Teaching in New Zealand: shattering some myths

By Dr Ursula Edgington

I researched endlessly before our move to New Zealand 3 years ago. The exciting prospects that came with my husband’s new job in commerce included new academic opportunities for me. Escaping the pressures of constant nonsensical paperwork and an overwhelming teaching and marking workload seemed like a dream come true. Like lots of migrants here, we were swayed by the Government rhetoric (propaganda?) about a reportedly egalitarian education system based on holistic approaches to teaching and learning. And the promise of a healthier work/life balance with long weekends in beautiful landscapes and empty, sunny beaches….? impossible to turn down. But inevitably idealised visions of working overseas – especially in the sparsely-populated ‘paradise’ of Aotearoa New Zealand – comes with a realisation that not everything is quite what it seems…

Image source: https://goo.gl/VCegZg

Contrary to many people’s perceptions, New Zealand is not without its social problems. Reflecting similar issues to the UK, the gap between rich and poor widens. Low salaries and the high cost of living causes extreme pressure on many families; education is a not a priority. In the last 30 years, child poverty has doubled to 28%. Not surprisingly then, the OECD estimates 40% of New Zealanders don’t have the UK equivalent of level 2 in basic literacy or numeracy skills. And with no ‘NHS’, those already living in poor quality housing who can’t afford medicines, suffer diseases wiped-out a generation ago in the UK (like Rheumatic Fever). Mental health too is a serious problem, with high rates of depression inevitably leading to high levels of alcohol and drug addiction. It’s tragic that rates of suicide here are actually similar to the UK, at around 11 per 100,000 population. It’s an artificial and unhelpful (and some would argue tokenistic) ‘biculturalism’ (rather than multi-culturalism) that is the Kiwi buzzword, replicating socio-economic problems divided between ‘skilled migrants’ and the Māori/Pacifika communities.


You will know all too well, these issues – and more – impact significantly in complex ways on our learners’ lives and on their self-esteem and self-worth. It’s sometimes challenging to provide a safe, positive learning environment in this context.


But one of the unexpected challenges of teaching here is more sociological than psychological: Tall Poppy Syndrome. Often played-down in Kiwi jokes, Tall Poppy Syndrome is a common cause of bullying in the New Zealand workplace – and especially the educational workplace. The New Zealand Oxford Dictionary defines it as the act of “’cutting down’ those who are conspicuously successful or who are high achievers”. But for some employees – especially teachers from the UK who (let’s be honest) usually have to ‘big ourselves up’ just to survive in a fiercely competitive environment – it’s far from humorous and can often have a catastrophic impact on lives and families of bullying victims. Worryingly, research suggests bullying in New Zealand is a serious problem compared to international indicators.


So singling-out ‘tall poppy’ practitioners with ‘best practice’ is a big no-no here, and this stigma has a knock-on effect of restricting the sharing and reflection on classroom ideas. My own research is based on lesson observations – a quality control/assurance strategy so pervasive and contentious in the UK, but which is rarely actioned or even discussed here, perhaps partly because of Tall Poppy Syndrome.  


So after shifting on its axis, my ground has settled into this new challenge ahead. I’m faced with a dilemma: how can teachers encourage learning and development against this dispiriting backdrop? In our new smart-phone, information-mad world, knowledge drives success. But what if this success is limited or dismissed? The pressures from global competitive markets are seeping into New Zealand’s education system – slowly.  But how can students reach their true potential and outcomes improve when ‘good teaching’ (and research surrounding it) isn’t recognised or even acknowledged? When instead it’s ‘stamped out’ because some people fear that ambition might lead to others facing competency measures?


Are there any lessons to be learned from the UK that will help New Zealand challenge and overcome Tall Poppy Syndrome in its colleges and universities? I welcome your thoughts and suggestions.



1. Ursula is an independent researcher, tertiary teacher and published author, specialising in education and accountability. She has recently published a book based on psychosocial research into staff experiences of lesson observations in Further Education in England. Full academic profile: available here.
2. Employment law in New Zealand is under-developed. Culturesafe NZ Ltd is one example of an organisation with objectives that include preventing workplace bullying through training initiatives and supporting victims. For further details see: http://culturesafenz.co.nz/

Observation – are we looking at the wrong things?

2012 saw a turning point in FE observations (perhaps similarly in schools?) Under the common inspection framework for FE and skills there was a huge shift from observing what the teacher was doing to observing what the learners were doing – learner/learning focused observations.


