As a PYP Coordinator, I look for teachers who are naturally thoughtful when they are planning units. But, what exactly does that mean? I have identified seven key ingredients:
Students before convenience – putting student needs and student learning before adult needs and the prospect of additional work or effort.
Understanding the why of learning – being clear about why a unit exists and why it matters to a particular group of students at a particular time.
Being willing to look at things differently – open to conversations and decisions going in new, different and surprising directions.
Removing barriers and blockages – identifying factors that may prevent or diminish powerful learning experiences and seeking solutions.
Enjoying difficult thinking – relishing intellectual stimulation and seeing how difficult thinking always leads – eventually – to better ideas.
Making the most of different perspectives – knowing that having a variety of personalities involved provides richness and diversity to conversations and that disagreement is healthy and professional.
Being prepared not to be finished – being aware that it is unnatural, possibly even ridiculous, to put a time constraint on genuine thinking, creativity and decision-making.
You know, I have experienced planning sessions in which the resulting plans were actually not that different to the original plans, where conversations have gone full circle. But, the fact that the thinking happened, that it was done by the people who will guide students through those plans, means that there was no better use of their time.
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?
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.
When there is confusion, a lack of vision or an absent identity we have found writing a purpose statement is a powerful way to seek clarity and simplicity.
Constructing a purpose statement empowers people to make a strong, unwavering and resolute conviction about who we are. It makes things crystal clear about what we stand for and what we offer – in the way of teaching and learning. It gives definition and guides decisions. It communicate to the community what our values are.
In short, it unites people and brings them together when things become murky.
This is our purpose statement for the PYP Exhibition. Our teachers, parents and students know why this is important. It is written together to help us be the best we can be – our effort and action coming together.
Imagine if schools adopted this same approach for their own Mission Statements and lived up to it.
It’s time to redefine this process as we owe it to our students.
We have just developed one of these for our Early Years Centre and about to go through this process with our EAL teachers. This is how you build a community and develop a positive culture to know what we do and why we do it.
As a previous Grade 5 Coordinator, I know that one of the biggest responsibilities is leading planning meetings. So much pre-planning goes into this process. Having to think about the best way to approach, angle and guide this process is challenging, yet also exciting! While I have a clear plan on how the learning could go, it is my role to provoke the thinking so we can shape our understanding together.
The most successful way to bring great thinking to the table is to create the opportunity for it. This happens in the way of running a retreat – a retreat for planning, a retreat for ideas to emerge. We have always done this as part of the PYP Exhibition unit. The team has always walked away from these retreats making concrete and meaningful connections and a shared vision on how to drive the Exhibition unit together. We get so much from running this and the protocols of thinking that come with it, to drill down to the core of our ideas and understanding.
But, why only for the Exhibition unit?
In my new role, I have a much wider responsibility to ensure that 7 teams are planning relevant, significant, meaningful and challenging units. At our school, we write ‘reports’ at the end of each unit. The trap that we were falling into each and every time was that when we arrived at the beginning of a new unit, teachers were ill-prepared and making things up on the fly. This is called reality – our reality. Having our 40 minute planning meetings were simply not cutting it. This is because teachers had finishing up on writing reports, following through with assessments to gauge student’s understanding of the unit along with all the other practicalities and formalities of day to day teaching. This simply was causing teachers more stress and angst and ultimately, students were suffering as a result.
To this end, we have now introduced 1/2 day planning retreats for each team. These retreats happen 2 weeks before the next unit commences. This gives teachers time to think about the learning, engage in conversations early and get energized about possibilities and ideas.
What does this look like?
It really is pretty simple. For one whole week and 2 days for the following week, each grade level will have planning time. Cover is arranged for their classes and we are able to dive into those deep conversations that simply can’t happen in a 40 minute time frame. By the time teachers settled into the 40 minute planning meeting, teachers knew that students were about to walk through those doors again and any momentum worth running with is lost. It is this piecemeal approach that was getting in the way of designing the best provocations and ideas around the central idea.
The impact – what are are teachers saying?
Teachers now seek me out when the next planning retreat is and get in early to pick an ideal day for them. They feel more confident about that first week as things have been thought through. They can focus on writing their reports (well and thoughtfully and honestly) knowing that there is clarity, vision and understanding on how to move the learning forward for the up and coming unit.
Students are the clear benefactors in this process. Teachers are more focused. And as for me, I get to spend more time in classes, to see the planning transfer and transpire into the taught curriculum. Nothing better when a plan comes together!
The small cost in organizing ‘cover’ for teachers is well worth the investment. Give it a go!
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.
Recently, Kelli and I were talking about why teaching can be so exhausting. She used the analogy of Salmon swimming upstream to illustrate how we are so often doing what we do in the face of so many other contradictory and conflicting forces.
