Pakuranga College: Leaders leading learning

Pakuranga College principal Mike Williams reflects on the school's experience of growing a professional learning environment with inquiry at the heart.

Pakuranga College is a large east Auckland secondary school with 140 staff and 2,100 students. 

This page is a summary of reflections on leading learning for staff and students. You can read about the actions the school has taken on the related page:

Pakuranga College: Organising for professional learning


Culture is the key to this work, and it has to sit within a school-wide culture. While finding the resourcing (time) has been a challenge, it is a necessary but not sufficient condition to get effective professional learning happening. Building the culture is critical.

If you want a school that really focusses on learning then you need to develop a culture that will enable that to happen. Step one, stop talking about professional development courses or PD days. Start talking about professional learning. Start building a culture where learning happens every day. Professional learning and inquiry thinking is not an event. It’s a life style! 

Back to top


We know that learning is a collaborative process. Teachers need opportunities to engage with other teachers about their theories of practice. They have to have time to do this and to build confidence in themselves to do this. 

In the early days of our work, while I was frustrated that we weren’t getting immediate results, I had to accept that the critical first steps were to take the time to establish trusting relationships between staff and build a sense of shared ownership of Professional Learning Groups (PLGs) so all people feel they are stakeholders in their learning process and goals. I had to show the staff that mistakes weren’t punished, that honesty was rewarded.

With staff ownership, people also accept accountability for student learning. It is very important to recognise that all teachers are unique learners and bring a variety of personal and professional experience and knowledge to their learning.

We had to build an inquiry culture and the safe learning culture around this, before we could actually see the outcomes of teachers improving practice through inquiry.

We may have got some quicker short term gains with a different approach but it has been about being patient and believing in the long term gains.

Back to top

High trust monitoring

As principal, how do I know that everyone is on track? There must be structural mechanisms that keep everyone accountable to the process and to the time that is allocated. But how do you do this in a way that respects the professionalism of the staff?

  • We have tightly structured learning sessions with outcomes.
  • We emphasise group accountability. People share their inquiries in faculty groups and cross-curricular groups. New people each year present their inquiries to the staff with their students.
  • We also emphasise self and peer assessment. Faculty heads and professional learning group facilitators have identified the characteristics of a person who is not engaged in the inquiry process. The next step is for faculty heads to ensure that all teachers in their faculty are engaging in inquiry in an authentic and genuine manner. The Registered Teacher Criteria are an accountability mechanism, but we can’t rely on this; there has to be a deeper accountability to our culture and values as a school.

There is no easy answer to the question. It is about using key indicators such as those above and subtle indicators of a strong culture such as the frequency of staff room conversations about learning, the honesty in staff reflections on data, the value teachers place on their learning through PLGs, and the willingness of staff to share their practice and inquiry thinking.

Back to top

Inquiry focus and critical thinking

We constantly ask ourselves how do we know that the teacher is working on the most important thing for that teacher and those students? The middle managers are having those difficult conversations with teachers about this. This is the high level inquiry, how do we get teachers to pick the right thing.

It is important to take time and create structures to make deciding the focus for inquiry a very transparent process. Create teacher exemplars for staff to critique – teachers learn from each other – and use the power of a variety of teacher role models.

This is really about capability building. How do we keep developing the skills of staff to ask the hard questions and professionally challenge each other around practice? 

From my perspective this is at the heart of the work – helping teachers identify the ‘real problem’ and building their capacity to identify it themselves.  There is no simple answer. Our own leadership inquiry into this continues!  

Back to top


Use lots of staff role models and create scaffolded opportunities for teachers to critique their own inquiries and the inquiry thinking of others. It is about having each teacher making inquiry thinking and the inquiry process visible to others.

Public accountability is a powerful tool. Listening to the learning journeys of colleagues reflecting on their teaching practice provides powerful models for other staff members to critically analyse their own practice.

We continue to improve teacher understanding of what it means to have an inquiry mindset through sharing what others are doing.

Back to top

Curricular or cross-curricular PLGs

There are weaknesses and strengths in both curricular and cross-curricular professional learning groups.

The curriculum groups are safer for teachers and there is shared familiarity with the teaching and learning problems encountered by teachers and students. Teachers also see a direct benefit to themselves when they do a classroom observation of a teacher in their faculty area. Curriculum groups also allow the faculty head to embed best practice pedagogy across the faculty.

So there is some benefit in a faculty working together on similar problems. But the danger is that staff will talk predominantly about teaching content and what they do, and less about their assumptions about the learners or why they teach the way they do and what they could do differently.

