Project-Based Learning is an approach that exhibits many dimensions. Students learn through the experience of doing. Early Learning and our Early Learners in many ways have mastered the art of Project-Based Learning and the Reggio philosophy is very much aligned with that approach. It begins with setting up a stimulating environment (not too much, not too little) and observe what children do, through play. Students at this age are naturally curious to explore and it is us as educators that need to respond to the pathways each individual (or group) is intrigued about, connected to or interested in. Let students determine their own learning landscape. There is a huge parallel with PBL here. Sometimes educators can ignite and motivate students to explore a particular path, and sometimes it comes from the students to spark their own passionate pursuits. In balance, there needs to be an interplay of both.
The important thing here is that schools create the space for students to explore areas that speak to them. It is a lot like a calling. The magic in these moments is that inspiration can come from everywhere. It may be innate and the time is ripe to listen to this voice and act on it. Sometimes it could be something that strikes like a lightning bolt out of nowhere. It’s all beautiful. It’s what we do with this magic dust that makes the difference with how students interact with this new found learning experience. Do we breathe life into it or blow the dust away?
Above I mentioned the power of Early Years and Early Learning. At this spectrum in schools, learning needs to rise up and radiate throughout the rest of the school and then cascade into universities. A bit more pressure needs to be applied so that universities review their old habits and traps of learning. We have to be better than ‘managing people’ or ‘generating profit’ as our model for higher education.
If I was to characterize PBL in very simple terms using contexts I’m familiar with… it would be to combine the Grade 5 PYP Exhibition (Year-long) with the Early Years philosophy of purposeful play. A pinch of seeing the environment as the third teacher, a dollop of observing what is revealed and a cup of allowing a flow of exploration and discovery. A merging of these two worlds and releasing the learning so it is unfiltered. This is the world I hope our students get to interact with.
Some may argue that this approach is not rigorous enough. What is rigor though? Rigor is not looking busy, being quiet and doing lots of writing – that’s compliance. My definition (in essence) of ‘rigor’ is creating a learning environment that inspires, where students are able to skillfully interpret and construct meaning and seek ways so that understanding is transferable in different contexts. So how can we ensure PBL covers core content and subjects? This is often asked by parents and teachers. We all know that learning something we’re not interested in equates to passive learning; therefore, not much learning is really happening anyway. There is far greater benefit if students are learning about what is timely for them, see relevance and meaning in what they want to do. It’s vital that they see and value learning as constantly moving from one shape to another. This is where being reflective about their growth and progress (high and lows) on a continuum of learning. Students are empowered to set goals that are realistic and also challenging. As advisors and connectors to learning, we need to guide and coach individual students towards areas that they need to be exposed to and having them understand the purpose of how that learning is interconnected, transformational and transferable. Let this process be a natural and highly-personal experience for them. This approach will have a deeper impact when developing new understanding(s) to existing knowledge. This is what constructivism is and it works.
The university conversation is one that still needs a lot more time. My hope is that university entry is based on merit, contributions to society and digital portfolios that document authentic experiences that demonstrate learning in action. Not testing or assessment. The assessment is weighted in the doing, being and showing, not in a timed examination without access to resources – that’s not real-world.
Imagine a world where PBL become the norm, not the exception. Imagine a world where students could show their intelligence, personality, uniqueness, quirks, and talents in creative ways as a showcase of who they are as young dynamic moral leaders. Imagine a world where success was based on confidence, optimism, resilience, problem-solving and creativity. Imagine a world that actually looks at how far you have grown over time, not where you stand at that point in time. Imagine a world where we were telling raw human stories about all our breakdowns and breakthroughs and how this shaped who we have become. It is my hope that universities don’t measure success on a raw test score of what you know or have memorized a few days before. But it is determined rather on what you have achieved and accomplished over the course of many young adolescent years, not the scarce accumulation of one or two. Again, this is why Early Years needs to push up through our tired school systems to ratify change and renewal. It is simply too top-down in our education system, where it needs to be from the roots up from a nutrient foundation.
We are just scratching the surface. There are some great educators out there doing great things for our deserving kids. I encourage those who have a hunch that things are not right in our traditional school system, to experiment and tinker with giving PBL. Whether you call it Passions Projects, Inquiry Time, 20% Time or Genius Hour… have a go. Your students will thank you for it and will surprise you every step of the way. It’s the only way we are ever going to shake things up – demanding different!
Recently, Chad and I ran three days of professional development at United World College Maastricht.
Every session had a different focus: we wanted to provoke different types of thinking; we wanted people to collaborate (or not) differently; we wanted people to experience different emotions and sensations; we wanted people to move (or not) in different ways.
Over the course of three days, we must have changed the physical set-up of the space more than 10 times. We moved, changed, found, borrowed, adapted and replaced furniture, lighting, display boards, music, scents and resources over and over again to try and achieve the desired effect.
