Narrowing the lens on understanding


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.

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

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.

Concept mapping – helping students to track their learning.

Our Grade 3 teachers, Mr Karl and Ms Stacy have just finished a UOI on Migration, they shared a sample of before and after concept maps and reflections completed at the start and end of the unit. Although there is nothing radically new about concept mapping, like all great thinking tools, simplicity of application lends itself to multiple uses – making them a great tool for assessment and evaluation.

Using the concept maps throughout the unit really helped both children and teachers to see the development of understanding in connection with the big ideas of learning. I was impressed by the quote from one of the students who said “if you learn the language you can understand the culture.”

At the start of the unit a number of students thought migration was about going on holiday. Through ongoing independent work and peer sharing students tracked their learning and made adjustments. Interestingly by the end of the unit some students chose to completely rewrite their concept maps in the light of their learning, a clear indication of metacognition in action. Reflecting on the process at end of the unit a number of students were clearly able to think about their own thinking  through the connections they had made.

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Tools for making thinking visible

I came across this link through twitter (thanks to whatedsaid) and was inspired by the increasing easy access to quality learning tools that are available on the web. Some of the tools I am familiar with, but others not. In addition to being great assessment strategies, one thing that all these tools have in common is they increase the repertoire of ways we can motivate students to make their thinking visible.

New assessments

by Stephen Davis

The tuning in wall…

Hers’s something we have been trying out as part of our “tuning in” sessions to a unit of inquiry exploring the central idea: “peoples needs and wants determine how a city develops and grows.” We wanted the students to connect their thinking with the different systems that serve to maintain and extend a city. After a number of tuning in engagements the students got to post their thinking on wallwisher in response to one of our guiding questions – what connects people in a city?

The posts on the wall show students are beginning to think at a conceptual level, some are getting there… others are impulsive (the elusive “acer”)… and a few reclusive late starters are not quite ready to post their thoughts yet!

Grade 2 Wallwisher – what connects people in a city?

As well as been highly motivating for the kids and expedient for teachers, a wall provides solid evidence of students thinking that can be easily accessed by all. And even embedded into a PYP planner as assessment evidence – don’t you just love 21st century learning.

A continuum for reflection

The creation of this model was inspired partly by reading some of David Perkins work on developing mindfulness and, partly by the desire to help me nurture reflection more effectively with my students (majority ESL learners). I believe reflection is the foundation of all incremental learning, as John Dewey once stated, “we do not learn by experience, but by reflecting on experience” . As a PYP teacher I am in the fortunate position to be able to devote ample time to developing reflection, as it is a philosophical cornerstone of the programme and constructivist learning. This model is definitely a work in progress, I will continue to refine it based on my own reflections, ideas and practices in the classroom. Please let me know if you use it, any feedback very welcome.