Category: Understanding

Be careful with Seesaw

A friend of mine returned from Canada recently having been shocked by the proliferation of home-monitoring technology since his last visit and the number of his friends and family who now engage constantly in watching the goings-on in their houses while they’re out.

This really got me thinking about how the existence of new technology creates new habits and how this is true also of work. The developments in technology have led to different types of work and the fact that we can, and feel like we should, be working all the time. This isn’t a revolutionary thought, people talk about it all the time. However, I want to focus on one piece of technology, Seesaw.

The advent of Seesaw is exciting. It makes things possible that weren’t really possible before. In a nutshell, it is really the first way that teachers can do quick and easy documentation that is instantly shareable with parents who can see it using an app on their own devices.

Great! Right?

Well, not if you’re not really careful about how you use it.

You see, things that seem cool and different at first can quickly transform themselves into an expectation and therefore into work. If you’re not really, really purposeful about how you use Seesaw, it’s going to rapidly become a pretty pointless instant scrapbooking activity that gives parents a steady stream of images from within the classroom that they are going to depend upon but not necessarily learn anything from.

So, now you’ve got to deal with all of the massively important complexities of being a good teacher while also contend with providing a steady stream of posts that show everyone what you’re doing – basically classroom social media. Some people deal with this by handing responsibility over to the kids and calling it “agency”. But this, more often than not, leads to a steady stream of low-quality images or videos that are captured with little thought or purpose and that provide parents with little or no substantial information about the nature of the learning that students are engaged in. It also engages students in screentime that has little or no value. What’s more, it kind of feels like a gateway to the behaviours we see around us in society of having to post things on social media in order to prove they happened!

In your schools, put the following questions at the centre of everything you do with Seesaw:

When we post something on Seesaw, what are we communicating about the type of learning we value?

When people see what we post, what will they learn about the type of learning we value?

If you have some pretty good answers to these questions… proceed. If, however, your answers are “nothing” or “we’re not sure” or “we haven’t thought about it” then stop using Seesaw immediately and resume only when you have made some proper plans that will make it purposeful.

Part of those plans should involve making some BIG decisions about who your intended audience is for Seesaw:

  • Is the intended audience limited to colleagues? Some schools have taken this approach to great effect and used Seesaw purely for pedagogical documentation that is then used to inform responsive planning sessions. Of course, you’re going to have to wrap some intelligent ways of working around this – mainly involving time.
  • Are parents the intended audience? If so, make sure you are providing them with quality content that shapes their understanding about what education is, what learning looks like and what you are trying to achieve in your school, grade level or class. This is your chance to really have an effect on them – which of course can go either way!
  • Are students the intended audience? If so, you will need to make some plans for how they will make informed decisions about what content to post and why, reflect on their content, how they will receive feedback on their content and how their content will be used as evidence of learning that will inform next steps. This is going to involve a lot of thinking tools and just-in-time instruction to guide them towards those habits and practices.

I’m going to stop here… I think that’s plenty of food for thought for now. Please give it some thought! I hate to see so much time being wasted on something that may be pointless, or even harmful.

Evolution Starts Here, Part 2: The Language of Learning

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Nothing irritates me more than teachers saying that educational terminology is “just jargon”. I work in PYP schools, and I hear so-called PYP teachers referring to the language of the PYP as jargon very often. I’ve noticed a pattern – its always the ones who don’t actually know the language, the ones who don’t know what it says in the documents… the ones who are not fluent in the language of learning in their school. Its a type of defense-mechanism, I guess. A front to cover for laziness, or perhaps the fact that they don’t really believe in what they’re doing.

In order to bring about sustainable change, to create the conditions for innovation and to develop a culture in which teachers play with possibilities… everyone in a school needs to be speaking the same language of learning. Once they have that shared language, and they all understand what each other is talking about, there is more room for manoeuvre. Once they are all noticing learning, naming it using the same terminology, they start to see it everywhere… they become liberated from their previously limited views of what learning is, or could be.

This breeds change.

A school needs to actually have a shared language of learning. Then, steps must be taken so that all teachers are fluent in that language. In PYP schools, that language is contained in Making the PYP Happen. Use it! (I’ve written more about this here). In other schools, there are equivalent documents, frameworks, written curriculum, scope and sequences etc… Use them!

Become fluent in the language.

Use the language.

Question the language.

Only then can you really say you know, understand and recognise learning.

Only then can you go deeper into what it all means.

With the fluency comes creativity.

Evolution Starts Here, Part 1: Inquiry-Based Leadership

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It’s funny. There is much talk of inquiry-based learning in schools, but very little of inquiry-based leadership.

Neither is there much of it in practice.

I pondered, for some time, where to begin this series of posts about the evolution of a school in which innovative, even revolutionary, ideas like Studio 5 could become a realistic possibility.

But, looking back, it is clear that the habit of school leaders perpetually asking questions is the very first ingredient in the soup of change.

