Author Archive

Community based organisations and parental engagement with schools

January 13th, 2010

I’ve just been reading an interesting article called “Beyond the Bake Sale: A community-based approach to parent engagement in schools”.  This article discusses three different school- community collaborations in the USA.  Although each collaboration was slightly different in emphasis and approach, all three shared some key features.  In each case a community based organisation was the initiator of the home-school partnership, rather than the school itself.  There was a focus on relationship building among parents as well as between parents and educators, a focus on the leadership development of parents and an effort to bridge the gap in culture and power between parents and educators.

The authors contrast the approach in this community-based model of parental engagement with a more traditional school-centred model. In this community based model the emphasis is on building relationships among parents as a basis for collective participation, rather than on involving individual parents.  The starting point in the community-based model is to create conversations to allow parents to articulate their concerns, rather than inviting parents to workshops or other activities.  When workshops are run, the focus is on the parents’ leadership development and personal growth, rather than on providing information. Parents are involved in setting the agenda.

I would be interested in hearing about any New Zealand examples where community-based organisations are brokering relationships between schools and their parent groups.


Warren et al. (2009) Beyond the Bake Sale: A community-based relational approach to parent engagement in schools. Teachers College Record 111(9), pp.2209-2254

Community engagement ,

Thinking together about future focused education

November 26th, 2009

Over the last couple of years several of us at NZCER have been working with schools and thinking and talking about family and community engagement in education. Schools put time and effort into “engaging” their communities for a whole range of reasons. In this blog I focus on some strategies that schools are using in an attempt to provide opportunities for whole school communities to engage with “future focused” ideas about education. I’m going to very briefly sketch out some of these strategies and raise some questions. We invite you to add to the strategies here and tell us what is working for you and your school community, and also add your thoughts about some of the questions raised. This is new territory that needs everyone thinking together.

Some schools are using current forms of communication, such as newsletters (whether hard copy or electronic), to “drip feed” ideas about how society is changing and what this might mean for education. Other schools have some information on their school websites. Several schools have run focus or discussion groups for parents where these ideas are discussed. Often these discussions are linked to the NZC document, especially to its vision and the focus on competencies.

Several schools have brought in outside “experts” to talk to parent audiences. In the words of one principal, “If you really want to shift people you need to bring an expert in who doesn’t have those everyday relationships that we do, who deals purely with ideas and who is able to present powerful ideas and research.” An obvious difficulty with this approach though is how do schools access these “experts”, especially small or isolated schools? Do we have enough “experts” to do the work, if we decide this is a desirable option? An alternative some schools have tried is screening You Tube clips or Ted Talks at parent evenings, or providing links to websites. What other resources are available? Is there a need for resources that have “future focused” ideas about education in accessible language? If these resources were available would parents access them? I’m mindful of the words of one parent who said, “I worry about getting three loads of washing dry…I don’t have time to get involved.” (I also think about how minimally involved I was with my own children’s secondary schooling).

We heard about a couple of schools where parents were facilitating discussions about future- focused ideas. At one school parents ran discussion groups in their own homes, in another school the “Friends of the School” group was very proactive in connecting with new parents of the school and although their focus was not engaging with future focused ideas about education – perhaps they could be a useful vehicle in the future.

Some schools are using individual student’s learning as a way of connecting their families with C21st ideas about education. This could be in the form of three way interviews where students talk about what they are learning and why this is important or it could be by parents having electronic access to their children’s learning programmes and records of progress.

Even though schools in this study have been trying out a variety of ways of engaging families with future focused ideas about education, all were concerned that they were still only connecting with a certain section of the school community. If we really believe it is no longer OK to leave education just to the “professionals” we need to think hard about how we most effectively make this change. Is it better to go deeply into these ideas with those who are already interested, or is it better to put energy into trying to engage as many people as possible, at whatever level? Should teachers have the opportunity to engage with these C21st ideas before parents are invited into the discussions, or should everyone be learning and thinking together?

Many of the schools in this study that are working innovatively with their communities are led by principals with clear, well articulated visions for how education needs to change. One challenge voiced by some of these principals was getting the right balance between inputting ideas and energy, and not being too directive. Another, issue they raised was about sustainability. Where is their energy most effective targeted?

Jane Gilbert suggests the following are key features of C21st education: personalisation; building learning capacity; competencies; foregrounding general intellectual skills such as higher order thinking skills, thinking for oneself, tolerating ambiguity; doing things with knowledge; new ideas about achievement and assessment; and equity – getting everyone tertiary ready. How do we engage the community with these ideas? We invite you to tell us about your successes and challenges in engaging your school community with ideas such as these, and join with us as we try and think our way through some of these issues.

