At Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery teachers are called Learning Advisors. This term deliberately emphasises a role that is comprised of facilitation, mentorship and coaching, as well as teaching. Learning Advisors function both as curriculum experts and as advisors who support our students to make the right decisions for their learning, by giving regular feedback on progress and monitoring whether the student’s plan needs modifying.
In their role as curriculum experts, our Learning Advisors have a strong willingness to adapt their courses to the needs and desires of our students. Learning Advisors do more than just teach, they are responsive to individual student voice, while ensuring that the curriculum is delivered in a relevant, challenging and interesting way.
The autonomy that you have as a learning advisor at Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery is fantastic: you have the flexibility to follow your students’ interests rather than being confined to a narrow curriculum. I teach Media Studies and English at the moment, but my classes here can always be a bit of a mix, as I am able to combine those subjects with Psychology, Digital Technology, Science, or any other subject in which I’m confident (or in which the students show an interest). When learning advisors are sharing their passion for the things they love, learning standards are usually so much higher.
I also think that the school prepares our students exceptionally well for uni life, as it is almost run like a university within a high school. During their time here, our school leavers would have been continually asked to justify which learning experiences they were engaged in, whereas at other schools you often just take what’s been given to you.
Despite Philosophy being a recognised school subject there are no NCEA standards, so teachers usually borrow standards from other domains such as English or History. This is not ideal, so I came to an arrangement with the Philosophy Department at the University of Canterbury in which we would offer a distance course for our students. The course would run at our school, and we would provide the academic support, such as tutoring time and materials that would normally be delivered at university.
We now offer two university level Philosophy courses. Our students complete all the assignments at school, however, the marking is done by the university and our students end up with points that count towards their first year of a university degree. The course is STAR funded with no cost to our students. Since we teach smaller groups the course is highly discussion based, so there is a lot of depth. I believe that’s why our students perform better on average than the students who attend university lectures.
We have been able to design a course to support a number of full time ballet dancers. The course allows them to combine their ballet training and academic learning. We work closely with the ballet school so the dancing can be assessed for NCEA, but we help those students to utilise their learning in many other ways, too. I created assessment opportunities where, for example, they can describe an aspect of their training or a performance, they then explore a number of psychological theories and apply them to their dance and explore their own action plan. When they go on tours there are opportunities to develop posters, write an essay, or produce a film for example, and this work could count towards a range of NCEA subjects, including English, Media Studies, History, and Psychology. These are all authentic tasks that give the students good critical knowledge of the theories, and a deeper understanding of what they are doing and what they are really passionate about.
Every teacher has a responsibility to ensure good coverage of a subject but at our school I can individualise my teaching. I have the freedom to try out new, modern methods of teaching or anything that might have a positive effect on the children that I have in front of me.
This year I am trying to give my English class a different perspective on writing. The method we are using is ‘Talk to Write’ and is based on learning literacy through stories. I became a story teller, repeating a story over and over, and it took us three weeks before the children wrote anything. When they did, they were much better able to focus on spelling and grammar. This term I am following Ian Hunter’s work on sentence and paragraph structures. It’s called ‘Write that Essay’ and it teaches children really powerful essay writing tools.
We created different Communities after we merged and the school increased in size, although we have always had a strong community focus generally from day one. I run a Community of Year 7s to 10s that comprises of around 80 students. We come together regularly, we have common systems in place, and while every child can be a total individual within that I think it gives them a sense of security, belonging and understanding. Every term we run an event as a community: we take the children out for the day or have a one-night camp, plus once a term we celebrate the children’s learning with their parents. Arts performances, exhibitions, pop up restaurants and quiz nights are recent examples. In addition to that the children offer and sign up to workshops that they then run within our Community, and finally we, the Learning Advisors, run some workshops for them. Our sense of community means a lot to us and we work on it every day.
From Year 7, children at our school can choose their courses, based on their interests and their needs. In addition to this, each student has their allocated weekly one-to-one time with their Learning Advisor, and we spend time as a group in the morning and once again at the end of the day on their self-directed learning. This way they can develop a strong sense of belonging to the group of students in their community.
I believe that our children are not only given a lot of choice but also a high degree of responsibility. They are given options rather than being told, and often they are challenged to step up and take responsibility. For example, last year we had students plan a movie night as a fund raiser. They came up with the idea and the initiative for it, and of course they had adult support along the way. I guess they are not limited by what’s expected for their age – if they have the inspiration and commitment to do something, we support them to make it happen.
