How much is pedagogy, how much culture?

I was about to  post right after our first day in Finland, but hesitated  because the two observations I  was noting seemed to have some obvious link that was eluding my tired brain.  I’m glad I did because first thing next morning Olli-Pekka Heinonen, General Director, Finnish National Agency for Education, made the link for me.

The two anecdotes, from our visit at Olari High School, were:

1-We met with a group of obviously very successful and enthusiastic high school teachers.  They told us they sought student input on how they taught and what projects were pursued.  When we asked them how they as teachers were assessed, they looked at one another confused, and finally said they weren’t.  They finally did note  that from time to time  they met with the principal to review how things were going, but that was the extent of “assessment.”   If clear problems arose they were addressed, but no regular system of teacher accountability existed.


2-We were also fortunate to run into a rather reflective student who had spent the past year as an exchange student in Des Moines Iowa.   His exchange year  in the US was at the same level as his previous year in Finland. So he was returning for his final year after his classmates had already graduated.  On one hand he said he was struck by just how similar what he was studying in Iowa was to what he had previously studied in Finland.  On the other hand he noted, a very different approach by his teachers in the two  countries.  His US teachers were more directional and on top of how each student was learning.  His Finnish teachers treated students as empowered and independent.    His conclusion was that Finnish teachers were very good at challenging students to be responsible and autonomous, but that  his US teachers probably saved some kids from falling between the cracks.  He conceded he probably was the kind of student who benefitted from a bit of prodding from from his US teachers.  ( I must admit his capacity for candid self-reflection did seem part of his Finnish education)

General Director  Heinonen’s presentation focused on the missing link in these two anecdotes and the glue that holds the whole Finnish system together-trust. The national government trusts municipalities to run good schools and meet national curricular goals, but how they do it is up to them. Municipalities trust principals to run schools effectively and don’t intervene unless a major problem arises. Principals trust teachers to have autonomy in their classrooms, and perhaps most importantly, teacher challenge students to be partners in the learning process and to take responsibility for their own education and academic achievement.

While all this  has deep pedagogical implications, its roots probably lie in cultural perspective.  Finland relies on trust.  The US just as deeply believes in measurable accountability. (My personal bias is that at times in the US we believe the wrong indicators are better than none, and that measurement is always the path to improvement.)  These approaches reflect the populations and expectations of their societies.  On the other hand, it seems  that both cultures could gain from flexing a bit out of their comfort zones and  learning from one another.




Achieving Future Ready Skills

During our week in New Zealand, we visited five schools with energetic and visionary leadership. Along with their dedicated teachers, they are working to prepare their learners for jobs that may or may not exist today. Studies indicate that 30% of the jobs that will exist in 10 years do not exist today. So how do we prepare our learners for jobs that don’t exist? We teach them the skills that they will need on any job: critical thinking, collaboration and problem solving.

The New Zealand Ministry of Education has provided fiber, internet access and WiFi for every school in the country. They established curriculum standards that allow schools flexibility in how they conduct instruction so that their learners acquire the required skills sets. Lemonwood Grove, Rolleston College, Rawhiti School, Te Pa o Rakaihautu and Stonefields School have similar yet different instructional practices. All of the schools have technology available to their students. Some have 1 to 1 devices. Most provide classroom devices for the younger learners while parents may be required to provide devices for older learners with BYOD programs. All had interactive monitors or projectors in classrooms. Technology was one of many tools that allowed learners to research, collaborate and create. The learners are taught how to do effective research and to recognize reputable resources.

But it wasn’t the technology that engaged their learners. All of the schools have created environments where students are excited about learning. They are taught goal setting skills and to have a growth mindset. Failure is viewed as a learning opportunity where students can pull themselves out of the “pit” with a “can do” attitude. Students are not just provided information to memorize but are taught how to use that information to complete tasks and projects. What the learners enjoyed most was the opportunity to create their own “passion” projects. Each school called these projects something different: “Breakthrough Learning Day”, “Ako Learning”, “MILO – Many Individual Learning Opportunities”. Utilizing the critical thinking, collaboration and problem solving skills that they had learned as part of their daily school work, learners are allowed the time to research topics that interest them. They must do background research, learn a new skill and have an end product (presentation, demonstration, production, etc.). They can work on projects alone or in groups. Their projects were artistic (drama, music, crafts), athletic (gymnastic, contortionist, best way to shoot a basketball), career research, technology (coding games), environmental (building sustainable gardens). When complete, they have a product in their portfolios that represented more than what they learned. It’s a part of who they are.


