The ‘so what’ of learning…

Action is the ‘so what’ of learning…

“PYP schools can and should meet the challenge of offering all learners the opportunity and the power to choose to act; to decide on their actions; and to reflect on these actions in order to make a difference in and to the world.” (Making the PYP Happen)

At the start of our PYP journey, we used to think…

  • Action was a separate ‘thing’.
  • Action usually happened towards the end or after the unit.
  • Action needed to be visible.
  • Action was only about what students ‘did’.
  • Action needed to go beyond the self in order to be valuable.
  • Student initiated action was the most desirable kind.

Now we think…

  • If learning is active, relevant and meaningful, action will be integral.
  • Learner agency implies ongoing action of all kinds.
  • Some of the most valuable forms of action are not overtly visible – shifts in thinking, deepening feelings, development of dispositions.
  • Action might be shifts in what learners think, say, feel, have, believe and become… not just what they do.
  • Action often begins with shifts in the self.
  • Shifts in thinking can lead to visible action. Action can lead to shifts in thinking.
  • Demonstrating attitudes and skills can be a form of action.
  • Sometimes an idea isn’t initiated by students, but they can take it and run with it resulting in highly meaningful action.

Do you consider these to be examples of action? Try placing them on an iceberg, depending on whether they are overtly visible or not and see what new ideas emerge?

The PYP review update suggests the following lenses through which to view the demonstration of action: social justice, advocacy, participation, lifestyle choices and entrepreneurship. We have applied the model of action below (shifts in thinking, having, saying, feeling, being as well as doing) to unpack what each of the new lenses might look like… in action.

 

When viewed in this way, it becomes apparent that concepts like social justice can apply just as much to 5 year olds as to older students and that any one of the lenses can be just as relevant in the classroom context, the school, the local community or globally.

What action will you be taking next?

Opportunity for learning…

The children at Matt Glover‘s feet are unsurprisingly engrossed in the conversation. Matt is interesting and funny and he talks to them in an engaging and respectful way.  This is the introduction to a lesson in which he models his approach, observed by teachers inquiring into how to improve the teaching of writing.

What strikes me is that it’s not just about writing workshop. Good practice can be applied across all learning areas….

What if teachers kept all ‘lessons’ to 5 minutes?

What if the learners were quickly released to get on with it?

What if the majority of learning time involved learners engaged in doing?

What if the teacher conferenced with individuals, not to correct, remind or tell, but to teach at point of need?

What if strengths were noticed, named, shared and built upon?

What if children were encouraged to see themselves as ‘insiders’ in the learning process?

What if learners modelled their own creations on authentic examples from the real world?

What if learners were encouraged to imagine and to innovate?

What if learners were encouraged to be the teachers in the room?

What if teachers trusted the learners and the process?

What if learners had agency over their learning?

What if successes were shared and celebrated?

What if classrooms were always filled with ‘real’ learning rather than ‘doing school’?

Beautiful questions… and a whole school unit of inquiry

 ‘A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.’ Warren Berger ~ A More Beautiful Question.

This generally starts with a ‘why?‘ question which identifies the need for change, followed by ‘what if?‘ which imagines new possibilities, and moving onto the ‘how?‘ which leads to action.

A couple of years ago we asked ourselves: Why do we spend the first few weeks ‘setting the tone’ in the classroom and then start the first unit of inquiry? What if the first unit of inquiry at every year level helped create classroom culture and set the tone for the learning to take place? How might we go about that?

A recent visit to ISHCMC provoked us to ask: Why do we need a separate central idea for each grade level? What if we tried one overarching central idea for the whole school? How might a whole school approach influence school culture?

And then: Why reinvent the wheel? What if we adapted the central idea we saw at ISHCMC and tweaked the lines of inquiry from our previous units? How might feedback from other educators support the development of this idea?

And now…

PYP Trans-disciplinary Theme: WHO WE ARE

An inquiry into the nature of the self; beliefs and values; personal, physical, mental, social and spiritual health; human relationships including families, friends, communities, and cultures; rights and responsibilities; what it means to be human. (IB Primary Years Program)

Central Idea: Our choices define who we are as individuals and as a community.

