Narrowing the lens on understanding

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I often read blog posts about how stretched teachers are to facilitate authentic learning and in particular inquiry based learning. Sadly, I tend to agree with much of what is posted and overall I think there is relative incongruence in schools between theory and practice. However, in an attempt find a more positive spin, I would like to share a “time-space” saver that recently worked for me in the classroom.

By utilising the HEADLINES strategy I was able to build on what kids had learned through their research and thus support the continuity of their inquiries. Again, I found it to be an excellent routine for using during the “sorting out” phase of inquiry; in particular it served as a bridge between “going further” or returning to “finding out.” Here is how I framed the routine…

As a follow on from GEN/SORT/CONN/ELAB, for homework I asked students to use a google doc to collaboratively create three headlines that captured the essence of their understanding of the guiding question. To gamify this a little, the students were told they would have to present one headline (chosen by the audience) and defend their headline through 5 “why questions” in a game the student’s nicknamed the “5 wise why’s.”  (The 5 Why’s is a Kath Murdoch inquiry strategy I adapted). We further authenticated the activity by tagging it as a formative check in for understanding;  presentations were peer assessed using the rubric for understanding that we had developed at the beginning of the exhibition.

Here are 6 thoughts that resonated with me after the experience…

  • Inquiry is not dependent on planning lots of exciting activities, it is more authentic when you work with what the children bring to the table.
  • Providing regular contexts for students to pause and share their learning creates more opportunities for feedback.
  • Using this routine during the sorting out phase of inquiry creates a tangible bridge between “going further” or returning back to “finding out.”
  • Valuing students’ independence in their thinking can help to build a sense of community and endeavour.
  • Being transparent about formative assessment builds the capacity for students metacognitive development.
  • It is important to evaluate the relationship between students’ understanding of the big picture in relation to the factual, content knowledge.
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6 Reasons to use visible thinking after research

I have recently been asked to step back into the classroom for 4 weeks to guide a group of 5th graders through the PYP exhibition, and I’m loving it! We have four (and that’s just my class) inquiries running alongside each other, looking at advancements in medical, educational and transport technology, and the influence of robots on well being. All through the transdisciplinary theme of where we are in place and time. When I joined the class the kids were laden with fact upon facts, they were all over the classroom. So one of the first things I did was to check for their understanding of the guiding questions using the GENERATE / SORT / CONNECT / ELABORATE thinking routine. Here are 6 reasons why I did that:

  • Evaluate the spectrum of understanding – can they piece facts together to get to the heart of the question? Can they identify concepts?
  • Evaluate spectrum of critical thinking (analysis / synthesis) – can they identify relationships, patterns, expand and extend upon their ideas?
  • Create opportunities to elaborate – this thinking routine is designed for it!
  • Create opportunities to collaborate – activate learners as resources for one another, promote learning appreciation.
  • Slows down the learning – Time and space to think deeply and process; thinking is valued.
  • Creates context for further reflection – learners can benefit by reflecting on what they don’t understand yet, or what puzzles them.

Used in the context of “sorting out” what this routine showed me was; the difference between knowledge and understanding; the difference between higher level thinking and repeating the same fact in different ways; the difference between collaboration and cooperation, and finally. What I need to do next!

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Thought of the day… “What I learned vs What I heard”

In the quest for deep thinking and understanding there is a time, place and space for the different modalities of learning. A classic example, being able to recognise the features of a paragraph and being able to write a paragraph. Each have their time and place, however. In my experience I have seen a fair percentage of educators misinterpret knowledge for understanding. And it makes me think, learning reinforces the importance of recall over understanding.

I therefore feel fortunate to work with a concept driven curriculum that through inquiry creates possibilities for deep thinking and understanding to emerge. Through the gradual release of responsibility a synergy can be formed between teacher and student. Used wisely, in a community of learning environment, the conceptual approach to teaching and learning can certainly reduce the work of the teacher; by how much depends on the individual. But, whatever percentage is achieved, the equal and opposite reaction will be freed up time to learn from the people you teach. Work < Learn!

