Learning stories…

Me: What did you learn about yourself as a learner?

Student: I learn much more when I’m inquiring into something I choose for myself and am really interested in.

Me: What message do you have for teachers?

Student: We need more opportunities to explore things we care about. Having a choice and working independently makes us learn more.

Me: So it’s better than ‘school subjects’?

Student: My inquiry had lots of school subjects! Maths, Science, English, Art.

I had many such reflective conversations about learning with Year 6 students at the end of their PYP exhibition (expedition) process.  Each inquiry was unique, every journey different and their passion shone through in the ways they chose to tell their learning stories…
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Some focused more on what they had learned, others on how they had learned. They spoke of skills acquired and knowledge gained, about what had benefited their learning, who had influenced them, how they overcame challenges and action they had taken. In many cases, they referred to sketch notes of their journeys, as they talked…

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It was fitting to end the school year with such a powerful example of student ownership.
Our Year 6 learners had agency in what they chose to explore and how they chose to explore it. They chose with whom to collaborate and how to support each other. They chose how to express their learning creatively through art, film, dance, model-making…

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They chose how they might make a difference, what impact they want to make and what kind of action to take…
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Beautiful questions… and a whole school unit of inquiry

 ‘A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.’ Warren Berger ~ A More Beautiful Question.

This generally starts with a ‘why?‘ question which identifies the need for change, followed by ‘what if?‘ which imagines new possibilities, and moving onto the ‘how?‘ which leads to action.

A couple of years ago we asked ourselves: Why do we spend the first few weeks ‘setting the tone’ in the classroom and then start the first unit of inquiry? What if the first unit of inquiry at every year level helped create classroom culture and set the tone for the learning to take place? How might we go about that?

A recent visit to ISHCMC provoked us to ask: Why do we need a separate central idea for each grade level? What if we tried one overarching central idea for the whole school? How might a whole school approach influence school culture?

And then: Why reinvent the wheel? What if we adapted the central idea we saw at ISHCMC and tweaked the lines of inquiry from our previous units? How might feedback from other educators support the development of this idea?

And now…

PYP Trans-disciplinary Theme: WHO WE ARE

An inquiry into the nature of the self; beliefs and values; personal, physical, mental, social and spiritual health; human relationships including families, friends, communities, and cultures; rights and responsibilities; what it means to be human. (IB Primary Years Program)

Central Idea: Our choices define who we are as individuals and as a community.

Possible lines of Inquiry:

These are still to be refined with input from teachers, students and the world. (As our junior school learning spaces will be redesigned over the summer, all grades have a line of inquiry about how the new spaces will be used.)

Prep

  • How our choices help us build a learning community (responsibility)
  • Choices in how we express our learning (reflection)
  • How we choose to use our environment to support our learning  (function)

Year 1

  • Choices that help us learn (reflection)
  • Choices in how we we interact with others (reflection)
  • How we choose to use our environment to support our learning (function)

Year 2

  • How humans learn (function)
  • Choices we make as learners, individually and collaboratively (reflection)
  • How we choose to use our environment to support our learning  (change)

Year 3

  • Choices that affect our learning community (causation)
  • How diversity enriches a community (change)
  • How we use our learning environment to support our learning community  (connection)

Year 4

  • How communication affects relationships (connection)
  • Choices in how we communicate – audience, purpose, context (causation)
  • How effective groups function (reflection)

Year 5

  • Personal values (perspective)
  • How our values influence the choices we make (connection)
  • The choices we make as learners (reflection)

Year 6

  • Active citizenship
  • Decision making strategies (reflection)
  • Our choices as individuals – personal interests and passions (perspective)
  • The impact of choices/decisions on other people, our community, the world (responsibility)

The central idea provides possibilities for authentic trans-disciplinary inquiry too. They might inquire into how our health and exercise choices affect us, how our choices affect others in games and sports, artistic and musical choices…

Teachers might inquire into how our choices define us human beings and as educators; the impact of our  choices as educators on the social, emotional and academic learning of our students; ways to increase opportunities for student ownership and agency…

And a few more beautiful questions of my own:

What if this was a year-long unit of inquiry?

What if, instead of a central idea, we had an overarching big question?

What if, instead of lines of inquiry, the learners came up with their own why, what if and how questions?

What if everything we did was about real learning instead of ‘doing school’?

Empowering our learners…

One of the most exciting things we saw during our recent visit to ISHMC (International School of Ho Chi Minh City, where Sam Sherratt is based) was the unstructured inquiry set up in a Grade 4 class by Adrian Watts, the principal.

Learners were given a choice between four different explorations (although they didn’t know the precise task until after they had selected what seemed interesting to them):

  • Reassemble a computer so that it works.
  • Fix the motor on a scooter.
  • Knit a finger puppet.
  • Sew a pair of trousers that fits someone in your group.

