Category: Education

Evolution Starts Here, Part 2: The Language of Learning

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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.

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Evolution Starts Here, Part 1: Inquiry-Based Leadership

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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.

Coordinator meetings

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.

Professional trust

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.

Students first

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!

 

 

 

Studio 5: It took more than 7 days

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.

 

 

7 Habits of Highly Collaborative Educators

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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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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.*
  3. 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.
  4. 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”!
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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

 

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!