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.
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.
It’s funny. There is much talk of inquiry-based learning in schools, but very little of inquiry-based leadership.
Neither is there much of it in practice.
I pondered, for some time, where to begin this series of posts about the evolution of a school in which innovative, even revolutionary, ideas like Studio 5 could become a realistic possibility.
But, looking back, it is clear that the habit of school leaders perpetually asking questions is the very first ingredient in the soup of change.
Why is it like that?
Could it be like this?
What is the purpose of that?
Do we need to do this?
In 2013, the International School of Ho Chi Minh City leadership team – an entirely new group of nine – had no choice other than to ask questions like these. The school was starting a new era, a clean slate… and it was exciting.
These habits of questioning didn’t fizzle out though. We didn’t rest on our laurels, we didn’t allow practices to fossilize or thinking to congeal. Adrian, our Head of School, just would not accept it. “School is broken” he would say “what are we going to do about that?”
This approach permeated everything we did and, Kurtis, the Primary Principal opened up as many aspects of running the school as possible to debate by adopting an inquiry approach to things that, in many schools, are not even remotely that way. Here are a few examples of what this looks like
Primary leadership meetings
The intention was that these were always thinking meetings, where issues, challenges or opportunities were put on the table and where input was actively sought, captured and acted upon.
The appraisal process
While still jumping through the hoops of a mandated process, teachers were invited to give their feedback about the direction of the school – things they’d like to see changed, implemented or taken away – and these thoughts were documented and referred back to repeatedly in decision-making.
All too often, these are one-way information delivery meetings dominated by the person with the most authority. Our meetings were, as much as possible, the opposite. All subject and grade level coordinators, in weekly 30-40 minute meetings, were frequently invited to help make decisions about the day-to-day running of the school. Ideas, thoughts and questions were gathered, documented and referred back to repeatedly in decision-making.
The Green Hat Room
It was made explicit that the primary office was a place in which “Green Hat Thinking” (de Bono) was both promoted and expected. Anyone who came in with a problem, a dilemma or an idea was invited to be part of the thinking around it. This goes against the limited view that leadership means “you give me your problem and make it my problem”. People struggled with this, at first, but grew into the intention behind it. The office was always busy with the sound of problem-solving and idea-generation.
Trust is an essential ingredient in inquiry, and inquiry is an essential ingredient in trust. To be able to trust someone, we cannot micromanage them. We must be curious about what they might do, what we might learn from them and how they may shift our thinking. This trust is, of course, not blind – there are always those upon whom trust is bestowed more easily than others. However, the intention was that trust was the default.
When you deliberately put students, their needs and their learning first, there can be no definitive answers. Education is a behavioural science, not a formula. When it is clear that students are suffering, or not flourishing, questions must be asked of ourselves, our pedagogy, our environments, our culture and our school. It is in asking those questions, and in how we respond to those questions, that school leaders show themselves to be inquirers, or not.
“Let’s try it”
This is a crucial mentality if there is to be any change in education. While it is a good idea to base your practices on established research when possible, sometimes you are the research. This does not mean leaders glibly saying “yeah… go for it” to every idea under the sun. Quite the opposite. It means encouraging disciplined thinking and planning, data collection and reflection, i.e. inquiry.
There’s a book in this, as well as many consultancy opportunities, so I’d better stop here or Kurtis will kill me!
Please feel free to share your thoughts about what inquiry-based leadership looks like in your your school context, or what you wish it would look like!
There is considerable hype around the Studio 5 model that is currently being piloted at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City… and rightly so. Studio 5 is a brave concept that doesn’t just pay lip-service to the philosophies upon which the IB Primary Years Programme and other student-centred, inquiry-based frameworks are built. It creates the conditions for all of that philosophy to become practice. Very rare.
Don’t be fooled though.
This stuff is not new.
Progressive and innovative educators have been doing some of these ideas for years. Schools have been designed around them. Movements have evolved around them. Books have been written about them.
But, these have either fizzled out, faded away, disappeared or survived as weird exceptions to the rule. Perhaps sustained by wealthy benefactors, enigmatic leaders or a powerful niche market.
Studio 5 is a wonderful example of what is possible. But it is critical that anyone hoping to move their school, or even just a part of it, towards a similar model must understand that Studio 5 didn’t just appear out of nowhere. It comes after four years of smaller, very significant, steps. Shifting mindsets, pedagogies, structures, systems, habits, priorities… incremental changes to these over a sustained period of time cleared pathways, opened doors and generated momentum.
