Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Two Wolves Fighting

At a recent staff professional learning meeting on ‘restorative practice’ within our ‘positive behaviour for learning’ focus, the following Cherokee Indian story was shared. It has had a big impact on me as I see these two wolves within me. In fact, I see these two wolves in all of us.

The story goes like this:
One day a young Cherokee Indian boy was complaining to his grandfather that another boy who was a friend had betrayed him and was now spending more time with another friend. The boy was hurt and was very sad.

The wise old Cherokee Indian said to the boy, “A fight is going on inside all of us. It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – full of  anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
He continued, “The other is good – he is full of joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Isn’t it so true! The problem is we can never permanently get rid of the angry wolf inside us. Both wolves will always be there waiting. We can’t be sure no matter how hard we try to rid ourselves of the negative wolf. Life continually will take us on a journey of sadness, hurt, worry and joy.

When things are going badly for us it is so easy to blame others or a set of circumstances outside of our control. This can sometimes turn us inward and shut others out of our life, be defensive, uncommunicative and downright stubborn blaming the world for our troubles.

The trouble is this just feeds the angry and bitter wolf and stalls any personal progress ahead. It becomes a self-fulfilling poisonous cycle feeding the evil wolf more and more.

In many ways it is easier to flounder, feel sorry for ourselves and sulk. The hard part is to try and feed the compassionate wolf within and if you are being hurt or hindered by someone, try and walk in their shoes, ask to meet them to try and resolve issues with an open mind, hear their story and confront their truth alongside your truth. This takes guts, energy and compassion.

The reality of life is both wolves live within and it is human nature for anger to rise within us, particularly when our core values are put to the test. It needs strength and courage to stand up for what is right, even if that means confronting the situation and being clear about what your values are and what you can and can’t accept.

However for our own well-being and to have peace in our heart we need to strive to feed our humble, generous and good wolf because eventually anger and hurt will take everything worthwhile from us.
I think this Cherokee story is powerful and we should teach our children to always try to feed the compassionate wolf inside us but also be prepared to stand up for what is right using the principles of ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’.                                                                                                                                   
Imagine if the world lived this way! War might be a thing of the past.

Picture ref: https://nz.pinterest.com/explore/wolves-fighting/

Monday, 7 August 2017

“The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.” ― Lewis Carroll

Over the last decade there has been pressure building from the highest echelons of the education sector to address the equity issues around under achievement, particularly of the bottom quartile of our school age population. The national standards data schools are mandated to gather, starkly remind us of this underachievement. Our Maori and Pasifika students are over-represented in these statistics.

So what’s to be done! The Education Review Office make no apology at zoning in on this underachievement as they review schools. Schools are expected to demonstrate they have strong internal evaluation systems in place analysing data and then using teacher inquiry models, drill down into what could be the ‘triggers’ to provide the supports to achieve accelerated progress for the students who are not achieving well.

Research says the biggest contributing factor to success is what happens in the classroom, not least personalising learning, having high expectations of the students, providing ownership/agency of learning, engaging in rich tasks and having strong relationships between individuals and their teacher. As Hattie has said, it is not what school a student goes to but what teacher they get. (1)

There are many other powerful things that can be done to assist lifting achievement such as creating a partnership of learning between the teacher, family and child so all are working together.  Putting energy and commitment into sincerely engaging with the various cultures to ensure all families are valued and engaged in school life cannot be under-estimated. This cultural responsiveness is vital, not least with our Maori and Pasifika communities as they are over represented in this tail of underachievement.

The above issues are all so important but in our quest with the best of intentions to address this problem of inequity, I believe the system is engaging in short term thinking and has developed tunnel vision and an over emphasis on national standards. Good schools have always known where their students lie in this norm referenced way and as we all know, weighing the elephant all the time isn’t going to change its weight. However many schools and teachers become distracted from what we know as best practice because they become anxious about their national standards data to a point where the balance of joy and creativity gets out ‘whack’ which impacts not only the students but also the teachers.

This is unfortunate as when children start school it presents a wonderful and critically important time when we can embrace and nurture these young and fragile beings.  Handled correctly we can draw out the trust and confidence of the child to show their real selves, their personal voice, their creativity, their soul, their worries, their dreams and in doing so help set free their potential as human beings.

