Digital teachers

On Friday I had a taste of the future. Point England Primary School, long a TUANZ favourite, is to become home to ten beginning teachers who are first wave in the new Digital Teaching Academy.

The Academy is run in conjunction with Google and the University of Auckland and graduates will come out with either an Honours degree or a Masters in Professional Studies, with a focus on digital learning environments.

Pt England, and now the broader Manaiakalani Education Trust, has been at the forefront of changing education in New Zealand for as long as I can remember.

The school has achieved so much with such limited resource, in thanks partly to its open source roots and partly to its Energizer Bunny principal, Russell Burt, who would spend his weekends putting up wifi antennas on students’ homes so they could connect to the internet via the school’s connection.

The ten teachers, chosen from over 150 applicants, will spend their time at a number of schools in the cluster – Tamaki College, Stonefields, Glenbrae, Tamaki Primary, Panmure Bridge and of course, Pt England Primary.

As one of the kids said at the launch, “We don’t want to wait for the teacher to learn the cool tools we use” and I couldn’t agree more.

Teachers are expected to wear so many hats today. Web designer, graphic designers, film producers, musicians, leaders, and yes, scientists, historians, literature critics, mathematicians and so much more. It’s important they have the same ability to use the tools as the kids they’re teaching, because otherwise you’ll end up with a classroom of kids who are bored and disengaged at a time when they should be learning about learning and falling in love with understanding.

And these kids really are something astonishing to see in action. I was shown around the school by Tui who is off to high school next year. Maybe I’m getting old, but I don’t remember ever being so confident at that age – and it wasn’t just her, all the kids were the same.

We saw learning environments, not classrooms. Forget the classes of old – these kids learn in huddles, in clusters, indoors and out. I came across two young lads doing something on a tablet sitting outside in the sun because, well, it was a sunny day. I found an entire class hanging out on the decking outside class working with their teacher and thought Mrs Dolbin of Alexandra Junior School in Wrexham would have had a fit, but I bet you those kids take more from their lessons than I ever did.

I also saw a cluster of four classrooms built around a central shared area and while Tui assured me they were doing maths, it didn’t resemble anything like the maths I sat through. No-one was wailing in anguish, for one thing.

Russell and Pt England have found the silver bullet to the biggest problem in New Zealand education – how to engage the long tail of kids, predominantly Maori and Pacific Island – who simply don’t learn well enough at school.

It’s not that they get a cool device (the netbooks they use were chosen because they are exceptionally uncool), it’s not that they get to goof off and sit on the deck, it’s not because they use the internet instead of paper books, it’s because the use of ICT is infused in every aspect of their education.

It’s not a case of a school buying a few iPads and hey presto! the kids are learning more.  Instead, it’s a case of using the tools that are right for the job and not being stuck with books that are 20 years old, with teaching aids that were designed in the 50s and having teachers who are confident and able to use the new tools to deliver the results – kids who learn, rather than kids who sit waiting to be taught.

Once this tranche of teachers comes through and go on to work in our schools the next big challenge will be to ensure that they find schools ready to make the leap and become digital schools. There’s no easy way to do that but up-skilling the principals and boards will be critical.

Russell’s wife, Dorothy Burt, spoke at the launch about her first day teaching at intermediate. Because she was fast-tracked through, she was only eight years out of intermediate school herself, and the books she used in her first lesson were the same ones she used when she was sitting in class.

How far we’ve come.


NOTE: Edit to include the full list of schools the teachers will be working at.