Digital basics

One of the wranglings I’ve had in my mind throughout this project is: what level of digital literacy do teachers need?

I have heard every answer under the sun to this question. To paraphrase a few:

Every teacher in our schools should have at least the digital literacy of a ten year old. Our children don’t expect to have to teach their teachers how to use the technology in their classroom.

I have to recognise that I can’t always be the expert. Our students are often more competent using technology than us. It wouldn’t be fair to make them wait until I’ve learned how to use a piece of software or hardware before I gave them access, it would only be holding them up.

The personal view I developed bridges both these perspectives.

I think that in ten years’ time my question about digital literacy will probably feel redundant because digital technology is now so fundamental to everyday life that we cannot exclude it from education. That means digital literacy becomes a key skill alongside traditional literacy and numeracy. However, in the same way that all teachers should reinforce literacy in their lessons, but not all teachers are specialists in English, I do not think every teacher needs to be a specialist in digital technologies. Rather, they need to be comfortable integrating them into lessons where it’s appropriate.

A conversation with New Zealand educator Arnika Macphail helped me connect this view into the wider thinking on this subject.

Arnika pointed me to the New Zealand curriculum, which differentiates the notion of digital literacy and digital fluency.

  • Digital literacy – A digitally literate person knows how to use digital technologies and what to do with them.
  • Digital fluency – A digitally fluent person can decide when to use specific digital technologies to achieve their desired outcome. They can articulate why the tools they are using will provide their desired outcome.

(MoE, n.d.)

Digital fluency is something we all need to develop in order to make the most of digital technologies at work and across our lives. Just as a surgeon is expected to stay up to date with the latest robotic technology available to them, or a sales person is expected to know about the latest database software that helps them track their contacts, teachers should know about the technology that can make their job more efficient and can improve learning. This expectation is outlined explicitly in the New Zealand teaching standards:

Use an increasing repertoire of teaching strategies, approaches, learning activities, technologies and assessment for learning strategies and modify these in response to the needs of individuals and groups of learners. (Education Council New Zealand, 2017, p. 20)

Similarly, effective deployment of ICT follows straight after literacy and numeracy in the Australian teaching standards:

Lead and support colleagues within the school to select and use ICT with effective teaching strategies to expand learning opportunities and content knowledge for all students. (AITSL, 2011, p. 13)

Meanwhile the National Institute of Education in Singapore articulates a broad range of ways that teachers must be capable of using technology to support learning, some of which include:

Teachers must be able to guide their students in accessing information through various electronic and print sources efficiently…

…Teachers should be adept in using multiple media, such as text, video, audio, and animation to facilitate effective teaching and learning…

…Teachers should also be able to provide access to quality learning tools, technologies and resources, expanding the learning…

…The teaching and learning opportunities support innovative pedagogies to integrate the use of technologies, inquiry and problem-based approaches and higher order thinking skills. (NIE, 2009, Table 2)

The Teachers’ Standards for England (DfE, 2011) mention responsibilities for literacy and, to a lesser extent, numeracy but make no reference to the use of digital technology in teaching. The National Curriculum (DfE, 2014) also refers to the cross-disciplinary nature of literacy and numeracy. It includes computing, but doesn’t set the expectation that computing outcomes will be addressed by all teachers, not just computing specialists (although of course in primary, with one teacher responsible for the majority of the curriculum, that sort of integration is far more likely).

If the case for teachers developing digital fluency isn’t strong enough on the basis that students deserve it, then there’s also a case that it can make teaching a more efficient process. I recently saw a presentation by Zainab Patel, Assistant Head at the Olive Tree Primary School, where she described how the school is using iPads to provide verbal feedback in place of written marking. Not only has this improved the quality and impact of feedback, but 75% of teachers say it has reduced their workload (Chohan, 2019).

