An inquiry into remote learning…

In Australia we have now begun planning for continuous remote learning, given the inevitability of school closure to limit the spread of COVID-19. I’m reminded of my very first blog post, more than ten years ago!

It is important to start by recognising how incredibly fortunate we are.

How many children around the world experience interruption to schooling due to disease, natural disaster or war? How many have access to an education at all? Of those that do, how many are lucky enough to have ready access to the resources that we do? Do we understand that in remote communities, this might be the way learning always looks? Do we appreciate the technology, books, materials, time, space and people to whom/which we have access? Do we acknowledge the collective wisdom and generosity of other teachers and schools with more experience than we have, readily sharing their ideas and expertise with us? We have so much to be grateful for.

The initial response of our teachers, ranging from excitement to panic, depends on individual perspective, personal circumstance, prior experience, technological ability and comfort level with the unknown. So our stance, at my school, will be to see this as an opportunity rather than a challenge. We will approach it, as always, as an inquiry, an extension of our 2020 focus on building cohesion. We will expand our whole school inquiry into building community and a sense of belonging into the new and unfamiliar territory in which we find ourselves.

So these are some of our initial inquiry questions:

  • How might we continue to build cohesion when we are learning from home?
  • How might we create a sense of community despite being physically apart?
  • How might we ensure that everyone feels safe, comfortable and supported?
  • How might we seamlessly (almost) continue the children’s learning, and our own?
  • How might we remotely plan for and provide opportunities for rich learning experiences?
  • How might we ensure the wellbeing of our whole learning community, students, educators and parents?
  • How will every member of our learning community contribute to all the above?
  • And… how might we extend the learning into other communities?



Tea circle…

We sit around a table, drinking tea in a relaxed manner, engaging in meaningful conversation about learning and life.

I am participating in my first ‘tea circle’ with a group of 12 year olds and it feels much more like a ‘real life’ experience than like ‘doing school’. Once they are over the initial novelty of the situation, they relax into the conversation, listen and respond to each other naturally and build on each other’s contributions. They talk about what they have learned and how they have grown this year and no-one mentions anything related to content or traditional school subjects.

  • I’ve learned to listen to other perspectives… to be open to adapting my ideas based on input from others. (Leo)
  • I really understand people better now, because I think about where they are coming from (Amelia)
  • I’ve learned to dig deeper and find the roots of an inquiry. (Rosa)
  • It’s like an iceberg, you need to be open to the ideas and perspectives that are below the surface. (Eiden)
  • I’ve learned to be comfortable in the learning pit, what to do when I’m stuck and how to overcome challenges (Amalia)
  • It’s a pity that the lesson sometimes ends while you are still in the learning pit and you have to go to another class. It makes you lose flow.
  • I think it would be helpful to learn in mixed age groups, especially for something like art, where you can be inspired by people of any age.
  • I’ve learned to take responsibility for my own learning. The teachers trust us in Year 6 (Romy)
  • I think teachers would always trust us, but it’s up to you to earn trust; some people cause loss of trust for others. (Eiden)
  • We need to be role models for younger students. I’ve learned about leadership. (Eden)
  • The way we learn is different this year, it’s less about content and more about understanding ourselves and others. (Amalia)
  • The focus is on the explanation, on our thinking… on process. (Rosa)
  • For this kind of learning you need self management skills, like organising your time and interacting with others. (Leo)
  • If this kind of learning started earlier in our schooling, it would become a norm… (Amelia)

I find myself wondering why we don’t invite learners to the table (literally) more often, as individuals and as equals, rather than as students, to share conversation, stories and insights and to learn from each other.

An opportunity to stop and reflect…

‘What do you love about the Primary Years Program?’ is the check-in for today’s LTL meeting.

Our Learning Team Leaders, one from each grade level and a couple from specific learning areas, gather for our weekly meeting. With thoughtfully planned Meeting Wise agendas, clear objectives and protocols in place for everyone to have a voice, these meetings are a valuable space for collaboration, shared learning, community building, analysis of ideas and collective problem solving.

The objective of today’s meeting is to share the latest updates on the PYP review. Responses to the check-in question include the fact that it is purposeful and relevant, the attitudes it fosters, the culture it creates, the value placed on learner agency, the common language and understandings, inquiry as a stance, the concept driven approach, encouragement of ownership and action.

While all have access to the whole document, for the purpose of this meeting each participant receives one item from the review to read and consider. We then each share the gist of that particular change, using the ‘plus, minus, interesting’ protocol, followed by discussion and questions. This turns out to be a successful approach, encouraging everyone to engage with the big ideas and become familiar with the coming changes, while providing an opportunity to reflect on our growth as a learning community over time.

