Planning (but not too much) for inquiry…

 

There were so many things to be excited about during the planning of this unit with our Year 1 team:

  • the honest reflection of the teachers who engaged in this inquiry last year and their willingness to view it through fresh eyes;
  • the openness of the teachers for whom the unit is new and the ideas they bring to the learning process;
  • how far we have come from the days when we thought we had to plan the whole inquiry in advance;
  • our split screen approach to planning, in which we simultaneously consider the unit and the format of the new planner we are designing;
  • the opportunities for the development of the whole child, both as a curious scientist and as a human being who cares about animals;
  • the authentic learning that will arise from having caterpillars, chickens and rabbits in the learning space;
  • the teachers’ own inquiry into how best to provoke, support and encourage the children’s inquiry;
  • the agency learners will have as they help care for the animals, share their wonderings to lead the inquiry, develop their own theories, find the best ways to document their observations and choose how they might like to present their learning…

and now, the wonderful possibilities arising from the children’s initial wonderings:

  • I wonder if they eat their poo.
  • I wonder what patterns they will have on their wings.
  • I wonder what they do when no-one is there…

Unit planning isn’t linear (either)…

Following on from our  non-linear consideration of curriculum, we approached collaborative unit planning in a similarly holistic way, with the child at the centre, to ensure a focus on our goal of developing the whole child.

As teachers considered the desired conceptual understandings and the content requirements of our curriculum, the potential to develop skills and dispositions in an authentic context were revealed…

Following this process with different year level teams and different units of inquiry led to a number of insights:

  • Making thinking visible is an important part of the collaborative planning process.
  • Considering all the elements simultaneously makes it easy to visualise the potential big picture.
  • The visual process allows for collaborative construction of meaning.
  • While always conceptual, some units are more knowledge based, others more skills based, and that’s ok!
  • A holistic vision of the unit highlights  opportunties for natural connections that strengthen learning.
  • Opportunities are illuminated for split screen teaching (inquiring into content and developing skills & dispositions simultaneously).
  • Standing around a table might trump sitting behind computers for collaborative thinking!

Curriculum shouldn’t be linear…

Learning isn’t linear. Consider your own learning… How do a range of separate experiences contribute to the development of your understanding? How does that understanding deepen, the more you engage with the same conceptual ideas in different contexts?

So, why had we historically planned the order of our units of inquiry in a linear way? (When would one unit end and the next unit begin? How many weeks would we need to devote to each? What dates would work best?) The time had come to view the process in a different way.

We started from the most beautiful questions that drive change –

Why?’ ‘What if?’ and ‘How might we?’

Why should curriculum be viewed as linear?

What if we put the child at the centre and considered the learning in a more wholistic way?

How might we approach the big picture through the lens of transferable concepts, rather than the calendar?

In each team meeting, we began by writing the ‘related concepts’ (PYP terminology for the big transferable ideas) in each unit on individual sticky notes and arranging them to allow us a visual perspective on the learning as a whole, then underlining the concepts that are most transferable.

This simple activity raised a number of insights, such as:

  • There are opportunities for further development of understanding, through concepts repeating in different units.
  • Some concepts are more highly transferable across different areas and more applicable in life.
  • Sometimes a unit has too many concepts, leading to less depth in the learning.
  • Some combinations of units have concepts that interconnect more, while others are more subject specific.
  • Some units lend themselves more to transdisciplinary learning than others…

Approaching the exercise conceptually, visually, in a non linear way led teachers very quickly to valuable conclusions about the big picture of learning – which units would flow on most logically from each other, which units might be best run concurrently and which units lend themselves to ongoing learning, woven throughout the year.

Some examples of ongoing, concurrent or even year-long, units of inquiry:

A Prep unit, exploring reading and writing as an inquiry.

Central Idea: We can receive and communicate meaning through symbols. 

Lines of inquiry:

  • How sounds and words are represented
  • How we  receive and communicate meaning through written text

A Year 5 unit which, after the initial provocation and exploration, will continue as a Genius Hour project, with learners pursuing their own inquiries and action.

Central Idea: Ideas inspire possibilities for action.

Lines of inquiry:

  • How we bring our ideas to reality
  • Skills and attitudes required for taking action

And our whole school, year-long central ideaOur choices define who we are as individuals and as a community, with different lines of inquiry at each year level, such as:

Prep (self)

  • How our choices help us learn
  • Choices in how we express our learning
  • How we choose to use our environment to support our learning

Year 3 (individual and community)

  • Who I choose to be  as a member of our learning community
  • Choices that affect our learning community
  • How diversity enriches our learning community

Year 6 (personal, local and global)

  • Active citizenship
  • How choices and decisions are made
  • The impact of our choices and decisions  – personally, locally and globally

Learning isn’t linear…

What if collaborative meetings always led to action?

What if collaborative meetings always led to action?