In contrast, I recently watched a video on Singapore’s Ministry of Education website showing a teacher following the KWL framework – what I know, want to know and have learned (MoE, 2017). It struck me as a classic example of an opportunity to integrate technology into teaching in order to make life easier. The students were filling in columns on paper describing what they already knew about a topic and what they wanted to know. The teacher remarked “I will take note of any misconceptions so I can address these learning gaps”. However, this presumably involved reading each paper in turn and either annotating or taking notes from them. Had the students filled out an online document, it would have been so much easier for the teacher to collate and appraise what they knew and wanted to learn, and later to monitor what they were learning.

Even without introducing any specialised gadgets or apps, using basic technology in the classroom can help make life more efficient than working with paper and pen.

In the latest issue of Impact, Andy Goodwin (2019) reports on a study of ‘authentic’ teacher expertise in the use of technology. For 83 percent of the participating teachers, who were nominated for their effective use of technology:

“technology was primarily viewed as a significant tool for enabling student learning as well as a medium that affords greater organisational efficiency”

Before I even started out on my trip, I outlined that I don’t think future-focused education is all about technology. Technology use should be an enabler, not an aim in itself. However, I do think we need to overcome the view of technology as something new, mysterious or disruptive and start recognising it as an everyday part of life and, therefore, of education. I think it is time that we had national consensus on the basic level of digital fluency expected of teachers, just as we agree on basic expectations for literacy and numeracy.

To quote Andy:

“It is absolutely time for national policy to shift towards developing and supporting the type of authentic teacher expertise required of the 21st century, rather than obsessing with technology.”


AITSL. (2011). Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. Victoria, Australia: Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. Retrieved from

Chohan, A. (2019, January). Digitising effective feedback. Retrieved 31 January 2019, from

DfE. (2011). Teachers’ Standards (p. 15). England: Department for Education.

DfE. (2014). National curriculum in England: framework for key stages 1 to 4. Retrieved 31 January 2019, from

Education Council New Zealand. (2017). Our Code Our Standards: Code of Professional Responsibility and Standards for the Teaching Profession. Wellington, NZ: The Education Council. Retrieved from

Goodwin, A. (2019). How teachers with ‘authentic’ expertise fully connect with their students in adapting technology for improved teaching and learning. Retrieved 31 January 2019, from

MoE. (2017). Teaching Action: What I Know, Want to Know and Have Learned (KWL). Singapore: Ministry of Education. Retrieved from

MoE. (n.d.). Digital fluency / Teaching / enabling e-Learning – enabling eLearning. Retrieved 31 January 2019, from

NIE. (2009). A Teacher Education Model for the 21 Century. Singapore: National Institute of Education. Retrieved from






The Joy of Learning

It was good fortune alone which meant my time in Singapore coincided with the first symposium co-run by NIE, NTU and Teachers College Columbia. The theme was ‘Beyond exams: Transforming schools in the changing educational landscape’.

On a Friday afternoon, a packed auditorium full of teachers and staff from the Ministry of Education listened to three animated speakers share perspectives on aspects of a 21st century education.

The first presentation was from Prof Ng Pak Tee who shared his interpretation of the Joy of Learning.

Education Ministers in Singapore are encouraging teachers to focus on fostering the Joy of Learning as a counterbalance to the examination focused culture which has dominated schools. In the words of Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education:

“We know that students derive more joy in learning, when they move away from memorisation, rote learning, drilling and taking high stakes exams…there needs to be a balance between rigour and joy, and there is a fairly strong consensus that we have tilted too much to the former.”

Opening Address by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education, at the Schools Work Plan Seminar. September 28, 2018. Points 29-31.


So, in Prof Pak Tee’s opinion, what exactly is the Joy of Learning?

To be clear, the Joy of Learning does not mean having fun.

Ok, that’s an extreme way of wording it. But Prof Ng made an important point about the risks of pursuing joy at the expense of learning. He observed how, in some circumstances, teachers can be found sacrificing curriculum content in favour of creating fun but tangentially related tasks. Students might enjoy the activity, but they don’t come away with the necessary knowledge or understanding of the relevant concepts.

