High School 2.0 - It’s time to prepare for a new normal

Imagining a brighter future in our new normal

The last week or so has been an interesting one for school leaders. One week we were planning for when and if we might have to close, come Monday, it was all on - schools closing the next day for most students and closed for all students by the end of Wednesday. Schools across the country were to go “full remote mode” by Thursday morning. So how did our schools fare? It is safe to say that schools around the country sat somewhere on a long continuum ranging from “we got this” to “sh#t, we better start planning”. The reality is that, for the most part, schools and educators have rallied together and have managed to patch together an okay plan for the time being.

And therein lies the problem - a) It was, for many, patched together and b) nearly universally, it is a plan that will suffice for the time being.

Over the last week it feels like our understanding of what we are dealing with and going to be dealing with is becoming increasingly clear. This is not going to simply be a four week pause before we return to business as normal. Depending on the modelling you look at and how well we all abide by the lockdown rules (please abide!) we could be looking at further weeks of lockdown and will most likely face a future of further regional lockdowns as the COVID-19 waves roll through. Whilst on one level this is kind of terrifying, I also believe this gives us “a once in a pandemic” chance to prepare for a “new normal” in all areas of how we love, live and work but as I am a secondary school leader, I am going to focus on how we could (and possibly should) reimagine secondary schooling, so as to ensure it has a hope of rolling with the punches and coming out of this fight fit for purpose. It is time to find the bright spots.

Technology - Addressing our IP infrastructure and the digital divide
Before we go any further we need to address the foundations on which much of these changes would rely on - we need to address the shortcomings of our national infrastructure for internet provision (IP) and address the digital divide. Back in 2014 I was part of a 21st Century Learning reference group put together by then Associate Minister of Education Nikki Kaye. I look back at that paper now Future-focused learning for Connected Communities and the recommendations we made and can’t help but wonder if they were implemented if we would have been a whole lot better prepared for what happened last week. Delivering teaching and learning remotely relies on two things being in place - affordable and reliable internet connection for every household and every learner having access to an appropriate device for learning. Of course there is way more to it than that, but without those two things you are pushing the proverbial up hill. So if I was in charge, my first priority would be laying some seriously good foundations and laying them yesterday.

In terms of what we lay over the top of this technology, well that for the most part is sorted already. Whether it be Google Apps or Microsoft Teams, as long as every school has one primarily consistent platform and approach, the tools are there already (whether schools have used them well, that’s another thing - I suspect this will improve exponentially in the coming weeks). Please do not enforce one brand or one platform for all schools (choice is nice) and note we do not need another library of 10 million tools and apps - we’ve already got Google for that. Save your energy and dollars for getting the foundation right - the rest is already there.

School structures - reimagining what school means in an age of uncertainty
The second thing we need to collectively address is our reliance on both timetables and our physical bricks and mortar institutions. I personally believe school-wide-one-size-fits-all timetables are not designed for remote or flexible learning. I have noticed a number of schools have clung to these in the remote environment. My question is - how does acknowledge that life in lockdown is complex? That teachers also have their personal wellbeing, families and whanau to care for and students have priorities (such as their personal wellbeing, families and whanau) to care for as well. Life in lockdown shouldn’t have a predetermined timetable and nor should their learning. In short, replicating a timetable in a remote context is not kind. And we have all been asked to be kind. Secondly timetables aren’t actually serving the purpose they do in schools (ie.. slicing and dicing the resources, i.e. teachers and teaching spaces). And what an opportunity to develop trust in our teachers and agency in our learners. So what could we do? I actually believe one answer could be us (as a country) exploring the model that some Canadian schools have had for coming up 50 years as part of the Self-Directed Schools movement. The following is from the Calgary Catholic School System website:

Since 1971, Bishop Carroll High School has been offering students in Calgary and the surrounding area a self-directed personalized program of studies.

What sets Bishop Carroll apart from other high schools is its unique self-directed learning environment, which puts students in the driver’s seat of their educational journey. Here, students have the freedom to customize a learning program that they feel is best suited for their unique goals, abilities and interests. With the guidance of a teacher-advisor and their parents, the student will choose the program and courses they want to follow. Students can then progress through these courses at a personalized rate reflecting their individual needs and learning pace.


I don’t know about you, but I think that that sounds awesome even if we were in our old normal. I was lucky enough to visit Bishop Carroll in 2013 and was blown away. This is not a new and fandangled experiment where learners were guinea pigs, this was a well researched, well structured and well resourced system where students exercised learner agency for the last 49 years - in what looked from the outside like a traditional Catholic high school. Basically, it means the students do not have a timetable (although they do have a number of scheduled masterclasses, lectures and workshops they can opt into or some they must attend) but the teachers do - this timetable represents when the teachers are “on the floor” and able to help students when and if they need it. They also combined this with a really strong pastoral system that meant all students had a sit down one-to-one with their home room teacher, once a fortnight, where they monitored and reported on progress and provided more structure only if and when it was needed. You can imagine how much easier it would have been for those learners to switch in to “remote mode” when and if they needed to. And what I like is that if we do face a future of moving in and out of remote mode it is still valuing the bricks and mortar communities we can access - when and if we can. It also provides strong pastoral care which is going to be the key for looking after what may become increasing disconnected learners.

