An opportunity for powerful learning…

‘J is beyond excited for the conference!’ according to a message from her mother. She’ll be sharing her passion for baking with some of her peers on Tuesday at our Year 6 #PassionsMatter conference.  An update says: ‘My kitchen is a hive of activity in preparation for Tuesday. The girls have been shopping independently this morning with their shopping list and budget (prepared by themselves). They are now preparing and packing all that they need for their workshop. Totally self directed! THIS is learning!!!!!!!!!!!!!!’ 

L is excited too, as expressed in an email to her teacher, discussing the purchase of materials for her sewing workshop.  A has prepared an inspirational talk about how books capture her imagination and transport her to other worlds.  T is writing his own book and will tell his peers about that.  J’s talk uses take off and flight as a metaphor for achieving goals…

In the lead up to the conference, our learners have been involved in authentic opportunities to write, speak, research, think, calculate, make decisions, collaborate… and learn. Students have written inquiry emails, made phone calls, worked out costs for catering, placed orders, designed the logo and certificates, written speeches, given constructive feedback, planned and re-planned workshops.

The program includes some external presenters , who are all passionate, young role models some of whom have mentored the children in planning their sessions. Their workshops will provide opportunities for students to explore areas of passion such as song writing, story telling and sport coaching, as well as to engage with the big ideas of finding your passion, self belief, learning from failure and overcoming obstacles. 

On Tuesday at Passions Matter 2016, students will be speakers, workshop presenters, photographers, caterers, tweeters, bloggers and reflection group leaders. 

Emailing presenters
Meeting with mentor
Planning and re-planning workshop
Practising inspirational speech

This is powerful learning. 

Why only once a year? What if we had days like this once a month? Once a week?

How can we make this kind of meaningful, purposeful learning part of regular, daily school life?


The back story…

From doing school to Learning 2 day

Unleashing Learning

Learning Unleashed

The Story Within

And even further back…

Why isn’t school like a conference?

A conference for kids

Student Ownership…

‘It was great last year’… 

‘The kids loved it’… 

‘No need for change’… 

‘Why fix what isn’t broken?’

It’s exciting to note that we rarely hear these comments in our planning sessions any more!

Change and growth are embedded in the way we plan for learning. We prefer to start afresh and reinvent, in light of our current understandings, new teams collaborating, different students…

And every time we plan,  we try to ensure more opportunities for students to take ownership of the learning.

Two years ago we had our first social justice conference for Year 6 students. The event grew from a random idea, blogged and picked up by a teacher on the other side of the world, who breathed life into the vision. We developed her ideas further and the conference was a great introduction to the PYP exhibition process.

The aims were-

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

Last year the Year 6 team improved the structure of the conference, adding time for the kids to reflect in small groups after each speaker and opportunities to express their learning creatively at the end of the day.

While the conference was outstanding, with  kids choosing what sessions to attend and actively engaged in learning on the day, essentially it was still organised for them.

This year, it’s obvious what needs upgrading. The kids need more ownership.

So we’ve called for volunteers who will write to the speakers, organise groups, make programs, welcome and thank the speakers, take photographs, film, tweet, blog… and whatever else they decide!

I’m on leave at the moment, but delighted to find emails such as these in my inbox this morning:

My name is Jared and I am in Mrs B’s class and she told me that you were looking for volunteers to help with the conference next term. I would be very happy help with all the organizing that needs to be done. Jared

I would love to volunteer to help organise anything. I enjoy writing so I could make a blog post about the speakers, and I am very organised so I can organise anything. I could make programs or welcome the speakers too. I don’t really mind, I’m just happy to help. Thank you. Liora

Dear Morah Sackson, I am very interested in this project. Any jobs available will be fine for me! Thanks a million! David.

Hi Morah Sackson, I would love to volunteer to be an organizer for the conference. If I could I would like to write messages to the speakers with information. Thanks, Taylor

I would love to cooperate! I would love to do anything… I am passionate to help out! Mia

I would like to volunteer to work at lunchtimes. I would like to help create the program if I can. I am a great organiser and I really enjoy when things are in place. Ellie

Next year the kids can do the whole thing!

