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…

How do we assess understanding?

Part of my role as Teaching and Learning Coordinator involves facilitating and supporting the planning of units of inquiry.

Planning for inquiry can be difficult.

On the one hand, over planning limits the potential for inquiry.

On the other hand, we have desired outcomes and understandings, as well as the demands of a national curriculum.

We used to plan a range of learning experiences in advance. You can read here about how we have improved our planning process.

Nowadays, we start by identifying the desired conceptual understandings and carefully considering what evidence will indicate that our learners have achieved them. Then we plan some provocations that engage the learners in the big ideas and wait to see where the learning takes us.

Keeping an eye on the conceptual understandings allows us to add further targeted provocations as the inquiry unfolds.

Creating a rubric helps clarify where our units are heading. Depending on the age of the learners, some teachers use the rubric with their students, others don’t, but either way, the process helps teachers focus on how to look for evidence of the understandings.

Here’s an example for a Prep (5 year olds) inquiry into how family life has changed over time:

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Here’s one for a Year 4 inquiry into how taking ownership of our learning can empower us:
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Here’s a Year 5 example that’s more content based:
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We learned this technique from Sam Sherratt and are still practising it, so I’m sure these rubrics are not perfect. One thing of which I am certain is the value of phrasing the understandings in simple child friendly language, rather than the usual, sometimes unintelligible, jargon of assessment standards. As always, we welcome feedback (or rather ‘feedforward’) on the rubrics themselves as well as the process.

Concept based learning…

‘Hands up if you often forget the things you learn in class.’

‘Hands up if you’re sometimes overwhelmed by information overload.’

Both times, all hands go up, including mine and Jocelyn’s. I’m in her Year 6 class to help them consider the big ideas in their learning and develop their understanding of concepts. This will assist them to organise information in future, explore significant ideas, promote higher order thinking and deepen inquiry.

I show them the avocado model…

They quickly get the idea that the big ideas we remember, long after we have forgotten the details, become the seeds from which new learning grows.

What is a ‘big idea’?

In considering what such ‘big ideas’ might look like, we talk about the fight Ellie had with her brother this morning. Ellie’s incident is specific to time, place and situation, but the children all have similar experiences to share. I ask if they think sibling rivalry exists in other countries and cultures and they say of course. Will it still exist in the future? Definitely. Did it exist long ago in the past? They have examples as far back as Cain and Abel! It is clear then that the ‘big idea’ of sibling rivalry is transferable, timeless and universal.

Once they get the idea, they are quickly able to express the big ideas behind a range of topics they have explored in the past. They’re even able to grasp the Lyn Erickson ‘Structure of Knowledge’ diagram. I tell them I learned this at a workshop for teachers but I’m sure they will get it. I ask for a show of hands if anyone thinks kids are as smart as teachers. Lots of hands, some giggling. They do get it …and they give examples from their own learning.

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Yesterday Joc had them look at their class learning community through the lenses of the PYP key concepts.

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Today we ask them to reflect on everything they have done in these first few weeks of the school year and extrapolate the ‘big ideas‘. They move into groups to discuss the learning experiences so far and come up with things like: attitudes, community, rights, responsibility, initiative, communication, questioning, democracy, citizenship, decision-making…

My observations:

– Joc has succeeded in building a thoughtful learning community.

– The learners are already on their way to the desired conceptual understandings for their unit:

  • Citizenship carries with it a sense of belonging or identity which includes rights and responsibilities, duties and privileges.
  • Different decision-making strategies can be effective in different situations.
  • In a democracy, citizens have a say in decision-making.
  • The impact of decisions can be personal, local, global.

– By the time they visit Canberra for their inquiry into government, they will have plenty of big ideas to which they can connect.

– There’s no reason kids can’t be exposed to the same ideas as adults. Maybe next time they can explore concepts using the Frayer model, as we did at IB workshop leader training training...

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Learning by doing: An inquiry into inquiry

IB Workshop Leader Training Day #3

We spend the morning exploring concept driven curriculum, an area I have discussed before on this blog. I’ve summarised Lynn Erickson’s ideas and I’ve shared examples of concept driven learning in the classroom.

