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.)

10 ways to make learning meaningful…

Whether your students are completing assignments, inquiring into areas of their interest, covering curriculum or exploring their passions, to what extent does it feel (to you, as much as to them) as if they are simply complying and ‘doing school’?

How can we extend learning ‘beyond the project’ and ensure it’s a powerful learning experience, rather than a task for school? (Hint: the answer does not lie in assessment criteria, rubrics or grades.)

1. Do you LISTEN more than you talk?

2. Are the learners really inquiring, in the broadest sense of the word?

Look at the description of inquiry from Making the PYP Happen. Are they doing most of these things? Or just researching?

  • exploring, wondering and questioning
  • experimenting and playing with possibilities
  • making connections between previous learning and current learning
  • making predictions and acting purposefully to see what happens
  • collecting data and reporting findings
  • clarifying existing ideas and reappraising perceptions of events
  • deepening understanding through the application of a concept
  • making and testing theories
  • researching and seeking information
  • taking and defending a position
  • solving problems in a variety of ways.

3. Will this inquiry be worthwhile? Will the learners experience challenges and figure out how to overcome them?

Support them in feeling comfortable in the ‘learning pit’?

4. Is the inquiry concept driven? Are the learners doing more than just finding facts and information?

  • Are they exploring and developing an understanding of big conceptual ideas.  
  • Are they looking through the lens of one or more key concepts?
  • Can they identify big ideas and apply them in other contexts?
  • Can they articulate conceptual understandings developed along the way?

5.  Do the learners have ownership? Will this inquiry help them grow, not just in knowledge of content, but as learners?

Some questions to support their ongoing reflection:


6. Are the learners thinking critically and creatively about the content they explore?

A variety of less common thinking routines that can extend their thinking:

Think Puzzle Explore
Circle of viewpoints
Generate Sort Connect Elaborate
Tug for Truth
Parts Purposes and Complexities
People Parts Interactions
Think Feel Care
Imagine if…

7. Are the learners able to think about how their inquiries impact on other people? Will they be motivated to take action?

8. Will they explore ways of extending the learning beyond the classroom?

  • Look for opportunities for collaboration across the year level.
  • Extend it to other year levels. (Can older learners create for an audience in lower grades? Can learners seek feedback or support from another class or year level?)
  • Encourage interactions with primary sources within and outside outside of school.
  • Use your network and theirs to help extend the learning to the broader community and the world.
  • Use Google docs, Twitter and blog posts to reach out globally. (click links for examples)
  • Connect with experts face to face or via Skype. (eg Skype in the Classroom)

9. Will there be opportunities to identify problems and issues and develop solutions?

For some learners, the design thinking process might be useful:

10. Will learners have opportunities to express their  learning meaningfully and creatively?

How will learners present, represent and/or share their learning? Will they choose to express their learning through a creative medium such as art or film? Will they paint or sculpt? Will they write poetry? Set it to music? Do an expressive dance? Create a stop motion animation? Build a model? Develop an app? Design a website? Write a book? Organise a debate? Start a blog? Make a speech? Create a campaign? Lead a workshop? 

Will they do, say, think, feel, want… or be something different as a result of this learning? 

Looking closely and exploring complexity…

A fan, a mobile phone, an umbrella, a computer monitor, a toaster… We ask the kids to engage in the Parts, Purposes, Complexities thinking routine.

Examine the object carefully and record the following:

What are its parts? What are its various pieces or components?



What are its purposes? What are the purposes for each of these parts?


What are its complexities? How is it complex in its parts and purposes, the relationship between the two, or in other ways?


Now take apart your object and record further parts, purposes and complexities that you discover…





There is total engagement, excitement and a sense of purpose. Groups form naturally based on curiosity and everyone works collaboratively and inclusively. And it’s fun!

Their reflections are insightful:

“Everything around me is fascinating in its own way and is made in order to achieve its own goal”

“All parts are really important and small parts can be really important. We didn’t realise till we took it apart that one little screw was holding the entire umbrella together. We have to look deeper to discover amazing things”

“There are so many more parts than just what you see. This activity kind of reflects people. We can see a lot on the outside but the parts on the inside make us function. There is always more on the inside..”

“This tells me things are not as simple as they seem and not to accept information about something, look deep see what else is part of this object or person.”

“This shows I can always dig deeper and go further in my learning. I wonder if everything in my inquiry is useful”

“This helps us with problem solving and helps us create. If you can visualise how something is made and how it works, you can make it.”

“I realise now that everything has a purpose and there might be more than you can see from the outside… it makes me feel more curious about things and appreciative of many little parts inside one object.”

And that’s why I make my mistake…

Because their reflections seem so insightful, I make the assumption that they will readily be able apply this to abstract contexts. I ask them to think about an object, an idea or a system in their current inquiries and use the thinking routine to look more closely and explore the complexities.

I miss the point entirely, which is to get them to SLOW DOWN their thinking. Next time I will go all the way back and take one step at a time. We need to start from here:

Examine the system or idea carefully and record the following:

What are its parts? What are its various pieces or components?

An inquiry into ownership of learning…

What do you notice about Audri as a learner?

