If it works for us…

As an educator, what’s the most valuable kind of PD been for you? In what context has your most meaningful or most exciting learning taken place?

Reflecting on my own professional learning in recent times and considering what was most effective for me, has made me think… If it works for us, it should work for them.

The most valuable learning for me has been through:

1. Blogging

Writing a blog has been a tool for synthesising my thoughts, clarifying my ideas and reflecting on my practice. Commenting on other blogs and responding to comments on my own has allowed me to engage in professional dialogue.

2. Following my passions

I love technology and the possibilities it opens up for flattening classroom walls.  I have spent the past year experimenting with ways to make it happen across the school and learned a huge amount in the process.

3. Collaboration

Collaborating with my online PLN in a variety of ways has supported my learning in so many ways. I have an in-school PLN too and we achieve our best thinking and learning when we work together.

4. Global connections

The benefits of  learning from and with interesting people around the globe are immeasurable. My learning is enriched by interactions, through Twitter, blogs and Skype, with people of other cultures, different backgrounds and varied interests.

5. Owning my learning

My most valuable learning has been in areas I have chosen, not via any compulsory staff PD. We’re making sure all staff PD for next year is based on choice.

6. Knowing why

Related to the one above,  starting from the ‘why, rather than ‘what’ or ‘how” makes all the difference to learning. Matching learning to goals and interests means getting much more out of it.

7. Meaningful feedback

Sharing my learning with colleagues at school and a global audience on my blog has meant opportunities for specific feedback to push my thinking forward and help me decide where to take my learning next.

8. Not sticking to the job description (curriculum)

I have learned a huge amount in the past few years by using my initiative to explore new possibilities and create my own opportunities. If I had limited myself to what was expected, I wouldn’t have moved forward in the ways I have.

9. Being curious

Asking questions. Experimenting with new ideas. Seeking information. Making new connections. Being open-minded.

10. Focusing on learning, not on teaching

The more I have focused on learning, both my own and that of my students, the better my teaching has become. It’s that simple.

If these are the factors that have enhanced my own learning, shouldn’t I be providing my students with exactly the same sorts of learning opportunities? Shouldn’t we all?

The Little School Up The Road

Guest post by Clive in Sri Lanka (cross posted at his blog)

#7 in the series ‘Learning in different contexts’

I’ve started working with the little Muslim School up the road from the office. Here are a few of the younger children. Just look at them – gotta love ’em!

You don’t have to look hard to see the same enthusiasm, zest for life, dreams, aspirations, sense of fun, capacity to learn, liveliness and potential as any kid in the West but I expect few will reach the same heights. Only a quarter will go on to A-Level and a fraction of those will go any higher.

This school has three computers – two are old and broken. I’m told the third works but there’s no internet and no computing teacher. More importantly, there’s no electricity. There’s no power for computers, or indeed the lighting, fans or photocopier, because the Department of Education won’t pay the bill (the limited funds they do have seem to go to the bigger schools first), and the community is too poor to find the money. I wonder if it’s pure coincidence that this is a mainly Tamil (minority) community. Computers are not the root problem, of course, just a symptom. Others include the fact that there don’t appear to be enough teachers, there were certainly no locum teachers covering leave or sickness, the school buildings and facilities are poor, and the lack of health care affects attendance, as do various other family concerns.

I’ve been to the school three times. The first time, both English teachers were present. The second, only one. The third, neither. I couldn’t understand the reasons for their absences but I’m meant to be assisting, not deputising. Last Thursday I ran five classes on my own! Luckily I could continue with the stuff I’d been doing previously but it’ll be interesting to see how this works out.

Meanwhile I’m enjoying working with the kids immensely. On both days I start off with grades 9 and 10 and then swap to the younger children. One of the reasons I survive, I think, is because of the novelty of being a white person there – when that eventually wears thin they’ll probably run rings around me!

On Thursday the older children were analysing pieces of English text to discover a person’s job and reasons for doing it. We discussed what jobs they’d like to do as adults. The girls mostly wanted to be teachers and doctors. The boys wanted to be a singer, business man, scientist, civil engineer, CID (Criminal Investigation Dept) officer and more. All excellent goals. I hope they achieve them.

