Leading learning and change across the country

November 2013


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JUDE BARBACK takes a closer look at the Learning and Change Networks initiative that is empowering New Zealand schools to raise achievement – and gaining global recognition.

In North Hokianga, seven rural, isolated schools have come together to identify the capabilities that lie within the Hokianga schools and communities to create solutions to raise achievement for their students, of which 81.2 per cent are Māori. The principals all share a common belief in the quality and potential of their students; their focus is on developing writing and nurturing their students’ digital skills. The aggregated National Standards data for these schools confirms the schools’ writing student achievement challenge is starting to pay off, and by next year, they will have a firm strategy in place that will be reflected in each school’s individual annual plan.

The North Hokianga network is a great example of how the Learning and Change Networks can play to the specific needs of communities.

Forty-nine other networks across New Zealand are all finding their own path to lift student achievement and all are embracing the challenge with similar fervour.

Jackie Talbot, national manager for the Learning and Change Networks project, says the project has a point of difference – it empowers network stakeholders to take responsibility for the learning and the changes needed. Learners, communities, teachers, and leaders work together to learn what to change and make the changes.

Jean Annan of University of Auckland UniServices has been involved in getting the networks up and running and is similarly inspired.

“I’ve worked in schools for years, seen hundreds of schools in my job, and I’ve never seen people so excited,” says Annan.

What are Learning and Change Networks?

What is it that has everyone so excited about this initiative?

In 2011, the Minister of Education, Anne Tolley, allocated $7m over two years to establish cross-school networks to essentially help schools and kura make sense of National Standards and Nga Whenaketanga Rumaki Māori. Ultimately, the networks initiative aims to raise learner achievement.

The Learning and Change Networks initiative began with six pilot networks (Auckland Intermediates, Kaikohe and Districts, Big River – Balclutha, Sensory Schools, Central North Intermediates, and Manaiakalani) from April 2012. Since then, it has grown to encompass 50 networks involving 313 schools and kura, with plans for a further ten networks in due course.

The networks are voluntary and comprise a variety of different schools, including special schools, kura, and a few early childhood settings. They are spread from Kaitaia to Invercargill with 24 in the Northern Region, 14 in Central North, five in Central South, and seven in Southern. The majority of schools and kura involved are primary, intermediate, and composite schools with 21 secondary schools also involved. The schools cover the decile range, but with a greater proportion in the lower deciles; 28 per cent of the students from these schools are Māori and 15 per cent are Pasifika. The average number of schools in each network is 6.2.

How do they work?

Each network is invited into a four-phase learning and change process to grow innovative and effective learning environments that will benefit priority learner groups performing below national standards. Research suggests that Māori students, Pasifika students, students with special education needs, and students in low socio-economic communities are typically priority learner groups.

Phase one ─ the infrastructure phase ─ involves Ministry lead development advisors (LDAs) working with principals to help make sense of the new initiative.

While some networks have chosen to opt out at this point or delay their inclusion in the programme, the vast majority of networks progress to the second step, the understanding phase, which is all about learning what to change and getting ready to change it. This phase involves linking qualitative data sets about the state of the current learning environment to quantitative data – including National Standards data – that points to student achievement challenges. It also involves learning from other networks and looking beyond the networks to international developments.

At this point, three networks, each in their own individual way, have moved on to the third phase of implementation, which is about making changes and checking progress.

The fourth step is the sustainability phase: agreeing what to keep, what to eradicate, and what next steps to take – although essentially the aim is to build sustainability throughout the entire process.

Not a one-size-fits-all approach

While the four-phase approach might seem rigid, Annan says the process is anything but prescriptive. She describes it as a “scaffolded process” where networks work within a broad frame, but ultimately make their own choices and discoveries and implement their own solutions.

In fact, one of the defining characteristics of the network initiative is that change is actively driven by the schools and their communities. It is up to each network to work together to identify the expertise that lies within their schools and communities and use this to create innovative solutions to raise achievement.

Talbot agrees. Each network is responsive to its own context, she says.

“There is motivation to change in ways that will best suit their needs.”

The work being done within each network should align with other Ministry projects and objectives. “Nothing is done in isolation,” says Talbot.

