Supporting teacher inquiry

Issue: Volume 95, Number 11

Posted: 20 June 2016
Reference #: 1H9d2R

The Teacher-led Innovation Fund supports teams of teachers across the country to work together on their own practice for improving student learning. What does it mean to be a project leader and what advice do they have for others implementing an inquiry project?

Students at Alfriston College learn in whānau groups

The Teacher-led Innovation Fund (TLIF) allows teachers to inquire into new practices and to let these flourish.

Education initiatives in the past have often been led by academics, working with teachers. But the TLIF flips this: it’s designed for teams of teachers working together to improve learning outcomes for students. Guided by a project leader, these teachers can call on academics and community experts to work alongside them.

The TLIF supports teams of teachers to develop innovative practices that improve learning outcomes - especially for students who are Māori, Pasifika, have special education needs, and/or come from low socio-economic backgrounds.

It also encourages these teachers to share their good ideas with other schools and teachers across the country.

The fund initially made a total of $10 million available in three rounds over three years.

However, it is to be extended for an extra two years with a further $8 million added to the pot. All primary and secondary school teachers in state and state integrated schools can apply.

What is involved in implementing such a project? What is the role of the teacher project leader, and do they have advice to others embarking on their own innovation project?

Education Gazette talked to three project leaders about their work to lift student achievement in their school community.

Kōrero with confidence

Keita Ngata is a Resource Teacher Māori at Manutuke School and is leading a TLIF project that aims to improve competency in oral te reo Māori.

The project also involves the students in nearby Waikirikiri School, Tolaga Bay Area School and Wairoa Primary School, and the Resource Teacher Māori for each school.

Keita started research for the project in 2008. The process of applying and securing funding through the TLIF has fine-tuned the work, and allowed her to share it with her the other schools in her region.

The first part of the plan involved assessing the oral competency of seven year old students in te reo Māori. Each assessment had to be conducted in exactly the same way across the different schools, for consistency.

“We’ve done this by recording each child retelling a favourite story. Then we analyse the recordings and document the consistent errors. Sentence patterns are identified, and new teaching resources are used to correct the common mistakes the children are making,” says Keita.

Keita explains that the team chose to work with seven year olds, because their reo is just developing, they kōrero Māori whether they are making errors or not.

At seven, the children are not shy with retelling and at this stage of their development, most tamariki are still affected by the interlingual aspect (the interferences made between two known languages.)

“The evidence of many incorrect sentence structures and grammar became a concern for us – hence the urgency for an intervention strategy to correct the reo at this stage,” she says.

Teacher-crafted ‘picture cards’ and sentence role modelling formed two important tools for the project, which has had a sole focus on oral language.

“In implementing the project with our students and teachers, there is no reading or writing involved – just listening and talking,” she says.

“I’ve always been a believer that children can’t write what they can’t speak. The oral skills need to come first.”

After a period of several weeks of lessons working with the specialised resources, new recordings and analyses were made and Keita says the results were overwhelming with a dramatic shift in oracy.

“We’ve found that since improving the children’s oral skills, their writing skills have also skyrocketed."

“We’re seeing some wonderful, positive results - we’re somewhat elated with our project, to put it mildly!”

Sharing the gold

Melissa Watt and Karyn White are the co-project leaders for an 18-month TLIF initiative at Alfriston College in Auckland. Their project does not involve any other schools but the team can access support from Rosemary Hipkins at NZCER as needed.

The secondary school caters for 1400 students, and Melissa and Karyn’s project aims to improve achievement outcomes by making more effective use of the school’s whānau-based groupings in year 9 and 10.

Specifically, the TLIF team are exploring the challenge of creating a more connected and coherent learning experience for the students in one whānau group.

“The driving question for the project was ‘when we more closely integrate all core subject areas, what changes in terms of learner outcomes?’”

“We wanted to come back to how we could improve outcomes for our Māori and Pasifika students – but the whānau-based groups are certainly not a new thing,” says Melissa.

“We’ve had these working well since 2007, and they’re a very important element of what we do here at our school.”

The ‘whānau’ or ‘school-within-a-school’ groupings at Alfriston are designed to create a sense of community and belonging among the students and staff.

Each student is assigned a whānau group when they begin at the school, and each group is led by a whānau leader and assistant leader, along with ten whānau tutors who mentor the group of students.

This structure fosters close relationships between learners, teachers and the school.

The idea with the TLIF project is to really think about how the team of teachers working with the same whānau group can build coherent learning experiences that help students to see rich links between the different learning areas.

Thinking about who they want their students to ‘be’ provided a challenging starting point for designing integrated units of learning.

“For us, it’s all about asking ourselves: ‘what skills are we giving our kids – what are they taking away from school when they leave?’ We are determined to make sure they are getting the best opportunities possible.”

