Cutting-edge digitech education in South Taranaki

Issue: Volume 100, Number 13

Posted: 14 October 2021
Reference #: 1HAQQw

Principal Lorraine Williamson has marched to the beat of a different drum since she began teaching as a 19-year-old in Hawke’s Bay in the 1970s. Now she’s leading a small rural school in South Taranaki that offers cutting-edge digitech opportunities to its 200 Year 1-8 students.

Alex, Ben and Sahan with the laser cutter.

Alex, Ben and Sahan with the laser cutter.

Opunake in South Taranaki, population 1,400, is a surf town: a rural service town with State Highway 45 running through the middle. On a clear day, Mt Taranaki looms in the northeast.

Small and dynamic with energy and enthusiasm to burn, Lorraine Williamson has been principal at Opunake Primary School for 20 years.

“The school started as decile 2 when I began the job. There were some significant mergers – a lot of the rural schools closed down and Opunake Primary School was the hub – we’re a Decile 6 now.

“Opunake went through a period where people came for lifestyle, but lots of people own holiday homes here now so there’s a significant housing shortage in the town,” she says.

Opunake Primary school was built for 500-600 children and the warren of old-style classrooms could do with modernising. But the school has a cutting-edge digital technology ‘suite’ and boasts two types of laser cutters, 3D printers and a greenscreen room.

Lorraine says years of saving and investing in the Taranaki Savings Bank and grants from the bank have enabled the school to have money to spend on the pricey equipment.

Different times

“It was very different when I started teaching,” says Lorraine. “We had chalkboards, no computers, lots of book learning and worksheets.”

“There are a lot of students who we can’t look at as ‘one size fits all’. Even when I first started teaching, there were students who would have found it difficult to sit at their desks all day in a straight line, as we used to do. I was always looking for opportunities to motivate those students and really get them hooked into their learning,” she says.

Principal Lorraine Williamson.

Principal Lorraine Williamson.

Even as a new teacher, Lorraine found different ways to teach, one time dragging an old wardrobe into her classroom.

“We were reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe so I bought an old wardrobe and set it up in the corner of the classroom and the kids used to go through the wardrobe and dress up and do acting and drama behind the wardrobe and some of the older teachers used to think it was a bit OTT.”

Lorraine moved to Taranaki in 1990, where she was principal 10 kilometres up the road at Te Kiri School for seven years. She says her philosophy of teaching hasn’t really changed over those years.

 “Te Kiri was a two-teacher school; I taught the Year 3-8s. We’d pack up all our desks and put them in the pool shed and have little cardboard boxes for our stuff and we’d work all over the floor,” she remembers.

Digitech road trip

Fast forward to 2014 when Lorraine and colleagues Jarad Chittenden and Heath Chittenden, principals of Auroa and Matapu Schools, found themselves throwing money at old Windows technology that wasn’t performing for them.

They decided to go on an Apple road tour of schools in Auckland and Tauranga. They were challenged by tour guide and e-Learning facilitator Stuart Hale to brain dump their ideas into a Google Doc.

“We all went, ‘What’s a Google doc?’,” remembers Lorraine.

Bede gets creative with Lego.

Bede gets creative with Lego.

The result was the MOA Kluster, comprising Matapu, Opunake and Auroa schools, with Kaponga School joining and adding the ‘K’ to ‘Kluster” at a later date. Three of the schools went onto an Apple platform to share the expertise and cost. The schools in the cluster are now 1:1 iPad schools.

“We looked at teacher pedagogy – what do we have to do to upskill our staff? So, we all shared the expense of bringing Stuart down to work with staff. We had not a single iPad or iMac in the school. Initially we bought about 50 devices and we thought we were Christmas. Nobody could use them!

“One of Stuart’s suggestions is the only way you can change teacher pedagogy is to give them the tools and get them using them. So our Board bought an iPad for every teacher. We upskilled the teachers and then looked at what we could do that was going to up the ante on teachers and students so that we don’t just become a fly-by-night thing. So we decided to set up the MOA Awards,” explains Lorraine.

Red carpet event

The MOA Awards are held in Opunake’s Events Centre, which has been filled to capacity for three years running, with all 1000 $2 tickets sold. The competition includes movie making, animation, photography and graphic design. Winning entries can be seen on the school’s website

“We ran the MOA Awards like the Academy Awards. People were gobsmacked – we had red carpet, kids being picked up in classic cars in their best bib and tucker – it’s very slick.

“We don’t have the capacity for all the people to attend, so we also decided to have the STEM showcase, because then we can spread the parents over a whole day instead of just the evening event,” she explains.

In 2019 the STEM showcase, featuring the four MOA Kluster schools, 35 teachers and 616 students, was attended by 1271 whānau and people from the community.

Digital journey

Lorraine and some colleagues attended International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conferences in Denver and Chicago in 2016 and 2018 and were disappointed they couldn’t go to the event in Los Angeles in 2020 because of Covid-19.