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Feedback for effective thinking conference

One indicator I always use to evaluate professional learning is; “did it make me think or change my stance in any way?” The Feedback for Effective Thinking conference in Nanjing certainly did this for me, days later I still have ideas resonating in my brain. So, using the 8 cultural forces of thinking, I will attempt to convey a synthesis of some of my thoughts from the conference:

Time - Probably the most common reason we cite for not being the teacher we want to be. We tend to make time for the things we value, but do we always make time for what counts? For example how often do we make time for mistakes in learning? Judy Willis presented convincing evidence that visualised the areas of the brain activated when learners review and work with their mistakes, compared to when they work on tasks of knowledge recall alone. This reinforces the importance of having effective feedback systems that allow students to act on feedback.

Opportunities: Creating opportunities for thinking is central to the development of higher levels of learning. Supporting this with brain research, Judy Willis evidenced the importance of learners forming generalisations about their learning, which gives support to curriculums like the PYP, that are framed around conceptual understandings. As Ron Richhart stated, “Learning involves uncovering complexity and delving deeper.”

Routines & Structures: Using a quote from Vygotsky “children grow into the intellectual life around them,” Ron Richhart presented the power of visible thinking routines in the classroom. He stressed the routines have to be used purposefully and not just as an activity, in this respect they make excellent formative assessment strategies and can be used as a good bridge to summative assessment tasks. On the subject of questioning Dylan Wiliam proposed that both open and closed questions have their place in learning, more important is how and when we use them. For example, a powerful statement can be just as effective as an open-ended question in promoting discussion and engagement.

Modelling: We are all familiar with the strategy of modelling, it is an ancient technique amongst educators to tell the learner how to do something. However, articulating our thinking when we teach is not as common place. Importantly the language of modelling our thinking is not absolute, it is conditional and allows for other possibilities to emerge. Modelling thinking can be extremely supportive for encouraging students’ creative thought process’.

Language: Ron Richhart touched upon the importance of language use and the intended and unintended messages our discourse might convey. For example, the simple use of pronouns can be profoundly subtle in the way they communicate a sense of inclusion and collective endeavour (we / us) verses a sense of division (I / you). Both Dylan Wiliam and Ron Richhart made reference to the use of questioning in the classroom, and how we orchestrate it. For example, I imagine all teachers have experienced the students who always have their hands up and can be relied upon for positive contributions. However, allowing the stronger students to dominate can convey a sense that it is OK not to contribute to discussions and therefore it is OK to get away without thinking.

Interactions & Relationships: For me this cultural force underpins so much of what happens in successful learning because it shapes the socio/emotional development of the learner. All three presenters made reference to the important concept of fixed vs growth mindsets (Dweck, 2000). In a thinking classroom, there is little place for praising egos and well-being. Motivation comes from growth. So a dimension of learning that has a significant impact on developing a growth mindset is feedback. Dylan Wiliam did a great job of unraveling this complex dimension of learning by asking “what kind of behaviours do we encourage through our feedback?” He suggested the best feedback is “negative” because it is more specific and actionable, grades and praise can inflate the ego. Oral vs written feedback is not important, moreover it is about the salient opportunity to correct errors. “Good feedback leaves the learning with the learner.” Ultimately, we need to look for the indicators that feedback is having an impact on the learner and not on performance alone.  Dylan did add that, to be most effective feedback needs to be part of a wider systems approach to formative assessment.

Good teachers know the centrality of healthy interactions and relationships, they educate the “whole person,” therefore a curriculum defined through both experience and outcomes is more powerful than one based on outcomes alone.

Physical Environment: The learning environment can transmit a lot about how thinking is valued. Ron Richhart stressed the importance of making student thinking visible, not only is this healthy for building a learning community, but it also transmits valuable information about learners’ growth.

