How vs What – Curriculum design

Debate

I have been synthesising my thoughts and experiences as a curriculum leader lately. As curriculum leaders we spend a lot of time engaging people in the “what” of curriculum… committees, working groups, innovation teams, evaluations, accreditations to name a few. In my time, I have seen so many hours expended in getting people to understand the “what” at the expense of the “how.”

Don’t get me wrong we do talk about the how, but not enough for me. Schools seem to always be in this constant flux of defining and comprehending curriculum instead of designing, applying and interpreting it, especially in PYP!  Although to juxtapose my own thoughts I still cherish those synergistic conversations and discussions I have had over the years with esteemed colleagues, on the ‘what’ of curriculum. But there’s wisdom for you!

To find the balance here are a few ideas that might resonate with you…

Simplify the language – having spent a year once on fusing AERO standards with PYP scope and sequence documents, it led me to conclude that written curriculum is just too SYNONYM-MANIC!  Please just cut the crap, our curriculums are cluttered with synonyms and word-smithing; there just seems to be so much repetition in international schools curriculums. Often the legacy of teacher turnover.

Time and value – Don’t put authentic collaboration on the back burner, define it and give it the time it deserves (yes I know I said less defining before, but this is different). Prioritising times for teachers to step aside from the “what” and share more practice about “how” they interpret the curriculum is valuable. Strategies like Teachers Teaching Teachers (T3) is an easy start to building a collaborative reflective culture.

Let people lead to their strengths – good curriculum writers need trust and creative latitude. Succinct written curriculum does not always need democracy, so be selective about composing your teams and defining their roles.

Let sexy data be your friend – data is not just about numbers, it’s about information and all the diverse ways that it can be unearthed. Teachers reflecting on their practice, students reflecting on their learned curriculum are all interpretations that can lead us forward and in addition, support understanding of our “what” curriculum further.

 

 

Behavioural rewards – the antibiotic of primary education

Having worked in primary education for many years now, I am confident that within 20 min of working with kids I can spot those that have been weaned on stickers and treats to reward their hard work. And it drives me nuts!

When I first started teaching in the UK in the late 90’s behavioural rewards were the cure all for everything that was wrong with inner city problem kids and disaffected learners. Naturally, knowing nothing better I used them myself. In my first year of teaching in a rough UK inner city school it was my go to ammo and it worked for a while. But simply put all I was doing was creating a culture of extrinsic motivation and compliance, that was severely detrimental to learning. So when I still see them being used by teachers these days it gives me a sinking feeling.

A turning point in my practice was an article by Shirley Clarke entitled “Raising Children’s Self Esteem.”  Although a little dated around the edges, it’s a good read on the subject of external rewards (you will even see reference to Carol Dweck’s early work before it became the trendy Fixed/Growth Mindset bestseller).

I will add that on the odd occasion in severe behavioural cases, extrinsic rewards have their place, however they must be used very sparingly and replaced as soon as possible by equipping children with internal coping strategies. If it’s one thing we know about learning it is that we have moved on from Pavlov’s dog!

The mutually inclusive nature of teacher and student reflection

Here’s something you could try with upper elementary students and any PYP unit planner – get them to help you reflect on the inquiry!

I just had the pleasure of leading a  group of students through reflecting on the PYP exhibition planner. I chose a small sample of six students and worked through the most accessible stages of the planner. The students gave some incredibly insightful contributions (sometimes more probing than the teachers:-). In summary this is what I heard:

Students value the reflective process and appreciate how it helps them as learners. They stated they would have liked more frequent, shorter reflections.

Students value assessment that helps them improve. They identified opportunities where peer assessment could be better utilised to inform conceptual understanding and not just skills. Students noticed when the teachers’ feedback was not equitable – some kids got more teacher attention than others.

Students care about their learning and the actions they take. They talked about a couple of activities that did not help them learn. They asked to be given more time to work on their action; regrouping with their plans after the exhibition was over. They also wanted to revisit their passions and interests and explore the extent of these new learnings.

Students found the research process a challenge. Interestingly, some were a little bemused that they did not use all the data they collected. They also felt a little hurried by the competing demands of other tasks while researching.

Students value the importance of learning how to learn. They commented on how they would like more strategies and time to break down research findings and synthesise within the context of their guiding questions.

Students value their independence. They do not always want to be told what to do and when to do it, but wanted to have more autonomy to make decisions for themselves about their work habits.

I believe these student reflective insights are equally as valuable as the ones that teachers produce. Ultimately they should make us question the what, how and why of our practices. Unearthed within this reflective process were issues relating to differentiation, skills teaching, research, independence, autonomy and reflective learning to name a few.

As teachers we all have hunches about learning that we attribute to success or failure, the problem in schools is that feelings and pre-conceptions can evolve into undeniable truths with little evidence to back them up. I envision a place where students themselves can have a legitimate voice in what constitutes the best learning. In turn, this student voice represents a type of evidence that can frame a context for authentic teacher inquiry and action research, so that the distinction between teaching and learning becomes seamless.

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!