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The influence of educational trends in NZ Education


The idea of student agency is simple and familiar in the sense that it is about trying to build learning around the needs of individual pupils, something that has been practised in many forms. Agency is when learning involves the activity and the initiative of the learner, more than the inputs that are transmitted to the learner from the teacher, from the curriculum, the resources etc. However, it is much more complex, the emphasis being on a major systems-level shift. It calls for reversing the current education systems so that the system is built around the learner to support every person to develop to their full potential, rather than the learner conforming to the system. A key trend that has characterised the move away from industrial-era schools is the move from teachers completely owning the learning process to learners owning more of it. When learners have the power to act in their learning, they have what is known as agency. Agency can take many forms from being empowered to make decisions about which activity to move onto next through to learners being empowered to take positive social action in their communities. Providing choices in learning is an important factor in engagement, which is in turn a contributor to student learning and success. One of the implications of this rise of student agency is that schools are seeking new ways to invite, honour and act on student voice, both in learning and across the wider life of school. For example, schools allowing learners to exercise agency by focusing learning on local environmental and community-based problems. Students’ learning activities and the curriculum/knowledge content they engage with are shaped in ways that reflect the input and interests of students, as well as what teachers know to be important knowledge. The challenges for schools is rethinking the way the school organises its resources to support more personalised approaches and the level of redeploying the school’s existing resources (teachers, spaces, time) in ways that better support personalisation and student agency.

What are the implications for us as teachers, and as educational leaders?

As we think about how our schools are going to be places that will prepare kids for life and work in the 21st century with the 21st century skills and knowledge, we need to be encouraging them to be agentic in their learning, because that’s what they are going to need to be able to do beyond school in work, and as citizens.
In special education we started this process by adopting the use of individualised education plans (IEPs) as a way of personalising the approach to learning, not just in terms of the delivery, but in terms of the learners ownership of that learning - the direction, content, process, and assessment of that learning. I have taken it a step further by having the students run the IEP meeting and setting goals according to their "Dreams" based on what they want their lives to look like when they leave school. Learner agency develops when learners are involved in the whole learning process - including decisions about the curriculum itself, involving learners a lot more in the choices about the what as well as the how and the why of what is being learned. The students IEP goals, for example: wanting to get their Learners License, wanting to be able to handle their own money, determines my curriculum.

Normally, we tell students what they are going to learn, then give them resources and materials to learn then check for understanding, and provide feedback and help as needed.
For two hours a week my students get to;

a) Pick their learning topic and end goal.

b) Pre-define what they would consider a successful learning outcome. 

c) In most cases I know little about the topic they chose but I know my students interests, learning capabilities and styles. I am no longer the person with the most knowledge on the subject in the room, so I help in other ways using feedback, helping in the learning process and teaching skills for producing evidence of learning through some type of making/creating/building.

d) Presenting their work to their peers.

I have found that choice improves student engagement, allows for flexibility in learning and teaching, embraces student's current passions and strengths and leads to personal growth in the Key Competencies as set out in the New Zealand Curriculum. 


Across the globe we are seeing the rise of new models of what it means to be a modern, networked organisation and at its heart is a shift from hierarchical structures to networks. A networked organisation is one that understands two key ideas: that each person within that organisation can make a personal contribution to the evolution of the organisation. Secondly, that the organisation itself is part of a global set of connections, groups and individuals, able to communicate with anyone and make visible its work. To begin this process on our campus all three schools work together for the benefit of each of their students and ensure they are well supported as they transition through the schools. The three schools collaborate to explore effective pedagogy, provide coherent transitions, and support greater student achievement. Achieving these goals is strengthened by a cross-campus initiative, MERGE. The MERGE coordinator leads the process supported by a Pasifika liaison officer, a campus Māori achievement coordinator and a campus kaumatua.

Developing and maintaining a collaborative learning environment is a priority for the three schools and is assisted by cross-campus curriculum lead teams. Teachers are developing a consistent learning language across the schools. The common language helps students’ learning as they progress from year to year and between the schools. Staff across the campus use professional learning circles to explore effective teaching practice, create coherent transitions, and drive greater student achievement.

The collaborative learning culture is further fostered by:
• cross-campus, annual teacher meetings that include student speakers
• the development of campus-wide Māori education plan targeting Māori student achievement
• learning support assistants / teacher aides meeting regularly to share effective practice.

