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


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.

What is beyond the student led conference?

Due to unforseen circumstance and chance happening, one SLC took place this week that partially involved a sibling for a some of the conference time.  It was quite heart warming to see how the older daugher did not overpower the expereince, but guided conversation between Mum and son when asked  for, occasionally flipping between French and English inbetween convivial laughter. And it led my thinking to… “How do we dynamically build collective understanding of learning in our communitites?”

My experience of PYP student led conferences has led me to believe they are fairly standardised and for good reasons… the meaning that informs our philisophical leanings toward SLC’s is well informed – it is child centred and hopefully child driven. Whatever family dynamics are in place the structure of the SLC allows uninterrupted quality one on one time. However, widening the lens and considering what the experience represents from a communication perspective is interesting…  it can allow creative thought. What other dynamic ways can we communicate what we are learning? For me , this is a question worthy of further exploration.

The Positives…

Personal Understandings – helps students reflect and process their learning,  more ways to help parents (particularly EAL) better undersand the programme, siblings can be part of a joint learning episode

Collective Understanding – Families share focused  time around curriculum engagement, they can explore conceptual meaning, the skills that infuse understanding and the attitudes that shape actionable direction.

Meta Learning –  Parents learn from kids, teachers learn from parents and kids learn from the experience. In general, we learn more about each others understanding of  the puposes and perspectives of our school cultures.

The Negatives…

Personal Understandings – Family dynamics may compound the presenter by affecting self confidence and reinforce negative schematas. Parents attention is divided. For the teacher, experience fails to achieve desired effect therefore we may not wish to persevere.

Collective Understanding – Families do not gain much from the expereince, may even reinforce negative beliefs and attitudes. Logisitics for administrators and teachers – difficult to organise,   collaboration within schools take time… never enough of it, schools are such busy places… “Is it worth it?”

Meta Understanding – “Nobody understands us!”

I am not advocating doing away with SLC’s, I believe there is potential for exploring even more ways that allow everyone to pause for important learning moments. The more creative we are in our thought, the easier the obstacles are to overcome. Inquiry over advocacy. Why can’t there be more quality sharing like SLC’s in our schools?

Conceptual learning in a thinking classroom – teaching for transfer

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I was recently fortunate enough to co-lead a workshop on conceptual driven curriculum in the PYP. During the workshop participants constructed meaning about the nature of concepts, why they are the driving force behind the pedagogy of inquiry and why concepts are so fundamental in teaching children about international mindedness.  Like all workshops, I came away with many new ideas about how to improve my own practice and questions about how we balance the need for meaningful, quality learning over the quantity of content demands.

One question I asked myself is; what is the right balance of conceptual understandings to strive for within a unit of inquiry? As PYP teachers we are co-constructers in curriculum design, our practice is guided by the value of “choose, act, reflect.”  In reflecting, I think the balance of conceptual understandings to strive for within a unit of inquiry is very contextual and dependent upon a number of factors (eg. developmental age, ESL, complexity of the subject, motivation of the pupils, socio/emotional issues…) and yet to what extent do we factor these variables into our planning? I believe neglecting the unique contextual characteristics of the learners in our schools runs the potential of subjugating conceptual teaching to content teaching – simply put, if you are trying to teach too many conceptual understandings at one time you can run the risk of purely teaching factual content. So how can we tell when less is more?

As practitioners we need tools to help us reflect, we need ideals, benchmarks and anchor points from which to draw reference if we are collaboratively to build our understanding of this most important facet of learning. For me one essential way of evaluating how effective our conceptual teachings are is to look at how learners transfer their understanding across subject boundaries and how their learning becomes part of everyday, real life interactions in thinking, problem solving and action. However, transfer can sometimes be elusive and does not necessarily happen at the end of a unit of work, it is not always readily assessed through the formal procedures and the tools we design to record them. Students do not automatically connect, apply, or extrapolate what they know to other learning contexts. So what foundations can we put in place to ensure we are dong the best we can to nurture conceptual understanding and seek its transfer to new contexts? Here is my attempt to map out a few strategies that work for me:

