Category: Assessment

Designing powerful learning experiences


Once teachers have a good sense of the “big picture” of units, they turn their attention to designing the initial learning experience, or provocation, for their students. Not much more than this should be planned as everything else really depends on how students respond to this initial experience.

When designing powerful learning experiences, it is important to consider these points:

Check teacher attitudes – all teachers involved need to be genuinely curious about their students and how they will react or respond to learning experiences and see themselves as inquirers who are researching their students.

Return to learning – continuously remind yourselves of the desired learning in the unit and also be aware of any other learning that may unexpectedly become part of it.

Know your curriculum – familiarity with the curriculum – basically “knowing it like the back of your hand” – means you can plan for learning and also include unexpected learning as it arises.

Understand difficulty and create struggle – students will only really reveal useful information about themselves to you if there is an element of challenge  or struggle involved. This is what separates a provocative learning experience from an “activity”.

Consider group dynamics – be very purposeful about how you intend your students to work… are you looking for them to think independently or to collaborate? Are their choices about how to work part of the information you’re looking for?

Collaborate for effectiveness – work well with your colleagues to make sure each of you has an active role during the experience, such as observing and documenting in different ways.

Test on yourselves – it’s always a good idea, as well as fascinating, for teachers to try out a learning experience on themselves to see how it feels, what is revealed and whether or not it is really worth doing.

Use pace, place and space – these three elements are often overlooked, yet can totally make or break learning experiences. Think carefully about how time will be used and how you can read the situation to add or take away time accordingly. Think carefully about the best location for learning experiences to take place and how that location could be adapted for the purpose. Explore the space and discuss how you can use space intentionally, including the movement of students and the placement of materials, to create the right feeling and atmosphere.

Understand the power of mood – explore ideas and strategies for the creation of particular moods to enhance learning, such as relaxation, mindfulness and music (I’ll write a posting about this soon). Most importantly of all, have high expectations for student attitude and let them know you care about it and take it seriously.


Rubrics and continuums – don’t berate, innovate.

Yes, we all know that we should be moving rapidly towards models of education that can be described as self-directed, self-regulated, student-driven, learner agency etc… and many of us are genuinely trying to do so. Many more have been trying to do so for many years… bit-by-bit, step-by-step. If you’ve been part of this for a while, “hello again”. If you’re just joining us, “welcome to our struggle”.

Creating the conditions for these types of learning to occur is not simple. It just isn’t as simple as handing control over to students and saying “go for it”. Like all people, our students need to know what “successful” looks like and how they can be it. At some point, someone has to articulate what we are looking for from our students. In collaborative teams, this means argument, compromise, semantics and considering what the different stages of learning might be as students work towards success. Assessment should be formative, purposeful and provide students with the guidance they need… it should illustrate their next steps. The language this is articulated in should be instructive, easy to understand and present in the daily vocabulary of your learning culture. Creating the tools and strategies for this to happen effectively is a very hard task, but it is hard because it is worth doing.

This notion of “successful” cannot remain a nebulous, abstract notion in the mind of an individual teacher. There can be no “hit and miss” about whether or not this notion of “successful” is communicated clearly to students, or even communicated to them at all. There can be no half-hearted attempts or abandoned thinking just because it’s difficult or “uncool”. Teachers and groups of teachers must deliberate about:

  • where the learning is going
  • what they’re looking for from the students
  • how they might reach – or get close to that
  • how they will guide students in that direction

Guess what… that’s going to end up being a rubric or a continuum or some other form or model of criteria – because that’s the point we’ve reached so far in the evolution of education. They are the thinking educators’ attempts to move beyond tests, multiple choice, right and wrong, yes and no, good or bad. They are the thinking educators’ attempts to turn the abstract into the tangible, to convert randomness to clarity and to extract what has been hidden in the minds of teachers and make them visible to students. They symbolize the attempt to allow for more freedom of pedagogy, more room for manoeuvre, more real, on-going differentiation and the recognition that our students learn and do at different rates.

Like everything in life, there’s some amazingly good examples out there, and there’s some incredibly bad ones, and a whole lot in-between. What makes them amazingly good is thought. What makes them incredibly bad is lack of thought (I feel a rubric coming…). If you’re not a fan of rubrics or continuums, or don’t think they’re fashionable… come up with another way of doing what’s in the bullet points above and share it with everyone. Fashion designers don’t ditch the previous season’s designs and tell everyone to go around naked until someone randomly suggests an article of clothing! They come up with new designs, they innovate. I’m sure everyone in education would be very interested to see what you come up with, although I can’t promise a “Paris Rubric Week” any time in the near future!

