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.
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.
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
As a previous Grade 5 Coordinator, I know that one of the biggest responsibilities is leading planning meetings. So much pre-planning goes into this process. Having to think about the best way to approach, angle and guide this process is challenging, yet also exciting! While I have a clear plan on how the learning could go, it is my role to provoke the thinking so we can shape our understanding together.
The most successful way to bring great thinking to the table is to create the opportunity for it. This happens in the way of running a retreat – a retreat for planning, a retreat for ideas to emerge. We have always done this as part of the PYP Exhibition unit. The team has always walked away from these retreats making concrete and meaningful connections and a shared vision on how to drive the Exhibition unit together. We get so much from running this and the protocols of thinking that come with it, to drill down to the core of our ideas and understanding.
But, why only for the Exhibition unit?
In my new role, I have a much wider responsibility to ensure that 7 teams are planning relevant, significant, meaningful and challenging units. At our school, we write ‘reports’ at the end of each unit. The trap that we were falling into each and every time was that when we arrived at the beginning of a new unit, teachers were ill-prepared and making things up on the fly. This is called reality – our reality. Having our 40 minute planning meetings were simply not cutting it. This is because teachers had finishing up on writing reports, following through with assessments to gauge student’s understanding of the unit along with all the other practicalities and formalities of day to day teaching. This simply was causing teachers more stress and angst and ultimately, students were suffering as a result.
To this end, we have now introduced 1/2 day planning retreats for each team. These retreats happen 2 weeks before the next unit commences. This gives teachers time to think about the learning, engage in conversations early and get energized about possibilities and ideas.
What does this look like?
It really is pretty simple. For one whole week and 2 days for the following week, each grade level will have planning time. Cover is arranged for their classes and we are able to dive into those deep conversations that simply can’t happen in a 40 minute time frame. By the time teachers settled into the 40 minute planning meeting, teachers knew that students were about to walk through those doors again and any momentum worth running with is lost. It is this piecemeal approach that was getting in the way of designing the best provocations and ideas around the central idea.
The impact – what are are teachers saying?
Teachers now seek me out when the next planning retreat is and get in early to pick an ideal day for them. They feel more confident about that first week as things have been thought through. They can focus on writing their reports (well and thoughtfully and honestly) knowing that there is clarity, vision and understanding on how to move the learning forward for the up and coming unit.
Students are the clear benefactors in this process. Teachers are more focused. And as for me, I get to spend more time in classes, to see the planning transfer and transpire into the taught curriculum. Nothing better when a plan comes together!
The small cost in organizing ‘cover’ for teachers is well worth the investment. Give it a go!
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
Whenever something bad has happened in the early years section of any of the schools I have worked in, I have always thought about this clip. Those unfortunate soldiers at the frontline of war who sacrificed themselves to protect the others, further back, further from the danger.
This is a comparison I have been making, mentally, for many years… probably since my wife became an early years teacher in a fee-paying international school. You see, what we have to realise and remember about early years teachers is that:
- they are the most at risk of scrutiny by parents, sometimes being peered at through windows and even, in some cases, filmed while they try and do their job
- they are the most at risk of emotional, irrational and often inappropriate outbursts by parents
- they are the ones who have to immediately justify their practices to parents who understand little or nothing about a contemporary education
- they are the ones most underestimated by other teachers and people in leadership positions
- they are the ones who do a thousand invisible things every day only to be questioned about one of them
- they are the ones who deal with faeces, urine, vomit, snot, tears, physical violence and tantrums with unconditional love and patience
- they are the ones who are treated like subservients because it’s often the first year or two that parents have paid for the “service” of education
- they are the ones who have to counteract poor parenting decisions in their purest form
So, next time you see an early years teacher… give them a smile.
They’re at work again, making things just that little bit easier for teachers of every subsequent grade level. They’re at work again, because despite all of the harsh realities in my list above, they absolutely love their jobs and wholeheartedly believe in what they do.
Inquiry is basically about permission.
When students know that they are able or allowed to pursue the questions that come into their head, take the directions that become appealing to them and make their own decisions, they do those things more. It sounds obvious to say it, but it’s true.
When there is a culture of permission – when the teacher in the room is more likely to say “yes… let’s do it, let’s give a go, let’s get that, let’s go there, let’s see if we can find that”… well, then the students are more likely to end up with that attitude and more interesting learning happens as a result.
You know when you’ve entered a classroom like this as it has a very particular feeling to it. Students are usually engaged in doing very different things and working in different ways, and the teacher is not the centre of attention. In fact, there is usually a sense of things not being completely under the teacher’s control, a wonderful feeling of teetering on the brink of chaos. Not only is this type of teacher comfortable with not being completely in control, she is also confident in her students’ ability to make decisions and that “bad decisions” are not bad decisions but opportunities for real learning.
Children have their natural tendencies to inquire eroded progressively as they get older. Sometimes, this is because the adults around them fear for their safety! Other times, though, it is because the adults around them want to be in control… or feel they have to be in control because that’s what teaching is.
So, I guess the culture of permission starts at the top. If school leaders make sure teachers know that being in complete control of students no longer represents good teaching, perhaps teachers will – in turn – be more inclined to release control to their students.