Beautiful questions… and a whole school unit of inquiry

 ‘A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.’ Warren Berger ~ A More Beautiful Question.

This generally starts with a ‘why?‘ question which identifies the need for change, followed by ‘what if?‘ which imagines new possibilities, and moving onto the ‘how?‘ which leads to action.

A couple of years ago we asked ourselves: Why do we spend the first few weeks ‘setting the tone’ in the classroom and then start the first unit of inquiry? What if the first unit of inquiry at every year level helped create classroom culture and set the tone for the learning to take place? How might we go about that?

A recent visit to ISHCMC provoked us to ask: Why do we need a separate central idea for each grade level? What if we tried one overarching central idea for the whole school? How might a whole school approach influence school culture?

And then: Why reinvent the wheel? What if we adapted the central idea we saw at ISHCMC and tweaked the lines of inquiry from our previous units? How might feedback from other educators support the development of this idea?

And now…

PYP Trans-disciplinary Theme: WHO WE ARE

An inquiry into the nature of the self; beliefs and values; personal, physical, mental, social and spiritual health; human relationships including families, friends, communities, and cultures; rights and responsibilities; what it means to be human. (IB Primary Years Program)

Central Idea: Our choices define who we are as individuals and as a community.

Possible lines of Inquiry:

These are still to be refined with input from teachers, students and the world. (As our junior school learning spaces will be redesigned over the summer, all grades have a line of inquiry about how the new spaces will be used.)

Prep

  • How our choices help us build a learning community (responsibility)
  • Choices in how we express our learning (reflection)
  • How we choose to use our environment to support our learning  (function)

Year 1

  • Choices that help us learn (reflection)
  • Choices in how we we interact with others (reflection)
  • How we choose to use our environment to support our learning (function)

Year 2

  • How humans learn (function)
  • Choices we make as learners, individually and collaboratively (reflection)
  • How we choose to use our environment to support our learning  (change)

Year 3

  • Choices that affect our learning community (causation)
  • How diversity enriches a community (change)
  • How we use our learning environment to support our learning community  (connection)

Year 4

  • How communication affects relationships (connection)
  • Choices in how we communicate – audience, purpose, context (causation)
  • How effective groups function (reflection)

Year 5

  • Personal values (perspective)
  • How our values influence the choices we make (connection)
  • The choices we make as learners (reflection)

Year 6

  • Active citizenship
  • Decision making strategies (reflection)
  • Our choices as individuals – personal interests and passions (perspective)
  • The impact of choices/decisions on other people, our community, the world (responsibility)

The central idea provides possibilities for authentic trans-disciplinary inquiry too. They might inquire into how our health and exercise choices affect us, how our choices affect others in games and sports, artistic and musical choices…

Teachers might inquire into how our choices define us human beings and as educators; the impact of our  choices as educators on the social, emotional and academic learning of our students; ways to increase opportunities for student ownership and agency…

And a few more beautiful questions of my own:

What if this was a year-long unit of inquiry?

What if, instead of a central idea, we had an overarching big question?

What if, instead of lines of inquiry, the learners came up with their own why, what if and how questions?

What if everything we did was about real learning instead of ‘doing school’?

Student ownership of learning…

“I think teachers should not be telling the students exactly what they should be doing. They should be finding their own path and figuring out the ways that they learn best.”    ~ Georgia, Year 6.

The Year 6 PYP exhibition is a prime example of the kind of learning that is unleashed when students own their learning. The confidence and understanding with which Georgia and the other learners shared this learning experience are evidence of the power of student ownership…

Looking forward to increasing opportunities for student ownership in 2016!

A (massive) collaborative curriculum review…

How (and why?!) would we involve over a hundred teachers in a curriculum review? What could we hope to achieve? Wouldn’t it be easier to have a small focus group reviewing our PYP program of inquiry?  How could we make this IB requirement into a meaningful learning exercise? How would we make it a valuable experience for all staff?

