When Taumata School in Tauranga opened its doors for the first time this term, it welcomed a cohort of Years 1-6 pupils who will embark on a future-focussed learning journey within a purpose-built campus. With classrooms designed as flexible and collaborative learning studios, the school advocates the sort of innovative education environment that drew University of Waikato teaching graduates Dan Priest and Sjaan McDivitt to become founding teachers, or ‘learning coaches’.
Dan Priest graduated in 2015 and has taught collaboratively throughout his short teaching career. He says there’s no turning back for him. “Collaborative teaching is a well-researched and evidence-based approach to teaching children effectively,” he says. “Too many are quick to disregard the entire approach before modifying what they're doing, or just believing the worst about it.”
Dan’s interest in student-centred, democratic classes and innovative practices in teaching was sparked while studying for his teaching degree and he is relishing working with his Taumata School colleagues to this end. “It’s a dream come true really,” he says. “Working with a courageous team who are willing to do things differently and ‘go against the grain’ to do what’s best for kids.”
Sjaan McDivitt graduated in 2011 and also comes to Taumata School with a background in collaborative teaching, using that experience to contribute to the framing of the school’s vision with her new colleagues. “We spent last term together unpacking our school vision and our learning principles of ‘Grit, Learner Agency, Collaboration, Creativity and Authentic Learning’,” she says.
“We believe in students owning, believing and stretching their learning. Our learners will be active participants in their learning journey. They will be taught the skills to learn, how they individually learn and where they will learn best, utilising the spaces available to them.”
Barb Whyte is Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Waikato in Tauranga. She says there are different ways of going about future-focussed teaching and learning. “It is dependent on the staff process that Sjaan alludes to, of unpacking a school vision and the particular learning principles that each school wants to embrace.”
In a journal article published in 2017, Ms Whyte suggested that New Zealand Initial Teacher Education (ITE) providers needed to ensure all student teachers had a practical experience in a collaborative learning environment during their degree studies. To this end, she is practicing what she preaches. “Within the new Bachelor of Teaching degree at Waikato, I'm endeavouring to consign Tauranga student teachers into a collaborative learning environment for at least one of their in-school Collaborative University Schools Partnership (CUSP) placements,” she says.
Five weeks into the first term now and Principal of Taumata School Gen Fuller, who did her Masters of Educational Leadership with the University of Waikato, is already seeing the fruits of the future-focussed, collaborative approach. “The most obvious observation as I walk around the school is happy, engaged learners,” she says. “There’s a buzz of excitement every day when I greet children and parents at the gate because they know that learning today is enveloped in experiences and a lot of fun.”
Ms Fuller is adamant that the key to the success of establishing a new school with such a specific vision is recruiting the right people to the right roles. She says that along with the establishment board, they were determined to recruit educators committed to collaborative practice, strengths-based, resilient and comfortable with a lot of ‘unknowns’. “It’s a pleasure to see learning coaches like Dan and Sjaan, who are excited and passionate, clear about the value of learner-centric decision making and committed to our principles and practices,” she says.
While Ms Fuller recognises that any new school like Taumata School still has a lot to learn, she is banking on their team of staff, their networks, partnerships and community all coming together to fulfil the emerging vision. “After all,” she says, “where all are empowered to learn, they are empowered for life.”