Three weeks in New Zealand can’t be captured in a single blog post. The impact of five hundred and fifty middle schoolers singing their national anthem without the prompting or leadership of adults doesn’t translate easily into words (the adults in the picture below are actually Americans). Neither does the depth of my amazement when a nearly all non-native student body happily and skillfully sang the second verse in Maori, the language of New Zealand’s native people.

The intermediate schools and classrooms I visited on the North Island were celebrations of students’ individual power.  Despite, or perhaps because of, the required uniform each student wore, there were signs everywhere that the power for learning was in the person. Every classroom in EVERY school in which I went posted a WALT (We Are Learning Too) for every subject.  Each child knew what it was and held themselves accountable for achieving it to the best of their ability.

New Zealand is not a litigious society. Individual empowerment and personal accountability are valued highly over State entitlement.  The limited adult supervision, the use of inquiry as a main method of instruction in the areas of science and social studies, and the student leadership opportunities I saw reflected those cultural values within the school system.  In many of the schools I visited, there was one boy elected by the boys to be in charge of all the boys in the school, and one girl elected by the girls who was in charge of the girls in the school. Contrary to what I might have imagined about a runaway power trip associated with this type of system, it inspired servant leadership in its best form.  During school-wide assemblies, it was only these young leaders’ voices who were heard – not the voices of the adults, who generally faded into the background.

Class sizes were often between thirty and forty – with the teachers’ main responsibility to arrange thought provoking work for students to do, to create clear classroom routines, and to select appropriate student groupings. Behavioral problems were few and far between, student accountability was of greater focus than teacher accountability. Teachers were asked to play with certain kids at recess rather than to “watch them carefully” as a means of supporting them to play with others well.  Games that might lead to injury were of little concern – getting physical energy out and forming positive relationships with adults were the clear focus.

Home economics, now called Family and Consumer Science, was called Food Technology in the NZ schools I visited.  The focus was on developing and using food to a maximum personal societal benefit.  Grow labs, harvest innovations, and nutritional information took the place of recipies (though there were a few of those too).  What might this approach have to offer to American schools if we thought about it more?

Although I expected to appreciate New Zealand’s innovations in early reading, and their commitment to inquiry (and  did!), I didn’t expect to experience as much disappointed in our American classrooms. I came away from my visit with more questions than ever, thinking about the ways in which our society was connected to our educational system in ways I hadn’t thought about before.  

My American students had the chance to Skype with middle school students in one of the Hawk’s Bay schools I visited.  The New Zealanders confidently asked questions about what the climate and landscape was like and who my students were as people. My American students, wonderful, intelligent, and thoughtful students, nervously asked questions about fashion, entertainment, and behavioral rules. The sides of the conversation couldn’t have been more different. Why, I wondered, and what could I do with the information?

My visit to some of New Zealand’s schools showed me more about the society that was in the process of raising the middle schoolers I got to observe than about innovative instructional methodologies.  By seeing something different, one better understands oneself – this was certainly my experience on this visit.  I took away ideas about letting go of our “control” and what might be possible if we shifted our school and classroom norms and expectations toward greater empowerment of students. Such a gift.  Thank you so much to the staff and administrators in Hawk’s Bay!nz1