Transforming learning

This post originally appeared on the CORE Education blog (Feb 2016)]

rockstoka kāhuarau: (noun) metamorphic rock.
Ko te toka kāhuarau: Ko te momo toka ka hua mai ina huri te hanga me te āhua o tētahi atu o ngā toka mā te pā mai o te wera me te pēhanga i roto i takanga o te wā roa (RP 2009:407); The type of rock that results when transformed into another type of rock through the application of heat and pressure over a long period of time (Source).

As we head back into a new school year, there is continued appetite to do things differently, reconfigure learning programmes and classrooms, systems and processes so that we are increasingly walking the talk on learner-centred education. At the risk of kicking off with a buzzword, we can describe what we are collectively trying to achieve here as transformation.

Transformation is one of those ‘weasel words’ that can bend to many purposes. In te reo Māori, it can be described as kāhuarau. Metaphors of the alternative of molten rock might come to mind, as do koru spirals and butterfly metamorphoses.

In CORE, we take a clear position on transformation, acknowledging that it looks different in different educational contexts. Our kaupapa here is that that we believe that all people are of value, that everyone is unique and deserves to belong because we know that our education system is not (yet) at the point where all our learners and their families see themselves as well served.

Why ‘transform’?


Over the summer, I listened to a compelling and wide-ranging interview on Radio NZ with Gregor Fountain (Principal, Paraparaumu College) and Stuart Middleton (Director of External Relations at the Manukau Institute of Technology), who commented on still existing pockets of inequity — particularly for Māori, boys, Pasifika, students with identified learning needs – that are still inconsistently addressed in education.

We’ve got to do what’s in the best interests of young people, and at the moment we are not for perhaps 40% of the New Zealand young people we are not acting in the best interests.” – Stuart Middleton

This is reflects one of two positions on the imperative for transformation, that the numbers of young people who are disengaged from learning, particularly by the time they are teenagers, calls for a “radical overhaul” (OECD, 2015). Recent reports from ERO have signaled concerns about the wellbeing and engagement of our young people and lack of equity of opportunity. The influence of iwi in education, and the continued focus on the revival of te reo Māori, offer further incentives to look for more equitable solutions than those in traditionally designed learning.

A second view on the imperative for transformation is that economic drivers and global interdependence are putting pressure on education, which is seen as “too slow to change, too inward-looking and too detached from rapid economic shifts” (OECD, 2015). For example, here in New Zealand, we know that our populations are shifting and that jobs are evolving. Mai Chen recently launched the Superdiversity Stocktake: Implications for Business, Government and New Zealand for Auckland (see ‘Superdiversity: Children lead the way as cultures combine‘). while the Labour Party has developed the Future of Work Commission.

“We cannot keep faith with old models simply because they are neater” (OECD, 2015).

Whichever view one takes, both positions call for transformation of our systems. We have, still, world-leading curricula that even after 8+ years offer pathways for us to explore the kinds of learning approaches that are spotlighted in international cutting edge research such as Innovative Learning Environments, Educational Research and Innovation (OECD, 2013).

The opportunity

In a recent post (‘A new era of professional development?’), Derek Wenmoth talked about the changes ahead and the need for innovation and change management. There are a number of significant national policy levers being pulled this year that might support the kinds of transformation discussed above.

We have access to more research than ever before that helps us refine our understanding of effective learning. We have increasingly efficient technical infrastructural supports (see Towards Digital Fluency (2015) from the Ministry of Education that outlines that four key areas of government support) and, under the Investing in Educational Success initiative, communities and educators are invited to think of new ways to create powerful pathways of learning that are truly ambitious — trulytransformative — for all our learners.

But we do know that true transformation cannot be imposed. It must come from within the system. Teachers, learners, leaders at the grassroots are the most powerful source of change, not top-down inputs. Practitioners will be the most powerful and sustainable generators of new practice, if the wider policy ‘enablers’ allow it (Gilbert, 2015).

