A CHANGING FOCUS
The Ministry of Education's focus is very clearly on reducing disparities. That has been the focus for quite some time. As the principal of a decile one school in the middle of the North Island with 85% Maori students and a community in highly challenging circumstances, I welcomed and took very seriously the mandate to reduce disparities. Back in the 2000s the New Zealand Curriculum created awareness that our delivery of education needed to be much more culturally responsive. New Zealand's tail of under-achievement was a real concern and the New Zealand Curriculum created a wave of changed thinking that was significant and necessary.
In line with this goal of reducing disparities, the current paradigm or model of education that the Ministry promotes is that of delivering a generalised education, seeing who it is clearly not working for, and then designing learning programmes for those particular students. This shift in approach was great because teachers learned to use data much more effectively to determine the learning needs of some of their students and it introduced the idea of designing learning in response.
However, while that model was an important step in the evolution of education in NZ, and, while I am deeply concerned that the needs of Maori (and other groups) are still not being sufficiently well met in our schooling system, I don’t believe that education should continue in this paradigm. The risk is that while a focus on reducing disparities may improve the experiences of some groups of students – which is essential – it does not mean that we are continually fulfilling our collective potential. I am increasingly aware that within the large group of students who are deemed to be succeeding in the schooling system are numerous individuals who are not continually achieving their potential.
I don’t believe that we will move forward as an education system until we shift our focus from SOME students to EVERY child. Learning should begin with the needs, interests and desires of every child and then learning programmes should be designed to meet all of these needs. This, I think, is the new future-focused paradigm in education. As a sector, taking what we have learned about using data and designing learning and then taking advantage of the amazing capacity of current techology to pull together information and provide analytics; we need to focus on meeting the needs of EVERY child - of ensuring that every child continually fulfills his/her potential . Hence our commitment as a school to personalising learning and the creation of ALF.
This more encompassing vision is HARD. It requires us to actually acknowledge the fact that currently we do not meet the needs of a range of students who come through our schools (students deemed to be successful, not just priority learners). It is hard because there is little knowledge available about how to actually do it. It is hard because our teaching workforce is not prepared for it – we do not fully have the skills, capacities and dispositions for it. It requires more of teachers - it takes huge moral purpose to take on a challenge of this magnitude. In this paradigm, teaching cannot just be a job - there are easier ways to earn a living! But that said....we cannot NOT do it. We have a moral obligation to meet the needs of every student. Once we know we are not, there is no turning back.
As a school, we are not there yet; but we are on our way towards this new approach to teaching and learning.