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Creating a Pasifika dance performance

Focus key competencies: Thinking (embodied, meta-cognitive, creative)

Learning area context: Arts


In 2008 a group of teachers from this school took part in a research project that investigated students’ learning opportunities during each term’s "three day learning episode". (During three-day episodes the school timetable is suspended for these three days so students can experience an extended period of learning in an area of their own choosing. There is an explicit focus on strengthening key competencies during this extended time.) During a one-day workshop in school holiday time, the group co-constructed a set of design principles for three-day episodes, which they then took back to the whole staff for implementation (see Table 1). The teacher in this story was in her second year of teaching at the time, and said that understanding the principles had initially been a challenge: “I had to go and sit in a corner and think about them.” However, once she “got” them she said the design and delivery of her three-day episode came much more easily.

Table 1: Design principles for three-day learning episodes

Design principle

Potential indicators

Nature of learning

The planned learning should provide opportunities to strengthen learners' capabilities, including "learning to learn" dimensions and provide for engaging, interactive learning experiences.

Does the learning provide ...?

A range of experiences

Opportunities for learners to demonstrate autonomy

Opportunities for learners to reflect on their progress

Opportunities for learners to take risks and push personal boundaries

Challenges (intellectual, physical, ethical, cultural, social, practical, and/or creative)

Opportunities to build relationships (learner/learner, learner/teacher, learner/wider community)


The planned learning should foster autonomy by providing choice and flexibility within a supportive framework.

Choice (context, process, outcome, and/or indicators of successful learning)

Opportunities for co-construction

For the possibility of divergent pathways to emerge

Connectedness, authenticity, relevance

The planned learning should help learners make authentic and relevant connections between their learning experiences and the world they live in, in ways that expand their horizons.

Is the learning ... ?

Framed by a clearly defined big picture idea

Related to a future focused theme

Expansive (ideas, contexts, personal skills, connections, types of thinking)

Relevant to learners' lives now or in the future


The planned learning should conclude with an evaluation of the anticipated goals so that achievements can be celebrated.

Which types of learning outcomes are anticipated and what might the evidence look like?

Strengthening the independent learner attributes

Positive relationships

Mastery of a process

Production of an artefact

A dispositional change

How and by whom will the learning be evaluated and celebrated?

Using the principles, the teacher constructed two different learning episodes with a focus on encouraging male students from Pacific Island backgrounds to represent their own and other Pacific cultures and to stand tall as learners in the New Zealand school system. She wanted these students, some of whom were typically considered “problem” students, to experience successful learning as Pasifika students and to gain a sense that their cultural resources were valued resources at school and for them as learners in general.

The first three-day episode was called “King of Kings”. It was designed for male students from across years 9 to 13 whose families originated from the island of Niue, which was also the teacher’s cultural background. The second three-day episode the following term, was called “Sons of the Pacific”. This time the episode was open to all Pacific boys in years 9-13. Both episodes challenged students to draw on common and differing elements in their cultural backgrounds to devise and deliver a dance performance for an audience that could include their relatives as well as other students. This dance performance took place on the afternoon of the third day.

During the three days the teacher ensured that every student had the opportunity to demonstrate leadership at some point. She said she “pulled the strings from the back” if they needed additional support to do this. Opportunities for students to self-reflect were an important design component. Both episodes had clear learning intentions and the teacher said she frequently drew the students’ attention back to these: “What are we here for? What’s our aim?” Each student completed a written reflection at the end of the three days. Some students who chose this learning episode were not known for their writing fluency. The teacher ensured they could be successful by using a reflection practice along the lines of a poroporoaki. Gathered in a discussion circle over a shared lunch on the third day, students spoke one at a time about what the learning had meant for them. As they heard others speak, each was able to review and expand their own ideas, so that when it came time to write, they had already rehearsed what they might want to say.

The students made a range of interesting and insightful self-reflection comments. They were most likely to associate this learning episode with the development of their joyful, creative, and collaborative Independent Learner Qualities. This school has a focus on fostering independence in learning. Ten Independent Learner Qualities (ILQs) are displayed in every classroom and widely discussed and modelled. They are caring, creative, collaborative, curious, enterprising, joyful, persevering, resilient, thinking, wise. These preceded but broadly align with the intent of the five key competencies identified for The New Zealand Curriculum. There was a general perception amongst the staff that these had been outstandingly successful episodes, with demonstrable changes in the attitudes of some participants to their subsequent learning across a range of classes, and with very positive feedback from parents who attended the final performances.

Reciprocal relationships between the subject and the key competencies

The NZC learning area statement for the arts says that dance provides opportunities for students to “integrate thinking, moving and feeling” and to draw on various dance elements and vocabularies in ways that “express personal, group and cultural identities” (NZC, p.20). The curriculum also states that successful learning in the arts can strengthen students’ wellbeing and increase their confidence to take risks in their learning. When embodied thinking is strengthened through dance, students can develop “dance literacy” as a way of thinking about why and how learning dance matters:

This positions dance as a “way of knowing”, and suggests dance learning both as a way to help students to engage with and explore ideas (and their own bodies and experiences), and to develop their understandings of the social and cultural practices of dance, and the ways dance can intersect with other bodies of knowledge and ways of knowing.

Bolstad, 2010, p.viii

Students need to think creatively as they draw on their specific cultural traditions to create a unique dance performance. They are also challenged to think metacognitively as they take part in regular reflections on the strategies they are using to overcome challenges and to support the learning they are doing together.

All students had opportunities to strengthen their competencies in managing self and relating to others as they stepped up to take their turn at leading the group, or when fitting in and working as an effective member of the team when someone else was leading. 

Reflections on effective pedagogy

Looking across the various three-day episodes, the learning was most challenging (but also most enjoyable and engaging) when the stakes were high. In this specific case, the need to create a performance that would be seen by an audience at the end of the three days, come what may, created a sense of urgency and focus to the learning.

Students made connections between their individual repositories of cultural knowledge of dance, and in the case of the second three-day episode, across the different dance cultures of the various Pacific nations. By supporting their reflection processes, the teacher helped them connect the dance they were experiencing to their thinking and learning strengths and potential more generally.

Starting from a position where students were able to make a confident contribution (knowledge of their own culture) created a learning space that supported students to show initiative and take responsibility for shaping the direction of their learning together. 

Discussion starters: Thinking and acting

At least three different types of thinking competencies are highlighted in this story: embodied thinking; creative thinking; and meta-cognitive thinking. How do these aspects of thinking complement and contrast with each other? How was each one deliberately fostered in this learning episode? What might help support their transfer to other learning contexts?

Find another story that illustrates a type of thinking that is not as evident in this one. What story have you chosen and what ideas about thinking as a key competency does it add? Alternatively, you could explore the different opportunities provided by other learning areas to develop the types of thinking mentioned in this story. 

What could teachers in other classes do to capitalise on, and help consolidate, the success of the Pasifika students in this three-day episode?


Bolstad, R. (2011). The contributions of learning in the arts to educational, social and economic outcomes Part 1: A review of the literature. Report prepared for Ministry of Culture and Heritage. Available from www.nzcer.org.nz

Published on: 15 Apr 2014