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’?

The way we present ideas influences how they are received…

I was surprised by the number of slides tweeted from a recent literacy conference that lacked a sense of visual literacy. Even the most seasoned presenters sometimes seem unaware of the negative impact their slides have on the delivery of their messages and ideas.

Visual literacy has been described as ‘the ability to interpret, negotiate, and make meaning from information presented in the form of (still or moving) images, extending the meaning of literacy, which commonly signifies interpretation of a written or printed text’. (Bristol and Drake 1994). It’s not just about consuming though. This definition is missing the ability to create meaning through visual media too.

It is this literacy that underpins our new Year 5 PYP unit of inquiry in the trans-disciplinary theme How We Express Ourselves. 

Central idea: The way we present ideas influences how they are received.

Learners will explore examples of animation, short film, images and presentations to see what makes the delivery of ideas and messages effective. Through their exploration, they will deepen their understanding of techniques and develop criteria that they can apply to their own use of visual media for presenting ideas and messages.

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‘We are a visually illiterate society. Three R’s are no longer enough. Our world is changing fast—faster than we can keep up with our historical modes of thinking and communicating. Visual literacy—the ability to both read and write visual information; the ability to learn visually; to think and solve problems in the visual domain—will, as the information revolution evolves, become a requirement for success in business and in life’. – Dave Gray, founder of visual thinking company XPLANE.

 

Self challenge: A post a day for a week. #4

Collaborative thinking…

One of my favourite things in the PYP is collaborative planning.

Six times a year, my colleague Layla or I meet with each grade level team to collaborate on planning units of inquiry.  Facilitating such sessions can range from exciting to frustrating, depending on the team, the unit, the time and, particularly, the ability to frame and agree on the desired conceptual understandings that will underpin the inquiry.

This week, I experimented with a different approach to tune teachers into the unit, establish common understanding and model good practice.

The unit of inquiry:

Year 2 – Central Idea: Public places are organised to meet the needs of community.

The opening task for teachers: (given one step at a time)

  1. Write ten places you have been in the past week on separate post it notes.
  2. Work collaboratively to sort them in any way you like.
  3. What did you realise about the concept of place?

Tania’s role was to document the learning. She took photos of the group collaborating, observed the participants’ interactions and recorded the things they said.

planning

Tania’s observations along the way:

  • ‘Are there any the same?’
  • ‘Can you explain to me?’
  • Grouping/ looking for similar places.
  • Debating and questioning each other.
  • Using language to clarify/ refine ideas.
  • Making connections between places and actions.
  • Sharing common vocabulary.
  • Completed a general sort, then refined this to sort again into bigger concepts (Is it recreational, business, infrastructure, wellbeing place, cultural place, an essential service?  And from these more subsets were made.)

Statements about the concept of place:

  • Places can be used for different things.
  • Places have different meanings to different people.
  • Places connect people.
  • A place doesn’t have to be tangible, it can be in the mind.
  • There are public places and private places.
  • Places can isolate people eg remote rural places.
  • Places can unite and separate people eg religious places.
  • Places serve different purposes and needs.
  • There are natural and made-made places.
  • Places are organised in different ways.

What the teachers noticed about themselves as learners:

  • I made connections with others’ thinking.
  • Trying to understand what others were thinking about was valuable.
  • Listening to others points of view helped me clarify.
  • Trying to think outside the boundaries to push the thinking further.
  • Listening to others helped me formulate my thinking.
  • I really thought about the concept of place.

Discussion about how we could apply the above in the classroom:

  • The learners could do the same brainstorming and sorting activity to tune them into the idea of place.
  • Split screen teaching – focusing on content as well as process of learning.
  • The role of the teacher in observing the learning.
  • Documenting data about students’ actions and thinking.
  • How we might use that data to inform teaching and learning.
  • Connecting to our whole school goal of using both formal and informal data to improve learning.

Agreed understandings:

Understandings Beginning Developing Established
Public places are organised to serve the needs of communities.  function I can identify places that I use and say what their purpose is. I can explain how some public places are organised and used. I can compare and contrast a range of public places and classify how they serve different needs.
People use public places for different purposes.  perspective I can find out what other people I know use public places for. I can give examples of different ways people use the same public place and why. I can compare and contrast people’s perspectives on public places and their purpose around the world.
Shared places need to be used appropriately by members of the community.  responsibility I can tell you about how I act appropriately in our shared learning space. I can give examples of how I and other people should act appropriately in familiar public places. I understand and can explain what appropriate use of different public places looks/sounds and feels like.

