Always building our learning community…

Do you wish you had more time for your own learning? Would you like to have time to explore new ideas and reflect on things you have learned?

Over the past few years, we’ve abandoned the one-size-fits-hardly-anyone approach to PD and experimented with a range of other approaches to professional learning. I’ve written before about focus groups, choosing our own people, teacher led inquiries, teachers directing their own learning etc

Now we are adding another layer. We already have regular twice a week after school sessions, which sometimes include whole staff requirements and, more often, year-level teams deciding for themselves how they need to spend their time, be it planning, reflecting, moderating student work or calling parents.

We are now setting aside two or three of these afternoons per term for personal learning groups. Teachers have the opportunity to choose an area of interest to explore independently or in groups. For many, the choice is something they’ve been meaning to look into but haven’t found the time for. New groups have formed and teachers are learning with people outside of their usual teams. Some have chosen to broaden their knowledge by exploring topics outside of their usual teaching areas.

The approach is less formal than it was the first time we experimented with self-organised professional learning. A rough list was created on a google doc so that people could find others with common interests and, for the rest, teachers are guiding their own learning, making decisions, gathering resources and selecting their chosen paths.

Last week’s sessions had teachers engaged in reading, discussing and thinking about the following:

  • Matt Glover’s approach to engaging young writers
  • How to enrich vocabulary
  • Using data to inform teaching and learning
  • Visible thinking
  • Open ended iPad apps to develop oral language
  • Effective school timetables
  • Student wellbeing
  • and more…

We’re always seeking ways to build our learning community. 

Isn’t that what school should be about?

This is how inquiry teachers teach!

Traditional pedagogy sees the teacher provide a set of instructions, make sure everyone ‘knows what to do’, explain everything and THEN students might be given some time to do a task themselves. It’s about 80% teacher led and 20% student. Inquiry-based pedagogy gets kids doing, thinking and investigating – and the explicit teaching happens in response to what the teacher sees and hears. The 80:20 ratio is reversed. Good inquiry teachers know how to get more kids thinking more deeply more of the time.

– Kath Murdoch, How do Inquiry Teachers… teach?

Jocelyn (Year 6) shares her excitement at the way her students extracted the conceptual ideas from a series of learning engagements before collaboratively developing their own ‘central ideas’. We recall a time when we thought we had to explain all of this to our learners at the beginning of the unit!

Claire (Year 5) talks about how she provoked her students’ curiosity by asking simply ‘Can graphs be persuasive?’ Instead of Claire covering the material, the kids took off on their own inquiries, discovering different kinds of graphs themselves and making connections between maths (data) literacy (persuasive writing) and their unit of inquiry into digital citizenship.

Hailey (Year 4) reflects on the process of letting go of control, as her students develop the skills to take responsibility for their own learning. She’s practising what Guy Claxton calls split screen teaching, and her kids are using the language of ‘learnacy’ to reflect on their own learning. ‘Metacognition’, once a word teachers hardly understood themselves, let alone shared with learners, is not only practised but noticed and named by Hailey’s students.

Linda (eLearning Facilitator) tells us how she’s been supporting learners in discovering effective search strategies in an authentic context in year 5. As the children googled what they needed, they uncovered what kinds of sites would give them unbiased information and she was able to respond with tips at their point of need. She highlights the difference between this kind of learning and the old way… where she would stand and teach an isolated lesson on a particular computer skill, unrelated to any particular learning context.

Lana (Maths Coordinator) shares the excitement of one of our new teachers, developing her understanding of inquiry. She took her Year 2 students out for a walk to collect data and encouraged them to observe and count whatever they like, to be represented visually later back at school. Once she would have given them all the same boring worksheet with specific items to count. This time the learners are highly engaged as they notice their surroundings, independently recording their observations and wonderings.

We relate all these shared learning experiences back to Kath Murdoch’s latest blog post ‘How do inquiry teachers… teach?’  (Every teacher should read it!)

Kath’s post is our inspiration at today’s Learning Team Leaders meeting, one of a range of such communities of practice which exist within our school’s wider learning community. Sharing practice and professional dialogue are part of our culture. Inspirational blog posts such as this one are often the trigger for our discussions.

There is nothing quite so satisfying in a school as the passion in the voices of teachers, as they talk animatedly about teaching and learning, ask provocative questions, openly express frustrations, offer each other advice and support…

The challenge is to create enough time, within the hectic demands of school life, for everyone to be involved in these conversations.

The big picture…

community of practice

If you read this blog, chances are you have seen this image before. If you read A Global Community, my chapter in the IB book Journeys in Communities of Practice, you’ll see it there too. And if you participate in ‘Direct Your Own Learning‘, my session at the Reform Symposium Conference next weekend (time conversion here), you’ll probably see it again.

After the first day of the Melbourne GAFE summit, (Google for Education), I wondered if the conference was more about tools than learning.  After the second day, with my thinking provoked by @mistersill and @betchaboy‘s keynotes, some new ideas inspired by sessions learning (well, yes) tools, and some good conversation with other educators, I’m re-evaluating…

It turns out the ‘big picture’ looks like the one above!

Inquiry circle…

It’s the summer break in Australia (although I’ve spent most of it in the  northern hemisphere winter) and it’s been a month since I posted here, the longest break since I started blogging. I confess that when I pause, I sometimes wonder if I will have anything more to say… but here I am again!

It’s intriguing to hear 5th graders express their views on fracking (hydraulic fracturing), about which I know very little. Their interest grew from one student’s question and developed into a full blown class inquiry, captured in the video proudly shared today by their teacher Zack.

Sarah is exploring how technology can enhance her teaching. She tells us about her venture into blogging and an exciting collaboration she is setting up with a school in Japan.

Another teacher, Laura, has begun to settle into her first year of teaching,  and is experimenting with ways of catering to the individual needs of her students.

These are some of the teachers in a voluntary after school ‘Inquiry Circle’ at a public elementary school in Upper West Side, Manhattan. Each has chosen their own area of action research and the session begins with a quiet written reflection on their work to date, before they are asked to ‘download’ to the group…

Josephine, a veteran teacher, prefaces her reflection by saying ‘It’s easier to be a teacher and harder to be a student.’ The others nod their agreement, although they are clearly stimulated by the challenges. She tells me later how much she enjoys the professional learning taking place in this group. She has made connections with teachers of different grades, who she used to just pass in the hallway. Now she’s learning from and with them and she’s loving it. Josephine and Sarah regularly observe each other’s classes and learn from each other’s practice. Considering that one teaches 5th grade and the other kindergarten, that’s impressive!

I was invited to participate in this session by Dale, a consultant currently working with the school, who I meet today for the first time, though we have been communicating for months. He’s the editor of  a book about schools’ journeys to communities of practice, for which I have written a chapter, so it’s interesting to see him collaborating with the principal and staff to help build such a community here.

I notice:

  • the degree of trust between the participants
  • their pride in their own achievements and those of their colleagues
  • the openness and honesty with which they express their doubts
  • the respectful way in which they ask questions and clarify their understanding of other team members’ work
  • their shared interest in inquiry, exploring technology and advancing their own practice


  • Dale’s unintrusive style of facilitating, from which I can undoubtedly learn.

I check before posting this and receive the following response from Dale: ‘By all means post this. It captures the values that I stand for!’

Mine too.

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.