Category: Planning

a very different space


We all know the value of physical space and the benefits it has on learning. Last week my students took things one (maybe two) steps further. I’m not even sure how it started…. one student made a comfortable space with a simple blanket and then others started to do the same. They were building, trading materials and supplies, negotiating, communicating, listening, designing, planning, innovating and on and on. I let it happen.

The result? The mood shifted. The focused increased. The creativity lifted. They were happy! This all happened on a Friday.

Then it was the weekend.

Monday morning came and students had been building, cutting wood, buying screws and tools and brought in things from home like lamps, pillows and toys. It was these touches that made their spaces feel very different. Once again, they took it to another level. And they did this on their own.

This natural and ever evolving process has revealed so many stories. Stories that are intertwined and overlap in the same moment. What they were doing is exactly what we want inquiry to be about. Where students are thinking about learning outside of school. Students are doing things that add to the experience. They take action without an adult instructing or guiding them.

While I am not pointing out the obvious, it made me stop in my tracks. I took a step back and observed what was happening around me. I realized that they are 10. They love to play. They love to hide. They love to escape. They love to pretend. We must never forget who they are at heart. The assessments, the testing, the home learning, the reporting…. Don’t let that stuff over ride you (and your students) and leave the creativity, wonder and imagination behind.

Do you really need to be at that meeting?


Meetings are a big part of what teachers do. We have all sorts of different meetings which serve different purposes and for different reasons. Every school I have worked at meetings are a point of contention. No one really likes to meet, let’s face it. We would all rather get on with it. Yet, we also understand that meetings are very important as it paves the way for being as purposeful and meaningful as possible in the way we teach and the way students learn.

A normal week for me equates to around 6 hours of meetings. That is an awful lot of time. And this doesn’t include the time I spend on preparing before and the follow-up after a meeting. I am sure this is very similar for most people in a school.

This is a typical week of meetings for me…..

Monday: 2 periods numeracy planning meeting (every two weeks)

Tuesday: 1 hour (whole/primary school) meeting

Wednesday: No meetings

Thursday: 1 hour primary school meeting, 2 periods UOI/literacy planning meeting

Friday: 1 hour Grade level leaders meeting

Without opening Pandora’s box about meetings, I would like us to think a bit more about ‘who’ attends a meeting and why are they needed in the first place.

Sam always talks about the fact if people leave without a ‘job’ to do from a meeting, then they should not even be there. I wholeheartedly agree with him. This doesn’t mean a meeting is designed to load up our ‘to do’ list, it just means that a good meeting will have clear action items to move planning from discussion to tangible action. This will drive the meeting forward till the next time you meet again.

Support teachers are very important complimentary pieces to support teachers and students alike. They have been hired for their unique skills and knowledge in their specialized area. They are teachers too, just like homeroom teachers. Yes, their role is vastly different, but they contribute in ways homeroom teachers can’t. As a school we have worked very hard on pulling them into the learning and benefit students in whatever way they need.

We had a Grade 5 meeting on Thursday and had a language-integration teacher, gifted and talented teacher and an IT integration teacher. It is great to have extra voices, ideas and perspectives planning together, but only when these teachers are naturally integrating with the learning and pushing-in. It is a welcome sign that these teachers want to know what is happening in the classroom. But, if they are not integrating or on the agenda, then they don’t need to be at the meeting. As a grade 5 team, we have realized that we achieve so much more, when the conversations are focused and pointed. Too many people in the room can sometimes get in the way, as most people feel the need to talk. And as teachers, we all like being heard. Right?

So my question is, “How can you tell support teachers, that they are are not needed at a meeting without making them feel unwanted or not valued?”

There seems to always be a huge chasm between homeroom and support teachers in terms of validating one’s position, role and how best to collaborate. The biggest thing here, is that no matter what position or role you have in a school, if you are not impacting student learning, then please understand that you may not be required at that particular meeting. Don’t see it as a bad thing, see it as an opportunity to use that time and put it into another area of the school that will benefit. And the best way to know what a grade or class is doing, is not through a meeting, but spending that meeting time in a classroom instead.

