Planning for an inquiry into digital citizenship…

Today’s collaborative planning session with the Year 5 team is both challenging and invigorating. There are 7 of us in the room and one digital participant. The conversation is impassioned and (mostly) focused as we debate, disagree and eventually reach some common understandings.

It takes over an hour to ensure our conceptual understandings are sound and to consider the evidence that will demonstrate these understandings in our learners. This part is the crux.

It doesn’t bother us that most of the planner is still blank and we have barely thought about the learning engagements. We know (now) that if this part is established, we only need a few good provocations, then (almost) sit back and see how the learning unfolds.

Observing and listening to the learning, will determine what happens… that’s how inquiry works, so how can you plan it in advance?

The unit is about digital citizenship, which could easily fit into any of the PYP trans disciplinary themes and end up looking quite different. We want ours to be in ‘How We Express Ourselves’, because, as Silvia Tolisano says, ‘We are preparing students for a time when what they know is not as important as what they can do with what they know…’

It quickly becomes apparent that

  • we can never rehash an old unit, because we are always learning.
  • some of the understandings from last year are no longer relevant and we need to shift the focus from consumption to creation.
  • having 1:1 iPads has changed the way students do things and teachers see things.
  • our approaches to teaching literacy and literature require some radical new thinking, as might our definitions of both.
  • we need to ensure our students are learning ‘now literacies‘, (Silvia Tolisano) so they can engage effectively in a world very different from when their parents and teachers went to school. (So why does so much of school still look the same?)
  • there is endless potential for global collaboration to enhance authentic learning within this unit and the teachers are finally ready. (See my first ever blog post FIVE years ago! We have been chipping away, but there is so much more we can do…)
  • the teachers will need to pursue their own inquiries if this unit of inquiry is to be a success… but then, that is what inquiry teachers do.

So how do I tag this post? Is it about planning? Digital citizenship? Inquiry? Concept driven learning?

Or is it about change?


Looking back and forward…

Looking back…

Interestingly (or not), my most popular blog posts in 2013 were not written last year. These three have been the most enduring:

10 ways to encourage students to take responsibility for their learning (2010)
10 ways to differentiate learning (2012)
10 ways to encourage student reflection (2011)

My WordPress ‘Annual Report’ suggests I consider writing more on those subjects. In reality it seems that any post written in point form tends to be more popular as it’s quick to scan and requires less time and effort for the reader to process.

My top posts written in 2013:

10 ways to create a learning culture
10 questions to help you become a better teacher
10 principles of effective professional learning

As Seth Godin says, my most popular posts this year weren’t necessarily my ‘best’.

In 2013 my colleagues and I spent a great deal of time exploring inquiry and concept driven learning, improving our planning process and developing more effective approaches to in-school professional learning. So I liked these posts, with less advice, more reflection:

How do you assess understanding?
Planning for inquiry and Planning in response to learning
Concept based learning
Choose your own learning and There is never enough time
5 misconceptions about professional learning

Looking forward…

I don’t ‘set goals’.

Goals need to be specific, focused, achievable and include a plan of action. Ask me what my goals are for next year, I feel pressured to come up with something that fits those criteria, and I can’t think of anything to say.

I’m more of an inquiry kind of person. I love learning and exploring, making connections, going off on tangents, finding and solving problems, experimenting with ideas and possibilities, questioning and innovating.

So, rather than asking me for goals, ask me what I’d like to explore and I will rattle off an ever growing number of books, ideas, experiences and possibilities.

Watch this space…

The need for choice…

I really like Chobani Greek yoghurt, but I am tired of the three or four flavours sold at my local supermarket. A bit of research further afield has revealed no less than twenty flavours available. Apparently, if customers request, my local supermarket might stock a bigger variety.

My choice was limited by what I was offered and what I knew.

It reminds me of schools…

Parents‘ expectations and demands tend to be based on school as they know it, on impressions formed when they themselves went to school. They choose homework and grades for the same reasons that I chose mango or strawberry. I didn’t know what else there was. It’s up to us to show them other possibilities.

