Doing school vs (real) learning…

I love chatting with my colleague about approaches to pedagogy and how to encourage teachers to reflect and grow. This week’s conversation gets us thinking about a shift in focus required for (some) beginning teachers… and some who’re not beginning.

We attempt to define it. Is it a shift in focus from:

  • Teaching to learning?
  • Teacher centred to student centred?
  • Work to learning?
  • Short term to long terms goals?
  • Content to process?
  • All of the above?

How often do you say these sorts of things in your classroom?

  • This is how you need to do the task.
  • Don’t publish till you show me what you have written.
  • Your answer is ok but it’s not the one I’m looking for. (not necessarily in those words)
  • This is how you can improve your work.
  • Don’t move to the next step till I say so.
  • Stop (in the middle of what you’re doing/thinking/learning) and listen to my instructions.
  • I want you to…

Are you depriving your students of opportunities to make decisions and reflect on them, learn from mistakes, become independent learners, think for themselves and… really LEARN?

What are the effects when teachers say things like this? (Observed in class visits this week)

  • What do you think is the best way to go about this? Why do you think so?
  • Create your own experiment, if you think it will be more effective.
  • How would you teach this to students of any age of your choice?
  • It doesn’t matter what I think, what do you think?
  • How and why would you go about developing new vocabulary? (second language)
  • You know more about this than me, what do you suggest?
  • What did you learn about yourself as a learner?

Consider your practice….

Are you providing opportunities for meaningful learning?

Or are you and your students ‘doing school’?

Lauri, Year 3
“Can you go and find some good microscopes for around $100? You know more about these things than me…”
Year 6 PYP exhibition information night
Sharing with parents what we’ve been learning and what we’re interested in exploring.
Year 4 - Adventure Time
Creating emotion balls as part of an ‘Adventure Time‘ exploration of mindfulness
Year 4 Adventure Time
Getting feedback from peers before pitching to the class, rather than just asking the teacher

An inquiry into how the world works -2

It’s the first time our Year 6 students are exploring the trans-disciplinary theme ‘How the World Works’ for their PYP ‘exhibition‘ inquiries.

We initially have some concerns…

How will we ensure it goes beyond a science fair?
Will all students engage with science in a meaningful way?
How will we make sure the learning is rich and deep, with opportunities for every learner to find something about which they are passionate?

We develop a few conceptual understandings which we’d like the learners to reach…

  • Science provides a lens through which to look at the world.
  • People apply their understanding of science to solve problems and meet needs.
  • Scientific and technological advances have an impact on society and the environment.

And some strong provocations to hook them in and get them thinking…

They are inspired by Louie Schwartzberg’s TED talk – Hidden Miracles of the Natural World, in particular this, which provokes them to think about science in new ways…

What is the intersection between technology, art and science? Curiosity and wonder, because it drives us to explore, because we’re surrounded by things we can’t see.

After unpacking the trans-disciplinary theme, students enjoy a ‘Science Exploration Day’ during which they explore all areas of the school – the garden, the cafeteria, the nurses station and more – taking photos which they later connect to the various strands of science.

Visitors Sam and Jethro, a couple of young inventors, expose the students to the design process. The children need to come up with an idea and  go through the design process to create something new from what is already known.

Prototype for a creature created through the design process, which will move via electrical circuit
Prototype for a creature created through the design process, which will move via electrical circuit

Our learners quickly show an awareness of science in our world, further enhanced by an excursion to the city, where they choose to visit either the museum or the art gallery as well as various parks and buildings. Taking purposeful photos helps them NOTICE and NAME science everywhere and heightens awareness of how humans apply their knowledge of science too.

This week they they also begin their explorations of science through a choice of creative media – art, music, dance, animation, photography, poetry or design (electronics and coding).

Comparing the sounds made by different instruments
Comparing the sounds made by different instruments
Photographing the natural world with macro lenses
Photographing the natural world with macro lenses
Creating movements that replicate nature
Creating movements that replicate nature

Excitement is high.

