The biography of a central idea…

Building community creates a sense of belonging.

This is the ‘central idea’ that will form the basis of our whole school inquiry in 2020. As teachers work on building cohesion, learners will inquire into different aspects of this conceptual idea. I’m hopeful to facilitate a parent inquiry group too.

Each IB PYP unit of inquiry is based on a meaningful, transferable, conceptual idea that offers possibilities for trans-disciplinary inquiry. Sometimes a central idea comes easily, once we know our conceptual lenses. Sometimes it’s the result of sustained collaborative play with words. Sometimes we know a central idea isn’t perfect, but it’s the best we can do. On occasion, we know it isn’t perfect but we don’t mind, because it expresses the right message and we care more about the sentiment than the rules.

This particular central idea has a story…

Part of the story was written by Helen Street, the author of Contextual Wellbeing, a book which has resonated for many of us in our learning community. So much of what she says is common sense, once you think about it. Much of it builds on ideas we’ve been thinking about for years. We’ve had early morning book discussions and planned meetings and parent sessions around some of the ideas. Some of our Year 6 students have read parts of the book and were grateful for an opportunity to connect virtually and chat with Helen last week.

As the ideas from the book began to take hold in our Year 6 community, students explored the notion of Ubuntu, an African concept which translates approximately as ‘I am because we are’, and the learning began to look less and less like traditional school and more of a transformative experience for learners and teachers alike. Seeing how the learning was unfolding, one of the teachers suggested an idea for a whole school inquiry for next year: ‘A community collaborates to create change’. Teachers of the lower grades suggested that a more appropriate version for the younger learners might be ‘Individuals collaborate to build community’.

Analysing the data gathered from teachers’ reflections for our self study, the Teaching and Learning team noticed a pattern. Many of the suggestions and wonderings revealed the idea of building cohesion as an opportunity for growth, be this in terms of encouraging connections between early years and primary, increasing flow of learning time, building a stronger sense of belonging or improving our partnerships with parents. Perhaps the whole school central idea might be ‘Cohesion empowers community’ or ‘Building cohesion strengthens community’, strong possibilities and yet, while we are not afraid to introduce difficult vocabulary to our youngest learners, not quite child friendly enough…

We gathered a group of teachers to work on reviewing our program of inquiry, representatives of every grade from preschool to Year 6. Our POI reflection began with people sharing their responses to this provocation: ‘My favourite unit of inquiry ever was… because…’ and we identified common themes. The best units were organically trans-disciplinary, based on real life learning, evolved as they unfolded, included authentic action, involved self discovery, allowed for the development of the whole child, were often led by the learners and focused on process, rather than content. Based on these themes, this group came up with further suggestions for our new central idea.

We knew what we wanted, but the wording that would capture the essence remained elusive. Various individuals and groups collaborated to play with the words and, as commitment to the idea became embedded (alongside yet another reading group discussing Contextual Wellbeing) there was a sense of being part of something bigger, of contributing to  the development of our learning community. What we were doing was a small example of what we wanted to achieve!

A group of students invited to the discussion spoke a lot about the idea of belonging needing to be in the central idea. They suggested ‘Belonging to a community helps us grow’ pointing out that the growth might refer to learning as individuals and as a community. It could refer to going out of our comfort zones or growing socially or academically.  If the focus is on community, belonging and cohesion, then the central idea should reflect that, they said. In their words: “Let’s be honest, the central idea is what we look at and what brings us together”.

A moment of jubilation followed, not just because we were excited by the insights of children and delighted by their valuable input, but because it felt so right. And then some doubt crept in… Might there be those for whom ‘belonging to a community’ could be perceived as passive? We had added the layer of belonging but lost the component of action. We needed an active verb in the central idea!

And finally, as a group of teachers pondered around the staffroom table one morning, one teacher sat quietly, seemingly answering his emails, while others conversed. And then, ‘How about this?’ he asked, ‘Building community creates a sense of belonging.’ Bingo!

It might not follow some of the so called rules for writing central ideas, but it fulfils our needs and we are excited by the possibilities. And its biography reflects the very thing we are aiming towards…

Building a culture of agency…

It’s exciting to see so many teachers relinquishing control and empowering their students. Stephanie in Singapore had kids do their own set up on the first day of school and the inspirational folk of Studio 5 at ISHCMC have broken yet more moulds.  Right here in Aus, at my own school, some students are planning their own inquiries in the same way that teachers plan, and teachers are releasing control and reflecting candidly about the process in the pursuit of learner agency.

What if you’re not ready to release control to this extent? How might you start small? What might some first steps be towards an increase in agency for your learners?

Ron Ritchhart’s 8 cultural forces provide a platform from which to embark on your journey. Just apply them to agency, instead of thinking! How might you build a culture of learner agency in your classroom?

