Kohiko Mai – ignite the learning spark

In the last couple of years I have been privileged to work with schools on Kohiko Mai. This project was funded through the Ministry of Education’s Innovative Foundation Learning fund and focused on students in Years 7-10 who were at most risk of disengaging with learning and education. I wrote a blog about aspects of the pilot in October 2019, and I’d like to now share some of our learning from Kohiko Mai during 2020.


The name, Kohiko Mai, is significant. Kohiko means to flash or twinkle – hence Kohiko Mai is an invitation to shine. Kohiko can also mean to interrupt or butt in, which can apply to disrupting the path that the learner is on in order to create new opportunities.Kohiko_Mai

Thirty schools across Aotearoa New Zealand participated in Kohiko Mai. These schools were supported to take a holistic view of these learners and consider from every angle the best ways to enhance their engagement and learning. Kohiko Mai teams ranged from one senior leader to larger teams with a variety of school roles. Having a school leader on board was an important success factor. As a school-owned initiative, Kohiko Mai took on a different shape in each school context.

Students and their whānau were invited to participate in Kohiko Mai. The criteria for who was chosen proved to be diverse across the schools we worked with. Some schools selected students who were not keeping up with class learning, had low attendance rates, or behavioural issues. Others focused on ‘the students who were there, but not really there’, those lacking in confidence or struggling with anxiety. Two intermediate schools focused on students who were likely to struggle with transition to secondary schooling.

As I reflect on the 2020 experience, I would like to focus on three key components: the person, the profile and personalisation.

The Person

My 2019 blog focused on the pivotal importance of the kaitautoko. This is a special support person who can advocate for a student, the significant trusted other who can make a positive difference for a vulnerable adolescent. We envisaged the kaitautoko providing a supportive relationship of care, but also challenging students and expanding possibilities. They would help students set goals, build resilience and reflect on their learning. They would also communicate with teachers to negotiate a better fit between the student and the school environment.

The kaitautoko role was taken on by various people - leaders, teachers, Learning Support Co-ordinators, support staff, senior students, community members and whānau. Kaitautoko were matched with students in a range of ways. In some schools, teachers were asked who would like to be a kaitautoko and these volunteers selected a student to work with. In others, a list of possible teachers was given to a student to choose from. In some settings students chose their own kaitautoko.

Each approach had advantages and disadvantages. Teachers who were kaitautoko were able to change their own classroom environment and discuss changes of practice which might benefit Kohiko Mai students with teaching colleagues. Support staff, senior students and whānau were less able to influence change but had more flexibility with time than teachers or leaders.

Although COVID-19 impacted on progress, especially for Auckland schools, several schools reported that they maintained contact with their Kohiko Mai students, gained new insights about them, and connected more closely with whānau over lockdown. One of my schools extended Kohiko Mai and adopted a ‘touch base and tautoko’ approach with all of their te reo Māori immersion tauira.

The value of the kaitautoko relationship and participation in Kohiko Mai was evident. Here are some of the student voices from schools with whom I worked:

  • It made me feel someone was watching over me.
  • We have a bond with Whaea... She gets us in a way that other teachers don’t. She understands us... She’s pretty much like our school aunty.
  • I feel really engaged in science... Just the feeling that I was actually being supported.
  • It’s a place you feel safer... because it’s like family.
  • It just helps us become better at things we do.

The profile

Knowing the learner is the first principle of teaching. A key part of Kohiko Mai, therefore, was the development of a learner profile. This differs from the routine ‘getting-to-know-you’ activity, because of its more holistic nature and focus on students’ strengths and aspirations, inclusive of whānau whenever possible. One school lead stated that they wanted to consider: ‘What matters to the student, not what is the matter with the student’. The intention of the learning profile was to find out what hindered and what might help student learning. In this way it offered students the opportunity to have more control over their learning.

In most schools the profiles were developed in group settings, with the school lead – sometimes alongside an EA mentor - working with all Kohiko Mai students, or with all kaitautoko and students working together. In other schools profiles were developed by kaitautoko and students together in one-to-one situations. Profile development ranged from a supplied template to free choice. We learnt that it’s helpful if multiple options are provided and there are ‘warm-up’ activities to help students capture what’s important to them.

For various reasons, COVID-19 included, some schools did not develop learner profiles in written, audio or visual forms. Instead, they had in-depth and ongoing conversations with students. This worked in some contexts, but research supports the value of a tangible artefact, which can be revisited and reviewed by students over time.


The profile needs to be used to change up the learning environment. Some schools had positive ‘passion project’ stories to tell, such as individual students designing and creating a sensory garden, creating digital stories for pre-schoolers and teaching their hip-hop skills. One of my school leads, who described selected students as ‘hurt, angry kids at the start,’ reported that ‘there are a few teachers who have got their back now, but – to be fair – the girls have come to the party as well... dropped the attitude’.

There are many potential barriers to personalising learning. Entrenched school systems may need disrupted to achieve personalisation for these students and it may require a rethink of our assumptions about education. Small, manageable steps are recommended.

We now know Kohiko Mai can make a difference for students at risk of becoming disengaged with their learning. I believe in the kaupapa and would love to see this approach – informed by our experience - taken up in more schools. As a kaitautoko/whānau member in one of my schools said to me:

“It was right in line with what we’re all about... manaakitanga and whanaungatanga and kaitiakitanga... The students became engaged in the realities of what whanaungatanga and manaakitanga really is... I hope the kura keep going with something like the [kaitautoko] system because I think it’s beneficial for our kids.”

If you are interested in engaging with Kohiko Mai in your setting, Julie or another one of our Kohiko Mai mentors can help. Please get in touch with us at info@evaluate.co.nz to find out more.

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