Children arrive at school bursting with curiosity personal and personality. Their filters on life are open and free. They have been empowered up to this point to express themselves and are willing to have a go at all sorts of new tasks.

Teachers more than ever feel pressure to ‘get their students progressing’ on the national standards continuum and they have to be careful not to incrementally chip away at these young people’s confidence so they show less and less of themselves. Children learn quickly if there is often only one right answer the teacher is looking for and that their ideas are best to kept to themselves as they are annoying or wrong.  These messages are learnt in subtle and not so subtle ways.

On a more macro front, if the leadership of a school demands conformity and ‘straight line’ thinking of their staff, it will filter down into the classroom and the school culture. People become fearful and slowly but surely creativity and personal voice gets melded into a machine where surface features of policies and procedures are more valued than the head and the heart. In this scenario teachers lose energy and confidence to speak up and usually fall reluctantly into line.

Successful teachers need to be given more autonomy to use their time and their expertise to mentor others. Many fine teachers are expending far too much time and energy justifying their existence via data gathering and other related paperwork. Teacher inquiry and related gathering of assessment information has always been part of best practice and we need structure and systems including at the macro national level and within schools themselves. However the pendulum has swung too far. We need people who are set free within the bounds of the school’s shared vision and values to sincerely connect with each other and the children on a real and powerful level where personal voice, trust, empowerment, respect, risk taking and real empathy are celebrated. There has to be accountability, but this accountability and energy is being drained from many as they feel the pressure from above.   

Allied to the pressure around national standards is the perceived need felt by some to narrow the curriculum to a stage where reading, writing and maths becomes so much the mantra that other subjects such as science, the arts and the social sciences drop down under the radar and the integrated and inquiry based themes of learning are pushed to one side.

Some schools both nationally and internationally have been able to ‘see the woods for the trees’ and been able to par back testing and other formal assessments and maintain their focus on holistic education where student agency, inquiry and engaging contexts for learning are at the heart of every day. This frees up learning time and allows teachers to focus on more powerful methods of gathering understanding of where individuals are at via interactive dialogue between teacher and students. The information gathered can be used to inform next learning steps. (formative assessment)  This co-construction of learning puts students at the heart of the learning and is going to be far more powerful for the student than a grade. The unrelenting pressure some schools feel to gather evidence to justify their position has become destructive.

“This is not about being soft and fluffy. It’s about believing that listening to pupils matters. The assumption that you can reliably put a number against what a child is capable of is flawed and dangerous. Potentially, it leads to the individual and the people around them having a very limited set of expectations.” (2)

British educator, Sir John Jones was interviewed on nine to noon last year. His theme was ‘we only seem to value what we measure’.
Sir John says it’s time to rethink and repeal the assessment systems used in many education systems.
“In a way it’s a crisis in the system – are we preparing children to pass a test, or are we preparing them for life?”
I agree with Sir John.  Learning is developmental. That is, children come to key conceptual understandings when they are cognitively able and not before. Yet schools are currently being called upon to put an inordinate amount of focus on those children who are not ‘at’ the standard for their age. Teachers are encouraged to work hard to give these children ‘accelerated progress’ (more than one year’s progress in any given year) but the reality is, many of these children are just not developmentally ready and some simply not in an optimal state for learning.

Teacher inquiry and data gathering are all part of ‘best practice’ and always has been.  I am all for rigour in education but this rigour has to be firmly placed into a rich and holistic curriculum where good questions are more important than answers. The quality of the question will determine richness of the learning experience. We need to be focusing on a curriculum rich in higher order thinking focusing on the dispositions such as controlling impulsivitiy, collaboration, self-belief, creativity, curiosity, resilience, meta- cognition and problem solving. These dispositions not only prepare our children for the future but are proven to engage learners giving them more than just knowledge but sets them up with the spirit and soul of what it is to be a life-long-learner.

Sadly NZ has the highest rate of teen suicide of 41 OECD and EU countries according to a recent UNICEF report and I believe that our education system and its related pressures has an important part to play in this horrible statistic. We must seek meaningful ways to support young people to be successful that don’t just involve ‘one off’ grades.

