New Zealand: Place, Integration, Coherence, and Art

[The following post is a continuation of a series of insights gleaned from observations, interviews, and collaboration in New Zealand schools.]

One last post, to highlight a few other themes to emerge from my immersion in the world of New Zealand education…

A Sense of Place

On the face of it, one might think that Burlington and Winooski High Schools don’t have much to learn learn from a small, rural primary school on the Northeast coast of New Zealand. We live in a beautiful place, but it’s certainly not a setting like this:

This school, however, is a powerful example of integrated place-based learning–an approach that offers learners immediate authenticity, relevance, and purpose. Nestled between mountains and sea on a Pacific peninsula, the neighboring forests are a key home to the threatened kiwi bird.

img_5412The entirety of the landscape is seen as the students’ classroom.


Students have also been involved in numerous place-based initiatives:

Students have built many structures on the school grounds, including a garden shed–from scratch.


Students have also built interpretive trails…


They have collaborated with the Department of Conservation, as well as the local Conservation Trust, to monitor kiwi populations and remediate threatened habitat.


(Note the graffiti on the sign: Kids crossed off “can,” making the message more emphatic!)


Students also work with the D.O.C. to set and monitor traps for invasive species–the most serious threat to new Zealand’s unique fauna, which developed for millions of years without either predators or mammals.

It’s important to clarify that these kinds of initiatives are not “side-projects,” tacked on to stand-alone core curriculum. They are what students do for school. With the exception of math, which is self-contained, the rest of teaching and learning at this school is thematic, place-based, and purposeful.

Integrated and Inquiry-Based

The New Zealand nationwide curriculum is a unique document. Rather than being a list of content to cover, it is a  map that focuses on core skills and dispositions that it expects all learners to explore, practice, and demonstrate. A core component of this document is what is called the “Key Competencies.” The overlap between our own work to develop “Graduate Expectations” is striking. Elegantly, clearly, New Zealand has articulated what it wants learners to know, do, and be; teaching professionals are then allowed to facilitate a variety of rich learning opportunities.


Secondary students work on a design-challenge related to advertising

One model, seen in many New Zealand schools, is that of “Inquiry-Based Learning.” Inquiries take many forms, but have a few common features:

  • Collaboration: Students work in groups to explore and learn
  • Student Voice: Students develop the questions that they want to pursue, based on their own curiosity.
  • Emergent Curriculum- Topics, projects, and demonstrations-of-learning all emerge naturally from the inquiry
  • Integration- Traditional disciplines are all applied in a rich inquiry–in fact, the teacher ensures this–but they rarely exist in isolation. All are applied, and seamlessly integrated into the topic at hand.

To see a brief video in which a teacher introduces New Zealand’s take on Inquiry Learning, click HERE.

Interestingly, kids themselves have a consistently clear sense of what Inquiry Learning is, and what it means for them as a learner.

Fascinating models are everywhere in New Zealand. In several schools, what we would consider “core” learning is fully-integrated (with the sometimes-exception of math). Along with integrated inquiries, students take a rotating series of courses that all fall under the title “technology.” These include “Food Tech,” “Hard Materials,” “Fine Art,” and–interestingly–Lab Science. In order to ensure that students don’t miss out on these formalized skills in integrated inquiries, science labs are part of the technology program. Leonardo himself might be pleased to see science and art sharing the same wing of a school!


Integrated and applied learning also allow something another practice to emerge: Design-Thinking. Yes, even halfway around the world, a familiar model in practice!



Due in large part to New Zealand’s thematic and skills-based curriculum, teachers have remarkable autonomy. Within one school, even same-age classrooms are often noticeably different. So how do schools avoid slipping into divergence, entropy, and chaos? What follows are a few examples of how New Zealand schools build coherence, even as they support teachers’ creativity and freedom.

– In one school, every teacher pursues the same “inquiry” at the same time.

Imagine an inquiry focused on the question, “Where Did I Come From?” Thanks to deliberate scheduling, even though one classroom might be working on a genealogy and genetics project, and a a second class might be studying be studying immigration statistics and policy, all students are focused on the same theme at the same time. This consistency even extends to “tech” classes. In Food Tech, for instance, students might be researching family recipes; in Materials Tech, they might be making personalized picture frames that will house their family trees.

Another impact of coherent scheduling is equally powerful: Every teacher, no matter what class, or what age they teach, is facilitating the same inquiry. Their planning, for the subsequent inquiry, is also coordinated. The result is that professional conversations–formal or informal–naturally flow towards teaching and learning. By design, teachers are constantly learning from one another.

– Another approach that builds coherence, despite the freedom given to teachers, is the systematic teaching and nurturing of high expectations, pro-social behaviors, and self-reflection. In New Zealand schools, the consistency of messages and values is remarkable. In every entrance or lobby–and in every classroom–coherent messages are not just displayed, but discussed.

img_46871 img_4686 img_47871

The invariable result is that students can clearly articulate the values, habits-of-mind, and learner profiles that the school espouses and expects. Below, another video with the early-adolescent interviewees from TNIS:

Everywhere, Art

Everywhere–everywhere–art is seen in New Zealand schools, and across school grounds and campuses.

Cheers, from Aotearoa!


One Response to “New Zealand: Place, Integration, Coherence, and Art”

  1. Cathern

    I am really impressed with your writing skills as well
    as with the layout on your blog. Is this a
    paid theme or did you customize it yourself? Anyway keep up the nice quality writing, it is rare to
    see a nice blog like this one today.


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