Saturday, 22 June 2019

"Experimental school"? What rubbish .. we should all be!!!

This weekend I had the displeasure of reading a piece in the Christchurch Press that labelled Haeata, our relatively new school in the eastern suburbs, an 'experimental school'.

Senior Haeata Community Campus students are unhappy with their school's alternative "self-directed" learning model. Year 13 students, Rebecca Thompson-Looij, 17, left, Kristina Varbai, 17, Chloe Steere, 17, Jamie O'Hagen, 17, and Alex O'Hagen, 17.

The article then went on to pour scorn on the school and its approaches to causing learning. The commentary, and those 'public comments' (many, I'll wager, from folk who have never set foot in the doors) was disparaging at best. The whole piece is an outstanding example of confirmation bias. Many (including the media, in my opinion) have already decided that this school is failing, that its methodology is flawed, that it is not serving its community at all well. In the finest tradition of confirmation bias they then simply leap upon any evidence that they think they can find to confirm their opinion, their belief, with little or no attempt to inform themselves, no attempt to look for let alone even consider data that might possibly be contrary to their own views.

And frankly I have rarely read such ill-informed rubbish.

Haeata is not, in my opinion, an 'experimental school'. It is in fact an example of what all schools and all teachers should be (and often are) doing: attempting to modify practice to improve student engagement and achievement.

Criticism of such work is rooted fairly and squarely in the ignorance of the view that what we have done for the past 200 years is THE BEST way to cause learning. Yet the evidence is there for all to see. We bemoan the PISA results that show we have a large tail of underachievement in New Zealand. As a system we disproportionately fail children who are not white skinned, we disproportionately fail children who come from impoverished backgrounds. How can that be deemed to be success? We systemically embed failure for a significant proportion of our population, and at a time when diversity is growing, we cannot stand back and allow this to happen. Morally it is not just wrong, it is corrupt, to stand back and allow this to happen. Economically I believe that we are all poorer by significant margins if we do not allow the talent that we have across the whole population to be developed. I have not seen the data on the economic costs of failure across our school system, but I'll wager that it is very large.

All schools work hard to create and sustain what we call a 'culture of inquiry'. That is, from individual teachers to whole schools, we want the sector to be looking at what is working and what is not, to try new things in our efforts to improve engagement and ultimately outcomes for all of our tamariki, to gather data along the way that informs us on what is working and what is not.

Haeata is an easy target for critics because it has attempted to scale this innovation and inquiry up to a school wide level. and it stands alone, a single target easy to identify and target. Media snipers will feel as if they are having a field day.  Yet we are all doing this. At Hornby High School we are innovating with our pedagogy (Learn Create Share, and Manaiakalani), and our 'connected curriculum'. We are part of a collective whole (The Manaiakalani Project) that is attempting to make a real difference, the data showing that we are. We are in the business of changing lives, of changing society. As a kura we aspire to be a centre of creative excellence. We aspire to create new frameworks from which to cause learning, we aspire to develop creativity amongst our students and our staff. We aspire to improve engagement for our rangatahi and so to improve educational outcomes.

Only those who have historically been successful could object to this. They have a vested interest to protect, because their power rests in educational inequity. 'Keep the masses in their place' might well be their clarion call. I've used this image before, and it bodes repeating, it is so powerful.

Image result for equality equity liberation

Haeata's educational journey is not Hornby High School's journey, and nor should it be. Our own journey is intended to respond to our community's needs, it seeks to build on what is there already. It is based on a solid foundation of direct instruction, while actively looking for other ways to engage students in authentic contexts. As I have commented in other posts, we are not there yet, but we are on the way with one heck of a journey. In my opinion revolutionary change in existing schools is something of a recipe for disaster. In my opinion evolutionary change is much more likely to be successful, it is much more likely to be supported and to be sustainable. Therefore it is much more likely to address the inequities that I believe are currently embedded in our system, be they race based or socio-economically based. 'One step at a time'.

What's more, at Hornby High School our assessment of how to change is different to that adopted at Haeata. Our philosophy is different, our pedagogy is different. That doesn't make us more right, nor Haeata less right. It makes us different, it marks us as mindful of our communities.

However, all of this change takes place on the foundation of robust 'inquiry', on a foundation of evidence. Within Hornby High School (and in fact across our cluster Uru Mānuka) our staff connect in Professional Learning Groups that undertake joint inquiry, based on hunches, on what their next steps to improve outcomes for our students might be. These hunches are developed into small bite sized chunks of action that are tested. Data is gathered to determine if they worked or not, and then a new iteration of action and data is developed. Some work, some don't, but it's the right way to do this. It is the ERO view of what best practice looks like if we are to improve schools. By its very nature, it is 'experimental'.

