Is there value in a school having a common learning language?

Dr Noeline Wright, University of Waikato

Do schools spend enough time thinking about ways of making learning seamless? Should they do more? This blog post, which links to a series of posts on ILEs (innovative/modern learning environments), explains some students’ views on the matter (see here, here, and here for the earlier posts).  

This post centres on interview data from a group of savvy, articulate foundation students at Hobsonville Point Secondary School (HPSS). This is a school that takes learning seriously while establishing itself as an ILE, and I wanted to know what these students had to say about their experiences there.

The student group were interviewed over a period of time in order to discover what their school experience was like, as part of a wider project. As foundation students of the school, they were, in Year 12, in their penultimate year of secondary schooling, making decisions about their Year 13 programme when we met in the middle of the year. These students were keen to talk about their experiences, especially in relation to the school’s Learning Design Model (LDM).

A Learning Design Model

A unique Learning Design Model (LDM) provides the key structure for learning at HPSS. It was a model developed by the school leadership team and refined before the foundation group of students turned up for school. This LDM grew from an interrogation of the New Zealand Curriculum Essence Statements for each subject as well as the learning area curriculum objectives. The matrix of verbs that the school extracted from this interrogation was synthesised into the LDM they have now (shown below in its brief form).



Figure 1. Hobsonville Point Secondary School’s Learning Design Model (Credit: Heemi McDonald / HPSS)

The model is expressed as a set of hexagons. The hexagon shape invites connections across the elements of the model in multiple ways and evokes a honeycomb, central to the workings of a community of bees. This structure not only identifies what matters, but makes it accessible to all while framing components of learning. This honeycomb is also a representation of powerful partnerships: learning is structured according to the relationships between these elements that work in partnership severally, together, or alone. The LDM is shown above in its brief form. The longer version contains descriptors accompanying each verb. It is this more comprehensive version that populates the school’s learning spaces.

Teachers at HPSS must use the LDM to express learning outcomes and tasks, and use it in any planning and student taskwork templates they create. Teachers may combine the verbs in any way they see fit, but use them they must. To facilitate this, each teacher has a magnetised set of individual verbs to make this easy. For example, a teacher may use two or three on a whiteboard as the first words of a lesson’s Learning Intentions, articulating specific learning goals.

Student Perspectives

The LDM is one of the features of school life at HPSS that the interviewed students singled out for admiration. Now that they were in the senior part of the school and working on NCEA Achievement Standards as part of their learning, they realised that when teachers used LDM verbs to explain learning intentions, these same verbs mapped directly onto NCEA standards as well as learning area curriculum objectives. The group felt that these verbs clarified learning connections for them. The hexagon shape of the LDM is, one exclaimed,

“one of the strongest structures in the world – like, wow, that’s cool!”

Another student said:

“The model is great – it’s like bullet points in a circle.”

And another student noted that:

“The LDM shows the main stages of learning we work through in class. All of us are encouraged to use these terms in blogs and really all of our learning. The LDM is the ‘Learning Language’ of HPSS.”

Students said that because the LDM was constantly used, they confidently understood exactly what was required in NCEA Achievement Standards. The conscious exposure to a taxonomy of learning verbs throughout their secondary schooling at HPSS appears to have culminated in this crucial level of understanding. The LDM is thus acting as a unifying tool for learning.

Reflections and Lessons

Perhaps the LDM that HPSS developed illustrates research literature which advocates the importance of careful planning and coherent interpretation of learning objectives across the curriculum. Harris and Hofer (2011), for example, suggest that the more concrete the learning design is, the more likely it is that students will experience satisfying learning. Biggs (2006) earlier explored ideas about learning objectives and their function in learning as an expression of expected learning. Biggs argued that it is the teaching that narrows the gap between students and new learning, and perhaps the cognitive activity required for it. Biggs also pointed out that:

“Student-focused strategies … [bring] about conceptual change in students’ [knowledge]” (p. 61).

It is important that any pedagogical focus is on what students must do to achieve understanding, and the LDM appears to facilitate this connection. If teachers are unable to make these connections work, then students’ understanding is probably jeopardised. The idea of an interactive system implies strong links between appropriate lesson design, learning, and teaching. Given what students have to say, it appears that the strategic thinking resulting in the LDM has been a successful undertaking. Watkins’ (2001) review on learning-to-learn in a range of educational sectors underscores the point that teaching – and the words used in that teaching – has a strong influence on learning.

So what might this mean for other secondary schools and how they organise curriculum across the school? Perhaps it suggests a need to review what learning looks like from the students’ perspective. Maybe it’s time for teachers to ask questions like the following as a whole staff, and then decide what to do about the answers:

  • How often are students asked what learning is like for them?
  • How often are students asked what gets in the way of learning?
  • How often are students asked what might make learning more meaningful?
  • What are the characteristics of the design of learning in our school?
  • Do teachers understand and apply the same language in the same ways across the curriculum?
  • How well do we help our students know HOW to learn and interpret instructional verbs? Does/Should this matter to us?
  • When students get to NCEA standards, how do they know what is expected of them?
  • Should we (or do we already?) provide a cohesive and satisfying secondary school education for our learners?

Noeline squareNoeline Wright is a teacher educator at the University of Waikato. She spent 20 years teaching in secondary schools and has since been involved in research centred on digital technologies and pedagogy in secondary schools, initial teacher education and the role of digitally enabled pedagogy. Noeline is currently involved in two funded research projects: A Teaching and Learning Research Initiative (TLRI) investigating how teachers and students learn to find their identity in a brand new school; and a Netsafe-funded small project focused on helping a secondary school develop its Digital Citizenship programme in relation to the Harmful Digital Communications Act (2015). She is also general editor of  the Waikato Journal of Education.

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