Blue Sky High - five things every secondary school should

Apologies in advance. This appears to be my annual end of summer "what needs to be changed in schools" rant. All this "not blogging" over summer has resulted in pent up edu-righteousness that must be unloaded.

So, what happens when you take 15 years of teaching and leading at four different fairly traditional, fairly engaging, high performing secondary schools, add three years of innovation incubation as part of the establishment Senior Leadership Team at Hobsonville Point Secondary School (HPSS) and throw in a bit of Most Likely to Succeed (documentary and book)? For me it's resulted in the creation of Blue Sky High.

Actually, to be honest, Blue Sky High has been with me for a while now. Some people have imaginary friends, not me, I'm all about the imaginary high school. Blue Sky High isn't a new school, because to me that's not where the potential necessarily lies. Blue Sky High is all of the schools I've worked in and all of the schools I dream of leading one day. It's a hypothetical "every school" that I continually assess and reassess in light of the learning I am doing at HPSS (and believe me, the learning is huge) and the learning I do with every event I speak at, every conference I attend, every group or committee I sit on, every bit of research and stories I read or watch and every educator I meet. I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time daydreaming, planning and plotting about what I would change, what I would introduce and what I might take away if I was in the position to do so.

Of course every school has it's own context and its own specific community needs and opportunities and there is no one size fits all solution, nor is it ever one person's job to affect or demand change. There is however a few key things I keep coming back to, that I reckon could improve any and every school I can think of - improving schools without taking away the special character or flavour that makes a school what it is. I believe that implementing the following five things would be a relatively easy way for any school to evolve so as to ensure students are gaining the skills needed now (not 100 years ago) and in the future. Whether you refer to them as the infuriatingly named "21st century skills" such as collaboration, problem solving and critical thinking, or simply as a way of genuinely fostering what the New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) refer to as key competencies, particularly relating to others, managing self and participating and contributing. And the awesome thing about NZ and our self-managing schools is that all of these things could be implemented tomorrow. 

1. One to one devices with an open internet
I nearly didn't include this one as I feel like it's so damn obvious. But alas I know that it is not necessarily the case. So, number one, get a solid wifi infrastructure and open up that Internet. Invest in digital citizenship programmes over surveillance software. Students will binge on Facebook/Spotify/YouTube etc for a time and then they won't, or at least they won't binge too much if the learning is engaging. Yes you will have to be vigilant, you will need to move from the front of the classroom and be among your students. Stop fretting over filtering and control and just get on and encourage and support each and every student to bring in a laptop and use it effectively. Yes some students will struggle to afford a device but increasingly suppliers are offering very affordable hire purchase options and what you save on computer labs can be invested in chrome books or affordable laptops that can be lent to those that need them through the library. "One to one" is the key, not optional BYOD as this will only add to teacher workload as they double up on paper and digital approaches - teachers will also use this as a handy excuse to not evolve their approaches, and fair enough too if it's all a bit "here and there". Teachers are bloody busy, they deserve nothing less than one to one if they are going to learn and leverage new strategies, they need to be able to do so efficiently. Bite the bullet, just do it. It is only when you have all students connected that you can genuinely transform how you manage learning and can use e-learning to support, extend and personalise learning and assessment. Or even better you can let the students take the lead, choose the tools, sources and mode for capturing and evidencing learning in a way that engages and supports them. And of course students can still work by hand, make, create, talk, roll around in butchers paper and connect face to face. Believe me, I have experienced every shade of BYOD, diving in the deep end is way less painless than nervously dipping your toes and wondering why learning isn't being transformed. 

Now on to the genuinely exciting ideas (each of which will be enhanced if kids develop digital literacy AND have digital freedom so as to support real agency).

2. Spend more time doing less
One thing of which I am sure - we are rushing teachers and students, doing too much, too quickly. For years I have heard teachers wail about the loss of flexibility, freedom and time, how we used to have time to play and dive deep. Well, news flash, we have created the beast of busyness ourselves. We have added more and more and more and have failed to do anywhere near enough editing. We jam learning into bite size portions, insulting young people's ability to stay focused for anymore that 40-50 minutes at a time. The reality is we over teach, over assess and often cover a whole lot of "stuff" that we are clinging on to because we as teachers love it and are convinced they need all of it. One of the biggest personal learning curves I have experienced at HPSS is that students don't need all that stuff and we don't need to teach all aspects of every learning area every year. At HPSS we are exploring the idea of "threshold concepts" - these are the concepts from each learning area that must be learnt and understood in order for students to progress. The other trick is making Year 9 and 10 a single two year programme - that way content can be almost halved in most learning areas, giving much more time and space for deep learning and inquiry.  

