Category: Creativity

A very different flavour of professional 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.

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Assessment – The Elephant in the Room

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I have found that, in general, educators don’t like talking about assessment. This could be for any of a variety of reasons:

  • It may be because of standardised testing.
  • It may be because it is confused with archaic habits like marking.
  • It may be because of its relationship with reporting.
  • It may be because it often has little or no effect on learning.
  • It may be because it often remains hidden from students.
  • It may be because methods are unsophisticated and/or don’t represent the types of learning valued by modern educators.
  • It may be because it is subjective, biased or even prejudiced.
  • It may because it can be time-consuming.
  • It may be because it gets used against teachers, and even students.

The problem is that, as we reject all of the forms of assessment that seem devoid of purpose, value and ethics, we risk not replacing them with forms of assessment that do have a purpose, that do have value and that are ethical. It is very easy to reject things, but it is hard work to design better alternatives. Often, the void that is left behind by the rejection of something can be just as harmful as the thing itself.

Sadly, the origin of the word is not helpful. Originally associated with calculating how much tax people had to pay, assessment has come to signify “the act of making a judgment”. Neither of these have any place in education.

No wonder it doesn’t feel right!

So, why are we still using the word?

I’m not going to pretend to suggest a better word. Lots of people have already done that. But, assessment lives on and may – either present or absent – be damaging learning.

Instead, I’d like to put forward some suggestions, and here they are:

  • I suggest that educators take the time, put in the thought and make the effort to define why students are learning what they are learning, how they may be learning and what they may be doing when they are learning.
  • I suggest that educators design effective tools and strategies that will illustrate learning to their students, guide students as they seek to make progress, help them become aware of their achievements and identify next steps.
  • I suggest that educators make these tools and strategies highly visible to students, co-create them with their students when possible, and make reference to them and reflection through them a regular routine.
  • I suggest that educators seeks ways to involve parents in these processes, helping them understand how their children learn and how they can be part of it.
  • I suggest that schools seek ways to communicate, share and celebrate what is revealed by these approaches as they are likely to be much more accurate representations of learning, and of growth, than other forms of assessment have been for years.
  • I suggest that we commit to doing these things with a genuine sense of urgency as traditional forms of assessment, or nothing in their place, are continuing to hold us all back.

It all sounds quite obvious, really, but this is how we represent, value and promote growth. We don’t do those things through judgment, but neither do we do them by saying “its all in my head”. For a start, thats not true. But also, if its in your head then your students can’t see it, and they deserve to see it.

It is, after all, their learning.

Wake up! Slow down. Leave time for learning.

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I caught myself again.

The last time was in 2013 and I wrote about it then too.

What did I catch myself doing? Rushing my children… and, by doing so, denying them countless opportunities to learn.

We’ve just moved to Paris. Everything is new. At the moment, the newest things are christmas decorations in the streets and the increasingly intense cold. Every morning, my children just want to look, talk, feel, experience, ponder, notice, appreciate and wonder. But, I have caught myself rushing them. Hurrying them up towards some imaginary or completely unimportant deadline – the need to be early, on time or not late.

It doesn’t really matter if I’m early, on time or not late. My children matter. their experiences of the world matter.

It’s shocking for an educator to do this to his own children. But, we do it to our students every day. We hurry them from lesson to lesson. We dictate their agenda all day. We reduce break times. We don’t give them enough time to eat. We decide if they can go to the toilet or not. We treat “inquiry” as a stand-alone subject that we do in the last period, if they’re lucky. We make their lives busy, indeed we teach the art of “busyness”, as if we don’t trust them to do anything of value if we don’t.

And yet, we all know that the most powerful learning happens when we slow down, when we give them sustained periods of time, when we don’t interrupt and when they’re making choices about why, how and what to learn.

Old habits die hard. How much of modern schooling is still “old habits”?

Incendiary Learning

We’ve always stated that meaningful learning is flammable. It starts with a spark and then ignites! You know when learning has caught fire….. agency ensues and the student drives their learning and not too much can get in their way. The difference between a flame and incendiary learning can be categorized quite easily in terms of duration, desire and determination.

A flame burns during a specific period of time (unit of inquiry) and usually reduces to embers, just like a typical fire. The student was empowered and energized, yet there was a point that they moved on to the next thing.