Conclusions:

  • Process is as important as content.
  • Successful collaborative planning is enhanced by ensuring shared understandings.
  • Different voices bring a range of perspectives which contribute to mutual learning.
  • Experiencing the learning in the same way that our students do can help us relate to the process and refine our expectations.
  • Observing and documenting the learning process reveals valuable information.
  • Collaborative analysis of the data gleaned from documenting learning is a worthwhile exercise.
  • Being aware of ourselves as learners supports our own learning and that of our students.
  • Our beliefs about learning (learning principles) apply just as much to teachers as learners.
  • Putting ourselves in the role of learners adds fresh perspectives and brings depth to learning. (Thanks @katherineqi )

 

Building an understanding of digital citizenship…

What do these two words mean?

consume           create

Everyone in the class knows what ‘create’ means but only a few are familiar with the word ‘consume’. mostly in the context of eating, although one girl says ‘It’s when you take something in, for instance information’.

We use breakfast as our example and they get the idea that making the eggs could be seen as creating and eating them as consuming. We deliberately do not use a dictionary, so that they construct meaning for themselves, rather than narrow down their understanding with a fixed definition at the start.

In groups, the children then brainstorm all the things they do in a day, making sure every item includes a verb – watch TV, play Minecraft, eat lunch, write a story…

IMG_6168

Using two colours, they highlight which of these are consuming and which are creating. The conversations are rich, as they build their understanding and discover that it’s not either/or, that some are both and some are neither… maybe.

Which of their daily activities are digital? In new groups, they now brainstorm their digital activities, taking care to include verbs, so that, for instance, ’email’ becomes ‘read email’ and ‘write email’…

They are already discussing consuming vs creating before we even ask the question. They are totally engaged and, apart from building their understanding of the desired concepts, so many trans-disciplinary skills are evident – communication, thinking and social skills – and, quite incidentally, a host of outcomes from the English scope and sequence.

At the end they write down what they understand about creating and consuming now…

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They’re clearly ready to move ahead in developing the desired conceptual understandings in this unit of inquiry…

CONCEPTUAL UNDERSTANDING BEGINNING DEVELOPING ESTABLISHED
We need to think critically about digital content that we view and create.

Reflection

I don’t think critically about digital content.I believe what I read on the internet.

I don’t think critically about what I post online.

 

I understand that not everything on the internet might be valid or true and can explain why.I can give some some examples of how I consider audience and purpose when I create digital content online.

 

I can explain how to assess if a website is reliable or not.I can identify and analyse techniques used to influence consumers.

I choose appropriate techniques to communicate creatively and  effectively online and can give examples.

People are responsible for digital content they create.

Responsibility

I can give some examples of how I can be responsible online.  I can explain how things I post online can affect my own reputation.I can explain how things I post online can affect the wellbeing of others. I take responsibility for my digital footprint and can explain how and why I do this.I can demonstrate my positive digital footprint.

(action)

The internet enables us to communicate and collaborate with people all over the world.

Connection

I can identify ways that I communicate with others online.  I can compare and evaluate different tools for online communication and collaboration. I connect, communicate and collaborate with people online and can say what I have learned from my interactions.

Our learners are gearing up to connect with kids in other parts of Australia as well as India, Japan, Thailand, New Zealand, Canada and other countries via Skype, Twitter and blogs. And they are already asking a range of interesting questions into which they might inquire!

In addition to refining this unit of inquiry with the Year 5 teachers at my school, I’ll be leading an IB workshop on Digital Citizenship in Melbourne in May, so feedback, resources, ideas and other perspectives are invited.  Please leave a comment!

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!

How do we assess understanding?

Part of my role as Teaching and Learning Coordinator involves facilitating and supporting the planning of units of inquiry.

Planning for inquiry can be difficult.

On the one hand, over planning limits the potential for inquiry.

On the other hand, we have desired outcomes and understandings, as well as the demands of a national curriculum.

We used to plan a range of learning experiences in advance. You can read here about how we have improved our planning process.

Nowadays, we start by identifying the desired conceptual understandings and carefully considering what evidence will indicate that our learners have achieved them. Then we plan some provocations that engage the learners in the big ideas and wait to see where the learning takes us.

Keeping an eye on the conceptual understandings allows us to add further targeted provocations as the inquiry unfolds.

Creating a rubric helps clarify where our units are heading. Depending on the age of the learners, some teachers use the rubric with their students, others don’t, but either way, the process helps teachers focus on how to look for evidence of the understandings.

Here’s an example for a Prep (5 year olds) inquiry into how family life has changed over time:

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Here’s one for a Year 4 inquiry into how taking ownership of our learning can empower us:
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Here’s a Year 5 example that’s more content based:
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We learned this technique from Sam Sherratt and are still practising it, so I’m sure these rubrics are not perfect. One thing of which I am certain is the value of phrasing the understandings in simple child friendly language, rather than the usual, sometimes unintelligible, jargon of assessment standards. As always, we welcome feedback (or rather ‘feedforward’) on the rubrics themselves as well as the process.

What is Digital Citizenship?

What is digital citizenship? That’s the driving question behind our current Year 5 unit of inquiry.