We finish with insights and puzzles:

  • Great to see that even the PYP is reviewed and updated – always moving forward.
  • How flexible will expectations be, once the changes are in place?
  • We are well on the way already to many of the things that are ‘new’.
  • What will the new planners look like?
  • Our students have so much agency already. We need to notice it more.
  • There is so much we are already doing. Will we still be able to be innovative?
  • It’s encouraging me to be reflective about how my teaching aligns with the changes.
  • Where to next?

It’s satisfying to note the understanding, passion and pride with which these educators talk about what has become, for us, not just a way of learning, but a way of being.

The story within…

In an attempt to switch off the buzz of thinking emanating from the past week of learning, I walk in the drizzle, breathe in the smell of damp grass and enjoy a beautifully written and evocatively narrated audio book, set in another time and another place..

“Somewhere in there was a story, which she had yet to find,” I hear this sentence and lose the flow of the narrative as my mind shoots back into the reality of the past week. Being busy and distracted has made me a lazy writer! My previous post was a simple recount and a few bullet points and now I need to scratch the surface and find the layers of story beneath.

Unleashing Learning was a conference by teachers for teachers, and it was filled with powerful, interlinking stories…

The story of collective inspiration…

A hundred and fifty passionate educators grappled with similar issues, applied ideas to their contexts, exchanged experiences, challenged ideas and explored solutions together. The principal shared how his own learning was unleashed by a teacher who encouraged him to take ownership and pursue his interests. Sam Sherratt asked us to think about whether the same old pedagogy will suffice in a rapidly changing world. Rebekah Madrid urged us to start a revolution in our own practice, to ask forgiveness not permission. 12 year old Jazi confidently told an audience of teachers that despite her struggle with words, spelling and reading, she is capable, creative and interesting. Another student, Georgia, explained her perspective on unleashing learning through student empowerment.  Jake asked the audience not to blink while he gave them insight into Tourette’s, then explained that trying to control his tics was like us trying to control our blinking. And woven through the fibre of the all of this, was a powerful message of change and hope.

The story of community…

The conference brought people together in delightful and unexpected ways. Every member of our staff added value in some way, via organising, printing, greeting, presenting, planning, sharing, supporting, facilitating, participating, inspiring or cleaning up.  Relationships were built and strengthened through the interactions of a community working collaboratively towards the twin goals of Unleashing Learning and unleashing learning. Having people who used to work at the school participate in the conference, rekindled relationships from the past. Visitors from other schools and other countries enriched our community with their insights and instilled a sense of pride in our teachers at what we have achieved and what we have to share. As always, the sense of community was enhanced by shared passion and vision, common purpose, and active participation.

The story of belief…

When Jina set out for Learning2 in Manilla, she had never travelled on her own, nor been to an international conference.  She came back determined to provide the same sort of experience for other teachers, and would not allow limited time or money, or any other obstacle, to stand in the way of the momentum inspired by the experience.  Lauri is a natural comic who thrives on inquiry, but not on public speaking. Bolstered by our delight in her story of children’s inquiry (and why flies have bums) she overcame the jitters and stood on stage to share it with all. Desiree and Rubi (like others who had not presented before) kept telling themselves that agreeing to present a workshop was a mistake, but pushed on determinedly and were rewarded by the positive feedback from participants who loved their sessions. Nathan, Lesley and others volunteered to facilitate reflection groups, something out of the ordinary for them, requiring an extra degree of courage and confidence. All of these stories and more are manifestations of our belief in our people and their growing belief in themselves.

The story of empowerment…

This story includes themes of trust and autonomy. Its characters include a principal who encouraged us to bring our vision to life, leaders who allow their people the freedom and space to explore and to innovate, and teachers who take up the challenge to lead from wherever they are. It’s a story of choice, in who you want to learn with and what you want to learn. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure story, in which you decide the future direction and you have the power to make it happen. It’s a story of teachers who simply will not let frustrations with accountability and compliance deter them in their march towards learning, their own and that of their students. It’s a true story of students who have overcome obstacles like Jazi and Jake and students who have taken their learning into their own hands like Georgia. And an imaginary story of what is yet to come.

It’s a story of unleashing learning…

Focusing on ownership of learning…

Day 1 of the new school year had a hundred and twenty teachers gathered in one place to think about student ownership! What could be better?

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 10.02.01 am

In cross campus, mixed role groups, teachers took turns to talk about something they had learned during the holidays and how they had learned it. Conversations were varied and animated, as experiences and reflections were shared between people who don’t usually work (or play) together. *Imagine doing this as a whole year level or cross grade exercise…

Our 2016 focus was introduced: Increase opportunities for ownership of learning.

