Thursday, 18 December 2014

The Most Important Muscles of Them All - Learning Muscles

We took some huge risks this year.
Daring greatly is not about winning or losing. It’s about courage. Brene Brown Daring Greatly. 

If we want our learners to have courage and take risks in their learning then we need to have courage and take even greater risks in our teaching. And as leaders we need to give people permission to take these risks.

Twelve months ago Jono wrote:
“I like the idea of learning muscles. It tells me that we can get better at these things if we 'work out' with them. We're basing our classroom around these learning muscles next year. We're trying to gear our kids up for the 21st century that they are going to go into and we want them to go in with confidence.” Jono Broom December 2013.

Learning Muscles- curiosity, courage, investigation, experimentation, imagination, reasoning, sociability and reflection. We added stickability and empathy.

So on the first day this year we said to our kids (50 learners ranging in age from 9 through to 15) “This is our curriculum for the year. If you leave here at the end of the year better in some, or all, of these ten things then we will all- both us and you-have done our jobs.”

We have not “taught” reading, writing, maths or any other “subject” all year.

Whenever our learners set goals they were in relation to the learning muscles. When they reflected on the learning they had been doing they reflected on their learning muscles rather than the “content specific,” or “process skills” they had been learning or practicing.

We have freed our learners up to “inquire.” They have inquired into things we suggested, and more and more they have inquired into things they were developing passions and interests around. (See inquiry posts-linked below- for more detailed information on this.)

When reflections and evaluations of learning (theirs and/or ours)  identified the need for direct instruction in a specific skill, or development of some content knowledge then we provided this.

Student accountability developed.  Student involvement in and responsibility for their learning increased. Then student engagement started becoming evident. Student achievement using measures such as standardised assessments was skyrocketing by the time we were half way through the year.

But most importantly these learners ended the year with so much more confidence than they started the year with. Most of them contributed to a video book for a teacher leaving- these were the same students who lacked confidence and refused to be recorded on video at all in February when I tried to take some initial impressions of them and their ideas about learning. 
Another teacher who taught a  lot of the same students in 2013 and had been away all year visited on the second to last day. He couldn’t get over the difference in these learners confidence and general bearing. The way they interacted with each other and with adults. The way they held themselves and had a belief in themselves and each other.

Our end of year reports were learning stories based around the learning muscles.

They spent the last morning at school for the year reflecting and clearly articulating the learning muscles they had developed significantly this year.

These learners wanted to be at school. They were still at school in the last week this year working on their inquiries. A Year 10 boy got so far through his inquiry and realised he needed some more understanding to be able to do what he wanted to do. So 24 hours before school was due to close there he was with a teacher re-forming his inquiry questions. He can just come back to school and continue with this next year. 

Learning isn't restricted to neat and tidy 3 week units, or even 10 week themes any more. Learning is truly ongoing and on its way to becoming life long for these learners.

We’ve had such great success with the learning muscles as a trial in our Middle Years Learning Community (Years 6-10)  this year that we are going to be focusing on them school wide next year. We’ve incorporated them into the Mason Durie Tapa Wha model and these two concepts have become our graduate profile. 

How we do this with our foundation class students, who often come to school with the behaviours and knowledge more like three years olds than five year olds, and how we do this in our early years- where we know some of the basics of reading and writing are so necessary and how we do this through NCEA are some of our ongoing inquiries for the year. We have our initial plans for how we are going to do it and I’m sure they will be modified and change as the year progresses just as ours did this year.  

The learning muscles  are the most important thing we will measure our students progress in, from when they start school at 5 through to when they leave us at 18. We will assess reading, writing and maths as we go, and we will be continually evaluating and reflecting on what skills and concepts a learners needs help developing. But we will always remember that our aim is to help each learner to progress their learning in an ongoing quest to become a well rounded  lifelong learner. And we believe the learning muscles are the key to this. 

As has been said for many years- what you value is what you measure. 

We are determined to make the learning muscles the things we measure the most as a school- because they are the thing we want to value the most. Follow our journey as we strive to keep ourselves honest to this vision.

Useful Links:

My Story of Change- Jono Broom (the original post that started the learning muscles journey.)

Inquiry Learning

Web of Inquiry- Jono Broom

The Link In The Chain-Jono Broom

Self Directed Learning

Give Your Learners True Control- Karyn Gray

Do We Need a Bell to Signal Learning?- Karyn Gray

Curriculum Change

Throw off the Shackles and Turn the Curriculum Upside Down-Jono Broom

Saturday, 13 December 2014


A few weeks back I posted this message on my facebook timeline;
Life can get confusing and at times you can lose sight of the person you wanted to be. Your motivation is going to fluctuate and at times you'll feel like giving up....but those problems you thought were so big in your life..aren't really that big after all. And that courage you've always wanted you've always had just needed to get in the game. With a little bit of hardwork and with the right support you can be that person you've always wanted to be! So whatever it is you're after...just make the conscious decision to get in the Game!......and go get it!!! Just decide who you wanna be what you wanna do where you wanna go and go for it........what have you got too lose?

