Critical skills apply everywhere

Issue: Volume 94, Number 10

Posted: 15 June 2015
Reference #: 1H9crK

Recently Paraparaumu College, in response to feedback, held their inaugural ‘Good Learner Week’, designed to re-focus teachers and learners on transferable skills.

Two years ago, Paraparaumu College principal Gregor Fountain and his team were thinking about what makes for a good learner in 2015, in response to feedback they’d received from parents, who were telling them that the difference in how learners learn between year 8 and 9 was the toughest thing about transitioning into secondary education. While the The New Zealand Curriculum’s key competencies provided a national set of cross-curricular student capacities, Paraparaumu College aimed to interrogate these and through the process of curriculum consultation develop more ownership for them throughout the Paraparaumu College community.

The discussion began with some of the more senior members of staff recalling their own time on the other side of the education fence.

The discussion gathered momentum to the point that Gregor and his staff realised that they needed to involve both students and the community. To this end, they set up something of a straw man, says Gregor, in order to provide some conversation bait.

“We prefaced the discussion with the idea that when I went to school, what was valued above all else was recall. We had to commit everything to memory, and then repeat facts when called upon.

“We then said, ‘well, given that we’re in an era where kids have got access to information already, what are the skills that we now value?’”

Acting assistant principal Aaron Mead says that the timetabled structure of secondary school can mean that there’s less focus after year 8 on ‘learning to learn’; teaching the attributes that make for successful learners in 2015.

“Within our subject areas, I think we have a tendency – because of the way secondary schools are structured – to take a more ‘siloed’ approach.

“We felt that an early step we needed to take was to be more explicit about transferable skills within our teaching. Although curriculum documentation had been updated at the time of the introduction of the key competencies, our feeling was that across the curriculum, they hadn’t yet had a major impact on our programmes.”

As part of the consultation process that aimed to establish the qualities that enable a successful learner in today’s education climate, Gregor, Aaron and other staff walked the beat at lunchtimes to engage students, asked parents for their feedback, and visited primary contributing schools. This feedback was then collated and distilled into a ‘good learner profile.’ Gregor says that the process was extremely instructional, and he realised that the set of values which emerged didn’t in fact apply just to students.

“What jumps out for me from the feedback is a focus on critical thinking and collaboration. One thing that came through really strongly was that nobody wants the computer screen to be a barrier to interaction. No one wants a classroom of kids that are sitting at their computers in silence doing work online. Technology needs to be a collaborative tool, and it needs to be part of a wider pedagogy that emphasises and promotes collaboration, understanding and learning.

“The second thing was that it’s no longer good enough to simply regurgitate other people’s knowledge. Parents would talk about how they felt there was a lot of ‘cutting and pasting’, rather than critical thinking. That means that the challenge for teachers is around asking those ‘ungoogleable’ deeper questions.

“Feedback from students was remarkably similar to that of their parents. When we were going through the process, one of the things that we initially thought we might do also was put together a ‘good teacher profile’ as well as a ‘good learner profile’, but then we worked out that they were one and the same! Our teachers need to be collaborative, and self-managing, and to be critical thinkers. They need to show resilience, and focus, and curiosity.”

The results of this ‘learning to learn’ conversation became more than school wide, to the point that the Board of Trustees decided to adopt the Good Learner Profile as the centre of the school’s strategic plan.

Armed with this portrait of the traits and skills that the modern learner needs to be successful at school, the school moved on to implementation, and the question was asked: ‘how do we nurture these qualities?’

Good Learner Week

To cement the idea that the Good Learner Profile had become the basis of a revised emphasis at Paraparaumu College, Aaron and the team decided to kick the whole thing off with a bit of a bang. And so the inaugural ‘Good Learner Week’ became reality.

The normal year 9 timetable was collapsed for the week (9 -13 March), and replaced with a series of workshops run by volunteer teachers and outside groups. These included a focus on student resilience in the face of setbacks; making the most of the library; digital citizenship; using Google Docs and other online tools for learning; as well as a collaborative technology challenge.

Some activities were able to be re-purposed to pull out the transferable skills they had to offer, using the Good Learner Profile as a lens. For a long time the school had run adventure-based learning activities like high ropes courses, and Aaron and those working on Good Learner Week realised that these activities modelled the learning they were trying to impart. The challenge became one of connecting back to the classroom, says Gregor.

“The school has been doing these activities days in year 9 for a long time. But one of the things we wanted to do with that was to make some explicit links to what they were doing in outdoor education and the classroom. Using the Good Learner Profile allowed us to do that; the students could see that things like collaboration and resilience that mean success in outdoor education challenges are the same that will help them succeed in the classroom.”

A workshop that proved popular among students consisted of an online critical thinking scenario, using the context of media and fast food. Students viewed video clips, and answered a number of questions that created a discussion on the nature of critical thinking itself, why it’s important in a learning context, and how the skill can be transferred to all aspects of school life.

Good Learner Week also included sessions learning the school haka, which was then performed as part of a pōwhiri at Waikanae’s Whakarongotai Marae, and a day of outdoor education at Otaki Forks.

Aaron says when he overheard students using some of the language and terminology that had come up during the workshops, he knew that Good Learner Week was beginning to have the intended impact.

“Critical thinking and learning to learn sit firmly at all levels across schooling and for all students, so I think we can say that we’ve had some success if we can get students using the language and applying it throughout their work at school.”

Aaron and Gregor say that such was the enthusiasm for Good Learner Week at Paraparaumu College, they intend to make it a recurring event, among other initiatives they have in the works, that will help to further encourage teachers and learners alike to build transferable skills like collaboration, critical thinking, and self-management into everything they do.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:54 am, 15 June 2015

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