A School for the 21st Century: Researching the impact of changing teacher practice on student learning

Funding year: 
2 years
Alfriston College
School sector
Project start date: 
January 2007
Project end date: 
January 2009
Principal investigator(s): 
Michael Denny
Research team members: 
Lynda Shanks and Karyn White, Alfriston College; Rosemary Hipkins, NZCER
Research partners: 
Alfriston College, with The New Zealand Council for Educational Research

Project Description

This  TLRI-funded project, conducted at Alfriston College, entitled A School for the 21st Century, is researching the impact of changing teaching practice on student learning.

Alfriston College was founded in 2004. From its inception, the school has challenged itself to put into practice various recommendations for changing established teaching practice to transform student learning for a new century. Adapting the traditional timetable structure to try and make space for deeper learning was part of this “21st-century vision” (Locke, 2006) This was done through the use of 100-minute lessons and three-day episodes where the timetable for all students is suspended for three days each term, while students work on extended projects in cross-year level groups.

The TLRI project was a two-year long collaboration between key members of the teaching staff at Alfriston College and an experienced researcher from NZCER, collectively called the Professional Learning Group (PLG). The PLG investigated ways teachers understood and responded to innovative approaches to scheduling time for teaching and learning, and sought evidence that the innovations had a significant effect on student learning.

This table represents a summary of the key findings:

Year 1:  Student and teacher perceptions of 100 minute lessons

Our survey work with students and teachers, and the conversations with teachers that followed the presentation of the results, pointed to longer traditional learning periods as operating within an improvement paradigm of school change. In such a paradigm present structures and ways of working are made better, but underpinning assumptions may not be examined closely. This timetable model may indeed lead to considerable improvements in relatively traditional teaching and learning activities and responsibilities—without necessarily questioning either the nature of learning or the nature of the outcomes sought. Such improvement per se will not necessarily help students to meet the ongoing learning challenges they will doubtless face in the 21st century.

By contrast within a transformative paradigm all practices and assumptions need to be revisited as the school embarks on a journey to think differently about learning and the ways we organise it. The first year findings gave indications that transformative change could be more likely to happen if teachers’ were supported to rethink and reflect on their experiences when planning and leading three-day learning episodes. However the survey results and associated conversations also suggested that some staff at Alfriston College, notwithstanding the clear benefits they could identify for three-day episodes, harboured suspicions that these are really a pleasant diversion from the main learning agenda, which remained firmly traditional. Accordingly other types of evidence of learning, and indeed the legitimacy of more informal or distributed learning as valued school learning, became the focus for in the second year of the project.

Year 2: The learning that is occurring in 3 day episodes

The documentation developed in the early days of the school demonstrates that the designers of three-day episodes had transformative learning in mind. The episodes were intended to help strengthen students’ ILQs by giving them an experience of uninterrupted personally focused learning. They were designed to be participatory and to strengthen students’ dispositions to learn. Coming to recognize and value types of evidence of learning associated with such goals has clearly challenged the thinking of many teachers, students and parents alike.

Our efforts in the second year of the project were directed towards refocusing what was noticed, when and why. We wanted to know if teachers could be assisted to notice, and then value, the different types of outcomes that can be achieved in three days but not so easily in traditional lessons. Early in the second year a core group of about 15 teachers voluntarily participated in a one day workshop to construct a set of design and we tracked subsequent introduction and use of these across two full rounds of learning episodes. The teachers involved in the research saw their modeling of learning as making an important contribution to the outcomes students can achieve. Working with the design principles, they took on themselves the responsibilities to:

  • develop a convincing rationale for the planned learning – one they could “sell” to students to heighten anticipation well in advance of the actual learning
  • design episodes with a carefully structured framework that enabled students to take as much ownership of their learning as possible
  • display the courage to take risks and learn with the students, and from peers with whom they might not usually work
  • visibly reflect on their own learning 
  • support and encourage ongoing demonstrations of learning beyond the three-day time-frame.
The teachers at the forefront of change in this school were willing to wrestle with the implications of transformative change, even if they had not yet carried these implications through from three-day episodes to their more traditional lessons. They could articulate and clearly valued other types of learning goals for students including:
  • specific demonstrations of knowledge and skills in use, often in contexts related to life beyond school
  • strengthening of specific Independent Learner Qualities, accompanied by reflective awareness of these changes
  • willingness to take ownership of learning and to adopt the teaching role when appropriate
  • the desire to continue to demonstrate the new learning beyond the needs dictated by the time-in-school setting,
  • improved relationships with both teachers and peers, often attributed to improvements in self esteem.

These teachers emphasised relationships. The impact of these on learning was threaded right through the focus group conversations that concluded the research activities, as were references to scaffolding and modelling learning, and the powerful impact of ownership and authenticity of learning tasks. Our research suggests that it takes a willingness to take risks, and the space and time needed to do so, as well as carefully structured supports for reflection on what has been achieved, for teachers to be able to rethink their beliefs about the why, how and what of teaching and learning. While some teachers were ready to shift to a more transformative thinking frame, and were in the process of doing so at least some of the time, by the end of the project some still saw assessment through a more traditionally acquisitive frame of reference.

We have already received anecdotal evidence that other secondary schools have accessed and used the design principles for extended learning episodes when planning their own programmes.   

Project Outputs


Presentations, conferences and workshops

White, K. and Shanks, L. (2009, February). Learning outside the square in a secondary school. Paper presented at Learning-at-School, Rotorua, NZ. 



Hipkins, R. W., Shanks, L., & Denny, M. (2008). Early experiences of longer learning periods at Alfriston College. set: Research Information for Teachers 1,44-49.

Hipkins, R. (2008). Longer learning periods for the secondary school day: What does research say? set: Research Information for Teachers, 1, 40-43.

Shanks, L. (2007). The Missing Voice: Learner perceptions of 100 minute lessons. Unpublished Master of Education thesis, Massey University, Palmerston North.
Lynda completed this thesis through Massey University during the first year of the TLRI. Her research ran alongside and was supported by her participation in the TLRI team.

Presentations, conferences and workshops

Denny, M. and White, K. (2008, October). Take a risk and suspend the timetable.  Paper presented at Ulearn08, Christchurch, NZ

White, K. and Shanks, L. (2009, February). Learning outside the square in a secondary school. Paper presented at Learning-at-School, Rotorua,