A learning community…

Do you feel part of a learning community?

What teams exist within your school?

How do you build a culture of learning within and across your school teams?


We start the year with a whole school gathering, an address by the principal in which he welcomes new staff,  shares achievements from the past year and outlines goals for the next. 

Moving inwards to the next circle, we have a two hour workshop for P- 6 staff across our three campuses, facilitated by the Teaching and Learning team.


  • Get to know each other across teams and campuses.
  • Develop a shared understanding of the primary school goal for the year.

Almost a hundred teachers are seated at tables in groups of 6. Constantly moving between groups will allow opportunities to meet and talk to a range of people, while engaging in educational dialogue.

  • Choose one of the chocolates on the table and say how it represents you. The ice is broken and everyone is laughing before we go any further. 
  • Examine the visual (above) and discuss what it says to you. The responses are varied and interesting, questions are raised and discussion is animated as we consider the purpose of each of the teams.
  • Explore the goal: Use data to inform teaching and improve learning.

What is data? Teachers are asked to classify a dozen items under the headings of data or not data. Some groups debate whether informal, subjective information counts as valid data. Others question how much information we get from formal testing. Watching Peter Reynolds’ The Testing Camera reinforces that testing is a snapshot, not necessarily representative of where the student is at. The conclusion is reached that everything is data. Observing students and listening to the learning, analysing their thinking and questions, watching them play and learn and interact will provide much more data than testing alone.

  • Traffic light protocol (adapted).  Teachers highlight which types of data they are already using, which they are uncertain about and which they haven’t yet considered.
  • Hopes and Fears protocol (adapted) This provides an opportunity for teachers to share what they hope to achieve in terms of our goal and where they might need support. (We are gathering data too!) 

The activities have given everyone the opportunity to clarify what data is, consider how they already using it and how they might in the future. They have engaged with the big idea that everything is grounded in evidence. We don’t just plan lessons and teach them. We build our planning around responding to the individual needs of every learner. (We are ready to take this further as the year unfolds.)

  • Individual and group reflection time. Did we achieve our objectives?  A ‘Plus Delta’ protocol (with which we try to conclude all our meetings) returns these amongst the popular responses: 
    • Opportunity to meet and talk to different people from different campuses.
    • Clearer understanding of what data is and how we will use it.
  • What does the school value? Each group brainstorms a list, based on the workshop we have just had. Responses include some of the following: 
    • Learning.
    • Each child reaching their full potential in all areas. Student centred learning. The wellbeing of every child. Holistic development. Individuality. Meeting all children’s needs. Targeting teaching to student needs.
    • Collaboration and communication. Collegiality. Teamwork. Community. Relationships. Each other as colleagues. Staff input, ideas and initiative.
    • Deep understanding of learning. Educational dialogue. Teachers as learners. Critical and creative thinking. Different perspectives. Reflective practice. Purposeful PD which models purposeful teaching and learning.

Our workshop has been successful.

Moving inwards to the next circle… 

Orientation for new teachers…

Original plan posted at Inquire Within.  Modified below, including reflection and follow-up.

Learning takes place through inquiry.

Learning is most meaningful when the learners have choice in how they learn, as well as opportunities to wonder, explore and construct meaning for themselves.

This is why we chose to structure our new staff orientation in the form of an inquiry

As part of a broader introduction to the PYP, our new teachers explored concept based learning, one of the essential elements of the PYP. They developed their understanding of the conceptual approach by using the PYP key concepts as a lens through which to generate questions about our school.



The next step was an inquiry, via which they had the opportunity to actively find out about their new school, rather than passively sit and listen to us ‘tell them stuff‘…

Central idea:

Each school has a unique culture, beliefs and approaches.

Suggested lines of inquiry:

  • Cultural beliefs and values of our school
  • Our learning principles
  • The learning environment
  • Roles and responsibilities within our school
  • Our written curriculum

Participants worked in groups to select questions from those generated in the concept exercise and/or formulate new questions, based on what they felt they needed to know, before setting off to find answers that would help them learn about the school.