A different kind of conference -2

‘ Every speaker was engaging and interesting which taught me a lot.’ (Timmi)

‘I thought it was an unbelievable experience and really increased my knowledge of the world’. (Jack)

‘I thought it was fun way of learning, instead of teachers just talking to us and telling us what to do, it was more interactive. It was like a big class discussion and we got to have different fun activities. I liked the breakout groups because we got to share what we learnt with everyone.’ (Jackie)

Thursday’s conference for students was highly successful if, like me, you gauge success by the potential for learning, the level of engagement, and the depth of students’ thinking. You can read about the details of the day in an earlier post. The students’ reflections and the images from the day should tell you the rest of the story…

What some of the kids said:


Yesterday was a fun learning experience. I loved all of the stations and I did not believe some of the things they were telling me. My favourite session was the Glenallen School on overcoming challenges. They brought in two of their students, named Bella and Kim. Kim and Bella both made a short speech for us telling us about themselves and why they have to use a machine to talk. After their speeches we got ask them questions, and some of the answers were really interesting. Some people asked them how does your machine work and the answers were unbelievable, I never knew machines could do those type of things, like estimate what their sentence is going to be or there’s like a brain switch that can read what she’s trying to say! Some of my friends even got to go up to Kim and Bella to see both of these machines. I asked Bella how she became school captain and she said to me without her machine “all of my friends voted for me”.


I noticed:

1. That one person can make a change.
2. If you set goals for yourself anything is possible.
3. That disabled people think just like us and even though they may look different they still have feelings and should be treated the same.
4. That there is way more animal cruelty in the world than I thought and that we have to stop it.
5. Just one life can help the world and make a change! to never give up!


Learning about what 12 year old girls and Ethiopian woman do every day has made me a very grateful person. Knowing they have to walk 3 hours carrying 15 kilos, back to their families, has made me realise what a struggle their life is compared to mine. Every day I have to go to school for 8 hours, when most of them can’t go to school because they are busy helping their families. What I am able to do every day, I take for granted. When I come home I have dinner made already and sometimes we go out for dinner, and our delicious food is made for us. But these women have to make unappetising food, by hand, every day, for 3 hours. 1.3 billion People live on just $1.25 per day, while we live on hundreds. I learnt that I am a very lucky and I should be more grateful for everyday that I live. I want to make a difference for these girls and one day.


My favourite part of the day was when a woman named Bianca talked to us about homelessness. I learned that there are three types of homelessness and that a reason that many people become homeless is when there are family issues and the child moves out early and doesn’t have any money. I think that it was a good learning experience even though it was on Skype. I never knew that there were 45,500 homeless people every night in Australia. I wonder why Australia doesn’t give them a home because Australia is a wealthy country but 45,500 is a lot less homeless people than in a lot of other countries in the world.


I noticed:
1. …that everyone can do something to help others.
2. … that I am really lucky to have a roof over my head and to have food and clean water to drink.
3. …that not many people are as lucky as I am.
4. …that the speakers were passionate about what they spoke about.
5. …that lots of people try to make a difference.

Next: Any tips on how to create an un-conference?

A conference for kids…

It all started with an idle thought or two, when I had some spare time at the IB Conference in March. I’d walked out of the only boring keynote of the conference, presented, ironically, by the very people who teach teachers to teach at one of the big universities here in Melbourne. I began to mull about why a conference can’t be more like school and wrote a blog post right then and there. I followed up with  Why isn’t school like a conference? and I was thrilled to hear from Donna Morley that my post had inspired her to organise a conference day for students at her school!

Inspired in turn by Donna’s initiative, I tried (unsuccessfully!) to sell the idea at my own school to a couple of Year level teams. The responses were predictable: too complicated, too time consuming, too much work, too much trouble. When I finally got the opportunity to pitch the idea to our Year 6 team as a provocation for the PYP exhibition unit, I was prepared! I volunteered right away to take responsibility for the organisation of the whole thing myself, if necessary.(I have a supportive in -school PLN and I knew once the team were on board, they’d be more than happy to get involved.)

The central idea of the unit is ‘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.To begin with, they will be exposed to many provocations in order to give them an overview, pique their interest and provoke their thinking. The full day conference will be a provocation in itself, with a range of guest speakers, interactive workshops and small group breakout sessions in between for sharing, processing and reflection.

We’re in the planning stage now and it’s really exciting. We will have guest speakers from the community and overseas (via Skype) talking about social justice issues and action they have taken, as well as workshops facilitated by staff , high school students and past students.

I love the way an idle thought can lead to a blog post, which can inspire someone in another country to explore a new concept which, in turn, can encourage further development of the idea, back in the place where it began. Once again, it’s about the incredible power of social media to influence and instigate change…

School can be like a conference…

Guest post by Donna Morley, a PYP coordinator at an IB school in Hong Kong. It’s exciting to be able to share and build on each others’ ideas, even when we don’t live in the same country. I’m hoping to organise something similar at my school. Thanks, Donna!

