How do you plan?

We met this week for collaborative planning of a new unit of inquiry for the start of the new school year…

Times have changed. We have changed.
Planning is not coming up with a range of activities or developing a series of lesson plans. It’s a time to consider the rationale behind the unit and discuss conceptual ideas. A time to create a range of possible provocations which engage learners in the big ideas. A time to plan opportunities in which authentic student-directed learning can occur.

Pre thinking includes…

Our process…

Brainstorm the big ideas – respect, diversity, belonging, co-existence, contribution, community, relationships, interactions, culture, rights, citizenship, values, cooperation.

Decide collaboratively on the desired conceptual understandings

  • A community is made up of people who have common purpose or shared values.
  • Diversity within a community enriches the community.
  • Being part of a community comes with rights and responsibilities, duties and privileges.

Come up with one conceptual word that defines the essence of the unit – Community

Write the central idea – This needs to be a broad conceptual understanding, globally significant, relevant and engaging, which invites inquiry. We take some quiet time to write it individually, then discuss, adjust and adapt until we have consensus.

Central idea – Communities are enriched by the contributions of individuals and groups.

Is it perfect? We’re not sure. Nor are we sure of the paths the learning might take, what the learners might discover and uncover along the way, where exactly the inquiry might lead for different individuals and classes…

We are sure that…

  • Our desired conceptual understandings are achievable and worthwhile.
  • The unit will help build a community of learners to set the tone for the entire year’s learning.
  • It will help cement the relationships between two groups of learners coming together for the first time from different campuses of our school and create an awareness that each group brings something to the whole.
  • It will expose learners to the necessary focus of the Australian curriculum to support the development of their knowledge and understandings, without teachers resorting to mere ‘covering’ of facts.
  • It will foster the passions, interests and talents of individuals and raise awareness of the fact that they each have something valuable to contribute.
  • There will be opportunities to develop a huge range of trans-disciplinary skills and attitudes, and promote creativity, collaboration and critical thinking.

In a way, our collaborative planning session has been an embodiment of our central idea: The Year 3 teachers, teaching and learning facilitators, teacher librarian and the ICT facilitator have spent several hours working and thinking together. The music and PE teachers have dropped in for a while too to share their ideas. We have built a sense of community within the group and been enriched by the contributions of every member…

Inquiry into learning…

Do you focus as much on the process of learning as the content?

Do your students reflect as much on how they learn as on what they learn.

As a PYP school, we have six units of inquiry each year, one under each of the following trans-disciplinary themes:

Before exploring any other subject areas, we plan to start the coming school year at each grade level, with an inquiry (directly or indirectly) into learning. A unit that sets the tone for all the coming units. One that gets students thinking about factors that contribute towards their learning and reflecting about how they learn.

Our Preps will inquire into how our learning environment helps us learn. It’s their first year of school, in a shared, flexible learning space, with new routines and timetables to adjust to, so this a fitting first inquiry for the year. (Trans-disciplinary Theme: How We Organise Ourselves)

Year 2 will investigate the qualities of effective learners and how these can help us learn, individually and collaboratively. We’re hoping that, through their inquiry, they will develop a better understanding of the Learner Profile, get to know themselves and others as learners and begin to take more responsibility for their learning. They might decide to ask the world about the qualities of effective learners, so be ready! (Trans-disciplinary Theme: Who We Are)

Year 3 will explore the information process… how we decide what we want to learn, formulate questions, locate, organise and evaluate information. Year 4 will inquire into what it means to be organised and how this can empower us, not just in our learning, but in life. Year 6 will explore individual and group decision-making and its impact, personally, in the classroom community and working outwards towards their study of government.

The intention is that starting the year with inquiries such as these will increase students’ awareness of themselves as learners and help build learning communities in our classrooms and in our school.

If you’re interested in the subject of learning communities, join the #pypchat discussion on Thursday and share ideas with an ever-growing community of inquirers!

May as well make it a learning experience!

Implementing the new Australian Curriculum appeared to be an onerous task. English and Maths were fine on the whole, but how would we ensure ‘coverage’ of Science, History and Geography within our PYP trans-disciplinary curriculum framework?  How would we incorporate content based outcomes into our student-centred Program of Inquiry?

