making connections

The opposite of horizontal is vertical. It is singular in its focus and one dimensional. It is an isolated line that does not encompass or broaden to anything deep or meaningful. It is thin and narrow. When learning is separated from context or compartmentalised, it has the danger of being stored in a box in the recesses of our mind — or not even stored at all.

Research demonstrates that skills taught, practiced, and tested in isolation are not used as consistently or effectively as skills taught when children are actually reading and writing (Basic skills belong in context.
—Lucy McCormick Calkins, 1980).

When a brain learns something new, it forms new neural pathways. These new pathways become stronger the more they are used, causing the likelihood of new long-term connections and memories.


What comes with teaching in 2016 is the luxury of up-to-date research into how learning happens. We no longer need to guess about how to teach our learners. Teaching has changed. There is a plethora of research that has been growing exponentially since the late 1980s into what works for teaching and learning — and this research keeps being updated daily.

We now know the importance of integration and connecting to prior knowledge when we teach some new skill or content. It is much easier for the brain to learn something new when it can hook onto something: a schema (a system or framework for organising new information). Constructivism proposes that new knowledge is constructed from old.

The 2013 Research report: Educational Practices that benefit Pacific learners in tertiary education states that:

Learning in traditional Pacific Island culture took place everywhere: at home, during gatherings, in the fields and at sea. “Family and community were inextricably interwoven, like strands of pandanus, into a coherent ‘school’ of learning” (Onikama, Hammond, Ormond & Koki, 1998, p. 1).

success in education is still largely attributed to the influence of family, friends and community (Meyer, Weir, McClure, Walkey & McKenzie, 2009).

Building horizontal connections in our classrooms is when we deliberately activate the prior knowledge and worlds of our learners with the new learning we are introducing. It is also about validating learning contexts that are familiar and valued in the worlds of our Pacific learners. This builds on the strengths that our learners have and acknowledges their contexts as legitimate contexts to learn.


How can we build horizontal connections between the worlds our Pacific learners walk in (informal learning), to the worlds of school (formal learning)?

If we deliberately strategise to make these worlds intersect, then we can amplify these learning opportunities.

opportunities to amplify learning

For instance, Pacific sports such as volleyball or Kilikiti could be used to as assessment opportunities for Physical Education and Health. Students could evaluate the similarities and differences between Cricket and Kilikiti in a piece of persuasive writing.

Polyfest is not only a rich cultural experience for dance, it could also be a context for mathematics and physical education. Could this be a data gathering opportunity? Students could measure their heart rate prior to practice, then straight after to notice increased elevation. It might be more engaging than drawing a bar graph of the heights of boys versus girls in your classroom! Could students capture a sample of student voice as a qualitative and quantitative measure. They could come up with their own survey questions in regards to Culture, Language, and Identity, then survey participants from different schools. Or, for Technology, look at the different stakeholders that are invested in this event. There are so many opportunities, it just takes a culturally responsive mind to validate these as legitimate contexts for learning.


White Sunday is a highlight of the calendar year for Samoan and Tongan families. It is a day for parents and communities to acknowledge and celebrate childhood by hosting special programs during church services that include scriptural recitations, biblical story re-enactments, and creative dance performances. Many Pacific students spend hours preparing for these church performances; these could be assessment opportunities for English, Drama, and Dance. How can we make it work?

Learning happens outside of school in many naturally occurring situations; like strands of pandanas, let us weave these learning opportunities together.

As we broaden our horizons to maximise wider community connections, let us think about how we can build relational trust to be in true partnership with our Pacific community.

In talking to your learners and families, have you thought of building a more holistic picture of your learners:

  • Which churches do your Pacific learners attend?
  • Does anyone in their family have a leadership position within the church?

Could you connect with this wider community to hold a partnership meeting where church members alongside schools, solution-build how to amplify natural learning opportunities?


Below are some questions Delta Learns has created to help teachers plan teaching and learning opportunities with authentic learning contexts that promote and foster deeper understanding. The checklist questions provide prompts to scaffold and maximise the learning opportunities.


1. Have real-world relevance

Provide authentic contexts that reflect the way the knowledge will be used in real life.

