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!

A different kind of conference…

There are 44,500 people under 25 homeless every night in Australia. A few years ago, Bianca was one of them. Now she is working in her dream job, helping homeless youth.


Mike is a basketball coach who works with disabled and disadvantaged kids in the Helping Hoops Program, which helps build confidence, teaches respect and trust, promotes social inclusion and develops teamwork skills.


A huge amount of fresh food goes to waste every day and yet many people cannot afford enough food to eat – especially healthy fresh food. Sarah works for SecondBite, who redistribute fresh food to ensure that people who are homeless or living in poverty get fresh food every day.


In many places, girls don’t go to school, missing out on important opportunities to escape poverty. But girls are the solution to problems too. Through her work at CARE Australia, Lyrian works to help women and girls lift themselves, and their families, out of poverty.


These and a dozen other speakers will present interactive sessions to ninety Year 6 students this week at our Equity Conference. This is the second year, we have arranged this very different way for our students to learn and it’s exciting to plan better learning opportunities each time. The idea developed last year from an idle thought first into a plan and then into a powerful learning experience.

The conference is the start of our Year 6 PYP Exhibition unit.

The central idea: ‘Developing awareness and understanding of inequity empowers us to act’. Students will spend the next two months inquiring into this conceptual idea. It will provide the context within which they will find something they care deeply about to explore, culminating in the exhibition, where they will share their learning with parents and guests.

The aims of the conference:

  • To expose learners to all kinds of  issues of ‘inequity’ and to provoke thinking on a range of related issues.
  • To provide the opportunity to hear from people who have worked in areas that are taking action to right inequities.
  • To help students develop convictions about what is right, what is wrong, and what needs to change.

In between sessions, students will gather in small groups to process and reflect on what they have heard and experienced. They will be encouraged to ask themselves: What does it make me feel? What does it make me wonder? What does it make me wish? What do I believe about this?  They will share their thinking with their groups and consider each of the issues in terms of the concentric circles modelDoes this relate to the world? The local community? My family? How might it connect to me?

At the end of the day, there will be an opportunity for students to express their feelings in any way they like. Stations will include a graffiti wall, art materials, tools for oral, written or video reflection… and learners will be free to choose one or more media through which to express themselves.

The day will embody all our learning principles and promote all the attributes of the IB learner profile.

And it’s only the beginning of the learning…

What really matters?

What do you think is unfair?

We take some time to think individually and write each idea on a separate sticky note. One teacher finds it difficult to get started. Another finds it cathartic getting all the injustices she sees around her down on paper. Someone wrestles with the difference between annoying things and unfair things. Once we’re on a roll, most of us could keep going at this for ages!

What we find unfair ranges from trivial to extremely serious, from intensely personal to global….

  • playground bullying
  • that sweets are fattening
  • uneven distribution of wealth
  • favouritism
  • lack of access to education
  • the price of petrol
  • lack of accountability at work
  • racist comments

The next stage is to arrange these injustices on a diagram of concentric circles.  Does it relate to me personally?  To my family? Or is it a local, national or global issue? 

At first we take turns to place our notes and explain our reasoning, but soon everyone has something to say, opinions differ and there is vigorous debate. We discover that deciding where to place our injustices is not so easy. Some could go in several circles. Some could go in all. Sometimes it depends on the perspective of the writer. We realise that it doesn’t matter where we place them, it’s about the process.

In the process of the debate, different examples are presented, new issues are raised and a range of perspectives are explored. In a way, the process draws us closer together as we reveal what bothers us and find commonalities. We make connections between the different injustices and relate them to our own experiences. We shift back and forth between personal and global perspectives.

We discuss how global issues might affect us personally and how personal issues might be relevant in broader contexts. Visualising students sitting in groups having the same sorts of discussions, the  teachers are excited to try this with their classes.

This will be the first step in setting the scene and provoking thinking for our PYP exhibition unit.

The central idea is ‘Developing an awareness and understanding of inequity empowers us to act‘. Within this broad conceptual understanding, students will find what they are passionate about to explore in depth. 