We begin our Year 4 collaborative planning session with Audri… to generate thinking about the ways young learners own their learning, outside the classroom…

The teachers notice and name his confidence, persistence, belief in himself, resourcefulness, curiosity, commitment, ownership of learning, enthusiasm, excitement...

Layla wonders if Audri’s uniqueness and enthusiasm would be stifled in a traditional school setting.

Jina responds that she is excited by the possibilities of creating such authentic learning opportunities in her classroom.

Watching an extract from Guy Claxton on building learning power adds another layer to our conversation:

He says the ‘The ability to learn is very learnable’…

Some key questions which he asks:

  • What habits or attitudes of mind do you invite and cultivate in your students?
  • What learning muscles are being stretched beyond mastering content?

Important learning dispositions that have value for our learners in the ‘real’ world (beyond passivity, remembering, note taking and regurgitating, even if these might be useful in some contexts):

  • Curiosity – asking questions, seeking problems, finding solutions, desire to learn
  • Persistence – sticking with it in the face of challenges and difficulties
  • Resourcefulness – experimenting, taking initiative, having a range of strategies on which to draw
  • Collaboration – being willing to and knowing how to collaborate effectively
  • Thoughtfulness – standing back and thinking metacognatively, being able to think clearly and critically
  • Imagination – visualising new concepts, producing new ideas

Claxton says it is possible to strengthen all of these, even within the parameters of conventional classrooms. One of the major considerations is how we talk. Most teachers spend a great deal of time talking about ‘work’.  Shifting the focus to the process of learning, makes a huge difference.

Back in our planning meeting, we talk about the importance of making thinking visible and the value of noticing and naming learning behaviours, raised in both Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchhart et al and Choice Words by Peter Johnston. (Both books are highly recommended.)

The latter highlights the influence our language has on student learning. I particularly like examples like this one, which demonstrate the effect of a few well-chosen words…

“What have you learned most recently as a reader?” …the teacher begins with ‘given’ information that is not up for discussion: a) the student is a reader, and b) readers learn things. The only question is, what has this particular reader learned? For a student to respond to this question, he or she has to review recent learnings. The opening question requires an answer that begins, “I learned. . . .” It insists on an agentive identity statement about reading and learning. At the same time, it creates a learning history, which is an antidote for students who think they are not good and have always been not good.”

As I’ve frequently said in this space –

We have learned that it’s more valuable to spend time building a deep understanding of what a unit of inquiry is about and deciding on conceptual understandings than on planning activities.

A valuable tip we gleaned from Sam Sherratt  is to agree on one word that sums up the conceptual essence of the unit. In this case it is ‘ownership.’

Central idea – Taking ownership of learning empowers us.

Conceptual understanding rubric –

Beginning Developing Established
Learning is meaningful when we take responsibility for it.


I see the teacher as the one who knows what to do, how to do it and if it’s good.

I expect the teacher to tell me what to do and how to do it.

Sometimes I make decisions about my own learning, without asking the teacher.

I can describe some ways I am becoming more responsible for my own learning.

I make decisions that support and promote my learning.

I can explain the reasons behind my choices and decisions.

Reflection and metacognition lead to ownership of learning.


I don’t think much about my learning.

I can’t explain why I am doing specific tasks.

I don’t understand the difference between ‘work’ and ‘learning’.

I am beginning to think about how I learn.

I can explain why I am doing specific tasks.

I can identify the skills and attitudes I need or am using.

I can decide which strategies to use in my learning and explain my choice.

I think about myself as a learner and can identify my strengths and challenges.

I reflect on my learning, set learning goals based on my reflections, and act on them.

I can explain how I could use my learning in different contexts.

I can explain what I gained from a learning experience, what I contributed, what could have made it better.

Feedback welcome!

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!

The power of one-on-one conversations about learning…

Tyler Rice writes this week about the value of one-on-one conversations with his students…

  • I learn more about each student as a person.
  • I learn more about each student as a learner.
  • I correct important misconceptions.
  • I give valuable feedback to students about their learning.
  • I receive valuable feedback from students about my teaching.
  • I improve my relationships with the people whom I am privileged to teach.
  • My reasons for loving teaching are reaffirmed.

Like Tyler, I’m involved in one-on-one conversations at the moment too…

I’m currently supporting our Year 6 students in the process of the PYP exhibition unit. They are exploring ways to take action to right inequity. The central idea is ‘Developing an awareness and understanding of inequity empowers us to act’. Within this broad conceptual understanding, students follow their areas of interest and decide on their own individual and small group inquiries.

In the early stages, the teachers engage in many one-on-one conversations with students to ensure they have found something to explore that really matters to them, to get them to articulate their personal connections with their inquiries and to hear them explain why they care.

This round of conversations is the beginning of many that will take place throughout the inquiry. The more they practise, the better students become at articulating their learning, till the final exhibition where they will share their learning with their parents and the public.

Teachers and learners find these conversations both challenging and rewarding.