Many teachers continue to teach the way they always have, because they haven’t tried the blueberry and have never been exposed to pomegranate. Their schools, like my supermarket, provide limited choice for professional learning and it hasn’t struck them that they can explore further afield. Have they tried requesting other options or initiating their own explorations?

Most importantly… How much choice do students have in their learning? Do they have opportunities to explore and discover what’s out there, follow their passions and direct their own learning? Or do they only get to choose between the options their teachers present, in the same way that I was limited by my local supermarket? Have they discovered the honey flavour? What do they think of the lemon? Have they considered mixing flavours?

Can they make their own yoghurt?

I choose...

Exploring issues…

Have you ever used drama to explore issues and deepen understanding in your classroom?

I don’t mean having students watch plays about the topic they are studying. Nor do I mean dramatizing what they have learned. While I believe that creating a play can be an effective way to demonstrate and even assess learning, that’s not what I am referring to either.

You can read here about how we first decided to provide opportunities for creativity through a choice of workshops, to enrich the learning during our inquiry into social inequity. I worked with the drama group because the sessions were facilitated via Skype by Mazz in Ecuador, and it was necessary to have a teacher present in the room. Not only was it a different way for kids to engage with their learning, it was a journey of discovery for me.

Drawing on the Playback style of theatre, the group explored issues relating to social inequity, through improvisation, narrative vignettes, frozen stories and fluid sculptures.

Learning included:

  • Collaborating in groups to explore issues and develop ideas.
  • Using newspaper stories, articles and powerful images to stimulate thinking.
  • Writing four sentence stories to encapsulate the big ideas.
  • Considering social inequity from other perspectives.
  • Empathising with others and portraying different aspects of their emotions.
  • Using voices and bodies to express feelings and  communicate ideas.
  • Experimenting with symbolism and metaphor to invoke emotion and provoke thinking.
  • Giving constructive feedback to peers on how to make their performances more effective.
  • Reflecting individually and collaboratively to refine their techniques.
At the opening of our PYP exhibition last year, students talked about their learning and shared some examples on stage. It was a low-key performance that focused more on process than product, but it was incredible to see these 12-year-olds pull together all their learning to create provocative, emotive pieces, in a remarkably short time.


One student commented that “I never realised that you could use drama in this way to think more deeply about issues.” Me neither. And reading a post the other day about improv and inquiry got me thinking further.

Mazz is back in Australia and currently available to facilitate such workshops for your students or to lead workshops for teachers in how to use drama this way themselves. You can contact her here:

What does learning look like?

The PYP exhibition is the culmination of learning throughout the primary school years. The focus of our exhibition unit this year has been social inequities in the world and the need for action to be taken.

The process unfolded something like this…

  • A powerful provocation to get the learners thinking and feeling what inequity means. 
  • Tuning in activities to pique interest and create tension.
  • An all-day conference with a choice of speakers on social justice issues.
  • Students chose their areas of interest and were divided into groups of 2-4.
  • Each group was assigned a mentor to help them on their journeys of inquiry.
  • Questions were formulated and research began.
  • Lots of reading, searching, synthesising and organising information.
  • Some groups interacted with primary sources via Skype or in person.
  • Students took action by fundraising, visiting organisations, creating awareness.
  • Exploration of the topic through a choice of creative expression workshops in art, music, drama, web design, animation or poetry.
  • Students created movies to express the essence of their learning.
  • The process was recorded through journals, blogging, time-lines, recounts and reflections.
  • Groups considered how best to present and display their learning.
  • Stands were set up in readiness for the exhibition….
…which brings us to today! There was a buzz of excitement in the school as students set up their stands and put the final touches on their presentations. Tomorrow parents, guests and students from lower grades will visit the stands, where students will proudly share their learning.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The exhibition itself is not the point… It’s been a wonderful, meaningful collaboration between teachers and learners. It’s hugely rewarding to see the thinking and learning that has taken place. And we already have ideas for how to make it even better next year…

Opportunities for creativity…

How can we provide better opportunities for learning to be expressed creatively?  Do students have choice or does everyone have to do the same thing in the same way? What possibilities are there for students to explore different media for creative expression? How is creativity encouraged and developed?