Now at the time that post, was directed towards my passion of bodybuilding since then I have come to believe that maybe indirectly and unconsciously I may have been thinking about my teaching this year aswell so with that in mind, the dispositions I would like to touch on is Stickability and Empathy.

2014 has definitely not been without its challenges. I would be lying if I didn’t say stepping up and teaching fulltime in the Senior Learning Community has been a smooth ride and at times I would question my ability to be teaching at this level…at times I wondered what the hell was Senior Management thinking placing me in there. I have never been one not to accept new challenges and embrace change. However,  I was also aware that this challenge just didn’t affect me alone but it would have major implications on the students I directly and indirectly interacted with.

This year I have learnt to be flexible with the many learning and teaching pathways we have been shown and trialled. Like my post at times  I was confused and lost sight of the teacher I thought I was supposed to be. I believe this was because like all new experiences and changes it not only highlights ones strengths but also reveals ones weaknesses. It is in our weaknessess that our fears are unveiled and
when our fight or flight response is activated.  Not one to fly, that courage you’ve always wanted you’ve always had it But with the right support so thaks to my colleagues in the SYLC and some hard work on my behalf  I have managed to work through it.
I can honestly say despite the ups and downs of working with our seniors, and what seemed like moving mountains to motivate and or to inspire them towards their passions and to get them through NCEA has been fulfilling.  Knowing what a slow and uncertain  process learning can often be, this last term has shown when we as Teachers persevere, channel our energy of frustrations productively and go beyond our job descriptions anything can be achieved.
Matua Henare enlightened me on one of our many conversations and reflections of the working day ..”sometimes we need to stop listening with our head and we need to follow our hearts, teaching is all about relationships.”

We are all familiar with the korero “don’t judge a man  untill you have walked in his shoes.”  Which refers to the importance of empathy and its moral values. When we empathise with another person we are able to see things from their point of view. This year we have tried to develop this even more by providing our students opportunities and encouraging them to work independantly and follow their passions.

I don’t normally agree with Henare most of the time, so pride aside he’s right, its quite a simple concept and I think sometimes as teachers we can analyse and over intellectualise what we are trying to achieve with our students that at times we get lost and forget why we wanted to become teachers in the first place.

When I think about Empathy and relationships the word Rangatira comes to mind. My understanding of this word isn’t based on status, position, money or popularity its based on the deeper meaning of the word.
I recall the late Morvin Simon breaking the word down for me as student at Hato Paora Catholic Maori boys School as "Ranga" which derives from the word raranga to “weave” then "Tira" which is a travelling party of which he defined as a person who "weaves" a "travelling party " together.

Bringing people together and weaving all those whom we interact with on a daily basis through the many twists and turns in peoples lives is what we have to work with.  No matter what the context or the kaupapa you are dealing with if you are unable to have a good working relationship with your students, their families and your colleagues you are more than likely going to struggle to weave that travelling party together.

Rangatira didn’t work alone aswell, having those support networks around you is vital and I know for a fact even though it maybe deemed as a sign of weakness asking for help…a problem shared is a problem halved so pull up your socks put your pride aside and if you require help just like I said at the beginning “ GET IN THE GAME” and ask, what have you got to lose?

Na Matua Sol,

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Learning Through Play- Tara O'Neill

Kids learn through play and play is a fabulous way for kids to learn.  It is as natural as breathing. Vygotsky says, “the influence of play on a child’s development is enormous”. Barbara Rogoff also suggests that children supporting each other and learning together, a key feature of play makes a powerful contribution to mathematical learning. Bishop emphasises the playing of games. He notes that playing is “indeed a most serious business” as well as a significant adult activity.  “Play is not just an activity; it’s a state of mind that brings new energy and sparks creativity”(Lundin, 2002).

Is Play a valid way to teach academic skills to children in their first year of school?  What skills do students need as they enter school and engage with the New Zealand Curriculum?  Both early childhood and the NZ curriculum are based on social-constructivism.  Both have moved away from the old Behaviourist theories where teachers imparted knowledge and children repeated tasks to gain proficiency.   No longer do these curriculums direct that rote learning, repetition and discipline help children gain new skills and knowledge.  Instead they embrace a combination of Piaget and Vygotsky and beyond. Piaget where a child is not taught new skills until they show readiness and Vygotsky where a child is taught by a teacher or peer skillfully supporting their new learning thereby helping the child to learn more by sharing the background thinking about how to solve a problem, breaking it down step by step.  