Incendiary learning catches fire and stays burning bright, long after a unit of inquiry. The student is empowered and energized, and they are still in the fire taking their learning even further, long after the next thing.

A stark contrast. One is perishable and one is enduring.

The subtle difference between ‘was‘ and ‘is‘ has a remarkable difference at the same time. This changes the whole complexion of learning as the ‘energy of learning’ has been sustained and has the learner enthralled.

Last week, I visited a previous School I was at and a number of the students I taught literally, hunted me down. One of those students was Nicole.

This is Nicole as a Grade 5 student chatting with the Head of School (Adrian Watts) and explaining the message she is trying to communicate through her art piece. Her art work is incredibly personal and powerful as she is expressing the importance of finding her voice and expressing who she is. The mouths in the background are all those who have told her that she can’t do anything. With Nicole at the center of her art work, her positivity is radiating out and drowning out the negative and judgmental voices. This was a real turning point for Nicole in developing her self belief. She had a teacher who saw something special, and it was all about allowing her to see that too. This was Step 1 in Nicole’s journey of finding herself.

The next learning experience pushed her even further. Enter the PYP Exhibition. Nicole’s artwork was the first step she needed to take and this naturally led her to explore and better understand her next self-discovery…. putting her new transformative experience of who she is becoming into action and finding direction in the process!

This is Nicole during the Exhibition selling her ‘FABTAB’ (comes in different sizes and colours) at a market at a funky local cafe and skater hangout. This is the moment that shaped her to be a confident and articulate communicator as she interacted with dozens and dozens of people interested in her entrepreneurial idea. Incendiary Learning! Students, parents, teachers and customers were truly astonished!

As I mentioned above, I saw Nicole last week. We got talking and she said that she just made her first nternational order to Ireland of 100 FabTabs…..  Nicole is still producing, refining and taking orders, now international orders, for her FabTab. What a journey she has been on and is still very much on. It all started from her artwork, that was the first step she took in believing in herself, because she had someone who believed in her.  We must believe in all of our students. Personalize learning, individualize learning, whatever form it takes or looks like, choose the right approach at the right time to connect, develop and strengthen their identity of who they are. Work from that point, work from within! Let students determine their own identity and not the other way around! It is our role to play a hand in nurturing and nudging them in positive ways to see their own potential.

This is exactly what I mean by Incendiary Learning! The fire is still burning bright and Nicole has stretched in ways where she can confidently talk about the learning experience….. long after ‘the unit.’ Nicole has led her learning and is proud of what she has achieved. Agency…… yeah, true Agency at its very core! This is Nicole now in Grade 7 doing a photo shot for this very piece. The relationship and connection seems just like yesterday, still very much alive too!

Again and again…. keep our eye on the ball!

Energy that Excites

Most of us in the Northern Hemisphere are returning to a new school year. The energy in our school is swirling all around us and it feels very very very positive! Very positive!

This is happening for us for obvious reasons:

  • We have just returned from a rejuvenating break;
  • Our new teaches are enthusiastic and are bringing their excitement with them;
  • We are consolidating and aligning what we do (plus cooking some new things up) which allows us to strengthen our values and focus on continuity;
  • Our relationships with one another are stronger;
  • We have redefined our Leaders of Learning with a focus on our Host-county connection;
  • We’ve put our values on the table and have been abundantly clear on the vision and direction of the school;
  • We are encouraging challenging and honest conversations as a way to create a trusting and professional culture;
  • And on and on.

Now comes the challenge…..

“How can we keep this positive energy alive?”

Any ideas out there?

Tapping into Talents

Traditionally our school had Grade-level Leaders with varying degrees of success. Basically, it wasn’t working. The role was more clerical and ticking boxes as opposed to empowering teachers and challenging them to work within to inspire others. Last year we moved away from this model and introduced a Primary Leadership Team with 4 key areas that were seen as timely priorities in the school. This model liberated our teachers and gave them permission to collaborate together….. yet there was still something quite tangible missing from both models.

Enter the HelixLeaders of Learning. The words ‘innovative,’ culture,’ and leadership kept emerging in our professional conversations. How are we going to align ourselves so what we say, do and value has meaning? It was time to think creatively of an approach that transcended all roles, positions and personalities. A new beginning was needed to build true unity and a positive and professional learning community that inspired us to offer our students something unique with a focus on ‘experiencing learning.’ People are people through other people – African ideology.