I recently read Edna’s post ‘Why isn’t school like a conference?’ We were looking for an interesting way to launch our year 6 Sharing the Planet unit  for their PYP exhibition so I thought I would suggest having a ‘Sharing the Planet conference’! The year 6 teachers liked the idea and really ran with it and last week we had our first ever conference for students. Sharing the planet

The day started with all children in the hall for a Keynote address from Alex Steffen, an expert on sustainability, to give the children an overview of the key issues associated with ‘Sharing the Planet’, We didn’t actually fly him here from Canada, we showed his excellent TED talk.

Next, each student chose to attend three workshops to give them a broader understanding of the big idea ‘Our future depends on ethical and sustainable use of resources‘. They chose from: Sustainability of Chinese Language, Technology and the Big Idea, A Sustainable Home in Hong Kong, The Big Idea through Art, The Big Idea through Science, Fact and Bias within the Big Idea, Connections to Previous Learning and What is Action? It was great to have workshops presented by members of staff from throughout the school, not just year 6. We also had students from year 3 and 5 sharing their learning from their ‘Sharing the Planet’ units – and they did so with amazing confidence and enthusiasm!

In the afternoon there were a range of stations set up for children to record their learning or take it further. We had a tech zone  where students watched selected videos and used the visible thinking strategy: ‘Connect – Extend – Challenge’ to reflect on their learning. There was also a reflection zone for children to record their thoughts on the day using Voicethread, blogs and video. They contributed to a huge graffiti wall, collected images to represent the big idea in the art zone and there were also health, science and social studies zones.

It was great to watch how the students behaved at the workshops, taking careful notes and posing challenging questions to the presenters. They really enjoyed this way of working and the teachers are already discussing how we might do the next one! Hopefully we will be able to persuade some of our parent community to come in as speakers or workshop presenters. It was an excellent learning experience which helped the children to tune in to the big ideas for this unit and allowed them to choose their interests and preferred ways of learning.

The year 6 team did a fantastic job of putting it all together and it was great to see teachers from across the school working together to make it happen. The whole event really showed us living by our all of our learning principles – another thing inspired by Edna’s posts!

  • Learning collaboratively and supporting each other.
  • Recognising that everyone is a learner and that learning is continuous.
  • Creating a safe and secure environment where innovation is encouraged and mistakes are viewed as a learning opportunity.
  • Having a balanced approach to life and learning taking into consideration the social, physical and emotional well being of our community.
  • Reflecting on our experiences and taking responsibility for our learning.
  • Being internationally minded
  • Communicating effectively in a variety of ways and in more than one language.
  • Personalising learning
  • Learning through guided inquiry
  • Sharing responsibility for ourselves and others and believing that our actions can make a difference

What the children had to say about the conference:
“I enjoyed it because it made me think about connections and links to the central idea.”

“I would like to learn this way again because we can also learn to use our time management skills while doing the different stations.”

“I really enjoyed the conference because it let me view the Big Idea through lots of different lenses and perspectives, like from a scientist’s lens, an artist’s lens, etc.”


Why isn’t school like a conference?

Subtitle: 10 ways to make school more engaging…

The theme of the IBAP conference this year is ‘Citizenship, Connectivity, Creativity, Comapassion‘ (Exploring teaching and learning in the 21st century). So far I’m thoroughly enjoying it.  It’s been stimulating to listen to inspiring keynote speakers, to learn from and with other educators and to connect with new people from different places. It’s fun to check out the options with my colleague and choose which sessions to particpate in.

I’m wondering why we don’t try to replicate this model for our students.

We could…

1. Start the day with an inspiring keynote… via TED perhaps.

2. Deliver new ideas in exciting, different ways.

3. Offer a series of workshops for students to choose from throughout the day.

4. Allow students to learn with and from learners at other grade levels

5. Give learners an opportunity to construct meaning in small breakout sessions.

6. Invite willing students to present their own sessions, supported by teachers as required.

7. Encourage students to tweet throughout the day about their learning experiences.

8. Create stalls where students can browse literature relevant  to their learning in between sessions.

9. Provide a healthy buffet lunch to feed the brain and body.

10.  Ask for and listen to their feedback regarding future learning.

These thoughts were jotted down quickly, only half seriously, based loosely on my experience at the conference over the last few days. But with careful consideration,  it could probably be developed into a model of school that would foster student engagement and encourage learners to take control of their own learning. I know it’s never going to happen… certainly not while we have to focus on NAPLAN results and a prescribed national curriculum. We simply ‘don’t have the time’!

But how about planning a one day ‘conference’ on a theme that’s relevant to everyone? Or a grade level ‘conference’ day as a provocation for a new unit of inquiry?  What do you think? Can you help me develop the idea further?