The following resources were at their disposal:

  • The school environment
  • The learning resource centre
  • Members of the school community who were present to support, demonstrate, facilitate, encourage and respond to questions
  • Access to curriculum documents

In truth, we had no idea how this would work out or to what degree it would be successful. But isn’t that how the best inquiries unfold?

It was gratifying to see the new teachers engaging informally with the principal, the head of primary, campus coordinators and other members of the staff  who volunteered to participate.


At the end of two days of orientation (one an introduction to the PYP, the other an informal inquiry into our school) we asked each of our newest members of staff to sum up how they are now feeling in one word. They said they felt:
inspired, excited, reassured, welcome, safe, supported, motivated, energised, informed… and one said that the PYP at our school is ‘real’. (an interesting observation, which might provoke thinking…)

It sounds as if our approach was successful and we achieved our objectives:

  • Understand what our school believes and values about learning.
  • Begin to build relationships and feel part of our dynamic learning culture.
  • Acquire the information required to start the year safely and successfully.
  • An overview of the PYP in our particular context.

It was exciting for us to see how much our new teachers, with their broad range of educational and life experience, will bring to our school. We look forward to learning with them!

Read Anne knocks recent post, about her school’s plan for  ‘onboarding’ new staff (perhaps we’ll borrow that term next year). What’s your school’s approach?


Personalised learning for teachers…

Our strong beliefs about what comprises effective professional learning underpin the planning for our up-coming professional learning day, BY the teachers FOR the teachers…

We have so much knowledge, expertise and passion within – It’s not always necessary to depend on outside presenters to take our learning forward.

We begin by surveying the teacher-learners to find out what sort of learning opportunities they would prefer. The results indicate they’d like a combination of time to pursue their own interests independently and facilitated workshops addressing relevant topics of their choice.

So, our student- free day next Monday will look like this-

Session1 – Teachmeet.

In the traditional Teachmeet style, teachers will present for 2 or 7 minutes, sharing a tool, a strategy, an idea or an example of practice. Without the need for coercion, we have volunteers from every single grade level (and several from some!) on a range of topics, such as:

  • Team teaching
  • Effective search strategies
  • Capturing student thinking
  • Reading ideas
  • A variety of apps eg Book Creator and Explain Everything
  • An approach to home learning
  • Purposeful groupings
  • And more…

Session 2 – Workshops

Teachers choose to facilitate and/or participate in two out of eight one-hour workshops on topics of interest, identified through the survey. Workshops will be hands on, encouraging active group participation and opportunities for participants to construct meaning for themselves, on the following topics:

  • Twitter for global learning
  • Supporting kids with Dyslexia
  • Encouraging creative thinking
  • Provoking inquiry through great picture books
  • Open ended iPad apps for learning
  • Promoting social cohesion in the classroom
  • Exploring ePortfolios
  • Using data to inform teaching and learning

Session 3 – Personal learning 

Teachers choose to collaborate in teams or work individually on anything they like. For many, this is a continuation of previous personal learning time but some have chosen new areas for inquiry and others will use the time to apply their learning from the morning sessions. Ideas are as diverse as:

  • Positive psychology and student wellbeing
  • Using animation to express learning
  • Harvard research into thinking and learning
  • Vocabulary enrichment
  • Augmented reality
  • Building resources for Maths inquiry
  • How to encourage ownership of learning and student voice

As always, we have dismissed the notion that one size fits all, and ensured that our learning principles underpin, not just student learning at our school, but our own professional learning too.

Our learning principles –

  • We learn in different ways, depending on abilities, preferences and interests.
  • Learning takes place through inquiry: questioning, exploring, experimenting and problem solving.
  • Learning occurs by acquiring skills and knowledge, constructing meaning and transfer to other contexts.
  • Learning is active and social and best takes place through collaboration and interaction.
  • Learning needs to be challenging, meaningful, purposeful and engaging.
  • Learning includes meta-cognition and reflection, and requires learners to take ownership of their learning.

