Inquiry circle…

It’s the summer break in Australia (although I’ve spent most of it in the  northern hemisphere winter) and it’s been a month since I posted here, the longest break since I started blogging. I confess that when I pause, I sometimes wonder if I will have anything more to say… but here I am again!

It’s intriguing to hear 5th graders express their views on fracking (hydraulic fracturing), about which I know very little. Their interest grew from one student’s question and developed into a full blown class inquiry, captured in the video proudly shared today by their teacher Zack.

Sarah is exploring how technology can enhance her teaching. She tells us about her venture into blogging and an exciting collaboration she is setting up with a school in Japan.

Another teacher, Laura, has begun to settle into her first year of teaching,  and is experimenting with ways of catering to the individual needs of her students.

These are some of the teachers in a voluntary after school ‘Inquiry Circle’ at a public elementary school in Upper West Side, Manhattan. Each has chosen their own area of action research and the session begins with a quiet written reflection on their work to date, before they are asked to ‘download’ to the group…

Josephine, a veteran teacher, prefaces her reflection by saying ‘It’s easier to be a teacher and harder to be a student.’ The others nod their agreement, although they are clearly stimulated by the challenges. She tells me later how much she enjoys the professional learning taking place in this group. She has made connections with teachers of different grades, who she used to just pass in the hallway. Now she’s learning from and with them and she’s loving it. Josephine and Sarah regularly observe each other’s classes and learn from each other’s practice. Considering that one teaches 5th grade and the other kindergarten, that’s impressive!

I was invited to participate in this session by Dale, a consultant currently working with the school, who I meet today for the first time, though we have been communicating for months. He’s the editor of  a book about schools’ journeys to communities of practice, for which I have written a chapter, so it’s interesting to see him collaborating with the principal and staff to help build such a community here.

I notice:

  • the degree of trust between the participants
  • their pride in their own achievements and those of their colleagues
  • the openness and honesty with which they express their doubts
  • the respectful way in which they ask questions and clarify their understanding of other team members’ work
  • their shared interest in inquiry, exploring technology and advancing their own practice


  • Dale’s unintrusive style of facilitating, from which I can undoubtedly learn.

I check before posting this and receive the following response from Dale: ‘By all means post this. It captures the values that I stand for!’

Mine too.

Who chooses your professional learning?

As we’ve moved further away from one-size-fits-all professional development, teachers at my school have taken more and more ownership of their learning.

I’ve written before about communities of practice, about teachers owning their learning and about other forms of effective professional learning. Now, as we consider professional learning in the coming school year, staff will be asked to respond to a survey which will guide our planning.

Here’s a slightly adapted version of the staff survey. It would be valuable and exciting to gather responses from teachers all over the world! Please respond and share…


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…

Time to learn…

Monday’s ‘staff conference day’ demonstrated (yet again) the power of professional learning by teachers, for teachers, with teachers… rather than at teachers. Teachers had ownership. They voted for the format of the day, chose their areas of inquiry and had sufficient time to explore. How often do your PD days fit that description? It’s time to learn what effective professional learning looks like. Many teachers already know. Take a look at the continuous professional learning that happens all day, every day on Twitter. And the ever increasing number of educational blog posts by educators sharing their practice, reflections and insight. And the self organised TeachMeets popping up worldwide…

My first reflection on our day, entitledTeachers inquiring…‘ appears at the collective inquiry blog Inquire Within. Here’s what others thought…

Daniel facilitated a group exploring inquiry in maths.

Having the staff conference day handed over to the staff to lead was a very valuable experience. With the school leaders stepping back from leading the sessions, it empowered teachers to guide them in the direction that they wanted to go. As one of the facilitators it was an extremely valuable experience as it gave me the opportunity to not only plan and organise the outline of the session but it led me to reflect deeply into my own practices and pedagogy. During this reflection and research time it made me conscious of the process that would guide the session that I was facilitating. I realised that I needed to provide the teachers the same sort of experience that I had gone through, by stepping back and letting them inquire through a similar process of exploration and thought.

It was also the first time for me running such a meeting with my colleagues,which provided a fun challenge as well as a valuable experience. I was slightly nervous about how discussions amongst the teachers would be generated by the guiding provocations that I had organised. But as they had for me, the video and thinking routine that I had used in my personal inquiry during preparation for the session, helped the teachers think deeply about inquiry in maths and generated valuable discussion.