MERGE and whānau involvement
MERGE also encompasses a wide range of cross-campus, student-centred activities. These activities are central to the MERGE goal of increasing parent/whānau participation in their child’s learning. The three schools share a campus whare. A Māori graduation evening, attended by students from all schools, celebrates students’ transition between schools and ultimately back to whānau. This latter initiative presents older students as strong role models and has seen a significant increase in retention of Māori and whānau in the life of the schools. Other cross-campus activities include a concert and Matariki celebrations.

Connection with the wider community
Students benefit from the support of external agencies providing specialised programmes for students at risk. Students selected for two of these programmes are often identified while still at the intermediate school and continue their participation during the first year at the high school. One aim is to provide students with a consistent person who traverses the four social worlds of the students (school, home, peers and broader community) and who supports students to move between those worlds. These external mentors have ongoing informal interactions with their students across a range of social, sporting and learning situations. Another initiative runs for one hour a week. It is designed to build resilience. Many students begin the programme during their time at intermediate. At Year 10 a further programme reinforces the messages explored in the Year 9 programmes for those students identified at risk of disengaging with learning.

Learners are best served by a learning design that takes into account diverse strengths and needs and diversity is respected and upheld. The demand for schools to be more inclusive of disabled students is increasing as schools' visions reflect the philosophy of the school that all students are confident, connected, actively involved lifelong learners. Inclusive design ensures that students’ identities, languages, abilities, and talents are recognised and affirmed and their learning needs are addressed. Inclusive schools have well-organised systems, effective teamwork and constructive relationships that identify and support the inclusion of all students to learn. Innovative and flexible practices respond to the needs of all students.

With this in mind I base my curriculum access and delivery on the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) that gives all students equal opportunities to learn. Not just the students with with special learning needs but all students. It's guidelines prompts me to consider what will enable rather than dis-able learners in the way I teach and organise learning. There is increasing interest in applying UDL as a lens to underpin inclusive learning design, driven by an increasing appreciation for learner-driven curriculum and pedagogy. UDL provides a framework for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone--not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customised and adjusted for individual needs. The key word in UDL is options and technology allows me to make learning for the needs of every student in my classes easier. It has taken away the hours that I can spend preparing resources so that I can differentiate my teaching and everybody will gain from the task that they are doing. The students and I experiment and work together to find the most effective ways to integrate digital technologies into the learning environment to help remove barriers to learning. I provide increased choices matched to student needs and interests, and expand collaboration opportunities.

Below is two simple examples of the UDL Principal - Multiple means of representation:
1. The students use a google chrome extension to convert text to speech to help with reading a webpage.
2. The use of Clarke's Thinkchart organisers to;

• Activate prior knowledge and understandings 

• Reduce cognitive overload with complexity of material presented 

• Activate long term memory 

Her organisers offer supporting visuals and sequential steps to guide learners through a process.

In conclusion for me the process of learning for students with disabilities students has become more important than the end product.

Inclusive Design. (2015). Retrieved from:

Juliani, A. J. (2015). Learning By Choice: 10 Ways Choice and Differentiation Create An Engaged Learning Experience for Every Student (1 edition). Press Learn.

Ministry of Education. (2007). New Zealand Curriculum. Wellington, New Zealand: Learning Media Ltd. Available at

Networked organisations. (2015). Retrieved from:

Student Agency. (2014).

Student Agency. (2015). Retrieved from:

thinkchartTM organisers | Workshops. (n.d.). Retrieved from

UDL. (n.d.). Retrieved from:

Universal Design for Learning: Retrieved from:

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Comment by Merryn Dunmill on July 1, 2015 at 10:57

What a wonderful post, Lorraine! You share such clear approaches to enhancing agency for students, teachers and communities. Special Education is leading the way at your school and the inclusive learning design methods you share are so important for ALL learners. Thank you so much - inspiring work.  You might be interested in reading this latest research  ʻStudent and Teacher Perceptions of Online Student Engagement in an... by  Nathaniel Louwrens, CORE Education & Maggie Hartnett, Massey University considers many of the points you present here around UDL (task design), agency and unpacking what engagement actually is - behavioural, cognitive and emotional dimensions. More great Kiwi contributions to influence and discuss educational trends.

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