Possible lines of Inquiry:

These are still to be refined with input from teachers, students and the world. (As our junior school learning spaces will be redesigned over the summer, all grades have a line of inquiry about how the new spaces will be used.)

Prep

  • How our choices help us build a learning community (responsibility)
  • Choices in how we express our learning (reflection)
  • How we choose to use our environment to support our learning  (function)

Year 1

  • Choices that help us learn (reflection)
  • Choices in how we we interact with others (reflection)
  • How we choose to use our environment to support our learning (function)

Year 2

  • How humans learn (function)
  • Choices we make as learners, individually and collaboratively (reflection)
  • How we choose to use our environment to support our learning  (change)

Year 3

  • Choices that affect our learning community (causation)
  • How diversity enriches a community (change)
  • How we use our learning environment to support our learning community  (connection)

Year 4

  • How communication affects relationships (connection)
  • Choices in how we communicate – audience, purpose, context (causation)
  • How effective groups function (reflection)

Year 5

  • Personal values (perspective)
  • How our values influence the choices we make (connection)
  • The choices we make as learners (reflection)

Year 6

  • Active citizenship
  • Decision making strategies (reflection)
  • Our choices as individuals – personal interests and passions (perspective)
  • The impact of choices/decisions on other people, our community, the world (responsibility)

The central idea provides possibilities for authentic trans-disciplinary inquiry too. They might inquire into how our health and exercise choices affect us, how our choices affect others in games and sports, artistic and musical choices…

Teachers might inquire into how our choices define us human beings and as educators; the impact of our  choices as educators on the social, emotional and academic learning of our students; ways to increase opportunities for student ownership and agency…

And a few more beautiful questions of my own:

What if this was a year-long unit of inquiry?

What if, instead of a central idea, we had an overarching big question?

What if, instead of lines of inquiry, the learners came up with their own why, what if and how questions?

What if everything we did was about real learning instead of ‘doing school’?

Empowering our learners…

One of the most exciting things we saw during our recent visit to ISHMC (International School of Ho Chi Minh City, where Sam Sherratt is based) was the unstructured inquiry set up in a Grade 4 class by Adrian Watts, the principal.

Learners were given a choice between four different explorations (although they didn’t know the precise task until after they had selected what seemed interesting to them):

  • Reassemble a computer so that it works.
  • Fix the motor on a scooter.
  • Knit a finger puppet.
  • Sew a pair of trousers that fits someone in your group.

Participants were permitted just three questions over the course of the day. It was interesting to observe the thoughtful way they approached this, writing down possible questions and carefully considering what and whom they would ask.

It was more difficult for the observing adults to adhere to the rules. Most found it hard to overcome their natural inclination to step in and help, instead of stand back and observe the learning (and the range of trans disciplinary skills in action).

What did we observe during this exercise in child driven learning?

  • learner agency and empowerment.
  • total engagement in meaningful learning experiences.
  • curiosity and willingness to experiment.
  • competence, creativity and problem solving.
  • resourcefulness and fearlessness in approaching the unknown.
  • interesting group dynamics and differing gender biases within groups.
  • risk taking, learning from failure, persistence and resilience… in varying degrees.
  • collaborative decision making.
  • and more…

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The transferable messages…

We need to believe that children are capable, curious, competent and creative and, given the opportunities and encouragement, can lead their own learning.

We need to rethink contexts where the teacher controls the learning and the students jump through hoops set in front of them by the teacher, the school or the system.

We need to stop ‘doing school’ and think about what it means to really learn, because real learning often has very little to do with traditional notions of school.

How best do little kids learn?

How best do little kids learn?

It’s not a question generally asked by only slightly bigger kids!

A. is an unusual student (aren’t they all?) in Grade 2 with a passion for teaching and learning. His teacher understands him well and, rather than demanding compliance (not his forte), has tapped into his interests, encouraging him to explore possibilities by going down to teach the Prep children. Apparently he meets with the Prep teacher to understand their needs and discusses with his teacher his ideas for his lessons. 