Where to begin

TrebuchetInstead of improving on how we have done things in the past, transformation thinks outside the box, looks to the future and designs ways to create inclusive environments. If what we have been doing to date does not (yet) create equitable space for all people love to learn, can work and thrive, then what can we offer our young people that will? When we look at our in-school curriculum, can we ask how ambitious is it for all our learners, particularly those less well served in the past, those who might traditionally have been ‘on the edges’? How well does it align and enact daily the vision statements on our websites and in our foyers?

Change of this magnitude — whether it is redesigning the school day, redesigning programmes of learning, building stronger relationships with whānau, growing capability across staff and across communities – might be described as deep, (sometimes) slow work. Change is all about the people. It is complex, confronting and can create feelings of instability, fear and loss. There no right answers because we need to create the solutions ourselves as collaborative communities. There is no cookie cutter for transformation.

What we do have is a growing understanding of the processes that are needed to begin. For example:

  • What our learners think/say/feel is intrinsic to how well we judge our own success: I often hear of schools planning inquiries based on latest personal interests or narrow data from a snapshot in time. True inquiry is agile, responsive to the ‘soft data’, the stories that our learners and their families tell us and it keeps repositioning in the face of new information. Our processes of transformation need to reflect our vision: if we want all our people to have access to quality education in ways that honour identity, language and culture, then our processes need to reflect that from the start.
  • Vision drives action: The shared development of a school mission and vision is just the start of a long journey. The daily lived curriculum, the pedagogical approaches, and the way relationships are managed all send powerful signals about what is ‘really’ valued in school. Do the two align?
  • Transformation is a shift in beliefs and commensurate actions: What we do know is that deep change – second order change (Waters, Marzano & McNulty, 2003) –  occurs when the answers to our problems are not obvious and we have to reconsider our entire approach, assumptions and ways of working. Once we identify that this is the paradigm in which we are working, we can design effective professional learning to support it.
  • Reflection and inquiry can sustain on-going change: There are several frameworks available to help us think about what we want to change (think Spirals of Inquiry, Teaching as Inquiry, Universal Design for Learning, Talanoa, Appreciative Inquiry, Design Thinking…). Each brings their own advantages and we choose the one that best suits our purposes. What they all have in common is the absolute importance of finding out what is working (or not) for all our learners and how we know, as a foundational starting point for innovation.

CORE works deeply alongside organisations, communities, and individuals to support transformation. This year’s uLearn16 conference has transformation as its central theme.

For more information on our UChoose mentoring programmes and tailored in-school consultancy/programmes, contact us today.


Gilbert, J. (2015). Leading in collaborative, complex education systems. Wellington: Education Council.

OECD (2015). Schooling redesigned: Towards innovative learning systems. Centre for Educational Research and Innovation: OECD.

OECD. (2013). Innovative learning environments, Educational research and innovation. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Waters, T., Marzano, R. J. & McNulty, B. (2003). Balanced leadership: What 30 years of research tells us about the effect of leadership on student achievement. McRel.

Image sources:


88x31Transforming Learning by Karen Spencer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

One thought on “Transforming learning

  1. Kia Ora Karen

    What a great post – thank you.

    Like you, I believe transformation from within the sector is critical in the process of developing new education paradigms. At present in NZ we have a MOE who are looking to change structures – all of them – all at the same time. While this could be a help, it is not really where the transformation will be most powerful. It is with the people. Leaders leading change, by ‘getting rid of the boxes’ as well as thinking ‘ouside and around them’ is what is needed in my view.

    Kia tino pai to ra – Have a super day!

    Nga mihi nui Cherie Taylor-Patel

    On Tue, Feb 23, 2016 at 12:28 PM, karen spencer wrote:

    > karenspencer posted: ” This post originally appeared on the CORE Education > blog (Feb 2016)] toka kāhuarau: (noun) metamorphic rock. Ko te toka > kāhuarau: Ko te momo toka ka hua mai ina huri te hanga me te āhua o tētahi > atu o ngā toka mā te pā mai o te wera me te pēhanga i r” >


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