It seems to me that although there is a clarion call for ‘life-long’ learning, schools are feeling the pressure to make certain things happen from pre-school to Year 13. (approx 18 years old) The reality is, many young people do not realise their learning potential until their mid twenties. Young people need time to grow without the intense pressure to jump all the hurdles before age 18 or be seen as a failure. Many young people feel they need to have their qualifications ‘nailed’ and their career mapped out by age 18. This is fine for some but a number of young people need more time and a society who has a longer and more sustainable view of what success looks like.

National standards in some situations have forced teachers to get bogged down with curriculum progressions, using them as tick sheets and marking guides rather than prompts for their own macro understanding of what it is to be a good mathematician, writer, reader etc. It is like expecting a cook to follow the recipe and unless the ingredients are exact and the recipe order is followed exactly, the cook is marked down.

Resources like the curriculum progressions are great tools but can be misunderstood and the skills taught in isolation too much. The skills teaching takes over from the ‘game’. We have to avoid the mechanistic and linear approach as we now children best learn when learning excites their curiosity and creativity which are just the dispositions our 21stC workforce is screaming out for.

Learning is not simply a linear progression but a complex and holistic experience. The linear approach takes too much of the essence out of the experience for both the teacher and the student.
The great cooks and coaches and teachers don’t use recipes or formulaic approaches. They know their craft so well they apply it creatively and intuitively as the situation demands. They are forever learning, noticing, tweaking, experimenting, reflecting aiming for continual improvement realising striving for nirvana is the beautiful allure they will never will get to, nor do they expect to as the journey is the drug that drives them on. These teachers make the time, the vocational and intellectual interest that motivates them to strive for knowledge and experiences that will help them improve their students’ holistic needs.

We need a system which is demanding and supportive of teachers to connect with children, to build their mind, body and spirit. Too many teachers are being ground down and feel they are ‘chasing their tail’ justifying their existence. As Lewis Carroll said, ‘The hurrier I go, the behinder I get’.  (4) Leaders need scope to put more emphasis on inspiring teachers to get children ‘actively into the game of learning (hard fun), empowering them to be curious, to  make mistakes, to celebrate and share their work, become critical friends and give them time to grow up believing that anything is possible.

Please don’t misunderstand me here. As I said, I am all for rigour in teaching and promoting a strong work ethic in children. My argument is to take a more holistic view of education and focus our energy into supporting and developing teachers’ professional capacity so they can facilitate higher order thinking and the transformational dispositions that will serve all our young people and reassess what we mean by ‘success’ at school. Achievement will then follow ‘as night follows the day’.

Warren Owen

(2)     Alison Peacock “The idea you can put a number against a child’s ability is flawed and dangerous.”

(3)     Sir John Jones Footnote:  (below)
(4)     Lewis Carroll, ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

'We only seem to value what we can measure'

Schools and teachers need to change the way they operate, according to British educationalist Sir John Jones.
A principal for many years in the North West of England, in a number of challenging schools, Sir John has served on a range of government policy teams, looking at truancy and exclusions.
Thomas Friedman’s book – The World Is Flat –talks about the need to develop creativity, ingenuity, portability and flexibility.
Sir John says they’re the kind of skills we’re all going to need to compete in the modern world, but many education systems still focus on standardisation control, conformity and compliance.
“Which, when you think about it, are almost opposed to the creativity, portability, flexibility.”
Footnote: ‘Humble Pie’.

Initially when national standards were first promulgated, I thought they would be a useful and transparent tool for teachers to use but because of the reasons above and the realisation of the huge subjectivity across assessment which determines the ‘standard’ within and across schools,  I have become an opponent of their use. I am very happy to eat this ‘humble pie’.

Sunday, 18 June 2017



Our job as educators is to enthuse and encourage the curiosity within children and in parallel, build the skills and dispositions of developing good questions for inquiry, seeking out answers, generating solutions, testing hypotheses, justifying conclusions and exploring other questions generated during the inquiry.  The skills of inquiry learning are the building blocks for all learning. This approach actively engages and empowers children allowing access to transformational learning experiences.

A key message we keep hearing is that for New Zealand to improve its competitiveness in the global marketplace, we must foster creativity, innovation and enterprise in all aspects of society and particularly in schools.