Starting with the end in mind, our team leaders considered what they would like participants to FEEL, THINK, BE, HAVE, SAY and DO after their collaborative meetings…

The consensus was for people to come out feeling motivated, empowered and challenged, with a sense of purpose and shared vision, eager to move forward with the implementation of new ideas. (Meeting Wise!)

So…

How might we create a culture of productive collaboration?

Team leaders reflected on the culture of their teams by using match sticks to represent their team dynamics, which proved to be both an interesting exercise in visualisation and a powerful reality check. (Thanks, @kjinquiry!)

The next step was to consider the conditions that might contribute towards a productive collaborative culture. Which of these are most important for all team members? How would you prioritise these and what would you add?

  • having a positive image of the child
  • being comfortable with cognitive dissonance
  • having autonomy/ a sense of agency
  • feeling safe
  • assuming positive intentions of other team members
  • having a clear purpose
  • contributing actively and equitably
  • being willing to grow, see things in new ways and open to change
  • having knowledge and understanding of pedagogy

And then…

How do we develop  a culture of productive collaboration within our teams?

Some of the ideas that were shared:

  • Create an essential agreement and agree on meeting norms
  • Acknowledge mistakes and share insecurities
  • Celebrate successes
  • Constantly reflect – individually and as a group
  • Listen to and acknowledge all perspectives
  • Ensure agenda is available in advance and input is open to everyone
  • Celebrate the zone of discomfort and ask people to try things
  • Be non judgemental
  • Develop trust and respect so tensions are easily talked through
  • Listen to each other
  • Always focus on the child
  • Ensure everyone has a voice
  • Compromise, affirm, reassure and encourage
  • Allow time. Be creative in finding time!
  • Keep asking questions  – Why? What if? How might we?
  • Be flexible
  • Try to understand where everyone is coming from
  • Take turns to plan and facilitate meetings
  • Bring others/ experts into the planning and reflection process
  • Be available as much as possible
  • Know when to lead and when to follow

And also…

How do we ensure our meetings are valuable?

Team leaders jotted down things they currently do in meetings and then evaluated those against a list of criteria that make meetings really valuable…

Collaborative planning and reflection meetings should: (adapted from IB PYP standards and practices)

  • take place regularly and systematically.
  • address all the essential elements of the PYP 
  • be based on agreed expectations for student learning.
  • consider the different learning needs of students.
  • address horizontal and vertical articulation.
  • include analysing and responding to student learning eg looking for misconceptions and patterns
  • involve teachers modelling the attributes of the learner profile.
  • ensure that our practice aligns with our learning principles.
  • take an inquiry stance, eg through framing inquiry questions.
  • consider the development of conceptual understandings.
  • include planning provocations, addressing our agreed purpose and criteria

These are some of the wonderings that came up as a result:

  • Who needs to be at meetings and how often should they take place?
  • Are there other ways to deal with administrative matters, outside of meeting time? 
  • If we spent time setting the tone for our collaborative meetings, would they be more productive?
  • How can we support teams which are not functioning productively?
  • How can we work around timetable constraints?
  • How can we share what we value about culture and content with our teams?
  • How might we address challenges in a solution focussed manner?
  • How can we get people to step up to facilitate a meeting?
  • What kinds of student data should we bring to meetings?

And coming full circle to where we started…

What action will this collaborative meeting lead to?

What will our team leaders (and you, the reader)  FEEL, THINK, BE, HAVE, SAY and DO as a result?

What’s behind the story?

The planning session, as usual with the Year 2 team, is passionate and thought-provoking.  Everyone has opinions, there is questioning and probing and tension as we figure out what we want the learners to get out of the unit of inquiry. It’s based on one we have done before, so starting from what we do NOT want the unit to be about proves really helpful.

It’s an inquiry into the concept of story. Through exposure to and exploration of many and varied stories, we want the children to understand that stories can be told in different ways, that story is a powerful tool for conveying ideas, experiences and values. We want them to to reach a point where they are able to describe and explain their own connection to stories. We want to them to build the understandings and language to engage in conversation about their responses to stories. And we want them to be able to share their own experiences and ideas through different forms of story.

We discuss the possibility (yet again) of connecting with children in other places to share and discuss stories, via Twitter, blogs or Skype and I’m told that it’s difficult to do these things because there isn’t time. It’s a familiar story and my instinct tells me it’s an excuse. How hard can it be to find five minutes a day to check Twitter? What’s so difficult about signing into Skype to have a conversation?

Then I remember that my role is to interpret the story, to find the underlying message and respond to that…

That’s a different story!

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 )

 

An inquiry into ownership of learning…

What do you notice about Audri as a learner?

We begin our Year 4 collaborative planning session with Audri… to generate thinking about the ways young learners own their learning, outside the classroom…

The teachers notice and name his confidence, persistence, belief in himself, resourcefulness, curiosity, commitment, ownership of learning, enthusiasm, excitement...

Layla wonders if Audri’s uniqueness and enthusiasm would be stifled in a traditional school setting.