In other circumstances, he noted, teachers can be seen sandwiching ‘the boring bit’ between fun activities. Then, learning is presented as something that must be ‘got through’ or tolerated.

His comments made me think of a recollection from Dr Andrew Reay’s book The Power of Character. Andrew describes how, in one school where he worked, teachers were required to implement a programme “designed to make the classroom experience enjoyable” and which would supposedly “appease the ‘type’ of problem children the school perceived it had”. Instead he saw “a succession of party games with little deep learning” (Reay, 2017, p. 36). In this context, at the extreme end of the spectrum, deep and challenging learning experiences had been sacrificed in favour of making the learning experience ‘fun’.

These observations from Andrew and Prof Ng – at least as I see it – are not intended to disparage all forms of non-traditional teaching. Rather, they acknowledge that designing effective and engaging learning experiences is tough. A lot tougher than having a bit of fun.

Prof Ng’s argument, and one I can fully get behind, is that the Joy of Learning comes from within. It comes from persevering and applying effort to learn something new. It comes from a stretching but successful learning experience.

The challenge that this presents to educators is to ensure that all learners experience success. We know that not all learners thrive in a traditional academic environment, so to paraphrase Prof Ng, it is ‘about teachers increasing their pedagogical range so that they can choose the right approach for a given set of learners’.

Over the course of my research I’ve observed a spectrum of pedagogical approaches. I’ve steered myself away from making any judgements about their efficacy, since that’s not my area of expertise. However, I have found myself returning to my knowledge of cognitive psychology and neuroscience. I’ve been thinking about the way we often overestimate what we have learned and about the way our brains change as we integrate new knowledge into long term memory. Neuroscience and cognitive psychology shows us that this type of long term retention is based on different processes than comprehending or recalling something we have only just been told (we remember a lot more if we think deeply about the information or write notes, and long term memory draws on different parts of the brain than short term memory) (Brown, Roediger, & Mcdaniel, 2014; Martin, 2009; Soderstrom & Bjork, 2015). My main concern is that the effortful, rewarding process of understanding new concepts and committing them to long term memory should never be lost as pedagogies are adapted to meet a broader set of educational aims.

In his talk, Prof Ng neatly articulated this notion. Learning is effortful and often doesn’t feel fun. However, when we apply effort to master new knowledge, we get a sense of reward. Some learners will take longer in this process and will need to approach content from different angles. However, we do them an injustice if we water down our expectations or try to replace the delayed reward of learning with the immediate reward of an enjoyable activity. It is the teacher’s role to deploy a suite of pedagogies which will meet the needs of different learners. Ultimately, all learners are entitled to experience the real Joy of Learning.


Further reading

Uncovering the Joy of Learning



Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & Mcdaniel, M. A. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Martin, A. (2009). Semantic Memory. In L. R. Squire (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Neuroscience (pp. 561–566). Oxford: Academic Press.

Reay, A. (2017). The Power of Character: lessons from the frontline. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd.

Soderstrom, N. C., & Bjork, R. A. (2015). Learning Versus Performance: An Integrative Review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 176–199.


Why equity is a priority for Singapore

Singapore is recognised the world over for having a ‘high performing education system’. I’ve put that in quotes on purpose, because Singaporeans themselves acknowledge that international measures of performance are narrowly focused and don’t capture all the outcomes of education that they want for their students. Nonetheless, Singapore currently tops the rankings for English, maths and science in the OECD’s PISA tests (the Programme for International Student Assessments).

With such high performance, you might expect Singaporeans to be sitting back and taking a proud look at their accomplishments. Instead, they have an important issue on their minds: equity.

Although students in Singapore perform very well compared to those in other countries, disadvantaged students in Singapore perform much worse than their advantaged peers. In Singapore, 16.8% of the variation in a student’s science score is explained by their socioeconomic status compared to an OECD average of 12.9% (OECD, 2018). In the UK, the figure is 11.4%.

