How might we disrupt secondary education in New Zealand?

Today I am writing a *brief post to simply try and get myself rebooted and back writing on a weekly basis about the sort of stuff that keeps me awake at night, keeps me thinking about education pretty much 24/7. I admit it I am obsessed and happily so.

The topic outlined in the title is one such topic, often causing me to toss and turn at 4am. It is a topic I have avoided tackling here because it is so complex and brain hurty.

But before I get to the how, let's start with the why. The reason why we need disrupt education is because we need to change education. The reason we need to change education has been covered many times in many places (see here and here) - basically the world is changing, industry is changing, schools are not. Okay they are. But at a pace so glacial I am not convinced we will see the widespread and deep seated change we need unless something happens to disrupt on a system wide level.

So what (short of something catastrophic like war or natural disaster) might cause the level of disruption that might result in something akin to radical educational change?

Here's a few ideas (please don't mistake inclusion of ideas as approval of ideas - this is simply a indulgent "ponder piece").

Charter or Character Schools?

A couple of weeks ago I had the unexpected pleasure of a visit from David Seymour. Unexpected because I didn't think he'd actually front and unexpected because I didn't expect to find him so interesting. No. I am not a fan of charter schools. In fact the reason from Mr Seymour's visit was actually a direct result of the blog post I wrote about Why the hell can't we just have more character schools - An open letter to David Seymour and whilst he didn't change my mind about my preference for character schools over charter schools (in fact he even conceded that maybe character schools "could" have been the answer) he did raise the rather interesting notion of charter schools being a virus (yes I also snorted at this analogy) but actually, he had a point. There are many ways to lead innovation and change and as far as he was concerned the concept of charter schools has the power to be infectious and therefore spread change. Personally I don't think charter schools are the virus I wish to see spreading, but if we replaced charter with character I think he could be on to something. Think about it, small agile institutions are where we see innovation happen - the large corporations often feeding off the small agile companies by adopting innovative practice by gobbling up these companies - think Facebook or Google who have adopted a PacMan like approach to becoming innovative by literally consuming the small and agile start ups. How might we translate this approach in the educational landscape - activate a vast number of small agile character schools around the country that might prototype and then be absorbed into larger less agile schools?

Communities of Schools?

Can the networking of schools lead to transformed educational practice or might it simply embed and strengthen the status quo? On one hand IES has the potential to form genuine communities of learning who might be able to develop a genuine community for the learner, wrapping around their learning journey from entry into ECE to graduation into tertiary or industry. However, forming a community might not be enough, without intervention and demanding innovation, you may just strengthen the status quo and enable communities to build barricade which enables them to fortify and resist change even more effectively than before. Bigger doesn't always equate to better and a network can soon become a net that further stymies innovation and risk taking. As a member of the 21st Century Learning Reference Group (who wrote the Future Focused Learning in Connected Communities report) I did try my best to campaign for a future-focused innovation focus to be wrapped around the initiative, but alas my pot-banging fell on deaf ears. Whilst innovation is mentioned in the plans, I worry that the "improvement agenda" will dominate - and my concern is that "improvement" in isolation can be achieved through some less than forward thinking means - think rote learning, narrowing of the curriculum and either greater adversity to risk-taking. In fact all we may achieve is more of the same but with increased hierarchy and fewer overarching leaders for the ministry to deal with. Efficient? Maybe. Innovative? Probably not.

Assessment Reform?

I have oft harped on about the potential for future-focused assessment practices (see here) as being the tail that just might wag the dog. In fact "reimagined assessment practice" could very well be the disruption that is required. The thing that won't provide this disruption is tweaked assessment practice, aka digitised exams. Again, I am concerned that we will take what could be revolutionary (i.e. forgoing exams altogether for multi-media portfolios of learning) and turn it into the banal (i.e. doing your exams online). We will do this because we don't want to "frighten the horses". Personally I'd rather frighten them than bore them to death.

Of course such reimagining is nigh on impossible thanks to the buggers at our NZ universities. University requirements are so prescriptive one could make mistake them for being all lofty and rigorous. Bullsh*t. They are simply easy to compile into an innocuous grade point average that puts all the work back on us, the secondary educator (at the free place of study), so the student can have the honour of being a "bum on the seat" (at the overpriced and spectacularly underserving institution). Like we are suffering some sort of servitude to the mighty tertiary princesses shouting "Let them eat cake!" as we scurry to serve up the exact requirements. Okay might have got carried away, but you get my point - why the hell are we stymying innovation and creative assessment practices for our young people to simply meet their scurrilous demands. Why can't we roll around in the joy of helping our learners to craft a rich portfolios of learning and let the the universities do the work in assessing the portfolios themselves?

What else might we do? 

I like that Teacher Led Innovation Fund - maybe we could breed some more of those babies?
What about getting crash hot innovative educational specialists partnering with BOTs on all key appointments in schools?
What about limiting Principal tenures to five year periods and incentivise moving to schools in need?
What about incentivising movement across the board, make it possible for job sharing, job swapping, industry experience etc. Teachers can be a stagnant (safe) bunch.
What about rethinking the notion of times, terms and locations of schools?

Am interested in what you think. Maybe you don't even agree disruption or transformation is necessary or you think glacial change is okay?