Jina responds that she is excited by the possibilities of creating such authentic learning opportunities in her classroom.

Watching an extract from Guy Claxton on building learning power adds another layer to our conversation:

He says the ‘The ability to learn is very learnable’…

Some key questions which he asks:

  • What habits or attitudes of mind do you invite and cultivate in your students?
  • What learning muscles are being stretched beyond mastering content?

Important learning dispositions that have value for our learners in the ‘real’ world (beyond passivity, remembering, note taking and regurgitating, even if these might be useful in some contexts):

  • Curiosity – asking questions, seeking problems, finding solutions, desire to learn
  • Persistence – sticking with it in the face of challenges and difficulties
  • Resourcefulness – experimenting, taking initiative, having a range of strategies on which to draw
  • Collaboration – being willing to and knowing how to collaborate effectively
  • Thoughtfulness – standing back and thinking metacognatively, being able to think clearly and critically
  • Imagination – visualising new concepts, producing new ideas

Claxton says it is possible to strengthen all of these, even within the parameters of conventional classrooms. One of the major considerations is how we talk. Most teachers spend a great deal of time talking about ‘work’.  Shifting the focus to the process of learning, makes a huge difference.

Back in our planning meeting, we talk about the importance of making thinking visible and the value of noticing and naming learning behaviours, raised in both Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchhart et al and Choice Words by Peter Johnston. (Both books are highly recommended.)

The latter highlights the influence our language has on student learning. I particularly like examples like this one, which demonstrate the effect of a few well-chosen words…

“What have you learned most recently as a reader?” …the teacher begins with ‘given’ information that is not up for discussion: a) the student is a reader, and b) readers learn things. The only question is, what has this particular reader learned? For a student to respond to this question, he or she has to review recent learnings. The opening question requires an answer that begins, “I learned. . . .” It insists on an agentive identity statement about reading and learning. At the same time, it creates a learning history, which is an antidote for students who think they are not good and have always been not good.”

As I’ve frequently said in this space –

We have learned that it’s more valuable to spend time building a deep understanding of what a unit of inquiry is about and deciding on conceptual understandings than on planning activities.

A valuable tip we gleaned from Sam Sherratt  is to agree on one word that sums up the conceptual essence of the unit. In this case it is ‘ownership.’

Central idea – Taking ownership of learning empowers us.

Conceptual understanding rubric –

Beginning Developing Established
Learning is meaningful when we take responsibility for it.

Responsibility

I see the teacher as the one who knows what to do, how to do it and if it’s good.

I expect the teacher to tell me what to do and how to do it.

Sometimes I make decisions about my own learning, without asking the teacher.

I can describe some ways I am becoming more responsible for my own learning.

I make decisions that support and promote my learning.

I can explain the reasons behind my choices and decisions.

Reflection and metacognition lead to ownership of learning.

Reflection

I don’t think much about my learning.

I can’t explain why I am doing specific tasks.

I don’t understand the difference between ‘work’ and ‘learning’.

I am beginning to think about how I learn.

I can explain why I am doing specific tasks.

I can identify the skills and attitudes I need or am using.

I can decide which strategies to use in my learning and explain my choice.

I think about myself as a learner and can identify my strengths and challenges.

I reflect on my learning, set learning goals based on my reflections, and act on them.

I can explain how I could use my learning in different contexts.

I can explain what I gained from a learning experience, what I contributed, what could have made it better.

Feedback welcome!

Meeting Wise

Is every meeting at your school about learning?

Does every meeting connect to ongoing work and goals?

Do you come out of every meeting with a plan for action or a sense of where to go next?

To be honest, we often used to go round in circles in our meetings, talk at the same time, interrupt each other… We are a passionate bunch, and it was never through disrespect, rather a result of caring a great deal, having lots of ideas, wanting our opinions heard..

Since introducing Meeting Wise agendas, our meetings have become much more focused.

The Meeting Wise authors highlight four aspects for careful consideration when planning successful meetings:

  • Purpose
  • Process
  • Preparation
  • Pacing

Today in our meetings: 

  • The objectives are clear
  • Participants come prepared
  • Everyone has a voice
  • We have clear, expected norms
  • The content of the meeting relates directly to the stated objectives
  • Participants have turns to take on roles of facilitator, timekeeper, note taker, so…
  • Everyone has a sense of ownership
  • There is a sense of true collaboration within groups
  • Distributive leadership is fostered
  • We usually have fun!
  • We use effective protocols to ensure all the above
  • Participants leave with a clear sense of the next steps

I took most of these statements from the plus /delta we do at the end of meetings, in which participants share what went well and what could be improved. This is usually addressed at the start of the next meeting of the particular group.

Learning Team Leaders have received a copy of Meeting Wise and all teams are gradually improving their meetings by implementing the suggested procedures and protocols and adapting them to our needs.

Highly recommended!

(See my earlier post in which I applied the Meeting Wise questions to classroom learning.)