According to feedback from staff, we certainly achieved our goals last Monday, despite our reservations…

Inspiration:

Objectives:

  • To gain an overview of the big picture of the whole school Program of Inquiry and see how it works.
  • To interact with different people, across campuses, across disciplines, and engage in educational dialogue.
  • To share observations and questions that might assist in tightening the Program of Inquiry.

Group roles: (A choice of the following)

  • Facilitator – Facilitate the discussion, making sure everyone in the group has a voice.
  • Recorder #1 – Record big ideas and important thinking on your group’s Google doc.
  • Recorder #2 – Record questions and wonderings.
  • Tweeter – Tweet key ideas as the discussion unfolds.
  • Back Channeller – Share and discuss with other groups via the back channel in TodaysMeet
  • Time keeper – Keep an eye on the time to make sure tasks are accomplished.
  • Observer – Observe and record what you notice about the how the group collaborates.
  • Spy – Visit other groups to hear their conversation and get ideas.

Tasks:

  • See Think Wonder – Get a sense of the big picture of the POI.
    • What do you notice?
    • What are your initial thoughts, overall?
    • What are you wondering?
  • Horizontal review – Check the units across one year level (not your own).
    • Will the unit invite student inquiry?
    • Will it be globally significant addressing the commonalities of human experience?
    • Will there be opportunities to develop understanding through multiple perspectives?
    • And several other questions from the IB guide.
  • Vertical review – Check the units from K-6 through one trans-disciplinary theme
    • Are all aspects of the trans-disciplinary themes explored at some point in the programme of inquiry?
    • Will the units in this theme challenge and extend students’ understanding?
    • Is there is a balance of key concepts used throughout this trans-disciplinary theme.
    • And several other questions from the IB guide.
  • Personal reflection – Add your thoughts via the Google survey.
    • Place yourself on a scale of 1-10 to represent your knowledge and understanding of the whole school program of inquiry.
    • Sum up your overall understanding of the POI in one sentence.
    • What does the POI have to do with YOU?
    • What did you notice about yourself as a learner during the session?

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Comments from some of the participants:

  • There is always more to learn and collaboration is crucial.
  • I was able to gain more of an understanding through the discussion and asking challenging questions helped us dig deeper into the POI.
  • I was part of a temporary community of learners and we went on a journey together.
  • I felt supported and it felt good that my ideas were included although I know very little about PYP.
  • I noticed that I’m still a learner – I was able to expand my thinking and to look at the POI from a learner’s point of view and not just from my subject area.
  • It helped me feel part of a bigger thing and that I’m not alone in my line of thoughts.
  • I feel more confident to express my views and listen to others in an open-minded manner.
  • It was great to realise how my learning continues to grow and I could make a contribution even though my area of teaching isn’t mainstream.
  • I can ask too many questions and I love critically analysing things but it can be irritating for others.
  • I was able to discuss and share concerns with my colleagues and discovered that colleagues had similar concerns.
  • Having a clear role to play supported my active participation.
  • I noticed how valuable it is to work collaboratively with people across different teaching areas. The different perspectives were really fascinating.
  • As a facilitator I noticed myself being a much better listener. I asked questions to keep the the conversation flowing and invited everyone to share their thinking.

Observations:

  • Great to see the entire teaching community actively engaged in educational dialogue.
  • Everyone has something to contribute. Fresh perspectives can be valuable.
  • Teachers appreciate protected time for collaborative discussion, exchange of learning and airing concerns.

Conclusion:

It’s valuable to see everything as an opportunity for learning!

Making the PYP really happen…

It was the first time I had led a ‘Making the PYP Happen’ workshop and it was for teachers at my own school, so I approached the planning with a strong sense of responsibility. How would I ensure the workshop was valuable and would impact on practice?