We’ll ask everyone to reflect at the end of day, not just on what they have learned, but on what they notice about themselves as learners and on the process of learning itself.

If you’re in Melbourne and excited by the potential to be a part of this vibrant learning community, see my previous post.

An inquiry into how the world works…

Headphones on, each member of the group watches their assigned video and considers how it fits into the PYP trans disciplinary theme ‘How the World Works’…

Inquiry into the natural world and its laws, the interaction between the natural world (physical and biological) and human societies; how humans use their understanding of scientific principles; the impact of scientific and technological advances on society and on the environment.

We’re watching things as diverse as the longest pedestrian suspension bridge, how fish breathe, a poo powered flame thrower, a man-made forest on a river island in India and ice cream that doesn’t melt

Sharing back with the group provokes discussion about what excites us, connections we see, problems solved and issues raised and the varied aspects each of us might find interesting to explore further. We look at the ways people apply scientific knowledge to solve problems, meet needs, create art…

We check which of the science strands are addressed by the videos and highlight the relevant concepts in each.

This is not a classroom, it’s a collaborative planning session.

The goals are as follows-

  • To get the teachers excited about what’s possible
  • To highlight the fact that science is everywhere
  • To encourage us to observe and notice science around us
  • To provoke thinking about the ways humans apply scientific knowledge
  • To create a context in which to plan for student learning and inquiry.

We’re planning for our PYP exhibition* unit and it’s the first time we’re exploring it in the theme of ‘How the World Works’.

The teachers are already excited about…

  • provoking our learners’ curiosity
  • inquiry that is real, relevant and engaging
  • opportunities for exploring passions
  • the possibilities for creativity and innovation
  • observing and really noticing the world
  • the potential to change perspectives
  • opportunities for learners to use a broad range of skills
  • scope for hands-on making and doing
  • bringing all the learning from previous years together
  • the potential to include the natural world, art, technology, ethics…

And concerned about…

  • ensuring it goes beyond being ‘just a science fair’
  • opportunities for action as a result of the learning

We’re keen to hear from other PYP practitioners who have explored ‘How the World Works’ for their exhibition units, in particular if it was a dynamic, student centred, passion driven, authentic learning experience for all.

* I hope in the IB PYP review, they decide to replace the term ‘exhibition’. It makes it sound as if the focus is on the product, when the most important aspect should be the process of meaningful, in-depth, personal and collaborative inquiry, drawing together all the skills and attitudes they have developed over time – Learners taking responsibility for their own learning. 


Teacher as learner…

This is a guest post by Year 4 teacher Jina Belnick, an experienced teacher, although only in her second year of PYP and the inquiry approach. She is part of the community of learners at my school. 

I arrived as a ‘new’ teacher at a PYP school almost two years ago. At that time, I knew what PYP meant, but I had no idea what it really looked like.

Little did I realise that the journey I was about to embark on was filled with learning…

At my job  interview, I told the panel of interviewers that I was interested in using technology in my teaching and that I was keen to learn with my students. Little did I realise that the journey I was about to embark on was filled with learning – using so many different skills and tools – that I would no longer hunger for opportunities to learn, they would quite simply arrive.

Open eyes, open mind and a collaboration with other learners was all I needed.

Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the 4th Culture of Thinking Conference in Melbourne, Australia. My colleague and I arrived armed with our iPads and our eagerness to find out more. We chose different sessions and so we met up afterwards to share and discuss our learning. This type of reflection is indicative of the school at which we work and the way we model for our learners to think about their learning.

I’m grateful  to work at a school where learning (rather than ‘good teaching’) is valued…

By the end of the conference, my head was spinning. I walked away feeling incredibly grateful  to work at a school where learning (rather than ‘good teaching’) is valued; to have people around me who love to share ideas, explore opportunities and experiences; where questions are encouraged and discussion arising from disagreements take us to new places.

