Could Team New Zealand help us innovate in education?

Skipper Glenn Ashby, team principal Matteo de Nora, helmsman Peter Burling and CEO Grant Dalton celebrate Emirates Team ...


Skipper Glenn Ashby, team principal Matteo de Nora, helmsman Peter Burling and CEO Grant Dalton celebrate Emirates Team New Zealand’s America’s Cup success in Bermuda.

OPINION: In late 1993, I sat the final exams of my engineering degree, flew to Fiji to sail a boat back to New Zealand, and then took up a job on the small design team of Team New Zealand.

I spent the next 18 months optimising design and performance.

I sailed every day during the build-up and (sadly) remain the only woman to have sailed for New Zealand in an America’s Cup competition. We won 5-0 in San Diego and set the stage for the incredible win in Bermuda.

Maury Leyland is only woman to have sailed for New Zealand in an America's Cup competition.

Maury Leyland is only woman to have sailed for New Zealand in an America’s Cup competition.

I watched the racing I the last few weeks entranced by the technological leaps, continuous improvement and the criticality of the workflow and teamwork on these under-crewed, ever-changing and super-fast machines was inspirational.

Since winning, much has been written about Team New Zealand’s sensational comeback from annihilation in 2013 and the near-collapse of the team in the following years.

Our education system has not been annihilated, but there is no question that it would get knocked out in any hypothetical qualifying rounds.

We understand the gaps and have debated them well. Now it is time for action.

So how might we as a nation, gather strength and determination from our failure to produce the kind of change in education that we aspire to, and carefully design, build and execute a come-back of Team New Zealand proportions?

While it might look like a black art, there is real science behind high-performing teams and it can be analysed, understood and practiced.

Team New Zealand had critical roles – leaders, designers, shore crew and sailors.

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These roles came together with limited time and money to master the technical challenges of designing, building and then sailing a fast but unstable boat with the ability to get through major adversity (who can forget the capsize?) – and to keep on improving.

In education, it is our teachers who are the sailors – we go nowhere without them and we lean on their skill, commitment and ability to adapt.

Our design community is divided between the ministry, which sets policy and academic researchers. We have leaders who oversee schools and the ministry.

But we are largely lacking a shore crew – the pragmatic and hardworking people who take the theoretical beauty of the best research and design and interpret it into useable actions, materials and tools that work for teachers in the diverse settings of their classrooms.

Team New Zealand involved the sailors in all the decisions that related to the boat.

The team had a stated goal to stretch their design (“throw the ball”) as far as they could and then run hard after it.

The sailors were involved because they had to be able to sail what was created – if it’s not useable, it is worthless.

Likewise, our teachers must be involved in setting the aspirational goals, curriculum and the detail of our education design to ensure that it can be taught in a way that our children get most benefit.

Leadership in Team New Zealand meant setting tone and direction, but it also meant enabling people – creating the environment where they are ready, willing and able to give their absolute best.

Both Sir Peter Blake and Grant Dalton carried the burden of the fundraising, public relations and general bureaucracy that allowed others to truly focus on the tasks that were going to lead to the ultimate objective: “make the boat go faster”.

Our education leaders must focus on freeing up and enabling the people who are working on the real business of educating – helping our children learn the right things faster.

Recently Education Minister Nikki Kaye released the consultation document for the proposed new digital curriculum.

We all know that if we could do this well, we would create an advantage for our children and their future in the changing world of work. But we also know that this is a huge ask for our overburdened teachers without thoughtful design and systemic change to the way we support them as they implement this change.

We have skills that are relevant to this challenge outside our school system. Within our universities, we have engineering schools and computer science departments that are working on these challenges every day.

Outside the traditional education sector, we have new companies such as Enspiral Dev Academy breaking the mould for how to develop new skills for the emerging needs of the market – with a focus on collaborative ways of working and the soft skills as well as cutting edge technical skills.

We have companies such as Xero, Orion Health and many more crying out for change. We also have some known successes in the education sector such as MindLab that we can build upon.

Like Team New Zealand, it’s time to ask how we put a highly collaborative, cross-sector team together that doesn’t look like the teams we have always had, but instead has the right skills to be leading edge for the goal we are chasing.

Winning a better future for our children and nation is much more important that than winning the America’s Cup.

Maury Leyland is the Chair of The Education Hub which aims to foster innovation and improvement in education by bringing together people, resources and ideas.

 – Stuff

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