To label Haeata as an 'experimental school' is a nonsense. We all should be 'experimental schools', and if that is interpreted as 'schools trying to develop better ways to engage students, to empower and liberate students so that they can have the lives and the futures that they deserve', then I would unashamedly adopt that same title for Hornby High school.

In my opinion, the words have been used by the Press writer as if to imply some sort of shortcoming, some sort of failure. We have a right to expect better from our media, and we have a right to expect improvement from our schools.

It is Albert Einstein who is widely credited with saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Yet such media commentary would seem to judge any attempt at doing things differently as failure.

I tell our staff that we need to be innovative, that the moral imperative demands that we change. I make the point that this involves taking risks, and that therefore by definition sometimes we fail. I tell our staff team that failing is okay by me. This is the very thing we want our young people to understand, we want them to take risks with their learning because that is how they learn and grow. We cannot then sit back and not do the same thing ourselves. We don't want our children to just be consumers of information, we want them to be creators. Our own Learn Create Share has that word 'create' at its centre for a reason.

The work going on around the future of work indicates that we will increasingly demand different things from our population, and particularly from our children as they mature into functioning adults. What we have done in the last will no longer 'cut the mustard'.

So how about applauding the innovation that is being attempted at Haeata, and while we are there let's applaud the innovation that is going an right across our school system. To object to that innovation and change is to express the desire to keep our current power relationships as they are, to keep the masses in their place.

How dare you!!!

Robin Sutton
Hornby High School


  1. Thank you, Robin. I love this!

  2. Stand tall Haeata. It's easy to maintain the status quo, it's a whole different story leading change

  3. All these words and yet none of them actually addressed any of the issues brought up by the students.
    Why is that?

  4. Massive great read and totally agree

  5. Kia ora Robin, well spotted! It is easy to find failings and certainly much more lucrative for the media to publish 'bad news' stories. As you so eloquently highlight, Haeta are attempting new approaches and innovative practices with the end goal of improving learning outcomes for students. We all know that doing the same things will get the same results, good on Haeta for trying new things!

  6. Well said Robin. This conformist bias has us locked in the industrial age of education. The same people will critise us not meeting the needs of all the kids. Like you said some of us, many in fact are really trying to bend the realities of these kids within the old structures and being very successful. Well done on an excellent review.

  7. I enjoyed reading your response and thank you for taking the time to share your perspective. It annoys me how the media are all to quick go on the attack and publish biased articles that do nothing to enhance the educational aspirations of those attend or work at Haeta. Change is not easy but it is the only constant in life. Kia kaha

  8. Totally agree. And I think it is a great reflection on Haeata that they can turn out kids able to recruit a journalist to their cause in those kids' revolt against their own personal "establishment". And a poor reflection on the Press that it can print a one sided article without questioning such obvious flaws like the low NCEA stats without any mention of how improved engagement with struggling students tends to depress exam stats.

  9. Hi Robin
    We have this approach over here where "shock jocks" use this to sell papers and air time. Great read with share with the our staff as we continue on the journey to constantly improve and innovate what we do.

  10. Hi, I'd like to inform you as an EX student of this school, that it indeed is bad curricular wise. I lasted 1 month and then left due to poor communication skills on the teachers side, and misbehaving students around every corner of the school. There are NO Exams in Haeata Community College, and there isn't even base classes such as Maths, English, and Science. When I asked my Ako Ako teacher for classes involving Basic structured maths classes, he then informed me that I could take classes such as astronomy, or other science classes to achieve maths credits. I was planning a paintball project and did not succeed in that, because there are no guidelines as to creating the project. Apparently I was able to gain "NCEA credits" for such activities. I find Haeata totally unpractical, and yes an Experimental school. I was previously taught in Iowa, USA, which involved much higher standards. Haeata was a downgrade and a half. I can't get over the fact that people are calling this school "Helpful" Because in no way is it helpful. Not even the students who are fully engaged into earning NCEA can do so efficiently. Quote from myself "Not in my whole month of trying my hardest, had I ever touched a simple maths equation" Therefor I have moved schools in order to actually achieve my NCEA standards. I am very engaged into learning, and I had tried my hardest to do well at Heata, it was simply just not a good school. The children are even abusive to their staff, and animals the school owns. There is no punishment system for being late, or even showing up! There were fights almost daily, of which then were resulted in "Time outs." This is NOT how to educate children. I rest my case.