These forces may sometimes be policies and expectations put in place by governments and education departments based on decisions which are often made by people with little or no educational background apart from the fact that they went to school. In many cases, these policies and expectations are in complete conflict with what educators know to be true about children and learning. And so, most teachers play the game while still trying to do what they believe is right even though their ability to do so (and their time, space and energy to do is) is dwindling.
In other cases (or if you’re unlucky, at the same time) the forces may be policies and expectations that are put in place by school boards or leadership teams. Many school boards are composed of people who have little or no educational background apart from the fact they went to school. And many leadership teams consist of educators so long out of the classroom and so distanced from the realities of day-to-day teaching that they are referring to how things were, or should have been, 20 or 30 years ago. And so, most teachers play the game while still trying to do what they believe is right even though their ability to do so (and their time, space and energy to do is) is dwindling.
In other cases (or if you’re really unlucky, at the same time) the forces may be the patterns of behaviour and trends that exist around you all in everyday life outside school. Students may be consistently exposed to things that go against everything you hope to be instilling in them while they are with you, such as vast differences between rich and poor, an abusive class system, the systematic destruction of the environment, institutionalised racism, corrupt officials and police, blatant consumerism and greed and disregard for human life. And so some teachers try to get their students involved in doing something about these problems, and this is great. But, all too often the overwhelming feeling that they’re only scratching the surface burns people out or the transient nature of many international schools means projects are not sustained. And so, teachers and students do what they do inside a sort of bubble of safety, security and sanitisation while still trying to open their students’ eyes to reality.
In other cases (or if you’re really, really unlucky) the forces may be the parents and what they believe about parenting. Teachers may be consistently trying to reverse the damaging effects of different parenting styles, such as children who have “learned helplessness”, children who are overprotected, children who are under too much pressure to be academically successful, children who are over-scheduled, children who are unable to relax without a screen in front of them, children who are not getting enough sleep, children who eat a damaging diet, children who are being medicated and children who are being brought up with worrying political and ethical beliefs. And so, teachers do what they do in the hope that their 8 hours or so each day with these children can, in some way counteract what is happening at home and give them a refuge, increase their confidence and self-esteem, reveal different perspectives to them and, perhaps most importantly, help them learn how to figure things out for themselves.
In other cases (or if you’re really, really, really unlucky) the forces may be the what the parents believe is, or should be, a good education. Many parents’ only point of reference about education is their own experience. Some of the more enlightened parents look back at aspects of their education and hope, more than anything else, that their children don’t have to “go through that”. Many, though, hark back to their education with rose-tinted glasses and put pressure on modern teachers to replicate those practices despite the fact that pedagogical research, as well as the world itself, has moved on since then. And so, teachers are charged with the responsibility of not only educating children but also educating parents about how they are educating their children!
The Salmon swimming upstream is a great analogy for what it’s like to be a teacher. At least, a teacher who is determined to stay up-to-date with pedagogical research and contemporary practice, who is determined to teach the child and not just the content, who is determined to be part of creating generations of young people who can give themselves and the next generation a better existence and who is determined to make the most of the privilege that it is to have such a direct impact on the lives of so many people. If not, I guess they’re just swimming along with the current… which is, of course, much easier, much less energy-sapping and involves a lot less thought!
A few years back Sam and I ran a 1 day workshop and 4 days of demonstration lessons at Mt. Scopus College in Melbourne, Australia. The format was very different to the usual ‘run of the mill’ workshops or conferences which most of us have become accustomed to.
Since then, Lana Fleiszig has developed a strong relationship with ISHCMC for a few years now and naturally, we thought it made perfect sense to bring her to VIS too.
The value and impact was immediate and she instantly drew in our teachers. Lana said it best when she referred to herself as ‘the provocation.’ And that is what she did, she stirred up our thinking, added to our evolving inquiry culture and inspired us to continue the amazing work she did for the week she was with us.
The power and value in hosting in-house professional learning is obvious. We all could learned together, we all got on the same page and we are all finding ways to strengthen our practice through her ideas and knowledge.
We are sending 4 teachers to Shanghai to complete Making the PYP Happen. They will fly to Shanghai, be part of the workshops and then, snap – it’s done. A huge amount of investment and resources funneled into 4 people. A week with Lana (in-house) meant that 28 teachers and 19 Instructional Assistants were all touched. I know which basket to put all (or most) our eggs in.
So how did we take the learning to the next level after Lana left?
Using Inquiry Moves (see below), each teacher selected 1 that they wanted to develop. They now have three weeks to collaborate with those people (outside of their teams) and then share back to the group. This is just one step of many we plan to develop and strengthen.
This is how we are developing an inquiry culture at VIS. This is just the beginning. We have big plans to bring Lana back and take us through the next cycle of inquiry learning t-o-g-e-t-h-e-r!