What better place to be during the school holidays than at ULearn, New Zealand's largest and arguably most innovative educators conference. The four day event saw more than 2,000 teachers and educators gather in Auckland to listen, learn, collaborate, and reflect on topics ranging from coding and Minecraft, to design thinking and project based learning.

As a ULearn newbie, I’ve got to say that I was blown away. Not only by the calibre of the speakers, but also by the depth of discussions stemming from the breakout sessions. Education is extremely binary - you’re either in the system, or you’re outside. I felt extremely privileged to get a glimpse inside the machine, and I’d like to share some of my experiences and findings for other ‘outsiders’. I think you’ll be very impressed with what I have to report back.

New Zealand is a world leader: Like most things publically managed, from time to time our education system gets a bad wrap. What stays in most of our minds (unless of course you are an educator) are the articles that criticizes the academic rigour of our standards system, or claims New Zealand is underperforming in a certain field. This is somewhat understandable, because as outsiders this is all the information we are privy to. This is not the case for me any longer.

I’m now aware that we’re seen as world leaders in education. This largely stems from our forward thinking, and increasing adoption of the MLE (modern learning environment). We also don’t shy away from new technologies and taking an innovative approach to something as old as time; the sharing of knowledge. But I think that perhaps the largest contributing factor is due to the fact we have the right people in the right places, and they are afforded the luxury to run things how they see fit. I mean principals who can make their own rules, not governed tightly by state laws and regulation. This means we don’t rely on a cookie-cutter approach to educating, and our educators can craft the right path for their students.

During my time at ULearn I sat in on a panel discussion. The topic was “What will it mean to be educated in 2050?” and on the panel was Pam Hook, Barbara Cavanagh, Marianne Malmstrom, and Russell Burt. It was during this session that I concluded that we truly do lead the way, and I thought further around why Aotearoa can do this so well, and perhaps better than we currently are.

Simply put - New Zealand is perfect for an agile approach to education. For so long our education system was very rigid in its delivery. The one I certainly went through was one-directional and one-size-fits-all. Recently however it has opened up to adaptive approaches, and from what I’ve seen and heard it is starting to behave somewhat like a start-up. Things that are helping this are our size (in the scheme of things we’re pretty small), and our flatness (a lot of other nations have not only a federal/national education board, but also state level). This is how major EdTech software can be developed in an NZ classroom and now be used by millions across the world.

Teachers really ‘lean in’: I got the opportunity to speak to a lot of educators during my ULearn experience. Banqer is an extremely new and somewhat radical product. We’re asking teachers to bring something foreign into their classroom. Banqer is digital and it also revolves around financial education, something that the majority of our teachers aren’t intimately familiar with as it’s a new curriculum addition. I was ready for a bunch of polite smiles and head nodding, but instead I got something completely different. I received authentic engagement and genuine interest.

Not only with Banqer, I saw this across the board. Teachers are there to get things to take away and actually implement in their classroom. Nothing was too scary, or too different, or even too ‘techie’, teachers were willing to put themselves out there, ask the questions, and give things a go. There were teachers walking around with Google cardboard, and discussing how they were going to get their kids to use them - I kind of felt like I was at a developers conference, or maybe some start-up scene event.

The lines between maths, science and English were blurred by new innovations as the panel questioned whether or not we will be segmenting our school days into these modular learning experiences, or morphing them into something richer. This is a big ask, but I feel like the teachers I met are just the people to lead this journey.

And what obviously excited me the most was the interest in incorporating financial education into the classroom. Teacher that hadn't taught financial literacy in the classroom before where asking questions, coming along to talks on the subject, and also getting excited about the motivational aspects of such learning as well. Teacher’s aren’t afraid to try new things like Banqer, and I applaud this.

Those two small observations are just part of what made up my ULearn experience. It was a rich, fulfilling four days that opened my eye further to not only what the New Zealand classroom is like now, but also where we are heading. So for the ‘outsiders’ reading this, you can rest assured that our nation's kids are in safe hands, and if you don’t believe me, maybe you should grab a ticket to ULearn 2016.

My trip wouldn’t have been possible without the generous support from Kiwibank that got me there. Thanks a bunch for helping kiwi fly and allowing me to share these insights about the exciting places that education is going in New Zealand.