Karen Strong and Jason Benson, two educational doctorate (EdD) students from the David O. McKay School of Education traveled to Stonefields Elementary School in New Zealand, which hosts over 800 visitors a year, to experience first-hand their unique learning environment. Pamela Hallam, chair of the Educational Leadership and Foundations Department (EdLF), and Sam Brown, director of International Student and Scholar Services here at BYU accompanied the students to study teacher self-efficacy and collective teacher efficacy at the school.
“I learned so much from this trip,” said Strong. “How to work as a research team, how to connect with people you have only just met, how connected we are as educators seeking to make a difference in the world, and how important innovation and trust are in helping students succeed.”
The research team interviewed faculty and staff at the school to learn about how the beliefs, preconceptions, and predispositions of teachers influence their individual teacher efficacy, and collective teacher efficacy, which may increase student achievement. “We planned the interviews to be about half an hour, but often they went way longer; sometimes over an hour,” said Hallam. The interviews went long “because they were so open, which is part of the reason they’re so good. They have such a belief in what they’re doing and they are excited about what they’re doing. Sometimes it was hard to get them to stop because they wanted to go on and on.”
Sarah Martin, the principal at Stonefields Elementary, was also a valuable resource for Hallam and the research team. “She spent a lot of time with us, personally talking to us about how they set up the school and the philosophy of learning they have, how they make learning visible, and how they treat their kids,” Hallam commented. Martin’s interactions with the teachers left a great impression on us. “She was so human with us and so transparent with everything they do at the school.”
The work of Martin and all the teachers at Stonefields has created a fruitful learning environment for the students. “The environment is really driven by the students,” said Hallam. Students would schedule meeting times with their teachers through their personal computers—taking ownership of their education and getting the help they need.
“I didn’t see classrooms with straight rows [of desks] with a teacher standing there at the front of the classroom delivering the information,” Hallam explained. “The kids knew what they needed to learn and they were responsible for how they learned it.”
Part of the democratic culture engendered at the school involves an awareness of learning roadblocks. When a student is struggling with a concept they will say out-loud, “I’m in the ‘Learning Pit.’” The “Learning Pit” is a metaphor for the confusion and frustration that students can experience when trying to learn new concepts in school.
Once they’ve recognized their predicament, the students are given a list of strategies they can employ to climb out of the “Learning Pit,” like working with a neighboring student. “Kids know that that’s a natural state, and it’s normal, and even teachers are in the ‘Learning Pit’ sometimes,” said Hallam.
Normalizing and addressing difficulties in learning helps make the students comfortable. “The humanness of their surroundings was just amazing,” Hallam related. “You saw kids running around barefooted—they felt so comfortable.” The students felt that the school was their home, and their space to be themselves.
Hallam’s working relationship with EdD students Strong and Benson reflects the school’s philosophy of collaboration. “The lines between professor and student kind of blurred as a result of this experience. I see them as much a part of the research process as I am, and I value their opinions and ideas,” said Hallam about Strong and Benson. “As co-dissertation chairs, Sterling Hilton and I are collaborating on this research and that feels really good.”
Strong shared that the experiences with Hallam, Brown, and Benson will leave an enduring impact on her. “I think this experience has created lasting bonds between the all of us, not only as educators and researchers interested in understanding collective efficacy and trust to improve school systems, but also as friends and colleagues,” said Strong. “I think what this experience has done for me as a school leader is to remind me that our every effort to reach children is worth it, because they are counting on us.”
to learn more about Stonefields School.
Writer: Jake Gulisane
Contact: Cindy Glad (801) 422-1922