What Makes for Great Education in Our Schools? A Lesson from New Zealand

What Makes for Great Education in Our Schools? A Lesson from New Zealand
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Expert subject teaching within the project based context at Villa Education Trust schools. Photo courtesy Villa Education Trust.

RCEd Commentary

No matter where you live, we should all only have one goal in education: To improve a young person’s knowledge set and skills.

That belief is the foundation for providing an education that genuinely enhances the future prospects of students and society. But how do we go about executing that?

We’ve determined what we call a Project Based/Integrated Learning Approach that has seen high success in New Zealand and has huge potential to become the new ideal.

New Zealand is a small country (4.6 million people) in the South Pacific. The educational challenges for young people there are similar to those in developed countries the world over: How do they work through a system in a way that results in a set of qualifications, skills, character traits and knowledge that gives them an opportunity to live a full and productive adult life?


For each developed nation, the perpetual quandary is how to provide this opportunity so that every child, regardless of race, religion, socioeconomic background and other demographic factors, has a fair and significant opportunity.

This can be achieved with expert teaching, coaching and mentoring, combined with purposeful practice and the opportunity to perform. These ideals have been superbly captured and made accessible in books such as “Bounce” by Matthew Syed and “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell.

For me, the key place to begin to devise a process for successful learning methods was in the middle years of education (children aged approximately 10-14 years old). It is a time when skills and knowledge can be powerfully developed given the right approach. It is also an opportunity to properly prepare children for the rigors and pressures of academic and social life in high school and college years.

Through study and research (which remains ongoing in order to provide continuous improvements) the model I developed has the following features:

1. A fully integrated project base. The New Zealand curriculum is similar in most areas of content to the curriculum of other Western nations. At the age-appropriate levels, I divided this up into 32 cross-curricula thematic projects (for example, eight per year for four years). Each project contains set tasks that take into account English, languages, mathematics, science, health and physical education, social sciences, technology and the arts. Students cover subjects like architecture, flight and space, ancient cultures and the oceans. For each of project children get one hour a day of guided independent study. Students must interpret a task statement, respond accurately and develop subject detail and creativity. Responses to tasks cover the full range of linear, oral, visual and multimedia as well as physical products and models. Children submit work every five weeks and receive comprehensive marking and feedback documents, as well as the opportunity to collaborate with staff and peers during work sessions.

2. Expert subject teaching. Subjects remain important in education systems and children must have a good knowledge base across the broad curriculum. Our teachers prepare against their national curriculum while developing units of work that fit thematically within the current project topics. This allows a sense of coherence across a school. We teach mathematics, English, social studies, science and technology as our morning core subjects.

3. Significant individual care. The model works with 60 students in a “mini-school” within a school. Each unit has a teaching ‘academic manager’ whose role is to ensure that every child is making significant progress. A unit has four classes of 15 students – one from each grade level (class size does matter if you are prepared to work hard to differentiate your pedagogy). One of the key ideas is that every child needs to feel that they and their progress matters to the significant adults in their life.

4. We split the school day. This age group was never suited to sitting behind a desk for six hours a day. We have a four-hour academic morning (three of the core subjects and the independent hour). The afternoon program offers opportunities in visual arts, music/dance/drama, health and physical education, community learning (field trips and guest speakers) and service.

The motivation for our staff on a day-to-day basis is that every student that comes to one of our schools is both worthy of the opportunity to succeed and is able to make remarkable progress given the right approach.

One of the key outcomes we have seen with the students engaging in the Project Based Curriculum is the quality of self-management, output skills and ability to innovate. These skills put them in a great position to succeed at the upper levels of high school and university. This is a solution to one of the major issues facing schools working with disadvantaged students across the globe where they are improving their standardized scores, but young people are tripping on the higher hurdles later on. I am eager to work with others on implementing this model.

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