Some of my students follow unique pathways of learning. I teach a girl who attends school only part time so she can follow her passion, which is dancing, at the same time. In addition to getting lots of support from her Learning Advisors she uses Google Classroom, so she can digitally see what she missed that day which is another way for her to catch up. We also operate an effective Learning Management System (LMS): As Learning Advisors we can link learning programmes and courses, and the children can view learning material and add their own notes. I believe that the school’s use of technology to provide online learning opportunities in addition to personal learning support is a great strength of ours.
Our school offers amazing opportunities for students to follow whatever pathway they wish. As Learning Advisors we work to ensure they have adequate foundation skills and relevant competencies so that they can be successful. Students take responsibility for designing their own personalised programmes with the support from a range of curriculum ‘experts.’ As Learning Advisors we have a clear understanding of this approach and work collectively to support individuals with this responsibility.
At the foundation level, the flexibility of our programme allows students to experiment and ‘dip their toe’ into different courses as they do not have to commit to a certain subject for a full year. While at the more advanced level we encourage deeper, more sophisticated and specialised explorations. Ultimately, we don’t think of students as year levels, we see the whole individual on his/her way to becoming a more mature, more responsible, more autonomous life-long learner.
I lead a group of energetic LAs with whom I teach alongside, working with children in Years 0 to 4. Just like most schools we have a timetable but I would never say our timetable is fixed; we want to be spontaneous in case an opportunity for learning suddenly presents itself. We have four days of reading, maths, phonics, writing and handwriting workshops which children engage in based on their current needs and abilities. While some children are in these workshops another LA is supervising, co-creating and facilitating children to meet their individual passions and needs. Children are supported to make good learning choices for these times and use planning and reflective tools to make the most of these opportunities.
On Fridays, we have our Celebration of Learning. This is a time when children can share individually, in a group or as a Homebase, the learning they have been doing. This time often inspires children to give new things a go. We then run several adult led workshops that the children can book themselves into such as: Mandarin, yoga, gardening, animal care, or drama. These sessions are run by parents or experts in the community. On Friday afternoons, we usually have child-led workshops. These are pre-planned by the children and happen across all ages of the Discovery Campus. Sometimes children from the Unlimited Campus come over and run these too.
PINs (Passions, Interests and Needs) workshops are run each term. These are workshops that are offered by either children, parents or Learning Advisors and allow children to access a great variety of activities. Some examples are: fishing, cooking, art, jewellery making, rugby, camping skills, board games, Lego, geocaching – the list is endless and constantly changing.
At our school relationships are everything – we really are a community of learners. Parents work in partnership with Learning Advisors to create a rich and supportive learning environment. We firmly believe that everyone can contribute to another’s learning, and everyone is on a learning journey of their own.
Our Homebase is comprised of children who have always been immersed in Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery learning and those who have started later from another school. A core part of Homebase life is our core values which work together to support and create a positive learning environment.
As part of our commitment to the special character children are at the centre of their learning supported by family and Learning Advisors. No one has to learn the same thing, at the same time, in the same way and we have the freedom to create with the child the best pathways of learning for them.
It is important to us that children have the freedom to follow their own passions with the nuts and bolts of self-managing, literacy and numeracy in place to be able to do so.
We want our kids to use their literacy skills to actually change something, and this can be anything inside themselves or out in the community and wider world.
Children in our community are growing in their effectiveness at researching and are much more independent in their inquiries. We encourage a mind-set where children try things that are new and accept that it is okay to make mistakes. We talk about ways we are being self-managers or self-directed in our learning. We also support our tamariki in knowing that asking for help is also part of being a self-directed learner.
As children grow in their ability to self-manage and negotiate their own pathways it is great to see them realise ‘I can do this on my own, I want to achieve this’.
We are really lucky to have a supportive community of parents and we keep emphasising that we love communication. The more communication we have the better we can support your child, and the more parent involvement, the richer the experiences for every child. We want parents to share in the learning journey, whether that is running workshops, taking kids on excursions around the city or learning alongside us. Being a part of a learning community means Learning Advisors also share in learning alongside our families and tamariki.
Attending Ao Tawhiti is not just about enrolling your child, it is about enrolling the family and becoming part of the community. The idea is that children, families and Learning Advisors share the learning journey together.