It was a great opportunity for teachers to stop, reflect and then collaborate with other teachers that don’t usually get the opportunity to work together in such as way. We all felt comfortable directing where the session went in order to meet our collective needs. For the other half of the session we worked in smaller groups to help plan our next math inquiry. The guidance and support from the teachers in other year levels inspired a change of approach.

Debi facilitated a group exploring literacy as part of daily learning.

The great thing from my perspective is that it got staff talking. I put up a slide show as a provocation about literacy and lot of web stuff came up. That got us talking about the tension (for us oldies) between all the new technology and the ‘old fashioned’ kind of teaching. It was unanimous that we do need both. So……….all the ‘oldies’ had a quick lesson on how to Twitter, got Twitter accounts set up and tweeted. (Have I tweeted since then? …. No. Will I? Not sure.) I think it was also great that staff from the 3 campuses chatted and shared knowledge with each other in a non-threatening forum.

Linda facilitated a group inquiring into taking blogging further.

Our group had chosen to inquire into blogging – specifically the idea that class blogs can be a tool for inquiry, reflection, literacy and global connection. One teacher’s rationale for the choice was agreed by all – I want to look at interesting and useful blogs. I then want to transpose things observed into my class blog and teaching practice. Our further goals for the session were defined by specific questions:

  • How do we get parents more connected to the class blogs?
  • How do we get students, especially the very young, to write quality comments, responding to each other?
  • Challenge for the single subject teacher – to have a subject focussed blog, or to contribute to class blogs?
  • Specifics about blog design – How do I add visitor count, links, categories, pages, tags….

We consulted a variety of sources:

  • Discussion with an expert (Sue Waters from Edublogs via Skype)
  • Blogs about blogging.
  • Class blogs created by other teachers.

It was a really valuable session, with a number of ‘aha’ moments. We appreciated the time being made available to follow up on this area of interest with support from experts and each other.

Hailey participated in a group inquiring into what it means to be a connected educator.

I was one of the inquirers who was lucky enough to be given the gift of time to puzzle over the new tool, collaboratively explore Twitter, think, inquire and grow my understanding. As a result, my doubts dissolved, my skills developed and my enthusiasm blossomed! I became so enthusiastic that I spent an hour that night reading tweets, following links to videos and blogs and learnign even more.
I can highly recommend giving teachers the time to explore and build skills and understanding. I can also highly recommend Twitter.

Michelle participated in a group exploring how to create a culture of thinking.

I spent the morning in a PD about Creating a Culture of Thinking…which included a focus on making thinking visible and reflecting in order to connect, extend and challenge…in order to make meaningful learning. I should have written down our exact central idea, but it was something like “Creating a culture of thinking leads to deep inquiry and meaningful learning.” Which made me think that maybe in order to truly make my learning from this morning meaningful, I should perhaps try again at blogging as an educator. To make my own thinking visible and meaningful rather than just a day where I got some temporary inspiration that will quickly become lost amidst the paperwork and everyday demands that surround us all.

I chose a culture of thinking because I’ve realized that this is the core of my values and beliefs about learning and something that I feel I have a lot of room to grow in. I am challenged that somewhere over these past eleven years since university, I have lost a some of the big ideas in my excitement over great activities. I love great activities and there are so many of them out there, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes I don’t think about their value and purpose. It pains me a bit to realize that I need to let go of some of them. But letting go is a theme that I keep coming across – that to truly create a culture of thinking I need to let go of some good things in order to make room for great thinking. (Continued here)

The post is long enough, so I’ll ask you to draw your own conclusions! Can we do it even better? Yes.

Teachers owning their learning…

Have you ever been presented with PD and then had no time to follow up?

How often do you have an uninterrupted chunk of time to inquire into something that interests you, to push your thinking and improve your practice?

Do you have enough opportunities to explore and think collaboratively, to unpack and discuss big ideas with others of varied experience?

On Monday we will have a half day of professional learning, different to any of our previous PD days. It’s based on a survey in which staff  indicated their preferences for the structure and content of the day.

Here’s what it said on the Google doc which was shared with teachers:

This table shows by far the most popular choices in our survey. Please put your name in the group you’d like to join. Use red if you are willing to facilitate the group inquiry (more than one person is fine!) Note: There will NOT be a presentation. The purpose is to work on a shared inquiry.

