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…

Thinking beyond ourselves – a whole school inquiry…

Thinking beyond ourselves empowers us to act.‘ This powerful central idea for our PYP exhibition has fostered awareness of self and others, revealed vulnerabilities and spawned a variety of meaningful student initiated action. But it’s almost the end of our school year and some of them are only just getting going…

What if we combined several of the ideas in the previous post and developed a whole school, year long inquiry, transcending the boundaries of trans disciplinary themes, explored by both teachers and students?

We start each teaching team’s planning session by revisiting our beliefs about action, considering examples of action and placing them on the iceberg.  (Try it and see the ideas that emerge). Next we reflect indivdiually and share examples of ways we contribute beyond ourselves. We break this down into contributions within the school community, the broader community and then globally. (Another provocation worth trying!)

We brainstorm possible, age appropriate ways that children might be encouraged to think beyond themselves, enabling us to create some initial, potential lines of inquiry. It’s interesting to see the beliefs and values that teachers bring to the planning… and it will be fascinating to see the student initiated inquiries and actions.  Exploring this big idea through different conceptual lenses will add further layers.

So far, in the Who We Are theme, Year 1 students will inquire into who we are as individuals within our learning community; how we build an effective learning community;  how kindness impacts our community; why and how we create an essential agreement.  

Also in Who We Are, Year 4 will inquire into how individuals contribute to our community; how we build connections within our community; and how knowledge of others influences our actions. Revisiting the big idea in Sharing the Planet, they will investigate the impact of our actions on a sustainable future.

Year 6 will explore forces that shape culture;  how our actions influence culture; the impact of thinking beyond ourselves; and how thinking beyond ourselves transforms us. This will be a year long unit spanning Who We Are and Sharing the Planet.  Inspired by the sustainable development goals, students will have opportunities to design their own lines of inquiry, depending on interests and needs, within or accross any of the concentric circles

I’m looking forward to planning with the other teams.  Year 3s might be inspired to explore diversity accross Who we Are and Where we are in Place and Time.  Year 5s are keen to explore values and it will be interesting to see where that might lead, across more than one theme. Thinking beyond ourselves takes on a different dimension when explored in the context of Phys Ed and team games. Our whole school focus on developing the whole child is firmly embedded, and the potential of this unit to further enhance that is exciting.

Once the Program of Inquiry is viewed flexibily, its potential expands exponentially…

What do you notice about yourself as a teacher?

It’s exciting to see teachers adopting the idea of thoughtfully considered reflective questions for themselves, as well as for the learners, in continued pursuit of the goal of developing the whole child – and the whole teacher! – rather than simply focusing on curriculum content.

If I want the children in my class to be creative, how might I encourage creative experimentation? How will I foster creative thinking and problem solving?

If I want to develop writers who consider audience and purpose in their writing, how will I help them find opportunities to write for an authentic audience?

If I think feedback is an important part of learning, how will I promote the giving and receiving of effective peer feedback?

If I want learners to be empathetic and understand different perspectives, how will I ensure that all points of view are considered to help them develop empathy?

If I want the next generation to make sustainable choices, how will I help them to understand the impact of their choices and to become thoughtful, principled global citizens?

If I want them to care about their environment, how will I foster a genuine sense of shared responsibility?

If I don’t want them to see mistakes as failure, how might I help learners use their struggles to develop resilience?

If I want my students to be positive, active digital citizens, how can I provide authentic contexts to practise digital citizenship? And how will I help them understand that positive active citizenship applies online or off?

In a recent collaborative planning session, while developing the notion of iTime (or Genius Hour) into an opportunity for self reflection and personal growth, the Year 6 team took this type of reflective questioning to another level!

What do I notice about myself as a teacher?

What skills and dispositions do I need to develop as a teacher…?

 

Documenting the planning process…

In the enhanced PYP, schools will have agency to decide on their own format for documenting planning, as long as collaborative planning follows the PYP guidelines. We’ll no longer be obliged to fill in the traditional boxes or follow the linear design of Managebac.