Today we sum up our understandings, distilling the essence via a Frayer’s model, which has us creating a definition of a concept, describing the characteristics, listing out examples and non-examples.

The rest of the day is devoted to a concept driven inquiry of our choice, into almost any aspect of Thai culture, via personal exploration of  the Chiang Mai area and communication with local people. It’s not a fact-finding mission, the focus is to be on the process. We spend some time in our groups deciding where to go, what to explore, what conceptual lens to use, which inquiry model will suit our purpose and how we will go about our inquiry… and then we’re off on foot, bicycle or bus.

The presentations the next day are inspiring. You can see more examples here and here.

Each group shares their discoveries and their challenges. Participants have realised that inquiry is not a linear process, and rarely even a cyclical one. The process moves back and forth between asking, investigating, reflecting, connecting, constructing meaning … Some groups find they are even shifting between more than one ‘model’.  This is true inquiry. It has no map, no set pattern and it can be messy. Some of the high school teachers in particular, less familiar with this kind of learning, admit to feeling a degree of discomfort. But it’s the kind of positive tension that leads to authentic learning.

People have learned a great deal today… not just about Thai culture, but about inquiry, about concept driven learning, about working in groups with other strong, passionate people, about ourselves as learners and about the process of learning itself.

Craig is wondering how he can adapt this process for his Grade 4 class. I’m wondering how to recreate it back at my school for the teachers! Perhaps gaining a deep understanding of inquiry learning involves experiencing  it yourself…

Concept driven learning…

Some ‘big ideas’ about concept driven learning:

(From this week’s little #pypchat on Twitter)

  • The world is changing. Knowledge is changing. The ability to view the world with a more flexible mind is invaluable. (Steve)
  • Concept based learning is about big transferable ideas that transcend time, place, situation. (Ed)
  • Content just focuses on facts while concept focuses on making sense of those facts and the world around us (Christianne)
  • Content based teaching may not get beyond information transmission/superficial learning (Gillian)
  • Concepts are a way to organize and make sense of learning. Connect disciplinary knowledge.  (Miranda)
  • We can’t possibly teach everything that is important, but we can teach the big ideas. (Alexandra)
  • Concept based learning is a framework to study everything. So much information. Content can change, concepts stay the same. (Mega)
  • Information is useless unless you can do something with it. (Lynne Erickson)
Big Ideas in the classroom.

Since I no longer have my own class, I relish opportunities to get into classrooms. This week I’m team teaching in Year 5 with Rubi… and team learning. We bounce ideas before class, observe and listen to the kids and change the plan as the learning unfolds. The ‘topic’ is energy, but it’s inquiry learning and it’s concept driven. 

The first provocation is a video showing the effects of an electricity blackout. The students’ questions are quite specific to the incident, and we realize we need to change the plan already. We ask the kids to revisit their questions and ‘grow’ them, this time considering big ideas, transferable through time and place. It only takes one example from a different context to get the idea and they are away! This round of questions is about electricity and alternative power sources, not just the blackout they saw.

Rubi introduces a second provocation to further develop their thinking. She puts on music and asks the kids to dance and jump around. There is lots of noise and energetic movement, kids remove their sweaters as they warm up and a good time is had by all (except the class next door.)  We ask the kids to discuss in groups how this activity connects to the first provocation and then come up with further questions.  This round of questions is about different forms of energy, where they come from and how they are used.

Sorting Questions.

With each question on an individual sticky note, the groups sort the questions in any way they like. Before they start I ask them what they see as the purpose this activity. Mia says it will make them read everyone’s questions and think about them. Liam says it will help them organize their thoughts. Amanda says it will  help them check their understanding. Josh says they will have to justify their thinking.

Some groups sort the questions by topic, others by big ideas. One sorts them according to the PYP key concepts. Some groups sort and re-sort in different ways. Some sort them into deep and shallow questions, open and closed questions. I’ve seen Rubi encourage this this kind of thinking by having kids analyse questions through the question quadrant. They use the language: ‘That’s a closed question,’ ‘You could just google that,’ ‘ That’s too narrow, how do we make it a bigger idea’? ‘That’s just about facts, it’s not deep enough.’  We gather the questions, type the whole lot and cut them up, ready for sorting the next day.

