How does a new secondary school ‘become’?

Dr Noeline Wright, University of Waikato

This blog post adds to previous Ipu Kererū posts addressing aspects of MLEs/ILEs (also known as ‘modern learning environments’ / ‘innovative learning environments’). The topic for this post arises from research and publications about how one secondary school grew from the vision initiated by the sister primary school under the aegis of an Establishment Board of Trustees (EBoT). This EBoT steered the development of both the primary and new secondary school under one vision. As with the earlier Ipu Kererū blog post about the potentials of a Learning Design Model, the case study for this post is Hobsonville Point Secondary School, the subject of a new Springer book, Becoming an Innovative Learning Environment: Making a New Zealand secondary school.

So how do a new school’s leaders turn a vision into reality? Evidence on what it’s like to make a new school from scratch is hard to find; research evidence tends to address school mergers or rebuilds after disasters such as the Canterbury earthquakes or Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. What is scarce is information that helps us understand what it takes to develop a school culture, systems, pedagogical and pastoral practices and the like from a vision and empty new buildings.

Hobsonville Point Secondary School (HPSS) gave me access to learn a little of how this particular school found its feet. This blog post pays homage to the leadership who were generous with their time and who gave me access to almost everything. So what did I find out?

Interpreting the vision for the two schools for the secondary context

One of the first tasks HPSS’s leadership undertook was to define what the vision statement

 Innovate. Engage. Inspire.

meant for the secondary school context while being mindful of how it was already developing in the sister primary school. How could students in the secondary school ‘Reach for the sky’ – a key aspiration? The leaders interrogated the ideas from the vision and the aspiration and focused on who they wanted their learners to be. From that, they turned attention to figuring out what the school could do to foster their defined characteristics of mind and behaviour (see figure 1). Emerging from this investigation was the Hobsonville Habits – a set of principles that identify what to develop in learners. These are written on the main corridor steps of the school. The image provided here was taken by one of the students who participated in my research.

HPSS habits.png
Figure 1: The Hobsonville Habits (photo courtesy of a student)

The school uses these Hobsonville Habit adjectives as shorthand for what happens in the Learning Hub (pastoral care) times. During Hub times, Learning Coaches offer their group an environment in which individual students’ academic, pastoral mentoring and guidance is provided. The intention is that every student undertakes a robust, challenging learning programme. Also during Learning Hub time, learners are exposed to a wide range of ideas, interests, skills and experiences intended to support their structured learning modules through learning about learning to learn, hauora and well-being, and the Hobsonville Habits. A key motivation and goal is that the school wants students to become successful inquirers and self-directed learners. So how does the school achieve this? Is saying it enough?

By creating the Learning Design Model (discussed here), the school has developed language about learning that makes it easy for students to understand what the curriculum and NCEA Achievement Standards require a learner to demonstrate. Once students understand what is required, it is much simpler for tem to undertake and practice self-direction and inquiry under the guidance of a Significant Other – Vygotsky’s (1978) term for, in the case of HPSS, the role of the teacher.

Teachers themselves use the concept of the Significant Other in their own professional learning within the school. This is their critical friend structure which began early on in the school’s development. This was intended to not only knit staff together and develop relational practices, but also to help staff help each other develop their pedagogical thinking. One of the Deputy Heads of the school blogged about her experience of how the critical friend helped her rethink her practices. So while teachers are helping students develop as people, structures between staff are designed to help staff develop both as people and as reflective practitioners.


The Hobsonville Habits have turned into a curriculum for pastoral care time, so that these behaviours and attitudes can be nurtured. It is where students learn how to inquire, and better understand the Habits, such as what being ‘adventurous’ might look like. It’s also where, on a regular basis (although some students suggest they are suffering from survey fatigue), students are asked for their views on what kinds of things they want to learn, what they have to say about their learning and what could be altered to improve things. Over time, students get to see the fruits of their perspectives. For example, early in the school’s development, at least two learning management systems (LMSs) were trialled: Moodle and Google Classroom.  Through students expressing preferences and the reasons for it, the school leaders opted for Google Classroom. At the same time, student feedback offered experiences that helped streamline some elearning systems – such as teachers needing to name documents clearly so that students could search for them easily, rather than having to search through a list of documents with ‘untitled’ or ‘template’ file names. Through the school’s process of regularly seeking student feedback, students understood that their points of view mattered to the school when they saw their views have an effect on decision-making, such as on the choice of LMS. Learning that their individual voices matter is likely to feed into life beyond school, where, as citizens, these students can express their views in wider social, community and political spheres.

As far as curriculum provision is concerned, when students are asked what they want to learn about, they talk about ideas. These ideas are then taken to staff who identify synergies across NZC Learning Outcomes and/or Achievement Standards that can link to ways of addressing those identified topics. By integrating learning across curriculum divides, teachers learn from each other, and students learn discipline knowledge and concepts as applied or used across subjects brought together to increase the likelihood of conceptual understanding. Done well, subjects enhance each other, so  students are better able to develop both depth and breadth in conceptual and applied knowledge. Modules can span two terms, rather than short periods of time. The belief is that time helps understanding that arises from engaging in deep inquiry and problem-posing.


Transparency and openness is a key feature of the school. The principal and a number of staff keep blogs that they update either regularly or randomly. The blog Principal Possum, for example, chronicles principal Maurie Abraham’s thinking about learning, learners and education more generally. At school, the Student Council meets with the principal and identifies actions and ideas. Active student leadership was addressed in series of blog posts that the principal wrote where he stated that:

“By themselves, they [the specific actions within the school – such as supporting individual students to take action to rectify issues they might be having about learning or belonging] may seem … small … but collectively they are blowing me away and this type of student leadership will become the legacy of these foundation students [original emphasis].”

Thinking ahead

I wonder what the future becomes for this school’s graduates? Will the school’s intentions for its students be realised? How is it manifest? Who does and doesn’t benefit? Perhaps some follow-up research could track the foundation cohort over 10 years to discover what the school’s legacy has been for these students. Perhaps, too, future research might discover the extent to which, or even if, this school’s graduates internalise Hobsonville Habits such as being adaptable, adventurous, compassionate, resilient and purposeful throughout their lives.  

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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