Let’s face it, without guidance, most students would be completely lost… largely because their teachers would be equally lost because they never really bothered to discuss what the learning was really about. The “blind leading the blind” is never used as a positive example, unless as a joke.

Our job is not a joke.

Now, of course, the ideal situation is for students to be defining “successful” in their own terms, in the contexts that they design instead of those designed by teachers, setting their own goals, and to be articulating:

  • where they think the learning is going
  • what they’re looking for from themselves
  • what they’re looking for from their peers
  • how they might reach – or get close to that
  • who might guide them in that direction

But… guess what… they’re going to need their teachers to work with them on those things. They’re going to need to get good at doing those things… they are skills that are developed in steps (sound familiar?). Teachers will be need to be observing, noticing, assessing and giving useful feedback/feedforward about how the students are learning, the levels of autonomy or independence they are demonstrating, their ability to reflect on themselves and use those reflections to move forwards. But how will they make sure they’re using a common language? How will they make sure they have a shared vision of what “good looks like”? How will they ensure they’re consistent in their support and guidance for students? How will they make sure they appreciate the steps students take as they make progress? How will they help their students appreciate their own development?

Errr… umm…

Right now, I don’t see a better way to frame those conversations and decisions than in the collaborative creation of rubrics or continuums. Do you?

So, make your rubrics or continuums about that. And if you don’t like rubrics or continuums, come up with another way of communicating with students about their learning, share it and be a person who is part of the evolution of education, not a person who gets in our way while we try to do so.

I often hear people who are reluctant to talk about assessment tools use the very clever line about “thinking outside the box”… probably because (yes, its subtle) many of them look like boxes. It’s scary that creative people use this sort of reasoning as they seem to forget – almost instantly – how useful boxes are, how beautiful they can be, how many sizes, colours and shapes they come in and how they can be transformed into other things.

Learning Continuums


In PYP schools there are six units of inquiry over 6 ‘grade’ levels from PREP to Grade 5. That equals 36 units of inquiry. That’s 36 opportunities to analyse and synthesize the learning at the ‘conclusion’ of a unit of inquiry. Yes, I’m fully aware that formative assessment is happening all the time. But as far as the summative assessment goes, we do this only once at the ‘end’ of a unit. This is a way to gauge what a student’s understanding of the central idea is after 6 weeks of learning and inquiring.

How can we effectively capture all that learning and understanding? 

For years we’ve been creating rubrics. They take a long time to design and develop. This process does allow the people in the same room to not only deepen their understanding of the learning and make connections to the central ideas and lines of inquiry…….this approach also creates a common language and sets clear expectations on the possibilities and the potential that may come out of those learning experiences.

Is the investment (time, effort and energy) worth it when developing a rubric to assess students’ understanding and knowledge? Does this process add value?

In short, yes. Taking teachers through this process requires a lot of constructing and it is through that process we are able to share, defend, explain and talk about student learning. That in itself is pretty exciting stuff. While it does take time in reaching consensus… only then can we achieve clarity. It helps us see how to measure progress of learning and evidence it alongside of the rubric. Students still can choose the best way to demonstrate their learning, it is the rubric that anchors how student’s represent what they have come to know and do.

We’ve changed the branding of ‘rubric‘ to ‘learning continuum,‘ which has created a positive spin on developing robust, relevant and authentic learning expectations.

Our goal as a school is to develop 36 learning continnums, just like a POI. We can critique these, challenge them, build upon them, just like we do with all central ideas, not only as a POI review, but at the start of each unit. We are finding that we are getting better at writing these over time too. Yes, at times we hit walls and get stuck, but it is the fighting through it that we have the best conversations which leads to better ideas, resulting in better teaching.

Personally, I feel that most assessments fall short and teachers end up doing another reflection as their summative assessment. This is not good enough and it touches on Sam’s previous blog post of salmon swimming up stream…. teachers just run out of time; therefore, well put-together, thoughtful and meaningful assessment tools take a back seat! The unit simply fizzles out and doesn’t become much for student’s to engage with it and look for way they can transfer this into other areas of learning.