In many countries, this type of inequity is seen as a moral issue. In England, we often talk about it being unjust that young people’s educational outcomes are determined by their backgrounds. However, if we are brutally honest with ourselves, inequity and hierarchy is baked into our country’s DNA, from our medieval history of feudal law and serfdom, through to 20th century notions of the working and middle class.

For Singaporeans, in contrast, inequity represents a threat to the core values of the nation state. That’s because Singapore runs on a notion of meritocracy. Since the young state was created, the principle has always been that a student who works hard will rise up the ranks, be selected into more academic tracks and will ultimately have access to the most influential and prestigious jobs.

In recent years, however, that premise has been undermined. Between 2012 and 2015, the socioeconomic gap in PISA scores increased by around two percentage points (OECD, 2018). Increasingly, students from wealthier families and families with a track record of academic accomplishment are ending up in the more prestigious and academic schools, while students from poorer or less educated backgrounds are ending up on technical tracks. Effort is no longer proving to be the main predictor of outcomes.

This may be affecting students’ engagement in school as well. In 2015, there was a 10.4 percentage point difference between the proportion of disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students expressing a sense of belonging at school, a 9.4 percentage point increase since 2012 (OECD, 2018).

This situation is all too reminiscent of trends in the UK, the US and Australia where socioeconomic status is already a strong predictor of academic attainment. However, Singapore’s brightest minds are being focused towards this issue and tasked with closing the gap. Some changes have already been made. Greater funding and high quality teachers are already being directed to schools serving more disadvantaged populations. On top of this, Singapore is pursuing a range of other avenues:

  • Establishing UPLIFT, an inter-agency taskforce to understand and address issues of student motivation, absenteeism and parental engagement
  • Conducting new research to understand the mechanisms by which early childhood support can affect outcomes for the least advantaged
  • Providing a wider range of quality educational pathways and working to try and equalise esteem for the different routes

After spending even a brief time in Singapore, it’s evident how efficiently and effectively the education system is run. Teacher quality is high – something which starts from the moment the most academically able and engaging students are competitively selected for teacher training. Career paths are clear – teachers can progress to become master teachers, specialists or leaders.

While I would not wish inequity on any population, it is interesting to see Singapore engage with this issue head on. If any system has the capacity and will to reverse this trend, I think it could be Singapore’s. If they manage it, there could be valuable lessons for other countries to take from the process. I am waiting with bated breath to see how this chapter plays out.


Further references and links

Gopinathan, S. (2015). Singapore Chronicles: Education. Institute of Policy Studies and Straits Times Press, Singapore.

OECD (2018). Equity in Education: Breaking Down Barriers to Social Mobility. PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris. DOI:–response-by-minister-for-education–mr-ong-ye-kung




Beating the summer slump

Every year when children go on holiday for their summer break they lose some of the learning they have gained at school that year. It’s such a persistent problem that it has its own Wikipedia page.

It’s summer down under (sorry to rub it in…) so this is the time of year when this issue hits children in Australia and New Zealand. However, one group of schools is running a programme developed by Rachel Williams at the University of Auckland that helps to stall this decline: the Summer Learning Journey.

I blogged about Manaiakalani in my previous post. The cluster of schools serves predominantly low socioeconomic status learners, delivering strong literacy outcomes for them through their ‘Learn, Create, Share’ pedagogy. The pedagogy leverages digital technology to engage learners and to facilitate a more collaborative, creative and empowered approach to teaching and learning. Now, technology is also being leveraged to help students maintain their literacy skills over the summer months.

The premise is simple: by encouraging students to blog at least two times a week while they are on holiday they maintain, or even improve, their existing literacy skills. The blogging is carefully structured – students are provided with a set of activities to complete each week, designed to cover different skills such as explaining, describing and rationalising. A team of trained educators read and comment on the blogs, building a relationship with the students and offering feedback on their work. The impact can be seen in the students’ writing scores.