MTPYPH is a workshop for teachers new to the PYP and its name describes it. The purpose of the workshop is to support participants, not just in understanding the principles and practices of the PYP, but in actually ‘making it happen’ for themselves and their students in their own particular learning environments.

The philosophy and underpinning principles of the PYP correlate closely with my school’s beliefs about learning. One of our new teachers (with a background in PYP schools) said ‘ The difference is that you LIVE the PYP here’. I’ve thought a lot about what that means! It means we go beyond fulfilling requirements and ticking boxes. It means we are not afraid to question or challenge the aspects that are less compatible with our beliefs. It means we constantly reflect on how best to make it meaningful in our context.

So planning the recent workshop, with my colleague Joc, included thoughtful consideration of how to take it ‘beyond the book’ and make it relevant and thought provoking. We wanted to focus on the big ideas in order to  help the teachers make connections between the separate elements.

This unit map was helpful in pulling the elements together and went far beyond the original intention (as learning experiences do when the learners take control!) The teachers changed the directions of the arrows and added their own as they realised connections and developed new understandings. This led to ideas for how to improve and develop the unit map for future use.

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Draft only

The workshop focused on  inquiry, concept driven learning and constructivism. Teachers explored the PYP curriculum model and essential elements through the lenses of these big ideas, by inquiring, focusing on big ideas and constructing meaning themselves, both collaboratively and through individual reflection.

It’s been gratifying to hear them reflect on the shifts they are already making…

  • What I previously saw as disasters, I now recognise as opportunities for learning.
  • I’m realising that the less I talk, the more students do and learn.
  • I’m not planning the learning in advance so much. I’m allowing the learning in each lesson to shape further learning.
  • I’m accepting that learning is messy and realising that students are not all on the same learning path.
  • I’m not so stressed about ticking boxes and completing tasks. The learning is more organic as I hand over more to the kids.
  • I’m stepping back a bit, allowing the students to lead more, reflecting more as a teacher…
  • Relinquishing control, choosing intentional questions so the children can have more ownership of learning.
  • Providing more opportunities for student choice.
  • More opportunities for problem solving and collaborative thinking.
  • Trying to make more connections across different learning areas.
  • I’m reflecting more with my class on the learning.
  • I’m allowing myself to be more of a messy learner, pursuing my own learning and developing the bigger picture of the whole child.

Seems like they ARE making the PYP happen.

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Collaboratively reflecting on what we can learn about students from various samples and photos…

Collaborative thinking…

One of my favourite things in the PYP is collaborative planning.

Six times a year, my colleague Layla or I meet with each grade level team to collaborate on planning units of inquiry.  Facilitating such sessions can range from exciting to frustrating, depending on the team, the unit, the time and, particularly, the ability to frame and agree on the desired conceptual understandings that will underpin the inquiry.

This week, I experimented with a different approach to tune teachers into the unit, establish common understanding and model good practice.

The unit of inquiry:

Year 2 – Central Idea: Public places are organised to meet the needs of community.

The opening task for teachers: (given one step at a time)

  1. Write ten places you have been in the past week on separate post it notes.
  2. Work collaboratively to sort them in any way you like.
  3. What did you realise about the concept of place?

Tania’s role was to document the learning. She took photos of the group collaborating, observed the participants’ interactions and recorded the things they said.

planning

Tania’s observations along the way:

  • ‘Are there any the same?’
  • ‘Can you explain to me?’
  • Grouping/ looking for similar places.
  • Debating and questioning each other.
  • Using language to clarify/ refine ideas.
  • Making connections between places and actions.
  • Sharing common vocabulary.
  • Completed a general sort, then refined this to sort again into bigger concepts (Is it recreational, business, infrastructure, wellbeing place, cultural place, an essential service?  And from these more subsets were made.)