STEM subjects are seen as core to the future. (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.)  

STEM aims to foster inquiring minds, logical reasoning and collaboration skills. But, as we know the arts are also so important and are a conduit to the academics bringing many creative and higher order thinking opportunities. Thus for us the acronym STEAM is more apt.   
For many the arts are just a frivolous add on to the more important STEM subjects! However the arts play a powerful part in a child’s education. Many of the world’s greatest innovators including Einstein have stressed this.  Richard Florida, the famous USA economist and author said, “Integrating the arts into school life expands possibilities for learning and provides opportunities for problem solving, perceptual development, lateral thinking and imaginative action.”  

In reality best practice suggests teachers need to take this inter-disciplinary approach or an integrated curriculum view where all these subjects are linked together in a meaningful way. Learning contexts which are really powerful will be solution orientated solving authentic problems.  ‘Place -based’ contexts will help the children’s connection and add real motivation. For example, our school has a local estuary and “estuaries are some of the most productive and diverse ecosystems on Earth. They hold great cultural and economic value as food baskets and for their ecosystem services.” (1)

Starting with this knowledge and immersing children via a well prepared field trip experience, a teacher would be able to facilitate a wonderfully exciting and creative study involving all the STEAM subjects. The power of combining and integrating subject matter was promoted by one of the world’s greatest thinkers, Albert Einstein.

He said,  “For as long as I can remember — and certainly long before I had the term for it — I’ve believed that creativity is combinatorial: Alive and awake to the world, we amass a collection of cross-disciplinary building blocks — knowledge, memories, bits of information, sparks of inspiration, and other existing ideas — that we then combine and recombine, mostly unconsciously, into something “new.” From this vast and cross-disciplinary mental pool of resources beckons the infrastructure of what we call our “own”“original” ideas. The notion, of course, is not new — some of history’s greatest minds across art, science, poetry, and cinema have articulated it, directly or indirectly, in one form or another.” (2)

Capturing the love and passion for STEAM needs to start with our new entrants at school. STEAM using the core dispositions described in paragraph one, traverses all that we are and do as humans. Children love getting their hands and minds into these fascinating subjects and they link so well with other curriculum areas as well. It is a way of thinking, a way of viewing the world and something that you do, not something that you learn from a textbook.

Warren Owen
  1. Science Learning Hub Newsletter – June 2017
  2. Brain Pickings by Maria Popova --newsletter@brainpickings.org  June 18 2017.
Picture: Science Learning Hub Newsletter – June 2017

Thursday, 18 May 2017


Historically schools have put in significant support for children with learning support needs. Sadly school budgets never stretch far enough to provide the level of support that schools would love to provide. This impacts both ends of the achievement spectrum. Unfortunately some of the ‘gifted’ or ‘talented’ children (known as G.A.T.E. children) become behavioural problems as they struggle to overcome their boredom and frustration.

The good news is that in the last decade greater education policy requirements have been placed on schools to address the needs of these children. However it is one thing to make policy but many schools find it difficult to find the expertise and resources to ‘walk the talk’.

In their bid to fulfil their responsibilities, many schools provide ‘pull out’ programmes grouping children together for a few hours each week providing some ‘one off’ stimulating activities that excite these very capable children. One very positive spin off from this approach is G.A.T.E. children get the chance to engage with like minds. Sometimes these children are put up a class level. It works for some but it is socially very risky. There are various ‘one day’ fee paying G.A.T.E. schools operating and some schools recommend parents enroll their gifted child(ren) into one of these.

However these options do not deal with the fundamental issue. G.A.T.E. children deserve to have their educational needs, including social needs met every day. Their minds need to be challenged and engaged throughout their school life! 

This is very achievable when the curriculum is well understood, planned and differentiated appropriately. Schools must build on the interests of students providing them with the skills so they have more control over the topic or content they wish to pursue allowing the opportunity for individual and independent study. The exciting 21stC education technology rich paradigm supports and further empowers the learner. This interactive approach encourages creativity, deep flexible thinking and access to a broader range of higher level resources.