I remember it vividly, the internal observation process (which was graded), had previously graded the teaching and the learning as two separate grades, but as a result of Ofsted changes, our institution moved to a single grade -one that was purely ‘learner- focused’. Surely this was a positive thing? Our intuition would tell us that focusing on the learners is far more productive than focusing on what the teacher is doing. After all, the teacher might be an imaginative, engaging presenter of information, but if the learners aren’t doing anything, then they’re not necessarily learning. Watching what the learners do allows one to make more informed judgements on the ‘learning’ in the session, regardless of grading or not… or does it?


Whether graded, or ungraded, I think lesson observation in its current guise (judgement based) is here to stay. Neoliberalism is the current policy model, thus accountability is a driving force and therefore, teaching and learning quality processes and Initial Teacher Training programmes will probably use judgement-based observations. There’s a whole debate about judgement-based observations that I am avoiding in this blog post. Regardless, the principles of my post still apply.


So, after some thought, I question whether lesson observation that focuses purely on the learner is more counterproductive than beneficial and that we perhaps need to view things from a different perspective. Let me explain why:



1. Like it or not, we can’t actually see ‘learning’ in the lessons.

However one defines learning, it must encompass a change in behaviour/ knowledge/ understanding/ ability and be relatively permanent i.e. a long term change. How can we see this in isolated sessions? In short, we can’t. Soderstrom and Bjork have extensively reviewed the distinction between learning and performance, finding:

‘During the instruction or training process … what we can observe and measure is performance, which is often an unreliable index of whether the relatively long-term changes that constitute learning have taken place’.

This is not to say that learning isn’t taking place when we observe performance, but essentially they argue that there can be learning without performance and that there can be performance without learning. So with this in mind, should we place so much emphasis in how the learners are ‘performing’?


2. Learning is a long and slow process.

Whilst this may not be attractive to the consumer culture we have in education, it is a matter of fact that practice is essential to master skills and develop automaticity. Ericsson et al argue that:

‘argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain’

So with this in mind, lessons may at time appear boring and learners may appear uninterested in their learning. Does this mean that they’re not learning though? Let’s explore what Rob Coe has deemed as poor proxies for learning based on extensive research:

‘Poor Proxies for Learning (Easily observed, but not really about learning) 1. Students are busy: lots of work is done (especially written work) 2. Students are engaged, interested, motivated 3. Students are getting attention: feedback, explanations 4. Classroom is ordered, calm, under control 5. Curriculum has been ‘covered’ (ie presented to students in some form) 6. (At least some) students have supplied correct answers (whether or not they really understood them or could reproduce them independently)’.

With this in mind, what are we able to ‘see’ in an observation that really provides us with objective evidence of learning? Not much.


3. We learn better when we face difficulties with learning.

Again, this supports the notion above. Coe  informs us that ‘learning happens when people have to think hard’. Many learners just don’t like hard work, so teachers often result to ‘fun’, learner led lessons in an attempt to motivate learners. Fun lessons may be great to observe, but if the content is easy, or the learners are investing more of their efforts thinking about the colouring in of a poster than the content they’re putting on it, then we have a problem. In Coe’s excellent ‘Improving Education‘ publication this information about Nuthall’s study  really highlights the problems we have in education currently.

Students may not necessarily have real learning at the top of their agenda. For example, Nuthall (2005) reports a study in which most students “were thinking about how to get finished quickly or how to get the answer with the least possible effort”. If given the choice between copying out a set of correct answers, with no effort, but no understanding of how to get them, and having to think hard to derive their own answers, check them, correct them and try to develop their own understanding of the underlying logic behind them, how many students would freely choose the latter? And yet, by choosing the former, they are effectively saying, ‘I am not interested in learning.’

So my point here is that looks can be deceiving when observing learners in the session and that what we think might appear to be good learning, might not be most beneficial to the learners.


4. Learners don’t always know what they need to know.

I think learner voice is often over-valued in education. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t listen to our learners, but if they don’t enjoy a lesson, it doesn’t mean they’ve not learnt anything. Conversely, when they’ve had great fun in a session, it doesn’t mean that they have learnt something. Within each subject there are key features that must be learnt in order to access other things, but by focusing too much on engaging learners by giving them autonomy over how/what they learn in order to motivate them, we might actually be hindering learning (see previous posts on instructional design here and here)


5. Insufficient knowledge of subject area.

Often those observing are not subject experts and therefore, despite focusing on the ‘learning’, have little understanding of the stage and level that learners should be at with subject content, nor do they have an understanding of content, therefore judgements on ‘learning’ are highly contentious.


