One school’s journey to raising learner agency

Issue: Volume 99, Number 9

Posted: 11 June 2020
Reference #: 1HA8Du

Prior to Covid-19, Waitaha School was on a journey to developing better use of digital technologies in an effort to enhance learner agency. Nothing could have prepared them for how invaluable this learning and development would become as the pandemic took hold and learning shifted to students’ homes – or for how their experiences of learning during lockdown have set them up for success going forward.

Learning from home – a school's experience

Waitaha School is a specialist education school in Canterbury split over four sites. It has just over 100 students aged 5 to 21, whom principal Maureen Allan refers to as “superheroes”.

Staff and superheroes alike have learned a lot from their time in lockdown, reflects Maureen, as Waitaha School embraces learning at Level 2. But the learning started long before anyone had even heard of Covid-19.

PLD best preparation

Last year, with Professional Learning and Development (PLD) funding from the Ministry of Education, Waitaha School engaged consultant Matt Richards from Learning Architects to help them raise learner agency supported by digital technologies. The consultant worked with a group of teachers – Da Champions – to explore and create possibilities for digital learning and children with disabilities. 

By the end of 2019, the school had built knowledge, courage and excitement. It invested in a range of digital technologies including 360-degree cameras and Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and gaming equipment. The school began to change the way it worked, using the 360 cameras to connect staff across all four sites for the daily morning briefings. 

The 2020 school year began with a workshop, led by the consultant, aimed at supporting all staff to get on board. Maureen says initially the challenge was how to scaffold and support the staff who were worried about embracing technologies, while at the same time helping the enthusiasts to continue to develop.

“We made it really clear that you don’t have to be a whizz-bang technology person to do this. I can tell you, I am not,” says Maureen. 

“Communication was beginning to flourish in a different way. But most importantly we were seeing rich engagement.”

Then, Covid-19

And then, Covid-19 came along and the school prepared to hit the pause button.

“But it didn’t stop! It grew and flourished – the platform of learning and confidence my staff had experienced over the previous year began to pay off,” says Maureen.

Principal Maureen Allan says home-school partnerships have strengthened during lockdown and she is keen to see relationships with whānau continue to grow.

Principal Maureen Allan says home-school partnerships have strengthened during lockdown and she is keen to see relationships with whānau continue to grow.

The week prior to Level 4, as Covid-19 was beginning to make its presence felt around the globe, the school launched into ‘what if?’ mode. 

“We kept challenging staff with their thinking. What would we do? How can we use technology to share learning, to connect at the syndicate levels, our learning spaces? 

“Again, they chewed it around and came up with some really clever ideas. Ok, we’re already using Seesaw as a platform of sharing. We know about Google Hangout – we can use that. Ooh, there’s Google Meet, there’s Google Classroom, we know about Zoom. 

“So at that stage, each learning space talked about how they could use a different medium, the one that suited the needs of their students plus their skill set in the best possible way.”

Connecting with whānau

Waitaha School’s focus was on harnessing these tools and exploring ways that they could get into the homes of their learners to continue their learning. 

“The level of engagement with our families has really flourished,” says Maureen. 

“We are the invitees into their homes and we’re seeing our parents interact with their young person. We’re also seeing how challenging it can be for our parents, the pressures they’re under. 

“We can see the way they connect with our students and how they can lead them to learning. And we can see the absolute joy and love. It’s an absolute privilege.”

Maureen says her teachers have told her that when life returns to post-Covid normality, they intend to pick up the phone and ring their students’ families more, simply to check in and stay connected. 

“I think hearing that from my staff – I don’t need to hear anything else. Because that in terms of our home-school partnership is tremendous.”

Waitaha staff are also thinking about conducting their Individual Learning Programme process differently in the future. 

“Instead of parents coming to school to participate in the ILP, we’re going into the home. We shouldn’t expect our parents, who are already really busy, to drop everything and come to school when we can come to them.”

Mahi kāinga in action

Waitaha School refers to learning from home as mahi kāinga.   

“I think this helps take away that whole stigma of ‘this is that digital technology stuff’. It’s actually mahi kāinga; we’re working inside your home,” says Maureen.

The Waitaha School community embraced mahi kāinga: cooking lessons, music sessions, daily Google Meets that replicated circle time, teachers sharing videos that can be watched live or at a time that suits.

“I was fortunate to Zoom into a music session. And it was gorgeous. One of the students was out with his mum on a walk and they knew the Google Music session was coming in at this time – so they stopped their walk and using mum’s phone he was in the classroom. How good is that?

“I also watched a video of a lesson with a teacher and a learning assistant and two of my students on recycling. The teacher and the learning assistant hadn’t rehearsed it but it was absolutely seamless. And the two students, one of them – remembering that our students have intellectual disabilities – one of these students, I’ve never seen sit still for so long,” says Maureen.

Waitaha Learning Channel

As a result of all the videos and digital resources created during the lockdown period, the school decided to launch the Waitaha Learning Channel. 

“Move over Suzy Cato! The learning channel is something we’ll continue to curate and we’ll have it operating forever. Sometimes our children and young people need to spend some time in hospital, so if the channel’s there we know they can access learning. We’ve also got children we work with who are in mainstream schools – again the learning channel will be there for them.”

Raising learner agency

Maureen says they have witnessed an incredible rise in student agency over the lockdown period.

“One of our high school students, for example, has high anxiety and he doesn’t speak a lot at school. Whoa – he’s our news reporter now! He’s got a voice. And he’s using his voice. He’s engaging. He engages in the morning sessions, whereas at school he just wasn’t able to. So that’s been an amazing celebration.”

Up to 80 people virtually joined the Friday assemblies, listening to the karakia led by the head girl, joining in the school waiata and celebrating student success.

More connected than ever

And it’s not just student progress that is worthy of praise. Maureen says the weeks in lockdown gave staff the opportunity to really explore digital technologies and grow their competency and confidence. The time has also really helped bolster teamwork.

“It’s really built more collaboration than actually being at school and saying ‘just work together in your little groups and sort something out’. People have reached out and people have stepped up. And that’s just in two and a half weeks. We’re actually achieving more in two and a half weeks than we probably would have in two-and-a-half terms.

“As a school, as a staff, as a community, we’ve really grown and we’ve grown through connection, through communication, innovation, that agency and it’s underpinned by relationships,” says Maureen. “However, I feel the best is yet to come.”


Learning from home – a new experience

Learning from home – a new experience

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 1:37 pm, 11 June 2020

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