What sort of language will you use?

Do you talk about learning, rather than tasks and work?

Is your learning framed as a question that invites learners into the process?

Do you ask the learners’ opinions and really listen to what they say?

Do you notice and name learning assets?

Do you refer to your students as authors, mathematicians and scientists?

How is the environment organised to foster agency?

Who designs the learning space? Whose thinking is on the walls?

Are there options for where and with whom to sit and learn?

Are materials and resources well organised and easily accessible?

What sorts of opportunities are offered?

Are there opportunities for learners to pursue their own inquiries?

Are there opportunities to write for an authentic audience and to extend learning beyond the classroom?

Are there opportunities for learners to wrestle with challenging problems and design solutions?

How is time managed? 

Is there time for thinking, reflecting and inquiring?

Who manages the time? Is self management encouraged?

Is time used constructively for meaningful learning, rather than just completion of set tasks?

Do students waste time waiting for the teacher, when they could be doing something more worthwhile?

What dispositions do you model?

Do you model vulnerability, apologise when you’re wrong and talk about your mistakes?

Do you openly change your mind and your plan?

Do you model decision making and talk through the process aloud?

What routines are in place to encourage agency?

Are there routines for accessing equipment, sharing learning, asking for help…without waiting for the teacher?

Do they start when they’re ready, rather than waiting till you have finished giving the same instructions to all?

Are there routines for giving and receiving peer to peer feedback, without being told?

What kind of expectations are clearly set?

Are learners expected to and trusted to take ownership of learning?

Do they have (at least some) choice and voice in what they learn and how they learn?

Is initiative valued over compliance?

Is intrinsic motivation expected and encouraged through powerful, engaging learning experiences? (no Class Dojo)

How do interactions foster agency?

Are interactions between you and your learners mutually respectful?

How well do you know every child’s story, her interests, her passions and her insecurities? Can she tell that you care?

Do your interactions demonstrate belief in the learners’ capacity to own their learning?

Can they tell that you trust them to learn?

What small action will you take to shift the culture in your class?

Image from Presenter Media

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!) 

Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 6.23.23 pm

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_4820

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?

 

 

Listening to student voice…

Enthusiastic students from Years 4, 5 and 6 sit in a circle at the end of the day and share reflections on our Program of Inquiry. I tell them the teachers are considering which units to keep and which need changing and they are eager to have their say. As always, the children’s insightfulness delights me!

I ask them to write down what makes a unit of inquiry worthwhile.  They put their initial thoughts to one side and spend some time examining the K-6 curriculum document, expressing their opinions of the units into which they have inquired this year. Green stickers for the ones they have loved and felt they learned a lot. Red for the ones they didn’t enjoy at all. Yellow for the ones in between. (No sticker at all if you can’t even remember the unit!) They discuss the units in pairs, paste their stickers and record their reasons for these ratings. Next I ask them to think about all the units from the preceding years , share the ones they still remember well and consider why they remember those. One girl remembers a unit she explored six years ago because ‘It had  strong personal connections. I like units that are about me.’

Finally, they return to their original statements and refine them, now that they have reflected more closely on the units of inquiry. Here are their thoughts on what makes a good unit of inquiry:

A worthwhile unit of inquiry has/is…

  • Lots of options so kids can choose what interests them (Mischa)
  • Activities that engage you and take your freedom to another level (Brodie)
  • Ways that kids can connect to the inquiry (Jesse)
  • Excursions, incursions, projects, building things, freedom to learn. (Zac)
  • One that students have connections to. Relevance to everyday life. (Mia)
  • Fun, interactive, different materials, getting your hands dirty. (Mia)
  • Freedom for students to inquire into what interests them (Tammi)
  • Enough for kids to explore. Not too small. 
  • Open ended, so we can figure it out for ourselves. 
  • Skills and knowledge that will help for the future.
  • Freedom to lead your own inquiry. Hands on experiences beyond the classroom. (Benji)
  • Complex questions you can pursue without running out of material. (Yoshi)
  • Enough time to go deep into your questions. (Yoshi)

Reflections

Their reflections about the specific units of inquiry turn out to be less valuable than the bigger picture. Ask yourself these questions about ALL the learning in your class?

  • Are there options for the learners to investigate what interests them?
  • Are there possibilities for everyone to connect to the learning?
  • Do the learners have freedom to explore?
  • Is the learning relevant to their lives?
  • Is the learning engaging and challenging?
  • Are there opportunities for play?
  • Is it open-ended so learners can figure things out for themselves?
  • Are there opportunities for development of skills and knowledge for the future?
  • Does the learning extend beyond the classroom?
  • Is there enough time to for deep learning?