Circle of viewpoints…

A colleague of mine has three daughters. One says when school shuts, she will follow her daily schedule and stick to the school routines. Another says she will finally have time to work on her personal projects. The third says that she will see how she feels when she wakes up each day.

As we prepare for school closure in Australia, emotions are heightened and interactions are fraught as individuals struggle with their particular anxieties and uncertainties. It’s a time for empathy, for pausing to remember that everyone’s reality is different and, for many, stories they don’t choose to share might be impacting their very way of being. What seemed right when we started preparing our guidelines for remote learning (was it really only the week before last?) has already been adapted several times and is still changing, as the sands rapidly shift.

If ever there was an appropriate, authentic time to practise the Circle of Viewpoints thinking routine for exploring different perspectives, from Project Zero, this is it. What might different teachers need right now? How might parents be feeling? How will we meet the needs of our diverse learners, as students and as human beings?

What will our students need?

  • a sense of community and connection with peers?
  • daily checkins with their teachers?
  • similar routines to usual?
  • plenty of opportunities and ideas to keep them busy?
  • lots of choice?
  • not too much choice?
  • no expectation that stress them out?
  • clear expectations that keep them focused?
  • time to work on personal projects?
  • time and space to just be with their families?
  • more work?
  • less work?
  • different work?
  • no work?

What will our parents need?

  • clear guidelines for schoolwork?
  • asynchronous opportunities only, to relieve pressure?
  • synchronous opportunities to maintain routine?
  • more work?
  • less work?
  • different work?
  • no work?
  • regular checkins from the school?
  • not too many checkins from the school?
  • appreciation that they might have several kids to care for?
  • recognition of their financial concerns?
  • understanding that they are worried their children will miss out on their education?
  • time and space to just be with their families?

What will educators need?

  • plenty of support from leaders?
  • tech support to ensure they can manage online learning?
  • a sense of community and cohesion?
  • clear expectations in terms of their roles?
  • understanding of their challenges and fears?
  • appreciation that they too might have several kids to care for?
  • recognition of their financial concerns and insecurities?
  • time and space to just be with their families?

As we plan for school closure, the most important thing to remember is that one size will not fit all. Awareness of the myriad factors, other than school, currently impacting lives, is paramount.

 

An inquiry into remote learning…

In Australia we have now begun planning for continuous remote learning, given the inevitability of school closure to limit the spread of COVID-19. I’m reminded of my very first blog post, more than ten years ago!

It is important to start by recognising how incredibly fortunate we are.

How many children around the world experience interruption to schooling due to disease, natural disaster or war? How many have access to an education at all? Of those that do, how many are lucky enough to have ready access to the resources that we do? Do we understand that in remote communities, this might be the way learning always looks? Do we appreciate the technology, books, materials, time, space and people to whom/which we have access? Do we acknowledge the collective wisdom and generosity of other teachers and schools with more experience than we have, readily sharing their ideas and expertise with us? We have so much to be grateful for.

The initial response of our teachers, ranging from excitement to panic, depends on individual perspective, personal circumstance, prior experience, technological ability and comfort level with the unknown. So our stance, at my school, will be to see this as an opportunity rather than a challenge. We will approach it, as always, as an inquiry, an extension of our 2020 focus on building cohesion. We will expand our whole school inquiry into building community and a sense of belonging into the new and unfamiliar territory in which we find ourselves.

So these are some of our initial inquiry questions:

  • How might we continue to build cohesion when we are learning from home?
  • How might we create a sense of community despite being physically apart?
  • How might we ensure that everyone feels safe, comfortable and supported?
  • How might we seamlessly (almost) continue the children’s learning, and our own?
  • How might we remotely plan for and provide opportunities for rich learning experiences?
  • How might we ensure the wellbeing of our whole learning community, students, educators and parents?
  • How will every member of our learning community contribute to all the above?
  • And… how might we extend the learning into other communities?

 

 

Building cohesion…

“Cohesion is the powerful social glue that turns us from human beings into people. It is the glue that binds us to every element of our social context. When there is strong healthy cohesion in school communities, we feel connected to those around us; we’re on the same page with them. We feel we belong, that we are part of the team, with shared values and a shared sense of what is normal.”

Helen Street: CONTEXTUAL WELLBEING (Slightly adapted)

How might we build cohesion?

With ‘building cohesion’ as our 2020 focus, we started the year with a whole school workshop in which over 120 educators across disciplines and campuses connected and interconnected through a range of activities. Noticing and naming the ways they built cohesion, each time they changed groups during the morning, heightened awareness and highlighted transferable possibilities.

In groups, teachers shared a highlight from the holidays and something they hope for this year. Next we asked each person to consider and share a time when they felt a sense of belonging and identify common characteristics.

  • Caring relationships
  • Shared experiences
  • Shared values
  • Storytelling
  • Active listening
  • Deeper conversations
  • Sense of connection
  • Common purpose
  • Choice and ownership
  • Appreciation of each other
  • Mutual trust
  • Collaboration
  • Authenticity
  • Personal growth
  • Non judgemental acceptance.
  • Openness and support
  • Playfulness

Co-developing this shared understanding of how it feels to belong will help us reflect on the extent to which these things are evident in our classrooms and in our learning community, and to recognise possibilities for improvement.

How might we build cohesion in our classrooms?

Many of us have already read and engaged with the content of the book ‘Contextual Wellbeing’ as a springboard for such reflections. Providing quotes such as those below helped provoke thinking and encourage a flow of ideas.

With any wellbeing program… teachers have to be careful not to counteract their positive impact with unnecessary class competition and inequitable teaching the rest of the time. As soon as students are pitted against each other with tests, awards or ability grouping, cohesion and positive relationships suffer. It is the power of ‘show over tell’: explicit teaching of social and emotional competencies has to be backed up with real life contextual wellbeing.

Teachers are under continual pressure to make headway with a dauntingly large curriculum, so it is a big ask that they regularly find time for gluing the class together. But that time willingly spent on building cohesion will save an enormous amount of wasted time and energy throughout the rest of the year. A happy class is a cohesive class is a productive class.

Norms and rules are not the same thing. It does not matter what rules apply to the classroom, it is the established norms that guide the behaviour of those who feel they belong. Rules are written down and made explicit whereas norms are established through the repetition of certain behaviours and reinforced with every element of social context. Norms are the true behavioural guides within any group.

Norms develop through repeating desired behaviours, and contextual support, not through repeated verbal reminders. The more a class follows the rules in their daily activities, the more likely the rules will become norms. It also follows that the more the rules are broken, the more ‘not following the rules’ will become the normal way to behave.

Rewards and punishments may bring a disruptive child to the river of compliance, but only cohesion will keep them drinking. Instead of ‘paying’ disconnected kids to behave, or threatening them if they don’t, we need to help them connect to a world where positive behaviour is normal.

How might we further extend the idea of building cohesion?

Teachers then engaged with a series of broader questions which emerged from our self study, addressing how we might build cohesion beyond our classrooms, in our curriculum, in our community and in our culture. Building cohesion in all these areas will be the theme and the through-line of our action plan as we move forward.

And what better way to build cohesion than to have a whole school inquiry, involving the entire learning community?

Central idea: Building community creates a sense of belonging.

Some of the lines of inquiry at different year levels include:

  • how we build community through play
  • how we learn together as a community
  • the connection between place and community
  • opportunities and challenges in building community
  • parents as part of our learning community
  • how we build relationships within our community
  • diversity and commonality in our community
  • the impact of restorative action on community
  • how we co-construct our community
  • the interplay between individuals and community
  • the power of cohesion

What are some of the ways you build cohesion in your school or context?

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…