How a single tohu brought our entire organisation together

In 2020, a year of utter turmoil and unpredictability, we set out to redefine who we were.

It was partly due to our upcoming EER (External Evaluation and Review), partly due to “moving in” to our new Grafton lab with our sister business – Tech Futures Lab, and partly (the biggest part) to help us pinpoint our own, unique way of teaching and learning here at The Mind Lab.

As we’re an education provider, the expected output comes down to a teaching and learning strategy. To us, cage-rattlers that we are, a “strategy” is much too overused. It’s not something an organisation full of academics, educators, innovators, advisors, creatives, doers, thinkers, futurists, designers and planners can ALL get excited about. So we decided our teaching and learning strategy would be renamed and reshaped to centre around a single concept; Te Ara Kōtihi.

Frances Valintine, CEO and Founder of The Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab, shares her take:

“For me, Te Ara Kōtihi is the collective. It’s coming together as one team and working together with communities, whānau and people all across Aotearoa. And the best bit is that it was built from the ground up by our people. It wasn’t a strategy developed in a boardroom, it was grassroots, which I think is why it’s been so well received across the organisation.”

A working group was formed and consultation was undertaken – both with students, staff and people we collaborate with. Our tohu, which already existed as a physical pin for each of our graduating students, became a visual representation of how we teach and learn. It represents what we strive for here at The Mind Lab: our students at the centre (represented by the koru) our structures, people and processes all linked together to support the learner (represented by the niho taniwha surrounding the koru) all shaping up to form a pathway to success (the kōtihi / summit shape enclosing the rest of the elements).

The tohu representing Te Ara Kōtihi, designed for us by Trish Francis and gifted to us for use

Hei tā Te Mihinga Komene, hei tō mātou Pou Ārahi, “Ahakoa he aha tō tūranga, he aha rā ngō mahi i The Mind Lab, ko ā mātou ākonga te pūtake. Mā tēnei rautaki e whai wāhi ai ia tangata o te kamupene te whakaputa i ngōna whakaaro, ā, mā ngā mātāpono e whā nei hei tūhonohono ai i aua whakaaro rā ki ngā mahi, ki ngā tukanga o ia tīma, tae atu rā ki te angitutanga o ā mātou ākonga, ā whanake ake nei.”

Te Ara Kōtihi is entirely underpinned by our organisational values; manaaki, rangatiratanga, ako and pono. We care and nurture, we respect diversity, we believe in reciprocal teaching and learning and there is transparency, integrity and honesty in everything we do.

Why is our teaching & learning strategy so important to us?

In short, it brings us all together. It helps us visibly see the learner at the centre of our organisation, and enables us to work together as a collective to help our learners achieve success. The authority and ownership is given back to the teams who know their roles and our learners best, empowering them to strategise, set objectives, share and receive feedback from other teams and collaborate with each other. This is supported by guiding principles to ensure we’re all heading in the same direction.

The strategy set measurable goals for all learners, with a specific focus on Māori and Pacific learners and ensuring we offer programmes that enrich them and their iwi, hapū and communities. Māori and Pacific learners have often marginalised and disempowered in western styles of education, and we’re striving to do everything we can to ensure our learning is transformative, and supportive of every student who enrols in one of our programmes. Te Ara Kōtihi constantly reminds us the learners are the centre, so if things need to change to improve their success, even if it’s hard or complicated or time-consuming, they change.

“Te Ara Kōtihi is a framework that supports our learners, no matter what team we’re from or what role we’re in. It keeps us focused on learner success while also empowering our teams to strategise and work toward goals,” says Craig Hilton, National Academic Director.

All of this helped feed into our EER process, where external assessors look at our people, processes, data and strategy in detail to ensure we are delivering high quality education. After a week long analysis, made up of interviews, panels, documentation and reporting, tertiary education organisations are placed into one of four categories based on their EER statements of confidence. The categories are 1 (highest) to 4 (lowest).

Achieving Category 1

Our EER assessment took place in early February 2021. Staff across the organisation were primed and ready, we were deep in our data, our goals were clear, and we knew Te Ara Kōtihi would stand strong and prove the quality of what we deliver here at The Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab.

Our aim was category 1. And we did it. We achieved highly confident statements for both our educational performance and our capability in self-assessment – meaning that the Ministry of Education, as represented by NZQA, is highly confident that we are supporting learners to achieve and that we can keep identifying opportunities to improve. 

Hayley Sparks, National Academic Manager, led the EER process for The Mind Lab.

“Ever since we became a Private Training Establishment (PTE), we have been striving to achieve Category 1 in our first EER,” says Hayley.

“The policies, procedures, processes, strategies and guides have all been developed with the learner at the front of our minds, and Te Ara Kōtihi brings all of this together. During the EER, it was so rewarding to see staff, students, graduates and other stakeholders come together to share what we do and how we do it. We had belief in our structures and processes, and knew that if we remained true to ourselves, demonstrated our passion and collective expertise, we would do ourselves, our students and our communities proud.”

However, this wasn’t the only reason for creating Te Ara Kōtihi and our surrounding strategy. It was a uniting force to guide us, and the impact since launching it mid 2020 have been noticeable. Ask any member of staff how we teach and learn here at The Mind Lab and they’ll talk you through Te Ara Kōtihi, often including what it means for them. It guides our decision-making, it’s the foundation that allows us to have challenging conversations and conflicting viewpoints, and it’s creating change across our organisaton. Programmes are being reshaped as a result of feedback to improve success for our learners, and there’s an unavoidable sense of pride across our people when we can clearly define what we do here and why we do it.

Where to next?

It’s just the start for Te Ara Kōtihi. 

We’re committed to constantly checking in, and checking ourselves. We knew Te Ara Kōtihi needed to be sustainable, so each team will reassess their individual implementation plans each year, and set new goals that they measure on an ongoing basis. These goals, sometimes lofty, are always focused on success for the learner, and how we can best enable that. Every team across the organisation takes part, and this ensures we stay united in our common mission. 

“What I love about Te Ara Kōtihi is how it’s applicable everywhere, all across our organisation. It’s useful for recruiting new staff members, it’s helped guide our relationship with Ngāti Whātua Ōrakei, and if we’re uncertain what path we can take – it becomes our guiding light,” says Fee Webby, General Manager at The Mind Lab.

Through this mission, through constantly striving for success for our learners, we’re creating impactful futures for the people of Aotearoa.

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