Bill and Ochan Powell (rest in peace, Bill) always say, above all else, “know your students”.
The written curriculum in your school is the students’ curriculum.
Your curriculum is the students.
They are learning about all the things expressed in their curriculum (and hopefully much more!).
You are learning about them.
Understanding this will help you make the shift from “deliverer of content” to a facilitator of learning, a designer of learning experiences and a partner for each of your students as they learn and as they navigate their curriculum. Each day, you will arrive at work full of curiosity, poised and ready to:
- get to know your students better
- inquire about them
- research into them
- get a sense of who each of them is in the context of learning taking place at the time
- discover what motivates them
- find out what interests and inspires them
- help them develop their own plans for learning
- get a sense of what they can do and what skills they may develop next
- learn about how they think
- try a wide variety of strategies to do all of the above
- never give up…
It is a very exciting moment when PYP Teachers realise they are inquirers who are constantly seeking, gathering and using data (in it’s most sophisticated and powerful forms) about their students.
It is this realisation that sets apart genuine PYP Teachers from those who simply work in a PYP school, for the two are vastly different.
PYP Teachers need to be determined to allow their students’ voices to dominate discussions in the classroom, and to use strategies that promote the thinking that is necessary for that to happen. They use open-ended questions or problems that invite debate, differing perspectives, controversy, elaboration and uncertainty… and then they listen, they probe and they invite others to add their thoughts. Most of all, they are curious about what students may be revealing through their words and how they might be able to use that information to guide what happens next.
The traditional “whole class conversation” tends to be between the teacher, who controls the conversation, and the one student doing the thinking at the time. There may a few others listening and waiting to contribute, but there will also be some who have drifted off, who have stopped listening and who may just be waiting for it to be over.
Simple strategies like “turn and talk” or “chalk talk” set things up so everyone is doing the thinking at the same time, not just one person at a time. Asking students to record their thoughts in writing also ensures they’re all doing the thinking, and sets them all up to be able to contribute to discussions afterwards.
More complex approaches, like Philosophy for Children and Harkness, model and teach the art of conversation and invite students to participate in deep conversations in which all are equal members.
The most simple strategy though is simply to remember to talk less. Say less at the beginning of lessons. Only repeat instructions to those who need the instructions to be repeated. Even better, display instructions or processes visually so that those who are ready and able or get on with it can do just that. You’ll be amazed how much time – a precious commodity in schools – can be saved.
Some of that time, of course, is yours… and it can be used to redefine your role as a teacher. Rather than doing so much talking, you can be observing students, listening to them, taking notes, writing down quotes that come from their mouths… all of that scribbling is formative assessment, planning, affirmation and honouring the importance of things your students say. It is inevitable that the teaching that follows will be different as a result.
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.
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!
In this, the first ever Time Space Education Podcast, Chad, Cathy and Frank and I discuss the purpose of our work and what our professional focus is at the moment. Naturally, however, we drift into lots of other
We have a Grade 5 teacher who is very new to the PYP. He joined us after witnessing Grade 5 students last year in the middle of the PYP Exhibition. When he saw all those students heavily involved in a wide variety of unique projects, all operating at their own pace, making their own decisions, creating products, figuring out budgets and so on… he became very excited about the opportunities the PYP provides for students as well as for teachers with a modern mindset.
During the first half of the year, however, he has been quite frustrated. There was something about the units of inquiry that made them heavily teacher-directed and leaned back towards more traditional day-to-day teaching. He was waiting for those times when students would walk into school each day knowing what they were working on, how they were going to go about doing it and why it mattered. I could see he was questioning whether or not the PYP really is what it pretends to be!
Now, however, he is clearly feeling as though both his students and he are in that place, that sweet spot in which students are doing and in which his role as their teacher has shifted to being a “consultant”, a person who assists them with their plan rather than trying to get them on board with his.
This is a bit of an allegory of the struggle many teachers, and teaching teams, have to create the conditions for students to be working in this way: to have figured out a focus, to have developed a plan, to be sourcing their own information, resources and mentors, to be making their own decisions and to be coming in to school each day motivated and ready just to get on with it. All too often we hold them back, or we confuse or demotivate them by over-teaching, or we don’t let them go because we don’t really understand what it is we’re trying to get them to do, or because we fear being out of control or… worst of all, because we don’t trust them or believe they are capable.
For modern, student-centred, inquiry-based pedagogy to even begin to dominate our weekly schedules, we need to help our students go through the following process quickly enough to allow them the time to start doing and to be able to go into enough depth with that for genuine and powerful learning to come out of it:
- help them understand the context of the learning
- help them think about the context in diverse, rich and deep ways
- help them filter all of that thinking in order to develop their own interest area and focus
- help them figure out what they want to achieve within that focus
- help them get started in order to achieve it