It’s already apparent that our early concerns were unnecessary.

The children are totally immersed in their learning, already considering what interests them most, what they are passionate about and why, what they might like to explore further and how… They will have plenty of time to think, experiment, investigate and ask themselves not just WHAT? but SO WHAT? and NOW WHAT? before deciding on their chosen inquiries.

This is a far cry from offering a range of topics for students to choose between and creating random groups in which they will work, an approach often used in classrooms and even PYP exhibition units.

This is all about choice and student voice and learners taking ownership of their learning. It’s about learners having opportunities to find and solve problems and explore real issues that matter.

It’s an opportunity for rich, meaningful learning. I can’t wait to see how it all unfolds…

What does inquiry learning look like?

Our PYP evaluation went really well and it was gratifying to hear the evaluators’ positive observations of our school.

They talked about our dynamic learning spaces, the energy of our teachers and learners and the respect that is evident between staff and students. They were impressed by how articulate our students are and the openness of our teachers. It was clear to them that the entire school community has a deep understanding of the PYP philosophy and that we have a strong culture of learning.

Almost all their recommendations are things on which we are either working already or have identified for action through the self study.

There’s only one thing I found jarring in their feedback and it relates to my beliefs about inquiry learning. They noted that neither students nor teachers seem able to identify what particular inquiry cycles we follow. They said the children to whom they spoke didn’t seem to be aware of the specific ‘stages’ of inquiry and that most teachers couldn’t articulate how an inquiry cycle directs our planning.

To be honest, I’m glad.

If it’s something we need to clarify, we will, of course, and perhaps it will be helpful for newer teachers to be aware of some of the inquiry cycles we have visited along the way. Over time, we have worked with both Kath Murdoch’s and Kathy Short’s inquiry cycles and examined some others. But I’m proud of the fact that most of us no longer need to use a specific inquiry model to guide our planning for inquiry – our planning looks more like this and this.

We’ve worked hard to develop an understanding that inquiry learning is messy and NOT limited to a step by step approach. True inquiry learning is neither linear nor cyclical, but rather moves back and forth between the different stages identified by most of the inquiry models.

Kath Murdoch herself, whose inquiry cycle is slavishly followed in many schools writes this – ‘ It’s hard to do justice to the complexities and nuances of inquiry in writing. So much gets lost. Something that is rich, layered and multidimensional can come across as flat, linear and recipe-like. Over the years, I have published several books that share a ‘cycle of inquiry’ and the kinds of learning engagements that we might design within a cycle. I have seen hundreds of interpretations of this idea in classrooms. Many have been gratifying and exciting. Teachers who really ‘get’ the intention, understand the complexity and invite their students into the learning have blown me away with what they have done. And I have also seen (and heard) many bewildering versions or iterations of the cycle that are such a long way off the original conceptualization and intent! Ironically, I have seen slavish adherence to a cycle actually impede rather than enhance inquiry.’ (Read the whole post here.)

Interestingly, I remember that educators who did the IB workshop leader training with me, when engaging in our own inquiries, all noticed that our learning journeys did not follow the inquiry models on which we were supposed to base our inquiries. Participants realised that the inquiry process moves back and forth between asking, investigating, reflecting, connecting and constructing meaning. Some groups found they even shifted between more than one ‘model’. I recall that some of the high school teachers in particular, less familiar with this kind of learning, admitted to feeling a degree of discomfort. But it’s the kind of positive tension that leads to authentic learning.

If anything, I rather like the star shaped model, based on the work of Barbara Stripling, which Dave Truss of the Inquiry Hub wrote about a while ago. I like the idea of ‘inquiry points’ much more than the more common models of ‘inquiry cycles’. Inquiry can start at any of the points and bounce between them, rather than moving in a defined order. Too often in (so called) inquiry learning contexts, teaching and learning follow a prescribed order, as per one or another inquiry model.

