October 2, 2023

Learning curve

Man behind the model: Feilding Intermediate School principal Stu Trembath. His philosophy is to get the kids engaged with school. If they want to come to school, they’ll learn. If they don’t, they won’t. It’s that simple.

If kids want to come to school, if they’re interested when they get there, they’ll learn. If they don’t, they won’t.

It’s that simple, according to Feilding Intermediate School principal Stu Trembath.

He led his school into a new teaching model 10 years ago – grouping children in centres of interest for their learning, using those interests to direct their learning – and says simply that it works. Children are interested in what they are doing, and they want to be at school.

“That’s half the battle, right there,” he says. “If anything has been highlighted in these 10 years, it’s that the personalised interest leads to engagement. If they want to be here, if they’re engaged, you have the best chance to give them quality teaching.”

When he came to Feilding in 2002, he found a traditional intermediate school, doing a fairly good job, but with room to improve. Could do better, was Trembath’s pedagogical assessment, so he started talking to his teachers about better ways to grab kids’ attention.

“I said to one of my staff, how would you like to teach all the kids who love sport? Just those kids. Present their maths and their reading through sport. He said it couldn’t be done … and I asked why not.

“It snowballed from there.”

The sport trigger was Trembath’s own: he says it was his top interest at school. All he wanted to do was play cricket, preferably getting his mitts on the bat, but adults insisted on trying to teach him mathematics. Inside. Sitting at a desk. Telling him to listen, and then telling him that now it’s time to stop thinking about mathematics and start thinking about spelling. Young Stu, meanwhile, was thinking about cricket bats.

“If only one of those teachers had said, right, you write me the most exciting cricket match you can think of. Or told me to look at the mathematics of cricket: `Stu, you tell me the averages of these guys …”‘

He went to Palmerston North Teachers’ College, 1974 to 1976. He then went straight into the classroom in 1977, and slowly realised that when kids were interested in something, they learned. That plunk of thought spread out in a big ripple: Turn how we do what we do on its head. Don’t say to kids, you have to learn this, you have to be interested in that. Instead, find out what kids are interested in, grab their attention with it, and sneakily stuff in all the maths and reading and spelling and writing.

Trembath talks about engagement all the time. It’s the Holy Trinity of teaching: attendance, engagement, achievement. Get the kids through the door first. Then get them interested. Then they’ll achieve.

The school spent most of 2002 batting ideas around. Teachers had to rethink how they did what they did. They settled on centres of interest for learning, four initially, but refining into five as the method evolved. There’s Nga Toi, the arts centre; Hauora, based on health, sport and PE; Taumata, going beyond and higher, gifted and talented children do well here; Papatuanuku, hands-on learning, a lot of it outside the classroom in school gardens and working with animals; and Motuhaketanga, independence and self-management in more traditional classrooms – they suit some children very well. The children and their parents choose the centre and style of education to best suit the child.

Some parents were initially skeptical, thinking their children would be categorised or stigmatised by the centres. Some families left the school. The Education Review Office learned forward and looked hard. In 2004 the school’s ERO report said quality of education was variable, there was a lack of consistency in implementation, planning, delivery and assessment of the curriculum. More also needed to be done for Maori students.

Trembath and the teachers kept building, and when ERO came back in 2005 to have another look, its report talked about students being highly engaged and motivated learners; that achievement was improving. There was now rigorous identification processes to support children who needed extra help. Effective teaching contributed to progress at every level.

Trembath knew the centres of interest model was working, but it was nice to have official findings corroborate it.

He’s found out more about children and the way they learn since the centres started, and the physical environments in the classrooms reflect the personalities and learning styles of the children.

In Hauora, the four classes have between 21 and 26 children each. They’re predominantly boys; the kids are black-and-white about rules and are highly competitive, easily distracted.

“So we cover the windows; the classrooms are darker. I had a teacher say to me once that if somebody walks past the classroom bouncing a basketball, vroom, 60 eyeballs lift up off the work and go straight out the window. So we put work displays up over the windows, it’s a quiet environment in here, and when you give instructions, you explain why. They’ll push back otherwise.”

The newly opened arts centre is one of the proud spots of the school. Trembath shakes his head about physical plant; the bog-standard Kiwi classroom built to suit cost convenience, not teaching.

“That’s the challenge for the next decade, to get the physical environments right for the children.”

Nga Toi, the arts centre, is a long, wide-open block. Four classroom spaces can be divided with partitions, but the three classes in here mostly use the full space for performance. Small stages are well-used at each end of the block; children’s tables and seats are in random clusters and there are quiet areas for thinking, for using digital resources. Everyone’s up on their feet, talking, brainstorming, waving their arms to make points.

“Dance, drama, music and the visual arts. These are not students who happily sit still. They’re right there, in your face, spontaneous and active and on the go. It’s how they work; they’re wired to be up and about. Traditionally they’ve been told to sit down and be quiet, and these are kids who boogie across the room to fetch a book. And why shouldn’t they?”

The open-plan environment suits them and their teachers, but it’s not for everyone. People who like a more structured environment feel insecure. Trembath proved this on swap day, the one day that teaching staff all swap classes; each drawing a class out of the hat at random.

“And when I came over here that day, all the room dividers had been pulled shut. Different teachers, who liked to teach in a more traditional style. It was an interesting day for everyone … and it proved to me that those teachers were in the right place in a more traditional classroom.”

The Papatuanuku class is the hands-on environment; a lot of work done in the school gardens and with animals. Trembath nods at the rose garden outside his office, which is netted shut so the chooks clucking inside it can’t escape. The hens are having a wonderful time, grubbing up weeds like white bindweed, tradescantia and oxalis.

“They did that, measured up the area, built the pens … maths, environmental studies, co-operation … it’s all there. These students raise and sell plants, and they produce vegetables and eggs for the technology classes. They do a lot of outdoor education; canoeing, scuba diving.”

Taumata – going beyond and higher – is for children who are very academically able. Independent, often gifted learners apply to go there, but not all the school’s gifted children are in Taumata; some prefer to be in other centres.

“The teacher there is working to the side, encouragement, support; the students are firing on all cylinders, directing their own learning. Often we find these children have been isolated in other schools, they’re academic, they’ve sat back in class, being held back by their classmates. They come here and suddenly they’re surrounded by like-minded children, and they have friends for the first time.”

Gifted children are often uneven in their development; at 11 they might read and compute like first-year university students, but they’ve never had a best friend who really cares about black holes in space the way they do.

“New ideas, new concepts, all the time here. You don’t extend these children by giving them more of the same. You give them new things to think about.”

The three classes of Motuhaketanga children are in more traditional school classrooms – “but without the naughty kids holding everyone back. Look, kids are only naughty `cause they aren’t interested and they aren’t suited to that style of learning. Get them in the right place, and the behaviour just melts away, they’re interested and engaged and learning.”

Trembath’s emphatic that the centres of learning aren’t fads or gimmicks. That’s the curse of education, leaping on a bandwagon because it’s new, and assuming that changes will suit every child. Digital classrooms are examples of this; not all children like a wholly digital format. Better to use the technology as tools, in a way that suits children’s individual learning styles.

The proof is children’s achievement.

The school’s last ERO report (2008) did not identify any areas of concern, and wrote approvingly of the inclusive school culture and measures taken to improve Maori student achievement.

To read more go to: Learning curve



From the Smiths:


Updated 30 March 2012: Life for Those Left Behind (Craig Smith’s Health) page 6 click here


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