Bernie Wills’ innovative new framework was first trialled in 2017 with Year 11 and 12 Maths students at Hutt Valley High School.  Flipping the traditional learning model on its head, it places students at the centre, empowering them to design their own maths courses based on their personal interests and future career plans. Not only that, students get to control the pace of their learning – and even decide when they want to sit assessments.

Now, thanks to The Education Hub’s Bright Spots Awards programme, Bernie has been able to develop and extend his framework, giving an increasing number of students a renewed passion for classroom mathematics.

Q: What inspired you to pursue this project?

Bernie Wills (BW): Back when I was teaching at Hutt Valley High School, we reviewed our programmes and results and were convinced we could do better. We were alarmed at the way it had become OK for people to say they couldn’t do maths, and that they weren’t maths people. Our teaching was also ignoring the key competencies in the curriculum, and their relevance to students’ futures and the skills needed for workplace success. I wanted to improve students’ understanding of maths so they could transfer their skills to different problems, rather than simply rote learn to pass a test.

Q: How did you structure and implement the project?

BW: In 2017 we trialled it in a couple of classes at Hutt Valley High School and in 2018 we extended it out to all our Year 11 and 12 students as Pāngarau Waenganui.

Pāngarau Waenganui allows students to design their own maths programme in consultation with their teacher. They can focus on algebra, statistics, or a combination of both, and can take it as either a one-year or two-year course. The programme is a pathway into Year 13 calculus, statistics, or maths & statistics.

We recorded short teaching videos covering a range of curriculum topics, which students could tackle at their own pace. Classes were then spent working directly with students, with academic mentoring and tutorial-style sessions built into the learning programme. Students could then sit assessments when they were confident they were ready.

Q: What sort of success have you had so far?

BW: All change is unsettling, and this appeared to be especially true when a new mathematical approach was implemented.  Some took longer to realise the true flexibility of topic choice and assessment timing but after a settling in period most students achieved higher grades than previously.  Very few had the negative feedback of failing an assessment because they only sat it when they were ready.

This year I moved to Wellington High School and it has been great to see the original structure of the course adapted to a different setting as Te Ara Pāngarau. My focus has grown from one programme developed for one school, towards developing a framework applicable to a range of schools, and hopefully to subjects other than maths.

I no longer lecture to a sea of blank faces and students’ questions are more focussed.  As other teachers have noted, I know my students much better than before and have meaningful discussions about their future as they design their own individual course and when they change their topics as their plans change.

Q: How has being a 2018 Bright Spots awardee helped?

BW: Being given the award was further acknowledgement that the project was worthwhile and was an encouragement to continue.  The support has been fantastic and hearing about the scope and innovation of the other four Bright Spots groups is inspiring.

I’ve used most of my award as release time to research and review the progress of the programme and to meet people to discuss further development of the framework.  I have three Te Ara Pāngarau classes which offer the wide range of personalities expected and time to work with the other nine staff teaching the course.

It’s taught me a lot. The application and interview process made me focus on the core purpose of my project and find ways to explain it to people who weren’t embedded in it. The Spark mentors demonstrated that the application of agile practice in the business world also fits into education.  They led us through a thorough planning process that schools rarely have the time or skills to undertake.  Their customer focus translated perfectly to my student focus.

Working with people from outside my curriculum area and away from my community, reminded me of the value of independent observers to question and seek clarification.  The Education Hub staff have been fantastic in this role, as well as providing amazing support, constant encouragement, and helpful suggestions.

Q: What are your long-term aspirations for the project?

BW: I’ll be delivering presentations at various conferences and hope to discuss the framework with new schools as well as strengthen relationships with schools and organisations that have already expressed interest.

I want to make the framework easier to implement by designing a pathway that defines the key steps, and eventually look at ways of implementing it in other curriculum areas.

Applications for the 2019 Bright Spots Awards are open from April 29 to June 14. The Bright Spots Awards support the development, evaluation and sharing of innovative practice in schools and ECE centres. For more information and to access the application form, click here.

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