Grade 5, difficult conversations and responsive teachers


(apologies for the low quality image, but it really says it all)

Working with our Grade 5 team is really interesting at the moment because what’s going on is a real to and fro’, a real Ping Pong game in the way that the students are responding to the provocation that the teachers have designed for them, and then the way the teachers are responding to the provocations offered back to them by the students’ responses.

The teachers are having to re-think, not only having to re-think the nature of this current Who we are unit, but today they began to re-think how the data they’re getting back from the students affects the unit that comes next also. This is very exciting because this means that the teachers are not seeing difficulties as roadblocks, but instead seeing difficulties  – as a result of what their students are doing and saying (or not doing and saying) – as an opportunity again to reflect and to think “OK, how do we respond to what we know about the students now?”

The case in point here is that Grade 5 teachers, through the provocations they have been doing this week and last week, have really unearthed that the students (a) are not particularly curious about human behaviour and, probably as a direct result, (b) are not particularly good at observing human behaviour and noticing patterns. And so, as a result, they’re thinking that their initial hopes that students would be able to get to the point where they are designing their own social, behavioural experiments as part of Who we are were overly ambitious. Instead, they are going to have to devote the time and energy of Who we are to really developing that curiosity about human behaviour  – with an ongoing reflective angle that “learning about other people’s behaviour helps me reflect on my own” – and also developing their ability to actually observe human behaviour and asking those questions… what am I looking at, what am I looking for, what do I notice, what evidence is there, how do I record that evidence and what kind of patterns am I noticing that could become a big idea or even a hypothesis?

They then said “OK, well let’s do How the world works next… and in How the world works, we give them six whole weeks just to test those hypotheses and to do so using a clear scientific process. Now that flow and constructivism from one unit to another is really exciting.

And, there’s a lot of tension and worry about “how am I going to get my students to this point or that point by this time?” or “oh, my students haven’t responded to this very well” or “they’re not that interested in it yet”… all of these natural tensions that teachers feel – good teachers feel. But then, coming together spontaneously – not waiting for a meeting – coming together spontaneously, working their way through it using all that information  to help them redesign and redefine how things go from here.

It’s brilliant.

It also reinforces a point that I make over and over and over again and that is that teachers have to have difficult conversations, teachers have to go through the struggle themselves, teachers have to finish the day thinking “I don’t know where this is really going… how do I find that clarity, how do I help my students find that clarity?” The only way they can do it is by having difficult conversations, by challenging each other, by challenging themselves. Good teaching is not just a series of tick-boxes that you can say you’ve done. Good teaching is critical thinking, it is tension, it is emotion, it is responsiveness, it is spontaneity.

As Suzanne, one of the Grade 5 team said after reading this post:

“Openness to spontaneity makes good teachers great.”




  1. Desiree

    Yes Sam, never really thought about it this way- students responses to our provocations do provoke our thinking, which in turn might lead us on different pathways in our learning.

    What we plan when sitting around a table ( adults only) can sometimes totally backfire in the face of the students and we have to rethink which way to go from here, as we understand where our kids are actually at and not where we assume ‘THEY’ are at!

    Again, as you often point out it’s about knowing our students and knowing the curriculum.

    ‘Thought provoking ‘ point you have made here.

  2. kathmurdoch

    Hey Sam. Lovely to read as always. I spent the day planning with teachers in a PYP school yesterday. As we planned, I was thinking a great deal about the notion of ‘difficult conversations’ – and about how important it was for us to really wrestle with ideas in RESPONSE to what students reveal to us. The year 5/6 team I worked with had some feedback from their students about their sense of ownership and choice in a previous unit. It was so energising to witness the way this group committed to working WITH the students’ ideas about their learning as they reshaped this next inquiry. Hearing them say things like “So the kids are telling us ….” “So how will we re-think this…” “We need to change the way we….” – the preparedness to release previous ideas and design new ways in response to the needs of the students is what true inquiry planning is all about. It is the teacher working as inquirer. Difficult conversations are also needed about the ‘big ideas’ in the unit itself. It’s wonderful when a team is prepared to really engage in a ‘grown up conversation’ about the concepts in order to have a clearer understanding of the complexities and pathways. Yesterday included vigorous dialogue about the nature of stereotypes, the connection between gaming and the environment, the politics of place, and what it really means to be a researcher. I am convinced that these conversations are vital in underpinning a quality journey of inquiry – utterly superior to simply ‘filling in the planner’ or conjuring up lots of ‘activities’. 🙂

  3. Steve Martin

    Sounds like the difficult conversations are all with the teachers rather than with students. Perhaps if the CI and provocations had been more carefully chosen, in that they tap into students’ natural interests and curiosity, then less energy would be required to make the whole thing ‘work’. What is good however, is that when student response informs us that students have yet to buy into the pathways planned for them then teachers must be willing to have those difficult conversations and I like CM’s comment “– the preparedness to release previous ideas and design new ways in response to the needs of the students is what true inquiry planning is all about.”

    • kathmurdoch

      Hey Steve – plenty of great, complex conversations were had with the kids as well! Hence the conversations the teachers had. But I was responding to Sam’s focus on teacher conversations. I can assure you that these teachers do indeed ‘carefully’ design experiences – thoughtfully and with the interests and needs of the children in mind. (I am aware this is not always the case with teams, but it is in this one!) The kids’ feedback was only about an aspect of the experience but what was so great was the way the teachers valued that feedback and responded to it. Despite our best efforts to make something work, we don’t always get it right … but that’s what is so great about responsive planning as you say. It is indeed like a game of ‘ping pong’… offering and receiving, conferring, re-designing to create a mutually engaging inquiry. 🙂

  4. Rajesh Kripalani (@iKrips)

    I find it equally, if not more, important that such difficult conversations take place between teachers in middle and high school. Sadly, the pressures of ticking (content) boxes, sticking to pacing guides and teaching to the test tend to leave little room for many to have such conversations. The amount of time middle and high school students are required to sit and receive instruction passively during any given school day is almost criminal in this day and age. When teacher training, practice and leadership demand absolute subservience to lesson plans as a norm, few teachers will be willing to stick their necks out to ‘listen for’ and ‘respond to’ their students’ questions, instead of waiting for the right answers as evidence that they have ‘taught’. Oftentimes, without such questions and difficult conversations, the question that remains unasked, and unanswered, is: ‘Where is the evidence that they have ‘learned’?’

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