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?
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 Helix – Leaders 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.
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.
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.
For teachers, planning should never really be easy. It should be mentally taxing. It should be intellectually grueling. It should challenge group dynamics. It should cause tension and emotional responses. Our students – and, more importantly, the future of our world – deserve that this is so.
Sometimes, though, planning can feel easy. A combination of any of the following factors, or energies, can cause this to happen:
- teachers may be extremely interested or motivated by the subject matter
- there may be a serendipitous combination of ideas
- there may be a synergy of personalities
- the context may be almost perfectly timely
Rest assured though, it may feel easy, but it actually isn’t. You see, creating the conditions for any combination of these things to occur, recognizing that they are occurring or making the most of the fact that they are occurring all require thought. They require intellect and they require people with minds wide open enough to harness them, to run with them and to allow them to flow.
That is not easy.
Planning, teaching and assessing in the PYP framework involves a great deal of thought, deliberation and discussion. It involves establishing a strong sense of purpose. It involves a strong dedication to the pursuit of understanding. It involves a search for meaning. This is what makes the PYP special, what separates it from other models of education. It is an intellectual model of education that has high expectations for both students and teachers alike.
However, we still find ourselves at the planning table with so-called “PYP Teachers”, both experienced and inexperienced, who are reluctant to do the thinking that is crucial if their pedagogy is to be purposeful, to be in the pursuit of understanding and to be a genuine search for meaning.
The main opt-out clauses for people like this are the following sentences:
“This is just semantics“
“Why are we wasting our time just talking about words?’
“I don’t have anything to add to this conversation, its a waste of my time”
Not only are these sentences frightening indicators of an educator’s willingness (or even capacity) to think, they are also an even more frightening indicator of their ability to challenge their students’ thinking.
Furthermore, in the context of planning in a PYP context, the use of “semantics” as a bad word can instantly suck the intellectual energy from a group of people who are trying to figure out why, how and what their students could or should be learning. People who utter the sentences above seem to have a strange kind of power. They tap into an underlying laziness that we all possess and that tells us it is indeed easier to stop grappling with the words that describe the meaning of what we will teach our students than it is to continue doing so. It is easier to walk out of the room without really understanding what we’re doing, how we’re going to do it and – most importantly – why we’re doing it. It is easier just to go ahead and teach some stuff than to genuinely think about it.
The bad news is that easiness is a fast track to mediocrity. To avoid the thinking is to deny ourselves, our colleagues and our students the opportunity to understand and to find meaning in what we do and to do everything to the very best of our capabilities.
As a PYP Coordinator, I adore and am drawn to those who are willing to do the thinking, who enjoy the thinking… who crave the thinking! But, what do I do with those who consistently seek to avoid it, who use “semantics” as a bad word and who infect other people around them with their corrosive, lazy power?
In all honesty, the natural response is to have little or no respect for them as educators… and particularly not as PYP educators. The natural response is to hope they move to another school as quickly as possible! Of course, sometimes there is a glimmer of hope and people can be rescued if they’re put in a team of thinkers. I have seen that happen a few times, but not many.
If they’ve been working in PYP schools for a long time and still have the same attitude then, I’m afraid, they should be advised to go back to another type of pedagogy where most, or all, of the thinking has been done for them.
If they’re still new to PYP and have already taken on that attitude, it may just be because they’ve been to a very bad workshop, worked in a mediocre school or been infected by the mentality of a former colleague. People like this may just, consciously or subconsciously, be in need of some inspiration.
It must be said, though, that being a PYP teacher… a good PYP teacher, demands that you put in the thought, that you deliberate over purpose and meaning – either alone or with your colleagues – and that you continuously reflect on what you and your students are doing. If you’re not willing to do these things, and get a kick out of them, it’s probably best to teach in a different framework – don’t spoil it for everyone else!
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.