Last year we focused on social inequities in the world. While the learning was rich and the exhibition highly successful, some students inquired into issues beyond their grasp and there was limited opportunity for really meaningful action. This time, everyone will have the opportunity to find something to which they can relate deeply. We hope to use tools and experiences such as the one above to help them find what really matters to them. 

As a learning community, my school is further down the track in our understanding of inquiry learning than we were at this time last year. Teachers talk about how much they have changed. There is a greater awareness of what’s possible when teachers let go and learning is more student owned.

Our exhibition will be a celebration, not just of our students’ learning and growth, but of our own. Watch this space to read about how the learning unfolds…

With thanks to our (virtual) friend, Sam Sherratt , not just for sharing the concentric circles idea, but for inspiring us to let go and really let the students lead. 

What does learning feel like?

In my previous post, entitled ‘What does learning look like?’ I described the process of our Year 6 PYP exhibition unit, through which learners explored social inequities.

The day was a huge success. The opening ceremony showcased how every student explored the topic through a creative medium of their choice. The exhibition itself showed what each group had learned about their chosen example of social injustice, and how we can take action to address it. exhilarating as the day was, the truly exciting thing was the learning that took place throughout the preceding weeks.

Here’s a sample of student reflections to share their perspective…

The most important thing I learnt in the process is that there are so many stereotypes out there. At the start I thought all homeless people where ugly bearded people. Now I know that you can’t tell. I will remember that we are so much luckier and have to be gratful for what we have. The next time I see a homeless person I will see him as a human. A person. Alive. (Zac)

The part I will remember forever is the process of doing the inquiry. This is the first time we have independantly made our own questions, used the transdiciplinary skills etc. I will always remember it because this way of learning makes so much sense, because you are able to deepen all your learning and learn more. (Josh)

The exhibition unit has been a really great experience. I have learnt so much and I feel like it has been an amazing evaluation of all our PYP learning. I think our group was fantastic, and we did both our presentation and our level of learning very well. If anything could be changed, we might have maybe stopped learning and learning, and started getting to work sooner! (Matt)

The most important thing I got out of the exhibition process was to always appreciate what you have because we are so lucky to live our lifestyle. The thing I will remember forever is the importance of being aware of whats happening in the world, not just what we see! (Hannah)

The most important part to me was learning in a whole new way. It really made me aware of all the horrible things in the world and all the social inequities. It taught me that everyone is equal in the world and we all deserve the same rights. I will remember my group taking action at the Glenroy Special School forever. It was such a meaningful day for me and I will never forget it. (Miffany)

I think the most important thing to remember is to work with your partner or else you wont be able to pull it together in time. I think the thing that I will remember is presenting to an audience and having that feeling that you are sharing your learning. (Oliver)

The most important thing that I got out of the exhibition process was learning how to work as a group and how to work collaboratively and cooperatively. Another important part of the process for me was learning how to work under pressure because during the end of the exhibition we had lots to get done in a very short amount of time. I will remember forever our excursion to Parliament house and meeting Janice Munt. Janice Munt was the former MP of Mordialloc. Janice Munt told us about gender discrimination in Australia. (Lexi)

I think my group were co-operating a lot and the process was adventurous and engaging and it will be an experience I will never forget. I think the end result was the thing I will never forget because when I stand there I can feel proud of myself. (Bianca)

There are many insights in these reflections that excite me. Students’ ownership and understanding of their learning, a focus on process not just end result, increased awareness of the world, students’ pride in their learning, an emphasis on big ideas and trans-disciplinary skills not just on content…

As a recently authorised IB PYP school, this was only our second exhibition. We know we need to focus on improving the information process and making sure all students synthesise and organise their information before hurrying to the presentation stage. We might need to adjust the way students are grouped, in order to maximise learning. We’ll revisit the provocations, consider how to refine the conference day and whether we can reduce classroom activities so that students can start their personal inquiries earlier.

We plan to take the lessons we learned from the exhibition unit and use them, not just to make next year’s exhibition experience even better, but to set some goals for learning in the rest of the school.

Further student reflections here and parent feedback here, on some of our Year 6 blogs.

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.

