Start with the child…

Start with the child, not the curriculum. Schooling is currently organised the wrong way around. The curriculum becomes the structure for the learning and is delivered via a timetable. Yet we know that every child is different so there cannot be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to schooling. Learning and teaching should be designed around each child’s learning strengths and needs. In this way, the curriculum is the reference point, not the blueprint. 

~Greg Whitby

On the first day back after the summer break, we introduce our 2017 focus to our team of educators:

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Check in: Choose a word that describes one of your strengths and then one you would like to work towards.

Sharing the justification for our choices serves both as an ice breaker in the cross campus, multi-year level groups, and as a provocation to think about and value the diversity amongst us.

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A provocation: Watch till 2:38 and create a title that sums up the essence.

The video provokes a range of responses and lively conversation ensues. To what extent are we guilty?

Pre-thinking: Create an image that represents your first thoughts about the notion of starting with the child.

There are rich conversations about the possible connotations of the phrase and an exchange of ideas about what it might mean to us.

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An appreciative inquiry…

Discover: What are we already doing?

It’s important to acknowledge the many ways in which we already start with the child.  This activity creates a space for cross pollinating ideas and sharing practice.

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Dream: What are the possibilities for taking it further? 

Teachers are encouraged to imagine. What if…? How might we..? Could we…? How would we…?

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  • How do we ensure we cater for diverse needs and interests?
  • How might we rid ourself of the idea of a controlled classroom?
  • Imagine if we didn’t have grades and reports.
  • What if we could get rid of Naplan?
  • What if we had one free choice unit of inquiry every year?
  • What if the children wrote the curriculum?
  • What if we didn’t have timetables?
  • How might we increase opportunities for cross age learning?
  • How might we build a culture where all children value each other?
  • How can we ensure social and emotional wellbeing of every child?
  • What if there were no bells interfering with learning?
  • How might we help every child to believe in himself?

Design: What will you do?

We ask teachers to record something they will start working on right away.

What will you do? Try out? Think about? Explore? Change? How will you ensure that you start with the child?

What if education was about improving the world?

12-year-old E is passionate about changing the world. While some of her peers struggle to extend their personal interests into deeper or broader explorations for the PYP expedition, E wrestles with how to narrow her focus down.

She cares deeply about everything. Her ‘top 10 list’ includes a range of human rights and environmental issues and she can’t decide which to explore further first. I ask if she’d like to begin by identifying a change she could work on that could make a difference at school, before taking on the world, and she likes the idea.

E quickly sees a way to take this further. She will ask the children of the world (well, those she can get access to!) how they would change their schools and how they would change the world. Analysing the data will answer a range of questions about which she’s wondering and might help her decide on her next move.

Can you spread the word to help her reach a broader audience? Here’s her survey, if you can share it with young people you know. This is E’s investigation, but I’m looking forward to seeing the responses too.

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I’m intrigued by an idea in the first paragraph of Marc Prensky’s book:

Our current education is wrong for the future not because we haven’t added enough technology, or because we haven’t added enough so-called 21st century skills, or because we don’t offer it to everyone equally, or even because we haven’t tried hard to incrementally improve it. Our current K– 12 education is wrong for the future because it has— and we have— the wrong ends or goals, in mind. Up until now, education has been about improving individuals. What education should be about in the future is improving the world – and having individuals improve in the process. ~ Education to Better Their World by Marc Prensky.

It seems that while encouraging E in her exploration, I’ll be pursuing my own parallel inquiry…

10 ways for leaders to encourage agency…

My school’s focus this year, more than ever, is on student ownership and many teachers have set themselves the goal of increasingly letting go.  It’s been six years since I wrote 10 ways to encourage students to take responsibility for their learning and it’s still the post with the most hits on this blog, on a daily basis.  

Looking back at this surprisingly popular post about student ownership, I realise that most of the tips identified are the behaviours that effective modern leaders exhibit, leaders who wish to encourage autonomy and to shift from a hierarchical model of leadership to a distributed one.

And once again I note that what works with kids, works as much with adults!

What kind of leader are you? Ask yourself these questions… (not just if you’re a manager.)

1. Who makes the decisions?

How often do you ask your teachers, parents and students what they think? How do you ensure shared ownership of decision making? Do you work collaboratively to define problems and develop solutions?

