Making Connections Across the Curriculum at Hobsonville Point

The series on Aotearoa New Zealand continues here with the second article on Hobsonville Point Secondary School.

One of the three principles driving Hobsonville Point Secondary School (HPSS) curricular design is Connections. It starts with creating a culture, environment, and structure that strengthens relationships. “Teaching and learning is a relationship-based concept. Future-focused learning is a relationship based concept. Emotions are always at the fore when we reflect on our lives, when we push ourselves, when we think about the future,” explained Maurie Abraham, principal of HPSS.

Connections is also about making connections between disciplines and with the world around students. HPSS school and instructional strategies to make connections across the curriculum include:

  • Creating Year 9 and 10 multi-age groups within a foundation phase to repair gaps, develop a sense of purpose through project-based learning, and strengthen habits of success.
  • Offering project-based learning throughout all five years of secondary school. The first two years are projects facilitated by the school and increasingly become student-driven around interests.
  • Developing a range of interdisciplinary learning opportunities to make connections across the eight academic domains required by the NZ Curriculum.
  • Focusing Year 11 on deeper learning rather than Level 1 so that when students do begin to take the assessments for Level 2, they are better prepared to achieve endorsements of merit and excellence. Similar to Year 9 and 10, the Year 11 emphasis is on formative assessing student work without any summative assessments.

Connecting with the World Through Project-Based Learning

Connections is also about helping students form explore and build stronger relationships in the community through internships and project-based learning. In the planning year, Abraham visited High Tech High, The Met, and other schools. Although they all emphasized project-based learning (PBL) and real-world learning, he noticed that there were a variety of practices with a range of rigor. HPSS has introduced PBL with Big Projects for Year 9 & 10 and Impact Projects for Year 11-12.

Projects are designed to be “student-centred, authentic, collaborative learning experiences based around a meaningful issue, challenge or needs-based situation in our community. Students undertake deep exploration and inquiry, working with real-world partners to develop innovative and impactful actions. The result is the creation of high-quality authentic products, knowledge and outcomes that make a significant contribution to their community. “ Most of the day each Wednesday is directed toward project-based learning.

Please note: The issue that teachers often refer to any type of activity as project-based learning came up with my conversation with Bob Lenz from the Buck Institute. Confusion about what makes high quality PBL is a problem across American schools.

HPSS is expanding their internships program to better provide career options for students who might be on a more vocational path and for students who want to go to university but have not yet developed a stronger sense of purpose. As always, Abraham is challenging convention as he creates more capacity for individual planning and pathways that allow students to mix part-time school and work or pursue tertiary level courses in the trades.

Interdisciplinary Learning

Abraham asked, “Why don’t we allow students to apply their learning to other subjects? Learning is always better when linked together and students are making connections with their own prior knowledge, across learning areas (disciplines) and with the world around them. At Hobsonville, we want to move beyond learning  within subject silos.”

Wherever I went in New Zealand, questions were raised about what is expected in terms of teaching students the eight learning areas. The NZ Curriculum starts with a general explanation of the learning areas, followed by the structure of the domain, and then offers more specific achievement objectives. By secondary school, the NZQA creates more specificity in designing the assessments around achievement and process standards. Although the process of earning Levels is clear, what isn’t clear is what students are expected to know and do across the eight domains.

Similar to the U.S. standards, the number of NZ achievement objectives creates tension. Are schools expected to “cover the achievement objectives” even if that means doing so at lower levels of depth of knowledge, or can schools organize rich learning experiences for students to master some of the achievement objectives more deeply? HPSS has had to prove within the ERO quality assurance process how their interdisciplinary approach is covering the curriculum. They’ve done so by identifying eight big concepts that allow robust connections to be made: identity, space and place, citizenship, systems, culture and diversity, relationships, innovation, and transformation. Semester-long (two terms or half a year) courses are designed for students to work across two of the concepts at a time and have all eight completed by the end of the foundation phase of their learning.

Hobsonville draws on seven elements of a learning design model to ensure robust learning experiences in each module. The seven elements are:

  • Explore
  • Make Sense
  • Focus
  • Generate
  • Test
  • Refine
  • Evaluate

To ensure courses and modules are designed for deeper learning, New Zealand refers to both Bloom’s taxonomy and Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO).

Keeping Focus on Learning, Not Just Credits

HPSS is designing the school (it’s an iterative process) to focus on learning, knowing that the National Certificate Education Achievement quickly creates a culture of “chasing credits” on the path to Level 1, 2, and 3 certification. Abraham explained, “We want to spend more time to produce more learning and reduce the time spent on assessment.” He feels that Level 1 has little value for opening doors for students. When students could leave school at age 16, Level 1 was essentially a certificate of achievement for them. However, most students at HPSS now stay until Year 12 and 13, with 90 percent earning Level 2 or above. Thus, for most of the students at HPSS, it makes sense to keep the focus on learning in Year 11 with the goal of earning merit and excellence for Level 2 and 3. Would this strategy work for all communities in New Zealand? Perhaps, although my guess is that it would generate a lot of debate.

Co-Constructing Courses

At what point do we invite students in to the process of co-constructing schools and learning experiences? At HPSS, it starts early with representative teams of students invited to brainstorm with a team of ten teachers from across the disciplines about the big concepts that are scheduled for the semester to come.  What do they mean? What types of contexts could be used to explore them? What captures the students’ curiosity the most? What types of questions might be explored (such as at what point is it acceptable for humans and robots to marry or how are environmental concerns shaping dynamics and policies regarding refugees)?

Teachers take the data from these brainstorms, pair it with everything they know about the science of learning, Universal Designs for Learning, and the NZ Curriculum’s achievement objectives and whittle it down into five modules. Abraham noted that it is important for all ten teachers to collaboratively agree on the modules, not just everyone to do the one they find interesting. It is through the collaboration and tapping into the knowledge and creativity of the full team that the modules become rich learning experiences. The next semester, students can choose among the modules each taught by  a team of teachers from different disciplines.

With the guidance of personal learning coaches, students select modules with the goal of covering all the learning areas. There are also expectations for a language class, often Te Reo Māori (Māori language), and SPIN (special interest) courses that are single-subject. The 13 and 14 year olds have more interdisciplinary modules in their schedule to help them develop an appreciation for learning and how to make connections across learning areas. With each year, more single subject classes fill the schedule with fewer interdisciplinary modules as the expectations of the NCEA take hold.

The third article on HPSS will look at meeting students where they are.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *