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…

Documenting the planning process…

In the enhanced PYP, schools will have agency to decide on their own format for documenting planning, as long as collaborative planning follows the PYP guidelines. We’ll no longer be obliged to fill in the traditional boxes or follow the linear design of Managebac.

It was an honour to be invited by the IBO to submit an example of a school designed planner. It seemed like an exciting opportunity to collaborate with teams of teachers on developing something fresh, new and, above all, user friendly. So I was disappointed to read the terms and conditions that accompanied the invitation. Due to copyright restrictions, the IBO would own the planner design and we would not be allowed to share or change it without their permission.

Although I appreciated the invitation and understood their need for copyright restrictions (sort of), I declined.

In the spirit of collaboration, how much more valuable would it be to share drafts and designs both within the school and with the wider, global PYP community? How much more interesting could it be to seek and apply constructive feedback from educators all over the world? How much more exciting might it be if we took an inquiry stance, explored possibilities, had a go, reflected and made adjustments along the way?

Still. The process of considering and documenting new ways of planning is alive and well!

Every team in our school is enjoying experimenting with new planning formats and adapting them to their needs. Members of our online global PYP community have shared their own initial models, suggested ideas and given feedback on our drafts.

We always start with the child at the centre.

We have moved from the table

to the beginnings of a draft planner…

We’ve shifted into Google Slides and added everything to the same deck. Teams have been experimenting with what to include and how to record it. Some have started adding documentation and reflections along the way, which is allowing it to be  a living document that encourages emergent curriculum.

Some questions that have been considered along the way:

  • How best might we record the thinking that takes place during collaborative planning sessions?
  • What needs to be recorded and how? (And why?)
  • What is the purpose of documenting planning?
  • Who is the documentation of planning for? (The IB? The teachers?)
  • How do we visualise all the elements simultaneously?
  • To what extent do learning experiences need to be planned and recorded in advance?
  • How might we record the data that’s revealed by the provocation, so that we can decide where to go next?
  • How do we integrate literacy planning into the same document?
  • How might teams make this their own?
  • How best will reflections be recorded?
  • How might our learners participate in the planning process?

You’re welcome to join us on our journey!

A (technology) vision for inspiring learning…

Technology can inspire and enhance learning through innovation, collaboration & creativity.

This is the tech vision statement for VIS in Laos, where I had the pleasure of working with a lovely group of educators for several days last week. It is also the central idea for their inquiry into the use of technology for innovation in learning.

Our provocations included, among other things:

  • an exploration of the difference between enhancing and inspiring, which stimulated interesting conversation, not just about technology (which isn’t really the point) but about learning.
  • looking at examples of collaboration and creativity to inspire possibilities.
  • investigation of the 2016 ISTE standards for students.
  • creating stop motion clips to encapsulate the big ideas within the standards.
  • consideration of how the characteristics of the innovator’s mindset might influence teachers’ approach to technology integration.
  • individual and team meetings exchanging ideas and thinking collaboratively.





Their ongoing inquiry involves putting ideas into practice, making connections, experimenting, investigating, exploring further… bringing the vision to life.

Graham was inspired to start a blog. His first post challenges us to consider whether the PYP exhibition is actually an expedition. Year 6s in Australia have already been inspired to pursue the question. Some of them might like to connect with Graham’s students in Laos…


Linda sent out a tweet asking for photos of learning spaces around the world to help her Preps gather data for their inquiry into learning environments and received, among other global contributions, images of the early years learning spaces at my school.

Olwen’s class created stop motion animations of their own migrations and put out a request for people to share their migration stories via these google slides. My school community will be invited to add theirs – would anyone in my network network like to contribute?

img_9292 img_9295

Some of the take-aways:

  • It’s not about the technology, it’s ALWAYS about the learning.
  • The tools have to work for us, we don’t work for them.
  • Try one new thing.. but not just for the sake of it.
  • Know your purpose!
  • Extend the learning into the wider world.
  • You don’t have to know everything. Let the learners take the lead.
  • Collaboration and creativity don’t depend on technology…
  • but technology can take them to another level.
  • Innovation is a mindset 🙂

I already love the flow on from connecting with these teachers and the way their tech vision statement is embodied in our ongoing collaboration.


Workshop workshop…

The joys of preparing for our Unleashing Learning conference lie in the collaboration, opportunities for growth, teacher involvement, the sense of shared purpose, the risk taking, the willingness to help…

This morning’s ‘workshop workshop’ is a session for teachers who are not yet experienced presenters. For our check-in, we discuss how we like to feel when we participate in a workshop…

What makes a workshop successful?

  • Being challenged.
  • Learning something new.
  • Changing something about the way I think.
  • Constructing meaning actively.
  • An interesting, meaningful process.
  • Something practical or a take-away that stays with you.
  • An engaging presenter who make things personal.
  • It has to make me want to take action.
  • Clear expectations, purpose and flow.
  • Variety and active engagement.

How will we ensure participants leave our workshops feeling these things?

We start by sharing concerns:

  • What if nobody comes?
  • What if it’s not engaging for participants?
  • Does my workshop have enough depth and complexity?
  • How do I turn ideas into an interactive workshop?
  • What if the technology crashes?

We encourage our presenters to start by being clear on their objectives . What understandings do you want the participants to leave with? What do you want to achieve?

Next we unpack a structure for a successful workshop (although we agree that it need not be a linear approach) and we brainstorm ideas under the headings of:

  • Introduction – What will you do to warm the participants up and tune them in?
  • Provocation – How will you provoke their thinking from the start?
  • Constructing meaning – How will you get participants involved in engaging with each other and with the big ideas?
  • Connection – How will you/they pull it all together?
  • Reflection – What protocols will you use to encourage participants to reflect and plan ahead?

By the end of the session we are buzzing. People have offered their intentions, shared creative ideas and resources and are ready to “take the workshop from inside their heads to something concrete” (Hailey).

So much learning has already been unleashed and we haven’t even got to the conference yet!

Have you registered???

Leave a message…

What messages do you get from this great little clip?

Here’s the kind of responses that came from teachers in our Learning Team Leaders group…

  • Anyone can be a leader.
  • Collaboration leads to success.
  • Set an example and others will follow.
  • Find a solution, rather than complaining about a problem.

The clip elicited different responses from 6th grade students, asked to make connections with themselves and their learning…

  • It makes me feel that I have a strong power inside me that can allow me to do anything.
  • It tells me a lot about learning, it tells me to be a risk taker and never be scared…
  • Everyone can be a leader and do what ever they want, if they have a lot of determination.
  • Team work is very important in and out of school.
  • We need to learn to help people even though you haven’t been asked.
  • This video tells me that even though I’m a small kid doesn’t mean I can’t do big things.
  • One small act can infect a lot of people.
  • I think this video will inspire children that think they can not do anything.
  • Everyone can learn something from someone, no matter what age or gender.
  • Anyone, doesn’t matter what size, can help the community and be an active citizen.

You can read the whole delightful conversation, including responses from kids in other schools, here. (It highlights the possibilities of blogging as a tool for authentic reading, writing and conversation beyond the classroom walls, but that’s another story!)

Often the best clips to stimulate thinking are not directly related to the subject at hand and can be used in a range of contexts. Do you have any other ideas for using this one? Have you come across any great, short videos that provoke thinking and inspire conversation?

Learning spaces…

As a veteran educator, I remember how I used to approach setting up my classroom, years ago. I thought more about the ‘what‘ and the ‘how‘ than the ‘why‘…

In preparation for the new school year, we start today’s session in groups, discussing our learning principles and unpacking how they might be supported by the learning environment. It’s all about the ‘why‘. The teachers keep our beliefs about learning in mind, as they purposefully create engaging learning spaces. 

