Category: Schools

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.

 

Being a PYP Teacher Part 1: Carry the Book

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The 1st, 50th, 500th and 5000th step required in order to become a PYP Teacher – because this is a never-ending process – is to carry a copy of Making the PYP Happen with you at all times.

Don’t go to any planning meetings without a copy of Making the PYP Happen. Instead, always have it with you so that you can:

  • refer to it for guidance as you strive to make your planning purposeful
  • refer to it to remind you of the five essential elements of the PYP
  • refer to it for ways to make learning rich in possibilities
  • refer to it so that you can ensure you really are educating the “whole child”
  • refer to it so that you understand why, how and what to assess
  • refer to it to seek clarity and the eloquent description of learning in its various forms
  • refer to it so you can become familiar with how education is changing, and has been changing since 2009

Whenever I ask people where their copy of Making the PYP Happen is, in lots of schools, the responses frequently vary between:

  • “Oh, I have one somewhere”
  • “Umm… I have a digital copy, I think”
  • “Yep, it’s on my laptop. Let me just load it up”
  • “I don’t know where it is”
  • “Ha ha ha, I don’t keep one with me all the time!”

These responses are indicative of a school culture in which reference to the most important guiding document has not become a habit. This makes it a thousand times less likely that people will know what it says, and then this makes it 1000 times less likely that people will be able to make it happen.

Naturally, the reverse of this is equally true.

So, go on. Find your copy, or get one printed if you don’t have one (digital just ain’t good enough, my friend) and take it with you to all planning sessions. Having it there for reference, for inspiration and for guidance will empower you as you seek to become a better and better PYP Teacher.

I just hope that the enhanced PYP doesn’t bring with it the removal of this amazing resource. In fact, I hope it brings quite the opposite.

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.

“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!

 

Rubrics and continuums – don’t berate, innovate.

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?

Errr… umm…

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.