Next year I am heading up a foundation class, a class for students to come into as they begin school.  At its base, it uses Te Whariki the Early Childhood curriculum combined with the NZ Curriculum.   The class environment will look like an Early Childhood center. The main reason for this is to embrace play as the main context in learning.  Coaching is probably the best word to describe how the teachers will interact in the class. We will be coaching social, emotional and academic skills.  We will be looking for indicators that each student has sufficient skills to be able to progress onto the next steps in their learning life. These will largely be seen in the following areas – Social skills, Emotional and Academic readiness. Some of these indicators will be the ability to use emotions appropriately to support their learning. For example, we might see patience from a child as they learn to manipulate blocks in their play, or the ability to focus on a book leading to engagement in an area of learning.  It may be turn taking where the learner is able to take turns in order to play a game with their peers.  It might be being friendly where they are able to use this skill to solve a learning problem with a friend. 

Vygotsky explained that through play, children learn skills for how to control their bodies, develop communication and thinking skills and learn how to relate to others in a social environment. Some of our learners at Te Karaka Area School enter not having had many opportunities to play especially with a trained teacher to coach and assist them in their learning.  This is one reason why they haven’t developed the emotional and social skills necessary to support further learning. The other reason is that for children up to the age of 7 play provides the best instructional environment.

At a conference this year, I listened to Nathan Mikaere Wallis share about research on 5 year old boys and brain development.  The acquisition of social and emotional skills are the most important skill for this group of learners not cognitive skills.  If we get boys at 5 and they don’t achieve, they may develop a disposition of failing and not wanting to achieve.  Most boy’s brains are not physically ready to read until 7 years old.  This knowledge about brain development is crucial if teachers are to know their learners readiness for certain academic learning.

Further to this, learning needs to be in the Zone of Proximal Development.  If we force them to be outside of this they can feel incompetent and we may risk stopping the development of the brain.   In order to think and learn, you need the other parts of your brain to be functioning.  1.  Survival brain.  Brainstem – this is in charge. You need warmth, food and security from loving relationships.
2.  Movement brain or the Midbrain – sports brain  You need to exercise and experience movement.  3.  Mammal brain or the Lymbric system – emotional brain. You need emotional support and safety.  4. The thinking and learning brain is built on the above.  The thinking and learning brain’s ability to function rests on the above 3 brains.  What happens in early childhood impacts on brain development and continues to influence further learning. 

 This is an interesting discussion by Nathan Mikaere-Wallis - Radio New Zealand “What 3 to 7 year olds need to learn”

The Incredible Years Programme outlines three developmental levels of social skills needed by children as they progress towards being able to focus on more academic learning.  Child Developmental Level 1 – The child plays alone.  Level 2 – Parallel Play where a child plays alongside another child.   Level 3 - Interacting with others. The Incredible Years describes how the ability to control a child’s body needs to be taught just like we teach academic skills.  Learners need to firstly understand what emotions feel like and then be able to identify these using words.  Finally they will learn to use their emotions as a tool to support their learning.  Just as we allow learners to make mistakes in their academic learning, we also need to allow mistakes with social and emotional learning.  And just as with academic learning we provide an environment every day for practicing in. Just as we support learners to learn how to write a re-count we can scaffold learners to learn how to control their anger.  We can explain the thinking behind restorative practice and why we say sorry to someone we have wronged.

Te Whariki the Early Childhood curriculum links in with the NZ curriculum the focus of the Primary Years.   Under Development of Learning and Capabilities it says "There is no developmental cut-off at school entry age.  During the early school years, the principles and strands of the early childhood curriculum continue to apply and can be interwoven with those of the New Zealand curriculum statements for schools".   Pg 21 of Te Whariki Curriculum Document.

Not all students are ready for cognitive, academic learning when they start school.  They are not all ready to sit down in one place for more than 10 minutes and have a lesson with a teacher.  There is no magic that happens when a child turns 5 that allows them to be ready emotionally and socially.    By providing a foundation class we are providing a smooth transition and acknowledging that for our community, the children sometimes need a melding and transition of the two curriculums.   We also acknowledge that play is an important context for early learners to experience and that as educators we act as a deciding force to seeing the environment set up to support learning.  This includes noticing when a learner is ready to learn the next step and how we will set up learning experiences to enable them to learn.  

I think that one of the greatest mistakes we make as Educators is thinking that direct instruction is an effective way for young children to learn.  And sometimes we think it is the only way.  We believe that if we control the knowledge and tasks, the students will learn.  We mistakenly believe that the structure of direct teaching is the very structure needed for our learners to feel safe in and learn. 