Before leaving for New Zealand I wondered what made it possible for the country to receive such high marks in the The Economist’s Worldwide Educating for the Future Index .

Now that I am back home (with the benefit of 18 hours in flight to reflect!!), I can identify three important factors contributing to New Zealand’s high ranking.

First, there is a shared commitment to putting students first with a focus on personalized learning and collaboration. This learner centered approach is supported by innovative designs for physical spaces. We did not see traditional classrooms with rows of desks and a teacher standing at the front. Instead we saw open learning spaces designed to encourage collaboration and longer periods of time (no 45 minute blocks) to allow for exploration.  The vocabulary used is also different – both students and teachers are referred to as “learners.”  Technology is certainly present and accessible, but used seamlessly as a tool to enhance the learning process and inspire creativity.

Second, the New Zealand model of governance maximizes the opportunity to create a high performing system by striking a balance between central and local authority. On the local level, an elected Board of Trustees oversees all schools with authority to hire principals and make important decisions in the running of the school.    The New Zealand National Curriculum ( outlines a “vision of young people developing the competencies they need for study, work, and lifelong learning, so they may go on to realize their potential.”  Most of the curriculum centers on vision and values, with only a small part at the end describing content.  The educators we met with often praised this curriculum – something that we rarely hear in US education circles.

Finally, leadership matters. As others on the delegation have observed, strong school leadership allowing for flexibility and growth is critical for the success of student learning.  We were honored to meet with exceptional school leaders who are taking the education of their learners to a new level.

One week cannot provide all the answers to the question of how and why New Zealand has reached such a high standard in international comparisons.  But we came away from our experiences with a renewed sense of what is possible when there is inspired leadership, strong foundations for learners and policies that support this journey.

Haere rā and  Ka kite anō /  .. Until next time!!

IMG_3596      IMG_3592.JPG

Reflections on a Week Learning from New Zealand Education

As I sit in the Auckland Airport International Departures terminal, working to digest what I’ve seen and experienced over the last week meeting with K-12 educators and visiting schools in New Zealand, I’m clear on the significance of the education approaches I witnessed and overwhelmed on where to start to share my learnings more broadly.  In addition to this visit being information-rich and an important contribution to professional growth, the physical surroundings of the beautiful landscape that is New Zealand contributed to the overall feeling of awe and inspiration that characterized the entire visit.

As with any school visits and meetings with educator leaders, our hosts showcased the best they have to offer.  If there was one omission in our visit, it was the fact we only visited “innovation” schools and saw none of the “traditional” schools that still exist across the country.  However, since we were here to learn what innovation looks like, and the strategies for implementing new approaches, I’ll share what I saw that is germane to the work we do in the United States.

The CoSN delegation visited innovation schools in Christchurch and suburban Auckland and met with school leaders from a school in Queenstown.  We were unable to tour the Queenstown school because our time in that town was on a Monday holiday equivalent to our Veterans’ Day.  The learner centered approaches exhibited at all the schools we visited were supported by buildings that were designed to create learning spaces that are open, without traditional desks, and support multi-age grouping of the students.  Technology certainly has a role in these nontraditional spaces; however, the emphasis is on the collaboration among the students and their teachers; the role the students take in identifying and directing their own learning; and the responsibility for achieving education goals, set by those students in partnership with their teachers and learning partners.

The horrific 2011 earthquake provided Christchurch huge challenges in rebuilding their city and helping families who lost their homes to relocate.  However, the massive destruction of public buildings, including schools, and the migration of families out of decimated neighborhoods, also provided the community the opportunity to re-think schooling and design new buildings with open space that supports new approaches to teaching and learning.  The education ministry has also been careful to choose leadership for the new schools who are comfortable with new ideas and who can build teams, both of students and teachers, and design and support distributed leadership and varied approaches to learning.