2. Are you open to other perspectives?

Do you come with preconceived ideas, ask others’ opinions, then do what you wanted to do anyway? Or are you open to the ideas and perspectives of others, especially if supported by knowledge, experience and evidence?

3. Do you listen more than you talk?

Do you really listen to the people above, below and beside you? Do you listen to the changing world around you…? 

4. Do you model behaviors and attitudes that promote learning?

Do you talk about your own learning? Are you an inquirer? Are you an active participant in the learning community? Do you model and encourage enthusiasm, open-mindedness, curiosity and reflection?

5. Do you take an inquiry stance?

You don’t need to be the expert. Do you explore, experiment, reflect, learn from failures, try again… collaboratively? 

6.  How do you get your people involved?

How do you ‘invite participants in’ and get them excited to explore an issue further? Do you plan every detail or do you leave space for your people to make their mark?

7.  Do you value initiative above compliance?

Do your teachers know the reason for everything you ask them do? Do you implement one-size-fits-all rules that ensure compliance? Or do you encourage your people to use common sense and rely on professional judgment? Do you celebrate initiative?

8.  Do you focus on growth rather than accountability?

What kind of performance reviews do your teachers have? Are they evaluated against a list of preset criteria? Or do they have opportunities to set their own goals and have support and encouragement to grow?

9. Do you encourage reflection and seek feedback?

Do you get your teachers and leaders to reflect on experiences and initiatives and think about how they might be improved? Can you take notice of what they say and plan ahead based on their feedback?

10.  Do you display an innovator’s mindset?

Do you constantly look at things through fresh lenses? Do you ask yourself, and those around you, what you could change and how you could improve things? Are you willing to seek solutions that lie beyond the known, in the realm of emergent practice?

And remember… You can lead from anywhere.

Change…

We started the new school year after the summer break, with a focus on ownership of learning for teachers and students alike.  A couple of months later, our exciting Unleashing Learning conference provoked further thinking and action, followed by a week of learning and sharing with Sam Sherratt. And now, as the seasons change and we settle into the year, it’s exciting to observe bright spots of colour and evidence of new growth…

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One team is exploring a new project based approach to maths. Another is experimenting with unleashing writing through play. Year 6 is investigating a year-long approach to the PYP exhibition, allowing students time to discover what they really care about, with a greater focus on sharing the learning journey. Two different groups are reading and discussing The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros.

Teacher A has let go of control and seen what happens when students have agency. Teacher B is well on the way and feeling the exhilaration of learning unleashed. C wants to rethink the school musical and find a way to give students more ownership. D has realised that authentic, meaningful learning experiences trump delivering curriculum… and noticed that much more of the curriculum is addressed incidentally via this approach! E is rethinking the way she used to do things and collaborating with others to reimagine her role. F and G are changing the way they reflect with their teams and refining the process as they go. H is breathing imagination and creativity into everything she touches… And I? 

I hear the steady drumbeat of hope for real and meaningful change.

Once unleashed, there’s no stopping the learning… 

From ‘doing school’ to learning 2day…

I’ve just had my first experience of a #Learning2 conference and loved the opportunities to…

  • engage with big ideas.
  • be challenged and have my thinking pushed.
  • be inspired by the messages of passionate, thoughtful educators.
  • present my ideas to others.
  • learn with and from educators of diverse ages, experiences, backgrounds and roles.
  • connect with people who share my interests and people willing to share theirs.
  • identify problems and develop ideas to overcome them.
  • listen, talk, share, think, question… and dream.
  • tailor the learning experience to to suit my needs!

The ‘Disrupt Strand’ was a different kind of experience, not least for the opportunity to work with facilitators Sam Sherratt and Rebekah Madrid and other educators who care deeply about learning and the state of education. Other people who, as the descriptor on the website states:

  • prefer learning in an inquiry-based, unstructured environment.
  • are comfortable with the unknown and enjoy working in teams.
  • are happiest when learning is messy.
  • are often the ‘early adopters’, the ‘lone nut’ or the innovators at their school.

It was a personalised learning experience, in which the participants had the opportunity to work in teams to develop something we would like to implement over the next school year.

