Category: Engagement

Being a PYP Teacher Part 3: Know your students

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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.

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Being a PYP Teacher Part 2: Talk less, ask (and scribble) more

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I’ve borrowed the inspiration for this one from two important sources, Kath Murdoch and Inquiry Partners.

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.

 

Talking at students instead of with students

Having the privileged of being in a number of schools and classrooms provides a lot of insight into the teacher personality and how teachers teach. For whatever reason we assume that talking ‘at’ students means they are listening and learning. Research shows that this could not be further from the truth. We need to be mindful of how much we talk ‘at’ students. One person in the room should not be doing all the thinking and talking. It is our responsibility to set the scene for learning, provide a stimulating experience and allow students to lead the conversation and thinking. And if we’re doing our jobs properly, we are capturing and connecting the ideas and thinking swirling around.

We have put this to the test and have had teachers use a timer to measure the time spent talking. This has made teachers consider the talk time when coming together.

Let’s consider a few things first:

  • Not every adult in the room has to speak to validate why they are there (if you’re in a co-teaching situation);
  • Say what you need to and let students get on with it;
  • Use a visual so students can clearly see what you mean;
  • Be clear about the learning focus and purpose;
  • If there are clarifying questions, let the students go and address the questions in the mean time.

All pretty obvious things, right?!

Talking for 30-40, hey even 20 minutes while students are on the carpet/desks is a real time waster. There is no better way to turn their enthusiasm for learning off. A lot of those behaviour problems will disappear if we engaged our students more and let them drive their learning. We need to give them the time to do that though.

This is where the speaking ‘with’ students comes in. A wise teacher will set the learning, work the room and have conversations with their students. What an opportunity to learn more about what they are thinking while creating excitement and energy for active learning.

While I understand how simple this reminder is, we need to be mindful of the time we use when setting the learning up for our students.

Have a solid structure in place that allows learning to be more fluid so it can flow. Develop clear systems and expectations that in turn create a culture of empowered learners. This will build more independence with our students. Invite students to take authentic action by giving them time so that they have an opportunity to lead their own learning. This requires a lot of trust. Let them go!

Aim for 10 minutes, say what needs to be said and then hand it over to them. Simple!

 

 

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.

 

How to plan thoughtfully

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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.

Planning: the difference between easiness and flow

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.

“Semantics” is not a bad word

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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!