Learning from the best

Learning from students is always so inspiring and personally, I think they are the one under utilised resource in schools that can illuminate our understanding of the teaching and learning profession. Unfortunately too many teachers think they know best, but that is another story, so let’s keep it light, tight and bright!

Today I had the pleasure of visiting a grade 3 class sharing what they had learned through their unit “how we express ourselves.” Through the creative endeavours of the teachers in this grade, I was really pleased to see how this unit has morphed into a learning experience that captures and extends students passions. I was truly captivated by what the students shared with me; it was diverse, students driven, creative and deeply reflective.

Amongst the many anecdotal highlights, one really caught my attention and made me think about our desired learning outcomes and how we structure curriculum to bring about those outcomes. So please allow me to introduce Vera, whose passion is cooking. When I asked Vera what was one of the most memorable things she learned from the unit, she did not mention any of the fun stuff. Vera said quite openly, she thought she needed to eat a little healthier. I found this quite profound, because it was not quite what I was expecting. If this had been a unit about the human body or healthy balanced living (as is common in PYP schools), many of the students would have probably given a teacher pleasing answer about eating healthier. When I shared this thought with Vera, she said, “yes, I know most kids say that, but then after the unit they just eat even more unhealthy things!”

Interesting… I am sure you can make many connections with this reflective anecdote, maybe ideas about… intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation, flow learning, the power of student driven inquiry and action. However, for me it is another reminder that curriculum and learning need to be a process of negotiation with our students in honour of what they can bring to the table.

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 (visible thinking) 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.

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!

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!

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

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. 

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.