Expectations:  For me this is almost inseparable from interactions and relationships, because having challenging expectations for learners is linked partly to intrinsic motivation. Simple expectations around participation during routines can be relayed through applying strategies like “wait time,” “no hands up.”  Going further, expectations can have far reaching effects on student motivation. Citing a study from positive psychology (Csicszentmihalyi, 1997), Dylan Wiliam, indicated low skill sets and low challenge is likely to result in learner boredom and apathy. We need to aim for the right balance of challenge and expectation that is tailored to the needs of the learner. The concept of  “flow” (being engrossed in the moment) could be a very interesting area of learning to explore. The use of thinking strategies, feedback and good systems of formative assessment can play a big role in ensuring our students are motivated to learn.

Ron Ritchhart Website

Cultures of Thinking Resources

Project Zero Website – The Harvard Graduate School of Education

Dylan Wiliam Website

The Six Secrets of a Happy Classroom – The Independent

Judy Willis Website

Judy Willis on the Science of Learning Video – Edutopia

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Time for action

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Over the years I have seen many teachers implementing the PYP grapple with the concept of cultivating student initiated action. One theory that helps me conceptualise action is the idea of near and far transfer of learning, as described by David Perkins; for it is true that action can take on many forms. One common misconception I come across from time to time is the idea that student initiated action needs to happen within the tight 6/7 week frame of a unit of inquiry; however like the development of the learner profile, student action needs to be nurtured and given time to flourish. And, last week I was privileged to witness three students take self initiated action well after their UOI had finished.

Our grade 3 students have a unit called “people helping people” that took place back in March under the transdisciplinary theme of how we organise ourselves. The central idea of the unit (“people collaborate to find solutions to help those in need”) was really driven by using the related concept of sustainability. The substance of the unit largely involved students inquiring into the different NGO’s based in Bangladesh and learning how they create sustainable solutions for those in need. As a result of their collective inquiries a context was created for some deep evaluative thinking; the students developed their own criteria for taking meaningful action. As part of their summative assessment the students chose to publicise their work within the school community and persuaded our student council to adopt their criteria.

However, for a number of students the action did not stop there. They also wanted to apply the criteria for taking meaningful action themselves. On Saturday we took three students to a nearby school located in one of the slums of Dhaka. The students made contact with the school during the unit of inquiry when a French NGO working on supplying clean running water to the area paid us a visit. For their action the students creatively used their academic knowledge and communication skills to make a public information film and visual leaflets in Bangla about the importance of hand washing. The students even managed to procure a donation of soap tablets from “Lifebouy.” However it was the students attitude and motivation to make a difference that most impressed me.

I imagine the three students will remember this learning experience for a very long time; it was authentic and personalised. Nonetheless, in order for this commendable action to evolve the students needed… time and space to think, imagine and create, and the belief and commitment of their teacher and parents. I think one of the ways we can authentically nurture action is not to cram too much knowledge and skills into our units of inquiry, and not to consider action complete when the unit is over. 

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Perspectives on PYP Practice

I am always excited when I see teachers pushing the boundaries of curriculum in the pursuit of empowering learners to think deeply about their learning. When this happens students can become the co-constructers of the taught curriculum and in turn, offer valuable evidence of the impact of the written curriculum. An example of this kind of curricular innovation has been happening in one of our grade 3 classes this year.

The teacher has created a pattern of engagement around unpacking units of inquiry that is quite distinct: After the initial  tuning in provocations, the students are presented with a question to elicit further deep thinking – “What do you think the essential elements should be for this unit?”  Using this guiding question the students select the two concepts, two attitudes and one or two learner profile traits (basically, the same number as the teachers developed) that would be most important for the unit. Each group of students presents and gives reasons, justifying their choices. Finally, the students come up with a central idea and lines of inquiry. The outcome is often so closely aligned to what the teachers came up with in their pre-unit planning, it is quite profound. Is this just an exercise in pedagogical pretence? I think not, and here is why…

Through their collaborative discussions the students begin to think more deeply about the unit of inquiry; they engage in conversations about the language of learning by sharing their projections about what might be the important content of learning and which dispositions would be valuable for authentic inquiry. It is a great example of learners constructing meaning. Importantly, these conversations and engagements play a valuable role in nurturing learning relationships; promoting a greater sense of ownership of learning, sharpening metacognitive awareness and paving the way for the development of effective criteria, feedback and self regulation throughout the unit.