Sometime GATE children can fly ‘under the radar’ of teachers. They can ‘bomb’ in standardised tests because of cognitive processing challenges or for some other reason including issues around attendance or social problems. However, there is an abundance of research on what works for GATE children and how to identify them. Over the years experts have regularly referred to Renzulli (1978) who developed a definition of gifted and talented children based on the interaction of three basic clusters of human traits:

  • Above average ability
  • A high level of task commitment
  • A high level of creativity
Renzulli and Reis (1985) claim that gifted and talented children “are those possessing or capable of developing this composite set of traits and applying them to any potentially valuable area of human performance.” (1)

It must be emphasised that all the characteristics above may not be highly advanced in equal proportions.

“It’s probably also true to say that whatever their area of ability, GATE children will tend to ask more insightful questions, be better than others at seeing relationships and patterns and at predicting consequences, be more curious and persistent in exploring concepts and seeking answers, stay focussed for longer and build up more detailed and ‘expert’ knowledge. “ (2)

It is an exciting time in education providing schools take up the opportunities available to unleash their students’ motivation and potential.

We are working as a staff to ensure all our children’s needs are met. It is a tall order to get this right 100% of the time but we are aspirational and will strive to do our very best including meeting the needs of our GATE children.

(1)  Renzulli, J.S. and Reis, S.M. (1985) The Schoolwide Enrichment Model: A Comprehensive Plan for Educational Excellence. Creative Learning Press.

(2)    Cathcart R.  May 1997  p. 6  Tall Poppies  NZ Association of Gifted Children

Picture from :  https://www.google.co.nz/gifted+and+talented+students

Friday, 7 April 2017

Go Outside and Play

Coming from a family of 5 children, ‘go outside and play’ was a common phrase I heard from my parents in the 1950s and ‘60s. I also heard this phrase many times when I went to stay with friends. Either innately these parents knew it was good for us to get out and make sense of our world, or they just needed their own space in a time of large families. One family I went to school with had 14 children!!

Since my arrival at Waterloo School (May 2016) Karen McMillan (DP), Team Leaders Becs Perkins and Vicki Barnes have been advocating introducing some ‘play based’ learning concepts. Over the years I have been very aware of the importance of play in a child’s development and for years many schools have used the ‘developmental’ time for children to not only have some choice in their learning week, but to have time to be creative, construct and learn to negotiate their activities and environment with other children.

The term ‘developmental’ is apt because as we know, learning is developmental. Not all children come to aspects of learning at the same time. Some children arrive at school reading simple sentences and in some cases children can read picture books with ease. Some children are very confident speakers with a large vocabulary, others with more limited vocabulary. Written language varies tremendously too with some children able to write their name and in a few cases, children can write simple stories with grand ideas.  Whereas, other children are not developmentally ready for reading and writing and will need time and support to do so.

If we try and ‘box’ these children into expectations that they should all be able to jump through the same learning hoops at the same stage and time, there is one thing for certain! We will crush many of their spirits and impair their confidence and potential for learning and set them back so they may not ever recover from this damage.

It takes great skill and professionalism to manage the diverse range of needs of these fragile souls so we can grow them into their potential. Some of these children will need special assistance in literacy and numeracy but treated with respect and understand,these children will later flourish.

I digress though because although this understanding of the developmental nature of learning is so important, I really want to talk about the importance of play in children’s development.

The following was written for our Waterloo School Y1-2 parents by Becs Perkins.

Play Based Learning is the child-led ‘learning through play’ model that ECE (Early Child Education) is based on and has been proven to be a powerful model for child’s engagement and holistic child development.  

Current research and practises trialling in primary schools are showing how effective this model can be in especially in the development of the Key Competencies that underpin the NZ Curriculum.

This is a programme that we are continuing to develop across the Junior school to enhance the children’s agency (ownership) over their own learning as well as their independence and self-management.  

During the play based learning, teachers will be engaging with children as they play and carry out explicit teaching sessions e.g. reading groups, writing, etc whilst the children are playing.”

