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.

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!

Conceptual learning in a thinking classroom – teaching for transfer

Image courtesy of

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.

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?