Planning in response to learning…

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.

How do we assess understanding?

Part of my role as Teaching and Learning Coordinator involves facilitating and supporting the planning of units of inquiry.

Planning for inquiry can be difficult.

On the one hand, over planning limits the potential for inquiry.

On the other hand, we have desired outcomes and understandings, as well as the demands of a national curriculum.

We used to plan a range of learning experiences in advance. You can read here about how we have improved our planning process.

Nowadays, we start by identifying the desired conceptual understandings and carefully considering what evidence will indicate that our learners have achieved them. Then we plan some provocations that engage the learners in the big ideas and wait to see where the learning takes us.

Keeping an eye on the conceptual understandings allows us to add further targeted provocations as the inquiry unfolds.

Creating a rubric helps clarify where our units are heading. Depending on the age of the learners, some teachers use the rubric with their students, others don’t, but either way, the process helps teachers focus on how to look for evidence of the understandings.

Here’s an example for a Prep (5 year olds) inquiry into how family life has changed over time:

Screen Shot 2013-03-09 at 10.10.21 AM

Here’s one for a Year 4 inquiry into how taking ownership of our learning can empower us:
Screen Shot 2013-03-09 at 10.31.41 AM
Here’s a Year 5 example that’s more content based:
Screen Shot 2013-03-09 at 11.27.55 AM
We learned this technique from Sam Sherratt and are still practising it, so I’m sure these rubrics are not perfect. One thing of which I am certain is the value of phrasing the understandings in simple child friendly language, rather than the usual, sometimes unintelligible, jargon of assessment standards. As always, we welcome feedback (or rather ‘feedforward’) on the rubrics themselves as well as the process.

Planning for learning…

The way we plan PYP units of inquiry is different from the way many other teachers plan. The planner is designed to make teachers think deeply about the learning, before planning a single learning experience. It’s always a collaborative process, including much thinking and discussion.

  • We start from the end. What do we want students to understand? We don’t talk about activities till we know where we are going and why. And yet it’s more about the process than the end result.
  • It’s concept driven, not content based. We begin with a conceptual central idea, an enduring understanding that is broad, significant, engaging and transferable to other contexts.
  • We plan a powerful provocation to hook students in, get them thinking and asking questions about the big ideas.
  • Within the framework of our central idea, students are encouraged to take ownership of their learning, explore their own inquiries and build conceptual understandings.
  • We consider what evidence we will look for that learning has taken place. We keep in mind the variety of ways students may express their learning..
  • Although inquiry is embraced as a stance, there is explicit teaching of skills. We plan what we would like to see demonstrated in terms of transdisciplinary skill development.
  • Reflection and metacognition are essential components for all learners, both teachers and students.
  • The ultimate goal is to create lifelong learners so we are constantly aware of developing the attributes of the learner profile.
  • All of the above are thoughtfully considered, before and during the planning of learning engagements.
  • We map out some possibilities, but there are endless ways of getting to the destination. Moving off the ‘intended path‘ is a sign of success, not a sign of failure.

We are trialling Managebac, an integrated management system for IB schools. As always, we start from the learning. If  teachers are going to buy in, they need to see how we can use it to enhance learning, not just as an organisational tool. But this isn’t a post about a management system, it’s about planning for authentic learning. And it’s about our journey as a community of learners.

The PYP unit of inquiry planner in Managebac simplifies the planning process. Everyone loves the ease of use. We can pull up the definitions of the concepts to help choose the lens for our inquiry and we can access the curriculum with a click to ensure we are addressing the necessary skills and knowledge. We like the way the headings come up one at a time and we can consider first the overarching theme, then the central idea, then the concepts, then the skills.

But the more experienced teachers, who have a deep understanding of the way the planner is designed and why, are a little disturbed by the linear format. We’ve passed this on to the Managebac team, who seem very supportive. We’ve told them that planning isn’t linear. Learning isn’t linear. We need the central idea and concepts on every page, so we don’t lose sight of the ultimate learning goals while we think about possible activities. And that assessment is intertwined with the learning engagements, it’s not a separate task or test.

At the end, you click a button and the program generates a comprehensive PDF of the PYP planner, in the familiar non-linear format to which we have grown accustomed. The staff is delighted! I hope the teachers can see the Managebac planning process as a metaphor. While we might consider all the elements separately and individually, they are part of a complex whole. We can’t plan or teach without the big picture of learning.

If only that was as easy as clicking a button!

With thanks to my thoughtful online PLN, with whom I like to think and bounce ideas. Input from Steve BoxCraig Dwyer and Miranda Rose.