Enhancing the relevance of new learning

It is not surprising to see relevance of learning in the effective pedagogy section of the New Zealand Curriculum. A lot of research was undertaken in the 1990’s in New Zealand on this and hence teachers in New Zealand have long discussed how relevant and meaningful learning will increase interest, engagement and motivation for learners. What is of interest here though, is that the NZC explanation expands from just relevant contexts for learning to include ideas such as curiosity and learner agency.

Effective teachers stimulate the curiosity of their students, require them to search for relevant information and ideas, and challenge them to use or apply what they discover in new contexts or in new ways.

Curiosity is a bit of an enigma in schools. Speak to any teacher and they will say they value it, but often it is not high in our priorities when designing learning experiences for our classes. Susan Engel’s research found that students’ curiosity decreased as they grew older. She does believe that adult influence is a factor in this. This paper by Engel suggests 4 ways that educators can help students become more curious again.

Sparking curiosity in Science

Grant Lichtman has curiosity as one of his 3 key elements for deeper learning. His Deeper Learning Cheat Sheet has some great straight forward tips for how to develop students’ curiosity. I particularly like the prompt to encourage tinkering, both physically and mentally.

Inquiry learning can be a great way to enable students to pursue what they are curious about within the concept or context being studied in class. But we can’t just expect students to know how to ask a good question to aide their search for information. I’m a big fan of using techniques like question storming and question grids to help students develop better questions.

This section of the NZC also encourages us to move on from just finding the information and stopping there, or putting it on a poster. It says that students should be applying that knowledge. This again links to SOLO Taxonomy with the deepest level of understanding (Extended Abstract) being when students can apply that knowledge in new ways or to new contexts. Bolstad & Gilbert expanded on this in their 2012 report Supporting future oriented learning and teaching:

“the focus needs to be on equipping people to do things with knowledge, to use knowledge in inventive ways, in new contexts and combinations” p32

Students learn most effectively when they understand what they are learning, why they are learning it, and how they will be able to use their new learning.

What we teach and what students learn is not always directly related. The research behind formative assessment and self regulated learning helps provide steps that will ensure students do gain more understanding. The OECD Nature of Learning practitioner guide explains how a clear sense of purpose will lead to more motivation for students. It’s principles for learning also emphasise the need for formative feedback to support that learning.

This links with Dylan Wiliam’s research on self regulated learning. His research says that the “hook” of the learning doesn’t matter so much as long as students have clear goals and criteria of what they are working towards. It is then important to activate “students as owners of their own learning.”

They look for opportunities to involve students directly in decisions relating to their own learning. This encourages them to see what they are doing as relevant and to take greater ownership of their own learning.

We often see teachers taking their first steps in this direction through providing students choice of options within the class. The next step is incorporating student voice into what those choices are or into other aspects of the lesson design and planning. The really agentic shifts occur as we reach the levels of coconstructing next steps with learners. Derek Wenmoth has written a great 1 page article showing practical steps of how we can shift the ownership of learning to be more agentic. He helps show that it is not just about the content, but also about who they learn with, the success criteria and self assessment.

If you are looking to introduce formative self assessment as a step towards more student ownership of their learning, then this guide from The Education Hub is the perfect starting point. It breaks down all the research into this method, providing an evidence-based approach to help students and teachers introduce this more effectively. The guide includes both how to set up self assessment and 8 strategies for peer and self assessment. It is well worth downloading.

The shifting of ownership described above requires new learning and shifts in practice for both teachers and students.The great news for teachers is that this shift in practice actually has a massive upside:

“creating active learners who know what to do when they don’t know what to do reduces stress and workload for teachers.”Prue Kelly Sabbatical Report


This post was originally written to prompt reflection from teachers at Lynfield College on the learning happening in their classrooms. The following questions were shared with the post:

1) How are student questions valued as part of your curriculum?

2) How do students get to use the knowledge that they gain in your class?

3) What goals are students working towards in your class?

4) How can you increase the opportunities for learner agency in your classes?


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