The biography of a central idea…

Building community creates a sense of belonging.

This is the ‘central idea’ that will form the basis of our whole school inquiry in 2020. As teachers work on building cohesion, learners will inquire into different aspects of this conceptual idea. I’m hopeful to facilitate a parent inquiry group too.

Each IB PYP unit of inquiry is based on a meaningful, transferable, conceptual idea that offers possibilities for trans-disciplinary inquiry. Sometimes a central idea comes easily, once we know our conceptual lenses. Sometimes it’s the result of sustained collaborative play with words. Sometimes we know a central idea isn’t perfect, but it’s the best we can do. On occasion, we know it isn’t perfect but we don’t mind, because it expresses the right message and we care more about the sentiment than the rules.

This particular central idea has a story…

Part of the story was written by Helen Street, the author of Contextual Wellbeing, a book which has resonated for many of us in our learning community. So much of what she says is common sense, once you think about it. Much of it builds on ideas we’ve been thinking about for years. We’ve had early morning book discussions and planned meetings and parent sessions around some of the ideas. Some of our Year 6 students have read parts of the book and were grateful for an opportunity to connect virtually and chat with Helen last week.

As the ideas from the book began to take hold in our Year 6 community, students explored the notion of Ubuntu, an African concept which translates approximately as ‘I am because we are’, and the learning began to look less and less like traditional school and more of a transformative experience for learners and teachers alike. Seeing how the learning was unfolding, one of the teachers suggested an idea for a whole school inquiry for next year: ‘A community collaborates to create change’. Teachers of the lower grades suggested that a more appropriate version for the younger learners might be ‘Individuals collaborate to build community’.

Analysing the data gathered from teachers’ reflections for our self study, the Teaching and Learning team noticed a pattern. Many of the suggestions and wonderings revealed the idea of building cohesion as an opportunity for growth, be this in terms of encouraging connections between early years and primary, increasing flow of learning time, building a stronger sense of belonging or improving our partnerships with parents. Perhaps the whole school central idea might be ‘Cohesion empowers community’ or ‘Building cohesion strengthens community’, strong possibilities and yet, while we are not afraid to introduce difficult vocabulary to our youngest learners, not quite child friendly enough…

We gathered a group of teachers to work on reviewing our program of inquiry, representatives of every grade from preschool to Year 6. Our POI reflection began with people sharing their responses to this provocation: ‘My favourite unit of inquiry ever was… because…’ and we identified common themes. The best units were organically trans-disciplinary, based on real life learning, evolved as they unfolded, included authentic action, involved self discovery, allowed for the development of the whole child, were often led by the learners and focused on process, rather than content. Based on these themes, this group came up with further suggestions for our new central idea.

We knew what we wanted, but the wording that would capture the essence remained elusive. Various individuals and groups collaborated to play with the words and, as commitment to the idea became embedded (alongside yet another reading group discussing Contextual Wellbeing) there was a sense of being part of something bigger, of contributing to  the development of our learning community. What we were doing was a small example of what we wanted to achieve!

A group of students invited to the discussion spoke a lot about the idea of belonging needing to be in the central idea. They suggested ‘Belonging to a community helps us grow’ pointing out that the growth might refer to learning as individuals and as a community. It could refer to going out of our comfort zones or growing socially or academically.  If the focus is on community, belonging and cohesion, then the central idea should reflect that, they said. In their words: “Let’s be honest, the central idea is what we look at and what brings us together”.

A moment of jubilation followed, not just because we were excited by the insights of children and delighted by their valuable input, but because it felt so right. And then some doubt crept in… Might there be those for whom ‘belonging to a community’ could be perceived as passive? We had added the layer of belonging but lost the component of action. We needed an active verb in the central idea!

And finally, as a group of teachers pondered around the staffroom table one morning, one teacher sat quietly, seemingly answering his emails, while others conversed. And then, ‘How about this?’ he asked, ‘Building community creates a sense of belonging.’ Bingo!

It might not follow some of the so called rules for writing central ideas, but it fulfils our needs and we are excited by the possibilities. And its biography reflects the very thing we are aiming towards…

What educators need to unlearn…

Looking at the curriculum (program of inquiry) and the timetable through the courageous lens of ‘what if’, has allowed us to explore possibilities that sit outside of traditional models. The more we let go of the way things have always been, the more opportunities manifest for learning to flow and learners to flourish.

I once wrote a post about things that teachers should unlearn. We’ve come a long way since then! Here are some more things educators need to unlearn:

Learning is linear.

Why should we only do one unit at a time? Real life isn’t broken down into blocks of curriculum, learning is not linear and inquiry is not a step by step process. Inquiries (and learning!) overlap and interweave. We need to create the conditions in which this kind of learning can thrive.

Adults make the decisions.