Participants were permitted just three questions over the course of the day. It was interesting to observe the thoughtful way they approached this, writing down possible questions and carefully considering what and whom they would ask.

It was more difficult for the observing adults to adhere to the rules. Most found it hard to overcome their natural inclination to step in and help, instead of stand back and observe the learning (and the range of trans disciplinary skills in action).

What did we observe during this exercise in child driven learning?

  • learner agency and empowerment.
  • total engagement in meaningful learning experiences.
  • curiosity and willingness to experiment.
  • competence, creativity and problem solving.
  • resourcefulness and fearlessness in approaching the unknown.
  • interesting group dynamics and differing gender biases within groups.
  • risk taking, learning from failure, persistence and resilience… in varying degrees.
  • collaborative decision making.
  • and more…

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The transferable messages…

We need to believe that children are capable, curious, competent and creative and, given the opportunities and encouragement, can lead their own learning.

We need to rethink contexts where the teacher controls the learning and the students jump through hoops set in front of them by the teacher, the school or the system.

We need to stop ‘doing school’ and think about what it means to really learn, because real learning often has very little to do with traditional notions of school.

10 questions in pursuit of learner agency…

Claire Amos inspired the audience with her ‘Free Range Learning‘ talk at Learning 2 last year and I found her recent post on learner agency thought-provoking:

So what does Learner Agency actually mean. … In the context of a school this might involve students taking action, whether it be through reading, researching, discussing, debating, experimenting, making or tinkering and as a result, gain (through their own efforts) new understanding and new learnings. This being a shift from the notion of teachers, teaching at the student and fundamentally providing all of the knowledge and content which they then transfer to the empty vessel.

Of course this notion is not new, in fact, it’s positively ancient. I sometimes think Socrates must be turning in his grave.

So if this notion has been bandied about since the time of Socrates, why the hell are we considering it as cutting edge now? I’m guessing the honest answer is that education started off pretty sweet, then got a bit crap in the last 100 years or so.

 

In her post Claire suggests 10 ways you might provide learner agency in your classroom or school. I note with interest that almost every one of them includes the word ‘give’ and/or the notion of teachers or leaders ‘providing’ or ‘allowing’ learner agency.’ 

Can we create a culture of agency, where decision-making, choice and voice, reflection and metacognition, exploration and inquiry, risk taking and resilience empower our students to live their learning, rather than ‘doing school‘?  Below are some key questions that need to be considered in developing a culture of agency.

10 questions in pursuit of learner agency…

1. What is your ‘image of the child’? How do you view the learners in your class? Do you believe children are inherently intelligent, curious and creative? Do you recognise their rights and their capabilities? Do you trust them?

2. Do you know every learner’s story? Are you tempted to refer to the class as ‘they‘ or are you always conscious that each learner brings her own interests and abilities, strengths and challenges? Do you think about each individual’s personal history? Are you aware of the factors that influence each one’s learning?

3. What do you believe about learning? Knowing what and how to teach is not enough. Have you, individually and as a school, thought deeply about how you believe learning takes place? Have you carefully examined the extent to which your practice aligns with your beliefs?

4. Do your learners believe in themselves?  Do you group your learners on perceived ability or do they have opportunities to learn with and from others with varying strengths, challenges and interests? Is a growth mindset fostered? Are learners motivated by learning itself, rather than extrinsic rewards that encourage winners and losers in the game of school?

5. Who holds the power? Is your token nod to agency allowing the learners a choice when you decide it’s the time? How much of what your students say and do has to be channeled through the teacher? Do you make most of the decisions? Or can the learners really lead the learning? Is initiative valued over compliance?

6. Who does the heavy lifting? How long do you spend making sure students know what they are supposed to do? Do you explain everything in detail several times in different ways? Or do the learners have a go at experimenting and tackling problems first and you step in at point of need? Are you able to release control so that the heavy lifting is done by the learners?

7. Who owns the curriculum? Do you have secret teacher business? Do you check the curriculum and decide what to cover and how to teach it? Or are students empowered to explore curriculum requirements in their own ways? Are there opportunities for engaging, relevant learning that addresses trans-disciplinary learning across curriculum areas?

8. How important is measurement of achievement? Do you teach to the test? How much weight is placed on grading? Do you think everything has to be formally assessed and what can’t be measured is less valuable? Or is the process of learning perceived as more significant than the outcome? Is process valued over product?

9. What is the language of your classroom? Do you talk about work and tasks or does everyone speak the language of learning? Is how we learn as much a part of the conversation as what we learn? Are students aware of who they are as learners? Are learning dispositions noticed and named? Are reflection and metacognition integral parts of learning? 