Teachers were asked to ponder the question – ‘What does student ownership of learning look like’? *Imagine doing this in your classroom…

  • READ a blog post. 
  • SHARE something you read relating to student ownership of learning.
  • DISCUSS which of our learning principles it connects to.
  • CREATE a poster about ownership of learning.

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 10.02.54 am




How can we set a tone from Day 1 to give the message that we value student ownership? *Imagine asking your students this question…

Having considered the ‘what’, the teachers now explored the ‘how’, using Ron Ritchhart’s 8 cultural forces as a scaffold:

  • Time
  • Opportunities
  • Routines/ Structures
  • Language
  • Modelling
  • Interactions/Relationships
  • Physical environment
  • Expectations

And finally, it was back to where we started:Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 10.57.50 am

Looking forward to an exciting year of increased ownership of learning for teachers and students alike.

** Join us to unleash the learning in March at Unleashing Learning!


Inquiry into learning…

Do you focus as much on the process of learning as the content?

Do your students reflect as much on how they learn as on what they learn.

As a PYP school, we have six units of inquiry each year, one under each of the following trans-disciplinary themes:

Before exploring any other subject areas, we plan to start the coming school year at each grade level, with an inquiry (directly or indirectly) into learning. A unit that sets the tone for all the coming units. One that gets students thinking about factors that contribute towards their learning and reflecting about how they learn.

Our Preps will inquire into how our learning environment helps us learn. It’s their first year of school, in a shared, flexible learning space, with new routines and timetables to adjust to, so this a fitting first inquiry for the year. (Trans-disciplinary Theme: How We Organise Ourselves)

Year 2 will investigate the qualities of effective learners and how these can help us learn, individually and collaboratively. We’re hoping that, through their inquiry, they will develop a better understanding of the Learner Profile, get to know themselves and others as learners and begin to take more responsibility for their learning. They might decide to ask the world about the qualities of effective learners, so be ready! (Trans-disciplinary Theme: Who We Are)

Year 3 will explore the information process… how we decide what we want to learn, formulate questions, locate, organise and evaluate information. Year 4 will inquire into what it means to be organised and how this can empower us, not just in our learning, but in life. Year 6 will explore individual and group decision-making and its impact, personally, in the classroom community and working outwards towards their study of government.

The intention is that starting the year with inquiries such as these will increase students’ awareness of themselves as learners and help build learning communities in our classrooms and in our school.

If you’re interested in the subject of learning communities, join the #pypchat discussion on Thursday and share ideas with an ever-growing community of inquirers!

Teachers thinking about learning…

It’s great to work in a school where a bunch of dedicated teachers will come in voluntarily before school to share practice, discuss ideas and learn together. Our group is enhanced by the variety of age, experience and subect discipline of the teachers who come. Our head himself comes, which is both supportive and encouraging.

The focus of this week’s session was stepping back and allowing students to be more responsible for their own learning. It’s a difficult one for most teachers. Veterans are used to having control and often find it hard to let go. Less experienced teachers are often struggling to gain control in the classroom. I think you need to have some control before you can let it go…

We watched Sugata Mitra’s TED talk in our last session, so today we just had a quick look at a short clip of The Hole in the Wall. It was a good trigger to provoke thinking about just how capable kids are of learning independently. We used the thinking routine ‘Headlines’ to capture its essence. It’s one I use often in my class to help students capture the gist of things.

We imagined what it would be like to have someone else set you tasks, give you instructions, check up on you, tell you when to do what all day long. We discussed ways to ‘let go‘, like talking less, testing less and focusing on learning rather than on work. We talked about the importance of classroom layout. We discussed the way kids tend to ‘talk through’ the teacher and how difficult it is to get them to look at each other in a whole class discussion. Rubi told us she sits outside the circle while her students talk. We talked about the challenge of personal goal setting and Hailey shared how her students sometimes set goals for a particular lesson, so that they can focus on them, rather than long term ones they tend to forget. We talked about the value of feedback, not just to the teacher but between members of a group. We wondered how habit can be overcome, when kids come to us already conditioned to see the teacher as ‘boss of learning’.

I took the issue to my classroom after the session. I love to tell them that teachers are learners too and get their perspective on the things we have discussed. I gave them scraps of paper to jot their thoughts on and asked them to think about all the teachers they have known so far. Here are some of their responses…

What are ways in which teachers tend to take control of learning?

  • They keep demonstrating and don’t let us have a go
  • They think only one answer is right
  • They think they have to give us all the information, instead of letting us find out
  • They give us worksheets about a topic instead of letting us talk about it
  • They stand out front telling us what to do
  • They over-explain

What helps you take more control of your own learning?