SLJ graph
Figure 3 from Evaluating the Impact of Participation in the Summer Learning Journey (SLJ) Blogging Programme. Annual Milestone Report. June 2018.


While this impact is significant, the programme’s effectiveness is aided by some key features of Manaiakalani schools.

A commitment to blogging

During the school year, posting digital objects online is a core part of the cycle of learning at Manaiakalani. This is how learners share their work and receive feedback from peer and community comments. Blogging has become habitual for these students, which makes it much easier to sustain over the summer.

Connectivity via 1:1 devices

At Manaiakalani, learners from years 3-4 upwards have their own device. The device keeps them connected at school and, thanks to the investment of the Manaiakalani trust in a community wifi network (wow!) it also keeps them connected to the same, safely filtered school network at home. That means learners from families where they can’t afford the internet are still able to blog from home in the holidays.

As of summer 2017-18, other school clusters which had adopted the programme had not achieved the same level of impact. However, the team at the University of Auckland have identified the conditions they believe need to be in place for the programme to be a success, which I’ve copied at the end of this blog. This year, with more of the conditions in place, it will be interesting to see whether their evaluation shows greater impact is achieved in more schools.

In the meantime, the programme is a great example of how digital technology can enable students to stay engaged in learning even when they are outside of school, in ways that were never previously possible.

It also means that anyone, anywhere, can support the learning of the kids from Manaiakalani schools who are on their learning journey right now. So why not take a look at the Manaiakalani twitter feed @clusterNZ and add your comment to one of the blogs today?


Necessary and sufficient conditions for the Summer Learning Journey.

From page 26 of Evaluating the Impact of Participation in the Summer Learning Journey (SLJ) Blogging Programme. Annual Milestone Report. June 2018.


Necessary Conditions

  1. Students have received adequate training in smart (safe) online practices (eg. Exposure to the full CyberSmart curriculum offered by MET/Manaiakalani facilitators)
  2. Students have their own school-sponsored blog
  3. Students have practice accessing their blogs, preparing a response, posting the response to their blog, and replying to comments on their blog
  4. Students have adequate training in the development of a thoughtful, positive and helpful blog comment
  5. Students are permitted to take their own personal, digital device (ie. Chromebook) home over the summer holiday period
  6. Students have access to the internet at one, or more, points throughout the summer (in order to upload their responses to their blog)

Sufficient Conditions

  1. Students have the ability to participate – to access the Summer Learning Journey website, locate the activities, select an activity and craft a response
  2. Students have the motivation to blog
  3. Students have the active support of their family and friends to engage with the programme (or, at the very least, no active resistance to blogging)
  4. Students have the time to sit down and engage with the programme over the summer holiday period


The hook from heaven

“Technology on its own does not change pedagogy”.

Steven Higgins wrote this in 2010 and it rings true just as much now as it did then. One of the greatest risks when introducing new technology to classrooms is to focus on the technology first, rather than identifying the intended change in teaching or learning and then selecting the technology that will support it (if it’s needed at all!).

Manaiakalani, a cluster of 13 schools in Auckland, have harnessed technology with a clear intention: to improve the literacy of their pupils who are almost all from the lowest income communities. The cluster is predominantly primary schools, but includes one college, one all-through school and a special school for learners aged five to 21. The name Manaiakalani means ‘hook from heaven’ and for this group of schools, technology is the hook that engages their learners.

Learn Create Share
The Learn Create Share cycle, from

The pedagogical approach at Manaiakalani is ‘Learn, Create, Share’. Its evolution is described by Dorothy Burt in a series of blog posts. In the mid-2000s a group of teachers wanted to go beyond the traditional approach followed in literacy – the linear structure of teaching, writing, editing and publishing, where, once the product is published, the learning concludes.

With the growing use of the internet, they recognised that there was an opportunity to continue learning by producing and publishing digital learning objects which could then be commented on and reflected upon. After students shared their output, their learning would continue as they received feedback and further teaching. The introduction of the literacy cycles had a positive impact, first within a single project in one school and then, as they were scaled and contextualised, across multiple schools.