6. Insufficient knowledge of effective study strategies.

With all due respect, there are some individuals that observe and give feedback to teachers, where they themselves have insufficient knowledge and understanding of effective study strategies, so feedback is likely to be inaccurate and instead focus on things that are ‘en-vogue’. For example, the ‘all, most, some’ lesson objective that flashed in the pan a few years back.


An initial solution

1. Should we focus more on what the teacher is doing, in addition to what learners are doing?

If effective learning strategies are being used, but the learners are not observably making ‘progress’, then is this a problem? For example:

  • if a teacher is providing instruction using key principles of cognitive science (i.e. dual coding, chunking, modelling), but learners are just listening to them and occasionally answering questions (correctly or not), focusing on the learners isn’t going to reveal much.
  • if the learners are working together to grapple with a challenging problem (desirable difficulty) and the teacher is guiding them with challenging questions, but they fail to complete it during the observed time, focusing on the learners isn’t going to reveal much.
  • if the learners can’t remember previous content or reveal misconceptions during class discussions/teacher questioning, but the teacher revisits old content by explaining things in different ways, moving from concrete to abstract examples, focusing on the learners isn’t going to reveal much.

All of the strategies used are desirable for improving long term memory (sure, learning isn’t just about this) but the ‘learner progress’ (performance) might be minimal, therefore focusing on the learner alone is futile. Instead, let’s observe what the teacher is doing and, should we not be able to see the impact at the moment in time, still comment on their actions and potential impact.

2. Should ‘learning’ be judged based upon what learners know/understand as a result of their lessons to date, not just the session being observed?

We know that learning is a long-term process and in this situation the observer would ideally be a subject expert so that they know what stage learners should be at. In addition to the observed session, judgements can then be made using evidence from a wide evidence set,including: discussions with the teacher, the learners, formative assessment results over time, previously assessed work, success rates and the stage (level and content) that learners are at in the learning. A collection of evidence may also be synthesised following several observations conducted with the same class over a period of time.


I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the focus of lesson observations.




The TES and I

I feel very fortunate to have been asked to write for the TES. Every few months I write an article and with every piece, try to diversify my writing in an attempting to be critical and challenging to the views and opinions of others. This, coupled with my blog allows me to develop my own views and hopefully help others to develop theirs too, rather than being constrained to views that are imposed within their institutions.


I am passionate about giving practitioners a voice in their establishments. They need to be provided with opportunities to explore research, challenge their own beliefs and question the views of others – not just be puppets. I am currently working in an environment where I feel liberated, where I can write freely, without fear of being disciplined and (feel I) am developing at an exponential rate as a result.


Here are the TES articles written over the last 14 months for your perusal. Some you may need to be a subscriber of the TES for, but most are accessible, Enjoy!
08.04.16 – Let’s explode a few myths about teaching methods

17.01.16 – Why catchphrase could hold the secret to formative assessment

30.10.15 – The three essential ingredients of truly expert teaching

02.10.15 – Freedom is key in lesson observation

09.07.15 – Diving into the ‘pool of development’

28.05.15 – The elephant in the room

20.02.15 – Banging your head against bad CPD


If you’ve been following my blog and twitter, you’ll have noticed I am gaining more interest in the research that underpins our practice as teachers, particularly around memory. My latest find is perhaps not as powerful as some of the other research available, but is something to consider nonetheless.

  • Have you ever been in a meeting and doodled on the agenda?
  • Have you ever had feedback from an observer saying that learners weren’t learning as they were doodling on their notepads?
  • Have you ever been bored in a lecture and doodled in your margins?


Well you may be surprised to hear that doodling can actually improve short term memory and concentration!


Research conducted by Andrade examined 40 participants in a monotonous mock telephone message for the names of people coming to a party. Half of the group was randomly assigned to a ‘doodling’ condition where they shaded printed shapes while listening to the telephone call. The doodling group performed better on the monitoring task and recalled 29% more information on a surprise memory test.


Look, I’m under no illusion that the small number of participants and the method of assessing concentration and short term memory is open to criticism, but it’s worth noting this:

Just because someone is doodling whilst information is being shared with them, it doesn’t mean that they’re not learning – equally, it doesn’t mean that they are. But at least if anyone challenges you about your own, or your learners doodling, then you can point them in the direction of this.


If you can’t read minds, choose words carefully.