Being a good teacher is not just about well prepared lessons…

I am grateful that I now understand that being a teacher is no longer just about a well prepared lesson. For me it has become an understanding of what engaged learners look like; what the curriculum and all its interwoven components require – and how we need to listen to every child to help them to get to know themselves as learners.

I listen, I try new things and I learn…

Aha moments are regular and varied. Insecurities about how others do things in comparison to how I do, need to be buried. I listen, I try new things and I learn. Being with children who love to challenge, question and make meaning for themselves keeps me travelling on my journey.

Planning with people who value others’ opinions, share their knowledge in a non-judgemental way and share ideas freely has been the sunlight nurturing my growth.

I arrived as a teacher, I am growing as a learner. Every day is a surprise. Every moment is an opportunity.

Another member of our learning community, Hailey Joubert, reflects on her learning and growth as a teacher hereIf you like the sound of their journeys, we are currently advertising for new teachers! Leave your details here.

Inquiring into inquiry…

How would you define inquiry learning? What are the characteristics? Can you give examples and non-examples?

Are the responses below similar or different to yours?


Our Learning Team Leaders are revisiting inquiry in this month’s meetings. We organise our thinking individually first, using the Frayer Model, before discussing our ideas as a group. Despite the fact that we work, learn and plan together, everyone responds in different ways and the perspectives are interesting.

Next, we view the beautiful video ‘The Potter’ (again!) and reflect on the ideas it portrays.

The discussion:

  • Curiosity drives learning.
  • It’s important to have opportunities to try and fail.
  • You need to understand the principles before applying them to make the magic.
  • Learning is enhanced by persistence, enthusiasm and resilience.
  • The teacher’s role is sometimes to guide and inspire, rather than instruct.
  • Teachers need to know when to let go and when to step in.
  • Creating a safe, secure environment supports the learning process.
  • Empower the learners to own their own learning.
  • The teachers role is to support the learner in finding his own way.
  • It’s not always necessary to teach skills first. Allow the learner time to experiment before the teacher steps in.

Follow up – We’ll each read a blog post related to inquiry and unpack the big ideas at our next meeting. Inquire Within will probably be sufficient inspiration, but would you like to share your favourite post about inquiry?

What surprised me?

A group of teachers inquirers, who have been working together for years, can still learn from each other and offer different perspectives, as we continue our never-ending inquiry into what inquiry learning can be…

Planning for inquiry…

Language is a vehicle for communication and self expression.

It’s a starting point for a central idea for a new inquiry unit in How We Express Ourselves and no-one in the room is excited. The draft central idea seems like a statement of the obvious and teachers are concerned that it might not have the potential to invite student inquiry. We can see opportunities for the development of skills and outcomes in our English scope and sequence, exposure to Aboriginal culture, obvious links with second language learning and wonderful ways to incorporate the arts. If we can come up with possible directions and some great provocations, we’ll be happy to let the learners lead the way…

… Inquiry teachers are not afraid to let go.

It’s the pre-thinking stage and we have yet to explore the potential by investing some time in our own inquiries. An interesting way to provoke initial thinking is via google images. A quick search for ‘language’ generates pictures of different kinds of scripts, people communicating, sign language charts, ancient writing, translations, symbols and signs. We’re off on our own tangents, considering different perspectives, exploring in different directions. My personal inquiry has already taken me to Steven Pinker, Mark Pagel and the National Geographic Enduring Voices project…

… Inquiry teachers are inquirers themselves.

The range of questions teachers generate themselves is an indication of what’s possible… What is language? How can we communicate without language? How do writers use language effectively? How is spoken language different from written language? How would the world be different if everyone spoke the same language? How has language evolved over time? How does slang develop and evolve? How does body language impact on communication? How do gestures communicate meaning in different cultures? Why do some languages not have words for concepts we have in English? How does language shape culture? How does culture shape language? Why are many languages becoming extinct?

