Actually, in 2018, it was more like a tale of two and a half Geography classes. Timetable clashes with Chemistry and Digital Technology meant that six of my top Geography students from 2017 couldn’t take the subject at Level 2 in regular class time. Three of these students had achieved Level 1 Merit Endorsement in Geography and one had gained a Level 1 Excellence Endorsement.

I reluctantly agreed to have one student (‘A’) take Geography in my mixed Level 2/3 Tourism class, 4 students (‘The Nomads’) take Geography in the Level 2 History class, and one (‘B’) in his study period every week on a Wednesday; hence the ‘half’. This was in addition to my regular Level 2 class, so as you might imagine, the situation was fraught with potential problems.

‘A’ was an independent learner. She was happy to study Geography in the tourism class as she had taken Level 1 Geography in the Level 3 class the year before. The expectation had been made clear at the start of the 2017 – she would need to work independently a lot of the time as there would be times when the L3 class needed instruction.

The Nomads were timetabled into the L2 History class and I would provide them with Geography work to do. Very early on in the year, they started taking themselves to the library, where they could access chromebooks. Consequently, they had little to no direct instructional contact within the History class.

‘B’, the 2017 Excellence student, had the maximum 6 subjects on his timetable, plus Geography and Music; a total of 8 subjects!! His plan was to complete his Geography work independently in 1 hour of study time a week.

I visited the Nomads on a weekly basis to check on their progress, and go through assessment specifications for Merit and Excellence. Their writing was mostly at an Achieved level – it lacked detailed understanding and appeared to be rushed. At this early stage, I wondered if the lack of direct teacher direction was the problem, and whether I needed to be there at all times. That would minimise distractions and allow me to hammer home the expectations and criteria of the higher grades. However, that period was my non-contact, so it was not possible for me to be there each lesson.

‘A’, on the other hand, made excellent progress in the Tourism class on this assessment. At least she was in the same room as me and was able to ask questions when necessary. Her work showed insight and detailed understanding. ‘B’ worked on his assessment in his own time; he checked in when he felt he needed to. Both of these students were able to select quality information online and could identify reliable sources from sites such as the World Health Organisation. They were able to organise their writing in a logical manner, use information critically and incorporate relevant diagrams and maps. ‘B’ cited references and showed that he could evaluate his performance on the assessment and reflect on how he might improve his information gathering processes next time. In other words, the information literacy skills of both of these students were well in advance of those of the Nomad group, and it was these skills that enabled them to study independently and achieve higher NCEA grades.

This pattern continued throughout the next two internal assessments. The Nomads struggled and the other two students gained Excellence grades. Part of it was due to information literacy skills, but a lot of it was down to a lack of self-motivation on the Nomad students’ part. The link between good ILS and student motivation became increasingly clear. With fewer skills to call upon, their self-motivation gradually declined as the work became harder. They were a social group and, without teacher supervision, they tended to drift towards non-geographic ‘topics’ that didn’t require the skills they needed to practice and improve.

Overall, each of these students’ Level 2 performance, including external results, was surprisingly good. Grades analyses show that ‘B’ gained an Excellence endorsement and ‘A’ gained a Merit endorsement. Despite their lower skill level and the absence of teacher supervision, every student in the Nomad group passed their external at Merit level and two of the four gained Merit subject endorsements. Despite my concerns, and their own beliefs, these students were able to effectively implement information literacy skills, such as accessing various sources of information independently and efficiently.

So what did I learn from 2018’s craziness?

The explicit teaching of information literacy skills is key to student success.

As education shifts to possibly non-traditional classroom situations, and we look at individualised student timetables, good information literacy skills will become even more paramount. It’s not necessarily about the teacher being there every lesson – if students have good information literacy skills, they will be fine!

It’s clear that the students who struggled did have sound foundational information literacy skills, otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to pass their exam or gain endorsements. The problem was that they didn’t believe they possessed such skills and therefore needed a teacher with them all the time. Consequently their focus on the work was fragile, and their regular practice of ILS in a geographic context decreased.

Thank goodness things are easier in 2019; the gang’s back together. There are no students taking Geography outside of the regular Level 3 class. And now I have a new focus: how can I encourage students to believe in their capabilities so that they have more confidence using information literacy skills? Explicit teaching of ILS, high expectations consistently reinforced in class, and use of our school librarian will feature strongly in our Level 3 work this year.

We’re ALL working on it.

Melanie Keighley

Acting Deputy Principal (Operations) & Graduate Dean, Waitara High School