We all attend a lot of meetings and often over-meet in schools. Time is precious. Whether you are a support teacher, specialist, homeroom teacher, whatever, always ask yourself, ‘Am I really needed here?’ And if the answer is yes, then stay and contribute, if it is no, then leave. And know that it is ok. People will respect you for it. We all need to rise above this idea of, if I’m in a meeting I am being productive and useful. Why do we take things so personally? It’s a very sensitive topic of conversation.

Do you have the guts to challenge if people really need to be in a meeting and do they have the wisdom to acknowledge it themselves?

How do you manage this at your school?

Why making thinking visible depends on who you are as a learner

Using strategies to make thinking visible can be incredibly powerful. Their power, however, hinges almost entirely on how willing teachers are to learn about their students.

Far too often, I see visible thinking strategies used as an “activity” or as a way of decorating the walls. In some cases, I think teachers believe that just by doing a visible thinking strategy they are automatically finding out what their students think and that by displaying the results their thinking has been made visible.

However, in order to make the most of the opportunities that visible thinking strategies provide us to delve deep into the minds of our students, we need to be willing to scrutinize their responses. We need to be incredibly curious about the way they are thinking. We need to probe further when we’re not sure a student has responded fully. We need to try different strategies to see if different ideas are revealed. Most importantly of all… we need to be doing all of these things with them.


By showing them how interested we are in their thoughts – and by involving them in the way we respond to their thoughts – we honour them, we give them pride and we let them know their thinking is important. By basing the subsequent planning – ours and theirs – on their responses and reactions, we show them how their learning is constructed… how it builds on their existing knowledge, their ideas, their misconceptions and their questions.

This is inquiry.

So, next time you decide to use a visible thinking strategy, ask yourself if you are genuinely interested in how your students respond. If you are… great. If you’re not… try your hardest to make yourself interested. Its worth it.

The importance of flow in teaching


Recently, one of our Early Years Teachers – Jenna – said schools like ours are going through a bit of an “identity crisis”. She’s right.

One way we’re going though an identity crisis is in our use of time.

We all know that learning is most powerful when we allow it to flow, when we design learning that has momentum and then honour it by letting it continue. Instinctively, we can all sense when our students need more time and when stopping them is an interruption that they may not recover from.

But, what do we do every day of their lives in school? We stop them. We interrupt them. We create brief, fragmented bits of teaching for them. Its the stop-and-start, come-and-go, here-and-there, bits-and-bobs model of education. Its our special way of abusing time!

Fortunately, I am not alone in this way of thinking. A group of our teachers recently went to Learning2 in Manila and came back determined to undo the damage that had been done to their timetables… here are some ways we can all do this:

  • Only have the bare minimum locked in to your timetables. In most schools, this just means specialist lessons that have specialist teachers.
  • Plan one or two days in advance only. Allow the events of each day to inform what happens the next day.
  • Have a paper version of your timetable, A3 is best, that you can write on. This way, you can “go with the flow” as well as indicate where and when you have done the essentials, such as stand-alone maths.
  • Help your students understand the importance of momentum and flow in their learning and get them to tell you when they need more time or when they don’t.
  • Get to know your curriculum like the back of your hand so that you and your students can make connections with it as learning evolves.

Your timetable is often the main thing that is holding genuine, deep learning back.

Change it!

School Systems and Redesign

There has been many revolutions and movements throughout history. The Industrial Revolution, The Renaissance, The Reformation, The French Revolution, The Crusades, The Human Rights Charter, so on and so forth, just to name a few.

We have never really witnessed an Educational Revolution in our time that has truly changed the face of Education. Yes, there have been great attempts when it comes to educational reform and improving it, but not in the way that education needs to change.

This made me think a lot about school systems and the people within those systems. Maybe we need to rethink and aggregate what we are doing to seriously provoke positive change.

In order to stir up change we need to ask how we get people to think systematically?

Who better to learn from than observing how children learn and then using that to drive the change and the old-tired school systems and molds we have created.

When a child is given something they have never seen before and they are confronted with the need to understand it a child generally goes through a 3-step process.

