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.


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.


  • 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…


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…


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

We need to think critically about digital content that we view and create.


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.


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.


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


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:

Screen Shot 2013-03-09 at 10.10.21 AM

Here’s one for a Year 4 inquiry into how taking ownership of our learning can empower us:
Screen Shot 2013-03-09 at 10.31.41 AM
Here’s a Year 5 example that’s more content based:
Screen Shot 2013-03-09 at 11.27.55 AM
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.

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!

Moving learning forward…

When I was a child, my parents kept a ‘theme box’  where the family collected magazine pictures, newspaper articles and pamphlets, so that my brothers and I had resources at our fingertips for school projects.

I remember I once had to research a country in Europe for a geography project and I chose France, because there was appropriate material in the ‘theme box’! On every page of my ‘theme book’ I traced an outline of the map of France, inside which I wrote information about the population, sights, climate and industry. While I loved how my pages looked, I don’t recall caring about the content or wondering about its relevance. I certainly wouldn’t have thought to question the value of this supposed learning experience but I assume my teacher could tick some curriculum boxes.

These are memories that spring to mind, as I work with Year 6 teachers, planning their current unit of inquiry.

In its first incarnation, a few years back, the focus of the unit was on understanding more about our geographical neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region. Students inquired into a country of their choice, then shared and compared their findings with their class mates. Unlike the ‘theme box’ of my days, it was exciting to have the opportunity to connect via Skype to find out about other people and other places via primary sources.

In its current version the unit is based on our understanding of geo-literacy…


The central idea is: Understanding the interconnectedness of the world empowers people to make informed decisions for now and the future.

We’re not sure if it’s perfect, but it’s a sound starting point. As with all good inquiry units, the teachers are not entirely sure where the learning will go or how it will get there. They have, however, articulated some desired conceptual understandings for students to reach, as they explore the big idea through the lenses of connection and reflection

  • A wide range of  factors shape the way people live.
  • Individuals and countries are interconnected in many ways.
  • Engaging with and learning from people in other places helps us understand our interconnectedness.
  • Decisions made today have an impact on other places and times.

We still need to focus on the Asia-Pacific, due to the requirements of the Australian curriculum, but we have come a long way since we first planned this unit.

  • Learning principles. Our articulated beliefs about learning  are becoming more and more embedded in our planning.
  • Concept driven learning. The desired conceptual understandings are articulated in advance.
  • Intention. We start from the ‘why’.  No learning experience is planned without sound reasoning as to its purpose.
  • Evidence. We know what evidence we will look for to assess the learners’ understanding, to inform further teaching and learning.
  • Direction. We consider what the unit is not about. We decide on one (conceptual) word that sums up the essence of the unit. In this case, the unit is about ‘interconnectedness’ not about ‘Asia’.
  • Inquiry. We understand that true inquiry is more than ‘doing a project’ on something in which you are interested…
  • Differentiation. The planner no longer contains a series of pre-planned activities, but rather a bank of potential provocations from which teachers might select, depending on how the learning unfolds in each class.
  • Technology. The use of technology is an integral part of planning and learning.
  •  21st century skills (as they used to be called) Creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking are integrated naturally into the way we plan for learning.


If you or your class (or an expert you know), in the Asia-Pacific region, would like to engage with our Year 6 students, via their blogs, Twitter or Skype to help them explore the ways we are interconnected, ranging from individual to international level, please let us know.

Concept driven learning…

Some ‘big ideas’ about concept driven learning:

(From this week’s little #pypchat on Twitter)

  • The world is changing. Knowledge is changing. The ability to view the world with a more flexible mind is invaluable. (Steve)
  • Concept based learning is about big transferable ideas that transcend time, place, situation. (Ed)
  • Content just focuses on facts while concept focuses on making sense of those facts and the world around us (Christianne)
  • Content based teaching may not get beyond information transmission/superficial learning (Gillian)
  • Concepts are a way to organize and make sense of learning. Connect disciplinary knowledge.  (Miranda)
  • We can’t possibly teach everything that is important, but we can teach the big ideas. (Alexandra)
  • Concept based learning is a framework to study everything. So much information. Content can change, concepts stay the same. (Mega)
  • Information is useless unless you can do something with it. (Lynne Erickson)
Big Ideas in the classroom.

Since I no longer have my own class, I relish opportunities to get into classrooms. This week I’m team teaching in Year 5 with Rubi… and team learning. We bounce ideas before class, observe and listen to the kids and change the plan as the learning unfolds. The ‘topic’ is energy, but it’s inquiry learning and it’s concept driven. 

The first provocation is a video showing the effects of an electricity blackout. The students’ questions are quite specific to the incident, and we realize we need to change the plan already. We ask the kids to revisit their questions and ‘grow’ them, this time considering big ideas, transferable through time and place. It only takes one example from a different context to get the idea and they are away! This round of questions is about electricity and alternative power sources, not just the blackout they saw.

Rubi introduces a second provocation to further develop their thinking. She puts on music and asks the kids to dance and jump around. There is lots of noise and energetic movement, kids remove their sweaters as they warm up and a good time is had by all (except the class next door.)  We ask the kids to discuss in groups how this activity connects to the first provocation and then come up with further questions.  This round of questions is about different forms of energy, where they come from and how they are used.

Sorting Questions.