This is not something we just do for teachers. It has become a natural part of our pedagogy. If we want students to think, feel or act in a particular way – which we always do – then we take the time to set up for that. We don’t just assume it will happen and then get all disappointed (or, worse still, blame students) when it doesn’t happen.
- when we want students to focus on one thing, we set up a space in which all other distractions are removed
- when we want students to be calm, we set up a calm atmosphere with lighting and music
- when we want students to create, we set up a studio space that promotes creativity
- when we want students to collaborate, we set up furniture that encourages togetherness
- when we want students to be able to access materials easily, we set up so that everything is accessible quickly and easily
- when we want students to…
I could go on… but I think you’re getting the point! The only time we don’t set things up for students is when we want them to set things up for themselves, when that is the focus of the learning. But, come to think of it, that involves some setting up too!
The scary thing about setting up for learning is that there are many educators out there who don’t do it, who don’t see the purpose or the power of it, who don’t take the time to ensure that their students are thinking, feeling or acting in a way that maximises their potential in each learning situation. Then, when their students are fidgety, when their students misbehave, when their students don’t produce what they’re capable of, when their students’ thinking doesn’t go as deep as it could, when their students make thoughtless choices, when their students struggle to find the materials they need, when their students become irritable… they point the finger at their students, not the fact that they didn’t spend 30 minutes setting up.
Think of the classroom, or learning space, as a series of dinner parties. Take the time to create environments and atmospheres according to the purpose.
There are some great minds out there in different circles. Leaders and teachers doing creative things to explore and examine Who we are and Who we want to become. You just have to look at the steady stream of books being published about the importance of people, relationships, community and culture development in schools, and for life in general.
It’s all great stuff!
For inquiring minds, it creates time and space for contemplation and introspection. However, this is only where the seed is planted. The real growth happens when the germination of ideas breaks through the soil to reveal one’s conscious effort and energy to put words into action. Not only to learn more about Who we are, but to understand why we are the way we are.
It all starts with the notion of ‘Working From Within.’ We need to work on ourselves before we expect our culture or community to change. The climate of our culture, environment and community is a direct reflection of who we are as individuals.
Challenge: Over the course of a week, when chatting with people about a concern or issue do an audit on whether the person you’re talking to is doing one of two things:
- Looking at external factors or forces to explain or make sense of how things could be better; or,
- Looking within to explain or make sense of how things could have been handled differently.
There are many ways you can view the above circles depending on the situation and context.
How can we increase the circle of “What I say to other people,” in the way of honest feedback or challenging negativity without placing pressure or straining the relationship?
While all these books tell us to have radical candor, give feedback, be open and honest…. it’s all great stuff, it really is. In theory. In practice, when feedback is given or there is challenge, the reality is, that after such an interaction, things shift. In the end, we are human.
How can we truly express the things we want to say or more importantly need to be said with grace and honesty, in a way where others understand and the relationship deepens?
We all know of people who are forward and have a steady stream of consciousnesses. We all know of people, who live in their heads and keep it locked there. And then there is everything in-between.
Right now, it feels like (it is like) we are always skimming the surface. We talk a big game, yet we’re constantly traversing and balancing our weight on a tight rope filtering through these circles.
Is it just in schools that it is like this? A lot of us have never left school in the way of a being a student and then coming back as a work place. I wonder what it is like in the police force, hospitals, business firms, law office, construction site……….
It’s not what we say to people, it’s how we say it. Easy to say, more difficult to do.
Developing a culture starts with you. Parts to the whole. What is one thing you’re going to do to be true to your inner thoughts?
Nothing irritates me more than teachers saying that educational terminology is “just jargon”. I work in PYP schools, and I hear so-called PYP teachers referring to the language of the PYP as jargon very often. I’ve noticed a pattern – its always the ones who don’t actually know the language, the ones who don’t know what it says in the documents… the ones who are not fluent in the language of learning in their school. Its a type of defense-mechanism, I guess. A front to cover for laziness, or perhaps the fact that they don’t really believe in what they’re doing.
In order to bring about sustainable change, to create the conditions for innovation and to develop a culture in which teachers play with possibilities… everyone in a school needs to be speaking the same language of learning. Once they have that shared language, and they all understand what each other is talking about, there is more room for manoeuvre. Once they are all noticing learning, naming it using the same terminology, they start to see it everywhere… they become liberated from their previously limited views of what learning is, or could be.
This breeds change.
A school needs to actually have a shared language of learning. Then, steps must be taken so that all teachers are fluent in that language. In PYP schools, that language is contained in Making the PYP Happen. Use it! (I’ve written more about this here). In other schools, there are equivalent documents, frameworks, written curriculum, scope and sequences etc… Use them!