  • Does the context of the course represent the kind of setting where the skill or knowledge is applied?
  • Is the pathway students take through the learning environment flexible, where students are able to move around at will?

2. Provide authentic activities and tasks

Activities and tasks are loosely defined, requiring students to define the tasks and sub-tasks needed to complete the activity.

Comprise complex tasks to be investigated by students over a sustained period of time.

  • Do the activity and tasks mirror the kind of tasks performed in real-world applications?
  • Is the activity presented as an overarching complex problem (or series of small sub-steps) that is worked on over a longer period of time?
  • Do students work on the activities and tasks for weeks rather than minutes or hours?
  • Are students able to choose information from a variety of inputs, including relevant and irrelevant sources?

3. Provide access to expert performances and the modelling of processes


  • Does the learning environment provide access to expert skill and opinion from a variety of sources?
  • Does the learning environment allow access to other learners at various stages of expertise? (E.g., Putting students in groups or letting them work with a mentor.)
  • Are the students able to hear and share stories about professional practice [editor: i.e., examples of what is professional practice]?

4. Provide multiple roles and perspectives

Provide the opportunity for students to examine the tasks from different perspectives, using a variety of resources.

  • Are students able to explore issues from different points of view?
  • Are students able to use a wide variety of learning resources and materials (not just a single textbook)?

5. Provide the opportunity to collaborate

Support collaborative construction of knowledge

  • Are students able to collaborate (rather than simply co-operate on tasks)?
  • Are grades given for group effort of a whole product, rather than individual effort?

6. Provide the opportunity to reflect

Promote reflection to enable abstractions to be formed

  • Are students required to make decisions about how to complete the task? (reflection-in-action)
  • Are students able to move freely in the environment and return to any element to act upon reflection? (Non-linear)
  • Can students compare their thoughts and ideas to those of experts, teachers, guides and other students?
  • Do students work in collaborative groups that enable discussion and social reflection?

7. Promote articulation to encourage students to verbalize their knowledge and thinking

Articulation enables tacit knowledge to be made explicit. Provide opportunities for students to articulate the knowledge they gained.

  • Does the task require students to discuss and articulate beliefs and growing understanding?
  • Does the environment provide collaborative groups and forums to enable articulation of ideas?
  • Does the task require the creation of a polished product that requires presentation of thought and argument?
  • Does the task enable presentation and defence of arguments?

8. Tasks are seamlessly integrated with assessment

Provide for authentic assessment of learning within the tasks.

  • Are students assessed on the product of the investigation rather than by separate testing?
  • Are there multiple assessment measures rather than a single measure?

9. Create polished products

Create polished products valuable in their own right rather than as preparation for something else. Allow competing solutions and diverse outcomes.

  • Are products of performances polished and refined rather than incomplete or rushed drafts?
  • Do students participate in the activity for extended periods of time?

10. Provide coaching and scaffolding at critical times

Instructor does not attempt to ‘transmit’ knowledge. Instructor’s role is supporting rather than didactic.

  • Is the teacher’s role more supportive than didactic?

Keep weaving the pandanus strands to explicitly link the naturally occurring worlds that our Pacific learners walk in. By valuing horizontal connections, Pacific worlds will be validated as authentic and meaningful learning opportunities.


Delta Learns website: Toolkit for Innovative Teaching and Learner Success: Building Horizontal Connections

Image credit:
Connections image used under CC0 Public Domain

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Alana Madgwick

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Anne Kenneally is an experienced professional learning facilitator. Anne facilitates the effective use of digital technologies to engage and empower all learners. She has been a part of the Learning with Digital Technologies team. She is also a mentor within the UChoose mentoring programme and Virtual Professional Learning and Development (VPLD) programmes. Anne has worked with schools and leadership teams across New Zealand supporting the development of effective use of technology, Google how-tos, and teaching as inquiry, through to strategic planning and school transformation initiatives. Anne has a strong focus on teaching as inquiry, supporting leaders and educators to maximise their potential. She is also passionate about removing ‘barriers to learning’ for students, particularly in literacy.

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