Community engagement ,

Talking with families about learning

September 17th, 2009

Some researchers at NZCER are currently working with a group of school leaders to try and answer this question: “How can whole school communities (staff, students, families) be provided with opportunities to engage with future focused ideas about education?” This project began with a workshop where school leaders and researchers talked about what things about school might need to change, and which school practices might be effective levers in bringing about this change.  Each school is now thinking about which particular lever they want to focus on over the next year or so.

Two schools have already decided on using three-way interviews as a lever for getting the whole school community to think about future focused ideas in education. One school has not done three-way interviews before. The principal decided to try this lever having listened to others at the workshop talking about the potential they thought these interviews had.  She is hoping that at these interviews teachers will use assessment data to talk to parents about their children’s progress in literacy and numeracy and then the (primary aged) students will show their parents examples of work that they think are evidence of what the teacher is talking about. The hope is that this will help the children become more involved in their own learning and at the same time make the “teacher speak” more accessible to parents in this diverse community.

We would really like to hear from anyone who has used three-way interviews in this way or who may have ideas about what leads to successful three-way conferences. What support do teachers/ children / parents need to make these interviews successful? Remember the focus of this project is on how to engage whole school communities in future focused ideas about education. All input welcome!

Community engagement , ,

Opportunities to engage with 21st century ideas

August 17th, 2009

The NZ Curriculum has 8 principles. These principles are supposed to underpin all decision making in schools. One of these principles is about community engagement and one is about future focus. At NZCER we are running a project (Families’ and communities’ engagement in education) that is looking at what opportunities whole school communities (students, teachers, families) have to engage with 21st century ideas about education. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that families (and the wider community) have access to some of the current ideas about schooling and how it might need to change to meet the demands of our rapidly changing world?

Recently a group of principals (and other school leaders) we are working with met to talk about what current school practices might be useful for engaging families with future focused ideas about education.  How might parent-teacher interviews for instance be structured differently to serve this purpose? What messages do parents currently get about what is important to learn, from looking at their children’s homework or  school newsletters? What role do (or could) students themselves play in challenging the way the adults around them think about education?

What future focused ideas do you think your communities need to engage with? Why these ideas?  We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Community engagement , , , ,

Responding to change and uncertainty

June 24th, 2009

In a recent Teachers Work project we provided a small group of teachers with a professional learning experience that aimed to encourage them to become more conscious of their existing tacit beliefs about education. In this project we noticed that despite the similarities between what the different teachers said about this professional development,  the teachers seemed to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity in a  range of ways.  This made us wonder about  the personal and biographical factors that influence how different individuals respond to change. We tried an activity with the teachers based on the Thinking Object: Change and Growth.  When reflecting on change in their own lives most of the teachers mentioned a “sense of belonging” or at least the support of others (both within and outside school) as being important factors that influenced how easily they coped with change.

It seems to me we talk quite a lot about the importance of students feeling a “sense of belonging” to school but maybe this is just as important for staff. Do we create learning environments where teachers (as well as students) feel they belong – so that they are secure enough to be able to take risks, try out new things, be open to new ideas? What are the factors that encourage risk taking and innovation? What are the best ways to support teachers (who after all have been conditioned by 20th Century ideas about schools) to try out new ideas and model the sorts of learning behaviours we want for our students?

Teachers' work , , ,

Key competencies: Is anything different?

June 15th, 2009

There is something niggling at me about the key competencies – but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. This somewhat rambling blog is an attempt to clarify my thinking. Any comments/ insights will be most welcome – I do hope my confusion isn’t infectious though!

When the revised New Zealand Curriculum first appeared I was really enthusiastic about the key competencies and excited by what I saw as their potential to transform education in NZ but now I’m not so sure about how powerful they really are.  The key competencies are described in the NZC as “capabilities for living and life long learning”. As such they are closely connected to the vision, “Confident, connected, actively involved life long learners.”  This presumably means that the development of these competencies should be the goal of education and if they are the goal then may be we need to think  differently about what we are doing in schools.