  • Having choices
  • Working things out together in groups
  • Having time to think independently
  • When the teacher doesn’t over-explain but lets us put our learning into it
  • Having time to talk in between about what the teacher is saying to us
  • When the teacher gives us a menu and we choose the order we want to do things
  • Choosing our own inquiries
  • Trying stuff out for ourselves

Nothing to add…


Profile of an edu-tweeter…

Sitting on planes for 24 hours, gives you plenty of time to think. I’m tired of movies and reading, everyone around me is sleeping, and I’m thinking how good it would be to have internet access and be able to interact with my Twitter PLN.

Since that’s not possible, I find myself thinking about the sorts of people who are part of my online PLN (personal learning network). There is a huge variety of educators participating in #edchat and the Twitter conversation.

On the surface it seems we’re very different in many respects…

There are kindergarten and primary school teachers, high school teachers and university professors. There are new teachers, experienced and retired teachers. There are presenters, consultants, developers and students.  There are people who’re involved in education in all sorts of other ways. There are males and females, of all ages, from all over the world with all sorts of interests and life experiences. This is the beauty of the online PLN. It provides the opportunity to interact with a broad range of educators, world-wide,  from diverse backgrounds and experiences, that could never have been possible or even imaginable, not that many years ago.

So what do all these educators have in common?

We share a passion for teaching and learning, an interest in technology, a willingness to share, a desire to implement change, delight in a challenge, intellectual curiosity…

As I begin to list the commonalities, I see a pattern emerging. I know I’m generalizing, but on the whole, the education community on Twitter appears to display the attributes of what we call in IB schools, the Learner Profile.

  • Edu-tweeters tend to be thinkers and inquirers, interested in developing their thinking and practice, learning new things, exploring new ideas and broadening their understanding.
  • They tend to be knowledgeable across diverse areas and generously share their knowledge with others.
  • They are caring, expressing concern and wishing each other well, offering advice and assistance, reacting and interacting politely and respectfully.
  • They are, without exception, communicators. You have to be in order  to engage in meaningful dialogue in 140 characters at a time!
  • Most seem to be open-minded, interested in different perspectives, open to new ideas and willing to debate.
  • They are risk-takers, who experiment with technology, investigate ideas and try out new things.
  • They are principled, defending their beliefs, acknowledging their sources and giving credit as due.
  • They are reflective. It’s reflection on teaching and learning, the impact of tech and the education process in general that the whole conversation is about.
  • I’m not so sure about balanced… While people do tweet about reading, running, cooking, travelling and a host of other interests, I fear some of us spend too much time online!

Do you agree?

Who dares to teach…

I managed to participate in ten minutes of #edchat before going to teach this morning. When I am able to participate, I always find the conversation stimulating and thought provoking. This time the topic was best practice in teacher professional development.

My best PD in the past year has undoubtedly been through my online PLN (professional learning network). This includes writing my own blog, reading and commenting on other blogs and the worldwide teachers’ lounge that is Twitter. At any time of day, I can go in and engage with other educators, learn from them, be exposed to new ideas and tools, seek help, follow interesting links or be inspired by quotes.  I have made global connections with people who think the way I do and poeople who think differently than I do and people who push my thinking further. This is ongoing professional development at its best.

As far as ‘offline’ PD is concerned, here’s my thinking:

The least effective PD is the sort involving whole school, compulsory, one off sessions, with no follow-up. For PD to be effective, I think it works best in smallish groups, when people attend voluntarily with a common focus and it’s ongoing.

A few years ago at my school, we started a small voluntary group meeting every few weeks for an hour before school. We  discussed readings about current trends and best practice,  thought together about what and how to implement the things we had read, tried things out in our classes and came back to share our experiences.   At the start, we had outside facilitators who recommended readings and guided the sessions.  The initial focus was on questioning… how to improve our own questioning and how to get students to ask better questions. Later we moved on to creating a culture of thinking. Then  effective feedback and assessment. After a while,we didn’t need outside facilitators any longer. Little by little, we integrated all the parts into our whole understanding of how learning works best. Gradually other teachers wanted to join in too.

About a year ago, we started a second group introducing web 2.0 tools. At first the 2 groups alternated but after a while we realised that looking at the technology separately isn’t meaningful. The two groups have now merged.  Sometimes we discuss the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ sometimes we play around with the tools. Teachers who participate in other PD share their learning in this forum too. The focus is always on the learning, our own and that of our students.

Teachers who regularly participate in this group constantly  reflect on their practice. We’re open to new thinking and ready to learn from each other. We share ideas and discuss what works and what doesn’t. We have built up trust and we support each other. Our head attends nearly every session. I know I am incredibly lucky to be part of this community of learners.