My team (which had representation from Australia, Singapore and China… as well as South Africa, India and New Zealand, if you count where people are from, not just where they work!) grappled with ideas for shifting from ‘doing school’ to the way we think learning should look today. We refined our ideas after chatting with a couple of grade 5 students from ISM, who shared their perceptions of school, what’s important to them and how it could be better. 

The problem: How can we break the restrictive moulds which limit the learning in our schools? (Single subject silos, rigid timetables, confined classrooms, grouping by age) and work towards a more flexible model that allows for more personalisation, choice and ownership? 

Our pitch: What if school was like #Learning2?

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Pitching to the judges
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Pitching to the whole conference
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The team

Can we (that includes you) introduce one LEARNING2 day at a time, until eventually it becomes LEARNING TODAY? 

Watch this space if you want to join us!

Does your practice align with your beliefs?

The power of filming and then watching yourself teach has become evident during our coaching and growth review processes. What did you notice? What are the patterns?  What do they make you think? What surprised you? Does what you see yourself doing match what you think you do?

On a larger scale, having educators from other schools visit us in the past few weeks has provided a similar opportunity. Viewing ourselves through the eyes of others and becoming aware of different perspectives has been both validating and enlightening. In the process of planning for and evaluating the visits and observing our school’s practice through a different lens, we have asked ourselves the same sorts of questions. Does our practice align with our beliefs about learning?

Some years ago we spent time collaboratively developing a set of learning principles that encapsulate our beliefs about how learning best takes place. Since then we have worked at deepening understanding of these principles and ensuring that they underpin every decision we make in regard to learning within our school. 

Our learning principles:

  • We learn in different ways, depending on abilities, preferences and interests.
  • Learning takes place through inquiry: questioning, exploring, experimenting and problem solving.
  • Learning includes acquisition of skills and knowledge, constructing meaning and transfer to different contexts.
  • Learning is active and social and is enhanced by collaboration and interaction.
  • Learners need to feel secure, valued and able to take risks.
  • Learning needs to be challenging, meaningful, purposeful and engaging.
  • Learning includes meta-cognition and reflection, which support learners taking ownership of their learning.

Developing learning principles is the easy part.

How do you ensure that practice aligns with beliefs?

Initially this reflection led me to thinking about the barriers; factors that are often out of my/ our/ sometimes-even-the-school’s control, but I’ve started building a list of things that are working well so we can consider how to amplify those. (This is the influence that exploring coaching has had on my thinking. I can even coach myself now!)

As educators we live the learning principles ourselves through…

How does your school ensure that your practice aligns with your beliefs?

The school effect…

Do you encourage learners to construct meaning and make sense of the world around them?
Or do you feel bound by the constraints of the curriculum?

Do you encourage creativity, imagination and initiative?
Or is it more important that students learn to play to the game of school?

Are you constantly seeking ways to pique learners’ curiosity and provoke thinking ?
Or are you usually covering content and ensuring they learn what they need to know?

My curious grandson Shai is a fearless explorer and learner at the age of two, and I often wonder what effect school will have on him.

Imagination

Here’s what four year olds said about imagination…

What is your imagination?

  • When you think about something that’s not real.
  • It could be something that you dream about like a dragon that could bite you.
  • My imagination is a rainbow coloured.
  • It gives you stories.
  • It gives you pictures in your head.
  • I think my imagination starts in my head but then it just pops out of your head.

Do adults have an imagination?

  • It’s only for children because it’s very special.
  • I think adults do have imagination as well, but children’s are better.
  • Adults think about real things.

And then here’s what Grade 2s said about stories…

(They had just been exposed to a range of lovely stories told in different ways!)

What do you know about stories?

  • They have a beginning, a middle and an end.
  • They have words in them.
  • They have to be read.
  • Some are fiction and some are non fiction.
  • It can’t just be short.
  • They have characters.

Why do we tell stories?

  • To get information.
  • So we can learn from them.
  • To use up time.
  • So we learn new words.

Hmm… Is that the ‘school effect’?

The great divide…

I read Dale Worsley’s post this morning and thought about how lucky I am to work in a primary school with a dynamic learning culture, where passionate teachers constantly seek the most engaging and meaningful ways for their young learners to take ownership of their learning, where the learning is for ‘now’ AND for the kind of future in which they will live and learn.

I recently received this email from a friend whose daughter has just started High School (She’s 12. In Australia, children move from Primary School directly to High School. We don’t have Middle School as a separate stage).