Melissa is a social sciences teacher, but in each whānau grouping there are teachers to represent the different areas of the curriculum.

“We have all needed to communicate clearly with each other, and work together constructively.”

“The work we’ve been doing is fluid – it’s essential we’re responsive to the everyday needs of our students and what they are doing,” she says.

“The TLIF has allocated me with extra non-contact time to support all members of our team and to help ensure that we can see good progress for all involved. We call this ‘sharing the gold.'"

The conversation around these stories help the teachers unpack why some of the things they tried had worked so well. They wanted to draw generalisations from their experiences, so that they could share these with other teachers.

“By the end of our project this year, the hope is that we have done enough to find a model for the junior school that works well for everyone.”

“So far, we’ve seen a great shift in our e-asTTle reading scores, and I think this has to do with the technology push we’ve done.”

Melissa’s advice to other schools focuses on teamwork and motivation.

“Have your experts on tap. Support each other and share knowledge. With this project, we decided we were going to go ahead with it, regardless of whether we were awarded the TLIF."

It’s a commitment. But it has to be one you’re willing to make whether you get the funding or not.”

Building stronger relationships through maths

A desire to enrich mathematics learning at Waimairi Primary School in Christchurch has brought together teachers, educational experts, students and their whānau.

This three-year project supports the school to develop a teacher-led inquiry to lift achievement in maths for priority learners.

The project began with surveys to gauge whānau and student attitudes towards maths. These were constructed with support from a child psychologist.

The survey responses provided valuable information about attitudes towards maths – for example, that it was a difficult subject confined to a classroom setting. The surveys also revealed that many adults believed they were not skilled in maths, and had verbalised their negativity in front of their child.

“This feedback gave us the starting point to show the children that maths is something they do every day. It’s not just something they do in maths class, but rather all through their everyday life,” says Tracy.

As a result of the survey the inquiry focused on three components, the first being relationships.

“We decided to start with a foundation of strong relationships between teachers and students, and to further enhance our relationship with whānau,” she says.

The school has drawn on experts Dr Catherine Savage and John Leonard, who have helped to support the building of culturally-responsive whānau-school relationships.

“We wanted a stronger link. We communicated directly with our students’ whānau – we had them come in to the school in a one-on-one basis, so we could get to know each other better. It was about engaging with our school community.”

“We’d ask how things were going at home, and give them suggestions of ways to support the learning at home."

“We’ve found these relationships to be one of the most important outcomes of our project,” says Tracy.

This work has not only led to better relationships between whānau and teachers, but also between the children themselves.

“We’ve seen a shift in the children’s interactions, and their willingness to collaborate and share.”

The second and third components of the project focus on teacher effectiveness and student metacognition.

The team has drawn on the work of educational consultant Dr Julia Atkin, Carol Dweck and Pam Hook, and maths consultant Marg Wright.

The learner-led focus of the project has sometimes proved challenging, says Tracy.

“Because our inquiry was flexible and open-ended we could reflect on the direction we took the students.”

“We had to let go of the idea that the students would be learning exactly what we planned for in a day – instead, we’ve been letting them lead the way. It’s about letting it flow and being open to the learning taking new directions.”

Tracy says that at the heart of a project like Waimairi School’s is an open willingness to try something new.

“You have to be prepared to just give new things a try. If it’s not working, you can change it. It’s about being prepared to try new and different approaches to bring more awe and wonder into the maths learning happening at school,” she says.

In the case of a teacher-led inquiry, she says it’s good to remember that it’s actually a teacher inquiry.

“The students will be fine – they’ll be better than fine – but we keep reminding ourselves this is a teacher inquiry – what can we do to make maths better for our students?"

“The outcome of the project has been a lift in mathematics achievement for some children but the new-found confidence and general well-being of our students has flowed out to other parts of the curriculum too, which has been an unexpected bonus."

“We’re in the second cycle of our inquiry now, and we’ve got more teachers and students on board. We keep on inquiring and learning together.”

Teacher-led Innovation Fund extended

The Teacher-led Innovation Fund is to be extended for an extra two years.

Education Minister Hekia Parata made the announcement at the Education Council’s Communities of Learning Leadership Forum in Wellington on 10 June.

Additional funding of $8 million will take the total invested to $18 million over five years.

The Teacher-Led Innovation Fund is part of the government’s Investing in Educational Success initiative. The first round of the fund has been completed, with 40 research proposals receiving funding of $2.67 million over three years.

The second round of funding opened in November 2015 and closed in May 2016. Successful applicants will be announced shortly.

“This fund supports teachers to develop excellent practice and share what works across schools so that it becomes common practice,” says Ms Parata.

Further reading

Lessons learnt from the 2015 application process(external link) 

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:23 pm, 20 June 2016

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