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.

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!

Time for action

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Over the years I have seen many teachers implementing the PYP grapple with the concept of cultivating student initiated action. One theory that helps me conceptualise action is the idea of near and far transfer of learning, as described by David Perkins; for it is true that action can take on many forms. One common misconception I come across from time to time is the idea that student initiated action needs to happen within the tight 6/7 week frame of a unit of inquiry; however like the development of the learner profile, student action needs to be nurtured and given time to flourish. And, last week I was privileged to witness three students take self initiated action well after their UOI had finished.

Our grade 3 students have a unit called “people helping people” that took place back in March under the transdisciplinary theme of how we organise ourselves. The central idea of the unit (“people collaborate to find solutions to help those in need”) was really driven by using the related concept of sustainability. The substance of the unit largely involved students inquiring into the different NGO’s based in Bangladesh and learning how they create sustainable solutions for those in need. As a result of their collective inquiries a context was created for some deep evaluative thinking; the students developed their own criteria for taking meaningful action. As part of their summative assessment the students chose to publicise their work within the school community and persuaded our student council to adopt their criteria.

However, for a number of students the action did not stop there. They also wanted to apply the criteria for taking meaningful action themselves. On Saturday we took three students to a nearby school located in one of the slums of Dhaka. The students made contact with the school during the unit of inquiry when a French NGO working on supplying clean running water to the area paid us a visit. For their action the students creatively used their academic knowledge and communication skills to make a public information film and visual leaflets in Bangla about the importance of hand washing. The students even managed to procure a donation of soap tablets from “Lifebouy.” However it was the students attitude and motivation to make a difference that most impressed me.

I imagine the three students will remember this learning experience for a very long time; it was authentic and personalised. Nonetheless, in order for this commendable action to evolve the students needed… time and space to think, imagine and create, and the belief and commitment of their teacher and parents. I think one of the ways we can authentically nurture action is not to cram too much knowledge and skills into our units of inquiry, and not to consider action complete when the unit is over. 

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 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.

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?