When I was in the classroom, I sometimes told students that my goal as a teacher was to make myself redundant to the point where I would not be needed any more, this often provoked looks of confusion. However, enabling students to be self directed learners is a very worthy quest.

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In search of a common language

Learning principlesLast year we sculpted our learning principles for the whole school. At the time, I had a feeling that when we begun to put flesh on the bones of the learning principles they would reveal their true merit. But why would a school need a specific set of learning principles? In education our plates often over runneth with different ways to say the same thing to the point of just confusing the practitioner, let alone the learner. So why add more ways to the say the same thing? I believe the true value of the learning principles lay in their succinctness; they are not like a policy document, they have to be unpacked, and like a good central idea they promote inquiry, research and action.

This week we went deeper into unpacking our learning principle about formative assessment. Using the thinking hats, teachers worked in teams of pre-k, lower elementary and upper elementary to uncover what is the language of feedback and thinking we use in the classroom (white hat) what language will we make common across grade levels (green hat) and what student and teacher actions need to happen in the classroom to promote and strengthen assessment literacy (blue hat). To aid this inquiry teachers also brought in samples of assessment tools, strategies and displays they currently use. As the session began to unfold it was interesting to see how at times this exercise caused learning tension; teachers were placed in a compromising situation. The blue hat directed teachers toward making concessions and come to common agreements about how to make assessment literacy more transparent for our learners. To me this is a very important and worthwhile endeavour, we have between 50 and 60 nationalities amongst our students, the majority are ESL learners. If we want students to feel empowered by assessment, doesn’t it make sense to promote and use a common language?

To me dealing with issues that provoke learning tension is a fundamental part of  being a healthy PLC;  in moving from theory to practice, groups achieve coherence and connectedness through collective endeavour that builds and tests relational trust. In turn I think this helps to de-privatise classroom practice and nudges us further towards the holy grail of collective responsibility and understanding.

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Attitudes to Reflection

The start of a new school year is always filled with anticipation of the unknown, it is truly an emotionally mixed time for both teachers and students. So, as we embark on getting to know our students as learners it is apt to pause and reflect on how we go about this. The building of a learning community takes sustained nurturing throughout the year, however to what extent do first impressions have a lasting impact and how do we question and process the validity of these first impressions as the year ensues?

I think these questions connect well with the concept of becoming a reflective practitioner. I am a firm believer in the value of reflection for learning, yet also believe reflection in education is undervalued and often over simplified into three distinct components – recollection of events, evaluation of performance and subsequent goal setting / modification. Of course these are important facets of reflection, however when they become the only facets then reflection runs the risk of becoming mechanistic and procedural, yielding little long-term value. Dewey on the other hand summarises four characteristics of reflection and reminds us that it is a complex, rigorous, intellectual, and emotional enterprise that takes time to do well…

1. Reflection is a meaning-making process that moves a learner from one experience into the next with deeper understanding of its relationships with and connections to other experiences and ideas. It is the thread that makes continuity of learning possible, and ensures the progress of the individual and, ultimately, society. It is a means to essentially moral ends.

2. Reflection is a systematic, rigorous, disciplined way of thinking, with its roots in scientific inquiry.

3. Reflection needs to happen in community, in interaction with others.

4. Reflection requires attitudes that value the personal and intellectual growth of oneself and of others.

I particularly like the concept of reflection as a set of attitudes, they are so connected to what we do in a PYP classroom and so important. Attitudes can open the way to learning or block it. Dewey suggests that reflection is best realized when individuals express attitudes of whole heartedness (a passion and curiosity for learning), directness (confidence to question and evaluate without being too anxious), open-mindedness to new ways of thinking and understanding and responsibility to act upon carefully considered lines of thought.

