First view of inquiry learning in New Zealand: Rhonda’s Eisenhower Fellowship

Scenic Detour
After landing in Auckland, I met with Bernardine and we began an unanticipated scenic drive to visit Stonefields School . Due to backed up traffic on the motorway, we drove through Mangere to Mt. Wellington. The drive route and duration gave Bernardine and I time to start conversations about socio-cultural and political implications on education access. During my flight I watched the top-selling New Zealand film, Boy, a coming-of-age story of a Maori boy from my generation. I was really struck by how similar the social issues in this film were to Native American narratives and even growing up Black in Lafayette, LA. The armchair anthropologist in me wants to start a side project comparing experiences and depiction of poverty for marginalized people of color in majority culture countries. As we drove through Mangere, a lower income Maori and Polynesian community, Bernardine explained how the Treaty (of Waitangi, but you’ll learn that while New Zealand has many treaties, “The Treaty” typically refers to this one) established protections and respect for Maori people, power, property, language and culture. I look forward to learning more about all of the perspectives on the Treaty and issues relating to promoting & protecting Maori culture, integration vs. assimilation, and education access. The schools in Mangere are lower decile schools (high poverty census tracks) and tend to have lower academic performance than the national average. In previous generations Mangere had a more working class New Zealand population with several famous sons graduating from their schools. We could apply the American term “white flight” to the Mangere context, but I’m sure the experience here is more nuanced.

Land of Inquiry
Stonefields is a new, growing school in Auckland, located in a growing new construction residential community in Mt. Wellington. Mt. Wellington has many new higher-priced residential developments and is home to professional New Zealanders and migrants from all over the world. Stonefields has been receiving great interest for their intentionally deep inquiry practice. Educators from across the country and the world flock to Stonefields every Tuesday (limited to 45 participants) to learn how this school has created such an amazing learning community since 2011. I can’t think of a better way to have begun this part of my fellowship.

Sarah Martin, Foundational Principal, presented their beliefs about learning and how they value student voice, parent voice, and teacher voice in their program design. Not only are students inspired, engaged, and articulate about their learning (check out these student voice videos) but teachers are equally engaged in this deep reflection on their own learning. Stonefields organizes there space by Learning Hubs, the equivalent of three classes per grade level, that have the same amount of traditional staffing, roughly 1:25, but a very fluid organization. Students work with all of these teachers for different parts of their learning, enjoy a significant amount of student-directed small group learning, and may have specialists support unique learning needs (ie ESOL, speech, literacy, etc).

After Sarah’s overview we visited lower and upper school Learning Hubs (K-8) to see the community in action. Students were busy, purposeful, and working in groups primarily seated on the floor. The Learning Hubs were designed and furnished to match the pedagogy. There were tables and stools, but at every grade level most students worked on the floor or on cushions and small couches, migrating to a table for writing activities. Mobile tech labs had a flatscreen with HDMI that teachers used for projection and also housed tablets or laptops for student use. Stonefields has a one-to-one technology infrastructure which we saw today more in the upper grades. For literacy students were typically using print books and using digital resources in place of textbooks. They adopt a SAMR perspective that the use of technology tools is not the end-goal, but that students and teachers experience choice based on their audience. The Learning Hubs are noisy. Students are expected to make meaning through interaction and that often sounds like talking it out with a classmate. While we visited the 5/6 year-old hub students were spread out over 2,500 square feet, around corners, in small breakout rooms with glass doors, accessing their own materials and a few were working directly with a teacher. When a teacher noticed that some 5/6 year-old students weren’t making progress in their work, she asked “Do you need to be self-aware as a learner and go off to work on your own?” To signal transition time, one teacher rang the class chimes and achieved absolute silence across the entire space (students laced their fingers atop their heads to listen) and announced that read alouds would begin in the next minute. She gave them a choice of locations but didn’t announce the texts or teachers or ask students to share their choice. Students didn’t ask any questions, but turned to begin their clean up.

In addition to their embedded inquiry, Stonefields also engages all learners in Breakthrough Learning. Students decide what they would like to learn and begin independent study. They may combine with peers and community volunteers for their Breakthrough projects and about 30% of students undertake projects with social awareness/benefit component. Time is allocated weekly for all students to work on their Breakthrough projects. Imagine if every student did an exhibition every year and how that might transform their learning! Next week I’ll return to Stonefields and am excited to go deeper into the structure of their model for students, teachers, and parents.

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