In passing, their goals contrast markedly with those of the Indian kids I worked with before coming here. The best many hoped for was to become mothers or Tuc-Tuc drivers.

Global classroom…

I’ll have a new role in 2011. Teaching and Learning Coordinator. I love the title because those are the things that matter to me. I’ve always been a teacher and never aspired to be any kind of head. I’m not interested in admin, budgets, management or dealing with complaints. I care about learning. And next year I’m going to try and change its face…

Most of my own learning in the past couple of years has come from online interactions. Through conferences, blogs, Twitter, Skype… I have made some wonderful connections and broadened my thinking enormously. I have shared ideas about teaching and learning with educators on every continent. I have interacted with interesting people who have made me think in different ways about big ideas in education, about the world and about myself.

While it’s tough for me to imagine not having my own class, I hope I can make a bigger difference in my new role. What’s taken place in my own learning will apply to students too. I know the days of just learning in a room with walls are over. Just as I have expanded my learning sphere, so can they…

Last week I thought it was exciting that some of my Year 5 students were teaching Hebrew to a 15 year old in Colorado. The fact that a group of Year 6 students were coming to talk to kids in India at lunchtimes was amazing. This week, it’s becoming ordinary. We’re getting to used to it! Both groups had conversations today and they are beginning to take the lead themselves. I try to stay out of the way as much as possible.

It’s a model for what learning can look like. Should look like. I’m hoping gradually it will become commonplace. Groups of students learning from and with other kids anywhere in the world. Learners on different continents sharing, debating and discussing. Kids communicating and collaborating across the globe.

I asked Manish at the SOLE in Maharashtra why he’d enjoyed talking to the kids in Australia. He thought for a minute, then typed ‘We have a common thing which is talk freely with another childrens’. Indeed.

And it’s not even difficult to achieve.



Just a teacher…

Yesterday I bumped into someone I hadn’t seen for twenty years and she asked the predictable question: ‘ Are you still teaching?’ I am indeed. And still learning too.

Just a teacher..
By whatedsaid | View this Toon at ToonDoo | Create your own Toon

To be fair, she probably visualises a classroom of the sort in which she learned, with a teacher standing at the front droning on, possibly delivering the same lesson as last year and the year before and the fifteen years prior to that. She wouldn’t even begin to understand how much teaching and learning have changed…

She could never imagine the sort of class where students compose raps and create movies to explain their understanding of photosynthesis. She would be amazed to hear that an ‘Aspergian’ student can investigate how Aspergers affects people and get feedback from educators all over the world. She would have no idea that classroom walls can be flattened either, so that learning about other cultures can be enriched by live interactions on Skype with people worldwide. The amount of choice students are given in order to encourage them to take responsibility for their own learning would stun her. Kids didn’t participate in discussions about the goals of education and the relevance of standardized tests, when she went to school!

But more than any of those things.. when she asks if I am still teaching, she cannot possibly have any idea how exciting it is to be part of a community of learners, constantly sharing practice, investigating ideas and exploring new tools to enhance and support our students’ learning. If only she could have attended our professional development day and seen the passion of teachers teaching teachers, she would know better than to ask her question in that slightly disdainful way ever again.


Flexible learning space…

I had a great discussion with a colleague the other day, about the new flexible learning spaces at our junior campus. They’ll be moving next week and nothing will be the same again! She loves change and challenges, as do I, and listening to her speak passionately about the possibilities, I wished I was part of it.

The new building doesn’t have classrooms in the old sense of the word. Each year level has a series of spaces: one closed room for explicit teaching, an open space for group work, an area with computers, places for small group withdrawal and a student conferencing area. There are also outdoor patios, wet areas and project areas.

Teaching and learning in this sort of environment will be very a different experience. The teachers have worked with an expert in flexible learning spaces to help them shift their thinking about what teaching and learning might look like. They have been provided with a variety of team-building opportunities, since they will be working in teams at year levels now. They visited another school which has implemented a flexible learning environment to observe the day-to-day organisation of learning in this way.


While the outlook is positive on the whole,  some teachers are more excited than others about embracing change. There are those who might find the idea a little stressful. I loved the analogy they were given of people being led into a cave. The leader has a strong torch and knows the way forward. Those near the front can see where to go, but those further back have to trust the leader or follow blindly in the hope that someone further forward will be leading the way. The stragglers at the back who can’t keep up, might unfortunately never get there. I’d be pushing myself forward to see what the leader was seeing, but I know some people would turn back and just go somewhere else!