Helix Model – Leaders of Learning

The Helix is represented by 3 strands to help us determine the essence of what we wanted to emphasize and value in our school.

Strand 1: Leadership – Moving the school forward and impacting Teaching and Learning.

Strand 2: Innovation – Valuing creativity, inquiry and ideas that lead to meaningful action.

Strand 3: Who we are shared inquiry – Developing a positive and professional culture that provides opportunities to empower.

Everyone in the Primary school was invited to ‘pitch’ their ideas, showcasing their talents and building a strong connection within and beyond our community. What was the outcome? A deep sense of excitement, innovative thinking and a sense of identity where Teachers and Instructional Assistants felt like they all had a voice. Together we had an opportunity to take authentic action in ways that spoke to our interests and strengths….. as teachers and as people. Our diverse and dynamic  skills, talents and knowledge led us to rethinking some old habits.

Our VIS Leaders of Learning – Helix Model

Makerspace – Allan is a boat builder and carpenter by trade. This allowed him to bring in his talents and create a makerspace culture beyond the classroom. Allan is working with our Lao sister-school in building a treehouse. He is also offering boys and dads workshops on the weekend.

Lao Home-School Partnerships and Learning – Linda has shown real interest in trying to understand why our Lao students underperform. She is conducting an inquiry into this through action research as a way to collect data and plan strategically on how we can better support our Lao students.

Peer to Peer Professional Learning and Collaboration – David has been plagued working in dysfunctional teams. His pitch was centered around on bringing people together and exploring ways to offer people time to observe others, plan goals and inquire into their own collaborative practice. This has been widely accepted and everyone is respecting the process of working and learning together. The Primary Team has embraced the importance of working beyond our immediate teams.

Challenge and Extend – Virginia is passionate about all learners. As a learning support specialist she wanted to explore the other end of the learning spectrum – the high flyers. She is inquiring into how to best challenge and extend students who demand to be taught differently. Virginia will be running workshops for our school community and is looking to connect with other teachers and experts worldwide.

Digital Citizenship – Missy and Graham are always on their devices. Made perfect sense to them to lead and inquire into Common Sense Media and how best to integrate this with daily use for our students and educating parents on how to find a healthy balance and be responsible users as ranging from digital natives to novice users.

EAL – Olivia is an advocate for EAL students. As our demographics change and with an ever increasing enrollment of Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Lao students as a school we need to prepare ourselves to adapt. Olivia is leading the way for our ‘Sheltered Instruction’ model to support our learners.

Mathematics – Jill and Olwen are numbers people. They are invested in the inquiry process of running a year-long maths inquiry throughout the school. Our shared central idea: “Exploring patterns and solving problems empower us to think mathematically” is bringing everyone together. Our conversations a centered and teachers are engaged by this initiative.

Language – Ian and Angie wanted to reveal their talents by developing and strengthening our approach to Language. They lead workshops for teachers and parents and have been pivotal in leading planning sessions with teachers. They have developed the ‘trident model’ of language.

Lao Culture Connection and Professional Learning – Mai, Noi and Lae are from our host-country, Lao. Having Instructional Assistants rise to this challenge proved to us as a school that we value our Lao host-country connection. Mai, Noi and Lae will be leading professional learning and goal setting sessions, connecting with a local teaching college where training teachers can experience practical training and they are planning Lao cultural experiences with teachers as part of our Who we are unit of inquiry. All Who we are units have a 4th line of inquiry which is connected to our host-country. This is an opportunity for us to take actions and service in our community which is lead by and through our Instructional Assistants. We are so proud of our Primary community. We have amplified ‘teacher voice’ and they are leading our school forward.

We believe we’ve have found the right ingredients when it comes to developing trust and deepening relationships because we have revealed and embraced talents (both unknown and known) to us. The power is giving people time and space to lead others. This has revolutionized and unlocked the power in ‘saying what we mean, and meaning what we say.’

This is just the beginning for us as a school. This is our inquiry to learn from. The mood is positive and people feel valued. It is an exciting time for us to develop a culture that cares, energizes and recognizes talents that goes beyond our school walls.

Designing powerful learning experiences

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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.