In the past few weeks, we have consulted with students on matters such as a new initiative for Year 3, the design of the learning spaces, our PYP self study and a whole school unit of inquiry. Their perspectives are insightful, valuable and practical!

You need to deliver the curriculum.

The best way to cover the curriculum is to design rich and authentic, real life, learning experiences, and then back map to the curriculum. Everything worthwhile will be covered!

We are bound by the timetable.

Next year, our Art, like some other specialist areas, will be more authentically integrated into the learning. Less timetabled, more of an effective mode of communication, ‘through which students explore and construct a sense of self and develop an understanding of the world around them’ (PYP). Looking forward to seeing how it unfolds…

Planning takes place in advance.

It’s true that you need to have a sense of the big idea and where the learning needs to go conceptually, but planning responsively has changed things entirely. It’s becoming natural to observe, listen and document what is revealed about where learners and learning are at, then analyse the data to decide where to go next.

There is secret teacher business.

The more learners are aware of things that used to be kept from them, the more ownership they take in their learning. Learners can (and should!) . explore  curriculum outcomes, create success criteria, know what their goals are. Why shouldn’t they write their own reports?

Anything to add?

Tea circle…

We sit around a table, drinking tea in a relaxed manner, engaging in meaningful conversation about learning and life.

I am participating in my first ‘tea circle’ with a group of 12 year olds and it feels much more like a ‘real life’ experience than like ‘doing school’. Once they are over the initial novelty of the situation, they relax into the conversation, listen and respond to each other naturally and build on each other’s contributions. They talk about what they have learned and how they have grown this year and no-one mentions anything related to content or traditional school subjects.

  • I’ve learned to listen to other perspectives… to be open to adapting my ideas based on input from others. (Leo)
  • I really understand people better now, because I think about where they are coming from (Amelia)
  • I’ve learned to dig deeper and find the roots of an inquiry. (Rosa)
  • It’s like an iceberg, you need to be open to the ideas and perspectives that are below the surface. (Eiden)
  • I’ve learned to be comfortable in the learning pit, what to do when I’m stuck and how to overcome challenges (Amalia)
  • It’s a pity that the lesson sometimes ends while you are still in the learning pit and you have to go to another class. It makes you lose flow.
  • I think it would be helpful to learn in mixed age groups, especially for something like art, where you can be inspired by people of any age.
  • I’ve learned to take responsibility for my own learning. The teachers trust us in Year 6 (Romy)
  • I think teachers would always trust us, but it’s up to you to earn trust; some people cause loss of trust for others. (Eiden)
  • We need to be role models for younger students. I’ve learned about leadership. (Eden)
  • The way we learn is different this year, it’s less about content and more about understanding ourselves and others. (Amalia)
  • The focus is on the explanation, on our thinking… on process. (Rosa)
  • For this kind of learning you need self management skills, like organising your time and interacting with others. (Leo)
  • If this kind of learning started earlier in our schooling, it would become a norm… (Amelia)

I find myself wondering why we don’t invite learners to the table (literally) more often, as individuals and as equals, rather than as students, to share conversation, stories and insights and to learn from each other.

Parents on learning…

Listening in on Year 6 students reflecting on their learning with an outsider (a researcher exploring the PYP enhancements for the IB), I was impressed by the extent to which they understand the learning process and can articulate their understanding.

I’ve been meaning to share the conversation parents had with the researcher too. The parents with the loudest voices can be the ones who constantly seem to question our approaches and prefer a more traditional model of school, so it was rewarding to listen to the insights of a small group of ‘selected volunteers’ (!) talking openly about their children’s learning experience in the PYP. These are some responses that highlight common themes…

  • School today is very different. Children have latitude in the learning. When I was at school, there was no choice and flexibility or encouragement of exploration. Our children can explore areas of interest and we like hearing them talk about inquiries and research. They seem to run with it and it doesn’t seem force fed. I really need to step back from my own school experience and adapt to a different way of thinking and learning. It can be provoking for us!
  • I don’t know what PYP even stands for but it seems that the PYP is about finding out how kids learn and identifying their needs and addressing them. Students have flexibility to follow their interests but basic needs are still attended to.
  • One unit of inquiry can lead them on a journey of curiosity, which is very exciting, but maybe it doesn’t work for all children. Some parents think children need more traditional teaching and perhaps some kids need more structure, but I think kids with difficulties can flourish and I know my child found his passion through the PYP exhibition.
  • It’s interesting how our children see the world. They use technology for global connections and the world has become smaller! Talking to kids in other countries opens their minds to new world views.
  • The online portfolios give students an opportunity to talk about their learning and it is evident that the focus is on process, rather than product. Maybe Seesaw should not have ‘likes’ even for parents, it puts pressure in the same way that social media does.
  • I’m impressed by the concepts that children have as part of their language. They use language to express their feelings and they talk about things like gratitude and mindfulness. They can articulate their strengths and challenges. They know where they are at and they are part of their learning. Their capacity to self reflect is impressive. They seem to develop a toolbox of self expression in the PYP.
  • For some parents, there is a problem with the lack of emphasis on competition. Many parents are results focused and want to know where their kids are in relation to others. Sports day is good to help kids develop the concept of winning and losing. Competition works for some children, it’s what helps my child learn her words. On the other hand, testing is a pressure and there is a lot of anxiety in some children today.
  • PYP seems to allow teachers to be more creative and they are responsive to children’s interests and needs, but it really needs the right teacher to provoke children’s curiosity. It must be more difficult for teachers because the learning is individual and one size does not fit all. It’s a challenging job for teachers!
  • The collaborative aspect is very important and there is a lot of creativity. It’s like real world learning and it’s interesting to think about how these children will turn out in the future and what they will contribute to the world.
  • Learning isn’t only for school. Kids don’t even always realise they are learning. I like the idea that everything is an opportunity to learn and the focus is on lifelong learning. Trans disciplinary learning is LIFE.