However simply pruning programmes is not enough. 

Classes need to be respectful of a student's need to take time. Time to not just "be taught", but time to engage in deep learning and independent inquiry. This can not be achieved in 45 minutes. After 15 years of 45-60 minute periods in a range of schools and three years of 90 minute blocks at HPSS I am embarrassed that I ever gave students less time and expected deep learning to occur. Students and teachers need time for a whole raft of reasons. Students need it so they have time to engage in deep learning, they need time so they can engage in self-directed learning, they need time to think/wonder/ponder, they need time to create, time to fail, they need time to simply learn how to manage time. Teachers need time to get out of the way. So often in a 45-50 minute block, we really only have the time to share our "brilliance" with our students. I had the pleasure of meeting and working with John Hattie last year and he out and out challenged me when I declared I only spent 15 minutes in a block direct teaching, he reckons even if my direct teaching time was minimal he doubted I clocked less than 30 minutes airtime (and of course he had data to back this up). And he was probably right. The joy of a 90 minute block is I can engage in direct teaching for up to 30 minutes (if it's even necessary) and still have 60 minutes for group or self-directed work, completing challenges, discussion, inquiry and creation. Suck 30 minutes out of 45 minutes and you barely have time for students to arrive and settle at the beginning and pack up at the end. At HPSS we have 90 minute blocks and no bells and surprisingly students often need to be prompted to stop working. Deep learning is bloody hard to achieve when you barely have time to breath. 

3. Connected interdisciplinary learning
Another huge learning curve I have experienced at HPSS is the power of connected interdisciplinary learning. Our foundation programme (a composite two year Year 9 and 10 programme) includes a number of co-taught modules where two learning areas come together to teach under a common concept or theme. For example I have taught an English and Science module with Danielle Myburgh called Game Over that looked at the gamification of war through the novel Enders Game, explored the nature of science through a science fiction lens and researched the science of gaming. I taught an English and Social Science module with Sarah Wakeford called Freedom Fighters to Freedom Writers which looked at Black Civil Rights in history and through the text Freedom Writers Diary and went on to explore this in a NZ context through the Treaty of Waitangi and Parihaka through a Social Studies and literature lens. There is no question, learning is deeper if it is connected and contextualised. Time and time again I have seen students experiencing enhanced learning in each learning area by the the addition of a second one. Maths is given an authentic context by applying it to Technology, representation of ideas in English literature are taken to the next level when explored through the Arts. Combining two learning areas has been made possible by our physical learning environment at HPSS with two teachers being able to teach 50+ students in an large learning common (we are working from the same student teaching ratio as any other school in NZ), this of course is nigh on impossible in the traditional single cell classroom environment. However all is not lost. Often, in many schools, junior programmes are organised in form classes that move through much of the day together (bar the odd bit of needless streaming...I'll save that odious topic for another blogpost). All it would take for many schools to make this shift is for a series of common concepts or themes to be established and a mechanism whereby the teachers of each form class commit to some serious time and effort to connect their learning by planning together. Maybe they could allow the students to work smarter by completing overarching inquiries and projects that counted for more than one learning area. Yes this would take time and fair bit of effort (although platforms such as Hapara Workspace can make this surprising easy to manage) but imagine what you could achieve and how all of you might learn from each other and the way you might share and learn from one another's student data. This would of course rely on schools giving each and everyone of their teachers the autonomy to plan their courses as they see fit for their learners - now wouldn't that be a bloody marvellous idea! 