I’m proud to work in a school where inquiry is a natural, non-linear process and teachers are encouraged to listen to the children’s learning and plan responsively, rather than follow a prescribed path that has been set in advance. This is true inquiry. It has no map, no set pattern and it can be messy…

Students as innovators…

Guest post by Claire, one of our Grade 5 teachers, discovering the power of letting go. The headings are my commentary…

Opportunities for creativity and innovation…

Over the last week, my team of Year 5 teachers, together with Edna, have been planning a unit of inquiry into energy. We had already established the rubric for conceptual understandings that was to guide our inquiry but were looking for ways to allow for more creativity.

Provocation to encourage thinking and action…

The opportunity arose in my class when, after an initial provocation and some personal research into energy, a student declared that he would like to create something electronic. This caused a flurry of excitement as other students started contributing their ideas about things that they would like to create.

Student generated thinking and inquiry…

They realised that in order to make their inventions they would have to research the scientific principles behind them. They wondered whether their inventions would be helpful or harmful to the environment.

Connections with prior learning…

In order to find the required information, the children felt that the internet was the obvious first source. As we had recently inquired into digital citizenship, it was heartening when a student reminded us that we would have to check for authenticity.

Student ownership and decision-making…

Some students felt that we still needed people to help clarify information and assist us in the process of creation. After brainstorming a variety of people ranging from parents and grandparents to scientific experts, I smiled internally when I saw that my name was not on the list. Was it because they thought that I was hopeless at science or has owning their own iPads enabled them to take more control over their own learning, increasingly leaving me in the role of facilitator?

Attitudes required for innovation…

Not all students were so excited about this idea and felt that it was ‘hard’ to create something and they were afraid of failing. After much discussion they decided that they would have to be risk-takers and show commitment if they were to embark on this process.

Letting go…

I am now ready to introduce the central idea, ‘Humans use their understanding of scientific principles to create a more sustainable world’ and I’m really look forward to seeing what will evolve.

Me too. ~ Ed 

It’s not about making learning happen, it’s about letting it happen…

“It’s not about making learning happen, it’s about letting it happen”… This is the crux of Sugata Mitra’s message, whether he is talking about minimally invasive education, self organised learning environments or the School in the Cloud.

It’s very different from traditional approaches to education, but not so far removed from the student centred, inquiry driven learning that takes place at my school.

My colleague Jocelyn, with the task of teaching her spelling group Latin and Greek derivations, decides to let go even more than usual and use the SOLE approach.

She begins with Sugata’s ‘Child Driven Education’ TED talk as an introduction to provoke their thinking. All she does is show the video and ask her eleven/twelve-year-old learners to make observations and connections…

  • You don’t need a teacher to teach you If you want to learn.
  • It’s like a process – we learn from each other just like the kids in India at the hole in the wall.
  • If we do our own exploration, we will learn more skills.
  • If we find out and understand for ourselves where spelling comes from, we are more likely to learn it and remember.
  • We can choose what we want to learn and we learn more when we are passionate about it.
  • When you set your mind to something you can do it.
  • Sometimes we just need someone to look over and tell us we are good.
  • You need curiosity to learn.
  • Kids learn by themselves. If they have an interest they will learn.
  • Learn how kids want to learn and they will learn.

In the next lesson, Joc introduces the ‘big question’ – How have other languages influenced English words?  She explains that in self organised learning environments, learners are free to choose their own groups and to move freely between groups. They will need to present their learning to others in an engaging way at the end.

And then… she lets the learning happen!

Marty forms a group of six and suggests they go through each step of the information process -define, locate, select, organise, present. By the end of the lesson, they have broken the big questions down into three inquiry questions and begun to explore. They will consider many ways to present but only choose later, so that they will be able to see the mode of presentation that suits best.

Raf’s group realises they need some background knowledge as they only know a little about Greek and Latin roots. They immediately start researching and are very excited to find out that the English language has developed over time from so many different sources. They are intrigued to discover the extent to which wars have influenced the language.

Each of the groups decides how they want to approach the learning and every group is different.