I wrote a post a couple of years ago about learning and performance, inspired by David Didau’s own blog and a workshop I attended that really opened my eyes. This blog post was removed after causing a bit of controversy with a previous employer. I have decided to repost it due to a number of things. 1. I feel as a sector we are at a point where challenging beliefs is more acceptable. 2. I have read/heard a lot of comments lately that have been made with authority, which reinforce messages which are wrong (particularly on LinkedIn).

I mean no disrespect to any professional colleagues, but I feel we all need to reflect on this post and select our language carefully when talking about teaching and learning.

This post was written in May 2014:

I have come across several comments lately and I have come to the decision that we (educators) need to be careful about the language we use when we talk about learning. Now I am no linguist, but hear me out…

“Learning was clearly taking place as all learners were engaged”
“They were learning well in the session which was evident in the amount of written work”

Do comments like these sound familiar? 

If ever a definition of learning could be agreed, it would certainly involve something about knowledge acquisition and probably something to do with long term memory and being able to retrieve information (that’s me drawing upon numerous information sources and amalgamating them). 

Of course, we cannot see what knowledge has been acquired and stored in the long term memory in a snapshot observation. How can we? How could we possibly see the amazing (or not so) neural connections that learners are making between their environment and long term memory? 

At Pedagoo London earlier this year I had the pleasure of listening to David Didau (@learningspy). He gave a great presentation about learning and performance. One example used emphasised how we see learner performance rather than learning in the classroom. He began by asking:

“Who knows what the Capital of Poland is?”

Most of the audience put their hand up. To one lady who didn’t know, David informed her that it was Warsaw (teaching). He then asked her to tell him what the capital of Poland was. She of course immediately answered Warsaw. She had performed! 

Had she learnt? Well it isn’t clear. I don’t suppose David ever tracked her down to find out if she can still answer that question, but when I have used this exact example, the people I ask later down the line have nearly always forgotten. They didn’t learn from me, despite at the time me thinking they had.

This simplistic way at looking at learning and performance is really quite useful. This brings me back to the comments that we see on observation reports. Whether graded or ungraded, learning walk or formal observation, we cannot make a judgement on ‘learning’ without continued observation over time, discussion with learners, examination of learner work etc etc. In all honesty, we may never understand what learning has occurred. With so many other variables in a young persons life – TV, family, friends and the internet how could we possibly know?

What observers tends to use in lessons as ‘evidence’ for learning are some of the things listed below. Prof Robert Coe (2013) informs us that these are poor indicators for learning:

Poor Proxies for Learning 

(Easily observed, but not really about learning) 

1. Students are busy: lots of work is done (especially written work) 

2. Students are engaged, interested, motivated 

3. Students are getting attention: feedback, explanations 

4. Classroom is ordered, calm, under control 

5. Curriculum has been ‘covered’ (ie presented to students in some form) 

6. (At least some) students have supplied correct answers (whether or not they 

really understood them or could reproduce them independently) 

Coe (2013) states that ‘learning happens when people have to think hard’. This is corroborated by Nuthall (2007), Willingham (2009) and Brown, Roediger and Mcdaniel, (2014). So when learners appear ‘stuck’ in lessons rather than doing all or some of the above, there may indeed be a lot more learning taking place. 

Learning is a complex beast. As observers, the language we use needs to be clear and abstain from comments such as those above. For all of those observers out there – do not say that you saw learning taking place. Choose your words wisely. 

Learning is invisible and what we think may help learning, is probably not. 
In summary, when we talk about teaching and learning, we have to be careful with the assumption that learners are or are not learning. Until we develop some sort of ability to mind read, we will never truly know what has been learnt. In the meantime, we need to make do with the collection evidence over time to enable us to come close to making such claims and be mindful of the fact that even then, we may be wrong.

Observation is so last year!

I’d like to propose a different method to observation as we know it. A method that is probably already in use at many institutions across the country, but one that I believe should be used at every institution to support teacher development.


I have come to find the process of observation quite a challenge. I am fully aware of my bias and when I sit and observe, I often feel uncomfortable making judgements on the quality of teaching and learning. Partly because I may be wrong (I know what I think good teaching is, but I know that it isn’t necessarily good teaching), but mostly because there is no definitive ‘best way’ to teach in order to ensure learning.


I tried to combat this with a different approach. A non-judgemental, low stakes and purely developmental approach, incorporating coaching. Sounds wonderful doesn’t it. It is, but it is also quite intrusive.

