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.
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.
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.
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
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!
In PYP schools there are six units of inquiry over 6 ‘grade’ levels from PREP to Grade 5. That equals 36 units of inquiry. That’s 36 opportunities to analyse and synthesize the learning at the ‘conclusion’ of a unit of inquiry. Yes, I’m fully aware that formative assessment is happening all the time. But as far as the summative assessment goes, we do this only once at the ‘end’ of a unit. This is a way to gauge what a student’s understanding of the central idea is after 6 weeks of learning and inquiring.
How can we effectively capture all that learning and understanding?
For years we’ve been creating rubrics. They take a long time to design and develop. This process does allow the people in the same room to not only deepen their understanding of the learning and make connections to the central ideas and lines of inquiry…….this approach also creates a common language and sets clear expectations on the possibilities and the potential that may come out of those learning experiences.
Is the investment (time, effort and energy) worth it when developing a rubric to assess students’ understanding and knowledge? Does this process add value?
In short, yes. Taking teachers through this process requires a lot of constructing and it is through that process we are able to share, defend, explain and talk about student learning. That in itself is pretty exciting stuff. While it does take time in reaching consensus… only then can we achieve clarity. It helps us see how to measure progress of learning and evidence it alongside of the rubric. Students still can choose the best way to demonstrate their learning, it is the rubric that anchors how student’s represent what they have come to know and do.
We’ve changed the branding of ‘rubric‘ to ‘learning continuum,‘ which has created a positive spin on developing robust, relevant and authentic learning expectations.
Our goal as a school is to develop 36 learning continnums, just like a POI. We can critique these, challenge them, build upon them, just like we do with all central ideas, not only as a POI review, but at the start of each unit. We are finding that we are getting better at writing these over time too. Yes, at times we hit walls and get stuck, but it is the fighting through it that we have the best conversations which leads to better ideas, resulting in better teaching.
Personally, I feel that most assessments fall short and teachers end up doing another reflection as their summative assessment. This is not good enough and it touches on Sam’s previous blog post of salmon swimming up stream…. teachers just run out of time; therefore, well put-together, thoughtful and meaningful assessment tools take a back seat! The unit simply fizzles out and doesn’t become much for student’s to engage with it and look for way they can transfer this into other areas of learning.
So why am I writing this? Well, there are a few reasons… the main one is that through the self-study process, I’ve come to realize that section C4 (Assessment) is an area that we need to challenge. We don’t have a clear approach or expectation on what that is or can look like. If we are to be true to the teaching and learning then we need to honor it with a rich and authentic learning continuum – it is all in the feedback we give to our students. Finish the unit well by taking it all the way! Do more than notice the learning, embrace it and set goals with your students, so that the next unit is a continuation from the previous one. How can our students improve from unit to unit, not just wait for the next ‘Sharing the planet’ unit in a year’s time.
What do you do to capture your students’ learning?
Let me know if you want to take a look at some of our Learning Continuums. We need to share these more with one another, so we can adapt them and design powerful assessments – together.