4. Large scale long term project learning
Connecting the learning as outlined above is an awesome first step in deepening learning, it doesn't however allow for the genuine interdisciplinary learning that can be achieved through large scale and long term project learning. I know many schools collapse a week or a few days here and there to engage in rich tasks or cross-curricular project learning events, these are great, but I actually reckon the skills and dispositions developed through interdisciplinary project learning are best experienced over time, deserving the same status as any one of the "core subjects" we seem to defend, obsess and froth over. I have long admired the work that Albany Senior High School (ASHS) do through their Impact Projects and am surprised that more haven't followed suit. In many ways ASHS have pioneered and paved the way for what we are doing at HPSS, giving students two thirds of every Wednesday to engage in large scale, long term projects which run for a semester (half a school year) which see them addressing an issue or need, providing a solution, a service or designing a product for a very real client or partner. This is a great way to authentically introduce "service learning" and has been a great way for students to explore and address issues around sustainability within a very real community context. In the junior programme these programmes are led and managed by the teachers (project guides) with the idea that as students move into senior school they will have gained the skills required to start developing their own impact projects with the support of a project guide. Personally I can see a whole lot of sense in dedicating a day a week to project learning, that way making the entire school focus on the same thing and teachers and facilities from across the school are available as needed. It also requires having a person or team that can help develop partnerships with local community groups and businesses - imagine how your students might serve your (and their) local community if they had a dedicated day a week to do so. Of course you will need to make space in your curriculum to make this work (refer back to point two - this will require a bit healthy pruning in each of those core subject areas to make space for project learning that quite possibly dips into each of these subjects anyway). To make it genuinely engaging students need to have options and choices, being able to select a project focus that interests them in the junior school and ultimately developing an impact project that lets them explore their interests and passions in the senior school. This requires project guides that are flexible and responsive - a challenge, but so worth it when you consider they way that projects allow students to really express and develop each of the key competencies and are way more likely, more so than any one subject, to prepare them for their lives and careers beyond school. As an aside I would love to see NZ adopt a Project Learning qualification similar to the one offered in South Australia (SACE) where all Year 12 students engage in a year long Research Project which are then celebrated through a state wide exhibition of learning - what a great way to measure the development some of our key competencies through important and engaging context. 

5. Home rooms with real academic coaching
Like projects, I believe form classes and home rooms deserve real time. Before HPSS I had only really experienced the 15 minute form time, which lay outside teaching contact time so often achieving little more than a quick hello, roll take and if you are lucky a rousing rendition of the Daily Notices. We then try and add academic coaching and/or mentoring and wonder why they fail or result in very little. Deans take care of the meaty matters and teachers take care of admin. At HPSS we have Learning Hubs where teachers spend three 90 minute blocks a week, dedicated to looking after the whole student. In the last two years this has been shaped loosely around a curriculum divided into three areas - my learning, my community and my being. Hub time is a time for meeting with students one to one, setting goals, reflecting on learning, learning to learn developing dispositions we refer to as the "Hobsonville Habits". Coaches communicate home every two to three weeks and students stay (where possible - this is hard to achieve in establishment phase) with the same coach for their five years at high school. In many ways the coach is like a form teacher on steroids combined with a dean and career adviser - they are the "go-to adult" for that student throughout their secondary schooling. Many of you probably baulking at the 3x 90 minutes (yes, this means more subject specific pruning) but I reckon at least 2x 60-90 minute blocks of home room time would be worth their weight in (pedagogical and wellbeing) gold. Imagine what might be achieved within a vertical group, the kind of student mentoring that could be developed, the way you could develop the skills and dispositions that would support your mentoring, academic coaching, restorative practice and PB4L initiatives. This gives you the space for that important cross curricular learning around such things as digital citizenship, anti-bullying, wellbeing and learning to learn strategies. This time becomes especially important as your school moves to an increasing student centred approach where learner agency is encouraged - students can succeed at large stints of self-directed learning, but they are teenagers and will always need your guidance, challenge and support. 

Of course there are many other things we could change or do, such as ensuring every teacher engages in teaching as inquiry, or even better - spirals of inquiry. Schools could develop a common language of learning, provide more student choice and encourage greater learner agency. But I reckon if the five ideas above were adopted, many of these other things would occur in the long term anyway. I recognise that many schools are doing one or more of the things outlined above already, however I believe the key is not glacial incremental adoption of one, two or three of these things, I actually reckon it's doing all of them and more depending on the particular needs of your students and community. I actually have an alternate daydream where I abolish all timetables and subjects in favour of a series of self-directed challenges and projects with learning guides helping students to navigate through the curriculum - but one thing I have learned at HPSS is the importance of taking people with you. The five ideas suggested above are completely doable - if you believe they aren't, I suspect you might be underestimating yourself as well as your staff, students and wider community. To paraphrase Grant Lichtman - educational change isn't hard, it's simply uncomfortable. Remember the purpose of education is not just good NCEA grades or achieving University Entrance, it has to be way bigger than that if we have any chance in preparing our young people for an ever changing and increasingly challenging world we live in. I like how Wagner and Dintersmith sum up what the purpose of education should be in their book Most Likely to Succeed:

The purpose of education is to engage students with their passions and growing sense of purpose, teach them critical skills needed for career and citizenship, and inspire them to do their very best to make their world better. 

