Team Solutions

Unlocking students' creative potential - engaging students with visual texts in English

In an unpredictable and rapidly changing world the ability to generate and develop original ideas and perspectives is becoming ever more vital for students' future success, which puts increasing pressure on educators to find improved ways to cultivate their students' creative abilities.

The Visual Text Partnership Project between Team Solutions, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki and Tangaroa College is an example of organisations finding ways to use community-accessible resources to unlock students' potential.

Auckland Art Gallery has also produced a video resource detailing this project, which can be viewed here.


AAG Tangaroa 3
Photography David St George Courtesy Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

A collaboration between Team Solutions, Auckland Art Gallery and Tangaroa College

Tangaroa students exploring the Auckland Art Gallery.
Tangaroa students exploring the Auckland Art Gallery with Gallery Educator Geva Downey.Photography David St George Courtesy Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

Team Solutions facilitators and Auckland Art Gallery staff have worked together since 2015 developing a programme aimed at using community resources to open students' minds to new ways of thinking about creativity and breaking down traditional barriers to teaching it. This collaboration culminated in 2016 with the Visual Text Partnership Project, which was run with a year-11 English class from Tangaroa College.

One barrier they had aimed to break down was creativity's mystique as something that a person either has or doesn't have, which can prove intimidating for students in the early stages as they can easily conclude that they "don't have it". This can result in fewer students willing to risk giving it a go, making NCEA standards like the visual text standard in English relatively unpopular "despite it being something that students really enjoy once they start doing it", Team Solutions lead facilitator Cynthia Orr said.

"And it's not just students who find creativity a difficult thing to wrap their heads around it though," Cynthia said. "A nationwide survey showed this part of the curriculum was the one English teachers felt least confident with and so were avoiding it or teaching it in a very limited manner, as they often don't have a lot of confidence or experience with the practical side of teaching creativity."

Through their readings the team also found that there was very little international research on the elements involved in the creative process when applied to the teaching of English and visual texts, and so made it the focus of the project team's inquiry.

"We worked with the Tangaroa College English teacher Zabeena Gulnaaz and Auckland Art Gallery educators Mindy Catt, Christa Napier Robertson and Geva Downey to ensure that everyone involved was confident in teaching both theoretical and practical skills consistent with this NCEA achievement standard’s assessment criteria."

"By breaking down the concept of creativity into a set of clear skills and processes, it became a lot more accessible to both students and teachers."


Discussion questions: 

  • What would you need to know, as an educator, to feel more confident in teaching creativity?
  • Do you or your students have assumptions that reduce their willingness to engage with creative studies?

Unlocking students' creative potential at Tangaroa College

Tangaroa College is a multicultural state co-educational school in South Auckland with a roll of roughly 900 students with approximately 20 per cent Māori and 77 per cent Pasifika.

To help students in their task of producing a visual text for assessment, the project team focused on two main strands of action; 

  • Students visited the gallery as part of their 'explore' phase, taking part in two lessons run by gallery educators that focused on developing skills to help them analyse existing visual texts and express them through visual texts.
  • Team Solutions facilitators and Art Gallery staff worked with the class's teacher to shift the teaching and learning strategies towards more open-ended exploration time so students could experiment with different mediums, techniques and ideas. 

“It’s based on the idea that creativity is a process, not an outcome. It’s not just ‘here’s my idea, now I’ll make it’, it’s more open than that,” said Auckland Art Gallery Schools Programme Coordinator Christa Napier Robertson. "The students go through creative thinking phases of exploration, experimentation and refining, and we also focus on attitudes and values that support creative thinking; risk taking, openness, empathy with themselves and others, resilience, reflectiveness, curiosity and cooperation."

The programme was capped off with a celebration of the class's efforts, showing off their visual texts and thanking everyone for their contributions, including family and whanau. This reflects the Education Review Office findings that strong relationships between teachers, leaders, parents and whānau can be a valuable part of an effective response to underachievement, with community collaboration and partnerships extending opportunities for students to become confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners.

"It was about creating a genuine community collaboration. By building connections and keeping everyone informed we can build satisfying and valuable working relationships that provide additional avenues to turn around underachievement," Cynthia said.

Tangaroa students discussing an artwork with an Auckland Art Gallery guide.
Students were encouraged to use the gallery, artworks as a springboard for their own ideas. Photography David St George Courtesy Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

Expanding the use of community resources

The Visual Text Partnership Project was partly designed with the aim of utilising resources that were available in the community; in this case Auckland Art Gallery, which boasts a collection of over 16,000 works and a staff of skilled educators.

