Wa Ako – Active Learning Stories

visionActive learning is taking place in Wa Ako at the moment. Wa ako is our regular period four slot which has enabled a diverse programme focusing on learning to learn and realising the Newlands College vision. We are building towards two days off timetable in Week Nine where a number of projects will manifest and some impressive ideas will come to life. The following magical stories were just two of the many shared today at the staff’s professional learning session, shared here with permission from the students. Last year a similar post captured student voice and here is some reflection.


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Active learning is something that more accidentally happened for me this year. I didn’t have a active learning project to begin the year with so I turned my focus into what was happening for me in 2018. Through a connection on staff I ended up emailing Steve Logan from Logan Brown and was invited in for a coffee. This led to working shifts at Logan Brown, not doing dishes, but actually preparing the food.

I’m not just on websites trying to figure out what to do next year, I’m actually out there doing it trying to figure out how to keep doing it next year. I simply started with the question: ‘What am I going to do and how am I going to do it?’ And followed through from there. The key challenge for me is not actually knowing what to do when on the job in the kitchen. But the learning for me is about asking questions and being open to advice, guidance and support so that I can develop the skills to be successful.

 – Ben Murdoch (13WG)

I am part of a group of Year 12 and 13 students have been planning a project as part of Active Learning, which involves a day of amazing Science experiments that we hope will inspire more students to develop an interest in the Sciences.

The idea began when I began to notice that there were many students that didn’t choose a Science subject as they passed through high school, or there were some students that didn’t choose to follow through with Science to Year 12 or Year 13. As I thought about it, I realized that most of these students did not leave the Sciences behind because they didn’t like it, but rather because they didn’t want to study it for the purpose of passing a test. I also noticed that the majority of students that did keep Science as a subject had a genuine desire to learn more about the Sciences.

So, I decided that there must be a way to inspire people to take an interest in the Sciences so that they can see it as more than a subject, and rather as the study of how the world works. When we were presented with the opportunity to take up a project of our choice for Active Learning, it was the perfect opportunity to do something about it. So together with some other eager Year 12 and Year 13 students (Rachel Wilson, Becka Tiongson, Shine Wu, Ruth Cabahug, Aneesa Delpachitra and Ryan Mass) we set about doing something that could make a real difference, and have an impact on the future generation. As a group we came up with the idea of involving our neighbour, Newlands Intermediate.

We plan to use the two days we have been given at the end of June, June 29th and June 30th for this ‘programme’. We have several options of how we can run these two days, and we will arrange it to suit however many classes the Intermediate would like to send to us. The plan is to have sessions which last for an hour with three stations. We aim to have a class (or 1/3 of the group) at each station for 20 minutes, and rotate through all three of the stations.

We are well on the way to making this a reality and have even begun taking steps to turn this into a business venture as well.

 – Clarice du Toit (13CO)


These are magical learning stories enabled by teachers letting go of the control and having the students led their own journeys. So many amazing things are happening around the school and the energy is so contagious. It’s very exciting times!

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Learning with the Community

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poibookThe photo above was taken on the school’s first ever Community Hour where members of the community were invited in to tell their stories and respond to student questions. It was organised by our Deputy Principal, Deb King, as part of launching our 2017 programme of Active Learning – weekly inquiry based learning time free from the constraints of curriculum and assessment.

The community was incredible at taking up this opportunity. Politicians, City Council, our feeders schools, police, fire department, the SPCA, InsideOUT, Newlands Community Centre, lawyers and a funeral director all came to speak to various groups of students un-conference style. The concept for the day came from the principles of curiosity found in Kath Murdoch’s book (pictured) which emphasises the power of inquiry and student questioning. The structure was supported by Sugata Mitra’s mantra of “learning at the edge of chaos” with the hour appearing unstructured and the school being alive with uncontrolled opportunities.

The group I sat with was talking to John Robinson from Challenge 2000. What struck me was the level of questioning that the students delved into – really interrogating John in terms of social justice. They really challenged the ideas being presented and the depth of their inquiries impressed me. Is this the result of giving the students free reign to respond authentically? What was also interesting was how little they listened to each other. It’s a small sample size, but the room’s questioning was erratic. Instead of building on from each other and asking questions along a consistent line, it really was pot luck as to where the next question would target. It’s a new part of teaching questioning I hadn’t thought about. The subject is important, but the room is equally so.

Active learning Showcase Reflection

The Active Learning Showcase was a fabulous occasion, truly putting learners at the centre. It saw about 100 students in the hall to present and showcase their learning in conversations with mainly adults who were circulating around.

The open invitation to work the room and talk with students offered an opportunity to deeply reflect on how to approach learning conversations with students. I found that students with interesting content would draw content focused questions from me, and it would take significant effort to sometimes steer this conversation into the process. There was so much value in this for the students involved as the conversations were so empowering and the growth across the two hours was visible in many instances.

In terms of Professional Learning, I feel that one of the biggest gains of the showcase was through the decision to make it compulsory for all staff to attend. This forced staff to engage with the underlying learning purpose of active learning and any cynicism was immediately challenged by the voices of the students. It was visible during the two hours that teachers were active in talking to akonga. This must have been a challenge for many who enjoy the safety of a desk as a barrier. But the throw them in the deep end approach was a valuable experience for at the least the opportunity to circulate among learners in an innovative learning environment.

There is deeper reflection to come about the process as a whole. It is a complex journey to unpack. But it’s great to record this positive buzz!