Despite our reservations, we approached it as a learning experience, a time for reflection and an exploration of ways to improve teaching and learning. As an IB school, as long as all areas are addressed, we are not compelled to stick to the precise grade levels for prescribed achievement standards. So…

During unit planning sessions, we investigated what aspects of the Australian Curriculum could be incorporated and how we could make them inquiry based. If approached creatively, we saw that many aspects could be integrated into specialist areas and via our kitchen garden program. We set aside an afternoon for three groups to explore respectively the Science, History and Geography curricula, to find connections with what we already do as well as possibilities for change. Then a core group worked on mapping our Program of Inquiry with the Australian Curriculum, removing less successful units to make place for stronger ones that could, at the same time, be better related to the big ideas in the Australian Curriculum.

Finally, this week, a focus group of representatives from each grade  level, as well as some specialists, met to evaluate the current draft of the planned Program of Inquiry for 2013. We collaborated in small groups to analyse all our units of inquiry and to audit the program, first horizontally (across each grade level) and then a vertically from K-6.

We asked such questions as…

Are all areas of the Australian Curriculum being adequately addressed, without losing sight of the fact that as a PYP school, our approach to learning is concept driven, trans disciplinary and inquiry based ?

Do the units invite inquiry and offer opportunities for multiple perspectives? Do they have the potential to develop conceptual understanding? Are they globally significant, addressing the commonalities of human experience?

Is there a balance of key concepts? Are all subject areas incorporated despite the trans-disciplinary nature of the program? Are we addressing all aspects of each trans- disciplinary theme? Do all units challenge and extend learners’ understanding?

The process was an engaging one, probing questions were asked and critical thinking was recorded, based on which units will later be developed by grade level teams. It has been valuable for everyone to have an overview of the whole, to know where their students have come from and where they are heading. Cross fertilization of ideas was facilitated by mixed teams from different grade levels working together. The teachers valued the opportunity to make decisions about and have ownership of the curriculum.

The current draft is now in the hands of the rest of the staff for comments, questions and feedback.

I like the way we managed to put aside our reservations, take a prescribed curriculum and make it our own…

Moving learning forward…

When I was a child, my parents kept a ‘theme box’  where the family collected magazine pictures, newspaper articles and pamphlets, so that my brothers and I had resources at our fingertips for school projects.

I remember I once had to research a country in Europe for a geography project and I chose France, because there was appropriate material in the ‘theme box’! On every page of my ‘theme book’ I traced an outline of the map of France, inside which I wrote information about the population, sights, climate and industry. While I loved how my pages looked, I don’t recall caring about the content or wondering about its relevance. I certainly wouldn’t have thought to question the value of this supposed learning experience but I assume my teacher could tick some curriculum boxes.

These are memories that spring to mind, as I work with Year 6 teachers, planning their current unit of inquiry.

In its first incarnation, a few years back, the focus of the unit was on understanding more about our geographical neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region. Students inquired into a country of their choice, then shared and compared their findings with their class mates. Unlike the ‘theme box’ of my days, it was exciting to have the opportunity to connect via Skype to find out about other people and other places via primary sources.

In its current version the unit is based on our understanding of geo-literacy…


The central idea is: Understanding the interconnectedness of the world empowers people to make informed decisions for now and the future.

We’re not sure if it’s perfect, but it’s a sound starting point. As with all good inquiry units, the teachers are not entirely sure where the learning will go or how it will get there. They have, however, articulated some desired conceptual understandings for students to reach, as they explore the big idea through the lenses of connection and reflection

  • A wide range of  factors shape the way people live.
  • Individuals and countries are interconnected in many ways.
  • Engaging with and learning from people in other places helps us understand our interconnectedness.
  • Decisions made today have an impact on other places and times.

We still need to focus on the Asia-Pacific, due to the requirements of the Australian curriculum, but we have come a long way since we first planned this unit.