It’s the start of the school year here in Australia, so the unit begins with the establishment of a learning community in the classroom. Students will explore what citizenship comprises in the context of the class community, ‘a sense of belonging, rights and responsibilities, duties and privileges, agreed values and mutual obligations required for active participation in the group.’ (Australian Civics and Citizenship Curriculum)

From there, it should be an easy jump to considering digital citizenship, through the conceptual lenses of responsibility , reflection and connection. Our learners will explore these questions…

  • How do we analyse and evaluate digital content?
  • What are our responsibilities when creating digital content?
  • How can we communicate our ideas creatively and effectively online?
  • What can we learn by connecting and collaborating with others in the world?

We’re hoping to help connect our learners with other learners, both locally and globally and, in the process, develop and consolidate these understandings…

  • People are consumers and creators in a digital world.
  • We need to think critically about digital content.
  • Everyone needs to be responsible for digital content they create.
  • The internet enables us to connect,communicate and collaborate with people all over the world.

The Year 5s would like to hear from teachers and classes interested in collaborating via Skype, blogs, Twitter, Voicethread, email or other media they have not yet thought of. They are keen to connect with classes anywhere who are eager to broaden their horizons, collaborate on an inquiry into digital citizenship or simply share and compare learning. They’re looking for once-off as well as ongoing collaborations.

WORLD CLASS

Are you interested?

How do you plan?

We met this week for collaborative planning of a new unit of inquiry for the start of the new school year…

Times have changed. We have changed.
Planning is not coming up with a range of activities or developing a series of lesson plans. It’s a time to consider the rationale behind the unit and discuss conceptual ideas. A time to create a range of possible provocations which engage learners in the big ideas. A time to plan opportunities in which authentic student-directed learning can occur.

Pre thinking includes…

Our process…

Brainstorm the big ideas – respect, diversity, belonging, co-existence, contribution, community, relationships, interactions, culture, rights, citizenship, values, cooperation.

Decide collaboratively on the desired conceptual understandings

  • A community is made up of people who have common purpose or shared values.
  • Diversity within a community enriches the community.
  • Being part of a community comes with rights and responsibilities, duties and privileges.

Come up with one conceptual word that defines the essence of the unit – Community

Write the central idea – This needs to be a broad conceptual understanding, globally significant, relevant and engaging, which invites inquiry. We take some quiet time to write it individually, then discuss, adjust and adapt until we have consensus.

Central idea – Communities are enriched by the contributions of individuals and groups.

Is it perfect? We’re not sure. Nor are we sure of the paths the learning might take, what the learners might discover and uncover along the way, where exactly the inquiry might lead for different individuals and classes…

We are sure that…

  • Our desired conceptual understandings are achievable and worthwhile.
  • The unit will help build a community of learners to set the tone for the entire year’s learning.
  • It will help cement the relationships between two groups of learners coming together for the first time from different campuses of our school and create an awareness that each group brings something to the whole.
  • It will expose learners to the necessary focus of the Australian curriculum to support the development of their knowledge and understandings, without teachers resorting to mere ‘covering’ of facts.
  • It will foster the passions, interests and talents of individuals and raise awareness of the fact that they each have something valuable to contribute.
  • There will be opportunities to develop a huge range of trans-disciplinary skills and attitudes, and promote creativity, collaboration and critical thinking.

In a way, our collaborative planning session has been an embodiment of our central idea: The Year 3 teachers, teaching and learning facilitators, teacher librarian and the ICT facilitator have spent several hours working and thinking together. The music and PE teachers have dropped in for a while too to share their ideas. We have built a sense of community within the group and been enriched by the contributions of every member…

Inquiry into learning…

Do you focus as much on the process of learning as the content?

Do your students reflect as much on how they learn as on what they learn.

As a PYP school, we have six units of inquiry each year, one under each of the following trans-disciplinary themes:

Before exploring any other subject areas, we plan to start the coming school year at each grade level, with an inquiry (directly or indirectly) into learning. A unit that sets the tone for all the coming units. One that gets students thinking about factors that contribute towards their learning and reflecting about how they learn.

Our Preps will inquire into how our learning environment helps us learn. It’s their first year of school, in a shared, flexible learning space, with new routines and timetables to adjust to, so this a fitting first inquiry for the year. (Trans-disciplinary Theme: How We Organise Ourselves)

Year 2 will investigate the qualities of effective learners and how these can help us learn, individually and collaboratively. We’re hoping that, through their inquiry, they will develop a better understanding of the Learner Profile, get to know themselves and others as learners and begin to take more responsibility for their learning. They might decide to ask the world about the qualities of effective learners, so be ready! (Trans-disciplinary Theme: Who We Are)

Year 3 will explore the information process… how we decide what we want to learn, formulate questions, locate, organise and evaluate information. Year 4 will inquire into what it means to be organised and how this can empower us, not just in our learning, but in life. Year 6 will explore individual and group decision-making and its impact, personally, in the classroom community and working outwards towards their study of government.

The intention is that starting the year with inquiries such as these will increase students’ awareness of themselves as learners and help build learning communities in our classrooms and in our school.

If you’re interested in the subject of learning communities, join the #pypchat discussion on Thursday and share ideas with an ever-growing community of inquirers!