The second key factor in the success of the schools we visited was the approach to and quality of the leadership provided by the school principals.  While each of these leaders emphasized the importance of their teaching staff collaborating with their colleagues and building a trusted working environment, the school leader who articulated the important issues the most clearly was Sarah Martin, principal at Stonefields School in suburban Auckland.  Her emphasis from the outset of the school’s opening in 2011 was on “soft skills” and building a professional teaching staff as well as the students who can articulate their learning journey through four steps:

·       Building learning capacity-know, believe, and stretch self as a learner

·       Collaboration-relate, participate, and value diversity

·       Making Meaning-use tools, strategies, and knowledge to break codes, understand and take action

·       Breaking Through-strive to achieve success and happiness in learning and life

The young student who led our small group tour of the building could tell us exactly what the learning journey at Stonefields was and understood the value of a “learning pit”; the pit being the ability to admit a mistake; acknowledge what you don’t know; and reach out to teachers and colleagues for help in moving out of the pit into new knowledge.

The entire experience was humbling and reminds us of how responsible and thoughtful students can be when provided a framework and support to explore new experiences and own the responsibility for their own learning and personal growth.  The personal growth for me during this week has been significant and as I reflect on what I saw, heard and learned, I know this week’s experience will provide a framework that can be shared more widely.

Cheryl Scott Williams

October 28, 2017

Auckland, New Zealand





Out of the Rubble : Renewed Hope !!

In 2011 the region known as Canterbury in Christchurch was hit midday by a devastating earthquake that caused disastrous devastation to the region to include the downtown business center, 11 school buildings, full neighborhoods, and the loss of 185 lives. The residents of this area have coped with this devastation and loss in miraculous ways to bring the populace who were displaced by this natural disaster back to Christchurch in a multitude of rebuilding endeavors. As we walked through the quiet streets of downtown Christchurch at dusk seeing the remnants of container malls and partially rebuilt buildings, the sad reminder of the once beautiful Christchurch Cathedral now in ruins, and the utter still that remains, we were inspired by the stories presented to us by the staff of CORE Education in the rebuild of the schools.  “Out of the rubble we are building HOPE” was the commentary as Helen Cooper shared the heartbreaking stories of young students impacted by fear and loss, yet the education community with support from the community at large knew this was an opportunity to pull together and rebuild from the rubble. Thus spawned the birth of a concept of community rethinking the future and putting resources into rebuilding the schools in a modern learning environment equipped with digital devices and open collaborative spaces whereby students at all levels and the community can leap frog over the peril and build hope and connections into the 21st century through e-learning (access to digital content and use of digital devices like ipads and chorme books) and access to the Internet to bring rich resources to schools, capitalize on a modern learning environment that sheds the traditional single cell classroom concept and promotes collaboration and personalized learning. Teachers and students were equipped with digital devices en-masse which caused a bit of stress on the part of traditional learners, teachers and students alike, but has yielded a system of professional learning, team teaching, open classrooms, small group learning, and access to digital content.

The initiative was sponsored and supported by the Ministry of Education (MOE), CORE Education (a support service to the schools for Professional learning opportunities and other services located in ChristChurch), and the community. The efforts and results have yielded vibrant learning opportunities in schools that were damaged and had to be rebuilt. It has strengthened the connection between the community and the schools and designating them as learning hubs in rebuilt neighborhoods which are slowly but surely coming back to life, and it allowed veteran and new teachers to come together in rethinking how to deliver instruction in a more collaborative and open space that fosters creativity, critical thinking, and discovery.

The process continues each day but the results on student learning are impressive and something to think about as we build and rebuild in the United States.  The work being done in Christ Church, however, is a testimony that Out of the Rubble you can build renewed hope through innovative ways to meet the needs of all students while instilling a sense of pride and commitment in all involved.  Bold initiatives like we saw in the schools in Christ Church are worthy of study in depth by education leaders in the USA.

Final Reflections

I leave New Zealand feeling as though I have discovered a new friend. The country is beautiful, and the people so very welcoming.

The schools that we visited all share a common focus of putting the students (whom they always refer to as “learners”) first. When new schools are built, or older schools refurbished, it is always with a commitment to New Zealand’s innovative design for learning.

