Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako represent a new structural way of thinking about the New Zealand education system, placing the learner at the centre of design decisions, and connecting all the settings that make up their educational pathway. In addition, they enable the leveraging of resources, skills, and expertise that exist within individual schools, kura, and early years settings across the cluster, to better meet the needs of all learners.
Internationally, there is a move towards understanding organisations as entities that operate within networks. This is a part of an evolution in social organisation, considered by many as the ‘post-industrial’ way of operating.
Schools have operated for a long time within a bureaucracy that is largely hierarchical (industrial), where decisions are passed down through the structural layers of the system. New Zealand broke away from the highly-centralised view of this sort of system in 1989, when schools became autonomous, self-managing entities, but continued to operate within the mind-set of a hierarchy, both locally and nationally. A key characteristic of this was the increased level of competition between schools for both staff and students.
Becoming a networked community of learning involves understanding the principles upon which a network operates — as a series of nodes, linked by connections and relationships, kept active by the activity across these links designed to help the network grow and flourish. By implication, this requires schools to consider the focus of their activity (i.e., student learning) and to understand that they are but one of the many nodes in a complex series of relationships that contribute to a child’s learning over time.
Of course, networks on their own don’t change much. Thus, the structural change to a Community of Learning | Kāhui Ako by itself is unlikely to change much, especially for students. To realise the potential of these, school leaders, teachers, and communities must learn about and work to achieve the following:
To realise their potential, Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako will need to provide additional value to the work of the individual settings that belong to them. This requires a strategic, purposeful, and focused approach to determine what the network can do that:
Like many system innovations, the Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako development has several drivers, including:
You don’t have to look far to see examples of networked communities of learning in the recent history of New Zealand education. Over the last forty years, the Ministry of Education has provided funds and/or resources, and levels of accountability for several different types of networks, each with a different purpose. All initiatives have focused on sharing what works and strengthening infrastructure to sustain new systems, processes, and practices. Over time, there has been the gradual shift in focus from schools and teachers to students and their learning, in what is now captured in the current strategy known as Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako.
Key national initiatives were:
ICT PLD — a part of the 1989 ICT strategy for schools was self-identified clusters of schools supported to collaboratively develop teachers’ ICT skills and capabilities.
Extending High Standards Across Schools (EHSAS) initiative — groups of primary and/or secondary schools presented proposals for improving teacher practice and student achievement, particularly in literacy and numeracy, boys’ achievement, Māori achievement and developing the potential of gifted and talented children. Clusters were funded for the enactments of the proposals. Manaiakalani was initially an EHSAS project. It began in Tamaki, and now has outreach clusters in the Far North, Auckland, West Coast, and Christchurch. The focus remains on raising student achievement through supporting learners to be digital citizens and engaging families in the process. This initiative is now funded by the Manaiakalani Education Trust, drawing on resources from philanthropy, the New Zealand Government, and national and local businesses
Schooling Improvement Projects — clusters of schools (generally based around pathways of primary to secondary schools) in regions that had high underachievement and high unemployment were supported to increase participation and engagement and accelerate progress (especially in reading, writing, and mathematics) by strengthening governance, management, leadership, and teaching. The Learning and Change Networks initiative followed, with an emphasis on teachers learning across and within clusters.
Virtual Learning Network Community (VLNC) — regional clusters of schools are supported with an online space to host their learning exchange and to share resources, conversations, calendars, etcetera. Both teachers and students use the site. While this continues, there are now many more groups of teachers and leaders making most of the affordances of the online site for conversations and sharing resources.
As an externally imposed model, the Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako strategy has not been without its detractors – and many would argue for good reason. Aside from the politics of this, there remains, however, several very good reasons why schools should be exploring working more closely together in order to provide the very best educational service to learners.
Some questions to act as a stimulus with your colleagues include: