Starting again: Tarawera High School implements innovative learning spaces

Issue: Volume 94, Number 21

Posted: 23 November 2015
Reference #: 1H9cyB

Tarawera High School is a decile one coeducational secondary school, with an 86 per cent Māori student population. The school was established following the closures of the old Kawerau Intermediate and Kawerau College, and the addition of modern facilities to reflect changing needs. Starting again brings with it the opportunity to re-imagine the learning environment along more contemporary lines, a chance that won’t be wasted on deputy principal Gavin Holland’s watch.

The delineation between old and new is more often a process rather than a line in the sand, and so it has proven at Tarawera High School: the move into their shiny new learning environment has been gradual, with four of their new buildings operational, and the remaining two to be opened for business sometime in 2016. In the meantime, some students are making do with the remnants of the old classrooms, buildings that Gavin says “weren’t in good shape. The classrooms were all traditional; set up for the old ‘chalk and talk’ method, and allowed for very little flexibility for other ways of teaching and interacting.”

Gavin says that the gradual move into a learning environment that better aligns with modern educational thinking has actually been beneficial: rather than teachers turning up at the beginning of term and told to ‘go to it’ in classrooms they’re unfamiliar with, the process has allowed everyone time to think about questions of practice and methodology, and investigate new pedagogies that the new facilities make possible.

The first new facility that was up and running, says Gavin, was their ‘learning commons’.

“The learning commons is our main innovative learning space at the moment. That’s divided into three sections: we have the seniors in one section; the Year 7s are taught in another section; the Year 10s in the third.”

Change is a process

The gradual move also gave Gavin and his team time to prepare students to make best use of their new, more collaborative and connected environment, both in terms of introducing new teaching approaches, and making sure the kids can benefit from them. 

“At the beginning of last year, the Year 10s knew they were going to be moving into the learning commons, so we introduced aspects of more modern pedagogies. We provided chromebooks to all the students for example, so they were able to start in a ‘one-to-one’ digital environment from the time they moved into the new learning facilities.

“An early goal that we identified and pursued was to develop self-motivated learners. So although they were [prior to moving into the learning commons] taught in three separate classrooms, they were taught as one year group with three teachers, so that’s really helped. They took to the new learning environment straight away when the learning commons was complete.”

This meant that the Year 10 students were accustomed to the methodology that their new environment was designed to support. Gavin says that the students took to their new surroundings immediately. He says that the learning commons facilitates learning on an individual level and at the same time allows for small and large-group collaborations and inquiry sessions.

Year 10 students are now briefed by their teacher in the morning, then it’s straight to their digital calendars, because everyone’s at different stages and is concentrating on different areas of their learning. While Gavin is anxious not to give the impression that learning at Tarawera High School is a free-for-all – there’s still lots of whole-class inquiry, and numeracy and literacy time – students are responsible to a large degree for their own timetabling. The Year 10s have in fact eschewed the idea of traditional classes; teachers instead run workshops, and students schedule themselves into these, depending on priorities they’ve identified with help from teachers and assessment data. Gavin says that this new student agency – a focus on teaching students to take ownership of their own learning has more than met his expectations.

“That sense of student agency has really reaped rewards. We’re seeing students who were previously very unengaged suddenly taking responsibility for the proactive planning of their learning, which is great.

“They’ve got ownership of their learning. They make the decision to learn in a certain area, rather than being told ‘you must be learning maths now’ for example.”

Gavin quotes one of his Year 10 teachers, in explaining how they came up with a baseline to illustrate what their transformation was striving to achieve.

Sam Gibson, one of our Year 10 teachers, has said that, "to create a successful self-directed learning environment, one of our ultimate goals is to ensure that if we weren’t at school for any reason, the students would still be able to seamlessly carry on with their learning."

Gavin says too that Tarawera High School’s new innovative learning space means that the school can more closely investigate the meaning behind the key competencies at the heart of The New Zealand Curriculum.

“A lot of the skills that are now embodied by the key competencies are not necessarily things like, let’s say, how acids and bases work for example. We’re looking for thinking skills, teamwork, self-motivation and that sort of thing. The innovative learning environment, I believe, facilitates better the acquisition of those skills.”

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 4:29 pm, 23 November 2015

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