The New Zealand National Curriculum ( was universally praised by all the educators we spoke with. The vision as laid out in the national curriculum is one where young people can develop the competencies they need for study, work and lifelong learning. The ultimate goal is that all learners reach their full potential.

The change from the traditional methods of schooling to the more modern, open system with a focus on personalized learning and shared responsibility for all students among teaching teams does not come without the full commitment of everyone involved. Strong leadership with an emphasis on collaboration and respect among all staff members, parents and students is critical to the New Zealand innovation process.

There is much we can learn and much we can share with our New Zealand colleagues. We look forward to keeping the conversation and the collaboration going.

Lemonwood Grove School

Lemonwood Grove (years K-8, a full primary school) is a new school – in fact it has only been open since January 2017. During our visit we heard from Principal Sean Bailey about the very thoughtful process the the Ministry of Education adopted to ensure that the school was fully functional  when stage 1 (450 students) opened its doors to students. Sean, his school board and his management team were appointed about a year before the official opening to develop programs and to ensure that teachers could teach and students could learn from day 1.

Lemonwood Grove School_241017_0046

According to the School’s website Lemonwood Grove School is the first school in New Zealand to be constructed using specialised,  factory-made, pre-cut panels. The process involves using digital technology to translate building  designs into staged production outputs using automated machinery. The panels include everything  right down to the holes for the electrical sockets ready to be delivered and installed onsite.

As well as the construction methods, the school’s design has many innovative features influenced by the work of Dr Julia Aitkin. One interesting innovation is that the principal does not have an office – the leadership team does have a dedicated space for meetings – the idea being that the school’s leadership team naturally spends time amongst the learners and less time sitting in their offices. The other innovative design is open learning areas where up to 150 students work with a group of teachers to cover the school’s curriculum which, as is common for all NZ Schools, has been designed by the school and its community in response to the NZ Curriculum.

Lemonwood Grove is to be built in stages, with an ultimate enrolment of 750 students. There will be a further 3 schools like Lemonwood Grove built in response to the rapid increase in population around Rolleston 20km SW of Christchurch. Continue reading

NZ & Getting the Right Balance for Innovation & Achievement


One of the things I have been struck with after having the opportunity to visit many education systems around the world is the challenge of getting the right balance between centralized accountability and decentralized teacher autonomy.  New Zealand, like Finland and other high performing education systems, seems to me to me headed in the right direction.  They have a clear learning framework but lots of autonomy and collaboration at the school level.

Amazingly for someone from the U.S., nearly every New Zealand teacher, principal and regional administrator, as well corporate representative, that we met with said they like the national curriculum standards!  Unanimously they say the NZ Curriculum Standards appropriately talk about the skills students need, and it devotes only a small amount of direction about content.  Educators say they have the freedom to create a high performing education system.

Another thing that we have seen a lot in the schools we have visited is teacher collaboration and team teaching.  The only other country I have seen this done as effectively is Finland.  Especially in the schools rebuilt after the terrible earthquakes in Christchurch in 2011, they intentionally broke down the “one teacher to 25-30 students” model.  These new learning spaces put 3 or more teachers with 100 students in bigger cluster with more open spaces.  The physical spaces we saw looked different from most schools and seemed to reflect the culture of collaboration and professional sharing.

UPDATED: We also heard how after mis-steps that NZ made in 1990’s and early 2000’s around infrastructure where responsibility for network/connectivity was devolved to schools, they centralized the network from a national level.  In fact, they have just completed broadband and wi-fi to all schools.  Of NZ’s approx 2300 schools, something like only 40 don’t have fiber connectivity, and that is because of extreme remoteness (those schools get the best available connectivity available, such as point-to-point/microwave or satellite).  In addition, filtering and network management is done at the national level.  This funding and expertise is essential because every school has a robust network to do learning.  This is a best practice.

Finally, when they think about the role of technology to enable innovation and new learning, many New Zealand educators talked about the importance of failure and the need for a culture of innovation.  They said that the technology wasn’t the hardest part.  The hardest part is change of culture and the human factors around change and redesign of learning.  That rings true for me after working with educational leaders in the U.S. for nearly 25 years.

