As an international study points to problems in New Zealand's maths and science education, Andrew Patterson visits a school that is pushing all the right buttons

A fully functioning coffee cart would probably be the last thing you'd expect to find in the reception area at Pt England Primary School.

Turn up most weekday mornings before 8.45 and you'll find student baristas producing flat whites and lattes as good as any cafe on Ponsonby Rd; and at half the price.

But that's not the only difference you notice about this innovative decile one school.

Peer into any classroom and you'll find students quietly working away on their netbooks, using Google docs to exchange information with their teachers, recording podcasts to add to their blogs or producing videos for uploading to the school's website.


Every child in Year 4 and above complete all their work on netbooks paid for by the families of the students, putting Pt England, along with the other eight schools in the local Manaiakalani Trust cohort, at the forefront of digital learning. Plans are even under way to introduce a programme for new entrants.

Welcome to the future of education, where blended learning, involving a mix of traditional teaching methods combined with an increasing focus on self-directed learning using technology, is delivering results that speak for themselves.

Despite coming from households where the average income is just $19,000 a year, half the median wage, this is a school where students are firmly focused on learning to become part of the digital economy.

Dorothy Burt, Pt England's Head of Digital Learning, says it's important that digital learning environments are viewed correctly.

"For technology to positively impact education, learning outcomes must drive the technology - not the other way around. That's what we've done at Pt England and the results for our children have been amazing, both in terms of improved literacy and numeracy skills." (See sidebar.)

Now she's leading a new initiative that has the potential to significantly enhance the way children are taught in low-decile schools by offering graduate teachers the opportunity to be part of a Digital Teaching Academy.

Launched by the Manaiakalani Trust, a unique partnership that brings together a range of philanthropists and donors who provide valuable financial support, the new qualification being offered in partnership with the University of Auckland will specifically focus on teaching in decile 1-3 digital learning environments.

Burt, who has spearheaded the project, supported by the other principals in the cohort, says she was motivated to establish the new qualification after seeing the need to provide a wraparound programme to support teachers who are new to this form of learning.


"Using a digital learning environment means the learner is no longer dependant on the physical presence of the teacher. Their learning is accessible 24/7 and is rewindable; if you don't get it the first time you can go back and have another look at it because it's online. Valuable time spent face-to-face with the teacher is focused on learning conversations rather than instructions and directions.

"There's also a misconception that new teachers, particularly those who are younger, are also tech-savvy in the classroom. We've found that's generally not the case. While they might be high consumers of technology, they're not always competent practitioners. We want to change that so that they can fully embrace these tools in the classroom to help our students produce and deliver high-level content. That's when we get the real gains in student achievement."

With support from Google and the Ministry of Education, the Manaiakalani Digital Teaching Academy's 2014 inaugural intake of 10 graduate teachers will train in a full immersion digital learning environment, thereby taking the successes of the Manaiakalani cluster and sharing them with the rest of New Zealand.

The chairperson of the trust, Pat Snedden, says that ultrafast broadband connectivity provides massive opportunities for schools.

"A number of schools throughout New Zealand are already using new technologies to transform the way they teach. The Digital Teaching Academy will open up this knowledge and the benefits it brings to all New Zealand schools.

"The Government's Network for Learning project is an inspired and important development. We need to focus now on providing support and training so that principals and teachers can make the most of digital learning" says Snedden.

The project allows schools to be part of a secure high-speed managed network as well as providing a range of education content and services.

But it has been the success of the Manaiakalani Trust which has brought together both funding and outside expertise that has allowed the digital learning environment in each of the schools to expand, which has been the real game-changer.

Possibly for the first time in history, when it comes to technology many students now know more than their teachers, and keeping up with their young charges has become a challenge for many educators. The new academy is intended to bridge this new digital divide, ensuring teachers not only become comfortable with the technology on offer, but that they fully embrace it in the classroom.

Google has provided $300,000 in funding towards the programme as part of what it describes as "its commitment to growing a community of 21st century teachers".

Raenan Garcia says his Notebook allows him to work at his own pace. Photo / Chris Gorman
Raenan Garcia says his Notebook allows him to work at his own pace. Photo / Chris Gorman

Back in the classroom, 13-year-old Raenan Garcia is busy working on a maths exercise.

"I do find that sometimes it's easy to get distracted because you want to see what the person next to you is working on.

"But often that just means that you end up learning something new anyway. That's what's really cool about the way we work in class."

High-tech success

Tamaki College might be considered ground zero in the battle to achieve improved educational outcomes. And if the results in just the past 12 months for this decile one school are anything to go by, the needle is definitely beginning to shift.

In 2011 a group of Year 10 students at the decile one school were given netbooks as part of a pilot programme. The results have been dramatic. NCEA Level 1 pass rates in maths in 2012 were almost four times higher than those achieved by students not in the trial classes.

In one internal assessment, 62 per cent of students without a netbook did not achieve the standard.

All of those with netbooks achieved the standard, 17 per cent of them with an excellence grading.

In literacy, it's much the same with University Entrance level pass rates increasing by more than 30 per cent in just one year.

Deputy-principal Russel Dunn says he attributes the dramatic shift in the results to the use of blended learning, where tools like Google docs and digital learning management systems have allowed students to collaborate with their teachers and peers and receive constructive feedback.

"In all my discussions with teachers the one thing that really stands out is that giving kids access to technology and information has had a huge and positive impact on their academic results this year, especially their internal assessments."

To make a difference

After 13 years living in Nelson, Karen Belt is set to return to Auckland, her home city, after being selected as one of 10 new teachers from more than 150 applicants who will make up the first intake to be admitted to the new Digital Teaching Academy.

For the past 10 years she's worked in a variety of administrative roles, yet despite being in her early 40s the opportunity to retrain to become a teacher will finally allow her to achieve what she believes has always been her true calling.

Belt has a Bachelor of Teaching and Learning (Primary) from the University of Canterburyand says she's excited by the opportunity to be part of the new programme. "I was actually shocked to get in but this is something I've really wanted to do. Having the chance to learn from experienced teachers and to be fully immersed in a digital environment will allow me to teach in a way that makes learning so much more impactful for students."