We’ve come a long way. Walls have been (physically or metaphorically) taken down to enhance collaboration. The conversation is thoughtful and focused, as intentional learning spaces are established. New ways of thinking replace the old, as teachers consider what furniture to remove, allowing for more flexibility to support diverse learners and different kinds of learning. Everyone is grateful for the time allotted to make this a meaningful undertaking.

Here are some ‘six word stories’ the teachers created to express their thoughts about the learning environment.

  • Stimulating space to share and learn.
  • Student-centred, flexible, collaborative, the third teacher.
  • Safe, inviting atmosphere where all contribute meaningfully.
  • Challenging, comfortable setting with teacher guidance.
  • Learning happens everywhere in our school.
  • Feeling anxious, made welcome, feel secure.
  • Working together, sharing ideas and learning.
  • Apprehension, nerves, lead to laughter. Relax.
  • Welcoming, inclusive. Exploring in different ways.
  • Third teacher, filled with inquiring minds.
  • Playing and inquiring leads to learning.

and this one –

  • So… where shall I sit today?

Don’t be fooled by its simplicity. It indicates a shift from the one-size-fits-all approach, in which every child had a permanent seat at a table (see previous post re compliance!), reflecting instead a growing understanding of student-centred learning. It allows for student choice and voice, for different possibilities and new opportunities….

Extra-ordinary learning…

Despite help from her teacher, a student is finding it difficult to organise the information in her head. Another teacher is disappointed that a bright student has relied on pre-existing knowledge and suggests he research his topic more diligently. A girl gets teary when she has to compromise with others in her drama group who prefer their ideas to hers. A video clip that a boy has posted to the class blog is too explicit and has to be taken down in case it upsets other students. A group of children who have  been painting with rollers have left paint on the floor and are sent to clean up…

Ordinary learning for 12 year-olds?

It is, however, a joy to be involved in the learning, as these Year 6 students develop an awareness and understanding of inequity, pursue individual inquiries and prepare  for sharing their learning with the wider school community at their PYP exhibition this coming week.

At any given time, if you walk through the building, there is evidence of real learning taking place. There are groups of children collaborating in the open space between the classrooms. Students are inquiring by researching on laptops, interviewing people, creating surveys and contacting organisations. They communicate their learning to children and teachers from other grades across the school. There are opportunities to explore the big ideas creatively through drama, music, art, poetry, photography or animation. Every student has time in between to reflect on the learning process, through conversation, in their journals or on their class blogs. Engagement is high, especially as they have chosen what to explore , thought deeply about why and planned how. Learners have ownership of their learning and they feel empowered…

Extra-ordinary learning for 12 year olds?

In last few days before the exhibition, everyone is relaxed. It’s because the focus has been on the learning process and not on the exhibition, which will simply be a celebration of the learning that has taken place. Students are excitedly putting the final touches on their presentations, but that’s not what is important. What matters is that on the day, every one of our 85 students will be able to talk confidently about the knowledge they have acquired and the skills they have mastered, how their thinking has changed and their understanding has deepened, and what they have learned about themselves as learners. (The teachers too.)

The story so far…

What really matters

What would you do if you could change the world?

A different kind of conference

A different kind of conference -2

Student Voices

Talking about learning

And more on the class blogs here, here, here and here.

Time to learn…

Monday’s ‘staff conference day’ demonstrated (yet again) the power of professional learning by teachers, for teachers, with teachers… rather than at teachers. Teachers had ownership. They voted for the format of the day, chose their areas of inquiry and had sufficient time to explore. How often do your PD days fit that description? It’s time to learn what effective professional learning looks like. Many teachers already know. Take a look at the continuous professional learning that happens all day, every day on Twitter. And the ever increasing number of educational blog posts by educators sharing their practice, reflections and insight. And the self organised TeachMeets popping up worldwide…

My first reflection on our day, entitledTeachers inquiring…‘ appears at the collective inquiry blog Inquire Within. Here’s what others thought…

Daniel facilitated a group exploring inquiry in maths.