It was an honour to be invited by the IBO to submit an example of a school designed planner. It seemed like an exciting opportunity to collaborate with teams of teachers on developing something fresh, new and, above all, user friendly. So I was disappointed to read the terms and conditions that accompanied the invitation. Due to copyright restrictions, the IBO would own the planner design and we would not be allowed to share or change it without their permission.

Although I appreciated the invitation and understood their need for copyright restrictions (sort of), I declined.

In the spirit of collaboration, how much more valuable would it be to share drafts and designs both within the school and with the wider, global PYP community? How much more interesting could it be to seek and apply constructive feedback from educators all over the world? How much more exciting might it be if we took an inquiry stance, explored possibilities, had a go, reflected and made adjustments along the way?

Still. The process of considering and documenting new ways of planning is alive and well!

Every team in our school is enjoying experimenting with new planning formats and adapting them to their needs. Members of our online global PYP community have shared their own initial models, suggested ideas and given feedback on our drafts.

We always start with the child at the centre.

We have moved from the table

to the beginnings of a draft planner…

to a visual summary…

Now we’ve shifted into Google Slides and added everything to the same deck. Teams have been experimenting with what to include and how to record it. Some have started adding documentation and reflections along the way, which is allowing it to be  a living document that encourages emergent curriculum.

Some questions that have been considered along the way:

  • How best might we record the thinking that takes place during collaborative planning sessions?
  • What needs to be recorded and how? (And why?)
  • What is the purpose of documenting planning?
  • Who is the documentation of planning for? (The IB? The teachers?)
  • How do we visualise all the elements simultaneously?
  • To what extent do learning experiences need to be planned and recorded in advance?
  • How might we record the data that’s revealed by the provocation, so that we can decide where to go next?
  • How do we integrate literacy planning into the same document?
  • How might teams make this their own?
  • How best will reflections be recorded?
  • How might our learners participate in the planning process?

You’re welcome to join us on our journey!

Unit planning isn’t linear (either)…

Following on from our  non-linear consideration of curriculum, we approached collaborative unit planning in a similarly holistic way, with the child at the centre, to ensure a focus on our goal of developing the whole child.

As teachers considered the desired conceptual understandings and the content requirements of our curriculum, the potential to develop skills and dispositions in an authentic context were revealed…

Following this process with different year level teams and different units of inquiry led to a number of insights:

  • Making thinking visible is an important part of the collaborative planning process.
  • Considering all the elements simultaneously makes it easy to visualise the potential big picture.
  • The visual process allows for collaborative construction of meaning.
  • While always conceptual, some units are more knowledge based, others more skills based, and that’s ok!
  • A holistic vision of the unit highlights  opportunties for natural connections that strengthen learning.
  • Opportunities are illuminated for split screen teaching (inquiring into content and developing skills & dispositions simultaneously).
  • Standing around a table might trump sitting behind computers for collaborative thinking!

(*we use ‘dispositions’ rather than ‘attitudes’ now.)

Curriculum shouldn’t be linear…

Learning isn’t linear. Consider your own learning… How do a range of separate experiences contribute to the development of your understanding? How does that understanding deepen, the more you engage with the same conceptual ideas in different contexts?

So, why had we historically planned the order of our units of inquiry in a linear way? (When would one unit end and the next unit begin? How many weeks would we need to devote to each? What dates would work best?) The time had come to view the process in a different way.

We started from the most beautiful questions that drive change –

Why?’ ‘What if?’ and ‘How might we?’

Why should curriculum be viewed as linear?

What if we put the child at the centre and considered the learning in a more wholistic way?

How might we approach the big picture through the lens of transferable concepts, rather than the calendar?

In each team meeting, we began by writing the ‘related concepts’ (PYP terminology for the big transferable ideas) in each unit on individual sticky notes and arranging them to allow us a visual perspective on the learning as a whole, then underlining the concepts that are most transferable.