I have no idea how the morning will go, but, here’s what I do know…

  • Teachers should have ownership of their learning, just as children should.
  • Having choice in what and how you learn is powerful for all learners.
  • Teachers voted for time to inquire in small groups.
  • Teachers chose what they would like to work on.
  • The volunteer facilitators have taken their role seriously and done a great deal of thinking in advance.
  • The most meaningful professional learning I have experienced has been by teachers for teachers.
  • It is rare to have a chunk of time at school to explore something you want to take further.
  • You never know if a new idea will work till you try it!
  • If this is successful, next year we will extend it further…

A friend commented on the fact that I often write about innovations, before they happen. He thinks it demonstrates confidence on my part, since I am willing to blog before the vision becomes reality. Maybe. Or maybe not. Perhaps blogging in advance means that if it’s a failure, I can simply avoid writing about what went wrong! Or  (more likely) … I like the excitement of visualising and planning new learning experiences, even if I can’t predict the outcome. Watch this space… maybe!

Communities of practice…

I was chatting this week with a new teacher who told me there were no opportunities for learning at her previous school. Her comment got me thinking about the culture of learning that we have established at ours.

A few years ago, we articulated our beliefs about how learning takes place – It didn’t take long to realise that these learning principles applied to all learners, teachers as well as students. We began to move away from the traditional model of ‘one size fits all’ teacher PD and embraced choice, reflection and relevance instead. Among other things, we established vibrant communities of practice.

Communities of practice…

Curriculum Team Leaders, form the core of a group that meets weekly to learn together with other school leaders. They take the learning back to their co-teachers and bring back feedback from teams. These meetings have become a forum for group reflection and exploring new ideas.

Collaborative grade-level teams meet regularly to share practice. Teachers are encouraged to share their own learning and expertise with their peers. Each term, there is a flexible PD schedule and team leaders record their teams’ needs and ideas for how best to utilize after-school meetings times.

I’ve written many times about our voluntary learning groups, sometimes before school and sometimes after, on a range of topics arising from teachers’ interests and needs… from technology to literacy to creating a culture of thinking.

Extending our communities…

It has become natural for our in-school learning communities to include members of our virtual learning network too. We invite experts and non-experts, ordinary teachers like ourselves, to share their experience and learning with us, irrespective of where in the world they live.

Here’s the latest…

Sam Sherratt is a highly innovative 6th grade teacher blogger in Bangkok. We have read and discussed his blogs for years and they have helped shape the way we see inquiry. His thoughtful class blog has been a model of the potential for extending learning beyond the classroom. His approach to the PYP Exhibition influenced ours profoundly, as we followed the learning journey via his students’ blog posts. Our Year 6 students Skyped with his. We invited him to our exhibition planning meeting via Skype and were inspired. We often referred to him as if we knew him, despite never having met him!

So it was exciting to eventually host Sam at our school and have him facilitate workshops to extend teachers’ learning further.

Some of the big ideas teachers took away to think about…

Sam’s session was a real inspiration, for me, as a young teacher. The big idea I came out with was ‘why?’ If we, as teachers, don’t know why we do what we do in class or why we teach a certain unit or why we are heading one direction, then there is no value to our teaching and our children will FEEL it right away. (Alicia)

We are not preparing kids for the ‘real world’, they are in it now. This is their time. Bring relevance into classroom and stay relevant. Let them bring their world into the classroom. (Jocelyn)

Student and teacher empowerment: Helping students and teachers make connections by seeing the BIG picture. Students are often pressured to perform not pressured to learn deeply and meaningfully. (Desiree)

Taking it further…

The workshop generated a great deal of thinking and tension for participants, which we’ll explore further, within the learning communities described above, CTL meetings, grade-level planning sessions and voluntary focus groups.

I liked this reflection from Greg, Head of Upper Primary:

I thought Sam was a breath of fresh air…His ideas on time were interesting… using time, managing time, creating time. Teachers should not sweat the small stuff, stop rushing learning and essentially, give children time to digest knowledge and time to form opinions. A rush-rush-rush mentality does little to promote great learning opportunities and just creates friction for the teacher and frustration for the learner.

