Back to school…

Prior to returning to school after the longest lockdown, we came together as a staff for dialogue and decision making about what matters to us in the transition back to face-to-face learning.

We explored the following questions:

  • What might children have gained from the remote learning experience? 
  • How might we ensure we continue or amplify those things?
  • What do we see as the most important things children have missed out on? 
  • How might we work towards maximising opportunities for those things?

Our vision is based on that shared discussion. Keeping in mind our belief in contextual wellbeing and our focus on aligning our practice with our values and beliefs, the ideas have been synthesised in the context of our learning principles.

Vision for returning to school

We value cohesion, relationships, community, social interaction, play, joy in learning, optimism, growth, kindness, autonomy.

We believe:

Learners need to feel secure, valued and able to take risks, so we will

  • Build cohesion and a sense of belonging.
  • Support learners, academically, socially and emotionally.
  • Create space for expression of  feelings, thoughts, and ideas.
  • Establish routines to provide certainty and safety.

Learning takes place in different ways, depending on abilities, preferences and interests, so we will

  • Understand that the transition will be different for each person.
  • Acknowledge that needs will vary for different people at different times.
  • Respond with empathy to social and emotional needs.

Learning is active and social and is enhanced by collaboration, interaction, so we will

  • Encourage social interaction and collaboration.
  • Model and practise kindness, communication and mutual respect.

Learning takes place through inquiry: questioning, exploring, experimenting and problem-solving, so we will

  • Plan responsively, depending on what the students reveal.
  • Continue to focus on the process of learning, rather than the product.

Learning includes acquisition of skills and knowledge, constructing meaning and transfer to different contexts, so we will

  • Ensure  opportunities for learning and practising the ATL skills, in particular social skills, communication skills and self management.
  • Encourage learners to construct meaning by engaging actively with others.

Learning needs to be challenging, meaningful, purposeful and engaging, so we will

  • Meet learners where they are at and focus on growth.
  • Ensure all learners are actively engaged in the process of learning that’s meaningful for them.

Learning includes metacognition and reflection, which support learners taking ownership of their learning, so we will

  • Provide opportunities for reflecting on strengths, challenges and goals while celebrating successes.
  • Encourage learners to reflect on  their learning and on themselves as learners, and to make decisions about how to move forward.

Evidencing learning…

Here are some thoughts from a recent PYP Evidencing Learning workshop, supporting teachers to shift from a traditional model of  ‘Pre test – Teach stuff – Post test’  to a model where assessment is integrated and iterative. 

  • Learning is not linear.
  • Planning and teaching are in response to what learners reveal.
  • Learners can be reflective self adjusters, able to drive their own learning.

(Note: Start anywhere, move back and forth as required, always pass through the centre.)

Aligning actions with values and beliefs…

“School culture is a manifestation of the relationships, beliefs and values of a learning community. It shapes the ways members act and interact, and expresses the principles and values that underpin thinking and communicating.” (IB PYP Principles into Practice 2020)

We know what we value in the members of our learning community (the attributes of the IB learner profile) and we know what we believe about learning (our learning principles). This year we have chosen to revisit those and focus on alignment of actions with values and beliefs.

‘Live it, don’t laminate it’, has long been our mantra, but it’s time for a deeper exploration of what it means to walk the talk, using the eight cultural forces as a lens for exploring, and a means for enculturating, the attributes of the Learner Profile and our Learning Principles. We launched the focus in our first day workshop for K-6 educators.

LEARNER PROFILE
Keeping in mind the cultural forces of time, language, modelling, interactions, expectations, routines, opportunities and environment, the following questions were explored.(Try it!)

Inquirer
How might we (continue to) build a culture of curiosity?
Knowledgeable
How might we build a culture that encourages engagement with local and global issues?
Open minded
How might we build a culture where exploration of different perspectives is valued?
Caring
How might we build a culture based on empathy and compassion?
Thinkers
How might we build a culture of critical, creative and ethical thinking?
Communicators 
How might we build a culture of respectful communication and collaboration?
Principled
How might we build a culture that encourages honesty, integrity and sense of justice?
Risk takers
How might we build a culture that encourages experimentation, innovation and resilience?
Balanced
How might we build a culture that strives for intellectual, physical and emotional balance?
Reflective
How might we build a culture in which we thoughtfully consider our strengths, ideas and experiences?