Next year, we are starting a class which will focus firstly on emotional and social skills and secondly on cognitive skills.  In most Year one classes in New Zealand, children are expected to come to where their teacher sits to take part in a formal skill based lesson.  Instead of this, in our foundation class, the educators will go to the children and like in Early Childhood, will engage with the child in play, listening, asking and answering, questioning, challenging ideas and concepts teaching social and emotional skills.  They will respond quickly to learner’s needs and passions, providing resources to enable their learning to progress in the very best way needed for each individual.  Creativity will be encouraged and enabled.


Vygotsky, L.S. (1980) “Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes” pg. 96.

Minstry of Education. ( 2009) “Mathematics, assessment for learning: early childhood exemplars” pg. 2.

Bishop, A. (1991) “Mathematical enculturation: A cultural perspective on mathematics education.  Pg17

Lundin, S. (2002) “Fish Tales”. 

Naysmith, R. (2011) “Implementing the New Zealand Curriculum: understandings and experiences from three urban primary schools”. 

The Incredible Years Teacher  -

Te Whariki - http:/

Monday, 1 December 2014

The Good That Comes from a Camp- Lanie Wilton

Some parents and teachers were a bit baffled by the notion that our Middle Years students were going to be having not 1 but 3 camps this year. It can be seen as a bit of a treat or a fun time. I’ll admit, it is both of those, but it can also create huge leaps in learning when students get to really experience new things first hand.  In the words of Guy Claxton - “Immersion in experience is the most fundamental learning mode throughout life”.  Equally the trips have given the students and staff a common ground, a basis to form respect and relationships that comes back to the class room and the community.

In term 3 we took our Middle years students on a trip around the East Coast. This was their second trip this year and my first real camp away with students as a teacher. I knew it would be a great opportunity for me to get to know the students more personally so was looking forward to it. After more fundraising, planning, learning and researching we geared up for our longer end of year 10 days camp to Cape Reinga. It was amazing – for staff and students.

I had hoped that camp would be fun for our students. I had no idea that due to the preparation and planning it would be so full of monumental life learning experiences. Our students had the trip of a lifetime where they saw things that amazed them (wild horses, dolphins, islands, 2000 yr old trees, culture and picturesque landscapes). They also learnt how to dance (traditional style) they learnt more about each other, and most importantly they learnt about themselves. – Their limits, and how they handle new experiences.

Seeing kids settle down after several days without sugar – and eating well was awe-inspiring! If only we could have our students eat foods that assist their learning all the time. On day 7 we were on a bus trip back to camp and didn’t want our campers falling to sleep on the bus (otherwise they would have been up all night) – so we gave each student 2 pieces of chocolate. Well! Within 20minutes the bus was a hive of racus noise, laughter, pranks and energy. It was scary to see how quickly and dramatically that small amount of chocolate affected them.

Our last night of camp (a beautiful formal) dinner was set up with sparkling grape juice for toasting in each wine glass. The sugar rush (from just one small glass of fizzy) was instant and incredible. It was amazing to watch and realise what had affected them. Some of these kids drink and share a 1.5 litre bottle of fizzy before and during a normal school day.

TKAS uses very modern approaches to teaching. I found it interesting how at camp we ended up using some traditional teaching techniques (that we don’t use day to day in TKAS) such as lining up for the bus and when we were in public. At TK we don’t get kids to line up, they simply go from one place to the other as you would with your family when you’re up town. Now, when I visit other schools, and see kids walking in lines I realise how archaic it is. As adults, we do line up for movie ticket ques, but we wouldn’t walk anywhere in two orderly lines!

 “Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn, and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” – John Dewey.

I believe these kids have had an amazing year. The expense of travel related costs can put off some schools from even attempting an annual class camp. What those schools don’t see is the learning that can be gained, the engagement of youth – particularly when it can all be linked back into inquiry learning.  “Education is what is left after you have forgotten everything you were taught at school” – Albert Einstein. These kids will never forget this last trip. It is something you can’t put a price on.

Now, some of them have travelled further than their parents have ever been. They have set new boundaries for themselves, “wow now we need to go to the bottom of the south island”.  I believe prior to the trip that possibility would not have entered their minds. They have seen what traffic in a big city actually looks like – “wow is that the traffic you were talking about?” one student referring too 4 cars waiting in a cue was a lot – that was before he saw spaghetti junction and a 8 lane highway in Auckland!

Before these experiences I saw a bunch of kids that need help. Now I see students with their options expanded and individuals with a future.  My job is to help them reach and even stretch them beyond whatever positive future they see in their adult lives