To sum up the lesson, we ask students to give it a title. I ask what a title does and they tell me ‘It sums up what’s important,’ ‘It tells you the main idea’, ‘It tells you what it’s all about’. ‘It makes you want to know more’. Their titles fit the bill!

A conceptual central idea.

We introduce the central idea: ‘Our use of energy has an impact on the planet.’

Each group now gets the whole class’s questions and the task is to sort the pile into two groups… Those that relate to the central idea (the overarching conceptual understanding.) and those that don’t. The students are totally engaged as we move between groups and listen to the rich conversation. There is much debate and it doesn’t take long before they decide they need three groups or even four, because it isn’t as simple as that! Through the process, questions are further developed and refined.

Key concepts.

The key concepts which will be our lens for the inquiry are function ( how does it work?) and responsibility. We ask the students to get the laptops and create a quick cartoon using Toondoo to show their understanding of one of the two concepts in a clever way. Some create cartoons that connect to our central idea, others show examples that connect to their personal lives. The choice is theirs – the results are creative and thought-provoking! Back in groups, the students now pick out questions relating to each of these  key concepts….

Big ideas about the learning:

Officially, there has been no teaching yet. A few video clips, some ideas on the class blog to think about and the time described above spent provoking and developing thinking.

Yet, already…

  • Students have risen above the facts and are thinking on a conceptual level.
  • They are making connections with prior knowledge and constructing meaning for themselves.
  • They are asking and answering questions, organizing ideas and justifying their thinking.
  • The so-called ’21st century skills’ of creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration are all evident.
  • A host of other trans-disciplinary skills are being practised.
  • Curiosity has been sparked and there is excitement about taking the learning further.
  • Every single one of our school’s learning principles is evident.
Images: Responsibility by Amelia, Function by Gabi

Today we will be learning about…

Remember when we used to start a new unit with the words ‘Today we will be learning about...’? Sometimes what followed next was ‘Please turn to page 46′.

As a PYP school, we begin each unit of inquiry with a ‘provocation‘ that gets our learners thinking and wondering right away. If it’s powerful enough, it will arouse their curiosity and they’ll be right inside the unit  immediately, engaging with big ideas, asking relevant questions and motivated to inquire and explore further.

How might it look?

The central idea of our new Year 5 unit is

Investigating change through history helps us understand how the past has shaped the present‘.

Our program is concept driven, which means learners engage with big ideas, rather than focusing only on topics. We might explore a case study together, but the enduring understanding needs to transcend specific events and facts which are locked in time and place.

For this unit, the students moved between provocations in different rooms. In one room they googled maps through the ages. (Try entering ‘ancient world maps’ into google images and see what comes up.) In another room, there were piles of images and articles on the tables… from horse and carriage to electric cars, fashion through the ages, classrooms over time, articles about natural disasters, wars and women’s rights. In a third, the teacher shared an album of the life experiences of her father, a holocaust survivor. The task was simple. In each room consider and jot down the following:

What do you notice? What do you wonder?

Some examples of students’ wonderings:

  • How has the world changed and how have people reacted to the change?
  • How have massive changes like electricity affected the beautiful nature of  the world?
  • Which changes have made life better and how?
  • Why have machines for listening to music got smaller?
  • Why did things cost less in olden times? Was it because they were harder to make ?
  • Why did people invent things that can lead to disaster?
  • I wonder if the earth has changed since ancient times or if it’s the maps that have changed.
  • Has anything stayed the same over time? If so what and why?
  • I wonder what my grandchildren will think when they look at how things were in my day.
  • I wonder why we have cars and other modern inventions but in some countries they don’t.
  • Why are pictures from long ago black and white ?
  • Is it true that new ways to listen to music are better than old?
  • I wonder what things will look like in the future.
  • I wonder what technology was like in 19th century.
  • What did it feel like for people who were shipped to Australia?
  • I wonder what it was like for people who experienced the holocaust.
  • I wonder if people in ancient times thought the earth was flat
  • I wonder why I can’t see Australia on the ancient map.

The provocation has hooked them in! Once you experiment with this kind of teaching and learning, it’s impossible to go back to ‘Today we will be learning about...’