Every one of our learning principles underpins this inquiry

  • We learn in different ways, depending on abilities, preferences and interests.
  • Learning takes place through inquiry: questioning, exploring, experimenting and problem solving.
  • Learning 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 needs to be challenging, meaningful, purposeful and engaging.
  • Learning includes meta-cognition and reflection, and requires learners to take ownership of their learning.

The learners are highly engaged and motivated. The teacher sits back and observes the learning unfold…

This is how inquiry teachers teach!

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

– Kath Murdoch, How do Inquiry Teachers… teach?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The power of one-on-one conversations about learning…

Tyler Rice writes this week about the value of one-on-one conversations with his students…

  • I learn more about each student as a person.
  • I learn more about each student as a learner.
  • I correct important misconceptions.
  • I give valuable feedback to students about their learning.
  • I receive valuable feedback from students about my teaching.
  • I improve my relationships with the people whom I am privileged to teach.
  • My reasons for loving teaching are reaffirmed.

Like Tyler, I’m involved in one-on-one conversations at the moment too…

I’m currently supporting our Year 6 students in the process of the PYP exhibition unit. They are exploring ways to take action to right inequity. The central idea is ‘Developing an awareness and understanding of inequity empowers us to act’. Within this broad conceptual understanding, students follow their areas of interest and decide on their own individual and small group inquiries.

In the early stages, the teachers engage in many one-on-one conversations with students to ensure they have found something to explore that really matters to them, to get them to articulate their personal connections with their inquiries and to hear them explain why they care.

This round of conversations is the beginning of many that will take place throughout the inquiry. The more they practise, the better students become at articulating their learning, till the final exhibition where they will share their learning with their parents and the public.

Teachers and learners find these conversations both challenging and rewarding.

Some students can readily identify what bothers them, what they care about and, with minimal probing, dig deeper and express their personal connections. Others take longer. Some students spend time exploring one issue, only to decide they are not sufficiently engaged and would like to change direction. Some think they have a particular interest but are unable to find a meaningful way into it. Some are interested in so many things, they find it hard to choose a focus. And in one particularly challenging conversation last week, I talked with a (bright) student who hasn’t (yet) engaged with anything at all. Our job is to help him find something he cares about to inquire into, no matter how long it takes.

I agree with Tyler’s thoughts on the value of individual conversations for the teacher.

Here’s what I see as the value for the learner

  • She has an opportunity to express her thinking aloud in a non threatening context.
  • She processes her thinking through having to find the words to articulate it to someone else.
  • She can ask questions, seek clarification and feel supported while making her thinking visible.
  • She goes beyond the content and gains awareness of herself as a learner.
  • She has her thinking challenged, in a positive way, through gentle questioning and probing.

But that’s my perspective. I’ll ask some of the students this week and find out how they see it!

Concept driven inquiry learning…

There’s a buzz in the room as 11 year olds sit in groups around large sheets of butcher paper, talking animatedly. I like visiting this classroom, seeing how the two teachers collaborate and the children engage in their learning.

Today they are brainstorming the ‘big ideas’ in ‘Sharing the Planet’, one of the trans disciplinary themes in the PYP curriculum framework.

In the build-up to this, students have watched David Attenborough’s Wonderful World and made connections with the trans disciplinary theme –

‘Inquiry into rights and responsibilities in the struggle to share finite resources with other people and other living things; communities and the relationship within and between them; access to equal opportunities; peace and conflict resolution.’ (IB Primary Years Program)

Untitled

Their ideas include concepts such as environment, sustainability, pollution, responsibility, nature, society, economics, lifestyle, consequences… I’m impressed by the depth of their thinking, their ability to extract the conceptual ideas and the way they make connections with prior learning.

The teachers introduce the idea of biodiversity, a concept to which they haven’t been exposed before, without explaining it or doing any ‘teaching’. The students get the iPads and do their own exploration, in any way they like. They are encouraged to read, look at images, watch videos – the choice is theirs.