10. Is there a safe space for risk- taking and failure?  Does the culture encourage students to take risks and make mistakes? Is the exploratory aspect of learning stifled by expectations? Do learners seek and grapple with challenging problems and unanswerable questions? Is failure viewed as an opportunity to learn and grow?

 

Reflecting on our goal of increasing student ownership…

It’s been four months since we set the tone for unleashing learning via Unleashing Learning, six since we outlined this year’s goal of increasing opportunities for student ownership

In this afternoon’s session, we revisit the notion of learner agency and the teachers, in mixed grade level groups, share steps they have taken this year towards increasing opportunities for student ownership, a goal we set ourselves at the start of the year. This is the second in a series of such sessions, this time with P-3 teachers and it’s great to hear the ways even (or especially?) the younger children can be have more ownership…

“The children decide how to find out what they want to know and it’s  up to them how they want to share their learning with the class.” (Year 3)

“We start with the game before the skills are taught. The children then say what skills they need to master to play the game. Rather than showing them the correct technique, by trial and error they discover for themselves.” (PE)

“Children select from a range of tailored learning experiences, based on their needs and goals. They are developing understandings of what is expected of them as learners.” (Year 1)

“As a result of allowing children more choice in what books they borrow, irrespective of reading level, there are a lot more discussions about books and the reasons for their preferences”. (Library)

“Through physically making their stories before writing (eg plasticine, Lego), the change in the children’s writing has been unbelievable. They are also learning to give each other meaningful feedback. The children are engaged and love writing”. (Year 2)

“During Exploration Time, the children choose what they would like to do and the teachers work with small groups to target specific needs as required.” (Prep)

After the group discussions, individuals think about how they might further encourage student ownership this term and they record these goals on a shared Padlet wall started last term by the upper primary staff. 

At the end of the session, a young teacher, new to our school this year, approaches me to share how happy she is to be teaching and growing in our dynamic learning community.  I am reminded of Craig Eldred’s tweet this week (and my response to it!) 

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Change…

We started the new school year after the summer break, with a focus on ownership of learning for teachers and students alike.  A couple of months later, our exciting Unleashing Learning conference provoked further thinking and action, followed by a week of learning and sharing with Sam Sherratt. And now, as the seasons change and we settle into the year, it’s exciting to observe bright spots of colour and evidence of new growth…

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One team is exploring a new project based approach to maths. Another is experimenting with unleashing writing through play. Year 6 is investigating a year-long approach to the PYP exhibition, allowing students time to discover what they really care about, with a greater focus on sharing the learning journey. Two different groups are reading and discussing The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros.

Teacher A has let go of control and seen what happens when students have agency. Teacher B is well on the way and feeling the exhilaration of learning unleashed. C wants to rethink the school musical and find a way to give students more ownership. D has realised that authentic, meaningful learning experiences trump delivering curriculum… and noticed that much more of the curriculum is addressed incidentally via this approach! E is rethinking the way she used to do things and collaborating with others to reimagine her role. F and G are changing the way they reflect with their teams and refining the process as they go. H is breathing imagination and creativity into everything she touches… And I? 

I hear the steady drumbeat of hope for real and meaningful change.

Once unleashed, there’s no stopping the learning… 

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.

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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?

 

 

Focusing on ownership of learning…

Day 1 of the new school year had a hundred and twenty teachers gathered in one place to think about student ownership! What could be better?

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In cross campus, mixed role groups, teachers took turns to talk about something they had learned during the holidays and how they had learned it. Conversations were varied and animated, as experiences and reflections were shared between people who don’t usually work (or play) together. *Imagine doing this as a whole year level or cross grade exercise…

Our 2016 focus was introduced: Increase opportunities for ownership of learning.

Teachers were asked to ponder the question – ‘What does student ownership of learning look like’? *Imagine doing this in your classroom…

  • READ a blog post. 
  • SHARE something you read relating to student ownership of learning.
  • DISCUSS which of our learning principles it connects to.
  • CREATE a poster about ownership of learning.

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How can we set a tone from Day 1 to give the message that we value student ownership? *Imagine asking your students this question…

Having considered the ‘what’, the teachers now explored the ‘how’, using Ron Ritchhart’s 8 cultural forces as a scaffold:

  • Time
  • Opportunities
  • Routines/ Structures
  • Language
  • Modelling
  • Interactions/Relationships
  • Physical environment
  • Expectations

And finally, it was back to where we started:Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 10.57.50 am

Looking forward to an exciting year of increased ownership of learning for teachers and students alike.

** Join us to unleash the learning in March at Unleashing Learning!

 

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!