Statements about the concept of place:

  • Places can be used for different things.
  • Places have different meanings to different people.
  • Places connect people.
  • A place doesn’t have to be tangible, it can be in the mind.
  • There are public places and private places.
  • Places can isolate people eg remote rural places.
  • Places can unite and separate people eg religious places.
  • Places serve different purposes and needs.
  • There are natural and made-made places.
  • Places are organised in different ways.

What the teachers noticed about themselves as learners:

  • I made connections with others’ thinking.
  • Trying to understand what others were thinking about was valuable.
  • Listening to others points of view helped me clarify.
  • Trying to think outside the boundaries to push the thinking further.
  • Listening to others helped me formulate my thinking.
  • I really thought about the concept of place.

Discussion about how we could apply the above in the classroom:

  • The learners could do the same brainstorming and sorting activity to tune them into the idea of place.
  • Split screen teaching – focusing on content as well as process of learning.
  • The role of the teacher in observing the learning.
  • Documenting data about students’ actions and thinking.
  • How we might use that data to inform teaching and learning.
  • Connecting to our whole school goal of using both formal and informal data to improve learning.

Agreed understandings:

Understandings Beginning Developing Established
Public places are organised to serve the needs of communities.  function I can identify places that I use and say what their purpose is. I can explain how some public places are organised and used. I can compare and contrast a range of public places and classify how they serve different needs.
People use public places for different purposes.  perspective I can find out what other people I know use public places for. I can give examples of different ways people use the same public place and why. I can compare and contrast people’s perspectives on public places and their purpose around the world.
Shared places need to be used appropriately by members of the community.  responsibility I can tell you about how I act appropriately in our shared learning space. I can give examples of how I and other people should act appropriately in familiar public places. I understand and can explain what appropriate use of different public places looks/sounds and feels like.

Conclusions:

  • Process is as important as content.
  • Successful collaborative planning is enhanced by ensuring shared understandings.
  • Different voices bring a range of perspectives which contribute to mutual learning.
  • Experiencing the learning in the same way that our students do can help us relate to the process and refine our expectations.
  • Observing and documenting the learning process reveals valuable information.
  • Collaborative analysis of the data gleaned from documenting learning is a worthwhile exercise.
  • Being aware of ourselves as learners supports our own learning and that of our students.
  • Our beliefs about learning (learning principles) apply just as much to teachers as learners.
  • Putting ourselves in the role of learners adds fresh perspectives and brings depth to learning. (Thanks @katherineqi )

 

Orientation for new teachers…

Original plan posted at Inquire Within.  Modified below, including reflection and follow-up.

Learning takes place through inquiry.

Learning is most meaningful when the learners have choice in how they learn, as well as opportunities to wonder, explore and construct meaning for themselves.

This is why we chose to structure our new staff orientation in the form of an inquiry

As part of a broader introduction to the PYP, our new teachers explored concept based learning, one of the essential elements of the PYP. They developed their understanding of the conceptual approach by using the PYP key concepts as a lens through which to generate questions about our school.

concepts

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The next step was an inquiry, via which they had the opportunity to actively find out about their new school, rather than passively sit and listen to us ‘tell them stuff‘…

Central idea:

Each school has a unique culture, beliefs and approaches.

Suggested lines of inquiry:

  • Cultural beliefs and values of our school
  • Our learning principles
  • The learning environment
  • Roles and responsibilities within our school
  • Our written curriculum

Participants worked in groups to select questions from those generated in the concept exercise and/or formulate new questions, based on what they felt they needed to know, before setting off to find answers that would help them learn about the school.

The following resources were at their disposal:

  • The school environment
  • The learning resource centre
  • Members of the school community who were present to support, demonstrate, facilitate, encourage and respond to questions
  • Access to curriculum documents

In truth, we had no idea how this would work out or to what degree it would be successful. But isn’t that how the best inquiries unfold?