LEARNING PRINCIPLES
In order to revisit our learning principles in context, teachers shared examples of meaningful learning through powerful inquiries they have led or experienced, while others identified the learning principles that were evident. The power of teachers sharing learning, their own and that of their students, is energising and inspiring; noticing and naming beliefs in action adds another dimension!

Then, keeping in mind the cultural forces, we revisited and unpacked each of the learning principles.

  • We learn in different ways, depending on abilities, preferences and interests.
  • Learning takes place through inquiry: questioning, exploring, experimenting and problem solving.
  • Learning occurs by acquiring skills and knowledge, constructing meaning and transfer to other contexts.
  • Learning is active and social and best takes place through collaboration and interaction.
  • Learning takes place when we feel secure, valued and are able to take risks.
  • Learning needs to be challenging, meaningful, purposeful and engaging.
  • Learning includes meta-cognition and reflection, and requires learners to take ownership of their learning.

The plan is for teams to engage in collaborative action research underpinned by these beliefs, as the year unfolds.

LEARNER FOCUS
While the theme of ‘walking the talk’ will be integrated into student learning in the younger years too, the central idea for a year-long unit for our upper primary students is ‘Our actions reveal who we are as individuals and as a community‘. The conceptual understandings below could well invite lifelong reflection!

We can reveal our values through our actions
  • I can make connections between my values and actions.
  • I can make decisions about actions based on my values.
Our actions affect the way people perceive us
  • I can think critically about my assumptions and perceptions of others.
  • I can engage in reflective conversations about my own actions.
Through action and reflection, we can grow and change
  • I can describe changes and growth in my actions and values over time.
  • I can decide who I want to be every day.

Apparently we’re not the only ones thinking about this currently… (Sign spotted locally by one of our leaders)

What does it mean to be ‘assessment capable’?

I used to think being ‘assessment capable’  just implied things like setting tests, planning summative tasks, grading and giving feedback.

A thought provoking conversation the other day with @YuniSantosa and @MKPolly, in relation to various workshops we will lead in the new year, highlighted the following questions assessment capable teachers and learners might ask ourselves:

How might I observe and notice my students’ learning?

What is revealed through what students say and do?
What skills and dispositions are they demonstrating?
What skills and dispositions might they need to work on?
What have they understood? What misconceptions do they have?
How have they moved forward? What’s holding them back?
What is their behaviour communicating?
What questions might I ask to reveal what students are thinking?
How has their thinking changed? What prompted the shift?
What patterns do I observe in individuals, groups or the whole class?
How might reflecting on evidence of learning guide my teaching?

How might I support students to move forward in their learning?

How might I provoke their curiosity?
How might I respond to what they reveal?
What might I offer that could take them to the next level?
How might I push their thinking further?
How might I further challenge them?
How might my questions clarify their understanding and help them notice misconceptions?
How might I help them notice and identify skills and dispositions?
How might I encourage them to build on their strengths?
What feedback and feedforward will be valuable?
How can I target my teaching to meet specific needs?
How might modelling my own thinking and reflection encourage theirs?
How might I ensure learners feel empowered to drive their own learning?

How might students be empowered to drive their own learning?

How might the teacher’s language influence the way students see themselves as learners?
Is how we learn as much a part of the conversation as what we learn?
How is ownership of learning encouraged and fostered?
Are students invited to co-construct success criteria?
What experiences, mentor texts and examples will help build their schema?
What opportunities are there for students to demonstrate their thinking and learning?
Are students encouraged to take risks and make mistakes?
What opportunities do they have to grapple with productive tension?
Is failure viewed as an opportunity to learn and grow?
What opportunities are there for students to make their own decisions?
How is the environment organised to maximise independence and agency?
How might students use their own and others’ strengths to move their learning forward?

What reflective questions might support assessment capable learners?

What new understandings do I have?
What connections have I made?
What am I still wondering?
What new skills have I mastered? What skills might I need to work on?
What strategies have I used? What strategies have I learned that I can use in future?
What patterns have I noticed? How might I apply what I learn from them?
What might my next steps be?
How might I approach things differently next time?
What strengths have I noticed in myself and others?
What challenges might I need to overcome?
Who might be able to support me? How might I support others?
What have I noticed about myself as a learner?