  • Learning principles. Our articulated beliefs about learning  are becoming more and more embedded in our planning.
  • Concept driven learning. The desired conceptual understandings are articulated in advance.
  • Intention. We start from the ‘why’.  No learning experience is planned without sound reasoning as to its purpose.
  • Evidence. We know what evidence we will look for to assess the learners’ understanding, to inform further teaching and learning.
  • Direction. We consider what the unit is not about. We decide on one (conceptual) word that sums up the essence of the unit. In this case, the unit is about ‘interconnectedness’ not about ‘Asia’.
  • Inquiry. We understand that true inquiry is more than ‘doing a project’ on something in which you are interested…
  • Differentiation. The planner no longer contains a series of pre-planned activities, but rather a bank of potential provocations from which teachers might select, depending on how the learning unfolds in each class.
  • Technology. The use of technology is an integral part of planning and learning.
  •  21st century skills (as they used to be called) Creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking are integrated naturally into the way we plan for learning.


If you or your class (or an expert you know), in the Asia-Pacific region, would like to engage with our Year 6 students, via their blogs, Twitter or Skype to help them explore the ways we are interconnected, ranging from individual to international level, please let us know.

Are adult learners different from young learners?

I’m currently participating in a training course for IB educators to become officially recognised IB Workshop Leaders. Learning with and from passionate, knowledgeable and driven educators, with diverse backgrounds and experiences, is proving to be engaging and exciting. I’m enjoying the challenge of being pushed to think about learning in a different context.

I notice again and again, that the issues discussed, the tips the leaders offer, the problems we grapple with and the strategies shared all apply just as much in teaching and learning at school as they do in running adult workshops.

We reflect individually on the conditions that support and hinder our own learning, and then share in groups. There’s much commonality… and difference, of course, and the leaders point out that all these are considerations to bear in mind when running workshops for other adults.

These are some of the factors that come up in the conversation:

(Notice anything?)

As adult learners, we value…

  • Opportunities to interact with other learners.
  • A sense of  learning something new.
  • Enough time to talk, reflect and construct meaning.
  • An interesting presenter, aware of participants’ needs.
  • Engaging and provocative issues to grapple with.
  • A range of perspectives.
  • A clear purpose.
  • A variety of presentation styles.
  • A safe environment in which to try out our ideas.
As adult learners, we don’t enjoy…
  • Being passive while a presenter lectures.
  • PowerPoints with too many words.
  • Lack of internet access.
  • An overcrowded agenda.
  • Physical needs not being met
  • Not enough time to reflect and internalise.
  • Lack of support and follow-up.

We’re asked to examine a list of the characteristics of adult learners and consider the implications that these have for us as workshop leaders. It’s true we need to be aware that adults have accumulated a (longer) lifetime of knowledge and experiences that might affect our learning. Adults might come to the new learning with more preconceived ideas, stronger opinions and possibly a resistance to change. But as I work my way through the list, I’m struck again by the fact that learning is learning and there is not much difference between the way adults learn and the way children do. Before I’m criticised (yet again!) for my tendency to oversimplify, let me clarify that I am not comparing the natural curiosity and exploration of toddlers to adults studying for a PhD. (Or am I?) I’m sharing my beliefs about the ways learning works.

As an educator who thinks deeply about learning, I have spent a great deal of time over the years considering almost all the things on this list in the context of student learning. How much will I need to adjust my practice when working with adults?

These are my school’s articulated learning principles: (If you read this blog regularly, you’ll have seen these beliefs referred to repeatedly!)

Everyone has the potential to learn.

  • 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 takes place when we feel secure, valued and are able to take risks.
  • Learning needs to be challenging, meaningful, purposeful and engaging.
  • Learning includes meta-cognition and reflection, and requires learners to take ownership of their learning.

It seems to me that if I bear these in mind, as I always need to do in learning situations, facilitating adult workshops will not be all that different from teaching in a classroom.

IB Workshop Leader Training Day #2

10 (more) ways for teachers to learn…

You can’t be a teacher, if you are not a learner.

I’ve written many times about teachers as learners, professional learning, reading groups and learning through collaborative planning.

I once posted 10 ways to grow as an educator, based on my reflections on my own learning and growth at that point in time.  This week, I’m fortunate to be at an IB workshop in Chiang Mai, Thailand, training to be an IB workshop leader. Reflecting at the end of the first day, I have some ideas to add my list of ways teachers can learn…

1. Engage with teachers from different places and cultures.

Twitter is a fine place to start, if you can’t meet them in person.