We recently developed a statement of our school’s learning principles. The new learning spaces should support these beliefs admirably. I’ve blogged about the process previously, but these are our articulated beliefs again:

Everyone has the potential to learn.

  • We learn in different ways, depending on abilities, learning styles, preferences and interests.
  • Learning takes place through inquiry: questioning, exploring, experimenting and problem solving.
  • Learning takes place when we make connections between previous and new understanding.
  • Learning for understanding occurs by acquiring skills and knowledge, constructing meaning and transfer to other contexts.
  • Learning is active and social and best takes place through collaboration and interaction.
  • Learning takes place when we feel secure and valued and are able to take risks.
  • Learning needs to be challenging, meaningful, purposeful and engaging.
  • Learning includes meta-cognition and reflection, and requires learners to take ownership of their learning.
  • Learning is continuous, lifelong and ever-evolving.

The days of the teacher closing the door and doing her own thing are over. There is no door. I can’t wait to hear more about it. Watch this (flexible learning) space!

Glass half full…

This morning I read @davidwees’s well written, sad but true, post entitled A Day in the Life of a Student. From that child’s perspective, school is a pointless and unrewarding experience. And yes, we need to work hard to change that model of school. But school doesn’t have to look like that. My inspiration for this post comes from some of the wonderful bloggers who share their practice generously with the world…

A ( different) day in the life of a student…

I wake up in the morning earlier than I want to. I’d rather stay in bed… but wouldn’t everyone? Once fully awake though, I remember some of the  exciting things happening at school and feel more positive about the day ahead.

I arrive at school and jostle through the over crowded hallway to get to Mr Rice’s science class. I  look forward to science because Mr Rice has a way of hooking me in with a provocation that gets my imagination going. He asks questions that get me thinking of even more questions, rather than answers. I love the way he gives us plenty of time to gather materials and find things out for ourselves, but helps us figure out stuff if we need him. I always know if I’m on the right track because he gives me constructive, explicit feedback. Today we’re playing with cornstarch and water to see what happens and I’m so engaged in my learning that I don’t even notice when the bell goes!

You wouldn’t believe it, but my next class is ‘show and tell’. I haven’t done that since I was 7! Mr Spencer is an awesome writer and genuinely caring person, not just a teacher. He really listens to what we say, but more than that, he hears what I don’t say too. Bringing something personal for today’s class is an opportunity to give something of myself in a secure setting. I can tell that Mr Spencer cares about what I’ve brought and wants to know more about why I’ve chosen it, which makes it a little easier to open up and share something so personal with the whole class. I know it’s helping him see me as a whole person with a story of my own.

I have a math test in my next class. I usually hate tests because learning is collaborative and suddenly they expect you to do everything on your own. Sometimes I panic because they say the grades are important and so I forget things I actually knew how to do. It’s different in Mr Lee’s class because of the Twitter back-channel. I look forward to tests! We use our handheld devices to communicate with each other if we need some support. Sounds like cheating doesn’t it? But it isn’t really, because math is not about getting an answer, it’s about a process. Collaboration is a key part of functioning in society today after all, and memorization isn’t.

I’m taking my lunch to Ms Miller’s Bloggers Cafe. She knows I have better things to do after school, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to write. Blogging helps me reflect on my learning and Ms Miller says I’m developing my writing skills. Reading blogs by students around the world gives me a better understanding of other people and other cultures.  But the most motivating thing of all is to find comments on my posts, written by people I don’t even know yet. Knowing I have a real live audience makes me want to write more and more.

It’s easy to forget that my next class takes place in a room with four walls. We use Skype with Ms Tolisano to learn from and with other teachers and learners around the world. This makes learning really meaningful. I mean, it’s not like teachers know everything there is to know and this is the 21st century, so why not communicate with people out there in every way that’s possible? For our research into Christopher Columbus, she called for ‘experts’ worldwide to Skype with us,  teachers and classes of all ages and backgrounds, to help us gain the broadest perspective possible. Who would have thought learning could be so cool?