Later in the day I go back to ask how the learning unfolded…

At the moment people are only thinking about what they should do, but not doing it. As this generation, it is our responsibility to take care of the planet for further generations. (Michelle)

I would like to inquire into all living beings’ rights.I want to know why different people/animals are treated differently and what the consequences are. (Zara)

I want to know how the loss of animals and plants affects the world and our life because if I don’t know what difference it makes, I won’t know how to change my habits. (Noa)

I should be aware that a little mistake can make a big difference. I would like to inquire into how we can make the world equal and fair so everyone has a home/habitat. (Zoe)

I want to know what will happen to the animals if we keep polluting the earth and taking the land because if there are no animals it will affect human life. (Stella)

And this one…

If we don’t share the planet and make a difference, there won’t be a future for us to live in… (Josh)

Planning in response to learning…

I borrowed a bit from a post I wrote last week at Inquire Within, but this one’s different…

It’s a joy to visit the kindergarten room,  where the 4 year olds have been inquiring into the needs of all kinds of living things. Debbie talks me excitedly through the purposeful displays in the room and I’m amazed by the depth of the children’s wonderings from their nature walk.

‘Why do seagulls need beaks?’ ‘Why can birds walk on power lines?’ ‘How long will it take for the buds to open?’ ‘Why does the snail go into the shell when I touch it?’

She shows me the interactive tables and thoughtful corners she has set up in response to the children’s questions, and the fabulous picture books she will read them to develop their thinking further.

Kindergarten teachers like Deb excel at observing and recording student’s thinking and then creating relevant learning experiences in response. We have much to learn from them. 

We used to spend a whole day (really) planning new units of inquiry in advance. Where was the room for inquiry?! These days we make sure we know what direction we want the learning to take in terms of conceptual understandings, check curriculum requirements for basic knowledge, consider what skills might be required, plan a couple of strong provocations to arouse curiosity and get kids thinking about the big ideas right away… and then we wait and see.

We’re constantly trying to improve at listening to the learning – observing and recording students’ thinking, then planning responsively from there… like the kinder teachers do.

I meet with the Year 4 team to take a collaborative look at the students’ questions and wonderings, a week into their latest unit of inquiry. We spend some time unpacking the thinking, considering what kind of direction some kids might need now, who might need further provocation and who’s ready to run with their own inquiries. The team suggests ways to help engage kids who haven’t yet connected with the big ideas and how to encourage those who have.

The teachers talk passionately about the learning that takes place when they let go of control to the learners.

Liam says that he and his co-teacher Jina talk after every session to plan further learning engagements responsively. “We make up our minds every day!” he says and adds that it’s been an eye opener for him this year. “I used to need a linear plan. That’s the way I was brought up.” He adds cheerfully that he used to think letting the students lead the learning was ‘a load of bull…’ till he finally let go and saw the powerful learning that ensued.

Another day, Rubi and I meet in her free period to go through, one by one, the cards on which her students have written their thinking. They have been exploring how cultural beliefs and values influence identity and their questions include aspects of Aboriginal culture (which was their case study) and a wide range of other related wonderings about their own and other cultures too.

We can see which provocations have excited different students and how individual learners have connected to the big ideas in different ways. We note which kids are ready to fly with their own inquiries and which still need some support. We consider some one-on-one conversations to help a few of the learners clarify what interests them and why they care.

Rubi groups the related questions so that her kids can have the option of inquiring collaboratively. We discuss some primary sources with which the kids might engage now to further their inquiries. She tells me about one girl who likes to interview people in the community and another whose passion for art is driving her inquiry. Rubi knows her students well and will support and encourage them accordingly.

What happens next? It depends… We couldn’t plan in advance for this kind of learning, if we tried. 

And a final word from inquiry guru Kath Murdoch, in response to my other post:

One of my favourite moments in the planning process is when we ask : ‘So, what are our students revealing to us – and where do we go from here?’ This is true, responsive, organic planning that honours student voice. And it’s sooooo much more satisfying than simply coming up with ‘good activities’. ” Amen.