What else would you add?

What if we liberated the learning from report cards

Every time we’ve thought about how we might improve our reports, we’ve failed. The barriers to major change have somehow seemed insurmountable. Parental expectations, government requirements, technical restrictions, constraints from within and outside of the school and our own heads… all of these have stood in our way.

And then came COVID, along with weeks of remote learning, and the chance to reimagine our reports, at least for this semester. The only barrier was time, and this turned out to be an advantage. No time to seek perfection, just the opportunity to take an inquiry stance, dive in and produce something both meaningful and practical, as quickly as possible.

How might we create a report that aligns with what we believe about learning? What if we report on what we really value in learning? What if we elect to report only on transferable skills? What if we let go of expected ‘levels’ (real or imagined) and pay more attention to who each child is as a learner? What if we focus on assessment FOR and AS learning, rather than only assessment OF learning? How might we support students and parents to value and reflect on skills that really matter?

So we created a written report which views the whole child, addressing the development of a broad range of skills and dispositions including social, self-management, communication, thinking and research skills. These ‘ATL’ skills, as we call them in the PYP, are the building blocks that support our learners in all areas of learning and of life.

How might we best observe, assess and reflect on these skills? We considered the possibility of creating a grade by grade continuum but the development of these skills is neither age dependent nor linear. Is developing and reflecting on these skills, in fact, lifelong learning? How best might they be learned? Some influencing factors include the language we use to notice and name them, how they are modelled, opportunities for them to be demonstrated, expectations and routines around practising them. Once again, we see Ron Ritchhart’s cultural forces at play. What if, rather than seeing them as being ‘taught’, we consider how most of these trans disciplinary skills might be enculturated?

Our written report will be accompanied by in-depth conversations between students, parents and teachers. Together, the written report and the conversation will focus both on growth and on potential next steps. I’m conscious of how the Growth Coaching approach has influenced this vision. Some years ago, we shifted from performance appraisals for teachers to a growth model, in which teachers, in partnership with leaders, are encouraged to identify strengths and set goals for further development. Why should students be measured against arbitrary age based standards? What if the focus for student reporting was on growth, too? What if  strengths were highlighted and students were supported to reflect on future action they might take to further their development?

Are we there yet? No. Have we come up with a starting point that (mostly) addresses expectations and requirements, while coming much closer to aligning our beliefs about learning with the way we report on it? Yes. Are we still struggling with some aspects as we explore how to improve on and sustain these changes? Absolutely. But embracing the power of ‘what if?’ is how we drive change and how we grow.

I’m certain that many of you are reporting in this way already. We’ve been on the road for a while now but, somehow, we needed this period of remote learning to give us permission to see a potential new way forward.

Thoughts on remote learning…

Much of what I know about distance learning, I learned from the Granny Cloud

It’s been ten years, on and off, of connecting virtually with children in a range of disadvantaged contexts, mostly in India. Ten years of ups and downs, of being disappointed when things didn’t work and delighted when expectations were surpassed; disheartened when children were unresponsive and uplifted when they surprised me with their curiosity, confidence and creativity. The children ‘on the other side’ came to every session, unfailingly enthusiastic, open to new ideas, willing to experiment and be challenged, excited by an opportunity so different from their reality of life and school.

I’ve engaged in virtual interactions where the sound didn’t work and all we could do was make faces at each other or where the children spoke no English and simply stared at me. I’ve planned, what I thought were, interesting sessions that fell flat and I’ve gone into sessions with no plans, that turned into powerful learning experiences for both the children and me. I have often marvelled at the simplicity of an idea that is so powerful in its implementation, and wondered what Jayesh and Digvijay, Anshika and Farheen will be doing years from now and who they might become in the future.

Yet in these most challenging of times, as I apply my learning from the Granny Cloud in the context of distance learning with privileged children, it saddens me that those children from whom I learned so much, are currently unable to connect…

The most valuable messages you can take to your current experiments with remote/ distance/ emergency  learning (whatever you choose to call it) are these:

  • Children are capable, competent and creative.
  • Personal connection matters more than content.
  • Focus on relationships rather than curriculum.
  • Don’t try to replicate school.

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?

 

 

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…