What does student ownership look like?

‘Imagine if we did this with kids’… I said in my previous post and, within a few days, some teachers have!

The learners work in mixed groups across two Year 6 classes and respond to the same question that we gave the teachers last week: ‘What does student ownership of learning look like’? 

The teachers move between the groups, asking probing questions, encouraging the learners to think more deeply.


IMG_4826Responses are quite revealing!

  • Teachers tell students where to go, but they choose their own route to get there.
  • Teachers tell the students what to do, but they decide how to do it.
  • People can have their own opinions and points of view.
  • Freedom to learn and independence.
  • Taking pride in your own learning.
  • Thinking and reflecting about what and how you learn.
  • Doing your work without letting yourself be distracted.
  • We are all unique in our learning and thinking styles.
  • Teacher opens the door, but only we can walk through.
  • Choosing wisely where to sit and who to work with.

It’s only Day 2 of the school year and I know things will develop as the year unfolds. These young learners have teachers who value student ownership and will work at establishing a culture where this is real. They are part of a learning community where ownership of learning is valued and beliefs about how this takes place have been articulated and agreed upon.

Yet I can’t help but wonder:

  • Have our learners really experienced ownership of their learning within a school context?
  • Are the children saying the sorts of things they think teachers are looking for?
  • Can our learners imagine what really owning your learning looks and feels like?
  • Do adults really believe that children can be the owners of their learning?
  • Is ownership of learning compatible with traditional models of school?
  • How can we help children (and teachers) separate the notion of learning from that of ‘doing school’?
  • Does our practice align with our beliefs?



Student ownership of learning…

“I think teachers should not be telling the students exactly what they should be doing. They should be finding their own path and figuring out the ways that they learn best.”    ~ Georgia, Year 6.

The Year 6 PYP exhibition is a prime example of the kind of learning that is unleashed when students own their learning. The confidence and understanding with which Georgia and the other learners shared this learning experience are evidence of the power of student ownership…

Looking forward to increasing opportunities for student ownership in 2016!

Doing school vs (real) learning…

I love chatting with my colleague about approaches to pedagogy and how to encourage teachers to reflect and grow. This week’s conversation gets us thinking about a shift in focus required for (some) beginning teachers… and some who’re not beginning.

We attempt to define it. Is it a shift in focus from:

  • Teaching to learning?
  • Teacher centred to student centred?
  • Work to learning?
  • Short term to long terms goals?
  • Content to process?
  • All of the above?

How often do you say these sorts of things in your classroom?

  • This is how you need to do the task.
  • Don’t publish till you show me what you have written.
  • Your answer is ok but it’s not the one I’m looking for. (not necessarily in those words)
  • This is how you can improve your work.
  • Don’t move to the next step till I say so.
  • Stop (in the middle of what you’re doing/thinking/learning) and listen to my instructions.
  • I want you to…

Are you depriving your students of opportunities to make decisions and reflect on them, learn from mistakes, become independent learners, think for themselves and… really LEARN?

What are the effects when teachers say things like this? (Observed in class visits this week)

  • What do you think is the best way to go about this? Why do you think so?
  • Create your own experiment, if you think it will be more effective.
  • How would you teach this to students of any age of your choice?
  • It doesn’t matter what I think, what do you think?
  • How and why would you go about developing new vocabulary? (second language)
  • You know more about this than me, what do you suggest?
  • What did you learn about yourself as a learner?

Consider your practice….

Are you providing opportunities for meaningful learning?

Or are you and your students ‘doing school’?

Lauri, Year 3
“Can you go and find some good microscopes for around $100? You know more about these things than me…”
Year 6 PYP exhibition information night
Sharing with parents what we’ve been learning and what we’re interested in exploring.
Year 4 - Adventure Time
Creating emotion balls as part of an ‘Adventure Time‘ exploration of mindfulness
Year 4 Adventure Time
Getting feedback from peers before pitching to the class, rather than just asking the teacher

An inquiry into how the world works -2

It’s the first time our Year 6 students are exploring the trans-disciplinary theme ‘How the World Works’ for their PYP ‘exhibition‘ inquiries.

We initially have some concerns…

How will we ensure it goes beyond a science fair?
Will all students engage with science in a meaningful way?
How will we make sure the learning is rich and deep, with opportunities for every learner to find something about which they are passionate?

