What if we liberated the learning from report cards

Every time we’ve thought about how we might improve our reports, we’ve failed. The barriers to major change have somehow seemed insurmountable. Parental expectations, government requirements, technical restrictions, constraints from within and outside of the school and our own heads… all of these have stood in our way.

And then came COVID, along with weeks of remote learning, and the chance to reimagine our reports, at least for this semester. The only barrier was time, and this turned out to be an advantage. No time to seek perfection, just the opportunity to take an inquiry stance, dive in and produce something both meaningful and practical, as quickly as possible.

How might we create a report that aligns with what we believe about learning? What if we report on what we really value in learning? What if we elect to report only on transferable skills? What if we let go of expected ‘levels’ (real or imagined) and pay more attention to who each child is as a learner? What if we focus on assessment FOR and AS learning, rather than only assessment OF learning? How might we support students and parents to value and reflect on skills that really matter?

So we created a written report which views the whole child, addressing the development of a broad range of skills and dispositions including social, self-management, communication, thinking and research skills. These ‘ATL’ skills, as we call them in the PYP, are the building blocks that support our learners in all areas of learning and of life.

How might we best observe, assess and reflect on these skills? We considered the possibility of creating a grade by grade continuum but the development of these skills is neither age dependent nor linear. Is developing and reflecting on these skills, in fact, lifelong learning? How best might they be learned? Some influencing factors include the language we use to notice and name them, how they are modelled, opportunities for them to be demonstrated, expectations and routines around practising them. Once again, we see Ron Ritchhart’s cultural forces at play. What if, rather than seeing them as being ‘taught’, we consider how most of these trans disciplinary skills might be enculturated?

Our written report will be accompanied by in-depth conversations between students, parents and teachers. Together, the written report and the conversation will focus both on growth and on potential next steps. I’m conscious of how the Growth Coaching approach has influenced this vision. Some years ago, we shifted from performance appraisals for teachers to a growth model, in which teachers, in partnership with leaders, are encouraged to identify strengths and set goals for further development. Why should students be measured against arbitrary age based standards? What if the focus for student reporting was on growth, too? What if  strengths were highlighted and students were supported to reflect on future action they might take to further their development?

Are we there yet? No. Have we come up with a starting point that (mostly) addresses expectations and requirements, while coming much closer to aligning our beliefs about learning with the way we report on it? Yes. Are we still struggling with some aspects as we explore how to improve on and sustain these changes? Absolutely. But embracing the power of ‘what if?’ is how we drive change and how we grow.

I’m certain that many of you are reporting in this way already. We’ve been on the road for a while now but, somehow, we needed this period of remote learning to give us permission to see a potential new way forward.

What educators need to unlearn…

Looking at the curriculum (program of inquiry) and the timetable through the courageous lens of ‘what if’, has allowed us to explore possibilities that sit outside of traditional models. The more we let go of the way things have always been, the more opportunities manifest for learning to flow and learners to flourish.

I once wrote a post about things that teachers should unlearn. We’ve come a long way since then! Here are some more things educators need to unlearn:

Learning is linear.

Why should we only do one unit at a time? Real life isn’t broken down into blocks of curriculum, learning is not linear and inquiry is not a step by step process. Inquiries (and learning!) overlap and interweave. We need to create the conditions in which this kind of learning can thrive.

Adults make the decisions.

In the past few weeks, we have consulted with students on matters such as a new initiative for Year 3, the design of the learning spaces, our PYP self study and a whole school unit of inquiry. Their perspectives are insightful, valuable and practical!

You need to deliver the curriculum.

The best way to cover the curriculum is to design rich and authentic, real life, learning experiences, and then back map to the curriculum. Everything worthwhile will be covered!

We are bound by the timetable.

Next year, our Art, like some other specialist areas, will be more authentically integrated into the learning. Less timetabled, more of an effective mode of communication, ‘through which students explore and construct a sense of self and develop an understanding of the world around them’ (PYP). Looking forward to seeing how it unfolds…

Planning takes place in advance.

It’s true that you need to have a sense of the big idea and where the learning needs to go conceptually, but planning responsively has changed things entirely. It’s becoming natural to observe, listen and document what is revealed about where learners and learning are at, then analyse the data to decide where to go next.

There is secret teacher business.

The more learners are aware of things that used to be kept from them, the more ownership they take in their learning. Learners can (and should!) . explore  curriculum outcomes, create success criteria, know what their goals are. Why shouldn’t they write their own reports?

Anything to add?

What if…?

What happens when we begin with a belief that children are competent and curious and creative? What if we believe they have the capacity to drive her own learning?

I’m a granny. Observing my grandchildren wonder, play and experiment with theories validates and reinforces my beliefs about children and about learning. For almost 10 years, I have also been another kind of granny, engaging virtually with children in disadvantaged settings in India, witnessing the capability of children in another context.

What might be learnt from the experience of being a granny… both kinds? I’ve learnt that if you believe they are capable, children will surprise you with what they can do and and how they can learn. Overcoming our inclination to jump in and take control often leads to extraordinary learning.

Teaching does not mean opening heads and pouring stuff in. It’s important to know when to step away and allow the learning to happen. Real, deep learning usually has little to do with covering curriculum or competitive grading. Indeed, ‘doing school’ can sometimes get in the way of learning.

That’s why, in 2015, when attending Learning 2, a conference by educators for educators, we chose the ‘Disrupt strand’.  We were invited to ask the question ‘what if?’ in the pursuit of ideas that might disrupt traditional models of school.

‘What if school were more like the conference?’ we asked ourselves… and the entire audience educators to whom we had to pitch our idea.

What if our learners had more voice and choice in their learning? What if they could opt to participate in workshops that piqued their curiosity or responded to their needs? What if they could present their own workshops? What if there were more opportunities for learners to collaborate, to create and to drive their own learning? Just like the conference.

Our pitch didn’t win, but we came back inspired and determined to set our action plan in motion…

What if we offered all our teachers the sort of conference we had just experienced? This was the seed which grew into the first Unleashing Learning, a conference by teachers for teachers. What if we created a conference (mostly) by students for students, with talks and workshops presented both by outsiders and by our Year 6 students?

What if we set ourselves a whole primary school goal of increasing ownership of learning? That year, we made this our focus. As a school, individually, in teams and groups, we have since continued to explore, research, adapt and tweak our practice to shift further from old models of ‘doing school’, towards more authentic, student driven learning.

This does not mean that we abdicate our responsibility as teachers, simply step back and let go, hoping that students will find will their own way! Although we might do that sometimes…

Everything we do is intentional. We start with the child, we try to listen to the learning and respond accordingly, rather than simply delivering pre-planned content. We experiment with ways of planning, documenting and responding to learning. We revisit and reassess what we mean and what we might mean by inquiry learning. We constantly re-examine our curriculum and reconsider how to align our beliefs with our practice. We agonise over the tension between what we believe and the demands of the system.

Our second Unleashing Learning conference was a celebration of all the ways in which learning has already been unleashed in our school, for both teachers and students. It was also a call to action. If we truly believe our learners have the capacity to drive their own learning, what are the possibilities?

What if we persistently question the status quo? What if we perpetually seek further ways to unleash learning? What if we never cease to ask ‘What if?’…

(From my talk at Unleashing Learning #2)

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’?