It was gratifying to see the new teachers engaging informally with the principal, the head of primary, campus coordinators and other members of the staff  who volunteered to participate.

inquiry

At the end of two days of orientation (one an introduction to the PYP, the other an informal inquiry into our school) we asked each of our newest members of staff to sum up how they are now feeling in one word. They said they felt:
inspired, excited, reassured, welcome, safe, supported, motivated, energised, informed… and one said that the PYP at our school is ‘real’. (an interesting observation, which might provoke thinking…)

It sounds as if our approach was successful and we achieved our objectives:

  • Understand what our school believes and values about learning.
  • Begin to build relationships and feel part of our dynamic learning culture.
  • Acquire the information required to start the year safely and successfully.
  • An overview of the PYP in our particular context.

It was exciting for us to see how much our new teachers, with their broad range of educational and life experience, will bring to our school. We look forward to learning with them!

Read Anne knocks recent post, about her school’s plan for  ‘onboarding’ new staff (perhaps we’ll borrow that term next year). What’s your school’s approach?

 

Planning for an inquiry into digital citizenship…

Today’s collaborative planning session with the Year 5 team is both challenging and invigorating. There are 7 of us in the room and one digital participant. The conversation is impassioned and (mostly) focused as we debate, disagree and eventually reach some common understandings.

It takes over an hour to ensure our conceptual understandings are sound and to consider the evidence that will demonstrate these understandings in our learners. This part is the crux.

It doesn’t bother us that most of the planner is still blank and we have barely thought about the learning engagements. We know (now) that if this part is established, we only need a few good provocations, then (almost) sit back and see how the learning unfolds.

Observing and listening to the learning, will determine what happens… that’s how inquiry works, so how can you plan it in advance?

The unit is about digital citizenship, which could easily fit into any of the PYP trans disciplinary themes and end up looking quite different. We want ours to be in ‘How We Express Ourselves’, because, as Silvia Tolisano says, ‘We are preparing students for a time when what they know is not as important as what they can do with what they know…’

It quickly becomes apparent that

  • we can never rehash an old unit, because we are always learning.
  • some of the understandings from last year are no longer relevant and we need to shift the focus from consumption to creation.
  • having 1:1 iPads has changed the way students do things and teachers see things.
  • our approaches to teaching literacy and literature require some radical new thinking, as might our definitions of both.
  • we need to ensure our students are learning ‘now literacies‘, (Silvia Tolisano) so they can engage effectively in a world very different from when their parents and teachers went to school. (So why does so much of school still look the same?)
  • there is endless potential for global collaboration to enhance authentic learning within this unit and the teachers are finally ready. (See my first ever blog post FIVE years ago! We have been chipping away, but there is so much more we can do…)
  • the teachers will need to pursue their own inquiries if this unit of inquiry is to be a success… but then, that is what inquiry teachers do.

So how do I tag this post? Is it about planning? Digital citizenship? Inquiry? Concept driven learning?

Or is it about change?

 

An inquiry into how the world works -2

It’s the first time our Year 6 students are exploring the trans-disciplinary theme ‘How the World Works’ for their PYP ‘exhibition‘ inquiries.

We initially have some concerns…

How will we ensure it goes beyond a science fair?
Will all students engage with science in a meaningful way?
How will we make sure the learning is rich and deep, with opportunities for every learner to find something about which they are passionate?

We develop a few conceptual understandings which we’d like the learners to reach…

  • Science provides a lens through which to look at the world.
  • People apply their understanding of science to solve problems and meet needs.
  • Scientific and technological advances have an impact on society and the environment.

And some strong provocations to hook them in and get them thinking…

They are inspired by Louie Schwartzberg’s TED talk – Hidden Miracles of the Natural World, in particular this, which provokes them to think about science in new ways…

What is the intersection between technology, art and science? Curiosity and wonder, because it drives us to explore, because we’re surrounded by things we can’t see.

After unpacking the trans-disciplinary theme, students enjoy a ‘Science Exploration Day’ during which they explore all areas of the school – the garden, the cafeteria, the nurses station and more – taking photos which they later connect to the various strands of science.

