Saturday, 12 January 2019

We know how to improve learning - 'Politicians, leave those kids alone'

When it comes to improving learning, to supporting success, we know what works. The problem is that so much in education takes time. Schools are not like a factory where turning a dial changes production, profits, and dividends to shareholders (mind you it isn't that simple in business either). However business responses are certainly somewhat quicker. We have a rule of thumb in education that any significant intervention of change may take at least five years to have its impact, sometimes more. Indeed much of what we are trying to do at the moment requires generational change. The problem is that we are too often governed by the electoral cycle in which politicians see education as the 'low hanging fruit', the easy way to appeal to voters. After all, we are all experts on education aren't we, since we all attended school? We all went to school. If only it were that simple.

The single biggest impact on education outcomes appears to be poverty. This great piece of Canadian research summaries the issues, and includes a great reference list at the end if you'd like to read further.

It is well documented that poverty decreases a child’s readiness for school through aspects of health, home life, schooling and neighbourhoods. Six poverty-related factors are known to impact child development in general and school readiness in particular. They are the incidence of poverty, the depth of poverty, the duration of poverty, the timing of poverty (eg, age of child), community characteristics (eg, concentration of poverty and crime in neighborhood, and school characteristics) and the impact poverty has on the child’s social network (parents, relatives and neighbors). A child’s home has a particularly strong impact on school readiness. 
And this:

It is worth noting that international studies have consistently shown similar associations between socioeconomic measures and academic outcomes. For example, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) assessed the comprehensive literacy skills of grade 4 students in 35 countries. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) assessed reading, math and science scores of 15-year-old children in 43 countries (21). At these two different stages of schooling, there was a significant relationship between SES and educational measure in all countries. This relationship has come to be known as a ‘socioeconomic gradient’; flatter gradients represent greater ‘equity of outcome’, and are generally associated with better average outcomes and a higher quality of life. Generally, the PISA and the NLSCY data support the conclusion that income or SES has important effects on educational attainment in elementary school through high school. 
The impact of poverty on educational outcomes for children
HB Ferguson, PhD,1,2 S Bovaird, MPH,1 and MP Mueller, PhD1

The problem is that schools can't control poverty. They are neither economic nor social agencies. Within schools, attributing poor achievement to socio economic status is termed 'deficit theorising'. It misses the point that for schools, focusing on poverty as a means of changing educational outcomes is much like a single rugby player focusing on crowd support in order to influence the game. Schools need to focus on those factors that they can control, and according to Hattie, almost 50% of the influences on student achievement are within the school's control.

In his seminal work 'Visible Learning', John Hattie identified the impact of a wide range of factors on student learning. Socio economic status had an effect size of 0.52. (an effect size of 0.2 would mean that the activity had no more effect than if we had done nothing). This 0.52 is significant, but is well down the list when compared with other factors. I suspect however that much of Hattie's data was collected before the research data that is now becoming available on Manaiakalani, and our 'Learn Create Share ' pedagogy. This pedagogy acknowledges that if learning is supported by and embedded with the acts of creation, and sharing, then the impact on learning is far greater.  What's more, the impact of the pedagogy is magnified by the use of 1:1 digital devices, Chromebooks.

Take sharing as an example. This is most often performed by students writing in publicly accessible blogs.  Students are writing, and they are writing more. What's more, they are writing for an authentic audience, an audience that goes well beyond the class teacher as whānau, in fact anyone, can read what they have written and offer comment. Now Hattie's data gives effect sizes for web based learning, and 1:1 programmes, as below 0.2, that is, having a negative effect on learning. I am prepared to accept that, because in most cases the technology has been put into place without any change to teacher practice. Teachers need to change the way they work, they need to change their 'pedagogy' in order for students to reap the benefits of the technology. The Manaiakalani pedagogy Learn Create Share does exactly that.

There is good evidence for the impact on both the quantity and quality of student writing from the use of computers. In a now dated study first published in 2003, Cook and Goldberg analysed data from a number of studies that showed exactly this. (Cook, A., Goldberg, A., & Russell, M. (2003, February). The effect of computers on student writing: A meta-analysis of studies from 1992 to 2002. Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment, 2(1). Available:

I would like to acknowledge the sacrifices that we know whānau make to ensure that their tamariki have a Chromebook. Schools are not sufficiently well resourced to provide a device for every student. Our informal evidence suggests that when students own their own devices the impact is much greater, as it truly enables learning anywhere, anytime. For whānau from within our own cluster (Uru Mānuka) who may be struggling to provide a Chromebook, please contact your school office once it reopens. We may be able to help.