It seems to me, that we don’t really have a way yet to think and talk about the key competencies without treating them either like another content area, or a set of generic skills. What is the relationship of the key competencies to the learning areas? How are they really different from the Essential Skills of the previous curriculum? We talk about competencies being broader than skills – that they embrace attitudes, knowledge, skills and dispositions – but do we think about them differently from how we think about skills? We talk about including key competencies in planning, and incorporating  them into or weaving them through learning areas as though they were objects. It seems to me that regardless of the intent of including these competencies in the curriculum, the result is that the only way we can make sense of them is to make them fit with how we currently think about what we do in schools. Perhaps the key competencies are taking the shape of the container they have been poured into (and now I am treating them as things!)

If we were to ask ourselves how each learning area contributes to the development of confident, connected life long learners  and focus our teaching on that wouldn’t we be developing key competencies (even if they didn’t appear in the curriculum document)? After all, the essence statements (in the curriculum document) for each learning area seem to embrace the competencies people need to function effectively in society. Does it matter then whether they are developed through science, or social studies or art? My gut response is that yes a broad curriculum is important for all students, and that each learning area will contribute in a particular way to the development of the key competencies, but is that more important than learning something in depth? Does breadth or depth better serve the purpose of developing the capacity of an individual to participate fully in society? If the purpose of public education is to develop these competencies in all students, might it be that different students would develop these competencies through different pathways? Are there really core subjects (learning areas) that all students need to be exposed to?

I do think that all the different learning areas have the potential to develop the key competencies as long as we are teaching them for that purpose. What I’m not so sure about is how comfortable I really am with the idea of a learning area simply being the vehicle for developing key competencies! I seem to carry within me some deeply held, but barely conscious beliefs about what’s valuable in education. These beliefs are sometimes in conflict with what I know at another level to be important ideas. I know these beliefs are there because they sometimes surface when I think about new ideas about education in relation to my own children!  I doubt that I am alone in carrying these deeply held, yet seldom accessible beliefs. Perhaps it is these belief systems that are the real barrier to educational change as we subconsciously subvert new innovations to  fit with what we already know.

If this is so, perhaps the real function of the key competencies is to remind us of what should be important in our teaching. I think the challenge  is how we use them to help us think differently, rather than squeeze them into something that is familiar to us.

Shifting schooling , , , ,

Curriculum conferences

May 13th, 2009

At NZCER’s recent series of curriculum conferences there was a lot of interesting discussion relating to the implementation of New Zealand’s revised curriculum.  You can find out more about the conferences at

I thought it might be useful to post some of the questions we discussed at the conferences here as an invitation for anyone interested to continue the conversation. Some of the questions posed were:

  • How do we balance a national and a school-based curriculum? What are the universal things that all schools need to be doing? (Are there any?) What are the areas where schools have the freedom to choose what they teach and how?
  • What does achievement look like and who decides?
  • What role do structures play in initiating, processing and sustaining change?
  • How do we support and grow leaders of learning at all levels – principals, teachers, students, BOT?
  • How do you encourage staff to be brave and visionary?
  • What are the barriers/ enablers for deep change?
  • What are the most effective levers for changing the school culture?

What’s “on top” for you? What’s puzzling you about how we can move towards a more future focused view of learning and education, whilst still keep everything up and going on a day to day basis for today’s students ?  What are the questions you think we all need to be asking? What are the most important things to think about?

Shifting schooling , ,

21st Century teaching and social responsibility

April 30th, 2009

I had intended to look through some of the data from the Teachers Work project by now and see what I could find that either supported the dispositions Jennifer identified in her blog or suggested new ones. However – somehow the time has got away on me and I haven’t done that, not yet anyway!  I have been thinking hard though about another teachers’ work project I am involved in and as part of that thinking I have been re-reading “Learning as Transformation” (Jack Mezirow and Associates). One chapter in that book that particularly grabbed my attention is one by Laurent A Parks Daloz about Transformative learning for the common good. When I was reading that, it struck me that there might be similarities between C21st teachers and the individuals he describes who have committed their lives to the common good.

The reason for wondering about the connection is that when I have asked teachers (in various projects) about what they think the purpose of education is nearly all have said something that includes some ideas about producing citizens who contribute to society in some way. The NZ Curriculum also talks about students becoming “contributers to the well-being of NZ” , which I guess is hardly a surprising goal for a state funded education system. So it seems to me to be only a small step from this to expect teachers to be driven at least to some extent by a sense of social responsibility. However, social responsibility through a 21st Century lens might look quite different from social responsibility through a 20th Century lens for example. For Parks Deloz a commitment to the common good is not a final product but a “stance of openness to necessary and on-going dialogue with those who differ or may not yet be full participants on the commons”. This sounded 21st Centuryish to me!