When Kath Murdoch visited the school, his teacher introduced A. and got Kath to explain the notion of inquiry learning. She’s working indirectly on helping him regulate his own learning through his understanding of learning in the bigger picture.

Today I have the pleasure of spending half an hour with him, in my favourite pastime… educational dialogue! He tells me about his experience so far with the Preps and asks me about effective teaching and learning. I suggest he start by thinking about his own learning and the approach of his own teacher, whom he clearly admires. He opens his notebook and thoughtfully starts a list:

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  • it has to be interesting
  • it has to be active
  • you need to encourage the children to think
  • you need to connect to them
  • start with something curious

I show him some of our learning principles and he is instantly engaged. by these three:

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‘So… I need to get them curious’, he says, ‘and encourage them to be risk takers and try different things. They need to work together and talk to each other. And I need to make sure it is challenging… slightly bigger than where they start so they have to be extended and keep going…’. He pauses for a moment ‘And if not, it’s giving me a clue that the lesson might not be suitable or interesting’. 

As A. starts copying from the cards, I tell him he can have the one he’s focusing on. He looks longingly at the rest of the pile and I encourage him to take them all. ‘They might help me further along’ he says and heads happily back to class, notebook in one hand, learning principles in the other… on a mission to explore how kids learn best.

Just give kids the opportunity and encouragement… and magic happens.

Are all learners’ needs catered for? 

How are all learners’ needs for catered for?
The design thinking model is an excellent way to approach the issue, forcing us to think about this from the learners’ point of view first.

It’s not the time to express your opinion or to make judgements. It’s too soon to identify problems or jump to conclusions. Ideas and solutions will only come later… Step #1 is EMPATHY and we need to focus on how the learners feel.

 

We go around the room, taking turns to put ourselves in the learners’ shoes. At various points, some or other students will feel…

  • invisible if their needs are not noticed
  • inadequate when they are unsure what to do
  • liberated when they have agency
  • valued when others take an interest
  • isolated when withdrawn from class
  • comfortable when allowed to express learning in their own way
  • important when their contributions are valued
  • anxious about others’ opinions of them
  • self-doubt when they can’t keep up
  • excited when they feel successful in their learning
  • understood, when their needs are identified
  • labelled (although some kids want to be labelled, it turns out)
  • confident when they can take the lead
  • secure when given time to think
  • pressured by high expectations
  • stupid when they don’t understand
  • appreciated for their individual abilities
  • frustrated when unable to understand or explain
  • rushed because of timetable pressures
  • afraid to show what they don’t know
  • proud when they achieve things for themselves

This stage of the process ends up taking the whole session. But it’s worth it…

 

10 questions in pursuit of learner agency…

Claire Amos inspired the audience with her ‘Free Range Learning‘ talk at Learning 2 last year and I found her recent post on learner agency thought-provoking:

So what does Learner Agency actually mean. … In the context of a school this might involve students taking action, whether it be through reading, researching, discussing, debating, experimenting, making or tinkering and as a result, gain (through their own efforts) new understanding and new learnings. This being a shift from the notion of teachers, teaching at the student and fundamentally providing all of the knowledge and content which they then transfer to the empty vessel.

Of course this notion is not new, in fact, it’s positively ancient. I sometimes think Socrates must be turning in his grave.

So if this notion has been bandied about since the time of Socrates, why the hell are we considering it as cutting edge now? I’m guessing the honest answer is that education started off pretty sweet, then got a bit crap in the last 100 years or so.

 

In her post Claire suggests 10 ways you might provide learner agency in your classroom or school. I note with interest that almost every one of them includes the word ‘give’ and/or the notion of teachers or leaders ‘providing’ or ‘allowing’ learner agency.’ 

Can we create a culture of agency, where decision-making, choice and voice, reflection and metacognition, exploration and inquiry, risk taking and resilience empower our students to live their learning, rather than ‘doing school‘?  Below are some key questions that need to be considered in developing a culture of agency.

10 questions in pursuit of learner agency…

1. What is your ‘image of the child’? How do you view the learners in your class? Do you believe children are inherently intelligent, curious and creative? Do you recognise their rights and their capabilities? Do you trust them?