Network planning should be integrated into the schools’ regular Schools Planning and Reporting (SPaR) cycles, for example. And whatever support stemming from other Ministry-led initiatives, such as PB4L or PDL programmes, can be tied in to harnessing expertise in schools and communities to bring about change.

Are the networks working?

With the vast majority of networks still at the stage of understanding the context of students’ achievement challenges, it is still early days to be reporting any visible lift in achievement as a result of the network initiative.

However, pilot networks and others are already reporting changes in student achievement.

Data is currently being collected to quantify this in a much more tangible way and detail will be reported on in December 2013. This information will go some way to measure progress against the Ministry’s benefit outcomes.

While a clear picture of raising achievement might take time to emerge, feedback from the networks suggest there are already common themes beginning to appear.

At this stage, networks report most interest in growing connectedness with families, whānau, and community. Feedback also shows that the qualitative investigation into current learning environments has been invaluable in highlighting the importance of student agency and family-whānau connectedness. Networks are finding the more in-depth the data is, the greater the benefit.

There are some common points of confusion, too, with some networks mixing up the achievement challenge with developmental dimensions, which might ultimately make it difficult to set clear academic outcome goals.

Similarly, the network project appears to have ignited enthusiasm among school leaders to engage students and families as active participants in improving the learning environment. While this is considered a step in the right direction, it also presents a challenge: to share or flip leadership across professionals, students, families and communities.

Indeed, it is a reflective, evolving, mutually-dependent process. The feedback and observations are helping guide the project to its next step, and strengthen it along the way. Networks are learning from the experiences of the more advanced networks as they transition into implementation, and the Ministry is learning from the networks as they progress from phase to phase in their similar and differing ways.

Systemic change: Raising the bar

Although there are the benefit outcomes to measure against, the most exciting part about the networks initiative is that it is not a project with an end point, with a list of boxes to be ticked ─ rather it aspires towards “a system lift”.

“We hope to create a self-sustaining system that can learn from the system,” says Talbot.

The vision is to empower schools, kura, and communities and set them on a learning cycle, ultimately to raise student achievement. It involves a paradigm shift from supply-driven educational services to demand-driven learning environments. Students, families, whānau, and communities have typically been passive receivers of ministry, provider, and teaching professionals’ educational services. The vision is to create demand-driven learning environments that replace passivity among students and their loved ones with a sense of excitement, action, connectedness, and collectively assessing progress around learning.\

Talbot says traditionally the learner has been placed at the centre, with the school wrapping around the learner and the community around the school. However, the networks focus more on bringing the community into the centre with the learner and the school wrapping around to provide a contextual base.

Capturing international attention

Perhaps it is this aspiration for a shift in paradigm that has captured the attention of the OECD Innovative Learning Environments project and the Global Education Leaders Forum.

The OECD is specifically interested in the network project’s relentless focus on student agency; relentless focus on family, whānau and community agency; and the building of internal evaluative capability.

The Auckland Intermediates School Network’s journey was documented as an example and shared in an OECD Innovative Learning Environments meeting in Paris in July this year, further cementing New Zealand as a world leader in this area.

And it is a two-way street. New Zealand representatives are also learning a great deal about systems change and the nature of innovations (or lack thereof) in other countries and feeding this knowledge back into the New Zealand networks.


What next?

The next step for the networks is to incorporate Learning and Change Networks into their annual planning cycle. Individual schools will write a detailed action plan as part of their SPaR (Charter) including expected student achievement goals and actions resulting from this strategy.

Going forward, several recommendations have emerged, mainly around creating a cohesive and coherent system that is actively driven by the networks, rather than strategy documents and the policy-to-practice approach that was used initially to get the initiative off the ground.

As with any journey, there have been challenges along the way. Talbot suggests that getting full participation of all stakeholders is perhaps the biggest challenge, especially “getting the community really and truly in the centre and establishing true authentic relationships”.

While the process of learning and change is continuous, in a sense it is also a waiting game.

A paradigm shift comes about from gradual changes, and the networks have not yet had sufficient time to mull it over and share their experiences.

With sustainability and empowerment at the heart of this initiative, this is certainly no quick fix to raise student achievement, but rather a considered, organic approach that will take years to truly reach its peak. Meanwhile, the buzz and excitement continue.

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