Nudge – some reflections from a course for the disengaged

The following is a bit of a write up about a “teaching as Inquiry” cycle I worked through in Term 3 of 2013. It centred around trying something different with a cohort of disengaged high school students who were not experiencing success in their school learning.

Background and context

Whilst on leave for the year from teaching I have been undertaking my own self-directed professional learning. This has focused around continuing my thinking and development of SOLO taxonomy as a framework for learning and also developing and participating in an online learning community, mainly via Twitter and blogging. As well as this, an opportunity arose for me to work part time at Unlimited Paenga Tawhiti (UPT), a special character school in Christchurch NZ. For many years I have wanted to explore how the NZ Curriculum can be delivered in a non-traditional school environment and this was the perfect opportunity.

At the time that this teaching position became available, UPT had gone through a process of addressing School Attendance. This had revealed that there was a cohort of students who whilst attending school, appeared to be disengaged in their learning (Talking to colleagues at other schools, this seems to be a common challenge).

At the time of interviewing for the position, I was selling myself on my previous work on making learning visible via frameworks such as SOLO Taxonomy and that whilst being a Geography teacher; I was keen to have a go at anything. Serendipitously, the leadership team at UPT was looking to create a class to meet the needs of this disengaged group of students and I scored a job.

Logistics of the course:

The target group was disengaged students between years 10-13. Students were identified via teacher referral, Dean Identification and NCEA results. These students were then approached and after a bit of a chat, they decided to give the course a go.

The course hours were 9am to 3pm Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday (note: on Wednesdays an independent program runs across the whole school). We were based in the same room every day and we provided pens, paper and stuff like that. The class was taught by myself who taught 9am – 12pm on a Monday and then 10:30 – 12pm on the other days and my colleague Blair taught the other blocks in the school day. This was my first experience at team teaching and I was nervous going into it but early on we established common ground in terms of how we would operate and work as a team. The basis of this was:

  • having high expectations (using language for success, linking strategies to Merit and Excellence etc.)
  • only ever doing something if it would be of value to the students and aims of the course (ie. No busy work for the sake of it),
  • we adopted the same mantra of Success = Effort + Effective      Strategies and we were always identifying and naming said strategies
  • We used a common language around learning based on SOLO taxonomy (i.e this strategy is about bringing in information (multi structural), Making links (relational) or showing insight (extended abstract). We also used this as a common language to talk about and teach the skill of writing paragraphs and even essays
  • We also developed some SOLO based thinking maps that we both used to support and make the learning visible to the students
  • We both agreed that developing the key competencies was a critical part of the success of this program
  • We settled on the name “Nudge” for the course as it pretty much fitted with our group of students      – they needed a nudge.


The course had 10 students ranging from years 10 – 13. There were two students who chose not to engage and failed to gain any benefit from the course. Having said this, for one of these students, since the course ended, she has made a dramatic improvement in learning focus and independent study. The class was made up of a mix of males and females.

The Course

The course ran for 8.5 weeks. Early on, we identified that this group of students was really motivated by the prospect of gaining credits and this helped inform how we co-constructed the rest of the course. Ultimately, we sold the students on the idea that we could “hack” the curriculum, follow their interests and use our strengths as experienced teachers to have a go at anything. We used the graphic below to summarise and communicate our thinking early on in the course. Note that the scattered ideas for learning contexts came from asking the students what they might be interested in learning about.

Fig 1.1

course overview

The first week of the course was about establishing norms for the group and really selling the idea that this was about developing effective strategies and the belief that with effort they all had the potential to succeed. During this time, we also collected some baseline data about their perceptions of themselves as learners. This was done by a simple survey and getting the students to draw a picture that represented themselves as a learner and explain why. Gathering this baseline data was telling in many ways. Firstly, they were very truthful in their perception of themselves as learners. Typically they expressed a fairly negative self-view. Interestingly, when asked how a “typical teacher” might view them, they rated themselves even lower. When asked to draw and explain an analogy of themselves as learners, this exposed a range of perspectives and views from those who drew the teacher as someone to fight against to those who identified that they tended to just “Blob” to those who saw themselves as having real difficulties i.e. a broken car with no headlights and flat tires trying to drive in the dark. We re-surveyed the students at the end of the course but I will outline that later. This baseline data informed how we would interact and proceed with the group.

pic3 pic2pic1

In this first week or so, because we were responding to the needs of the group, it was fairly stressful as we brought together a course that would work for them. There was a very steep learning curve with self-imposed time pressures. For example, it became apparent that for this group we needed to place a big emphasis on developing literacy. None of them had yet gained Level One literacy. My field of expertise has previously been Geography and while this attends to Literacy development, I was acutely aware that these students had not signed on for a Geography course. Following on from feedback the students had given about what they might like to learn about (see fig 1.1), we realised that we could use the NZQA Core Generics Standards for Literacy. As the teachers, we needed to; check we understood them and could assess against them to the standard required and make opportunities throughout the course for the students to demonstrate proficiency.