He also defines social responsibility as the capacity to identify one’s own self with the well-being of others. He says that we all have the potential to reflect on the formation of our own selves and through that develop a larger sense of self that identifies with all people and ultimately with all life , but whether or not we do that depends on the particular conditions of our lives. In their study on people who had committed their lives to the common good Parks Daloz and colleagues found that these people  had at least some of these key characteristics in common – they felt recognised and valued as children, they had at least one parent who was socially engaged, they grew up in diverse communities and they were mentored. What all had in common was what he describes as a “constructive engagement with otherness” ie  a significant relationship with someone who was in some way different. The important thing about the relationship was that both the differences and the similarities were acknowledged and the interplay between them. Anyway this is all a very long way of wondering whether any of those characteristics would resonate with teachers in this study? (I don’t think we have currently got data that would shed any light on that but perhaps some of the participants in the study might reply!) Are there particular life experiences that contribute particularly to producing 21st Century teaching dispositions? If there are can we replicate them (or at least their essence) in some way for others? What is the role of diversity/ otherness (I’m not sure what term to use) and our orientation to it in 21st Century education? The more I think about this, the more confused I get! (Perhaps if we muddy the water enough, Jennifer, we can ask the fish what water looks like!)

Teachers' work , , , , ,

How do we decide what to teach?

April 16th, 2009

Over the last couple of days I have been at the primary science conferences in Dunedin and Christchurch. I have been struck by the enthusiasm of primary teachers who have given up part of their holiday to learn more about teaching science which if we are honest has a fairly low (though perhaps increasing) profile in primary schools at the moment. I have also gleaned some new ideas about how we might get kids more enthusiastic about science and how to get them wondering and talking about their world.  However what seems to be largely missing from the sessions I have attended (including my own!) is discussion about what primary students need to know in science if they are to be able to “participate as critical, informed and responsible citizens in a society in which science plays a significant role” which is the rationale for teaching science in the curriculum document.

When teachers  (or resource developers for that matter) plan a unit of work do we pause and think why do I think students need to learn this? What is important about this? How is it fitting into the bigger picture? Or do we plan something that seems interesting and then afterwards try and fit it to the curriculum? It strikes me that if we are doing the latter, then adding “key competencies”, Nature of Science or anything else isn’t really doing anything different..or am I missing something here? How would a science curriculum that was designed to produce “confident, connected, actively involved life long learners” be different from a traditional school science curriculum? What content would be in it?

I recently asked a specialist physics teacher what she thought the basic physics ideas were that primary students needed to gain an understanding of. If my memory serves me correctly she said something about conservation of energy, something about conservation of matter and an appreciation of the concept of force. Do you agree? What other things in science do primary students need to know a little bit about? What would teachers need to know to be able to teach these ideas effectively? Looking forward to hearing some ideas.

Shifting schooling , , , ,

Technology and what?

March 18th, 2009

Yesterday I was reading “Guided Inquiry: Learning in the 21st Century” by Kuhlthau, Maniotes and Caspari. They reckon the challenge for the 21st school is to “educate children for living and working in an information-rich technological environment”.  This made me start thinking again about the role of technology in 21st Century education.

Although, I agree advances in technology have changed what we can do and know, I’m still convinced this alone is not a good enough definition of what 21st Century education is all about but I’m having problems identifying what I think is missing. I think it has something to do with diversity and ideas of equity. We are constantly told NZ is becoming a more diverse society but what does this actually mean? As international travel becomes easier, NZ is less isolated physically from the rest of the world and people from all over the world are making NZ their home. Information technology also allows us to connect with people from all over the world so we are not restricted to interacting just with those in our immediate physical communities. ..(so perhaps it is all about technology!) Contact with people who are different from us doesn’t guarantee we celebrate or even recognise diversity though. I think perhaps an acceptance that there are many different (and valid) ways of doing things and making meaning of the world, is an important aspect of  21st Century education…but then if that is the case who decides what should be in the school curriculum? Whose knowledge or world view is included, whose is left out? How do we (and who is “we”) decide what is powerful knowledge?

All this brought me to wondering about whether 21st Century teachers need not only a certain awareness of their own meaning making systems in order to be able to interact respectfully and at more than just a surface level with others but also an awareness of how our current education system has developed, what its original purpose was and what the society was like it was designed to serve.

So…I think I’m arguing that C21st teachers need knowledge about the system they work within (and the assumptions that underpin it) and also about how they operate as individuals…as well as subject knowledge, pedagogical knowledge etc etc. .. and perhaps that is why I’m no longer a classroom teacher!

Teachers' work , , , , ,