Are we meeting that purpose with arcane, disconnected, single subject learning, or could we be doing a whole lot better by making just a few small but significant changes? I would be interested in your thoughts.

What changes would you make at your Blue Sky High?

Finally credit where credit is due. Thanks (or possibly apologies) to the following people for being such key influencers resulting in this particular rant. Maurie, Lea, Di and the whole HPSS team (I honestly think I've learnt as much in the last three years as I did in the 15 before that). This post is also a direct response of spending my last week of the summer holidays reading Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith's Most Likely to Succeed (which I highly recommend - if nothing else it made me very proud of the NZC and NZ education system - but equally annoyed that we don't take greater advantage of the freedom we have here to implement their recommendations) which provides the research and provocations that led to the documentary of the same name being made. Getting to meet and speak with High Tech High's Larry Rosenstock last year at EduTech had a profound impact, as did working and presenting with #EdJourney author Grant Lichtman at Ulearn and our very own Staff Only Day. The other two educators that provided influential ear worms that firmed up my thinking were my new found friends from Learning2 Manila - make sure you check out the Learning2 talks from Sam Sherratt and Reid Wilson


  1. Ahhhh, inspirational as usual Claire! So totally agree with everything you say. And your ultimate daydream is definitely one I share.. great post for everyone to read as they head into induction weeks :-)

  2. Beautifully written! I just saw Wagner & Dintersmith's film; also read book. So much is possible if we have the will to examine and discuss what kids truly need!

  3. Great blog Claire. All things are definitely possible especially with the determination and clarity of vision that you have shared. What a great start to 2016.

  4. I am particularly interested in what you are doing with the "my being" elements of your homerooms. Hallelujah to 90 x3! Young people deserve adult mentor attention like that.

  5. Lots of good stuff here. And I like the emphasis on social emotional connectedness of school life and the three prongs of the hub. How about going even further with the use of time and taking advantage of blended learning opportunities to free up the majority of the week,/ year (i.e.whole days) for student initiated learning? Including team and independent research and problem-finding as well as entrepreneurial and service projects. That's a direction I would love to see schools move toward. - Josie

    1. Hi Josie,

      First up, love your work!! I follow your updates closely via Twitter - chuffed you read the post. Completely agree with your vision, that's definitely my alternate/ultimate daydream. This one really provides what I reckon that our state schools could swallow - even the ideas above are a step too far for many!! School transformation is such a bloody interesting space - a space I love being in!

  6. Loved reading your blog Claire. All the best for 2016. Must catch up and share some stories as we continue our hikoi transforming Northland College.

  7. Really enjoyed reading your blog Claire. Spot on! All the best for 2016!

  8. Kia ora Claire, thank-you for taking the time to share your vision and valuable advice on the need to improve our educational practices & systems. As a parent and a professional I am inspired and proud to feel included in this educational revolution here at Te Karaka Area School. At this time I'm sitting out the front of Takipu Marae reading ur blog post feeling deeply moved and excited about what we as a school are achieving. I am equally interested in threshold concepts and feel so much can be drawn on from nurturing positive relationships w our learners. Kia kaha Claire and HPSS whanau.

  9. Perfect reading Claire. Would love to join you at Blue Sky High! I will be sharing your post with many :-) Thanks.

  10. I love the way you've expressed your #2: "Spend more time doing less." I hope you can help build and lead Blue Sky High some day!

  11. Great blog post Claire! I'm giving a lot of what you talked about a go this year in my own small way! Keep up the great work at HPSS!

  12. Thanks very much Claire. We are taking on most if not all of this at Opunake High School this year. Looking forward to the changes impact on our students at our Blue Sky High.

  13. Thanks for this. We are moving into 30 minute form times (with a focus on academic coaching) and 90 minute blocks next year. Your post was very helpful and has given me mucho inspiration :)


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