When are we ever going to use this?

By Michael Draper–Physics and Electro-tech Teacher–High School

“When are we ever going to use this?” This is a common question from teenagers in conventional high schools, yet we rarely hear this question in Tāwari. Why is that?

Maria Montessori identified that the primary drive for adolescents is learning what they need to function as an adult.

Part of this is social. Adolescents need to establish their own unique identity, to develop their own self-expression and to fit in with others beyond the environment of family.  In the 6–12 years, children learn through social play, safe in their position as children within a family/whānau.  With adolescence their awareness turns to the challenge of becoming participants in adult society and their social experimentation and learning suddenly becomes very real and earnest.

Another equally important part is occupational: the need to learn how to become a contributing member of the community.  Historically, this was the age children would enter into apprenticeships, working at the feet of a master to learn their trade or occupation. They started with simple tasks, then as their confidence and exposure to the real work developed, they would move on to progressively more skilled and more complex tasks.  This progression also reflects our more recent understanding of the process of body and brain development that occurs in adolescence, starting with broader physical capabilities and progressing through finer skills to the blossoming of abstract thinking proficiencies in later adolescence.

Adolescents want to learn. They are driven to learn what they perceive will be useful for them as adults. Just telling them there is purpose isn’t enough. If they can’t see for themselves a clear connection between what they are being taught and its usefulness for them as adults, they will struggle to maintain attention.  The key here is relevance. When ākonga see relevance in what they are learning, they learn faster, understand and retain more.

At Wā Ora this understanding is reflected in the different emphasis and work patterns of Kawakawa (school years 8-10) and Tāwari (the NCEA years).  In Kawakawa, the emphasis is on social development and on practical experiences of working with others and with the physical world.  There is less emphasis on academic learning in Kawakawa, partly because the young adolescent brain is still developing capacity for this and partly because of the need to give ākonga the experiences that give meaning to future academic learning.

In Tāwari however, the priority shifts to the more academic requirements of senior high school learning.  It is here that the experiences and practical learning in Kawakawa pay off; where conventional school students struggle to see the relevance of many lessons, Tāwari students have a rich store of practical experience to which they can relate the more abstract learning of senior high school.  With a richness of experience to draw on, the question of “When will I ever use this?” becomes redundant.