Mairehau High School – Increasing student agency and authentic learning
At first glance Mairehau High School’s Megalicious Merry Market appeared to be just another fundraising fair involving a few keen students. However, on taking time to talk to students and teachers, it was in fact the Term 4 exhibition event for all Year 9 and 10 students as part of their junior school Flexible Learning Time. The market is one of many collaborative inquiries the students and teachers have taken part in to increase learner agency and provide real learning opportunities.
Vision for learning
Mairehau High School has recently adopted the meta–narrative developed from Flexible Learning Time as a visual representation of its story.
The narrative encompasses the school's vision, values, and key competencies for its graduates as they journey through the school from darkness (Te Po) towards the light (Te Ata).
- The acronym of CARE on the waka represents the school values underpinning everything that the school does.
- The five people in the waka represent the five year levels of students, showing collaboration and unity across the school.
- Each korowai represents student achievements in learning.
- The kete is a collection of knowledge, and authentic and personalised learning experiences.
- Each map contains a student’s personalised learning goals, providing direction.
- The paddles represent the skills that students will learn for their life journey (Head/Heart/Hands skills).
- Whānau, parents, and teachers stand on the shore guiding the journey.
- The four animals act as kaitiaki (guardians) for the students' house system.
- The context of the school is located in the background with the Southern Alps and the Southern Cross.
In 2014 a number of different conversations started to come together:
- Staff within the school were becoming increasingly aware of changes within education both globally and nationally towards authentic, flexible, social, and personalised learning.
- There was an opportunity to prepare the school for a change in curriculum delivery in response to a change in physical learning spaces from the repair and rebuild programme.
- The Health and Wellbeing group saw a need within the school to address a number of growing issues for their student cohort.
- The school was reviewing its point of difference and what it could offer its local community.
How did Flexible Learning Time develop?
In response to these needs a change to the junior curriculum programme was proposed to the leadership team, asking for a timetabled four hours a week for all Year 9 students to take part in a cross curricular project based learning (PBL) programme called Flexible Learning Time (FLT). The larger space offered by the library could provide the flexible learning environment in which this would occur.
This first year of FLT has been described as a huge learning journey:
- Five teachers from multiple curriculum areas volunteered to teach collaboratively in the same space at the same time with all Year 9 students.
- Four periods were timetabled for FLT – 2 blocks of double periods.
- A fully student led inquiry programme was developed to meet student interests and needs. The focus was on what FLT could offer that wasn’t part of other single curriculum areas.
- There was a great deal of experimentation, review, revision, feedback, and learning from what did and didn’t work for all concerned.
- There was a focus on processes rather than content – developing the NZC key competencies and the Mairehau High School key competencies.
- The goal was to keep the students at the centre via personalised, authentic, and collaborative project based learning.
- Improving the hauora (health and wellbeing) of the students was a key focus.
Key achievements in 2016 included:
- Increased clarity, consistency, and accountability of philosophy, vision, strategic planning, and development.
- A more robust framework. Students completed three different types of projects – personalised projects that were fully student led, thematic projects that were teacher guided but student interpreted, and hauora projects to support the health and well-being, knowledge, and agency skills of the students.
- Reduction in time to 3 periods a week – a double and a single period.
- A metacognitive organiser was used to scaffold student planning – what are we learning, why are we learning it, and how will we be learning it.
- Introduction of Heads/Hearts/Hands competencies.
- Appointment of a leader to lead the teaching team.
Key achievements in 2017 included:
- Development of the FLT vision embodied in the meta–narrative image (see above).
- Key principles established – personalised, cross-curricular, and authentic learning.
- FLT extended to include all Year 9 and 10 students working together in one space at the same time, providing opportunities for differentiation, leadership, and cohesion over 3 periods – a double period plus a single period.
- Continuation of a mix of teacher and student initiated themes based cross curricular framework using the PBL model, with collaborative and individual student led interpretations and projects within the overall theme.
- Increased interest from teachers not directly involved in the FLT model – spreading the ‘word’.
Feedback and self assessments from students have been gathered each term for the past two years of FLT. While most of it relates to student engagement the assumption is that engagement influences attendance and achievement. This has provided rich data to inform FLT practices and has the potential to inform future school wide initiatives.
There has been:
- Increased student engagement within the FLT model.
- Increased ability of students to critically and honestly reflect on their own learning.
- Increased student capabilities within the range of key competencies.
- Increased student positivity about this way of learning.
- Development of professional support and relational trust between teachers.
Students generally like the ability to have agency over what they learn and how they learn. When asked what they like about FLT:
- “I like how we get to create our own projects. We get a lot of choices and have the opportunity to do really cool things.”
- “I like how we can choose what we learn about and are in control of our own learning”
- “Learning about things I’m actually interested in”
- “I like being in with all the other classes”
- “I like that we’re free to be as creative as we want and the school gives us the opportunity.”
When asked what they would change about the current FLT programme the theme of choice and agency continues – to be able to choose more of their own projects, to do more within the local community, and to have more of their day learning in this way.
FLT will continue for all Year 9 and 10 students in 2018.
Those involved have aspirational goals of being able to:
- Extend the FLT framework and pedagogy to other learning areas and other year levels, such as NCEA.
- Develop cross-curricular collaboration across all levels.
- Increase collaborative teaching practices within other learning areas.
What has gone well?
- Increasing student agency has improved student engagement.
- Students are able to critically and honestly reflect on their own learning.
- Increased student capabilities within key competencies and the Mairehau Heads/Hearts/Hands competencies.
- Development of a wide and impressive range of authentic and personalised inquiries and projects some of which will be expanded on by Year 9 students returning at Year 10.
- Student positivity about this way of learning.
- Development of professional support and relational trust between teachers.
- Students able to explicitly link their learning experiences to the meta–narrative e.g. kete, korowai, map, waka.
Advice to others
- Be strategic rather than reactive in developing any programme that is different to what exists within a school. Look ahead at the long term picture, develop your vision and goals and stick to them.
- Persevere. Expect knock backs and plan how to keep going. The ‘learning pit’ will happen!
- Increasing numbers of students enjoy learning and are more engaged in the learning process when they have greater autonomy and agency over what to learn and how to learn.
- It takes time for a change to become part of a school’s culture. Students are now more accepting of the different way of learning embedded in FLT and that this is the way things are done at MHS.
- Provide a balance between total freedom of choice and teacher directed options for students to choose along with a scaffolded framework. Students don’t know what they don’t know but do learn to cope with freedom.
- Staff leaving and being replaced by others can be challenging. Change is not dependent on one person. Leadership must be distributed
- The physical space in which this learning takes place is important. Size and ability to have flexible learning spaces can be challenging.
- Evidence of impact is really tricky to gather. How do you measure value added? How do you measure the front end of the curriculum? Especially when you have up to 140 different projects going on at once.
- You need time. Time to plan, to develop, to deliver, to reflect.