Learners at heart of refreshed specialist teaching diploma

Issue: Volume 99, Number 10

Posted: 29 June 2020
Reference #: 1HA8d1

A specialist teaching programme is being re-visioned with a focus on partnerships and self-directed learning to help enhance the skills of specialist teachers.

For the past decade, the Ministry of Education has supported over 300 teachers each year to undertake the Postgraduate Diploma in Specialist Teaching offered by Massey University’s Institute of Education and the University of Canterbury’s College of Education. 

From 2021, Massey University will be the sole provider of the diploma. The Ministry acknowledges the University of Canterbury’s immense contribution to helping build a robust and relevant qualification. Building on the success of this programme, Massey has entered into a new funding agreement with the Ministry to work in partnership with the sector to refresh and relaunch the diploma. 

The diploma has six endorsements: Early Intervention; Learning and Behaviour; Blind and Low Vision; Deaf and Hard of Hearing; Complex Educational Needs; and Gifted. 

The Ministry of Education’s Learning Support Study Awards support classroom teachers and resource teachers to complete the qualification. 

There will be a significant shift in focus for the two-year course, says Associate Professor Alison Kearney, Head of the Institute of Education, and Associate Professor Mandia Mentis, Associate Head of School. The re-visioned diploma will strongly feature partnerships to co-design and co-develop the programme. 

“We are building on strength – we do want to acknowledge what has been contributed and we’re building on that work we have done over the past 10 years with the University of Canterbury and Ministry of Education. We’re just tweaking it in certain areas to strengthen it areas such as digital, flexibility and working in the regions with mana whenua,” says Mandia.

“We know that the biggest difference we can make for our children is having really effective, well-prepared teachers,” says Alison.

“Historically we’ve focused on fixing children and it just hasn’t worked. And now we’re more focusing on getting a really great education system for a very diverse range of students that is fit for purpose in terms of inclusive environments and all children taking their place in a 21st-century society.” 

Cross-sector partnerships key

A governance kaitiaki group will guide the course and provide links to a range of partners in the education sector. The group is made up of Māori; representatives from stakeholders such as Blind and Low Vision Education Network NZ, Deaf Education Centre, Autism New Zealand; past students; people with disabilities; and parents of students with disabilities or who have experienced difficulty at school. 

“This is a real partnership that is not about us developing something and then going to our stakeholders and saying ‘what do you think?’ but more about us asking ‘what is going to be a really good quality programme that is going to meet the needs of gifted learners, learners who are neuro-diverse or have disabilities?’,” says Alison.

Self-directed learning

Mandia says the programme features a combination of theory and practice. The first year will focus mainly on theory, particularly regarding the chosen endorsement. The second year will include a practicum where the theory is applied, working with mana whenua in each student’s region.

“In one of the more innovative courses, called flexible learning pathways, students will take modules, attend webinars and do activities and tasks that will be fit for their purpose, so it’s very individualised,” says Mandia.

Feedback from past students is that students initially find self-directed learning challenging but then appreciate being able to design their own curriculum to meet the needs of their own learning and contexts.

“The curriculum allows students to meet the competencies through a self-assessment of their learning needs, as well as what’s required in their context and community. They then design their own learning goals that are relevant for their context, themselves and meet the competencies,” explains Mandia. 

“This is nothing like a university course that many of us might have taken,” says Alison.

“It makes us realise how innovative this programme is, because sometimes students haven’t been to university for a while and they think there might be a study guide with 10 readings, start on page one, and hand in three assignments. That could be nothing further from the truth in terms of this qualification. 

“We’re really moving into new notions of what it means to be a programme based on 21st-century ideas about what we’re going to need moving forward. We have so much content with that depth of their professional knowledge, but the students will be designing their pathway through that content,” she says.

Neurodiversity is normal diversity

The diploma used to include an endorsement for autism spectrum disorders, but autism and neurodiversity will now be spread across all of the endorsements.

“Autism and neurodiversity is a critical area and we’re starting to realise that all individuals have learning needs,” says Mandia.

“So this notion of neurodiversity as a new concept enables us to look at children who have diverse learning needs and how to best meet those needs. Our take is that all children who are marginalised should have their learning needs met, and our orientation to that is very much equity-based – meeting the language, cultural and identity needs of all learners.” 

“This is a programme that ensures we have a system in place that meets the needs of all learners, particularly those who have historically not had the best deal in education,” adds Alison. 

“We’re trying to turn that notion around – why is it that the children have to struggle? We need a system that meets their needs where they don’t have to struggle. We’ve still got work to go, but this is a programme that we hope is going to really develop those robust systems where we don’t have students struggle in the way they have been.”

Broadening specialist teaching field

The re-visioned programme aims to create ‘T-shaped’ professionals who have depth in their specialist areas and breadth to be able to work inter-professionally with teachers and other professionals in the field, in order to change the learning environment to best meet the needs of diverse learners.

It will build on digital skills and be more multi-modal, using digital pedagogies that are fit for a specialist way of learning. The programme’s leaders also want to encourage more Māori and Pacific students to undertake the qualification, as well as students with lived experience of disabilities.

“We work with classroom and resource teachers, who will then work with their colleagues and whānau to bring about that shift to start focusing on learners in a much more strength-based way – to have an optimistic approach to see how the environment can be changed and their teaching can be changed to bring about positive gains. It’s very much a strengths-based, evidence-based, optimistic alternative kind of approach,” says Mandia.

The 2021 round of applications for learning support study awards opens on 1 August 2020 and closes on 30 September 2020. For more information, please search ‘Learning Support Study Awards’ on the Ministry of Education’s website(external link).

To read about the experiences of teachers who have taken this course, please see here(external link).

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BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 9:16 am, 29 June 2020

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