The way it worked out, I used my time to manage much of the NCEA standards and Blair used his time to develop a culture of high expectations and self-belief through some targeted readings and videos. These also provided rich topics for development of the core generics of reading, writing and spoken communication. Collectively, with brief but frequent catch-ups, Blair and I seemed to pull off a fairly seamless course where we built upon the work of each other.

For my part, being mindful of the Best Evidence Synthesis for Social Sciences, I really wanted to launch into some content that might have personal relevance to them and give them some freedom and choice in what they did. My wife who works for the Southern Regional Health School based in Christchurch had talked to me about a Level 1 English static image standard many of her students had had success with. After talking to her, checking some online exemplars, I launched in to modifying an NZQA exemplar so that students could develop a promotional poster for a group or issue that spoke to them. I used the teaching and planning phase of this to introduce Pam hooks Describe++ thinking map – it really is the thinking map to rule them all in my view. Bear in mind that this was my first time working with this standard and I could do it better next time, but we used the map below (fig 1.2). This became a base template for later standards we used and also an organizational way for the students to think about writing (extended abstract was added later).

fig 1.2

SOLO map1

The results from this first standard were not as fantastic as I had dreamed of achieving but I think it was early on in the course and we were still uncovering all of the effective strategies that the students had learned over the years to avoid work and avoid confronting their fair of failure. For many, they had learned that it is much easier to not participate than try and fail.

What I think slowly happened over the course was that the students realised that we were not going to stop. Every day we would maintain an expectation that they would do their best and even more, through the development of our understanding of effective strategies for success, we were dissolving their ability to avoid and replacing it with hope.

After getting my head around the Core Generics and learning about the English static image standard, writing an assessment for it and developing a structured unit of learning to meet the needs of these students, I was fairly whacked and I had been going a bit over the 8hrs per week that I was being paid for. To avoid burnout (and keep up with the housework) I next decided, with the classes permission, to explore some Geography standards that I was more familiar with. By now, a fairly strong trust relationship had formed where the students saw my efforts as purely being for them and their success. It was a fairly easy sell (luckily) and these students were also mindful I think that when they had been given total freedom in course selection (part of the special character of the school) they had not necessarily made good decisions. I think they were quite happy for someone else to take control for them.

I tried to stick closely to the initial interests they had expressed at the start to the course, so I settled on a Geographic Topic at a Global Scale based around Hip Hop Culture. Some of the group were chasing Level two credits if they could get them so I targeted the assessment at the level two standard and then marked it against both the level one and two standards giving the best mark to the students. I had not done this before but after writing two marking schedules and knowing how linked SOLO was to the steps in the standards, it was not difficult to do. This topic also allowed me to show a cool movie to which they wrote a review as one of their pieces of writing that could go towards the core generic writing standard and also the reading component whilst they were researching. It was getting nearer the end of the course by this time and we were constantly giving them feedback on progress and success. The students started to connect that their classmates were succeeding and that that meant that they probably could too.


The table below outlines the number of credits each student came in to the course with, their year level and the credits they left with.table

Overall, we were really happy with the results. For those that finished not quite reaching the 10 credits required for Literacy L1, most have since followed up with the learning support unit to complete these standards.

Attendance data is summarized below:


We also sort student feedback and re-collected data around their views of themselves as learners. This showed a significant improvement and their comments suggest the value they have seen in the course. Below is some of their feedback:

The best things about this course were:

  • “its helped me make some progress towards NCEA”
  • “-The strategies”
  • “Learning all the strategies to help me with my learning and improve success i had not been achieving before coming to this cause. It was a great experience to be part of.”
  • “Working with Craig because he is an excellent teacher and gives a really good clear message about what needs to be done and how to achieve it! Also, he’s very good at keeping me on track :)”
  • “I really enjoyed working with Craig, he is a big help and he explains things in a way students can understand and relate to, he’s a very great teacher and made this course loads of fun!!!”

Some things that might be improved or could be better are:

  • “I don’t have any real complaints”
  • “Could we please have another course like this next term or next year? :)”
  • “If it was a coarse that was continued for other people to experience and get help to other people who are behind in success.”

Any other comments for Blair or Craig

  • “Awesome LA’s (learning advisors) thank you”
  • “Thank you so much for running this course 🙂 it has helped me a lot”
  • “Both great helpful teachers that were great to work with. They both put in lots of hard work to help us with what we were working on and always gave us support when it was needed. Very thankful for all the hard work they put in and the chance to work with both of them.”
  • “Really well done guys, i love the course!! Thanks a bunch for the experiance!”

After thoughts, Insights and Next Steps:

I think there is a place within the current UPT model for courses that have a greater structure and continuity in them. This is especially so for students who are not yet ready to be or struggle to be self-motivated autonomous learners. Such a course could still be co-constructed with students and attend to a number of curriculum areas. One of the big learning’s I gained from this course is that certainly up to Level One, there is the potential for L.A’s to explore different learning areas and that all L.A’s can take responsibility for the teaching of literacy. From this course, I am also now really open to the idea of team teaching and the idea that creating such structures might be a powerful way of enacting and exploring the Curriculum for 21st Century learners while also enabling L.A’s to think beyond their normal subject silos. My time at UPT has also helped me to see how 21st century learning might happen beyond the traditional factory model of education.

Craig Perry


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