Newly-crowned top teacher Katie Pennicott has boosted her students' learning by encouraging them to disagree.

Pennicott, a teacher at Invercargill Middle School and author of two books on accelerated learning, is one of six teachers who will receive an ASG teaching excellence award from Education Minister Chris Hipkins today.

She has adopted a style of teaching using dialogue in which she sets a discussion going, then leaves it to her students to argue among themselves using a code of hand signals to indicate agreement, disagreement, "speak up louder" or "I've learnt something new".

Her system has coaxed students who rarely spoke in full sentences to speak articulately, often using standardised sentence openings such as "I think ..." and "This is my opinion ..."


"In traditional classrooms you see shrugging shoulders and 'I dunno'," she says.

"There's none of that. The children are very structured in their sentences because they have those signals, so they can run their own discussion about things."

Pennicott changed her teaching style after noticing that the children in her Year 2 to 6 Māori immersion class were starting every answer to the questions she asked with "Because ..." She realised that they were waiting for her to affirm what they said rather than saying what they really thought.

"It really hurt my heart that the children were feeling that they were not worthy of their own thoughts and opinions," she says.

She now believes that teachers who complain that children are starting school with poor speaking skills - perhaps because they spent too much time on smartphones - are not serving their students.

"Something that really annoys me is where people say kids are not ready for school," she says. "The school needs to be ready for the children.

"The traditional model comes from a deficit position, saying children don't have enough oral language.

"But all children come to school with experiences and life and culture and beliefs and opinions and thoughts. It's our job as teachers to respond to that, not to say that they come with nothing."

The teacher may teach the children sentence structures, but the children may teach the teacher things like the meaning of a sign on a video game showing how many rounds you still have to play.

"That's literacy. That's visual language," she says. "So I'm learning from them all the time. That sort of learning is just as valid as mine, if not more so because of the world we live in."

She just kicks off each conversation.

"I might say to the children: 'What's the difference between a battle and an argument,' because we had been learning about a battle. I might say, 'Lily, would you like to start it off please?'

"The students run the discussion. I don't say anything else, I just wanted to see what they thought. They came up with the answer that a battle usually has weapons but an argument is usually words, so that's what we went with.

"So it's transformed that power relationship that used to exist. It's also a cultural shift because I'm asking their opinions a lot."

Despite its name, Invercargill Middle School is a decile 3 primary school in the middle of the city. A quarter of its students are Māori, and about 30 per cent are children of short-stay foreign postgraduate students at the Southern Institute of Technology.

Unusually, 79 per cent of the school's Māori students achieved national standards in writing in 2016, compared with only 70 per cent across the whole school - a reversal of the national pattern where only 62 per cent of Māori achieved writing standards compared with the overall national average of 71 per cent.

"We're talking about emotional wellbeing as well," Pennicott adds. "That's just as important."

ASG, an Australian company that helps parents save for their children's education, used an expert panel to pick the six top teachers from more than 200 nominations and will give each of them $5000 for professional development.

The other five winners are: Tarewa Williams (One Tree Hill College) and Daisy Docherty (Kristin School) in Auckland, Karen Barkle (Ongaonga School) in Hawke's Bay, Helen Peters (Kidsfirst) in Christchurch and Glenys Parry (Craighead Diocesan School) in Timaru.

Tarewa Williams
Tarewa Williams "expects a lot of his students and some find that hard". Photo / Supplied

Tarewa Williams, One Tree Hill College's head of science, was nominated by a parent who said he "expects a lot of his students and at first some find that hard; after a while they all want him as their teacher".

He served in the army and worked as a university liaison manager before becoming a teacher, and said he came from a personal background similar to many of his students at his decile-3 school.

He has created a Māori achievement plan, a student leadership programme and a programme of learning outside the classroom to connect students with the real world.

Daisy Docherty was a
Daisy Docherty was a "pillar of support" for a family of five at Kristin School. Photo / Supplied

Daisy Docherty has been a teacher in Kristin School's junior school and transferred last year to teaching in its preschool. A parent described her as "a pillar of support".

"Our family grew to a family of five, and what stands out so clearly during this hectic time is how confident we felt that our daughter was being looked after at school. Daisy was the main reason for this and she just understood, without words, what she needed," the parent said.

Karen Barkle used Microsoft programs to help students direct their oiwn learning at rural Ongaonga School. Photo / Supplied
Karen Barkle used Microsoft programs to help students direct their oiwn learning at rural Ongaonga School. Photo / Supplied

Karen Barkle, deputy principal at Ongaonga School in rural Southern Hawke's Bay, has been recognised for helping the primary school's 111 students to direct their own learning through Microsoft programs OneNote and OneDrive.

"Digital fluency, computational thinking and the ability to integrate digital technology across the curriculum is the future of learning," she said.

Kindergarten teacher Helen Peters looks for
Kindergarten teacher Helen Peters looks for "the moments of wonder that children experience as they grow". Photo / Supplied

Helen Peters, a kindergarten teacher at Kidsfirst Beckenham in Christchurch for the past 19 years, was nominated by a parent for the "amazing way" she connects with young children.

Peters said she looked for "the moments of wonder that children experience as they grow".

"I respond creatively to the potential of these moments, nurturing each child in their learning, and encouraging their sense of self-worth and discovery," she said.

Art teacher Glenys Parry has inspired her Timaru students for 35 years. Photo / Supplied
Art teacher Glenys Parry has inspired her Timaru students for 35 years. Photo / Supplied

Glenys Parry, head of art at Craighead Diocesan School in Timaru, was nominated by a younger teacher who said she would not be teaching today if she hadn't been placed as a trainee teacher with Parry in 2003.

"Watching Glenys teach and interact with young people was incredibly inspiring and a real eye opener for me in terms of what I wanted to do with my life. It made me realise what great leadership entails," the younger teacher said.

Parry has been teaching for 35 years and said she tried to engage students in art "by drawing on their own topic, be that cultural, environment, figurative or idea-based".

"Where students have done this, results have been unique and successful."