Having the staff conference day handed over to the staff to lead was a very valuable experience. With the school leaders stepping back from leading the sessions, it empowered teachers to guide them in the direction that they wanted to go. As one of the facilitators it was an extremely valuable experience as it gave me the opportunity to not only plan and organise the outline of the session but it led me to reflect deeply into my own practices and pedagogy. During this reflection and research time it made me conscious of the process that would guide the session that I was facilitating. I realised that I needed to provide the teachers the same sort of experience that I had gone through, by stepping back and letting them inquire through a similar process of exploration and thought.

It was also the first time for me running such a meeting with my colleagues,which provided a fun challenge as well as a valuable experience. I was slightly nervous about how discussions amongst the teachers would be generated by the guiding provocations that I had organised. But as they had for me, the video and thinking routine that I had used in my personal inquiry during preparation for the session, helped the teachers think deeply about inquiry in maths and generated valuable discussion.

It was a great opportunity for teachers to stop, reflect and then collaborate with other teachers that don’t usually get the opportunity to work together in such as way. We all felt comfortable directing where the session went in order to meet our collective needs. For the other half of the session we worked in smaller groups to help plan our next math inquiry. The guidance and support from the teachers in other year levels inspired a change of approach.

Debi facilitated a group exploring literacy as part of daily learning.

The great thing from my perspective is that it got staff talking. I put up a slide show as a provocation about literacy and lot of web stuff came up. That got us talking about the tension (for us oldies) between all the new technology and the ‘old fashioned’ kind of teaching. It was unanimous that we do need both. So……….all the ‘oldies’ had a quick lesson on how to Twitter, got Twitter accounts set up and tweeted. (Have I tweeted since then? …. No. Will I? Not sure.) I think it was also great that staff from the 3 campuses chatted and shared knowledge with each other in a non-threatening forum.

Linda facilitated a group inquiring into taking blogging further.

Our group had chosen to inquire into blogging – specifically the idea that class blogs can be a tool for inquiry, reflection, literacy and global connection. One teacher’s rationale for the choice was agreed by all – I want to look at interesting and useful blogs. I then want to transpose things observed into my class blog and teaching practice. Our further goals for the session were defined by specific questions:

  • How do we get parents more connected to the class blogs?
  • How do we get students, especially the very young, to write quality comments, responding to each other?
  • Challenge for the single subject teacher – to have a subject focussed blog, or to contribute to class blogs?
  • Specifics about blog design – How do I add visitor count, links, categories, pages, tags….

We consulted a variety of sources:

  • Discussion with an expert (Sue Waters from Edublogs via Skype)
  • Blogs about blogging.
  • Class blogs created by other teachers.

It was a really valuable session, with a number of ‘aha’ moments. We appreciated the time being made available to follow up on this area of interest with support from experts and each other.

Hailey participated in a group inquiring into what it means to be a connected educator.

I was one of the inquirers who was lucky enough to be given the gift of time to puzzle over the new tool, collaboratively explore Twitter, think, inquire and grow my understanding. As a result, my doubts dissolved, my skills developed and my enthusiasm blossomed! I became so enthusiastic that I spent an hour that night reading tweets, following links to videos and blogs and learnign even more.
I can highly recommend giving teachers the time to explore and build skills and understanding. I can also highly recommend Twitter.

Michelle participated in a group exploring how to create a culture of thinking.

I spent the morning in a PD about Creating a Culture of Thinking…which included a focus on making thinking visible and reflecting in order to connect, extend and challenge…in order to make meaningful learning. I should have written down our exact central idea, but it was something like “Creating a culture of thinking leads to deep inquiry and meaningful learning.” Which made me think that maybe in order to truly make my learning from this morning meaningful, I should perhaps try again at blogging as an educator. To make my own thinking visible and meaningful rather than just a day where I got some temporary inspiration that will quickly become lost amidst the paperwork and everyday demands that surround us all.

