A group of education technology leaders and myself recently returned from a delegation to New Zealand. While the trip, led by CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking), gave us the unique opportunity to experience the country’s remarkable history, culture, cuisine and geography, our goal was to see how New Zealand was powerfully using technology to improve teaching and learning.
The recent trip to New Zealand expanded CoSN’s international program, which has spanned from India to Scandinavia over the past 15 years. So what, in particular, were we hoping to learn in New Zealand that we hadn’t found elsewhere?
To start, we were interested in the way New Zealand balances a highly decentralized system while achieving high standards for students. We also wanted to see how learning spaces were redesigned after a devastating earthquake struck Christchurch in 2011, and how these new spaces supported digital transformation for students, teachers and administrators.
In addition, we wondered what made it possible for New Zealand to earn high recognition from The Economist’s Worldwide Educating for the Future Index as a “Best in Class Overall” for providing students with future skills education. Specifically, what has New Zealand done differently to ensure that its students are well prepared for the future? Can U.S. educators learn lessons from their approach and experience?
From our school visits and discussions with New Zealand government officials, educators and local leaders, we came away with three important lessons.
First, New Zealand instills 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 instruction (i.e., 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 U.S. education circles.
Finally, leadership matters. Strong school leadership allows for flexibility and growth and is critical for student learning success. We were honored to meet with exceptional school leaders who are taking the education of their learners to a new level.
A one-week visit cannot provide all the answers to the questions we sought to obtain. But our experience gave us a renewed sense of what is possible when there is inspired leadership, strong foundations for learners and policies that support this journey.
Irene Spero is the Chief Strategy Officer for CoSN. To learn more about CoSN’s international leadership, visit: cosn.org/international.