We develop a few conceptual understandings which we’d like the learners to reach…

  • Science provides a lens through which to look at the world.
  • People apply their understanding of science to solve problems and meet needs.
  • Scientific and technological advances have an impact on society and the environment.

And some strong provocations to hook them in and get them thinking…

They are inspired by Louie Schwartzberg’s TED talk – Hidden Miracles of the Natural World, in particular this, which provokes them to think about science in new ways…

What is the intersection between technology, art and science? Curiosity and wonder, because it drives us to explore, because we’re surrounded by things we can’t see.

After unpacking the trans-disciplinary theme, students enjoy a ‘Science Exploration Day’ during which they explore all areas of the school – the garden, the cafeteria, the nurses station and more – taking photos which they later connect to the various strands of science.

Visitors Sam and Jethro, a couple of young inventors, expose the students to the design process. The children need to come up with an idea and  go through the design process to create something new from what is already known.

Prototype for a creature created through the design process, which will move via electrical circuit
Prototype for a creature created through the design process, which will move via electrical circuit

Our learners quickly show an awareness of science in our world, further enhanced by an excursion to the city, where they choose to visit either the museum or the art gallery as well as various parks and buildings. Taking purposeful photos helps them NOTICE and NAME science everywhere and heightens awareness of how humans apply their knowledge of science too.

This week they they also begin their explorations of science through a choice of creative media – art, music, dance, animation, photography, poetry or design (electronics and coding).

Comparing the sounds made by different instruments
Comparing the sounds made by different instruments
Photographing the natural world with macro lenses
Photographing the natural world with macro lenses
Creating movements that replicate nature
Creating movements that replicate nature

Excitement is high.

It’s already apparent that our early concerns were unnecessary.

The children are totally immersed in their learning, already considering what interests them most, what they are passionate about and why, what they might like to explore further and how… They will have plenty of time to think, experiment, investigate and ask themselves not just WHAT? but SO WHAT? and NOW WHAT? before deciding on their chosen inquiries.

This is a far cry from offering a range of topics for students to choose between and creating random groups in which they will work, an approach often used in classrooms and even PYP exhibition units.

This is all about choice and student voice and learners taking ownership of their learning. It’s about learners having opportunities to find and solve problems and explore real issues that matter.

It’s an opportunity for rich, meaningful learning. I can’t wait to see how it all unfolds…

10 things parents should unlearn…

“We need to educate the parents.”

I’ve heard that statement three times in the past week alone. Once was while discussing the purpose of student portfolios. The second was in the context of making our PYP exhibition more student led, focusing more on the learning than the presentation. The third related to student led conferences. Apparently most parents want time to discuss their children’s learning without the learner present.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming the parents. They need to be partners in their children’s learning and we need to find ways to make this possible and meaningful. But many parents base their opinions on the only model of education with which they are familiar… their own schooling. Even if they are young parents, I’d like to hope schooling has changed since they went to school.

10 things I think (some) parents should unlearn…

1.  Learning is best measured by a letter or a number.

2. Product is more important than process and progress.

3. Children need to be protected from any kind of failure.

4. The internet  is dangerous for children.

5. Parents and teachers should discuss students without the learner present.

6. Homework is an essential part of learning.

7. The school is responsible for the child’s entire education.

8. Your child’s perspective is the only one.

9. Learning looks the same as when you went to school.

1o. Focus on (and fix) your child’s shortcomings, rather than their successes.

I won’t elaborate at the moment, as I’d rather have your input. As a teacher and/or a parent, which ones do you agree with? Disagree? Challenge? Question?

One of the most visited posts on this blog was 10 things TEACHERS should  unlearn. Take a look at that one too.  It was written two years ago – Does it need an update?

Student Centred Breakdown

Travelling and spending time with family means a few weeks away from social media.

This is a moving guest post by Clive for my series on learning in different contexts.  It first appeared at his blog, Clive Sir, a month ago and he agreed to let me post it whenever I liked. As I’m still away from home and not writing posts, it seems like a good time to share it…

I had a chat with someone the other day, talking about teaching styles. It brought back memories of my time in India, circumstances when my student-centric approach broke down.