I chose a culture of thinking because I’ve realized that this is the core of my values and beliefs about learning and something that I feel I have a lot of room to grow in. I am challenged that somewhere over these past eleven years since university, I have lost a some of the big ideas in my excitement over great activities. I love great activities and there are so many of them out there, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes I don’t think about their value and purpose. It pains me a bit to realize that I need to let go of some of them. But letting go is a theme that I keep coming across – that to truly create a culture of thinking I need to let go of some good things in order to make room for great thinking. (Continued here)

The post is long enough, so I’ll ask you to draw your own conclusions! Can we do it even better? Yes.

Communities of practice…

I was chatting this week with a new teacher who told me there were no opportunities for learning at her previous school. Her comment got me thinking about the culture of learning that we have established at ours.

A few years ago, we articulated our beliefs about how learning takes place – It didn’t take long to realise that these learning principles applied to all learners, teachers as well as students. We began to move away from the traditional model of ‘one size fits all’ teacher PD and embraced choice, reflection and relevance instead. Among other things, we established vibrant communities of practice.

Communities of practice…

Curriculum Team Leaders, form the core of a group that meets weekly to learn together with other school leaders. They take the learning back to their co-teachers and bring back feedback from teams. These meetings have become a forum for group reflection and exploring new ideas.

Collaborative grade-level teams meet regularly to share practice. Teachers are encouraged to share their own learning and expertise with their peers. Each term, there is a flexible PD schedule and team leaders record their teams’ needs and ideas for how best to utilize after-school meetings times.

I’ve written many times about our voluntary learning groups, sometimes before school and sometimes after, on a range of topics arising from teachers’ interests and needs… from technology to literacy to creating a culture of thinking.

Extending our communities…

It has become natural for our in-school learning communities to include members of our virtual learning network too. We invite experts and non-experts, ordinary teachers like ourselves, to share their experience and learning with us, irrespective of where in the world they live.

Here’s the latest…

Sam Sherratt is a highly innovative 6th grade teacher blogger in Bangkok. We have read and discussed his blogs for years and they have helped shape the way we see inquiry. His thoughtful class blog has been a model of the potential for extending learning beyond the classroom. His approach to the PYP Exhibition influenced ours profoundly, as we followed the learning journey via his students’ blog posts. Our Year 6 students Skyped with his. We invited him to our exhibition planning meeting via Skype and were inspired. We often referred to him as if we knew him, despite never having met him!

So it was exciting to eventually host Sam at our school and have him facilitate workshops to extend teachers’ learning further.

Some of the big ideas teachers took away to think about…

Sam’s session was a real inspiration, for me, as a young teacher. The big idea I came out with was ‘why?’ If we, as teachers, don’t know why we do what we do in class or why we teach a certain unit or why we are heading one direction, then there is no value to our teaching and our children will FEEL it right away. (Alicia)

We are not preparing kids for the ‘real world’, they are in it now. This is their time. Bring relevance into classroom and stay relevant. Let them bring their world into the classroom. (Jocelyn)

Student and teacher empowerment: Helping students and teachers make connections by seeing the BIG picture. Students are often pressured to perform not pressured to learn deeply and meaningfully. (Desiree)

Taking it further…

The workshop generated a great deal of thinking and tension for participants, which we’ll explore further, within the learning communities described above, CTL meetings, grade-level planning sessions and voluntary focus groups.

I liked this reflection from Greg, Head of Upper Primary:

I thought Sam was a breath of fresh air…His ideas on time were interesting… using time, managing time, creating time. Teachers should not sweat the small stuff, stop rushing learning and essentially, give children time to digest knowledge and time to form opinions. A rush-rush-rush mentality does little to promote great learning opportunities and just creates friction for the teacher and frustration for the learner.

Greg’s is clearly the reflection of someone who values learning, that of the students and the teachers, and is willing to ‘create time’ for it to happen. No Wonder.