Become fluent in the language.
Use the language.
Question the language.
Only then can you really say you know, understand and recognise learning.
Only then can you go deeper into what it all means.
With the fluency comes creativity.
What is a mindful School? Let’s narrow that a bit to satisfy our learning context…..
“What does a mindful School do to promote mindfulness?”
This can mean many different things and seeking clarity on defining this would be an inquiry worth exploring together as a School. For the purpose of bringing this even closer to the middle, what does this mean when thinking about prioritizing and synthesizing the things that should matter in School.
In essence, the below points was a process we went through in determining the Time Space Philosophy. What really matters and where should we be putting our intellectual energy?
Being mindful all boils down to having the capacity and wisdom to listen.
Never underestimate the power of listening. Recruiting and harnessing that power of listening has the potential to unlock a cornucopia of ideas, emotion and thinking. This process promotes a lot of soul searching by being introspective and extrospective. It allows us to listen to ourselves and the things (people) around us. We either get caught up in our own internal existence or other external forces…… and a lot of the time – both, depending on the situation.
How can we delineate between our ‘perceptions’ of what we think is happening, against the ‘reality’ of what is happening? And how does this distort our choices and actions in what drives and motivates us to do what is right, fair or ethical, with everyone and everything in mind? How can that mindfulness influence the things that matter or where our attention should be fixed on?
Raw and honest listening, without fear or judgment.
Stumbling over this Philosophy still stands the test of time. These are as true now as they were when first written, all those years ago. Taking the time to connect again and recognizing my own growth (and failings) in these is such an invigorating and timely reminder about being true to our beliefs and values and why it is important to breathe life into them. For us, bringing them into focus again is important. We recognize that importance, so these can once again manifest and transpire in ways that create the best learning environment and conditions for teachers and students to thrive and flourish.
I just shared these with our Primary teachers, asking if anyone is interested in exploring these to examine what, how and why we do what we do. How seeking simplicity will bring us back to our purpose. And coming up with ideas to make these work effectively for our School community. The response was overwhelmingly positive and full of gratitude and appreciation.
This has now led us to use these to guide our own inquiry into how we can be and do better. Working from within, just as we do with students. After our Pi Mai break we are going to do an eight week inquiry into finding ways to take tangible action. Already some ideas are floating around such as having once a month Barbecues at School to socialize and interact…. another idea is that we create the timetable for next year…..and on and on.
We have no idea where this is heading or what the outcome(s) will be. And that is the exciting part. Having teachers feel united and lead an inquiry to plan and prepare for 2018-2019 is incredibly energizing and motivating!
Listening to the things that are important and then working together can only result in one thing. Developing a Culture of trust. A culture where people feel valued and respected to be part of the growing and learning. Being part of the decisions as everything we do ripples. Taking action that empowers us. And having the fortitude and humility to listen to one another, because we know that is where the real power lies – inside all of us to create a mindful School! A School that we co-constructed together as we amplified voice and listened carefully.
How would these ripple out in your School?
What do you think about these as important elements in creating a mindful School?
- The world is increasingly rushed, frantic and discordant. Most schools have become this way too, many of them even worse than the world outside their walls.
- Nothing powerful, creative or innovative ever happens in a rush.
- Allowing teachers and students to focus on “now” rather than always thinking about the next thing.
- Removing as many things as you can from school calendars that have nothing to do withimproving learning.
- Being strong in your beliefs when working with parents.
- Being creative with the timetable – giving yourselves the time to be creative with the timetable – so that time is used effectively.
- Fostering a culture in the school of making explicit connections between time and improving learning.
- Making it unacceptable for school leadership to allow themselves to lose touch with how teachers use their time compared with how they use theirs.
- Looking for opportunities to free up time, not fill up time.
- Working continuously with school boards to help them see the difference between positive andnegative approaches to time.
- Honesty about the role time plays in putting peer-to-peer relationships under strain.
- Practical ways to remove administrative tasks that don’t improve learning.
- Creative strategies to encourage a general sense of “slowing down”.
- Recognising and celebrating mindfulness and its impact on behavior and learning.
As a School we are committed to bringing specialists in to drive professional learning forward. Our philosophy is clear. We value the importances of learning and growing together. The only way to impact culture and engage in meaningful dialogue is when we are all affected by a learning force bigger than ourselves.
This year has been a challenging year in terms of teaming, collaborating and connecting with one another. We needed an outside force to bring ‘play’ and ‘imagination’ and the power of ‘story telling’ back to the centre of Who we are.
Enter Neil Farrelly. An experienced performing arts teacher who has predominately worked in International Schools. He is also an author and moves around the International School circuit to lead all sorts of workshops.