During our Year 6 PYP exhibition unit next term, students will explore how ‘Social inequities create a need for action in the world’.  Within this broad conceptual understanding, students will follow their areas of interest and decide on their own individual and small group inquiries. They will research and investigate their chosen areas independently, with support from teachers and mentors as required.

Instead of their usual weekly art and music classes, this year for the first time, students will further explore the central idea through a choice of art, drama, music, film, poetry or technology. While some of these will already naturally be incorporated into the students’ presentation of their learning, there will be a two hour block each week, devoted to a deeper exploration of their elected medium.

I was really excited by the possibilities of this when the idea was first conceived in collaboration with Elena and Dani, our art and music teachers. They were keen to work with kids exploring their preferred medium, rather than all 95 Year 6  students.  The idea was further developed in a chat with Jeremy McDonald on the other side of the world, who asked provocative questions to help me clarify both the rationale and the details. There was enthusiastic support from the Year 6 teachers and I’m well on the way to finding volunteers keen to facilitate each of the groups.

Yesterday I shared this idea  with a couple of young educators I know.  One suggested a range of creative ideas to deepen the students’ understanding of social inequity through creative exploration. I think if she was in Year 6 herself, she might struggle to choose which of the groups to participate in.

The other provoked me to think about kids who might not be interested in any of the options.  Will they choose film or technology simply because they are less interested in the arts, rather than because they find those options exciting? Will there be students who don’t like any of the options? Should we be offering something additional?

I know this plan is an improvement on the way things used to be, because

  • Students will choose their preferred creative medium.
  • They will have more time to explore it in a dedicated weekly two hour block.
  • There are some new options which are not part of their regular program.
  • They will collaborate with different people, rather than their usual class group and teacher.
  • They will gain a broader perspective  on the central idea and deepen their understandings through exploring it in other ways.
  • The exhibition will include performance and display of their creative expression.
But I’m still wondering how it can be further improved and refined.  So what do you think? Creative ideas, comments, advice, provocative questions and potential solutions will be welcomed!
Why plan with a small group in your own school, when there’s a whole world of creative people out there?

It’s learning that matters… isn’t it?

This powerful presentation by high school students got me thinking…

My experience of school today differs greatly from that of the students in the video. Given that I work at a privileged school in a developed country, I’m wondering what other factors affect my perception of reality.

I teach at a primary school…

Teaching and learning looks very different than it does in middle and high schools. But does it have to? Consider this letter to a middle school teacher. Be inspired by innovations like Monika Hardy’s students redefining school.

I teach at a private school…

Our mission states that we promote excellence by means of inquiry and critical thinking and that we develop the student’s whole personality by offering a wide range of activities, inside and outside of the classroom.

I teach at a PYP school…

‘We aim to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect’ (IBO mission).  Our beliefs about learning include inquiry as a stance and students taking responsibility for their own learning

I teach in Australia…

A friend in the US is constantly surprised by the things I share about education in Australia and insists that our education system is way ahead. This week we talked about ‘family life’ sessions (sexuality education) and outdoor ed school camps, for instance.

I think how lucky I am to work in a school where learning truly matters and every student’s potential and talents are valued.

But then I remember the recently created Australian My School site which publishes a comparison of school results based on national standardized tests. I think about the fact that we are now constantly being reminded that Naplan results matter… and I can’t help but wonder where we are headed…

(Thanks, Kirsten for posting the video at Cooperative Catalyst)


Who owns the learning?

I talk a lot about relinquishing control to learners, but do I always practice what I preach?

I’m a second language teacher. I think I have to explain more than I do. In the context of second language, I tend to like to make sure my students ‘get it’ before letting them do something with it!