There have been a number of myths around on the topic of writing. One that I particularly dislike is the one that says readers make writers, so if we encourage children to read more we will improve their writing. Nope. Reading improves children's' reading. If you want to improve children's writing you won't do that by reading, you do that by writing. Hence the emphasis on blogging and writing for our tamariki.

It is no wonder that schools using the Manaiakalani pedagogy are improving student writing at TWICE the rate of improvement being achieved nationally. This is quality data gathered using nationally normed assessment tools, with plenty of cross moderation of marking.

This is particularly important for clusters of schools like ours (Uru Mānuka) in which many students, through no fault of either whānau of themselves, come from backgrounds experiencing varying degrees of poverty. They begin well behind children nationally, and we accelerate their achievement such that they meet, and at times exceed, the levels of writing achieved nationally. The good thing is that this approach benefits ALL learners. Schools can't impact the poverty, but we can still generate the desired educational outcomes.

At Hornby High School we are also innovating with our curriculum. After three years of trials with project based learning, and passion projects, we are embarking on significant and evidence informed curriculum change that will see students have a more connected or integrated curriculum. This change will occur initially for Year 7 & 8 classes, and will then roll out to Years 9 & 10. We want learning to be more meaningful for children, and so have them more engaged in their learning. Our own evidence for the impact of our work so far is not as rigorous as you would find in an academic journal. It is the data gathered by teachers as they undertake their cycles of inquiry. We have identified needs, trialled changes, assessed the impact, and gone back to redesign our programmes. However we do know that the data gathered using the NZ Council of Educational Research tool 'Me and My school' shows improvements in student engagement with school, and their learning. THAT is significant valid data that you could report in an academic journal.

Of course none of this happens in a vacuum. It is all built on the base of our values of Commitment, Achievement, Resilience, and Respect. We want a culture of kindness and compassion, a culture in which our rangatahi can manage their own behaviour and their own learning from a values base. We don't always get that right either, but provided we engage on the basis of respectful and open communication, we will succeed.

In the same way we attempt to encourage staff and students to be risk takers, a critical element we believe in our quest to be 'a centre of creative excellence'. Similarly we believe that 'Learn Create Share' is an essential element of that quest.

And for us, this all happens in an environment in which we attempt to value and support every child's culture, but especially our tangata whenua. As a staff we attempt to bring a growth mindset to everything that we do, and we attempt to encourage students to also develop their own 'growth mindset'.

We know how to improve student learning and educational outcomes. We know what works. What we need is politicians who will resource us sufficiently well to do this, and let us get on with the job. We need a certainty that goes well beyond a three year electoral cycle. We need trust, acknowledging that with trust lies accountability. However annual accountability is much more difficult to achieve in education than it may be in business, because .. well... education IS different. The business model has failed, the market model has failed. No amount of vouchers or charter schools were ever going to make a difference. Well resourced schools and teachers, given the time and resources to do the job, will make the difference. We CAN produce kind, compassionate, thinking, citizens. But only if the politicians will leave the kids alone (with apologies to Pink Floyd and 'The Wall').

Robin Sutton


  1. Kia ora Robin, the school holiday break is providing a wonderful opportunity for you to engage with Learn Create Share, great stuff! I agree with you again in terms of education not 'fitting' the market or neoliberal models. Education is education, it must be viewed as a social investment, not as a return on a certain amount of government funding! The 3 year electoral cycle is not helpful either in achieving transformational change in education, far too risky for any political party to think too far ahead. You have provided clear evidence of what works in terms of accelerating student achievement, Uru Mānuka is not getting off the bus. Love your work!

  2. Kia ora Robin. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog post! Your post explicitly outlines the benefits of students having 1:1 devices at school, local (cluster wide) and national level. I agree with you also that we as educators need to reflect on our pedagogy and make the necessary adjustments to ensure that we are embedding learn, create, share within our day-to-day classroom practice. As you mentioned, any significant change or intervention can take up to five years to be embedded and impactful. This is why we need to make the necessary pedagogical changes now (if we haven't already), with the aim of improving the quality of our teaching, the range of learning opportunities and in turn improving the long term educational outcomes for our tamariki. We do after all want them to be confident, creative, actively involved, 21st century learners and digital citizens.

    This was a very interesting read Robin - thank you!