Active Learning Stories

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Students came to our professional learning session today to share their stories. Active learning is a project based student centred model of learning that the school has embraced this year for the first time. The launch was earlier in the year and here’s a post that captures some of what happened on day one. The students today shared their projects and jounryes including:

  • 3D Printing – how could we incorporate 3D printing into the curriculum at Newlands College?
  • Start a brewing company – what does it take? How do we do it?
  • Tackling Student Stress – building resources to help assist struggling students.
  • Automotive design – How have cars become more fuel efficient?
  • Starting a sign language class to help connect with the deaf students – A goal to add sign language to the curriculum in the future.

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The learning that was evident in the stories that were shared was powerful. Particularly as the stories were student driven and from the students own passions and not guided by any need to gain credits. I found the learning interesting and the way the students had overcome problems and navigating their thinking in quite complex ways. During the session though I ended up focusing on what the staff response was, and the learning that needed to happen for the adults involved…

What was fascinating was how interesting it was to observe how they overwhelmingly responded to the content rather than the learning. As a result most of the questions were directed towards the topics raised and not about the learning journeys.

Another fascinating aspect was hearing questions from staff where the majority were leading questions. It was amazing how many times a teacher said “like,” “or” and examples that led the response. They often contained the answers for the students to pick from. Many responses were along the lines of “have you thought of…” or “one thing you could try…” It was fascinating to see such a clear indication that student-centred learning is not as accessible as I thought and how there are still steps to go.

This is a challenge as a professional learning leader and much more thinking needs to go into how we support the change in this culture. At least we have the structure in place in order to address this!

Student Voice – Matariki

As an acknowledgement of Matariki, students from Komiti Maori were invited along to join our Professional Learning Focus Groups. They spoke about their learning and we gently interrogated them. Some of the strands arising from the discussion were:

  • The need for specific learning – and repeating stuff. “While some people find repeating stuff useless, I need it repeated and it helps”.
  • “The biggest difference to my success is the thoroughness of what we have to learn”. Value the little stuff and the big stuff.
  • “I feel supported when I have a wide range of knowledge of the topic”
  • “Even though the I say no to support, I still probably want it”.
  • “Mentoring was good because we could bond, talking with other without the need to write things down”.
  • Self directed learning criticised and generally misunderstood as being a thing that has to be done alone without support. Are students misunderstanding the concept or are teachers not setting up this approach correctly?
  • Need to have friends and connections in class – friends help more than the teacher at times.
  • Other students can be distracting – desire for teachers to do something more about them.
  • Personality of the teacher vital in enjoying the class.

Active learning was a topic that all the students spoke about. They

  • One project was about looking at tikanga Maori and finding out more about it so they could share things with the school.
  • Frustration at not having a topic, and generally not valuing the process of finding something to look into. No learning or reflection about this process was on the surface for the students and you have to dig for this.
  • General comments showed they understood the point of active learning and that progress  was being made towards a positive outcome.

TOD – Creative – Student Voice

Kirsty ‘time for tea’ Farrant presented on how student voice is used in her 3SCI course in order to show how the creative process could be used to develop active learning. The overarching point was around how we shouldn’t be threatened by losing control and we should see students being at the centre of their learning as a positive. Some other key ideas included:

  • Monitoring student work and the progress through assessment spreadsheets that are open and accessible to all students.
  • What does the classroom look like? Student centred – reactive to need: sometimes class discussion, sometimes independent learning.
  • The importance of modelling  walking away from things without regrets and finding learning within that process. Shifting the thinking around ‘mistakes’ and ‘failure’ to see these as important learning opportunities.

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Pam Hook Keynote – Teacher Only Day

Pam presented SOLO Taxonomy to the staff several years ago and today’s presentation built on this learning in particular with the school’s new initiative of introducing the ‘active learning‘ programme.

  • SOLO’s structure focuses on the observed learning outcomes not the learner themselves. Both surface level or deep level outcomes but the taxonomy also provides language for students to improve their outcomes.
  • Connected learners. Every time a learner makes a connection, they achieve deeper learning.
  • SOLO provides a different mental model for students that have a fixed mindset or a negative attitude to learning. It challenges the idea held by some students that working hard and failing is more embarrassing than not trying and failing. Looking dumb opens yourself up for put downs. SOLO can resist this tendency by individualising the learning process.
  • SOLO taxonomy is a spiral – it never stops spinning. Once you reach extended abstract you begin to access pre-structural ideas as well. Learning is a continuous process.

Do we overvalue engagement? If you just teach for engagement, do we ever achieve deep learning? This is a real challenge to my philosophy. Reflective question: Have we got a whole lot more engagement or have we got deeper learning outcomes? We risk teaching abstract concepts sometimes when they aren’t engaged. If you are putting SOLO against the active learning model, use it to label the learning outcome – not the kid.

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Final thoughts shared in the finale for the day:

  • See…think…wonder… 
  • Student inquiry leads to shallow outcomes – a weak pedagogy – you see a lot of stuff collected and presented but not a lot of deep inquiry. Guard against a student collecting and presenting through using the Learning Intention Generator.
  • School is about learning. Everything you are charged to do in your classroom is about achievement outcomes. SOLO can be the measure that you gauge how effeimagective this learning is if you can make these concepts real in your classroom.

And finally, the day was finished with a reminder of the hexagon strategy. We wrote words that were associated with active learning and then combined with others to form a map of the topic, making connections and investigating these through learning dialogue. A great collaborative activity.