When we talked about ways in which teachers keep control of learning, one of the kids said ‘Teachers over explain. They don’t let us get on with figuring it out for ourselves’

I’ve been trying to let go more and more, even in second language learning. We’ve been working on a text in Hebrew which the kids are finding interesting and stimulating. Time to let go further… I asked them to sit and groups and read ahead, to figure out the meaning themselves. I didn’t even give the usual vocab list to support their understanding. They created a headline for each section to show they had understood the gist.

And they managed just fine. They worked collaboratively to look up words, decipher meaning from the context and apply the knowledge they already have of how the language works. I was blown away.

As always, I asked for their comments on the process. ..

  • I found it challenging because we tried to understand it ourselves without the teacher (Jay)
  • We got through a lot and it was fun (Emma)
  • I think we got to read and learn more on our own (Matthew)
  • I think it was easy and good because the whole group cooperated (Jasmine)
  • We were in control of our learning and in a small group you get to say what you think  more than when it’s the whole class(Gemma)
  • I liked how everyone brought a different perspective (Dean)
  • We went off topic but we stayed focused most of the time (Aimmee)
  • I enjoyed the way we controlled the learning even though I struggled a bit. (Jassy)
  • We own our learning and today we had a chance to really be in control. It gave us a chance to practice all our skills (Tahnee)

Next stage: Express your understanding through any medium you choose.

(See previous post … I’m working on it!)


10 ways to encourage students to take responsibility for their learning…

1. Don’t make all the decisions

Allow choice. Encourage students to make decisions about how they learn best. Create opportunities for them to pursue their own interests and practise skills in a variety of ways.  Cater for different learning styles. Don’t expect everyone to respond in the same way. Integrate technology to encourage creative expression of learning.

2. Don’t play guess what’s in my head

Ask open-ended questions, with plenty of possible answers which lead to further questions.   Acknowledge all responses equally. Use Thinking Routines to provide a framework for students to engage with new learning by making connections, thinking critically and exploring possibilities.

3. Talk less

Minimise standing out front and talking at them.  Don’t have rows of learners facing the front of the class.  Arrange the seats so that students can communicate, think together, share ideas and construct meaning by discussing and collaborating. Every exchange doesn’t need to go through the teacher or get the teacher’s approval, encourage students to respond directly to each other.

4. Model behaviors and attitudes that promote learning.

Talk about your own learning. Be an inquirer. Make your thinking process explicit. Be an active participant in the learning community. Model and encourage enthusiasm, open-mindedness, curiosity and reflection.  Show that you value initiative above compliance.

5. Ask for feedback

Get your students to write down what they learned, whether they enjoyed a particular learning experience, what helped their learning, what hindered their learning and what might help them next time. Use a Thinking Routine like ‘Connect, extend, challenge’. Take notice of what they write and build learning experiences based on it.

6. Test less

Record student thinking and track development over time. Provide opportunities for applying learning in a variety of ways. Create meaningful assessment tasks that  allow transfer of learning to other contexts. Have students publish expressions of their learning on the internet for an authentic audience. Place as much value on process and progress as on the final product.

7.  Encourage goal setting and reflection.

Help students to define goals for their learning. Provide opportunities for ongoing self-evaluation and reflection. Provide constructive, specific feedback.   Student blogs are great tools for reflecting on learning and responding to their peers.

8. Don’t over plan.

If you know exactly where the lesson is leading and what you want the kids to think, then you‘re controlling the learning. Plan a strong provocation that will ‘invite the students in’ and get them excited to explore the topic further. But don’t  plan in too much detail where it will go from there.

9.  Focus on learning, not work.

Make sure you and your students know the reason for every learning experience. Don’t give ‘busy work’. Avoid worksheets where possible. Don’t start by planning activities, start with the ‘why‘ and then develop learning experiences which will support independent learning.  Include appropriate tech tools to support the learning.

10.  Organise student led conferences

Rather than reporting to parents about their children’s learning, have student led 3-way conferences, with teacher and parents. The student talks about her strengths and weaknesses, how her learning has progressed and areas for improvement. She can share the process and the product of her learning.

I  know there are lots more ways. Please add to the list!