For those who are interested, these two theories(1) add further insight into why play is so important in a child’s development.
1.     Modern theories examine play from the perspective of how it impacts a child’s development. According to Dietze and Kashin, “The learner is no longer regarded as a passive receiver of knowledge, but as an active constructor of meaning”.[12] This perspective is emphasized within the constructionist theory through experiential learning. Theorist John Dewey suggests that children learn best by both physical and intellectual activity; in other words, children need to take an active role in play.
2.     Contemporary theories focus on the relationship of play to diversity and social justice in daily living and knowledge. Children learn social and cultural contexts through their daily living experiences. The Zone of Proximal Development concept, developed by Lev Vygotsky, suggests that children require activities that support past learning and encourage new learning at a slightly-more-difficult level. Vygotsky believed that social engagement and collaboration with others are powerful forces which transform children's thinking. Urie Bronfenbrenner states that a child's development is influenced by both the person and the environment (which includes family, community, culture and the broader society).

Many adults view play as the opposite to work, yet to see a young child learn maths or coding (programming) via a game causes disruption to this idea.

We intend to go quietly as we construct meaningful activities / opportunities for children’s play but recognise that children need to go into that imaginary world of play to. Our challenge is to provide for the range of learning needs and ‘readiness’ for learning and ensure we personalise each child’s learning pathway. ‘Play based learning’ is a powerful and positive force in a child’s development as long as there is rigour and purposeful planning in setting the learning environment up for our children.

( (1)     Playing and Learning, Beverlie Dietze, Diane Kashin, page 46,Pearson Prentice Hall, ISBN 978-0-13-512546-5

Cartoon: Maurice Sendak

If you would like further reading here are some links to help.

Warren Owen

Postscript: While I was writing this piece I happened to view the article below which shows the power of allowing children to play and dream. Two 8 year olds playing noughts and crosses started playing around with the format and created a new game which has been made into an app available in the Apple app store. Very cool.

Friday, 24 February 2017

The Mathematics of Hope

I am delighted we are putting fresh energy into whole school maths professional development. We have engaged Louise Miller from Cognition Education to be our lead facilitator with a staff team in support.

For NZ teachers, maths teaching and learning has been confused via the numeracy project. Within the numeracy programme there is much to be lauded but it is definitely time to take stock and consider what is working and what is not. Teachers need to follow their gut intuition and use teacher inquiry to gather information, build on their findings and become passionate explorers of the most effective teaching methodologies that build confidence with their children.

As a staff we are being led through a series of key best practice principles of maths teaching supported by a range of research. In Jo Boaler’s article, The Mathematics of Hope   (see below for website link) she talks about how “mathematics, more than any other subject, has the power to crush students’ confidence.” Boaler refers to a myth historically propagated in classrooms that some people are naturally good at maths and others are not. She says “That this idea is strangely cherished in the western world but virtually absent in Eastern countries such as China and Japan.”

New scientific evidence shows the incredible capacity of the brain to change, rewire, and grow in a really short time (Maguire et al. 2006) suggesting all students can learn mathematics to a high level. “Students can grasp high level concepts but they will not develop the brain connections that allow them to do so if they are given low-level work and negative messages about their own potential.” (Boaler and Foster 2014)

Research has also recently shown something stunning—when students make a mistake in maths, their brain grows, synapses fire, and connections are made; when they do the work correctly, there is no brain growth (Moser et al. 2011). This finding suggests that we want students to make mistakes in maths class and that students should not view mistakes as learning failures but as learning achievements (Boaler 2013a).  When students struggle with mathematics, their brains grow; being outside their comfort zone is an extremely important place to be.

This Mathematics of Hope article is just one of many our staff are reading and discussing. Some of the ideas are challenging us to make significant changes to our teaching and learning. It is an exciting ride and just shows, ‘we are learning too!’  We as a staff are modelling that we are life-long learners searching for best practice to make a real difference for our students.

The key advice to teachers in the article is summed up in this diagram.

Frequent timed tests
Number conversations
Diagnostic feedback
Speed emphasis
Time to think slowly and deeply
Ability groupings
Heterogeneous and flexible groupings

Boaler says that currently three fifth of USA students fail maths and that it is a harshly inequitable subject. She argues that when the USA classrooms change—when students are encouraged to believe they can be successful in maths and are taught using the high quality teaching methods they deserve, the landscape for maths success will change forever.

This goes for NZ as well and we are very motivated to make a difference for our students. I do encourage you to read Dr J. Boaler’s article.