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

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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.

The Lesser Spotted Blue Hat…

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After my transition out of the classroom and into a coordinating role in a new school, it was rewarding this week to get back into the classroom to work with the students. In grade 5 at AIS Dhaka we are setting up class blogs and I for one am very excited to see what learning possibilities unfold over the coming months. As ever, the extent to which students perceive themselves as partners in the learning process is equal to the quality of contributions they are likely to make. To value the importance of student ownership in our venture, we wanted to find out how the students were feeling about blogging, what a class blog might be used for and how we should use our class blog. In addition, we needed to establish some agreements that would be binding on all and embrace the important elements of digital citizenship.

The versatility of the thinking hats was perfect for the job of eliciting student ideas and beliefs. Coming back to the thinking hats after the summer break, made me re-evaluate my understanding of the blue hat (previously I had not always managed to integrate the blue hat as effectively as the others). To me the blue hat does take a little more thinking about and so it should I guess, because metacognition needs to be worked at! In this lesson the blue hat played a vital role in helping to synthesise the findings of the other hats and in turn helped us to begin to construct our essential agreements about blogging in grade 5.

Do you use the blue hat in the classroom? If so… how?

Pressing the pause button on learning – the power of collaborative reflection

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Two practices that fundamentally resonate with me as an educator are: pressing the pause button on learning and, empowering students as teachers. Ultimately these two important facets of learning are about metacognition, for the student as teacher it is an opportunity to process what they know and reach deeper understandings, for the student as a collaborative learner it is an opportunity for someone other than a teacher to affirm prior knowledge and extend it in new directions. I believe we do not create enough opportunities in our schools for empowering students to be leaders and co-constructers of learning for understanding. From a teaching perspective, the value of creating opportunities for reflective learning is that it gives you a window into just what and how students are thinking about their learning. Of course we could argue all learning engagements are about this, but often in the school environment “busy work” and coverage can subjugate learning and true understanding. If we are constantly bombarding students with new knowledge and challenges that embrace coverage of the curriculum how do we authentically gauge where students are? Hence the need to press the pause button every now and then.

Today in grade 2 and 3 was a day for pressing the pause button; as teachers we created a learning opportunity for students to reflect, process and extend their understanding about “who they are as writers,” independent of the teacher. By creating a simple visual graphic entitled, 5 ways to find your voice as a writer, the G3 students prepared a short mini lesson. In small groups the students collaborated, shared and appreciated each other’s contributions. On these occasions I thoroughly enjoy being a fly on the wall and listening to the rich conversations that unfold, only intervening when totally necessary to keep the discussions on track.  Following the sharing session we got the G2 students to reflect on the experience by using a HPZ thinking routine – “Connect/Extend/Challenge.

Many of the G2 students were at ease expressing how the G3’s ideas connected with what they already know. Equally they were able to express the new ideas they had learned. Many of the responses were a clear indication of how reading informs the writing process independent of what is directly taught by the teacher (for example, I had noticed over the past few weeks how a number of students had started to experiment with speech marks and exclamation marks; something that I had encouraged, but not taught explicitly). However, in response to the “challenge” part of the reflection, few students were able to articulate questions or areas of difficulty. I suspect this is an indication of the existence of multiple levels of self-awareness – to articulate what you find challenging requires reflection on your own strengths and weakness’.

What are your thoughts on pressing the learning pause button?

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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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.