The loveliest comment I heard was this one: “PYP changes the way you parent.”

An open letter to parents…

Dear Parents

We know how much you love your children. Many of us are parents too and if we aren’t, you can rest assured that we wouldn’t be educators unless we cared deeply about children, so we know that many of the following things are important to you. Take a moment to consider which of these you most wish for…

  • My child succeeds without struggle
  • My child is above average at school
  • My child is admired by others
  • My child is well behaved and works hard to get good grades
  • My child excels in sporting competitions
  • My child produces impressive work at school
  • My child is extended by her teachers
  • My child’s class gets homework to help them do better at school
  • My child is popular with his peers
  • My child is always happy at school

Our teachers have been reading Contextual Wellbeing, by Helen Street, which is based on extensive research, and it turns out that the pressure induced by the items on this list, despite being instinctive desires of many parents, can actually undermine children’s wellbeing.

Now consider the list below…

  • My child is valued as an individual
  • My child  feels a sense of belonging
  • My child’s strengths matter more than his weaknesses
  • My child is intrinsically motivated
  • My child forms meaningful relationships
  • My child experiences personal growth
  • My child contributes to the community
  • My child loves learning
  • My child has ownership of her decisions and accepts the consequences
  • My child is allowed to fail and learn from his mistakes

We asked parents who attended our informal session last week to sort all these aspirations into two groups. Once they got going, it quickly became clear which would put pressure on their children and which would support them in becoming well adjusted, valued and valuable members of society, content within themselves. We ask you to think about it too…

‘Wellbeing is a state of health, happiness and positive engagement that arises from membership of an equitable, inclusive and cohesive environment’ (Helen Street 2016 )

Self study as an appreciative inquiry…

Over coffee with @shazbailey1, we chat about strategies for making the self study process worthwhile. She shares an approach she took with her teachers and, when I ask if I can steal it, she tells me to adapt and improve on it and then blog about it so that she can steal it back. The biography of an idea 🙂

The enhanced version of the IB Primary Years Program has detailed, well researched articles on all areas of the program, divided into sections: The Learner, Learning and Teaching and The Learning Community. I like the title ‘Principles into Practice’ which fits with our approach to the self study we are currently (perpetually, actually) undertaking. ‘How will we bring the beliefs of the PYP to life?’ rather than ‘How will we ensure we comply with the standards and practices?’

In last night’s session, teachers considered the headings of the sections and talked about which topics they are most familiar with and which they know least about…

Next, they each chose a section to inquire into and spent some time reading the articles and reflecting, individually, in pairs or groups, using a thinking routine adapted from Project Zero.

Connect: What connections can you make to current practice in our school?

Extend: How was your thinking extended? What’s new for you here?

Explore: What might we explore further? (individually and as a school)

The outcome:

  • Productive discussion in mixed groups, across grade levels and specialist areas.
  • Collaborative reflection around big ideas.
  • Collegial sharing and support.
  • A deeper understanding of the principles of the program
  • Documentation of current practice in how we live the PYP.
  • An opportunity to question the way things are.
  • Further ideas for exploration as a school community.
  • Individual goals that teachers will work on.
  • An organic approach to appreciative inquiry.

So simple. So much data for moving forward…

Liberating the arts from the prison of the timetable…

The arts are not mere diversions from the important business of education; they are essential resources.

Elliot W Eisner, “The Role of the Arts in Cognition and Curriculum” (2001)

If this is what we believe, why do we allow the tyranny of timetable to dictate the constraints of our arts programs?

Why are Art and Music often viewed as ‘lessons’ rather than effective modes of communication, ‘through which students explore and construct a sense of self and develop an understanding of the world around them’? (IB Primary Years Program, 2018).

