Wednesday, 23 October 2019


The annual Manaiakalani 'Wānanga' was held today. This year over 100 educators from Manaiakalani clusters from around the country got together to review data and progress and to share ideas on next steps. The day is always energising and inspirational, highlighting the incredible impact of what we do.

As is so often the case when groups of like-minded people come together (regardless of the interest or purpose) really useful conversations take place over the tea breaks, and today was no exception.

I had a fascinating conversation with Mark Maddren (the original Manaiakalani facilitator for Uru Mānuka), and Aaron Wilson (researcher with the Woolf Fisher Research Centre, Auckland University) and Mark put forward an idea that I hadn't considered before. He pitched it like this.

We are mostly familiar with the concept of 'helicopter parents', those who (with the best of intentions and motivations) hover far too closely over their children (always wanting the best for their children, as we are hardwired to do as parents) but as a consequence denying their children to the opportunity to stand on their own two feet, to make mistakes from which thy can learn, and develop their own coping strategies which will be essential in their adult lives.

Image result for helicopter

Mark proposed the idea of 'helicopter teachers'. If I understood Mark correctly, these are the teachers who try to make things as simple as possible for students but as a result of which they take away the challenge.

Now this is, it seems to me, a fine line. On the one hand a part of our core job is to make core skills and knowledge accessible for our rangatahi. On the other hand we must make sure that those rangatahi still develop and grow the necessary skills for their learning.

We do this by:

  • Scaffolding content to such an extent that challenge is removed from the task, or
  • Bullet-pointing text so much that there is very little actual reading required, 
We attempt to make success so certain that there is little risk of failure, the result of which is :

  • Students don't develop the resilience necessary to face future failure, 
  • They fail to learn the critical lesson that success in life rarely comes from those first attempts, but requires persistence in the face of failure, and
  • We need to take risks in order to learn, develop and grow

We all do this for the best of reasons. If you believe in the idea of personality types (not sure that I do, but that's a different story), then you'd mostly classify teachers as 'rescuers'. If you don't follow that approach, then maybe it's because we generally understand the moral imperative behind what we do. We have to make sure that every human being that crosses our professional path is able to achieve outcomes that match their potential.

The discussion arose as we were talking about progress in reading. The Manaiakalani data shows that while we are accelerating writing achievement for our tamariki by twice national averages, we are only accelerating reading by 1.5x the national averages. When we present content we will bullet point it, taking out a lot of the words necessary to fully convey meaning. As a consequence students do less reading. We make a judgement call that real authentic texts are too difficult for our students, and so we don't present them with these reading tasks.

All of this means that as teachers we do all the work, not the students. As a consequence we undermine critical learning opportunities.

I fear that this reflects a lack of aspiration for our learners, and possibly even some deficit theorising about our learners. Possibly a better approach is to develop the skills necessary to teach students how to deal with, to read, authentic texts, how to approach and read difficult stuff. I believe that this is more of a problem with those of use who have been trained as secondary teachers (myself included). Yet we are ALL teachers of literacy (reading and writing). So the challenge in our Uru Mānuka cluster oi to create a sharper focus on reading by improving teacher skills around how to support our learners to read more effectively, rather than simplifying the reading tasks in the first place

All of this came from a discussion of the incredible data that is being accumulated on the success of The Manaiakalani Programme in accelerating student success. This is one of the powers of good data, and one of the huge benefits of collaboration. It is an incredible testimony to the professionalism of our teachers.

Robin Sutton

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