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.

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.

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

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?

Creating a learning focussed school (Kevin Bartlett presentation)

If you could choose 5 principles of learning that would be the hallmark and ethos of a quality school what would they be? What is the common definition of learning in your school? How do we make kids owners of their own learning?

I had the pleasure of attending a short ISAT conference this weekend, where key note speaker Kevin Bartlett extolled about his experience and philosophy on creating learner focussed schools.  Bartlett’s charismatic presentation was very inspiring for those of us who see too much fluff and busy work going on in schools. After all if it is not improving student learning – why bother doing it “stop making a to do list and start making a not to do list” was one of Bartlett’s pieces of advice.

As the audience grappled with constructing a core definition of learning through their own personal connections, one thing became very clear – learning is personal, it is about igniting and nurturing passions. A large part of our role as teachers is helping children anchor important understanding around these passions. Bartlett made reference to (Wiggins & McTighe’s) facets of understanding and underlined that in addition to the cognitive, understanding is both emotional and personal. It is incremental, and as we progress we refine our connections. Understanding is therefore instrumental in defining who we are.

Ultimately, by scaffolding the learning journey through the process of inquiry; understanding becomes the final destination. However, like any good “road trip” you need supplies along the way – in the learner focussed school these supplies come in the form of feedback and the setting of challenging goals. To assist students on their journey to understanding, Bartlett talked about ideas like a metacognitive toolkit to help students evaluate their own progress and develop greater self awareness.

So what does a leaner focused school look like? – Conceptual learning, language for learning, visible learning, learning relationships, learning for innovation. It was reassuring to hear Bartlett validate the need for a whole school community to live and breath this vision of learning. These values must be the common denominator that guides all our practices, not just what we do when we are in front of the the students.

Bartlett concluded his presentation with a number of amusing personal anecdotes of how to close the gap toward becoming a more learner focussed school. In summary these were:

  • Define learning.
  • Decide what makes it happen.
  • Make that the core of everything you do?
  • Close the knowledge – doing gap.
  • Do it with passion.

Would you choose the same 5 principles to define your learning focussed school?