This simple activity raised a number of insights, such as:

  • There are opportunities for further development of understanding, through concepts repeating in different units.
  • Some concepts are more highly transferable across different areas and more applicable in life.
  • Sometimes a unit has too many concepts, leading to less depth in the learning.
  • Some combinations of units have concepts that interconnect more, while others are more subject specific.
  • Some units lend themselves more to transdisciplinary learning than others…

Approaching the exercise conceptually, visually, in a non linear way led teachers very quickly to valuable conclusions about the big picture of learning – which units would flow on most logically from each other, which units might be best run concurrently and which units lend themselves to ongoing learning, woven throughout the year.

Some examples of ongoing, concurrent or even year-long, units of inquiry:

A Prep unit, exploring reading and writing as an inquiry.

Central Idea: We can receive and communicate meaning through symbols. 

Lines of inquiry:

  • How sounds and words are represented
  • How we  receive and communicate meaning through written text

A Year 5 unit which, after the initial provocation and exploration, will continue as a Genius Hour project, with learners pursuing their own inquiries and action.

Central Idea: Ideas inspire possibilities for action.

Lines of inquiry:

  • How we bring our ideas to reality
  • Skills and attitudes required for taking action

And our whole school, year-long central ideaOur choices define who we are as individuals and as a community, with different lines of inquiry at each year level, such as:

Prep (self)

  • How our choices help us learn
  • Choices in how we express our learning
  • How we choose to use our environment to support our learning

Year 3 (individual and community)

  • Who I choose to be  as a member of our learning community
  • Choices that affect our learning community
  • How diversity enriches our learning community

Year 6 (personal, local and global)

  • Active citizenship
  • How choices and decisions are made
  • The impact of our choices and decisions  – personally, locally and globally

Learning isn’t linear…

The power of a provocation…

Whether it ignites an inquiry or shifts the gears of learning, if it’s fuelled by careful consideration and clear intentions, a ‘provocation‘ can drive powerful learning.

Considering the ‘power of provocations’ with our Lana Fleiszig recently, teachers explored the purpose of provocations, what could be used as provocation and the teacher’s role in the provocation process. The most important question, though, is what might the provocation reveal about our learners, their thinking and learning and where to next?

Our teachers collaboratively developed a list of questions to consider when designing provocations:

  • Might the provocation excite/engage the learners and ‘hook’ them into learning?
  • Might the provocation ignite curiosity and wonderings?
  • Is the provocation likely to generate questions?
  • Is the provocation likely to leave a lasting impression?
  • Is there a degree of complexity?
  • Might the provocation invite debate?
  • Might the provocation begin a conversation?
  • Might the provocation extend thinking?
  • Might the provocation reveal prior knowledge?
  • Is the provocation likely to uncover misconceptions?
  • Does the provocation transfer the ‘energy’ in the room from the teacher to the students?
  • Does the provocation have multiple entry points?
  • Can the provocation be revisited throughout the unit?
  • Might the provocation lead learners into a zone of confusion and discomfort?
  • Does the provocation relate to real life/their world?
  • Is the provocation inconspicuous and a little mysterious?
  • Might the provocation lead learners to broader concepts that tend to carry more relevance and universality?
  • Will the provocation make the best use of learning time and teacher preparation time?
  • Might the provocation be student initiated or documentation of their learning as a springboard?
  • Is the provocation likely to clarify the essence of what is being inquired into?
  • Is the provocation the right provocation for the time planned?
  • Might the provocation be best during the inquiry, rather than at the beginning?
  • Does this provocation elicit feelings?

We’re looking forward to taking it further in the coming ‘ Reveal’ workshop with Sam Sherratt exploring ‘what it means to be aware of, receptive to and curious about what our students are revealing to us so that we can be constantly inquiring into our students and adjusting our planning accordingly.’

Do you begin with a purposeful provocation and then plan in response to learning?

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