Team Teaching – an all or nothing phenomenon?

Team teaching has the potential not only to raise your game as a teacher, but also to elevate learning for our students, however these outcomes are not easily achieved. Working in IB schools it is easy to marry the values of the team teaching approach with collaboration and the IB learner profile for teachers; after all it challenges your practice on every level!
I once taught in a school where team teaching was not an option, but compulsory. Although I learned a lot, at times I found it frustrating and a bit stifling to my practice. I think if there had been more supporting systems in place it would have been amazing. My personal perspective on collaboration of this nature is; if it’s too forced it can lead to unnecessary challenges that can impair teaching and learning. However, like so many things in life it is possible to identify degrees of practice, especially when it comes to team teaching. If a school as an open mind to teaching many strategies can be scaffolded into the school culture in low stakes ways, like this one…
Tuning in – This works best if the lead teacher does not reveal too much about the unit to the children, as she attempts to hook their curiosity. As the teacher leads the tuning in activity, the co-teacher circulates around the class and asks students; “what do you think the unit is about?” Or, “what do you think you will be learning in this unit.” After the tuning in, teachers debrief and engage in reflective dialogue – the important part! The lead teacher shares what she was trying to achieve through the tuning in and the co teacher shares what she heard the students say.
Of course to utilise such a strategy does not necessarily need a co teaching approach, it could be done as a reflective activity with the students after the tuning in. However, the value added effect of the team teaching approach is making public one’s practice. In turn this supports greater validity of our teaching and creates a context for further collaboration between teachers.
More on team teaching some other time!

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.

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?

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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?

Teachers collaboratively thinking about student thinking.

As a faculty we got together in teams last week to discuss evidence of student thinking by looking at student work. Collaborative assessment is a well established process practiced by many professional learning communiities in schools around the world. However, often endeavours are based around improving student grades and driven by specific criteria. So it is refreshing to be part of a study where inquiry into the collaborative process is seen as a value in its own right. It is an opportunity for teachers to reach deeper understandings about how children think and how we teach them to think.

We used a simple protocol called ATLAS to help streamline our discussions, a worthwhile process to try. There were some fascinating pedagogical discussions and great sharing of ideas. I loved listening to the early years teachers interpreting student thinking through pieces of work, reminded me of discussions you might hear art critics having. Interestingly at times, using the process provoked us to suspend judgement, withold qualifying statements and refrain from giving background information. In this sense we were learning to listen in dfferent ways and when we did listen, two affirmations resonated – differentiation and student driven inquiry

There were great examples of differentiation and student driven inquiry happening across the school, but also the recognition that we could do better. As teachers, sometimes our best intentions get diluted along the way through our dense to do lists, busy curriulums or swollowed up by the gamet of other performances bestowed upon the teacher. (see time and space blog for further throughts on these issues). “To develop student thinking we need to treasure student thinking” – we need to maximise the space and time to allow it to blossom and actualize the importance of structuring learning around the curiosities that children bring to the classroom.

Does this mean we need to revolutionise our curriculums? What are your thoughts on actualizing schools of thinking?