  1. Make transfer the big goal of conceptual teaching and learning – always have ideas in mind about how students can transfer their conceptual understandings and skills to new contexts.
  2. Concepts over content – think big picture not activities. The exploration of concepts during collaborative teacher planning sessions will lead to a multitude of activities that can be applied in the classroom – the activities will always take care of themselves!
  3. Less is more – working with fewer conceptual understandings means that you can use and extend the knowledge and skills students present in a meaningful, formative way – be mindful.
  4. Prior knowledge – Take the time to nurture student’s interest and avenues into the concepts you are teaching.
  5. Authentic assessment – map out the formative and summative assessment opportunities that are likely to arise through the teaching and learning experiences. Through these opportunities, challenge student’s misconceptions, stereotypes and tendencies toward rigid thinking.
  6. Levels of transfer – transfer can happen on a “near” level where contexts can be very similar, or transfer can happen on a “far” level where the context is more abstract and removed from the original learning, some learners are natural abstract thinkers, others are not.
  7. Think discriminatively – be measured about when opportunities arise for students to apply transfer, be mindful about when you can make it happen authentically, create opportunities for success and not failure.
  8. Value thinking, nurture it and make it visible – train and engage students in a variety of daily thinking routines, use Socratic questioning in discussions to connect new ideas with existing knowledge. Metacognition, metacognition, metacognition!!
  9. Nurture the potential of transfer in younger students – (EY- G1) value and reflect upon the meaning of children’s connections in collaboration with others. Make children’s connections visible and a part of discussion for other learners.
  10. Homework – getting students to apply what they are learning in class and explore the meaning of concepts to their own lives can provide rich and diverse opportunities for transfer. Infinitely more valuable than completing worksheets!

For more ideas on the transfer of learning see “ten tools for teaching transfer” or look up some of the writings of David Perkins.

“Round and round thinking” in Grade 2

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The focus of our current UOI is healthy living – “what we eat and how we look after our bodies is related to the sustainability of our health.” The concept of causation is a driving force in this unit to help move the students beyond the facts and knowledge. In particular this unit presents a wonderful opportunity of developing in the students an ability to think in sytemic ways.

After reading the book “When a Butterfly Sneezes” by Linda Booth Sweeney, I set about using some of her suggestions of introducing the concept of systems thinking through literature. I first read to the students the HCA classic “The Emporers New Clothes” (quite a few children had never heard this story), we discussed what happened in the book. I then modeled a way to record the significant issues that had clear causal connections, using a simple linear style, and another way that used causal feedback loops. One child aptly made a connection saying “oh it’s like a butterfly,” recalling her previous knowledge from G1 unit on living things. I then challenged students to make their own causal diagrams about any of the issues that seemed to repeat in the story.  The students responded with interest and decent engagement, which does not always happen when I challenge them to think! We repeated the same process with a Dr Suess book – “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back,” again I modeled one example and the students then had a go at making their own loops and connections. On the third occasion I read the book “The Lorax,” this time I did not model the thinking, but used our previous examples as a cue. One child said “oh that round and round thinking,” I liked his way of describing it, because I am often challenged by dumbing down terminology to a G2 level – so we have now adopted the term as part of our systems thinking vocabulary. I plan to continue to develop this thinking skill using literature throughout the unit, but my main goal is to get the students to transfer these skills to show their conceptual understanding of healthy living (a future blog post I will share).

In education we tend to assess what we value and, although I am not a gambling man I think it a safe bet to say, I could walk into most schools and access data that shows the trajectory of a students progress in reading, writing or mathematical skills.  However, would I find the same documentation of a students progress in thinking systemically? Maybe… but I  beleive it would be an exception rather than a rule. Of course thinking skills can and mutually need to be subject specific, but more and more we are living in a world of transferable skills. The ability to think systemically is needed in our world like never before, human evolution, growth and our global interconnectedness, reveals new issues and challenges that demand our attention. Pursuing simplistic cause/effect solutions are like putting sticking plasters on a machete wound – they’re just not up to the job, we need to think on a deeper level. Look at the way many governments tackle road congestion (“take a ride around the M25 the next time you visit London to get my point”).

I believe teaching kids about the skills of systems thinking should be equally as important as teaching kids to learn their times tables. But… Which one gets more coverage in your school?