2. Interact with teachers who teach other disciplines and different age groups.

Talk about learning in your context. Really listen to them talk about learning in theirs.

3. Get out of school!

Learn in a beautiful, natural setting. Be inspired by nature.

4. Visit another school.

Preferably one that’s very different from yours.

5. Watch other teachers teach or present.

Learn from what they do… and from what they don’t do.

6. Tweet from a conference.

Sum up the key points 140 characters at a time.

7. Interact with other people who share your passion.

If you’re lucky, you can find them in your school. If not, connect online.

8. Reflect on your own learning.

Stop and think about what you learned. Write it down. A blog is best, a scrap of paper will do.

9. Teach teachers.

Share your knowledge, experience, expertise and ideas with people who know as much and more than you do.

10. Be open-minded.

There is something worth learning from every person you meet and every situation you find yourself in…

IB Workshop Leader Training Day #1

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.

A family connection…

When our Year 6 kids first Skyped with Raj in Chennai, India, for an inquiry into our Asian neighbours, it was a something out of the ordinary. Raj dressed in a special shirt for the occasion and the children sat politely in their seats, venturing to the microphone when it was their turn to speak.

A couple of years later, this is nothing unusual any more. Various classes have communicated via Skype with individuals and classes in other countries. Students and teachers alike have learned a great deal about different people, countries and cultures through these personal connections.

From 4G’s room in Melbourne to the living-room in Chennai.

Today Year 4G is interacting with Raj for an inquiry into cultural beliefs and traditions. It’s completely relaxed. There are groups of Aussie kids moving around, chatting about what Raj is saying, a core group is on the floor at the front lapping up every word and some serious inquirers sit at their tables taking notes. It doesn’t matter that some kids drift in and out of out of the conversation… so does Raj. It’s a holiday and he’s talking from home, with his son Aditya chiming in from time to time. It’s not the first time Adi has joined a session, but this time Raj is in the living-room and we can see the rest of the family going about their business in the background.

This is the week of Raj’s father’s Sadhabhishekam, a Hindu commemoration of the 80th birthday. The Year 4s explored photos from the occasion, before the session, and have loads of questions about the clothing, the food, the rituals… and about the values and beliefs underlying these. They are familiar with the iceberg model of culture and know that there’s much more to explore than what you can see above the surface. They have even classified their questions in this way, and one class has a paper model of an iceberg, with sand at the bottom, where they place their ‘very deep’ questions!

The engaging thing is that Raj draws in whichever family member the question relates to. The children meet his father, in traditional Brahmin dress. He demonstrates the application of the holy ash on his forehead and shows them the thread he has worn since his coming of age. His mother brings the box of vermillion, used to apply her bindee and she opens her hands to reveal the henna patterns applied for the birthday celebration. Raj’s wife Radha, demonstrates how she draws the kolam, a welcome pattern symbolizing ‘no end no beginning’, usually drawn on the floor outside the house.

They show the children ritual items and artefacts and almost share some traditional Indian sweets… It’s a shame we’re more than 8000 Km away! I have to say… it feels as if we are in the living-room in Chennai.

DIY Professional Learning

Does your school run compulsory, one-size-fits-all PD? Are you ever bored, disinterested or unmotivated when attending?  Have you ever been to a conference where the presenter was dull, the audience passive and the content unengaging?

Fortunately, we have the power to create our own more effective professional learning opportunities. What’s yours? Daily connection with other educators via social media? Online workshops and webinars by educators for educators? Teachmeets, where educators meet and share practice informally? One of the many Twitter chats dedicated to different areas of learning?

Keen responses to a tweet from @wholeboxndice a few days ago motivated us to try and establish #pypchat, a Twitter chat for IB PYP educators. While the discussion will be PYP related, it’s all about learning and anyone will be welcome to participate.

A preliminary survey to assess the level of interest quickly attracted responses from every continent. It’s unlikely we can find a suitable time to accommodate people in all the time zones, but it’s encouraging to have so much interest expressed so quickly.

It’s interesting to note that nearly half the responders so far indicated that they would like to be part of the team of moderators. It’s an opportunity to create our own professional learning.

DIY. Why not?

(Survey here. Details soon)