… Inquiry teachers are more interested in questions than answers.

We consider the conceptual focus. We might explore language through the lenses of function, connection and change. The big ideas (related concepts) might include communication, expression, culture, systems, relationships, adaptation, literature…

A tentative articulation of the desired conceptual understandings looks like this:

  • We use language to communicate and express thoughts, ideas and feelings. (function)
  • Language is a dynamic system that evolves over time. (change)
  • Language and culture are interdependent. (connection)

… Inquiry teachers focus on conceptual understandings, not just facts.

A range of provocations that involve slang and text speak should pique students’ interest, before taking the learning further…

… Inquiry teachers help learners make personal connections, so that learning is relevant and engaging.

Not everyone is excited (yet). We’re on the lookout for some inspiration relating to the big ideas so let me know if you have anything to share!

Teachers’ action research…

I sent this email to the teachers at my school…

Hi All

In the past we have had successful voluntary learning groups in areas such as visible thinking, differentiated learning, global education and integrating technology.

Teachers often feel that there are so many ‘things’, it is difficult to integrate everything. Some of us have talked before about ways to ‘connect the dots’. I think our learning principles can help pull things together.

I’d like to start a new voluntary group, based on the Inquiry Circle I saw in New York during the holidays… in our own style.

My vision of it looks like this:

(Open, of course, to ideas, suggestions, modifications, negotiations!)

Meet fortnightly for an hour before school and…

  • Revisit and unpack our learning principles.
  • Each teacher choose an area for their own ‘action research‘ based on one (or more) of the learning principles.
  • Create an ‘action research question’. This question usually develops and changes as the exploration unfolds.
  • Decide on a course of action and/or specific approaches you plan to try.
  • Feed back to the group and reflect individually and collaboratively on what you’ve tried and how you might proceed.
  • Possible readings to enhance and support learning.
  • Possible Skype ins from educators in other places exploring similar issues.
  • Group discussions to help ‘connect the dots’.
  • Optional shared reporting and reflection in an online space.

Example questions for action research…

#1 Question: How might we best arrange furniture and set up the classroom to promote learning?

Area of interest: Learning space

Learning principles:

  • Learning is active and social and is enhanced by collaboration and interaction.
  • We learn in different ways, depending on abilities, learning styles, preferences and interests.

#2 Question:

How can technology support differentiated learning opportunities?

Area of interest: Integrating technology

Learning principles:

  • We learn in different ways, depending on abilities, learning styles, preferences and interests.
  • Learning needs to be challenging, meaningful, purposeful and engaging.

Simple Action Research model:

Screen Shot 2013-02-11 at 9.45.43 PM
Stephen Kemmis

Let me know if you’re interested in joining such an Inquiry Circle and we can take it from there…


I re-read the email before I sent it and had second thoughts… 

  • Maybe I don’t know enough about action research. In a recent Twitter chat, I got the impression it HAS to be done a certain way. (Who says?)
  • Maybe everyone’s busy and no-one will respond. (So what?)
  • Maybe an hour won’t be long enough? (Oh well.)

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Post Script:

Six people are in!

MY action research:

Question: How can we create new models of professional learning in our school that help build our learning community, while embedding our learning principles in our practice?

Area of interest: Teacher professional learning.

Learning principles: All!

  • We learn in different ways, depending on abilities, learning styles, preferences and interests.
  • Learning takes place through inquiry: questioning, exploring, experimenting and problem solving.
  • Learning occurs by acquiring skills and knowledge, constructing meaning and transfer to other contexts.
  • Learning is active and social and best takes place through collaboration and interaction.
  • Learning takes place when we feel secure, valued and are able to take risks.
  • Learning needs to be challenging, meaningful, purposeful and engaging.
  • Learning includes meta-cognition and reflection, and requires learners to take ownership of their learning.

Suggestions, tips and ideas invited!

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.