Cynthia said another consideration was conducting this project with a lower decile school, as they wanted to "offer this opportunity to students who would seldom encounter this kind of thing. None of the 33 students in the class had ever been to the Auckland Art Gallery, so this was a huge opportunity to open their eyes to a whole new world.”

"Visiting the Auckland Art Gallery was a special part of the project for these students," Cynthia said. "I would encourage all teachers to think about opportunities for learning outside of the classroom." 



Discussion questions:

  • What resources are there in your community you could use or connect with to support student learning?
  • How can you expand the way you use existing resources? 
Several Tangaroa College students discussing their project.
Classes were designed to be more open, allowing students time to think about their message and explore different mediums and techniques. Photography David St George Courtesy Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

Providing students with time to experiment 

Team Solutions facilitators and gallery educators worked with Tangaroa College to reorganise the way lessons worked, encouraging students to take time to consider what kind of messages they wanted to communicate and experiment with different mediums and modes of expressing that message.

The goal was to encourage students out of their comfort zones and develop their teacher's confidence in giving time to creativity that may not always produce immediate outcomes, but which will prove valuable in the long-run.

“There’s been a dichotomy between being open and being focused; you have to give students time for thinking and experimenting while also dealing with the pressure of having to have them produce something for assessment,” Christa said.

The structured thinking time proved highly valuable to the students, and an important finding for the project was the importance of providing that time within the creative process while also giving students the opportunity to reflect on how they have used that time; how their ideas have been enriched from trying different things.

"This is really the key competencies of the curriculum playing out naturally," Cynthia said. "Students were taking risks, reflecting on their learning, and recognising the siginifcance of choices they were making around language and symbols." 


Discussion questions:

  • How can you encourage students to explore an idea from multiple perspectives?
  • What elements need to be in place during this time to ensure that students understand the value of this time and use it effectively?

Improved student achievement

A Tangaroa College student brainstorming ideas in a notebook.
Students' assessment results showed encouraging trends, with high achievement rates at merit and excellence levels. Photography David St George Courtesy Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

For their final assessments the students used a mix of paintings, drawings and collages to produce a visual text for assessment. Cynthia says the results have been encouraging, with the students and their teacher expressing greater confidence and interest in the subject and showing a much deeper level of thinking. 

As of mid-2016 the Visual Text Partnership Project class had achieved a total pass rate of 65.3 per cent. Also, students in the visual text partnership project achieved a merit and excellence achievement rate of 26.9 per cent and 11.5 per cent compared to the wider year level's 21.4 per cent and 8.3 per cent. 

“It's been great to see the impact that the greater depth of thought is having, and what we’re interested in now is whether the creativity skills they've learnt have a carry-over effect on the students’ other English standards and standards in subjects other than English,” Cynthia says. "That's something we'll be watching with great interest."

The results in the Visual Text Partnership Project class have also helped Tangaroa College to hit its school-wide targets, contributing to raising the overall year-11 pass rate for this achievement standard from 82.7 per cent in 2015 to 85.4 per cent in 2016, exceeding the school's goal of 85 per cent.



Jester, J. M. (2003). Of paint and poetry: Strengthening literacy through art. The Quarterly, 25(5), 32-34.

May, S. (2013). The art of English: Art and literacy – a powerful combination. English Teachers Association of NSW. mETAphor. Issue 2, 15-20.

Moorman, H. (2006). Backing into ekphrasis: Reading and writing poetry about visual art. The English Journal, 96(1), 46-53.

Silverstein, L., Layne, S. (2010). Teaching for creativity through the arts: What, why and how. The John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts.

Walsh-Piper, K. (2002). Image to word: Art and creative writing. Lanham, Maryland, and London. The Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Yenawine, P. (n.d.). Thoughts on visual literacy. In Flood, J., Heath, S.B., Lapp, D. (Ed[s].), Handbook of Research on Teaching Literacy through the Communicative and Visual Arts. MacMillan Library Reference.

Callow,J., (2013) The Shape of Text to Come. Australia: Primary English Teaching Association Australia. 


Get started at your own school

If you’d like more information on Team Solutions’ activities around the Secondary Student Achievement programme or would like to know how Team Solutions could work with your school to help boost academic outcomes, email us at