1. The first thing they do is take it apart;

2. The second thing they do is try to understand the behavior of each part taken separately;

3. Then they try to aggregate the understanding of the parts into the understanding of the whole.

(just like a jig-saw puzzle – a lot like a system)

This is to analyze. To separate the whole into parts and study each part individually. Analysis has become the dominant mode of thought in the West for around 400 years. This is how we ‘manage’ school systems to a large degree. We take the school system apart through subjects or disciplines and try to run each one and aggregate them into a whole. You cannot explain the behavior of a system by analyzing it. You can reveal its structure and say how it works, but not say why it works the way it does.

A simple example of this is this: the British drive on the other side of the street and their steering wheel is on the right and American cars on the left. A mechanic and an engineer could dissemble all the cars from these two countries and they will never be able to explain why one drives on the right and the other on the left. Because explanation never lies inside of a system. A system can never understand itself. You can learn all about ice, yet very little about water. This sounds a lot like the way school systems have been set up and are run.

Let’s ask this question again….. “How do you get people to think systematically so that we can challenge school systems?”

Around the 1950s there was a procedure called the ‘idealized redesign.’ The only way we can think creatively about a system is to assume that a school system was destroyed last night. If you could do anything at all to replace it, what would you do if you were completely unconstrained?

If you don’t know what you would do even if you could do whatever you wanted right now then how possibly would you know what to do?

This forces you to study the whole instead of the parts and also study the parts separately. So, in idealized redesign you redesign the system as a whole then derive the property of the parts. You see, we spend a lot of time improving the quality of the things that ought to be destroyed. As things become dysfunctional we institutionalize that dysfunctionality. We have to redesign education and not improve the quality of the existing. This is why we need to revolutionize school.

It is time to take a closer look at school systems and completely change the system that is failing so many of our students. This goes for schools and higher-education too. We would like to think that we are giving students the opportunity and the ability to think, yet the current system and design is to get them to past tests. Isn’t it?

What is the purpose of education? For me, it was about passing, not learning. Not much has changed since I was at school or the generations before me. Time for a revolution.

Image by Liza Daly on Flickr

How do we make sure we give time to every student?

This podcast raises some interesting questions about the PYP Exhibition, but also about teaching in general. In particular, the discussion focuses on the problem of making sure that we spend time with all of our students. If we are all honest, we must admit that we have one or two students each year who tend to “fly under the radar”.

What do we do about that?

Transparent and Timely Assessment


Sharing assessment pieces with students at the start of a unit, and coming back to them as the unit progresses, allows them to see what it is they need to do to achieve the desired outcome they set for their learning.

How many times have teachers not shared what it is they are looking for from the students until the last minute?

It sounds incredibly unfair to expect them to meet or reach a certain level in their learning if they are unaware of the expectations. By being transparent and sharing with them in good time – and sometimes co-writing assessment criteria with them – allows students to know what they need to do to rise up, develop plans and bridge the gaps in their understanding.

Students will always meet and exceed expectations if they have a clear vision of the learning behaviors and knowledge they need in order to be successful.

Learning always spikes when they know where they are going, or what they need to do to get there!

It is their childhood… help make it an amazing one


Life is short.

Childhood is even shorter.

Children deserve to come to school and be excited, challenged and motivated. We have our students, in our space, for one year. During this time, we are creating narratives – stories – with them. What are those stories? What stories do our students tell about their days at school?

On Sunday night, my daughter said “I can’t wait to get back to school to work on my project, Daddy. I love what I am doing.”

Wouldn’t it be great if each student said those words to their parents on the night before school? Wouldn’t it be great if every student was totally engrossed in their inquiries. “It feels like playing” she said later.

The first half of the year, in many schools, can be very business-like. Some things that have always been on the agenda may now be expected to be done with consistency and quality. Some familiar things may be done in unfamiliar and better ways. Some new things may be added to the equation in order to take teaching and learning to the next level. This all takes time and effort. It is hard work.

In the second half of the year, however, there may be no surprises. So, focus on those narratives I mentioned above. Focus on working with students so that each day, each week and each month of their lives at school unfold as interesting, exciting, surprising stories of personal growth and learning. If some old habits need to be discarded to make that happen… discard them. If a few risks need to be taken to make that happen… lets take them. If a few people need to be challenged to make that happen… challenge them.