The teachers felt that so much more could be achieved if each learner had their own device with which to create and share their work. So they trialled a 1:1 device scheme in a couple of classes.  Now, from year 3/4 upwards, children across Manaiakalani have a device paid for through parental contributions of $4 per week (a figure decided in discussion with parents, with the tech then chosen to fit their budgets). The devices support their learning in a range of ways, but there remains a central premise of creating and sharing digital learning objects, which are now commented on by an international community spreading well beyond the school gates.

It’s impossible to encompass everything happening within Manaiakalani in a single blog post. It’s why they have a whole website explaining it, which I’d strongly recommend visiting. But I’ll pick out a couple of observations about their approach.


“It’s been quite easy because everyone’s driven by kids doing better”

Jenny Oxley, Executive Officer of the Manaiakalani Education Trust


  1. Purpose

Going back to the wise words of Steven Higgins, that technology is not the driver of change, I was struck by the way the leadership team at Manaiakalani described how they developed their model. Although very aware of the imperative to ensure schools keep up with the modern world, and the opportunities afforded by technology, digitisation was by no means their driving motive. Instead, the purpose I heard repeatedly was to ensure that learners from the lowest income communities have the same opportunities as everyone else. The focus was on equity, and technology was the tool helping to deliver it.


“In the case of Manaiakalani, the learning cycle (“Learn, Create, Share”) has been employed to build the community of learners and thinkers, thereby moderating the potential limitations of variability when taking innovations to scale”.

Woolf Fisher Research Institute Manaiakalani Evaluation Programme report for 2012-14


  1. Pedagogy

Schools can group together for a variety of reasons, but that grouping isn’t always associated with improved outcomes for students (Chapman & Muijs, 2013). However, at Manaiakalani real gains in outcomes have been achieved across multiple schools. Even from my brief visit I saw how a very clearly articulated pedagogical approach sits at the heart of their model and is well understood by teachers and leaders alike. By distilling and codifying that pedagogical approach, and accompanying it with focused professional development, they have been able to achieve the same impact on outcomes across their group of schools. This isn’t just my impression, it is backed up by an evaluation by the Woolf Fisher Institute who observe: “there is evidence that improvement processes operating within the cluster are having an effect on the pedagogical practices of the teachers, and the writing achievement of students.”


“In 2007 the initial seven Manaiakalani Schools formed a cluster and 12 volunteer lead teachers piloted constructing versions of the literacy cycle to reflect their own contexts”

Dorothy Burt, Head of the Manaiakalani Education Programme


  1. Piloting

Understanding all the features of the Manaiakalani model takes quite some time, because there are so many inter-related factors at play. However, it’s important to remember that the current model has taken over ten years to form. Looking back at the history of Manaiakalani, it’s striking how often the word ‘piloted’ is used to describe how the model evolved. The pedagogical approach was developed through years of iteration, from one school to many. The introduction of one-to-one digital devices was trialled in a few classrooms before being rolled out everywhere. Teachers are expected to undertake inquiry cycles so they can try out changes to their practice and evaluate whether they work, before sustaining or sharing them. All of this is a reminder that innovation does not necessarily require a moment of disruptive change. It can emerge from a common purpose, an openness to doing things differently and a slow, steady, research-informed approach to developing new practice.


Manaiakalani Inquiry Diagram
Manaikalani Teaching as Inquiry, from



Chapman, C. & Muijs, D. (2013) Collaborative School Turnaround: A Study of the Impact of School Federations on Student Outcomes, Leadership and Policy in Schools, 12:3, 200-226, DOI: 10.1080/15700763.2013.831456

Higgins, S. (2010). The impact of interactive whiteboards on classroom interaction and learning in primary schools in the UK. In M. Thomas & E. C. Schmid (Eds.), Interactive Whiteboards for Education: theory, research and practice (pp. 86–101). Hershey, Pa: IGI Global. Retrieved from




Our Schooling Futures: an international view

There is an education conversation happening in New Zealand. After 30 years of the ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’ policy, a review is underway to ask how the system needs to change to improve performance and equity.