Greg’s is clearly the reflection of someone who values learning, that of the students and the teachers, and is willing to ‘create time’ for it to happen. No Wonder.

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

With whom do you learn?

With whom do you learn?

Do you collaborate with a group of teachers at your grade level?

Do you share and bounce ideas with others in your school, your building, your area?

Do you belong to a network of teachers who meet to exchange ideas and share practice?

Do you participate in voluntary reading and learning groups?

Have you been to informal ‘teachmeets’ organised by teachers for teachers?

Have you participated  in global online conferences?

Do you write your own blog to share your ideas, reflections and practice with other educators?

Do you participate in the global education conversation by reading and commenting on educational blogs?

Do you engage with other educators on Twitter?

A session with teachers yesterday on developing our class blogs,  highlighted ways we can learn together.

  • A group of teachers of different grade levels gathered together (voluntarily) to share ideas and learn together.
  • A  range of great ideas was crowd sourced via Twitter before the session, with contributions from educators around the globe.
  • At the last minute, David Mitchell offered to Skype in (at midnight!) from the UK to share his schools experiences with blogging.
  • David introduced the concept of Quadblogging, in which classes around the world are grouped together

I was reminded of one of the most powerful influences in the building of my online  PLN.

It was Kelly Tenkely‘s blogging alliance that first connected me with many other educational bloggers around the world.

  • The more I read other’s blogs, the more I wanted to find and read.
  • The more comments I began to get on my posts, the more I wanted to write and share.
  • I was exposed to different people, places and practice.
  • I began to engage with teachers and learners around the globe.
  • Connections were made, friendships were formed, ideas were exchanged.
  • The learning was addictive.

It seems to me that connecting our students via Quadblogging can have similar effects. It’s much more than what David describes on the website as ‘a leg up to an audience for your class/school blog’,  although that’s an important starting point. Writing for an authentic audience, receiving feedback from the world, reading what others write and responding to them are all undoubtedly valuable outcomes.

But it’s more than that.

With whom do your students learn?

Are they expected to spend a whole year engaging with the same group of  twenty or thirty students in your classroom?

There are so many ways we can help our students create their own personal learning networks.

Quadblogging is another way to extend the potential for learning beyond the classroom walls…

Generating ideas about thinking…

I’m lucky to work at a school where most (but not all) of the teachers love to learn and will voluntarily turn up for a bit of professional learning before school or during their lunchtime.

Almost the whole staff at our small  K-2 campus participate in today’s lunchtime session, bringing along sandwiches and bowls of soup. It’s a Year 2 room, so the teachers are sitting on small chairs around tables designed for little learners, but this is their learning environment and they are comfortable in it.

We have 40 minutes to think about thinking, explore one of the Visible Thinking routines and consider how it might be applied in the classroom. It’s one in a series of such gatherings where we work collaboratively on creating a culture of thinking. They have yet to read the book Making Thinking Visible and I hope to explore it with them in our coming sessions.

I’ve chosen the routine ‘Generate, Sort, Connect, Elaborate‘ partly because it’s a new one for them, but also because I know they will initially think it’s not suitable for younger learners*. I’m keen to show them the video below of 4 year olds engaging with this routine and hear their reflections! Here’s a variation of the same routine in a high school class, if that’s more your area.

We start by getting into groups and collaboratively generating ideas about thinking in the classroom. It’s easiest to do this on sticky notes, as they can be readily moved and sorted for the next part of the routine. It’s interesting that each group generates different ideas and sorts them in different ways. The ensuing conversation reveals not only how these teachers think about thinking,  but how productive such an activity could be in getting students to justify and explain their thinking.

Predictably, someone asks whether this routine is suitable for younger learners* and it’s time to watch part of this clip of Silvana and her little learners exploring ways to look after our planet, via the ‘Generate, Sort, Connect, Elaborate’ routine. (Don’t turn off before the little pouter at 5:44!)


There follows a great conversation about the picture of practice we have just seen, how the teacher engages the children, how the children respond, the process of the routine, the potential for application and some possible problems and solutions. In a flash, lunchtime is over and the teachers need to return to class, even though we haven’t actually completed the thinking routine ourselves. In fact, elaborating on and further developing the ideas generated about thinking today will be the goal of our future sessions.

I have never taught K-2 classes and the teachers invite me to come and team teach with them to experience the reality of their learning context. I can’t wait!