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.
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
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
Recently, Kelli and I were talking about why teaching can be so exhausting. She used the analogy of Salmon swimming upstream to illustrate how we are so often doing what we do in the face of so many other contradictory and conflicting forces.
These forces may sometimes be policies and expectations put in place by governments and education departments based on decisions which are often made by people with little or no educational background apart from the fact that they went to school. In many cases, these policies and expectations are in complete conflict with what educators know to be true about children and learning. And so, most teachers play the game while still trying to do what they believe is right even though their ability to do so (and their time, space and energy to do is) is dwindling.
In other cases (or if you’re unlucky, at the same time) the forces may be policies and expectations that are put in place by school boards or leadership teams. Many school boards are composed of people who have little or no educational background apart from the fact they went to school. And many leadership teams consist of educators so long out of the classroom and so distanced from the realities of day-to-day teaching that they are referring to how things were, or should have been, 20 or 30 years ago. And so, most teachers play the game while still trying to do what they believe is right even though their ability to do so (and their time, space and energy to do is) is dwindling.
In other cases (or if you’re really unlucky, at the same time) the forces may be the patterns of behaviour and trends that exist around you all in everyday life outside school. Students may be consistently exposed to things that go against everything you hope to be instilling in them while they are with you, such as vast differences between rich and poor, an abusive class system, the systematic destruction of the environment, institutionalised racism, corrupt officials and police, blatant consumerism and greed and disregard for human life. And so some teachers try to get their students involved in doing something about these problems, and this is great. But, all too often the overwhelming feeling that they’re only scratching the surface burns people out or the transient nature of many international schools means projects are not sustained. And so, teachers and students do what they do inside a sort of bubble of safety, security and sanitisation while still trying to open their students’ eyes to reality.
In other cases (or if you’re really, really unlucky) the forces may be the parents and what they believe about parenting. Teachers may be consistently trying to reverse the damaging effects of different parenting styles, such as children who have “learned helplessness”, children who are overprotected, children who are under too much pressure to be academically successful, children who are over-scheduled, children who are unable to relax without a screen in front of them, children who are not getting enough sleep, children who eat a damaging diet, children who are being medicated and children who are being brought up with worrying political and ethical beliefs. And so, teachers do what they do in the hope that their 8 hours or so each day with these children can, in some way counteract what is happening at home and give them a refuge, increase their confidence and self-esteem, reveal different perspectives to them and, perhaps most importantly, help them learn how to figure things out for themselves.
In other cases (or if you’re really, really, really unlucky) the forces may be the what the parents believe is, or should be, a good education. Many parents’ only point of reference about education is their own experience. Some of the more enlightened parents look back at aspects of their education and hope, more than anything else, that their children don’t have to “go through that”. Many, though, hark back to their education with rose-tinted glasses and put pressure on modern teachers to replicate those practices despite the fact that pedagogical research, as well as the world itself, has moved on since then. And so, teachers are charged with the responsibility of not only educating children but also educating parents about how they are educating their children!
The Salmon swimming upstream is a great analogy for what it’s like to be a teacher. At least, a teacher who is determined to stay up-to-date with pedagogical research and contemporary practice, who is determined to teach the child and not just the content, who is determined to be part of creating generations of young people who can give themselves and the next generation a better existence and who is determined to make the most of the privilege that it is to have such a direct impact on the lives of so many people. If not, I guess they’re just swimming along with the current… which is, of course, much easier, much less energy-sapping and involves a lot less thought!
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.