So why am I writing this? Well, there are a few reasons… the main one is that through the self-study process, I’ve come to realize that section C4 (Assessment) is an area that we need to challenge. We don’t have a clear approach or expectation on what that is or can look like. If we are to be true to the teaching and learning then we need to honor it with a rich and authentic learning continuum – it is all in the feedback we give to our students. Finish the unit well by taking it all the way! Do more than notice the learning, embrace it and set goals with your students, so that the next unit is a continuation from the previous one. How can our students improve from unit to unit, not just wait for the next ‘Sharing the planet’ unit in a year’s time.

What do you do to capture your students’ learning?

Let me know if you want to take a look at some of our Learning Continuums. We need to share these more with one another, so we can adapt them and design powerful assessments – together.

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.”



Provocations and the Ping-Pong Analogy

Many powerful and transformational ideas emerge in the world of education, become trends and then vanish. This is sometimes because the vast majority of educators never fully understand it in the first place.

The latest example of this is “provocations”.

All sorts of educators are using the word and they believe they are planning them for their students. Sadly, very often, these so-called provocations are turning into missed opportunities, throw-away activities that really don’t transform the subsequent pedagogy in the slightest.

I find this really frustrating, and I find the fact that educators are unable to see both the simple and the sophisticated information that students are revealing to them almost impossible to comprehend. As I try and wrap my head around this, I see the following patterns:

  • Some people, if they were being honest, have little or no interest in changing their pedagogy. They want to do what they’ve always done and see anything that threatens that – regardless of the source – as a threat. As a result, they develop a sort of selective blindness to any of the fascinating information their students reveal. It may well be impossible to move people away from that mentality and so it may be necessary to move them out of our schools instead.
  • Some people are – perhaps unwillingly – so caught up in teacher-speak, written curriculum, standards and old habits they too are blinded – they can’t “see the wood for the trees”. Some of these people may still be rescued, but only if you can still see the glint in their eye that indicates some interest in who their students really are and enough curiosity to want to find out.
  • Some people are – fortunately – poised, ready, willing and able to plan and carry out provocative experiences that give their students opportunities to reveal powerful and useful information to them. However, they may not know how to use that information to transform their pedagogy and, of course, there is no single, universal answer. Instead, what is powerful, is the teacher’s determination to find ways to do so.

A very useful analogy is Shana Upiter’s Ping Pong approach. When you provoke your students, you are hitting the ball to them… then, they hit it back to you – in all sorts of directions! Now it is up to you – the teacher – to figure out what to do with the ball and how to hit it back to them again, and so on… If you can view provocations that way – as the ongoing exchange of stimulus and response, ideas and action, thinking and questioning – you will start to understand how to use the concept in your teaching. You can also liberate yourself from thinking that provocations need to be huge, overly-planned extravaganzas!

For this to happen though, the teacher must be fascinated by the words their students write or say, the choices their students make, the way their students think, the patterns of their students’ behaviour, how their students react in different situations and the questions their students ponder.

When provocations create the conditions for inquiry – by teachers into their students – there is nothing more powerful. When they just lead into a series of activities and a whole load of teaching, they may just be another buzz-word.


School leaders do have favourites, for good reasons!


There was a recurring theme in the recent feedback on school leadership by teachers in the school I work at – favouritism.

The gist of it is that there are certain teachers who are considered, by a few, to be the “favourites” of the leadership team. This is quite an interesting point, really, because… to be perfectly honest… people in leadership positions do – inevitably – have favourites. Let me elaborate a bit on that.

There’s always some people who don’t need to be managed, they get on with their jobs and do so to a high quality and in a way that symbolises and encapsulates, to the best of their ability, the vision of the school and the type of pedagogy that school leaders hope to see. Some people might believe they fit into this category because they just “get on with their job”. However, they may not realise, understand or be willing to admit that their practice simply isn’t what school leaders are looking for.

There’s always some people whose practice inspires school leaders and stretches their vision of the school and of pedagogy. Let’s face it, the minute you step out of the classroom and become an “administrator” of some type you will inevitably be referring to pedagogy that you used to practice. School leaders need teachers around them who push their boundaries, reveal new possibilities and teach in ways that are better than they would be able to teach themselves!

There’s always some people who are just natural learners – they ask questions, they are interested in the world, they read books and blogs about education, they seek advice, they pop their heads into offices to run an idea by you, they wander the corridors of the school to chat to people and find inspiration or possibilities for collaboration, they try stuff out. School leaders adore people like this… sorry, there’s no point denying it.