Why are the arts not always valued as ‘fundamental to the development of the whole child, promoting creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving skills and social interactions.'(IB Primary Years Program, 2018).

With these beliefs and wonderings in mind, we are wondering…

What if our Art and, perhaps, our Music teachers worked on a more flexible timetable, allowing them to step in and out of the learning when the time was right and the learning could be enriched through the experience?

What if, instead of always planning whole class lessons, our specialist teachers worked with individuals, small groups or larger groups, depending on the needs, interests and opportunities that grew organically within the learning?

What if some or all grade levels had ongoing, interwoven inquiries that allowed children to deepen their learning through a hundred languages, and explore questions such as ‘how might I communicate my ideas?’ ‘and ‘how is my thinking changing through engagement with a different material, experience or ‘language’?

What if the arts shifted from being a lesson on the timetable to being viewed as integral to learning and as a powerful means for inquiry?

If it already looks like this in your school, we’d love to hear from you!

Responsive planning… and the biography of an idea

Our early years teachers call it ‘ping pong’.

What invitation or provocation do we throw to the children?  How do they respond?  How do we decide where to go next, based on what’s been revealed?

Whilst early years teachers are skilled at documenting learning, and at making decisions about what to catch and what to throw back to the children, teachers of older learners traditionally plan further in advance, paying more attention to addressing curriculum outcomes than to where children might lead the learning.

Drawing on our work with Sam Sherratt a few years ago, we have been working on a more responsive approach to planning, even in the upper grades.

In our Learning Team Leaders meeting, teachers reflected on the ways that ongoing collaborative planning meetings in their teams have changed over time…

  • We are more flexible in when we meet, so that we can plan responsively.
  • Google slides are live documents that allow ongoing collaboration.
  • We create guiding questions that might unfold in different ways in each class.
  • We agree on conceptual understandings and plan less of how are we going to get there.
  • Our focus is less on what we will be doing and more on the why.
  • We are planning less. We’ve slowed down a lot.
  • We have refined the planner so that it is a live document, ever changing as we see where the learners take us.
  • The ‘what’s been revealed’ slide has helped make decisions about how to move the learning forward.

When I posted the ‘what’s been revealed‘ slide on Twitter recently, it was viewed with appreciation by educators around the world and I enjoyed seeing the idea loop back to @sherrattsam. In another loop, I found our Early Years Leader, @shanupiter’s ‘ping pong’ referred to in an old post by Sam and I was reminded of a clip I made some years ago illustrating where my ideas come from.

I’m intrigued by the notion of the biography of an idea, recently brought back from a Cultures of Thinking conference by our Year 6 teachers, as we explore possibilities for further opening up our PYP expedition. Over the years we have simplified PYPX, shifting the focus from product to process, from a fact finding mission to the development of self as a learner...

  • What if the the biography of an idea was a through-line for the expedition and the exhibition?
  • What if instead of ‘coming up with a topic,’ learners were encouraged to generate and play with ideas, within the broad context of ‘thinking beyond ourselves’?
  • What if learners were encouraged to document what and who inspired them during their journey?
  • What if learners visually represented their understanding of the back and forth involved in the process of developing ideas?
  • What if they used their failures productively and could explain how these helped them move ideas forward?
  • What if they mapped the ways that various inquiries over the year (and previous years) influenced their current ideas?

What else?

It’s a ‘ping pong’ provocation.

By Monday, the team will have picked up the ball and be ready to throw something back! Within a few days, the idea will either have rolled into the gutter, or my entire network will help develop it further by responding with elaborations and further ‘what if’s.

I know that much about the biography of an idea!

Learners on learning…

Teaching can be tough. There are days when dealing with difficult situations, students or parents can feel unrewarding and you might feel unappreciated, disappointed or overwhelmed.

Listening in on Year 6 students reflecting on their learning with an outsider (a researcher exploring the PYP enhancements for the IB), I was impressed by the extent to which they understand the learning process and can articulate their understanding. Teachers, they are a credit to you.

When asked if they have agency, they said they didn’t know what that meant. But here are some of their thoughts about their learning…

  • Our learning is like a ‘choose your own adventure’. We have control over how we learn and that makes us more invested.
  • The attitudes we demonstrate show who we are and what we care about. We talk a lot about what dispositions we need and which ones we need to work on.
  • There is leashed and unleashed learning, like Studio Time, where we choose what we want to inquire into and how. There is no point everyone just learning the same thing. The way we learn encourages individuality and authenticity.
  • Inclusion is a big focus this year. It’s about not leaving people out and we have tried to make friends outside our usual friendship groups.
  • Assessment is how the teachers know what we need and how they can help us. Everything is assessment, we don’t always notice when they are assessing us. Teachers are with us all the time, they don’t need tests to know where we are at.

I know there are times when you wonder if it’s all worth it. Based on the thoughtful comments of these 12 year olds, I can assure you that it is.