“This conference is probably the size of three rugby fields. What we saw was a window into the future of what technology looked like: they are very creative in the States, and they are ahead of us with technology,” she says.

In the beginning, the digital journey of the South Taranaki cluster of schools was based around digital literacy in an authentic context. Lorraine’s philosophy of allowing children to immerse themselves in exploring learning has always been front and center of her approach and she says digital tools should enable creativity.

“We started exploring things like computational thinking because we were looking for the ‘glue’ that sticks everything together – it’s not about the devices but how you use them. “

Authentic learning

American academic James Beane argues that if educators want to give students genuine student agency, they have to ask what their concerns and issues are about themselves and the world both now and in the future, says Lorraine.

Senior teacher Andrew Lodge says that, as much as possible, activities are integrated into a real-life context, whether it be looking at local, national or global issues.

“The idea is to give them a lot of different skills in their toolbox – both hands-on equipment and the way in which they can think and apply skills to help solve problems. It’s great that we have a lot of equipment but we need to be able to give the students opportunities to develop their computational thinking skills to apply the technology to solve problems.

“An example of this was during our ‘Experiencing marine reserves’ work, where students were using a whole lot of different media and technology such as a laser cutter, Google Apps, iMovie, Minecraft, book making, visual art and digital drawing to share what they have learnt with the school and community,” explains Andrew.

Phillip and Kitty in the school's workshop.

Phillip and Kitty in the school's workshop.

Preparing for the future

Walk around Opunake Primary School with Lorraine and you’ll see that small children are drawn to her like to a magnet. After 44 years in the profession, she still loves teaching and is passionate about providing wide-ranging opportunities for children.

“I say to the teachers, these kids get one crack at it. There’s very limited employment in Opunake; most of our parents work at factories in Eltham and Hawera. Other employment is local shops, cafes, the local schools. Once they are here, what can we do to give them the best shot at life that they can possibly have. I’m really quite passionate about that: I think that school needs to be more than just reading, writing and maths,” she says.

Andrew agrees that it’s important for children from small rural schools to have the kind of opportunities provided at Opunake Primary School.

“We live in an ever-changing world, which has become more extreme with the problems arising around Covid-19. For me, it is about giving them exposure to ideas, experiences and a way of thinking that is going to help them as they leave here for high school and then look to enter the workforce.

“Who knows what these kids will be doing as a job when they are 20, 30 or 50? I want our kids to have confidence, so that they won’t be afraid to go to a city for university, or try to get into a skilled trade to do what they want with their life because we have exposed them to a variety of different learning experiences and a way of thinking that means they can be successful at whatever they want to do,” says Andrew.


Teacher Daniel Barr with tamariki.

Teacher Daniel Barr with tamariki.


Outside square learning 

Each year students at Opunake Primary School explore themes that focus on their concerns for the future of the world and their town. Principal Lorraine Williamson says that children today are overloaded with information and have many concerns. Preparation begins at the end of the previous year when students learn about how to ask good questions. 

“At the end of the year, I talk to the students in co-operative groups from age 5-13 about what a good question would look like. If I can only answer yes or no, is that a good question? If you already know the answer, is that a good question? 

“Then I talk to them about what worries them about themselves now. They will say things like, ‘We’ve got lots of rich people coming into Opunake to buy houses, will my family be able to have a house because we rent?’ Or ‘My Mum and Dad smoke, is that going to make them die earlier?’,” she explains. 

Concerns about the future of the world have included: ‘Do you think aliens will ever come to Earth and will that have an impact on us?’ Or questions about the environment like, ‘What would happen if we don’t stop polluting the ocean?’, or ‘What’s going to happen in Opunake if people keep dropping their rubbish on the beach?’. 

Other topics suggested by students include: life in ancient times, space and the future, making movies, health, careers and money. Two to three units are generally selected for exploration each year. 

Senior students sort the piles of questions into key themes and come up with a series of ‘best questions’ Teachers then develop a key concept, asking themselves: ‘What is it in a nutshell that the kids are worried or concerned about?’.  

An example of a key concept from a Zero Gravity/Space Unit is: 

  • Students will have some understanding of the Earth, and its relationship with the solar system. 
  • Develop an understanding of how technology has and is expanding our knowledge of the universe. 
  • Develop an understanding of present space related technologies and how this might impact on our future. 
  • Using current information resources, and investigative skills students can make predictions about the likelihood of finding life on other planets. 


Learn more about the mahi(external link) at Opunake Primary School. 



Teacher Q&A 

Andrew Lodge is lead teacher in the senior school at Opunake Primary School. 

What is your role regarding digital technology? 

As a Year 7/8 teacher, I support Lorraine around the direction and activities for our Year 7/8 technology STEAM Club. I have been working in the workshop primarily doing design and construction using the laser cutter and associated software, where students work through our engineering and design process with a focus on computational thinking and problem solving.  