I could go on and on. There are enough innovative teachers out there doing brilliant things to fill thousands of blog posts every day.

Educational reform? One passionate teacher at a time.

Did you ask a good question today?

Isidore Isaac Rabi, winner of a Nobel Prize for physics, when asked why he became a scientist, replied, “My mother made me a scientist without ever knowing it. Every other child would come back from school and be asked, ‘What did you learn today?’ But my mother used to say, ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’ That made the difference. Asking good questions made me into a scientist.”

I’ve been discussing inquiry with Jessica at Stars and clouds. We both work in PYP schools, where inquiry underpins all teaching and learning. We’re continuously looking for ways  to strengthen inquiry and to make it more student driven. Our conversation is about how to get learners asking questions, so that the inquiry is theirs, rather than teacher directed. This week’s #edchat tackled a similar issue and educators around the world shared their ideas about (and obstacles in) student directed learning.

Inquiry encourages students to be actively involved in and to take responsibility for their own learning. Inquiry learning allows each student’s understanding of the world to develop in a manner and at a rate  unique to that student. The starting point is students’ current understanding, and the goal is the active construction of meaning through:

  • exploring, wondering and questioning
  • experimenting and playing with possibilities
  • making connections between previous learning and current learning
  • making predictions and acting purposefully to see what happens
  • collecting data and reporting findings
  • clarifying existing ideas and reappraising perceptions of events
  • deepening understanding through the application of a concept
  • making and testing theories
  • researching and seeking information
  • taking and defending a position
  • solving problems in a variety of ways.    (Making the PYP Happen)

Here’s my take on it…

INQUIRY LEARNINGBy whatedsaid | View this Toon at ToonDoo | Create your own Toon

The more we plan, the more teacher directed it becomes. If we have a very detailed idea in advance of where the lesson (or the unit or the semester) will go then it’s not  inquiry. What we do need to plan is really strong provocations to get students engaged in the big ideas, so that they’ll be motivated to question, wonder, inquire, explore… and learn.

Still thinking…  please join me.


10 ways to assess learning without tests…

A tweet by @wmchamberlain which caught my eye the other day,  was the catalyst for this 10 ways post.

Today’s #edchat discussion about the arts got me thinking further (as always).  The arts can be integrated across other disciplines and can add another powerful layer to learning, be it history, maths, literature or bible! (but that can be another post). For now, why not replace some traditional testing with opportunities for creative expression? I’ve included some such options in my list of alternative assessments.

Every one of these tasks includes natural differentiation for different levels of ability. They are written in general terms and can be adapted and applied as required. Use the ideas individually or combine aspects of different ones.

1. Create a cartoon.

Use the online cartoon creator, ToonDoo, to create a cartoon (or toonbook) which demonstrates your knowledge, explains your thinking about a topic or illustrates your understanding of a concept.

2. Produce a play.

Work with your group to produce and present a play which demonstrates what you have learnt. Make sure to include your own interpretation and analysis. Show how your new knowledge can be applied in other contexts.

3. Make a video.

Make a video to demonstrate your learning. Your video can include acting or singing. You might create an animation or a documentary. Show what your have understood and add your own interpretation.

4. Create a slideshow.

Select a series of images that relate to your learning. Take your own photographs to include in your slideshow. Include your own paintings. Make connections between the images and what you have learned. Add text that explains why you have chosen (or created) these particular images.

5. Thinking routines.

Create a headline that shows your understanding of the topic. Choose a colour, symbol and image to represent the essence of what you have learned. Explain how your thinking has developed using the ‘I used to think, now I think’ routine. (More options at PZ Visible Thinking )

6. Write a blog post.

Write a blog post that shows your learning, or clarifies your thinking. You might choose to express yourself  through poetry or narrative, or any genre of your choice. Remember you are writing for an authentic audience who might respond and ask questions. Add appropriate images. Include a reflection on your learning.

7. Compose a song.

Compose a song that expresses your learning, understanding or opinions. Compose your own music or write new lyrics that can be sung to the melody of an existing song. Collaborate with other musicians to compose and present your piece.

8. Solve a problem.

Use your skills and knowledge to provide a solution (or solutions) to a real life problem posed by your teacher. Show how you can apply your learning in a different context. Or create your own problem. Exchange with a peer and solve each others’.