In November, the recommendations were published. They lay bare the critiques of the current system and propose a vision of a more connected and collaborative model.

Reading the review with an English perspective shows how many common issues there are in our systems. The recommendation for Education Hubs also has many analogies to the English multi-academy trust model. Education Hubs would be regional bodies, responsible for roughly 125 schools, which would take on many of the responsibilities currently held by individual school boards including staff employment and financial management. They would have responsibilities to support schools including offering mentoring and induction for leaders and supporting access to professional development for all staff.

Building on my knowledge of multi-academy trusts in England and of international practice, these are my reflections on three features of the proposed Education Hubs:

  1. “We recommend that Education Hubs would assume all the legal responsibilities and liabilities currently held by school Boards of Trustees. This would include responsibility for school quality and performance, principal and teacher employment, 5YA property funding and property development, financial management including final approval of a school’s annual budget, health and safety, and human resources services.” (p.49)

At the moment, Principals in New Zealand hold many responsibilities for the management of their schools which draw their attention away from their highest impact role as lead learners. In other jurisdictions, many of these legal and administrative responsibilities are held centrally.

Reading this recommendation reminded me of a finding from the multi-academy trust research that we published earlier this year. As part of the research we surveyed hundreds of staff, including 17 CEOs, asking them about the role of multi-academy trusts. Although there were diverse views on the extent to which trusts should determine the model of education within individual schools, there was consensus that trusts should take on the back office tasks and ‘free up leaders to focus on teaching and learning’. For the majority of respondents, it seemed only sensible to centralise administration which could be done more efficiently and more expertly at scale.

There will undoubtedly be some principals who feel they have benefited from having the autonomy to make these administrative decisions. In particular, some may want more control over property development which can influence the school experience and the ease with which certain pedagogical approaches can be implemented. However, overall this recommendation feels like it presents an opportunity to free up principals to focus more time on what they do best.


  1. “Education Hubs would provide principals/tumuaki with ongoing employment and appoint them to a particular school on a five year contract.” (p.52)

At the moment there is no limit to how long a New Zealand principal can lead a school. Some have been in the same role for decades. While this can offer stability, it can also risk stagnation. In England many schools would probably feel they face the opposite challenge of retaining principals for a decent length of time.

There is a precedent for having principals in fixed tenure positions. In Ontario, principals are typically in post for five years at one school and are then redeployed within their district. This fosters a real sense of shared ownership for all the schools in an area – it is worth working in partnership with the school down the road because it could soon become your own. In one case I heard about, schools in a district even co-fundraised because they knew that otherwise the school in the lower income area would always be disadvantaged.

Conversely, I have seen the benefits of long tenures in some of the schools I’ve visited during my research. There, the principals have had a clear vision which has been steadily realised and has delivered strong performance. However, they have also never stopped looking outwards to see how their practice can develop and inwards for the next opportunity to improve. Many of these principals have argued that it takes three to five years to deliver substantial change in a school, so principal stability is important.

Seeing what these principals have achieved, I admit my immediate concern with the recommendation for five year contracts was that it would result in schools getting steered along a zig-zag path – only just embedding one approach before a new principal is appointed with a different vision of success. If we’ve seen anything in England recently, it’s that too much change, whether for the wrong or right reasons, slows down improvement because all energy is spent on adapting.

However, this is where the notion of shared ownership has to come through. If principals are thinking systemically and practice is flowing between schools, then we might expect their individual visions of success to align. With greater alignment, a change in leadership might not result in a substantial change in the trajectory of a school. I think this will be fundamental to successful implementation of five year contracts – whether a balance can be struck between diversity of perspectives, innovation and alignment across the system.


