While Hobsonville Point Secondary School (HPSS) was being built, ready for opening in 2014, a group of leaders designed its curriculum. Beginning with a blank canvas, they devised a learning design model suitable for 21st century students and aiming to produce critical thinkers and empowered, life-long learners.

For its first four years, Dr Noeline Wright from the University of Waikato’s Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research monitored progress and the results of her observations are now in a book, Becoming an Innovative Learning Environment: The Making of a New Zealand Secondary School.

Through its school leaders, Dr Wright was granted access to all areas of the school, including other staff, foundation students and their parents. “They gave me carte blanche to everything and everybody. That was a privilege. They were open and transparent,” she says.

“The school aimed to provide future-oriented education, replacing hierarchical teaching models with technology-enabled social learning practices and a cohesive learning model supporting self-discovery. One aim was to be more inclusive so students would learn with and from each other,” says Dr Wright.

HPSS and the nearby primary school share a single Board of Trustees, operating under a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement where a private company manages the plant of the two schools. Initially, the principal Maurie Abraham was apprehensive about a PPP arrangement. A PPP school he had visited in Liverpool in the UK didn’t impress him, because the property owners imposed restrictions that would have impeded school activities if applied in a New Zealand context.

One structure fundamental to the fabric of HPSS is the Learning Design Model (LDM). “I think it was a genius piece of work,” says Dr Wright. “The verbs of the model, such as test, generate, explore, can apply in different combinations to all learning and assessment. So regardless of subject combinations in modules, all teachers used LDM verbs to identify the key foci for the lesson.

A module might combine PE and maths. Initially, connections may not be obvious. When students learn and use statistics to interpret, for example, heath statistics, then they see the application of mathematics to authentic contexts. Linking these subjects are the verbs of the LDM.

“I was impressed how articulately students could describe how things worked for them. Even randomly approached students in classrooms could explain things confidently. I can’t say that about all classrooms in all schools I have been in.”

Dr Wright says student opinion is valued and has influenced the structures that teachers work with. Parents are consulted and invited to meet the principal informally, such as at a ‘Morning Tea with Maurie’.

Mr Abraham says a key principle in decision-making at HPSS has been on Powerful Partnerships. “We have been determined to invite students into the process of designing learning and to invite parents to be active participants alongside us,” he says.

Equally important with academic learning is pastoral care through the Learning Hub. Dispositional behaviours called ‘Hobsonville Habits’ link to the academic and pastoral process.

The Habits align with the school’s understanding of whole-brain development and focus on aspects such as cognitive, relational, critical and creative aspects of learning.

Within the Hubs, every student has a learning coach, who is responsible for about 15 students throughout their secondary school careers. About four hours a week are timetabled for Hub time to address learning and social issues or needs. Teachers have access to their students’ digital folders, and parents have ready access to the principal and teachers.

“The students noted that the boundaries between teacher and student sometimes appear blurred,” says Dr Wright. “While teachers are addressed by their first name, students know their work is easily checked. Students don’t seem to mind this scrutiny; they see it as part of the pastoral care process.”

Her book about the school discusses key ideas through metaphors, from  a ’Paradigm of One’ through to a ‘Paradigm of the Many’ about the wider community being involved in outcomes. For example, school leaders have based a small group of start-up companies, called Pollinators, on site. Staff from these companies work with students as they develop their own projects and Dr Wright says this collaboration works for the students and the companies. “The Pollinators love being in the school, they find it rewarding to work with the students to support them through project and product design.”

Dr Wright says the school and board were brave and visionary. “They knew that their innovations would create waves, which is why they spent a lot of time with parents. At the parent morning teas, Maurie explains and responds to questions about the emphasis on pastoral care and the individual student focus. That attracted some families and put others off. Parents I spoke to at one of the morning teas said that their children, who had learning difficulties, couldn’t wait to come to school every day. It indicates that the pastoral care orientation of Learning Coaches and the way the learning is organised, is working.”

HPSS has dispensed with Level 1 NCEA, as have some other New Zealand schools. Instead, students spend two years working towards Level 2 to obtain higher quality NCEA credits. This gives them more time to think and learn deeply without high anxiety and stress, says Dr Wright.

She says the system isn’t perfect; they make changes as they go along. “It’s about risk taking, and instead of talking about failure they talk about learning something they didn’t know before use that experience to influence their next decisions.”

Mr Abraham says they’re in a continuous state of learning, and he’s pleased with the way the school has taken shape. “We’ve set out to focus on our students being engaged in deep learning, and on putting the needs of the learners at the centre of all of our decision-making, with a particular focus on student wellbeing. We are very pleased with how our first five years has gone about achieving this.”

HPSS hasn’t been without its critics, and its open-door policy invites scrutiny. There have been struggles internally, but Dr Wright thinks HPSS is on the right track. “There needs to be changes in our schools, especially in a century with access to information 24/7 and an onslaught of potential for manipulating people’s ideas. We need students to be curious and critical thinkers and learners, rather than passive consumers of stuff,” she says.

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