My daughter’s education to date has been nothing short of remarkable. She has soaked up and been enticed by all that the school has to offer.

She has inquired and pushed boundaries. She has investigated and wondered her way through the most intriguing PYP journey. She is a thinker and has loved being knee deep in creative expression and pondering units of inquiry that encouraged her to be open minded and inquire into things she wonders about. With amazing guidance, she whole heartedly explored her area of passion and with excitement and exuberance presented her findings at the Year 6 exhibition.

Now in year 7, her school bag is full of thick text books (which also sit on her iPad) which travel to and from school. She sits at night working through pages of maths problems from the text books. Just as I had done when I was in high school (a million years ago) … A little archaic.

I understand it is very early days yet, but where has that amazing transformative thinking gone? The creative learning that is so full of colour and excitement…

Please tell me Ed, that it is on its way????

My sad reply: ‘I cant’

And again I wonder about the great divide between primary schools and (many) high schools…

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  • Why is that as soon as our students turn 12, they need to start preparing for the demands of VCE and university entry?
  • Why are the demands of formal education frequently out of touch with the reality of the world in which our students live and LEARN and contribute? (independently, without the assistance of school!)
  • Why do many high school students still do the same kinds of things their parents and teachers did when they went to school, while the rest of the world changes rapidly and dramatically?
  • Why did a parent once reprimand a high school teacher whom I know for encouraging the students to (gasp) think instead of preparing them for the exams?
  • Why should the focus shift from learning (in primary school) to work (in high school)?
  • Why should grades and results matter more than thinking, learning how to learn and contributing to the world in a meaningful way?

 

A thoughtful response by @alohalavina – Crossing the Great Divide

Why can’t school look like this?

The playground is covered in white and the children are pressed up against the window observing a new phenomenon. It’s hailing…

I know this because of a video posted on the regularly updated Facebook page, via which I observe my 16 month old grandson learning.

His environment can’t be called ‘child care’, as there is so much more than simply ‘care’ going on there, every minute of every day. It’s no coincidence that the Hebrew word ‘gannenet’ means both a preschool teacher and a gardener, since they both nurture those in their care and encourage them to grow!

The next batch of photos show a jug of hail being passed around so that all the children can observe and explore it. Some touch, some taste… each seems absorbed in their own discovery.

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On other occasions, the gannenet posts unedited videos or photos of both planned and spontaneous learning experiences, of free play and interactions between the children, who are aged from several months to three years. The learning is made visible to parents and grandparents via these instant updates. Sometimes she includes comments and observations, other times I observe for myself. Either way I find it fascinating!

I know this is nothing special to early childhood educators, but I’ve always taught older kids. When my own children were young, I was probably too busy being a mum to observe the process of their learning in the way a granny can, so I find what she shares appealing on a number of levels, beyond simple pleasure at watching Shai’s development.

Passion for learning…

I’m a teacher and a learner, passionate about learning in all its contexts, so I value this opportunity to observe inquiry learning at its best – provoking young children’s curiosity about the world around them and standing by while they explore and construct meaning for themselves.

Beliefs about learning…

It’s interesting and validating to see evidence of my school’s learning principles in these tiny, natural learners. Inquiry comes naturally. They construct meaning and apply their learning in different contexts. They learn in different ways. They are actively engaged, the learning is social and often collaborative. I believe I can even see them thinking about their learning 🙂

Wondering about learning…

Observing the learning in this context makes me reflect on the typical school system and its limiting structures, designed for another era, within (or despite) which most of our students are expected to learn.

It makes me wonder:

  • Why can’t schools have multi-age classes, where kids at different stages can learn with and from each other?
  • Why are play, experimentation and exploration not valued more as ways of learning? (not just for little kids)
  • Why doesn’t schooling include a blend of planned learning, natural inquiry and free choice?
  • What if lessons stopped when opportunities for authentic learning occurred in the environment?
  • Why isn’t the process of learning shared regularly online, rather than via official reporting at the end of a semester?
  • Will there ever be a time when learning is assessed, not by comparative grades, but by teachers’ thoughtful observation and students’ ability to express their learning in multiple ways? (even in high school) 
  • What if all teachers in all schools valued curiosity and creativity more than compliance and completion of work? 

Thank you, Shai’s gannenet!