In the past I have done EV3 robotics, coding, Arduino microcontrollers, Minecraft, CO2 car design and other technology challenges. As we supply iPads 1-1 for our students, I am also tasked to integrate technology in an effective and engaging way throughout our normal classroom programme. 

We have a supportive Board of Trustees which supports the leadership team and prioritises funding for the direction of the school. 

How have you learnt about digital technology? 

Before coming to Opunake Primary, I had never had any professional development (PLD) and was primarily using computers for research and presentation and some graphing through spreadsheets.  

In 2015 during my first year at Opunake, we had a MOA Kluster PLD day around the use of iPads, Google Apps, iMovie, Blogger etc. We were then tasked to try and implement this new learning within our classrooms.   

We have been lucky to have full MOA Kluster visits to other schools in Auckland and Palmerston North and after school meetings to share ideas. We were also able to pair up with teachers from other schools, establishing relationships and connections.  

Andrew Lodge and students.

Andrew Lodge and students.

A key is that each time we have something new, we are given the opportunity to have a go and explore the new material or ideas, then work alongside the students to learn together.   

What are some projects your students have been doing in which digi-tech is incorporated? 

Understandably 2020 was a little bit messy with Covid-19 and we took the time to consolidate our learning. Some of 2020’s projects include: 

  • Implementing laser cutter with ‘Inkscape’ and ‘Laserworks’ software into our STEAM Programme. 
  • Implementation of Minecraft into classroom programmes (Experiencing marine reserves, Tiny house engineering and design town, Eco-challenges, exploring premade education worlds e.g. ‘Extension Safari,’ then deconstructing and making our own world with improvements. 
  • Integration of Apple Pencils into all classroom learning programmes, where appropriate.  
  • Digital design and art. 
  • Coding through ‘Hour of Code,’ ‘Swift Coding,’ ‘Scratch.’ 
  • Integration of iPads and Apps in all classroom programmes, e.g. iMovie, Google Apps etc 

Tell us about the MOA Awards

The MOA awards have been a great vehicle for learning new ideas, using green screens etc. Students all experience using iMovie, Green Screens, photography, app design using ‘Scratch’ and ‘Google Slides,’ photography.   

They are given a brief and plan and attempt/learn new skills. A lot of planning goes into each entry, such as establishing storyboard and scripts, design, planning. The biggest learning comes when the senior students share and feed back to each other ideas for improvements or new skills that they have found or developed. 

Some links to MOA Awards entries from 2018: 

Tamariki kōrero 

Education Gazette talked to students Reece (Year 8), Ben (Year 8), Sahan (Year 7), Poppy (Year 8) and Alex (Year 8). 

How has school changed since you started? 

Alex: Things have changed so much since I started here in 2012. There are now iPads and stuff. We only just had iPads and Apple Macs when I started at school and everything like coding was new to the teachers as well.  

Sahan: When we were little it was just reading, writing and maths, but now the little kids are doing coding. It was quite limited back then – even at this school. It’s improved over the last five years. There are more opportunities at school now. 

Poppy: I used to go to a school in Palmerston North and they weren’t as digital. They had about 10 laptops in every classroom. 

Ben: In Auckland, they didn’t supply you with iPads – you would have to buy your own. Each eLearning class had one Apple Mac. Since I have gone here, there’s such a range of opportunities. Back in Auckland it was reading, writing, maths and social studies.  

What do you like most about Digitec? 

Reece: We get to do lots of different things and it doesn’t get boring. There are always new things to try.  

Ben: Every week on Tuesdays we have STEAM club so you can do something related to STEAM. It could be 3D printers, the laser cutter, Minecraft Education. With STEAM club and the 3D printer/laser cutter, you can make stuff for your family like presents. I recently made something for my sister and my Dad. For my Dad I made a Finnish game called ‘Molkky’, which he really liked when he went to Finland. For my sister I made a negative-cut deer head. 

Sahan: I quite like working in the workshop because you can laser cut, but there’s also the aspect where there are still drills and varnish – it's digital but also hands on. 

Poppy: I like that it’s like the learning side but there’s lots of art as well. It’s not always science and maths and stuff but also the presentation side of it.  I like the Makebox/laser cut. We made cool stars and puzzles. 

Alex: My favourite thing is you are still doing the STEM thing but you don’t really have to do pen and paper stuff. My favourite thing is with the Apple pencils because you can just draw and it’s a lot easier to do that rather than pen and paper because if you muck up you can go back and not have to redo things. 

What do you want to do when you leave school? 

Alex: Play sports like basketball professionally. 

Poppy: A teacher 

Ben: I haven’t decided but just going to this school I found out things that I didn’t know that I liked. I like coding, art and surfing. 

Reece: I’ve got a bet with my father that if I get my degrees and become an engineer, I get 10 grand. 

Sahan: Engineer – another option would be sport, like surfing or rugby.   

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 8:55 am, 14 October 2021

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