Visitors Sam and Jethro, a couple of young inventors, expose the students to the design process. The children need to come up with an idea and  go through the design process to create something new from what is already known.

Prototype for a creature created through the design process, which will move via electrical circuit
Prototype for a creature created through the design process, which will move via electrical circuit

Our learners quickly show an awareness of science in our world, further enhanced by an excursion to the city, where they choose to visit either the museum or the art gallery as well as various parks and buildings. Taking purposeful photos helps them NOTICE and NAME science everywhere and heightens awareness of how humans apply their knowledge of science too.

This week they they also begin their explorations of science through a choice of creative media – art, music, dance, animation, photography, poetry or design (electronics and coding).

Comparing the sounds made by different instruments
Comparing the sounds made by different instruments
Photographing the natural world with macro lenses
Photographing the natural world with macro lenses
Creating movements that replicate nature
Creating movements that replicate nature

Excitement is high.

It’s already apparent that our early concerns were unnecessary.

The children are totally immersed in their learning, already considering what interests them most, what they are passionate about and why, what they might like to explore further and how… They will have plenty of time to think, experiment, investigate and ask themselves not just WHAT? but SO WHAT? and NOW WHAT? before deciding on their chosen inquiries.

This is a far cry from offering a range of topics for students to choose between and creating random groups in which they will work, an approach often used in classrooms and even PYP exhibition units.

This is all about choice and student voice and learners taking ownership of their learning. It’s about learners having opportunities to find and solve problems and explore real issues that matter.

It’s an opportunity for rich, meaningful learning. I can’t wait to see how it all unfolds…

An inquiry into how the world works…

Headphones on, each member of the group watches their assigned video and considers how it fits into the PYP trans disciplinary theme ‘How the World Works’…

Inquiry into the natural world and its laws, the interaction between the natural world (physical and biological) and human societies; how humans use their understanding of scientific principles; the impact of scientific and technological advances on society and on the environment.

We’re watching things as diverse as the longest pedestrian suspension bridge, how fish breathe, a poo powered flame thrower, a man-made forest on a river island in India and ice cream that doesn’t melt

Sharing back with the group provokes discussion about what excites us, connections we see, problems solved and issues raised and the varied aspects each of us might find interesting to explore further. We look at the ways people apply scientific knowledge to solve problems, meet needs, create art…

We check which of the science strands are addressed by the videos and highlight the relevant concepts in each.

This is not a classroom, it’s a collaborative planning session.

The goals are as follows-

  • To get the teachers excited about what’s possible
  • To highlight the fact that science is everywhere
  • To encourage us to observe and notice science around us
  • To provoke thinking about the ways humans apply scientific knowledge
  • To create a context in which to plan for student learning and inquiry.

We’re planning for our PYP exhibition* unit and it’s the first time we’re exploring it in the theme of ‘How the World Works’.

The teachers are already excited about…

  • provoking our learners’ curiosity
  • inquiry that is real, relevant and engaging
  • opportunities for exploring passions
  • the possibilities for creativity and innovation
  • observing and really noticing the world
  • the potential to change perspectives
  • opportunities for learners to use a broad range of skills
  • scope for hands-on making and doing
  • bringing all the learning from previous years together
  • the potential to include the natural world, art, technology, ethics…

And concerned about…

  • ensuring it goes beyond being ‘just a science fair’
  • opportunities for action as a result of the learning

We’re keen to hear from other PYP practitioners who have explored ‘How the World Works’ for their exhibition units, in particular if it was a dynamic, student centred, passion driven, authentic learning experience for all.

* I hope in the IB PYP review, they decide to replace the term ‘exhibition’. It makes it sound as if the focus is on the product, when the most important aspect should be the process of meaningful, in-depth, personal and collaborative inquiry, drawing together all the skills and attitudes they have developed over time – Learners taking responsibility for their own learning.