Some students can readily identify what bothers them, what they care about and, with minimal probing, dig deeper and express their personal connections. Others take longer. Some students spend time exploring one issue, only to decide they are not sufficiently engaged and would like to change direction. Some think they have a particular interest but are unable to find a meaningful way into it. Some are interested in so many things, they find it hard to choose a focus. And in one particularly challenging conversation last week, I talked with a (bright) student who hasn’t (yet) engaged with anything at all. Our job is to help him find something he cares about to inquire into, no matter how long it takes.

I agree with Tyler’s thoughts on the value of individual conversations for the teacher.

Here’s what I see as the value for the learner

  • She has an opportunity to express her thinking aloud in a non threatening context.
  • She processes her thinking through having to find the words to articulate it to someone else.
  • She can ask questions, seek clarification and feel supported while making her thinking visible.
  • She goes beyond the content and gains awareness of herself as a learner.
  • She has her thinking challenged, in a positive way, through gentle questioning and probing.

But that’s my perspective. I’ll ask some of the students this week and find out how they see it!

Understanding learning…

We started the school year at each grade level, with an inquiry (directly or indirectly) into learning. A unit that set the tone for all the coming units. The intention was to focus students’ awareness of themselves as learners and help build learning communities in our classrooms and in our school.

As Dylan William says in the clip below, ‘We can train students to be better observers of their own learning so that they can take ownership of their learning…’

Browsing some of the class blogs, I came across this insightful reflection by Abby in Year 6. With Abby’s permission, I am posting it here to inspire teachers and learners alike…

I have done a lot of learning this term. Every challenge I have faced has improved my learning. Every day I have brought something home with me from what I have done in class and discussed it with my family. My thinking has been deeper and more insightful and I’ve refined my learning routines and now I can put my thinking into words easily and efficiently. I can generalise any learning and reading I do and turn long paragraphs into short sentences.

This year I have a notebook called a bubble catcher. I put my thoughts and ideas into this book and I can refer to it if I need to remember what I’ve learnt. It has been a really good way to think. Whenever I write one idea it makes me think about a new one and I end up filling three or four pages.

I can cooperate with my classmates and act responsibly. I use my initiative and do what is right without being told what to do. I have asked lots of questions and reflected on the answers.

This year, after thinking for a long time and talking to others, I have found something out. Learning never stops. Every idea you get will lead you to something new. You follow the path until you reach yet another idea, one that will teach you a new lesson. You make mistakes, but each mistake is worth it, because you will learn from it.

Concept based learning…

‘Hands up if you often forget the things you learn in class.’

‘Hands up if you’re sometimes overwhelmed by information overload.’

Both times, all hands go up, including mine and Jocelyn’s. I’m in her Year 6 class to help them consider the big ideas in their learning and develop their understanding of concepts. This will assist them to organise information in future, explore significant ideas, promote higher order thinking and deepen inquiry.

I show them the avocado model…

They quickly get the idea that the big ideas we remember, long after we have forgotten the details, become the seeds from which new learning grows.

What is a ‘big idea’?

In considering what such ‘big ideas’ might look like, we talk about the fight Ellie had with her brother this morning. Ellie’s incident is specific to time, place and situation, but the children all have similar experiences to share. I ask if they think sibling rivalry exists in other countries and cultures and they say of course. Will it still exist in the future? Definitely. Did it exist long ago in the past? They have examples as far back as Cain and Abel! It is clear then that the ‘big idea’ of sibling rivalry is transferable, timeless and universal.

Once they get the idea, they are quickly able to express the big ideas behind a range of topics they have explored in the past. They’re even able to grasp the Lyn Erickson ‘Structure of Knowledge’ diagram. I tell them I learned this at a workshop for teachers but I’m sure they will get it. I ask for a show of hands if anyone thinks kids are as smart as teachers. Lots of hands, some giggling. They do get it …and they give examples from their own learning.

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Yesterday Joc had them look at their class learning community through the lenses of the PYP key concepts.

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Today we ask them to reflect on everything they have done in these first few weeks of the school year and extrapolate the ‘big ideas‘. They move into groups to discuss the learning experiences so far and come up with things like: attitudes, community, rights, responsibility, initiative, communication, questioning, democracy, citizenship, decision-making…

My observations:

– Joc has succeeded in building a thoughtful learning community.

– The learners are already on their way to the desired conceptual understandings for their unit:

  • Citizenship carries with it a sense of belonging or identity which includes rights and responsibilities, duties and privileges.
  • Different decision-making strategies can be effective in different situations.
  • In a democracy, citizens have a say in decision-making.
  • The impact of decisions can be personal, local, global.

– By the time they visit Canberra for their inquiry into government, they will have plenty of big ideas to which they can connect.

– There’s no reason kids can’t be exposed to the same ideas as adults. Maybe next time they can explore concepts using the Frayer model, as we did at IB workshop leader training training...

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What is creativity?

What do you think creativity is? What inspires you to be creative?

I asked these question to some random kids from Year 4, 5 and 6. Watch the video to hear what they said, totally unscripted…

Here’s what struck me:

  • Their ability to express their ideas, unrehearsed.
  • How willingly they participated, despite being approached out of the blue.
  • The diversity of their responses.
  • How articulate they were.
  • The culture of reflection and thinking we have created in our school.

and, well… how creative they are!