And we could totally prepare for this at a system wide level. And we could do it with the workforce and the resources (as long as we sort the technology provision) we have now. The transition from what we have now to what is described above isn’t about resourcing, it really just relies on changing our mindset about the need for the structures we have come to rely on. And if we have a hope of secondary schooling remaining relevant and sustainable in the uncertain times we have ahead - we must change. However, it will require strong national (educational) leadership and a nation-wide collaboration to pull it off. We need a schooling system that is genuinely agile and capable of moving in and out of physical spaces. I don’t know about you, but I’m totally up for preparing for that.

NCEA - reimagining definitions of success in an age of exponential change

And because I am working in the secondary space I think it’s important to address the elephant in the room - NCEA. Whilst it’s possible for the next few weeks to feel relaxed and let teachers and students simply learn, we will undoubtedly, as the year progresses, need to address what the heck we do with NCEA within our new normal. I would happily shelve it altogether, but whilst I am a dreamer I am also a realist and recognize that simply won’t fly.

Before we go further we do need to stop and take stock. Why is NCEA actually important? What's the purpose of NCEA? The NZQA website is says the following:

The National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) is the main national qualification for secondary school students in New Zealand. NCEA is recognised by employers, and used for selection by universities and polytechnics, both in New Zealand and overseas.

So basically it is a “sorting hat” for tertiary providers and some employers and it’s a national qualification that purports to produce a “record of learning” and for many a badge of honour. Well if we are imagining a “new normal” for teaching and learning, surely it’s time to imagine a “new normal” for how we measure success.

What could we do? Personally, I think we need to remove the complexity of NCEA and recognise that if we are moving in and out of remote mode and in and out of “examination centres”, then doing a lot less would be better would be wise.

My suggestions:
  • Let's get rid of Level One NCEA altogether (here's an idea, let's just focus on learning).
  • Let's make Level Two NCEA "the" base level national qualification for University Entrance and tertiary providers. Who knows if this will remain relevant considering how tertiary providers will need to adapt.
  • Let's replace Level Three NCEA with a focus on student's developing their PoPE (their personally curated Portfolio of Personal Excellence). Year 13 could then also become the second year of Level Two NCEA (if needed) or simply a time to focus on personal excellence and preparing for various pathways.

Why could this be a good idea? In terms of our very current and real context, it would mean no group of students would be needing to stress about gaining all of their definitive NCEA certificate this year. Current Year 11s could exhale, Year 12s would know that there is no rush, that we and they have time and Year 13s could refocus on their personal interests and pathways and simply capture evidence of all their learning happening in a bubble we find ourselves in - and I don’t just mean school learning. If my social media feed is anything to go by we are all going to be master bakers, “Zoomers”, Tik Tok dancers and YouTube personal trainers - and I am sure that list will go on!

From a purely economic and pragmatic perspective we could save a whole lot of money and resources. And imagine how we could close the digital divide with that new found pot of money.

This would also stop senior schools using NCEA as a proxy for our New Zealand Curriculum (at present we tend to let the assessment drive the learning). It would also mean schools could refocus on what learning is actually important (particularly in this very moment), not just what high stakes assessment dictates is important.

It would still provide universities with an arbitrary national assessment to use as a magical sorting hat whilst also privileging far more rich and diverse measures and evidence of personal excellence that were actually relevant to our young people - win win if ever I saw one! Plus there is no reason why tertiary bodies couldn't leverage PoPEs as part of their entry requirements. It could enable different Universities and faculties to request all of those specific qualities that they don't think schools deliver. I know I'm up for the challenge if they are.

In summary, I recognise this is solely focused on secondary schooling, and that there are a whole lot of other things to worry about, but that is my area of expertise and am happy to leave the other areas to the folk in those fields. I also want to clarify this is not intended to be the answer. Simply an imagining and an idea. I think it’s important we all get “imagining” so we can focus on the positives and the possibilities and start preparing for a new normal rather than finding ourselves, in six weeks time, scrabbling to respond and simply react.

Life has changed. Forever. The sooner we face reality and seize the opportunity to dream (and maybe even make our dreams a reality) the better.

Sources/Links:
https://www.bright-spots.org/
https://www.education.govt.nz/assets/Documents/Ministry/Initiatives/FutureFocusedLearning30May2014.pdf
https://www.cssd.ab.ca/Programs/ProgramOptions/Self-DirectedLearning/Pages/default.aspx
https://teachingandelearning.blogspot.com/2013/04/edutouring-learning-and-sharing-at.html
https://www.nzqa.govt.nz/ncea/understanding-ncea/how-ncea-works/
https://teachingandelearning.blogspot.com/2020/03/is-now-our-opportunity-to-really.html

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