2. Do you know every learner’s story? Are you tempted to refer to the class as ‘they‘ or are you always conscious that each learner brings her own interests and abilities, strengths and challenges? Do you think about each individual’s personal history? Are you aware of the factors that influence each one’s learning?

3. What do you believe about learning? Knowing what and how to teach is not enough. Have you, individually and as a school, thought deeply about how you believe learning takes place? Have you carefully examined the extent to which your practice aligns with your beliefs?

4. Do your learners believe in themselves?  Do you group your learners on perceived ability or do they have opportunities to learn with and from others with varying strengths, challenges and interests? Is a growth mindset fostered? Are learners motivated by learning itself, rather than extrinsic rewards that encourage winners and losers in the game of school?

5. Who holds the power? Is your token nod to agency allowing the learners a choice when you decide it’s the time? How much of what your students say and do has to be channeled through the teacher? Do you make most of the decisions? Or can the learners really lead the learning? Is initiative valued over compliance?

6. Who does the heavy lifting? How long do you spend making sure students know what they are supposed to do? Do you explain everything in detail several times in different ways? Or do the learners have a go at experimenting and tackling problems first and you step in at point of need? Are you able to release control so that the heavy lifting is done by the learners?

7. Who owns the curriculum? Do you have secret teacher business? Do you check the curriculum and decide what to cover and how to teach it? Or are students empowered to explore curriculum requirements in their own ways? Are there opportunities for engaging, relevant learning that addresses trans-disciplinary learning across curriculum areas?

8. How important is measurement of achievement? Do you teach to the test? How much weight is placed on grading? Do you think everything has to be formally assessed and what can’t be measured is less valuable? Or is the process of learning perceived as more significant than the outcome? Is process valued over product?

9. What is the language of your classroom? Do you talk about work and tasks or does everyone speak the language of learning? Is how we learn as much a part of the conversation as what we learn? Are students aware of who they are as learners? Are learning dispositions noticed and named? Are reflection and metacognition integral parts of learning? 

10. Is there a safe space for risk- taking and failure?  Does the culture encourage students to take risks and make mistakes? Is the exploratory aspect of learning stifled by expectations? Do learners seek and grapple with challenging problems and unanswerable questions? Is failure viewed as an opportunity to learn and grow?

 

Reflecting on our goal of increasing student ownership…

It’s been four months since we set the tone for unleashing learning via Unleashing Learning, six since we outlined this year’s goal of increasing opportunities for student ownership

In this afternoon’s session, we revisit the notion of learner agency and the teachers, in mixed grade level groups, share steps they have taken this year towards increasing opportunities for student ownership, a goal we set ourselves at the start of the year. This is the second in a series of such sessions, this time with P-3 teachers and it’s great to hear the ways even (or especially?) the younger children can be have more ownership…

“The children decide how to find out what they want to know and it’s  up to them how they want to share their learning with the class.” (Year 3)

“We start with the game before the skills are taught. The children then say what skills they need to master to play the game. Rather than showing them the correct technique, by trial and error they discover for themselves.” (PE)

“Children select from a range of tailored learning experiences, based on their needs and goals. They are developing understandings of what is expected of them as learners.” (Year 1)

“As a result of allowing children more choice in what books they borrow, irrespective of reading level, there are a lot more discussions about books and the reasons for their preferences”. (Library)

“Through physically making their stories before writing (eg plasticine, Lego), the change in the children’s writing has been unbelievable. They are also learning to give each other meaningful feedback. The children are engaged and love writing”. (Year 2)

“During Exploration Time, the children choose what they would like to do and the teachers work with small groups to target specific needs as required.” (Prep)

After the group discussions, individuals think about how they might further encourage student ownership this term and they record these goals on a shared Padlet wall started last term by the upper primary staff. 

At the end of the session, a young teacher, new to our school this year, approaches me to share how happy she is to be teaching and growing in our dynamic learning community.  I am reminded of Craig Eldred’s tweet this week (and my response to it!) 

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