Let me be clear…I am not saying the New Zealand is perfect.  I am sure there are many schools and teachers who are not yet part of the innovation or have other problems of practice.  In fact, at today’s summit organized by HP (Evolve Ed), there were many innovative educators and students who said they were frustrated by the slow change in New Zealand classrooms.  But, it seems to me that as a country, New Zealand is on a helpful education path that makes me a bit optimistic.

Innovative Leadership Exemplified

The CoSN Delegation to New Zealand visited three schools in the city of Christchurch on Tuesday, Oct. 24. All three schools are relatively new, having been constructed in the last few years as part of the community’s rebuilding efforts, following the devastating 2011 earthquake. The visionary leaders of all three schools chose to use the horrific tragedy to drive innovation in school design, teaching and learning. A unified commitment to create learning spaces that are truly learner-centered continues to be the overarching goal. The vision for the innovation at all three schools encompasses pedagogy, building design, professional learning, community involvement and – most critically – the learning culture.

All three schools are viewed as community learning centers which exist as learning spaces for learners of all ages. Students are referred to as learners. Spaces are designed to support education for all learners, including the children, the faculty, the administrators and the community at large. Anyone who spends time inside the school structure is considered a learner.

In addition to rethinking the architectural design of the school structure, there is an even greater emphasis on rethinking the culture of school. The building design exists to support the new learning culture. The change in learning culture is driven and fostered by the building principals at each school we visited. All three principals view themselves as learners. They view the students as leaders in the school setting. The adults are there to serve the student learners.

The open learning spaces are not called classrooms. Terms like learning habitats and learning studios are the way the learning spaces are identified. Within the learning spaces all learners are provided access to technology and a broad array of learning resources. What you don’t see are traditional, individual student desks arranged in neat rows.  Hands-on active learning and collaborative work drive much of the learning activity throughout the day.

There is a strong emphasis on teachers working together in learning teams. Three or four teachers work as a team of lead learners for a shared group of up to 100 student learners. The members of the teaching team are responsible for the success of all the young learners within their shared learning space. The teaching teams learn from each other and come to depend on each other’s strengths to meet the individual needs of the students. To accomplish their shared learning goals there is frequent movement of student learners and teachers within the large learning space.

Transforming learning and teaching to maximize the learning spaces, class structure, pedagogies and learning culture does not happen without strong committed leaders. The three principals we were privileged to learn from exemplified the leadership that all schools must aspire to if we are truly going to meet the needs of all our learners.

Principal Sean Bailey – Lemonwood Grove School (
Sean’s past leadership experience taught him the importance of developing powerful learning centered relationships with a school community. This is a major focus in his current role. He believes Lemonwood Grove will be an amazing learning environment for the whole community.

Principal Steve Saville – Rolleston College (
Steve has a professional history of being a strong advocate of excellence in all educational fields. He has a record of leading change and a commitment to a learner centered approach to education. Steve relies on the students to inform decisions about strategies for success for the whole learning community.

Principal Liz Weir – Rawhiti School (
Liz was charged with combining three school communities into one learning center. She and her staff are committed to assuring that children starting school at Rawhiti are in the privileged position of completing their learning journey in facilities that are purpose built.

The entire CoSN delegation was greatly inspired by the visionary leadership of these three educator leaders. It was a true privilege to spend time with them and the learners in their respective learning communities.

A Vision Can Help


I have been struck by two themes in our visits to exemplary schools in New Zealand.

First, in exciting  New Zealand schools, where students and teachers are pursuing engaging and valuable learning,  a governmental directive, the New Zealand curriculum, is cited as a major enabler and catalyst for the changes.   While I have yet to read the New Zealand directive, as described, it articulates a vision of the skills, knowledge, and collaborative and critical thinking capacities sought rather than precise content outcomes.  It seeks to educate students by finding their passions.  While we are used to governmental directives being viewed as threateningly constrictive, teachers and students appear to find this one liberating.

It’s also been interesting to see how New Zealand has used the physical rebuilding of schools, especially in cases where natural tragedies created the need for reconstructing, to redesign schools to facilitate current educational strategy and goals. Instead of replicating old structure, they viewed the rebuilding as an opportunity to create schools that promote new pedagogical goals.  School space is designed to encourage collaboration and creativity.   Now, apparently, all new schools are  to embrace this approach.