Essentially, I asked the teacher I was supporting to record a lesson of their choice. Using a digital camera, they recorded a lesson. Following the lesson I sat with the teacher and together we watched the session. At various points, I paused the video and asked the teacher questions about what we were observing. Questions included:

  • What are the learners doing?
  • Why do you think those learners are doing that?
  • How might you ensure that those learners are doing what you want?
  • Is that learning activity getting the desired outcome?
  • Is the method of delivery/assessment effective?


This process meant that no judgements were being made by myself, but instead the teacher. A dialogic approach to the teaching and learning took place, where the teacher identified their own strengths and areas for development through both the coaching and examining the learners as an observer themselves. This individual was able to take the information gleaned from this experience and explore their practice. It is still early days, but the teacher has commented that the approach has helped them to improve their practice, highlighting things that they would never have seen otherwise. They are really positive about being a part of my pilot and they want to continue using this method to improve their practice. I believe this approach to be far more effective in supporting teacher development compared to traditional observation approaches. However, it isn’t fool proof:

What I perceive to be the strengths of such an approach:

  • There is less of a chance of the Hawthorne effect occurring. A camera in the corner of the room is quickly forgotten, whereas a person is less inconspicuous.
  • There is more openness, discussion, opportunities to explore the context and no judgement – which can crush a teacher.
  • There isn’t a prescribed way to improve, the teacher chooses how they want to improve themselves – No fads or gimmicks encouraged.
  • There is an opportunity to think critically about what it happening and re-watch the footage to support this, as opposed to the one snap shot judgement that is made in traditional observations.

What I perceive to be the weaknesses of the approach:

  • There is always the danger of the teacher not recognising potential problems and the coach offering judgements which could negate the positive impact.
  • As mentioned above, it is quite intrusive and a big leap of faith.
  • It can be a time consuming process, but more worthwhile.


So I’m going to continue with my little experiment and will keep you posted on the progress.

Observations – is the boot on the wrong foot? 

I consider myself rather blessed. I have a beautiful 22 month old daughter who is healthy, happy and seems to learn new things extremely quickly. She likes to watch other children playing a lot. She takes in everything that is going on around her and before you know it, is doing the thing she just observed. She must do a lot of this at nursery, but they’re not always positive things she copies, for instance the way she has started to snatch, or the way she has started to shout ‘no’ at the same time as frowning at me. However, there are good things, such as copying the bigger children to use the potty and the exponential increase in her vocabulary.
I’m under no illusion that this sort of behaviour is exclusive to her. Of course, we’ve all been there. We’ve all learnt a lot from observing others over the years and as teachers, have probably magpie’d some absolute gems. That’s why I think we may just have the process of observation (whether graded or ungraded) not as productive as it could be.


downloadLet’s face it, observation in any institution is usually undertaken by individuals that aren’t practising teachers. They then provide feedback to the observee on what they perceive to have been positive or negative about the lesson. Even in the most ‘developmental’ of processes, the conversations will usually stem around a judgement or appraisal. Here lies the issue. Firstly, Coe’s (2013) synthesis of the MET study informs us that there is a serious lack of reliability and validity with such an approach and Cosh (1998) found that this approach can be detrimental to both teacher confidence and a supportive teaching environment due to a focus on being developed over self awareness and self development.


In the largest and most extensive account of lesson observation, Matt O’Leary (2013) sums up the above, referring to current modes of observation having a ‘performance driven focus [which] has culminated in a prescribed and codified model of what it means to be an effective teaching professional in some circles, with limited opportunities for the use of observation to stimulate collaborative discussion about the process of teaching and learning’.


So let us go back to my above point about learning from observing others. Why not stick the boot on the other foot? Why not let the focus of the observation be teachers watching other teachers and taking away ideas to use in their own classroom? Yes it’s important to have dialogue around what might and might not be working. As teachers, there isn’t enough of watching one another teach, but the focus should not be on making judgments of one another, but instead trying something you’ve seen and applying it. That may be a particular method of questioning, or a particular way of delivering a topic, even a particular way of laying out the classroom. It doesn’t matter what, the focus is on providing a low risk, high gain environment.


I appreciate that there are a lot of things that could be copied that may be deemed ineffective, but for me, the importance is getting teachers to be inquirers in their own classroom and finding what works best in their context. In order to do this, they need to observe and have dialogue with peers.


I’ve had the privilege of observing a lot of lessons and find myself picking up new ideas about what and what not to do in my own teaching. I get all of this information and as much as I share, nothing compares to seeing things for yourself. Why don’t you copy this idea in your own institution?