Our teachers were exposed to situations where they were thrown into expressing themselves, being spontaneous and creative and most of all laughing with each other. And didn’t we do just that! Laugh. We also needed to leave our egos, inhibitions and grudges at the door as Neil pushed, nudged and encouraged us to put our selves out there and be vulnerable again.
Learning how to deepen trust and collaborate has been a focal point for us as a Primary School. Everyone had a voice during the week and there were so many lessons to dissect for different reasons.
How we ‘set up’ the conditions for learning creates the tone and climate for Who we want to become as a caring and connected community. Neil was constantly setting it up for us and together we responded in ways that energized us and illuminated the importance of people, pedagogy and place.
Conversations were elevated and the scope for being part of an audience was just as important as the presenter on the black box. This challenged our thinking in the way we value our audience and how we listen and respect one another. Knowing our audience improves interactions and promotes positive intensions. Listening with our ears does not mean we’re effective listeners. We learnt to listen with our mind, eyes and heart.
One of the things we shared with teachers is that the ‘loudest’ person in the room or the one to be ‘on’ the black box does not always equate to leadership. We stated the opposite is true. We are all leaders and this can take many forms. As long as you are part of the learning and contributing in positive ways to impact ourselves and one another, then that is leadership too.
We often hear teachers talk about ‘looking through different lenses.’ Our professional learning week was all about Who we are when it comes to collaboration and Who we want to become using performing arts as the ultimate lens to look through.
This experience put our teachers in the shoes of our students. The ideas and connections went into overdrive from there. We were constantly ‘connecting up’ and the learning felt real and raw as we shared together.
We could have easily run a workshop on collaboration and why it is important… yada yada yada. This time we were listening to our audience and decided to go a very different direction to shake it up – and it worked brilliantly!
Neil is already coming back in May.
Although meetings are a context for collaboration, they are not collaboration itself. It is totally possible for collaboration to exist without meetings, and it is also totally possible for meetings to exist without collaboration.
True collaboration becomes part of a school culture when educators are inclined to be collaborative. Not because they have been told to collaborate, but because they can see the value in it for learning.
This inclination to be collaborative involves a number of habits. Here’s my take on what 7 of them might be…
- Friendliness – Highly collaborative educators are basically friendly. They enjoy chatting with people, and this opens up a myriad of possibilities to enrich learning. Because they are friendly, other teachers like hanging out with them and this makes it much easier to work together. Pretty simple really.
- Being curious – Highly collaborative educators are naturally curious, always asking questions and always interested in what is going around them. This curiosity is infectious and invites other teachers and students to get involved. Curious people are more likely to stick their head into other classrooms, more likely to probe in order to find out what people really mean and more likely to take an interest in what other people think. They are learners and are highly aware of how much there is to learn from their colleagues, students and community.*
- Looking and listening for connections – Highly collaborative educators want to be collaborative and are, consciously or subconsciously, alert and actively seeking out connections and relationships with ideas, knowledge, talents, skills, thoughts, places and people. Because of this natural connectivity inclination, highly collaborative people become more receptive to coincidence, serendipity and good fortune that can make learning rich, complex and real.
- Continuing the thinking – Highly collaborative educators don’t switch their brains off when they leave the school campus and back on again when they arrive the next day. They’re still thinking late into the night, jotting down notes, sharing ideas on social media, reading blogs, contacting other educators and collaborating with a wide variety of networks. In addition, they generally like to share what they’ve learned with their colleagues over coffee the next day and don’t feel ashamed about “talking shop”!
- Putting learning first – Highly collaborative educators automatically generate more work for themselves by putting learning first, they can’t help themselves! When you put learning first, you remain open to all possibilities and are always keen to explore them further to see if they will have an impact on learning, and these possibilities frequently involve collaborating with other people.
- Making time – Highly collaborative educators do not allow themselves to use time as an excuse not to collaborate. If there’s an idea they want to share with a colleague, they make the time to talk to them. If someone needs or wants to talk with them, they make time to listen generously. If an idea demands more time to become fully developed, they make the time to work on it. Most importantly, they don’t wait to be told what time they can collaborate, they just do it instinctively.
- Making thinking visible – Highly collaborative people invite others to join them by putting their thinking “out there”. They are honest about what they think, they make crazy suggestions, they verbalise possibilities, they expose their vulnerabilities, they take public notes and draw visuals in meetings, they offer to help, they leave their doors open (or remove them), they stick post-its on the wall, they display quotes, they write, they share. Far from being about attention-seeking or self-promotion, these tendencies are all about looking for like minds, allies and the desire to be better educators.
Would you add more to this list?
Thanks to Chye de Ryckel for asking the question that prompted me to write this blog post!
*Thanks to Alison Francis for adding more to the Being curious habit.
Artwork: Totem Pole by Ken Vieth