At times there can be too much of a focus on what students can’t do and what specifically needs to be learnt. Priority learner and target groups, mixed with special learning programmes, can fill an entire day and place direct focus on what students don’t know. While this may be an important aspect of teaching and learning, and what is needed for improving achievement, does it always have to be this way?

Like many others across New Zealand, I finished my high school years feeling as if I was a failure. My poor attitude towards learning reflected my lack of academic achievement. So after a few years bouncing from job to job, it was a surprise to everyone that I chose to enter the world of education. It was only when I found myself standing in front of my own class that I realised the students I was having difficulty with were only behaving exactly as I had all those years ago: unenthused, disengaged, and bored.

One solution I initiated was breaking up the monotony of schedules and timetables to develop skills that students could use in the place we would call the ‘real world’. This involved practical contextual learning to develop behaviours and thinking that are identified as our key competencies in The New Zealand Curriculum – a programme I named Nga Tama Toa – Empowering Boys to be Great Men – which is tailored to year 8 boys.

To create purpose for this contextualised learning, the boys and I explored the mantra of what it means to be ‘a’ man, over being ‘the’ man. The intention was for boys to begin to understand what they could do to have ownership of themselves and their learning. We built upon ideas such as respecting themselves and others, integrity, equity with those younger than them, innovation, inquiry and curiosity, perseverance, and positive learning attitudes.

To develop these skills and values, we allowed time every now and then to move away from the daily timetable to unlock this powerful contextual learning. We explored what students are passionate about, uncovering what really motivates them and, just as important, what they see as being important in their lives – not skills for the future, but skills for now. Examples of these have been learning to change a flat tyre, cooking a family meal, taking on jobs around the house such as the laundry, and even volunteering at a local early childhood centre.

I have maintained a belief throughout this time that children should be learning the value of contributing to their own households as well as their communities. There are opportunities, and some would say a major need, for more people to contribute in a positive way to the world. This was also the beginning of what would become one of the themes of my first book on the subject, Running with a Hurricane – Educating Boys for Manhood.

This contextual learning is not just for high school students. Nga Tama Toa is a programme aimed at year 8 boys, and there are many other school programmes akin to Nga Tama Toa for younger year levels where students, both boys and girls, are exploring their worlds and what skills and values they can develop to make the best contributions.

Limited information is available for students about how to contribute, however, and this impedes the development of contextual learning. Students are far more capable than they are often given credit for and may not be provided with the opportunities they need. We are willing to have senior students within our school mentor others, take on leaderships roles, and take care of younger students, but are we willing enough to have these same students, say, use a saw, wood, hammer and nails?

Making time to explore this has had major advantages for student learning. One of the biggest advantages I have seen is the building of relationships between students, and as importantly, friendships between the same gender. It seems to be the ‘Kiwi way’ that sarcasm and put-downs are commonplace among friends, specifically within boys’ peer groups. Finding a place for boys and young men to express themselves and have the support of their peers builds a kinship that is stronger than most teacher-student relationships. This also provides a platform for boys to do one thing that they can find the most difficult: ask for help.

The key aim is to support students to become confident in themselves and take ownership of their learning both in and out of the classroom. This is more than engagement; this is empowerment.

Developing contextual learning and enhancing the skills and values of students at a primary and intermediate level would enable both boys and girls to enter their high school years with a special trait that best prepares them for this time of their lives: character. For students to both develop and express themselves through their characters would be the foundation for their own future successes.


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