We had a lad I shall call Aneesh. About ten years old, he was the son of one of the traders down on the beach. The NGO I was working for had encouraged his parents to send Aneesh to school rather than have him work in their shop. For parents it’s never a case of simply finding a public school to take their children. They have often missed so much schooling that the kids fail the admissions tests. Families are then, usually, left to their own devices to seek private education. In families where little importance is attached to education, where the cost of books is significant, and where the child brings in some income, they mostly don’t bother.  My organisation had its own school and provided books, transport, food and clothing, totally free of charge. It paid parents a small fee to compensate for lost income and the children received a small allowance for each day attended, as an incentive. The idea was that they would be brought up to speed over a year or so. The organisation would then fight to get them placed in mainstream publicly-funded school, while continuing to support them by covering all incidental costs. The parents would justify it in terms of doing the organisation a favour: by supplying their children in return for some money the NGO could continue to exist.

Aneesh was a real character. Highly popular with his fellow students, he was always making them laugh. Somehow, miraculously, the organisation got him immediately placed in a local English-medium public school. Maybe because he bluffed his way in or for some other reason, whatever, he got in.

The policy was that all such kids would come back to us for tuition after the school day. Being one of our “tuition kids” had several advantages: we would get to hear how they were doing at school and what they were struggling with, so we could then focus on the weak areas. Coming from poor families, these children were frequently bullied; by giving them the opportunity to talk about it we could try to do something to help, even if it was only to take them back into our day-time school. Finally, home environments were often not conducive to studying or doing homework, maybe because there was no table or space or light, but sometimes because of abusive family members; a few hours in afternoon tuition meant the children got some necessary support.

Anyway, Aneesh struggled badly in all subjects and eventually I was assigned to help him. Language wasn’t a barrier – he and I could communicate quite effectively because his spoken English was good, most likely a result of speaking with tourists in his shop. I concentrated on maths and computing with him and I quickly discovered that he was only surviving because he was copying his neighbours’ work. His friends didn’t mind because he was amusing, always acting the buffoon and mucking about but, in the strict, Victorian-disciplined day school he now found himself, he was no longer getting away with it.

After a week he told me that he was really worried about an imminent computing exam. I had a look at his text-book – it was essentially a learn-by-rote work-book, typical of the way many Indian kids learn.  It was pretty dreadful, expecting kids to simply repeat unexplained words and phrases. I could do better. With only a few days till the exam I decided that the most effective way to get him to grasp the concepts was to work one to one, discussing and explaining the things to be covered, and trying to encourage questioning, thinking and understanding. He actually seemed to improve so I thought he’d stand a chance of doing reasonably well.

Aneesh sat it and got his marks back almost immediately. He was very weepy when he showed them to me. What stared out from the sheet, in big, red letters, was “3/25″. Worse, the teacher had written down the page:

“V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V.V. Bad.”

I didn’t count them – I was too dismayed. There were probably more. I guess that gives you an idea of the quality of teaching some Indian children encounter.  Teachers are not all like that, of course, but the existence of even one is one too many. Pure punishment. Where were the gentle words of encouragement?

After I had calmed down I thought about it some more. What I hadn’t realised was that firstly, in all likelihood, the teacher didn’t understand his subject. He was lazy and was playing safe by following the work-book to the letter. Secondly, the exam followed exactly the same format: words had to be memorised and quoted verbatim. There was no leeway and any understanding was incidental. It didn’t matter what “input” meant, it just mattered that that was the word to be fitted into the blank.

I blame myself. I should have known. I hadn’t made the connection. If I had spent time getting Annesh to repeat and regurgitate the words then he would have passed the test. Educationally a meaningless test, but that was lost on Aneesh and he was the one who mattered.

My recommendation was that Aneesh should be taken out of that school and brought back to us. He was just too weak and had way too much ground to make up. Management didn’t see it like that, driven by the belief that the public school was an opportunity not to be wasted. Perhaps he was better in other subjects but I doubt it. I questioned my ability to help any of the Tuition Kids because I saw no value in working like that. Aneesh was taken away from me and given to a more conventional teacher. They persisted for a few months until after I left India. I heard through the grapevine that he eventually returned to the NGO’s school where he would have received the nurturing he so needed.

Letting go….