There’s always some people who have classrooms and learning spaces that are welcoming. Their students can’t wait to get to school because their classroom feels like home, because it is stimulating and comfortable, because it belongs to them and because interesting things happen there. Guess what… it’s not only kids who feel that way. School leaders are drawn to those rooms by the buzz of learning and students who are happy, motivated and involved in doing interesting things. They are often invited to join in conversations or get involved in the learning somehow – either explicitly or just because they can’t help themselves. When you’re walking up a corridor, you’re naturally attracted to classrooms like that and, yes, you end up in them more frequently than others.

There’s always some people who know that improving things involves their active participation. People like this don’t complain about the way things are, they take steps to do something about it. In fact, they usually go further by seeking out things that need to be improved and naturally thinking about solutions. They don’t plop their gripes on the desks of school leaders and hand the problem over to them… but, if they do seek you out they do so with a clear indication that they wish to be part of the problem-solving process. It’s only natural that people in leadership positions will respond to people like that with more enthusiasm, more willingness to help and less dread when they see their heads pop in the door or see them coming up the corridor.

There’s always some people who are just good to be around – they know that people in leadership positions are trying their best, they understand all the hidden complexities involved in such positions, they communicate respectfully and without confrontation, they listen actively in meetings and professional development sessions, they are open-minded and willing to see things through different lenses, they are humorous and don’t take themselves too seriously, they abstain from gossip and negative judgment of people they work with, they attend social events and stick around for five minutes to chat after meetings.

The biggest problem with all of this is, unfortunately, that all of these qualities are usually rolled up into the same, small number of people… the ones who get labelled as “favourites”. So, my feedback to the feedback would be to try to aim to have more of the qualities outlined above. Not so you can be a favourite, but just because they’re pretty good qualities to have!

Allow choice but insist on depth

Width vs. Depth

Allowing for student choice is a vital element in a modern education. Good teachers know this.

However, it is possible to go too far and allow for too much student choice – it places the focus on width rather than depth. It can rapidly devalue the power of the teacher as the person who guides students deeper with their learning through informed choice and decision-making, the person who has high expectations for their students.

Let’s start looking at this in an early years context. Many early years teachers claim that children should just be free to play and choose to do whatever they like, whenever they like. They like to call this “learning through play” and they get upset when anybody suggests that they design learning experiences for the children and have any sort of expectation that children engage with it. So, in essence, this approach suggests that “learning through play” is the freedom to choose from a wide variety of activities. Children may wander from one thing to another, perhaps rarely or never engaging with anything to any depth… or being expected to.

Now let’s fast-forward a few years. Surely we are hoping to bring up young people who are capable of giving their full attention, their curiosity and their interest to things. To do so, they will need to learn how to engage with things fully, the process involved in taking your learning beneath the surface. This is the type of learning that results in people who are experts, who are in their “element”, who achieve that state of flow, who are fulfilled and who have been able to develop their talents, passions and interests fully.

This all needs to be learned, over a period of many years.

A powerful early years education lies in the hands of early years educators who understand that there is a massive difference between “learning to play” and “learning through play”. Freedom of choice to roam from one activity to another is really “learning to play”. Engaging with ideas and concepts, coming to new understandings through a series of purposeful experiences – yes, planned for by teachers – that feel like playing are “learning through play”.

Young children are capable of going to great depth with their natural tendencies for curiosity, puzzlement, experimentation, trial and error, repeating, observing and risk-taking. The only thing holding them back, all too often, is the attitude of the adult who believes they are not.

With older students, say 10 and 11 year-olds, the teacher’s understanding of how much student choice to allow for continues to be very important. Of course, have a “student-choice mindset” in that you are looking for frequent opportunities to create the conditions for it. However, don’t allow it to become so dominant that it dilutes learning by limiting opportunities for students to engage with things to real depth. Allow choice because it gives you more of a chance that students will be able to settle on things that really interest them, but then insist on – and guide them towards – a commitment to depth.

Frequently, when teachers are disappointed by what their students have produced, they will shift the blame back to them and say “well… that’s what they chose”. Or, they shift the blame to the new pedagogy they are being expected to facilitate and say “well… we’re supposed to let them choose”. The fact of the matter is you – the teacher – allowed them to make that choice and opted not to get involved, to intervene, to guide… to teach!

This has been a very hard blog posting to write because its difficult to explain this simply and, no doubt, I have failed to do so! I will continue to ponder it and try to find ways to capture it… in the meantime, please help me out by making some comments!