  1. “Education Hubs would also facilitate secondment of teachers/kaiako into central agencies, and of staff in central agencies into schools.” (p.52)

This recommendation excites me because, in my opinion, it captures one of the strengths of so called ‘top performing systems’.

One of the observations in the review is that “Principals/tumuaki also spoke about the variable education experience of front line Ministry staff” (p.46). Similarly, some school board members have observed how they lack the educational experience needed to discharge their governance responsibilities.

As I learn more about different education systems, I find it notable how many of the ‘high performers’ are systems run with heavy involvement of educators. This is the case in Singapore, where educators are seconded into the Ministry, in Ontario where every civil servant I met was a former teacher and where Superintendents, experienced principals, lead at the district level, and in Japan where experienced teachers are temporarily brought onto boards of education before returning to schools.

This model recognises the professional expertise of teachers. It has the potential to bring empathy, professional knowledge and understanding into system-level decision-making. Equally valuably, secondments can broaden teachers’ perspectives, developing their sense of the wider system context in which they work. At a time where workload is high and students have increasingly complex needs, it also offers an opportunity for teachers to move into potentially a less intensive and emotionally demanding role while still contributing to the development of the education system. The key will be to ensure these teachers return to teaching or leadership, renewing their experience and taking their system perspective with them.

Am I missing something? Finding the place of culturally responsive pedagogy

In the last year I’ve visited Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In all of these countries I’ve found educators talking about something that seems notably absent in the UK discourse – culturally responsive pedagogy. As a highly rigorous check to see if I’m just oblivious to the discussions happening on this topic I looked at the 2018 ResearchEd programme and found that culturally responsive pedagogy is not referred to in any of the presentations. It looks like it’s not in the mainstream debate. The more I learn about it, the more I’m questioning why this is the case.

When I ask this question I don’t want to sound naïve. I appreciate that all of the countries I’ve visited have indigenous or pre-existing communities which were oppressed by newly arrived European settlers, usually the British. I appreciate that in the centuries that followed, these communities suffered deeply from the suppression of their culture. Children were made to feel ashamed for speaking their mother tongue at school. Their families experienced a wide range of disadvantage – discrimination, poverty, addiction…too much to describe here.

The UK doesn’t have an equivalent history of recent colonisation. However, it does have a diverse range of cultures, some of which relate to different ethnic groups but others of which relate to geography or social background.

Principles of culturally responsive pedagogy include: valuing children’s identities, setting learning into contexts to which children can relate and understand, and recognising how we can create barriers to learning when we make assumptions based on our own, un-shared experiences and cultural mindsets.  I feel like these are things which the UK’s best educators are doing when they adapt their teaching for children from different backgrounds and contexts, but without necessarily labelling them as ‘culturally responsive’.

Earlier this week I heard Carel Smith describe her take on the different levels of cultural responsiveness. She described how educators can progress from being culturally ignorant, to culturally aware, responsive and, ultimately, competent. As part of this, she described how cultural responsiveness affects an educator’s relationship with their Whanau – the extended family and community of their students. She described a shift from Whanau being a group that are not actively engaged with, to a group that is targeted, to a group that is part of a conversation and, at best, that are seen as being part of the solution.

Again, I feel like this message resonates heavily with the evidence on parental engagement in learning. This evidence tells us that children benefit when schools “develop a two way relationship with parents based on mutual trust, respect and a commitment to improving learning outcomes” (p. 5).

It seems to me that although the UK doesn’t have the same history as New Zealand, Australia or Canada, it does have a wealth of cultural diversity and the associated challenges of specific, under-performing groups. So what I want to understand is why UK educators don’t seem to be talking about culturally responsive pedagogy more prominently amidst all the other education debates.

I feel like we have an opportunity to join a global conversation and to learn from the practice being developed in a host of other countries. However, this is an idea that’s just developing in my mind. So I’d love you to tell me – have I missed something? Have you heard educators in the UK talking about culturally responsive pedagogy? Do you think this practice is or isn’t relevant to educators in the UK?