9. Concept mapping.

Show your understanding of how the different parts of your learning are connected using a graphic organizer. Use a thinking map from Exploratree, one provided by your teacheror create one of your own.  Show the development of your ideas by creating a concept map in Spicynodes.

10. Student choice.

Best of all. Present your understandings/ learning/ findings/analysis… in any way you like.

I know this post is an over-simplification. It depends on what you’re assessing. It might depend on who you’re assessing. And the purpose of the assessment. But irrespective of the age or ability of your students, whether you’re assessing skills, knowledge, understanding, technique or application of knowledge to other contexts… all of the above are valid, more engaging, more meaningful alternative to tests.

More posts in the ’10 ways’ series


Letter from India…

Series on Learning in Different Contexts #3

I often blog about how excited I am at flattening classroom walls and creating opportunities for meaningful global learning. I wrote recently about my mentor group for our PYP exhibition unit and their Skype conversation with Raj in India. Max, one of the students in the group, emailed Raj afterwards with a couple of final questions to round off his understanding of education in India. He wondered if Raj could tell him about his own school experiences and compare them to his son’s education.

Within a couple of days, we received 12 emails with different perspectives on schooling in India! Raj had asked friends and colleagues of varied ages and backgrounds to describe their schooldays and compare them with education in India today. What an interesting collection of primary sources to enrich learning for the students and bring their inquiry to life! This post is one of  them…

Guest post by Jaya, a user experience designer at Zoho Corp, Chennai

I went to school in the rural parts of  Tamil Nadu – my native village, until my 5th standard. It was a typical government school, classes under the tree and small rooms. My class teacher was a tenant in my house, so imagine my freedom at school. I could go when I wanted to and rest otherwise – No questions asked. It went on this way till I was in first standard.

When we moved to the nearby town, I joined a new school – a private one but still in Tamil medium. English medium schools were then definitely for people with educated parents.  The school that I joined was supposedly a premium school, running for more than 40 years in the same place, managed by an elderly couple. We had the school food (government provides free food) every day, did all teacher house work,  sweeping and folding their clothes. But it was not imposed on us, we did it as fun! It was a privilege to know that teacher would drink water which I fetched for her. No restrooms, only the school compound wall for your natural calls – one side of it for boys and other for girls!!

I knew c-a-t in my third standard and knew that there existing vowels in English in 5th standard. But we wereintroduced to a lot of Tamil reading. We even had a small playground. Near our compound, an old lady would be selling all exciting eatables like raw mangoes and amlas  as per the seasons. No pressure, no homework, no ranks systems, not much of tests, no failures even. We used to have a reading session after meal everyday, and I still remember how mesmerized we would be listening to the other person reading the book. We would wait for our chance! One teacher handled two classes and almost every subject, don’t ask me how and worse still, two classes shared the same room too.  It reminds me of J.Krishnamurti’s  school philosophy where they do not divide classes based on the kid’s age, it is like varied age groups sitting in the same classes, for at least a few sessions. I am proud we were doing this in our village itself, even if it was due to space and people constraint.

After fifth we moved to Chennai and joined an English medium school. It took some time to adjust to the new area, new friends, new school… Wearing shoes and carrying a huge bag were few of our shocks. We me and my sister) rather took it as a challenge. We used to get very low marks, handwriting so poor, and I remember kneeling outside the class too. I used to fail in English till my 8th standard and obviously get the first mark in Tamil. After 9th, I think something changed, not sure what, it was probably our attitude that paid us. We were improving in all levels. No more failures in English, no more shy and timid person. I became the third rank holder and somewhat identified as an intelligent girl.

Education in India now is so different, urban schools compete with one another for name and fame, students and money. I think we have moved to a complex mode of education. There is lot of competition, lot of expectation from parents. I do not think that my father even knew how much I was scoring in school, but nowadays parents are expected to memorize the child’s syllabus. I actually want my child to enjoy school rather than study. I want him to have pleasant experience! I do not pester him to study or put pressure to excel, which my parents never did to me.

My education was not just with books and classes but everything other than that.  I am glad that I had it this way, because I realize that without it I would not be what I am today!