With each question on an individual sticky note, the groups sort the questions in any way they like. Before they start I ask them what they see as the purpose this activity. Mia says it will make them read everyone’s questions and think about them. Liam says it will help them organize their thoughts. Amanda says it will  help them check their understanding. Josh says they will have to justify their thinking.

Some groups sort the questions by topic, others by big ideas. One sorts them according to the PYP key concepts. Some groups sort and re-sort in different ways. Some sort them into deep and shallow questions, open and closed questions. I’ve seen Rubi encourage this this kind of thinking by having kids analyse questions through the question quadrant. They use the language: ‘That’s a closed question,’ ‘You could just google that,’ ‘ That’s too narrow, how do we make it a bigger idea’? ‘That’s just about facts, it’s not deep enough.’  We gather the questions, type the whole lot and cut them up, ready for sorting the next day.

To sum up the lesson, we ask students to give it a title. I ask what a title does and they tell me ‘It sums up what’s important,’ ‘It tells you the main idea’, ‘It tells you what it’s all about’. ‘It makes you want to know more’. Their titles fit the bill!

A conceptual central idea.

We introduce the central idea: ‘Our use of energy has an impact on the planet.’

Each group now gets the whole class’s questions and the task is to sort the pile into two groups… Those that relate to the central idea (the overarching conceptual understanding.) and those that don’t. The students are totally engaged as we move between groups and listen to the rich conversation. There is much debate and it doesn’t take long before they decide they need three groups or even four, because it isn’t as simple as that! Through the process, questions are further developed and refined.

Key concepts.

The key concepts which will be our lens for the inquiry are function ( how does it work?) and responsibility. We ask the students to get the laptops and create a quick cartoon using Toondoo to show their understanding of one of the two concepts in a clever way. Some create cartoons that connect to our central idea, others show examples that connect to their personal lives. The choice is theirs – the results are creative and thought-provoking! Back in groups, the students now pick out questions relating to each of these  key concepts….

Big ideas about the learning:

Officially, there has been no teaching yet. A few video clips, some ideas on the class blog to think about and the time described above spent provoking and developing thinking.

Yet, already…

  • Students have risen above the facts and are thinking on a conceptual level.
  • They are making connections with prior knowledge and constructing meaning for themselves.
  • They are asking and answering questions, organizing ideas and justifying their thinking.
  • The so-called ’21st century skills’ of creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration are all evident.
  • A host of other trans-disciplinary skills are being practised.
  • Curiosity has been sparked and there is excitement about taking the learning further.
  • Every single one of our school’s learning principles is evident.
Images: Responsibility by Amelia, Function by Gabi

Planning for learning…

The way we plan PYP units of inquiry is different from the way many other teachers plan. The planner is designed to make teachers think deeply about the learning, before planning a single learning experience. It’s always a collaborative process, including much thinking and discussion.

  • We start from the end. What do we want students to understand? We don’t talk about activities till we know where we are going and why. And yet it’s more about the process than the end result.
  • It’s concept driven, not content based. We begin with a conceptual central idea, an enduring understanding that is broad, significant, engaging and transferable to other contexts.
  • We plan a powerful provocation to hook students in, get them thinking and asking questions about the big ideas.
  • Within the framework of our central idea, students are encouraged to take ownership of their learning, explore their own inquiries and build conceptual understandings.
  • We consider what evidence we will look for that learning has taken place. We keep in mind the variety of ways students may express their learning..
  • Although inquiry is embraced as a stance, there is explicit teaching of skills. We plan what we would like to see demonstrated in terms of transdisciplinary skill development.
  • Reflection and metacognition are essential components for all learners, both teachers and students.
  • The ultimate goal is to create lifelong learners so we are constantly aware of developing the attributes of the learner profile.
  • All of the above are thoughtfully considered, before and during the planning of learning engagements.
  • We map out some possibilities, but there are endless ways of getting to the destination. Moving off the ‘intended path‘ is a sign of success, not a sign of failure.

We are trialling Managebac, an integrated management system for IB schools. As always, we start from the learning. If  teachers are going to buy in, they need to see how we can use it to enhance learning, not just as an organisational tool. But this isn’t a post about a management system, it’s about planning for authentic learning. And it’s about our journey as a community of learners.

The PYP unit of inquiry planner in Managebac simplifies the planning process. Everyone loves the ease of use. We can pull up the definitions of the concepts to help choose the lens for our inquiry and we can access the curriculum with a click to ensure we are addressing the necessary skills and knowledge. We like the way the headings come up one at a time and we can consider first the overarching theme, then the central idea, then the concepts, then the skills.

But the more experienced teachers, who have a deep understanding of the way the planner is designed and why, are a little disturbed by the linear format. We’ve passed this on to the Managebac team, who seem very supportive. We’ve told them that planning isn’t linear. Learning isn’t linear. We need the central idea and concepts on every page, so we don’t lose sight of the ultimate learning goals while we think about possible activities. And that assessment is intertwined with the learning engagements, it’s not a separate task or test.

At the end, you click a button and the program generates a comprehensive PDF of the PYP planner, in the familiar non-linear format to which we have grown accustomed. The staff is delighted! I hope the teachers can see the Managebac planning process as a metaphor. While we might consider all the elements separately and individually, they are part of a complex whole. We can’t plan or teach without the big picture of learning.

If only that was as easy as clicking a button!

With thanks to my thoughtful online PLN, with whom I like to think and bounce ideas. Input from Steve BoxCraig Dwyer and Miranda Rose.