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.

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

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?

Going further with systems thinking – students apply their conceptual knowledge

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Several weeks ago, I blogged about introducing systems thinking by using children’s literature with my grade 2 students. I was really enthused by their receptiveness to the process and how quick they learned, it almost seemed intuitive to some of them. Last week my teaching partner and I came back to the process and used it as one of the summative assessment tasks for our UOI on healthy living.

After a short introduction, we gave the students an opportunity to apply the skill of systems thinking and focus on areas of the UOI knowledge they felt they had learned most about.  We wanted to see how they connected with a key understanding we had identified in our planning – that of seeing the body as an interacting system. I was particularly interested in their response to the challenge of making their thinking visible, so took it upon myself to work with groups of 5 or 6 students at a time and provide support where needed through poignant questioning, challenging their ideas and envoking discussion. Observing the process, I was impressed with how much they had remembered about thinking systemically, it had been several weeks since our last experience with using the process, yet very little instructional guidance had to be given to the students. Another thing that I observed was how flexible this tool is in allowing students to express their thinking, once they had become familiar with the process, there was less time spent on the procedural knowledge of how to do it, which I think freed up the mental space needed to express their understanding. As an extension I asked if any students wanted to transfer their “round and round thinking” to a prezi, here is one student’s example.

Junk food prezi

I can’t help wondering how far you could take the concept of systems thinking and apply it to curriculum mapping models… I imagine the potential of a learner’s development when a school curriculum articulates and promotes systems thinking skills as a core value of their educational pedagogy, particularly if they are teaching for international mindedness. It seems obvious to me that conceptual thinking skills, which are pervasive and yet flexible enough to have positive application in a multitude of content areas and settings, should be a fundamental principal of 21st century education. Hope I am not in a minority forever on this one!

“Round and round thinking” in Grade 2

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The focus of our current UOI is healthy living – “what we eat and how we look after our bodies is related to the sustainability of our health.” The concept of causation is a driving force in this unit to help move the students beyond the facts and knowledge. In particular this unit presents a wonderful opportunity of developing in the students an ability to think in sytemic ways.

After reading the book “When a Butterfly Sneezes” by Linda Booth Sweeney, I set about using some of her suggestions of introducing the concept of systems thinking through literature. I first read to the students the HCA classic “The Emporers New Clothes” (quite a few children had never heard this story), we discussed what happened in the book. I then modeled a way to record the significant issues that had clear causal connections, using a simple linear style, and another way that used causal feedback loops. One child aptly made a connection saying “oh it’s like a butterfly,” recalling her previous knowledge from G1 unit on living things. I then challenged students to make their own causal diagrams about any of the issues that seemed to repeat in the story.  The students responded with interest and decent engagement, which does not always happen when I challenge them to think! We repeated the same process with a Dr Suess book – “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back,” again I modeled one example and the students then had a go at making their own loops and connections. On the third occasion I read the book “The Lorax,” this time I did not model the thinking, but used our previous examples as a cue. One child said “oh that round and round thinking,” I liked his way of describing it, because I am often challenged by dumbing down terminology to a G2 level – so we have now adopted the term as part of our systems thinking vocabulary. I plan to continue to develop this thinking skill using literature throughout the unit, but my main goal is to get the students to transfer these skills to show their conceptual understanding of healthy living (a future blog post I will share).

In education we tend to assess what we value and, although I am not a gambling man I think it a safe bet to say, I could walk into most schools and access data that shows the trajectory of a students progress in reading, writing or mathematical skills.  However, would I find the same documentation of a students progress in thinking systemically? Maybe… but I  beleive it would be an exception rather than a rule. Of course thinking skills can and mutually need to be subject specific, but more and more we are living in a world of transferable skills. The ability to think systemically is needed in our world like never before, human evolution, growth and our global interconnectedness, reveals new issues and challenges that demand our attention. Pursuing simplistic cause/effect solutions are like putting sticking plasters on a machete wound – they’re just not up to the job, we need to think on a deeper level. Look at the way many governments tackle road congestion (“take a ride around the M25 the next time you visit London to get my point”).

I believe teaching kids about the skills of systems thinking should be equally as important as teaching kids to learn their times tables. But… Which one gets more coverage in your school?

“Getting to the heart of the matter using the thinking hats”

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It has been very encouraging over the course of this last UOI to see how students are beginning to see the value of making their thinking visible and developing their confidence to share ideas in a very public way. It is possible that sometimes as teachers we can take children’s ability to reveal their thoughts for granted, but for young children sharing personal ideas can be very risky and potentially expose them to ridicule. However when students feel secure in their learning environment, we start to see not only creative ideas emerge, but also preconceived ideas through the connections they make with their personal lives. These different perspective provide a great context for developing the learner profile and attitudes, because they allow us to interact, share points of view and reflect on concepts such as bias and the validity of our beliefs. At times this can be a contentious area to explore, but in my opinion totally necessary. After all in the PYP we are teaching children for intercultural understanding.

By using different combinations of the thinking hats, it is possible to tap into those pure unadulterated lines of thought, which may not emerge in a general discussion and brainstorm about a subject. (see the video clip below). During this session the thinking hats supported greater depth of insight into student thinking. From a teaching and planning perspective this kind of thinking provides wonderful material for further inquiry.

Wondering around the classroom I used two simple guiding questions to stimulate interaction – “what are you thinking?” and “what makes you think that?”