In education circles we need to raise the bar on reflection, yet it is still relatively ill defined and understood. “In an age where measurable, observable learning takes priority, it is easily dismissed precisely because no one knows what to look for” (Rogers, 2002).

For an enlightening read and an intro to the work of John Dewey see:

Rogers. C (2002). Defining Reflection: Another Look at John Dewey and Reflective Thinking. Teachers College Record. Volume 104, Number 4, June 2002, pp. 842–866

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The Lesser Spotted Blue Hat…

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After my transition out of the classroom and into a coordinating role in a new school, it was rewarding this week to get back into the classroom to work with the students. In grade 5 at AIS Dhaka we are setting up class blogs and I for one am very excited to see what learning possibilities unfold over the coming months. As ever, the extent to which students perceive themselves as partners in the learning process is equal to the quality of contributions they are likely to make. To value the importance of student ownership in our venture, we wanted to find out how the students were feeling about blogging, what a class blog might be used for and how we should use our class blog. In addition, we needed to establish some agreements that would be binding on all and embrace the important elements of digital citizenship.

The versatility of the thinking hats was perfect for the job of eliciting student ideas and beliefs. Coming back to the thinking hats after the summer break, made me re-evaluate my understanding of the blue hat (previously I had not always managed to integrate the blue hat as effectively as the others). To me the blue hat does take a little more thinking about and so it should I guess, because metacognition needs to be worked at! In this lesson the blue hat played a vital role in helping to synthesise the findings of the other hats and in turn helped us to begin to construct our essential agreements about blogging in grade 5.

Do you use the blue hat in the classroom? If so… how?

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The Underrated concept of form…

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It can be easy in PYP to assume that all teaching will include learning about the concept of form, so why have it as a key concept? I have certainly subscribed to this perspective before, however. In my understanding, “form” needs to play a key role when conceptual knowledge is likely to be new and challenging for students. Science based units can be a good example of this.

In a recent UOI under sharing the planet, we looked at the sustainability of natural resources and our actions to preserve them. I have seen many units like this end up with kids making posters about saving the rain forest or presentations about the 3 R’s of environmental sustainability. Of course these are important subjects, but how do kids take action if they have not first uncovered why they need to take action? We wanted students to first make a connection to where natural resources come from, how they are used and develop an appreciation of how limited they are. The prior knowledge of the students showed they had a very ego centric understanding of where “natural resources” came from and how they were connected to them, so developmentally it was a good time to move them to the next level.

In this unit “Form” was extremely useful to support language development, classification systems, and the investigation of patterns. Students identified and investigated the natural resources they used and how we misuse them. This opened up opportunities to build upon personal connections; artefacts were brought in and we explored the school environment as a learning resource.  Using one thinking tool, students were able to add their ongoing knowledge to a huge concentric circles display. The display was an excellent resource for making the learning visible and became an important tool for formative feedback and stimulating further provocations. It felt good to refer children back to evidence of their own thinking in a very visual way and further supported independence of learning. Exploring mathematical patterns as a related concept of form worked really well, we were able to use tables to make predictions about the consumption of resources like plastic bottles and then represent them in visual ways. I enjoyed helping the group of girls who stuck together all the old homework papers and worked out that in a year, if we stuck them end to end we would have the equivalent length of about 4 football fields! (We’ve still got a little way to go to become a green school! ;-)

So did the students become more environmentally responsible and take action? We hoped once students had made the connection between themselves and the resources they use they would be better able to appreciate why action is our responsibility. Feedback from parents was useful, conversations were happening at home and a number of students had introduced new practices to their families. On the whole exploring the concept of form definitely enhanced this unit and did not detract from the actions the students took.

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