going surfing. This is a popular pursuit in this beachside community and many students went surfing regularly but had not initially associated it with being healthy.

Reciprocal relationships between the subject and the key competencies

Health education provides rich and contextually accessible opportunities for developing lateral thinking. The NZC learning area statement frames what it means to be healthy within a “socio-ecological perspective” which is defined as “a way of viewing and understanding the interrelationships that exist between the individual, others and society” (p. 22). This challenges students to think much more widely (than they might otherwise do) about potential influences on their health. As the burgeoning popular literature about the politics of “healthy food” illustrates, many of these influences are hidden from direct view. It can suit some agendas to keep them that way so taking this approach to health education lays important foundations for responsible citizenship, right from the primary school years. In his recent book Making Learning Whole, thinking skills expert David Perkins describes this sort of thinking as part of the “hidden game” of learning: some students get the unspoken connections between things and events and others don’t unless they are explicitly supported and coached (Perkins, 2009). Another thinking skills expert, Yoram Harpaz, describes thinking for understanding as being like weaving a strong cloth: the greater the number of threads that get woven in, and the more tightly the fabric is bound, the stronger the cloth becomes (that is, the deeper the understanding that is developed) (Harpaz, 2007).

Students develop their thinking competencies by practising lateral thinking and critical thinking. In this context these two types of thinking work well together. Lateral thinking makes connections between things and events that don’t necessarily appear to be related on the surface and critical thinking prompts students to question assumptions associated only with superficial and obvious connections.

Students engage in responsible decision making about their own health to broaden aspects of their competencies in managing self. The NZC concept of hauora provides a framework for students to think more critically about messages they receive about being healthy from sources such as TV, books, and magazines. In this way, their competencies in using language, symbols, and texts are also expanded.

Reflections on effective pedagogy

Challenge and connections were built into the unit by encouraging students to dig beneath the surface of things and question every day, taken-for-granted messages about being healthy. At the start of the unit they essentially repeated narrow but commonly held views but by the end of the unit they could describe more holistic views of wellbeing and illustrate these with reference to personally relevant experiences.

This learning connected to students’ futures by helping them develop more nuanced thinking about the multifaceted nature of wellbeing, and the impact on their own wellbeing of different types of daily decisions and actions.

The story also provides an example of teaching as inquiry: the students’ initial drawings were used for formative assessment of their thinking and the teacher used the insights he gained to adjust and refocus the thinking challenges he posed in the rest of the unit.

Discussion starters: Thinking and acting

Key competencies are defined by NZC as “capabilities for living and lifelong learning”. How did the types of thinking that the teacher fostered and modelled help the students to lay strong foundations for ongoing decision-making about their health and wellbeing?

The Health and Physical Education learning area signals that developing action competence is an important curriculum goal. Thinking is not enough on its own; students must also develop the capabilities they will need to take action in response to specific situations and challenges. How might the unit described in this story be extended to include an action competence component?

Choose a story from another learning area that illustrates a different aspect of the challenges of helping students to build their action competence. What aspects of competency development does your chosen story illustrate? 


Harpaz, Y. (2007). Approaches to teaching thinking: towards a conceptual mapping of the field.Teachers College Record 109(8), 1845–1874.

Perkins, D. (2009). Making learning whole: How seven principles of teaching can transform education. San Fancisco: Jossey-Bass.

Walker, M. (2008). Capability formation and education. In B. Lingard, J. Nixon & S. Ranson (Eds.), Transforming learning in schools and communities: The remaking of education for a cosmopolitan society (pp. 134–151). New York, London: Continuum

Willis, J., & Ross, T. (2009). Flabby Cat and Slobby Dog. Sydney: Random House.

Published on: 15 Apr 2014