I believe that observations should be cross-curriculum. The example I use to justify my belief is, if an English teacher goes into an English class doing Shakespeare, the discussion afterwards almost always moves to how to teach Shakespeare. If a physical education teacher goes into observe the same class, the common ground and therefore the discussion will be about pedagogical practices, such as why did you do that, how did you get that boy involved, and why did you arrange it like that?

Working in faculties, the risks are that fixed mindset teaching is not challenged and teachers have fewer conversations with teachers outside their faculty. Faculties with a clear understanding of inquiry may become even better at it while other faculties may flounder.

It is important to emphasise school-wide collective effectiveness, that we achieve more when we're working together than when we're working in isolation. It is a real challenge to get teachers to value the pedagogical practice in one subject area and see it can be transferred to good effect in another faculty.

As principal, one of my initial non-negotiable requirements for the professional learning leadership team was that there had to be cross-curricular groups, for the reasons above and to develop our school-wide culture. We spent four years working in cross-curricular groups. Then there was a request from faculty heads and PLG facilitators that we move to faculty groups. The rationale put forward and my understanding of the challenges convinced me to trust their leadership. So we have had PLGs in faculties for two years. The request for next year is that we work in cross-curricular groups again. It is an evolutionary process. Whatever you decide, it needs to be purposeful and you do need to change.

Back to top

Facilitator and coach capability

Coaching is a massive resource but our most important resource. Currently we have five coaches and five facilitators. Coaches get five hours release time and a management unit. Facilitators get an MMA. 

My vision is for all teachers to have the experience of being a coach or facilitator of professional learning. This means we need to provide ongoing support and professional development for our PLG team. We have to build their capacity to be effective leaders of learning.

In our approach, feedback about practice is really important for a teacher. We can do it through peer observations but the observer has to be highly skilled. So we are working on improving lesson observation skills and having critical friend and mentoring conversations.

It is also important that the PLG facilitators have a shared understanding of the goals, purpose and outcomes for school-wide professional learning.

Back to top

Student voice

Most schools will say that they use student voice, but for us we are trying to take this much deeper; to authentically engage with our students about learning.

One of the challenges with implementing teacher-student learning partnerships is teachers' sense of insecurity about asking students for their perspectives on teaching and learning. There is a tension. Teachers are the subject experts with many years of pedagogical practice and experience. They can feel frustrated when the pedagogy just isn’t working.

We need to remove the blame culture. We need to support teachers to stay open minded, ask the right questions of students and respond to their concerns or suggestions. The inquiry is about improving their practice through student involvement and being open about it. 

Failure is important to understand. There’s always that mindset about failure, but by being open to feedback you learn how to do it better next time – the growth mindset approach. It’s about learning. 

Once again, to move to this deeper construct of student voice, it is the ‘background work’ that lays the foundations. Is the school culture built on mutual respect or on an adversarial hierarchical model? You can’t have different cultures in different aspects of the school. It has to be a school-wide culture. You cannot expect students to adopt an agentic disposition to learning if that is discouraged in other aspects of the school.

This is where the principal’s role is critical. For example, when you are working on the new school discipline system are you thinking about the culture you need to foster to get effective learning partnerships?

Back to top

Knowing success

Measuring effectiveness is hard. It would be nice if we could draw a nice straight line between PLD inputs and student achievement data, but it is not that simple. And many of the outcomes are not necessarily academic success right now.

We think professional learning has been successful if:

  • teachers value the inquiry process
  • teachers can see a correlation between their inquiry and improved student engagement, motivation, understanding and achievement 
  • our students value participating in the inquiry process
  • we see the transfer of effective pedagogy across the school.   

Student achievement data is one form of evidence but not everything. For me, the question is always how well have I helped teachers to see what it is they need to work on? How do I help all the staff improve their practices?

The bottom line is that learning has to become visible, both student learning and teacher learning. If we can ‘see it’ we can all be engaged in the discussions about it, and we can all be involved and responsible for improving it.

Back to top

Final word

Why are we doing PLD?  Ultimately we are looking at helping people change their teaching practice. PLD is not about learning some new things in isolation. It is about what is needed for students in front of the teacher at this very moment.

Teachers come from a strong moral perspective, they want to help people. Most teachers, if they see the problem, will solve it. The key is getting teachers to collect quality data and examine their practices.

Telling them about a problem is not going to help change practices. They have to go through the process and understand it. Once you’ve cracked that need and desire, teachers will do whatever is needed.

Teachers are professionals and intelligent, so they know about learning. It’s creating the need and desire that is the key. Once that step is accepted and understood you know that progress will happen.

Tell a colleague | Back to top