Each change was a question that could only be answered by the next change.
Without this evolution, one in which the Studio 5 model was genuinely a natural progression, it would just be a novelty.
In a series of upcoming posts, I will reveal the milestones in the evolution of a school in which Studio 5 is possible. Perhaps these can provide tangible ways that other schools can begin to consider similar change, but change that is logical and natural in their context.
Innovation, Agency, Empowerment are words that should not be used lightly. As professional educators, we believe with absolute conviction, that we can create the change we wish to see. As a School, we wish to challenge the purpose of report cards. Removing report cards would be an unwise and bold move to do all in one swoop. Therefore, we decided to explore this through a microcosm. To gauge whether our thinking, values and philosophy are in-line with being practical and realistic in terms of, if not report cards, then what?
A smaller and measurable scale needed to be the way forward, a pilot.
In essence the definition of a microcosm is:
A community, place, or situation regarded as encapsulating in miniature the characteristics of something much larger.
We have created a microcosm, a small world where we have brought parents, teachers and students together to pilot a new initiative in PREP from March until June, of this year.
Our own inquiry into: How can we effectively provide meaningful, dynamic and timely feedback that causes thinking and promotes learning and growth together?
We invited parents to Look 4 Learning as an authentic opportunity to see learning in action.
Parents recorded what they heard and saw and then shared their discoveries, questions, concerns and connections. We weren’t telling parents what we do (that’s blind trust) we were showing them what we do everyday and who their child is at school, where they spend most of their day, and young lives.
As a school, we have gone through a grueling process of establishing expectations around report cards and how best to meet the needs of our community as far as a formal document goes. We keep simplifying and seeking ways to satisfy parents in terms of what they know and have experienced in their schooling life.
We explained to parents the ‘input’ (time) vs ‘output’ (impact) aspect of what is involved in the process of writing report cards. They got it. Great! They understood that the time it takes to write report cards, is time taken away from doing all the other things that has a positive impact on learning, without sacrificing the learning conversations, planning, pedagogy, data collection……… Report cards is a static point in time, let’s use dynamic ways (Seesaw) to document learning and provide feedback that encourages and support the learning process.
The idea around what does authentic feedback mean and how feedback should cause thinking become the focus of the conversation. How can we create a solid partnership between parents, teacher and student to develop shared goals where it is valued in the learning process become important too as the discussion evolved.
The power of partnering with parents and teachers led to a deeper understanding of the importance of creating a situation where ‘really’ knowing our students is central to what we hope to achieve everyday. Knowing where they are in their learning and planning for that process of what needs to happen inspires effort and attitudes towards learning which is incredibly motivating for all stakeholders.
Over the next 4 months we are going to put report cards on hold and pilot what we believe to be a more effective and meaningful approach in understanding our students as learners and provide balanced authentic feedback. We have developed six drivers to provide feedback to students and parents that promotes richer and deeper conversations about learning and our learners.
We will review and evaluate the effectiveness of this pilot in June with our parents. Where could this lead? We don’t know and we’re not meant to know just yet. We find that quite liberating and exciting!
Why do we have reports? We have to do and be better. If it is a formality to facilitate the process of a student moving from one school to the next, that’s not good enough. We can work around that. We’re in education! Our parents are with us. They are in with two feet and we’re open to see where this all goes.
We think we have the right balance between being authentic, informative and also ensuring a deep sense of accountability and responsibility in doing these things well.
Where did all this inspiration come from?
From Alan Atkisson and Sam Sherratt. They were the sun providing light and energy in us asking, Why and Who are we?
We accept the challenge to innovate, lead change and transform to impact and ripple out! Out of touch traditions and norms must be challenged and at-least a re-think should occur.
Who are we and who do we want to become?
The Amoeba of Cultural Change should be happening from, and out of, Education. We should be setting the scene for change and leading it. Education has been idle and mainstream for too long. There are some great things happening out there in schools. We need to connect and explore ideas together to reach a tipping point for others to follow, and then lead from the front. Walking the walk, now that is a school I want to be part of. We’re on our way!
Who are you in the Amoeba?
Where do you get your light and energy from to shake education up and try something new?
How do you cultivate change in your school?
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.