*Oops. What was meant to be short turned into a least it got me going and I sense there is much more to come.


  1. I like your blogs and i love your ideas - in biology we have this punctuated equilibria that is a response of systems and species to catastrophic change - ie they go extinct or survive as plucky outliers - we contrast this with gradualism - which as the name implies is slow often glacially slow change over millennia or millions of years. I think some ways that i love disrupting the system is through start-ups like Gov hack and the 53 hour make or break an educational app weekend - but better than that is the Wellyed model of conferenced collaborative cross fertilization and the melting pot of regional Mindlabs. The most disruptive is the hacker cultures of Kiwicons, or the maker cultures of the same name - the best way to disrupt is empower and encourage our students to make and beak the education system and there by make us, schools and traded redundant. Given the onrush of singularities , the digitization of on-line learning and the ubiquity of devices I think the future of Trad ed (NCEA style) will be nasty brutish and short. I suggest we start with more creative assessments FOR learning not OF learning followed by the primarization of secondary and then hopefully tertiary ie holistic, collaborative group learning and teaching. The reason we all quail after qualifications is that they used to be the passport to happiness, tenure and longevity - but las no more when all power and info is on the net, in the clouds and on our hands (ets.). James Mack a quite mad but brilliant director i once worked with for 7 long years as art and musuem researcher and curator said "The public will forgive you anything as long as you are NOT boring " never be boring - its death to art, culture and fashion- so i say - mixing my metaphors - flog the horses to death - slaughter the sacred cows and serve me up some vegan burgers - lead on with innovation - we need it sorely

  2. Remove assessment from our schools and watch learning transform. It would be like cutting off both your arms and legs to stop a disease spreading, though.

  3. Great post. I see the spill from secondary model into intermediate years when some parents want students to "learn to sit exams" and I wonder where it will end! I also often wonder why we "test" all subjects in the same way. My students sitting drama"exams" seems absurd for rich, practical "subject" that is and area that requires high level collaboration and thinking. A portfolio of their ability to create meaning and have an audience wonder about the world would be a better indicator of their understanding of drama. My (Y9) daughter has been hugely disappointed transitioning into the high school system which for her is already about tests, marks and grade. Lacks innovation and inspiration and really meaty topics and projects to work on. By the end of term one she valued the extra-curric activity over most of her classes. For a highly self-motivated learner like her, it has been awful watching her understand that most of what she does is a means to a grade. I am so pleased to know there are educators like you Claire, who are leading change ... hopefully your ideas are the ones that will spread.

  4. I so agree with the section about universities driving the secondary agenda for assessment. How many times have I heard secondary teachers telling me that they can't change what they do because they are bound by the universities. Their argument not to adopt cross-curricular programmes is based purely on the fear that students will be disadvantaged if they don't gain enough and high enough ncea credits in prescriptive subjects and therefore not get into uni. But I also believe that the narrow nz secondary curriculum disadvantages learners. Coming from Europe where a broad experience base of 10 or more subjects is studied up to the age if 16 which is then whittled down to 5 or 4, I find the fact that NZ kids only being able to study, at most, 6 subjects detrimental to their development. Not that I think the UK system is better (far too much pressyre!) but it does offer more choice. A more open, cross-curricular, critical literacy, problem-solving approach builds skills and broadens exoerience and has to be the way forwards. The question still remains - how to crack the ivory towers of university academia and bring the walls tumbling down?

  5. Great read, thanks Claire. Well done for breaking the blogging drought!
    Loving your "disruption" although a little curious in the synonyms you have listed with the word "derange" - a word I do sometimes think of when I see fellow educators.
    Also loving that you have provided some constructive ideas to back up your discussions.
    I do ponder the "stagnant (safe)" concept of teachers as a generalisation as well. I do wonder if this is partly aligned (although equally it could be argued as misaligned as well) in educators minds with the best outcomes of their students. Just like you discussed with regards to the demands of universities in your post. This is definitely an area that requires disruption!!
    Thanks for your post - a great distraction/disruption to my morning :)

  6. I like the idea of limiting tenures for principals. Although, I'd probably go a step further and say all leadership positions such as HoDs and assistant principals. Often schools lose their best teachers because there is no room for movement up the ladder which is a real shame and can limit change and innovation.

  7. ooooh yes incentivise movement across the board - principals yes! but also teachers, job swapping etc - reasons to move - I agree about stagnation - I am a victim of it myself but so hard to figure out what to do next and where to go to do it...

  8. Hi Claire, a great rave. Was enjoying the post till you pilloried unis. Yes, it was OTT! What unis require for entry relates to the needs of what students face when they begin uni study, and the numbers that first year programmes can physically handle (whether taught virtually or f2f). Staffing ratios in uni can be tough. 120 students in one paper anyone? The transition can be steep and so the entry criteria have to establish at least a starting place of some kind, given the student:staff numbers. Instead of piecemeal credit accumulation though, schools might wish to review the advice to students about what to develop for specific pathways so options are not truncated from year 10.

    1. Hehe. I was waiting for someone to respond to that. Have no issues with the expectations that Unis have....just think Unis should do the assessing. ;-) Agree that schools need to take responsibility as well, particularly when they use it as a big old excuse to overly narrow curriculum design.


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