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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…

Ignite, Engage, Inspire

Greatly inspired by Marco Torres‘ presentation entitled ‘Ignite, Engage, Inspire’, my colleague Jocelyn left saying, “I am going to try something new tomorrow.” Undeterred by the fact that she is not an experienced film-maker and had never touched an iPad, the plan was to have her students create films, using iPads.


Create a film to express the essence of the social inequity that you have explored for your personal inquiry.


  • Write a key sentence for your social inequity that has  possibilities for a story.
  • Highlight key ideas in the sentence that you will use in your story.
  • Create a story-board by telling the story in words.
  • Include directions for camera angles such as: Wide establishing shot to set the scene, medium shot to draw you into the character and story, close-up to show emotion, over the shoulder shot to show someone’s point of view, bird’s eye view for effect.
  • Create a story-board in pictures, showing exactly who stands where and does what. 
  • No more than 6 frames. At the top of each box write the camera angle.
  • Camera, lights, action with an i-pad of course!
  • Edit in i-movie and insert text and music.
  • Get excited by what you have achieved!
I stood alongside Hannah, Oliver and Bianca as they filmed. I learned a great deal as I watched these 12 year-olds create a film, scene by scene, from their well thought out story-board…. not just about film making, but about engaging and meaningful learning. The only practical thing I did to help, was to stand in a particular place to block the sunlight, in order to enable a better shot. Always nice to feel useful!

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Here’s an example of what kids can create in just a few hours:

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  • All the so called 21st century skills in action: creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking.
  • A huge range of trans-disciplinary skills, including planning, decision making, writing, filming, organisation, time management, cooperation….
  • Seamless integration of technology into learning.
  • Authentic involvement of the ICT Facilitator and Teacher Librarian (Ours is so much more than that!), unlike the isolated weekly lessons they used to give a year or so ago.
  • Meaningful use of our new iPads to enhance the learning and achieve an end.
  • True inquiry, as students experimented with the iPads and iMovie and figured out for themselves how to achieve the results they wanted.
  • A learning community, in which several teachers were involved in learning along with the students.
  • An unbelievable level of engagement and excitement about learning… for students and teachers alike.
  • Letting go of control and handing over the learning to the students can have outstanding results.
  • If you have an idea, run with it. Don’t wait for a better time, particular conditions or permission to try. What’s the worst that can happen? (If you read this blog, you will recognise that mantra).
Ignite, engage, inspire? I think so!


Exploring access to education…

“We sit in groups, work collaboratively, share our ideas, ask lots of questions and are encouraged to think. Is school the same in India?”

The question is asked by Taylor, 12, in an interview (via Skype) with Bhushan, who I met on my recent trip to Pune. He has promised to write me a guest post some time, so I won’t tell you his story now. Suffice to say he is one of a group of inspiring young people who wanted to make a difference and started their own NGO, Samhida, working with under-privileged children.

Taylor and Jay are members of a small group of Year 6 students exploring access to education for their PYP unit about social inequity. They chose to inquire into education in developing countries and are in the process of researching and gathering information via primary and secondary sources. They are keen to hear about Bhushan’s own school experience, and are interested in comparing rural areas with city schools, finding out about education for males vs females and opportunities for children living in poverty.

Bhushan describes classrooms in India which typically have 50-60 students in a class with one teacher, making group work unlikely, if not impossible. He tells them kids sit in lines facing the front while the teacher does the talking, that the focus is on writing and maths and that high exam results are viewed as the ultimate goal. The children are fascinated to hear that girls and boys sit separately in class and that, while there might be access to computers, this does not usually include the internet.

He tells them he was first exposed to the internet only when he finished school and began studying engineering and talks about the SOLE  project which gives disadvantaged students access to computers and the internet. (If only the project had more funding to enable greater access!) He, and his friends who work in IT, have set up some old computers, SOLE style, in Yeoli village, outside Pune, and go there every weekend to teach and play with the children.

Taylor, Jay and co. are looking forward to interviewing educators in several other countries in the next few weeks. If you’re in a developing country and would like to respond to their Voicethread, you can find it here on their class blog.


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?