 There is every reason for a poor turnout for the reading group. New units are just getting underway. Teachers are busy writing reports. It’s less than two months till the end of the school year…

Yet more than half the teachers at our Year 4-6 campus turn up an hour before school to discuss the first chapter of Ron Ritchhart’s latest book, ‘Making Thinking Visible‘. It’s partly because we really value the ‘Visible Thinking’ ideas and material and the positive impact they have had on our teaching and learning. But it’s also because there is a core group of teachers who, over a period of several years, have developed into a real community of learners. We know that sessions like this push our thinking and keep us constantly reflecting on our practice. 

We ‘unpack thinking’ over breakfast. Those who haven’t managed to do the reading pick up the ideas from the others and are quickly involved too. (I’ve summed up some of the key points of the chapter in an earlier post here.) Among other things we talk about how creating a culture of thinking in our classrooms has shifted the focus from teaching to learning. It’s part of the process of students taking ownership of the learning.

In this reflection, one of the veteran teachers in the group makes her thinking visible…

Letting go….the more I do it, the better it gets! by Desiree Finestone

I am still learning.  The more I gradually release  control of my students’ learning and allow learning to happen where  they are given opportunities to naturally think, analyse, synthesise and internalise concepts and processes, the more I realise this is the way to go!

Providing tools and opportunities to make their thinking visible fosters engagement and discussion around the content. Post –it notes displayed around the room, blogging and thinking routines all support the thinking.  These tools allow students to share, listen to and build on each other’s ideas. 

It’s a great feeling to literally sit back, fold my arms and observe what is happening!  Each time I ‘see’ and feel their thinking and learning, I move up one rung on the ladder towards my next teaching goal. The more I teach, the more I realise how important it is to know how my students learn.

I so enjoy being involved in our Thinking Group.  It provides us teachers opportunities to make our thinking visible and learn from each other.

Image by HocusFocusClick

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…

10 ways to make the learning matter…

Whether we’re thinking about how best to use the new flexible learning spaces or the meaningful integration of technology, it always comes down to the learning. If our goal is for students to learn, we teachers need to focus less on teaching and more on learning…

1. Start from the end.

Decide the desired goals and outcomes first. Then decide on learning experiences which will help the students to get there. Don’t start by planning activities or selecting pages in the text book.

2. Show that you’re a learner too.

Share things you have learned. Invite their opinions on things you have read for your own interest. Learn from and with your students. Be part of the learning community.

3. 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 unless they are really about learning.  Start with the ‘why.

4. Articulate your learning principles.

Consider what you believe about how learning takes places. Build everything else on that foundation…  learning experiences,  interactions, your classroom set-up.

5. Focus on big ideas.

Don’t teach only facts and content. Look at concepts, rather than just topics. Facts are locked in time, place or situation. Big ideas are transferable.  Aim for transfer of learning to other contexts.

6. Listen to what the learners say.

Use what they say to tell you where they are at.  Sometimes it’s not phrased as a question, but they are asking one.  Ask their opinions. Encourage them to talk about the process of learning.

7. Assess for learning.

Don’t test at the end. Use all kinds of formatives assessment along the way (including just listening to your students). Create authentic assessments that show transfer of learning to other contexts, not just factual recall.

8. Focus on individual learners.

Don’t always just teach the whole class at once. Different learners have individual needs. Differentiate as required. Work in groups. Allow choice.

9. Create authentic learning experiences.

Standing out front and talking all the time isn’t an authentic learning experience.  Hands on exploration is.  Finding things out for oneself is. Working things through with peers is. Global interactions are.

10. Let go.

Step back. Talk less. Test less. Don’t make all the decisions. Don’t control all the learning.  Encourage learners to own it.

@CliveSir has created a hilarious xtranormal version of this post!

10 ways series:

10 ways to get students to own their learning

10 ways to foster a love of learning

10 ways to create a culture of thinking

10 ways to grow as an educator

10 ways my thinking has changed

10 ways to think about your learning space

10 ways to help students develop a PLN

10 ways to attract readers to your blog

10 things teachers should unlearn

10 ways to encourage good questions

10 ways to get your students’ respect

10 ways to assess learning without tests

10 ways to motivate students to blog

10 ways to make meetings effective

10 things you can’t do on Monday in period 6