Teachers put a lot of work into figuring out what our students should or could be doing. But, we also need to take a good long look at why. How do we get our students to want to read, question, write, draw, build, listen, design, argue, solve, play, win, collaborate, research, experiment, notice, think…?

Each day, ask yourself these crucial questions:

Would I want to be a student in my class?

Would I be interested in what we are doing?

Would I be inspired by me?

Would this unit excite and motivate me?

Would this experience stimulate my curiosity?

Would I be at my best here?

You want the answers to those questions to be “ÿes”. You are teachers. It is your purpose in life for each of your students to feel that way. It is your source of pride and satisfaction when they do feel that way. It is what gives you a thrill and makes you feel as though all of your effort has real meaning.

Life may be short. But it is shorter when waiting for each day to end, when waiting for the weekend, when waiting for a meeting to be over, when waiting for the next holiday to come. This time is your time, and it is the most important time for your students.

It is their childhood. Help make it an amazing one.

Image by Patrick Breitenbrach

Mission impossible?

After the first few pages of the book I started reading yesterday, I was already questioning the way my profession works – I work in international schools which are all committed by their mission statements to making the world a better place.

The story begins on a rubbish dump in an Asian city and follows a family that ekes out an existence by sifting through everyone’s waste.

People live that type of life in all of the cities and countries in which international schools exist. As they make their way to another day of “making the world a better place”, our students pass those people without noticing they exist. Let’s not kid ourselves either… most teachers do too. You see, I am not sure we are all doing this in order to improve the world… I have a sneaky suspicion that we’re doing it for the domestic help, the incredible lifestyle and the exotic holidays. Luxuries possible only because of the massive divide between rich and poor.

Many of our schools perpetuate that divide. Many offer zero scholarships. Many pay their local staff so little that they are desperate for overtime just to survive. Many have deplorable environmental practices. Many make no real expectation that members of its community will ever really look or see beyond their own needs.

I wonder when we will start to see the evidence of the world being a better place because of our schools. I wonder when we will see these big, wealthy establishments putting their money where their mouths are. I wonder when we will stop tolerating the things we know are going on around us and actually do something about it. I wonder when we will stop waiting for the world to be a better place and actually make an effort to have an impact.

I wonder when we will go and get that family from the rubbish dump, give them a home and a job and educate their child. “Oh, but we can’t do that for every family” is the predictable opt-out clause for that one, of course. But, we can do it for one family… which is better than doing it for none. Maybe then our mission statements will be possible, visible and tangible and not just some lofty, ambiguous ideal that we will never really be accountable for.

Children who attend international schools should be the luckiest children around. Not because the schools have the best facilities and because they get to go to a tropical beach at the weekend. They should be lucky because they are surrounded by reality, a reality that is often beautiful but in need of attention. They should be lucky because they live in places where it is possible to make a difference. They should be lucky to know how good that feels.

Children learn by doing. What exactly is it that we have them doing towards making our mission statements real?

The Fragmentation of Learning


There are times when something becomes so obvious that it hurts. Today was one of them.

We are trying to create the schedule for an in-school maths PD with Lana Fleiszig. To do this, we needed to gather the timetables of each grade level and identify times for demo lessons and planning meetings.

There was was a moment when we had the timetables for several grades laid out on the table and I had one of those painful realisations… the way we fragment the daily lives of children verges on the tragic.

The only thing that gives me hope is that, in many cases, the timetables we create for students are actually “just for show”. In fact, one of my most like-minded colleagues and I exchanged conspiratorial glances across the table as she said those exact words!!! But, when will we stop doing this to our students and to ourselves? When will our timetables reflect what we already know about learning – that it mustn’t be interrupted when it is in full flow, that providing sustained time creates the conditions for real inquiry, that it doesn’t happen automatically just because it is on the timetable.

If we are keen to ensure that things like maths happen every day, can’t we just say that and leave it up to teachers to go with the flow? I am not proposing anarchy! I am simply proposing that we allow teachers to refine their art by not forcing them to fragment, compartmentalise and section teaching into little chunks that satisfy our need for accountability but that may or may not actually result in learning.