Why is it like that?

Could it be like this?

What is the purpose of that?

Do we need to do this?

In 2013, the International School of Ho Chi Minh City leadership team – an entirely new group of nine – had no choice other than to ask questions like these. The school was starting a new era, a clean slate… and it was exciting.

These habits of questioning didn’t fizzle out though. We didn’t rest on our laurels, we didn’t allow practices to fossilize or thinking to congeal. Adrian, our Head of School, just would not accept it. “School is broken” he would say “what are we going to do about that?”

This approach permeated everything we did and, Kurtis, the Primary Principal opened up as many aspects of running the school as possible to debate by adopting an inquiry approach to things that, in many schools, are not even remotely that way. Here are a few examples of what this looks like


 

Primary leadership meetings

The intention was that these were always thinking meetings, where issues, challenges or opportunities were put on the table and where input was actively sought, captured and acted upon.

The appraisal process

While still jumping through the hoops of a mandated process, teachers were invited to give their feedback about the direction of the school – things they’d like to see changed, implemented or taken away – and these thoughts were documented and referred back to repeatedly in decision-making.

Coordinator meetings

All too often, these are one-way information delivery meetings dominated by the person with the most authority. Our meetings were, as much as possible, the opposite. All subject and grade level coordinators, in weekly 30-40 minute meetings, were frequently invited to help make decisions about the day-to-day running of the school. Ideas, thoughts and questions were gathered, documented and referred back to repeatedly in decision-making.

The Green Hat Room

It was made explicit that the primary office was a place in which “Green Hat Thinking” (de Bono) was both promoted and expected. Anyone who came in with a problem, a dilemma or an idea was invited to be part of the thinking around it. This goes against the limited view that leadership means “you give me your problem and make it my problem”. People struggled with this, at first, but grew into the intention behind it. The office was always busy with the sound of problem-solving and idea-generation.

Professional trust

Trust is an essential ingredient in inquiry, and inquiry is an essential ingredient in trust. To be able to trust someone, we cannot micromanage them. We must be curious about what they might do, what we might learn from them and how they may shift our thinking. This trust is, of course, not blind – there are always those upon whom trust is bestowed more easily than others. However, the intention was that trust was the default.

Students first

When you deliberately put students, their needs and their learning first, there can be no definitive answers. Education is a behavioural science, not a formula. When it is clear that students are suffering, or not flourishing, questions must be asked of ourselves, our pedagogy, our environments, our culture and our school. It is in asking those questions, and in how we respond to those questions, that school leaders show themselves to be inquirers, or not.

“Let’s try it”

This is a crucial mentality if there is to be any change in education. While it is a good idea to base your practices on established research when possible, sometimes you are the research. This does not mean leaders glibly saying “yeah… go for it” to every idea under the sun. Quite the opposite. It means encouraging disciplined thinking and planning, data collection and reflection, i.e. inquiry.


 

There’s a book in this, as well as many consultancy opportunities, so I’d better stop here or Kurtis will kill me!

Please feel free to share your thoughts about what inquiry-based leadership looks like in your your school context, or what you wish it would look like!

 

 

 

Studio 5: It took more than 7 days

There is considerable hype around the Studio 5 model that is currently being piloted at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City… and rightly so. Studio 5 is a brave concept that doesn’t just pay lip-service to the philosophies upon which the IB Primary Years Programme and other student-centred, inquiry-based frameworks are built. It creates the conditions for all of that philosophy to become practice. Very rare.

Don’t be fooled though.

This stuff is not new.

Progressive and innovative educators have been doing some of these ideas for years. Schools have been designed around them. Movements have evolved around them. Books have been written about them.

But, these have either fizzled out, faded away, disappeared or survived as weird exceptions to the rule. Perhaps sustained by wealthy benefactors, enigmatic leaders or a powerful niche market.

Studio 5 is a wonderful example of what is possible. But it is critical that anyone hoping to move their school, or even just a part of it, towards a similar model must understand that Studio 5 didn’t just appear out of nowhere. It comes after four years of smaller, very significant, steps. Shifting mindsets, pedagogies, structures, systems, habits, priorities… incremental changes to these over a sustained period of time cleared pathways, opened doors and generated momentum.

Each change was a question that could only be answered by the next change.

Without this evolution, one in which the Studio 5 model was genuinely a natural progression, it would just be a novelty.

In a series of upcoming posts, I will reveal the milestones in the evolution of a school in which Studio 5 is possible. Perhaps these can provide tangible ways that other schools can begin to consider similar change, but change that is logical and natural in their context.

 

 

Wake up! Slow down. Leave time for learning.

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I caught myself again.

The last time was in 2013 and I wrote about it then too.

What did I catch myself doing? Rushing my children… and, by doing so, denying them countless opportunities to learn.

We’ve just moved to Paris. Everything is new. At the moment, the newest things are christmas decorations in the streets and the increasingly intense cold. Every morning, my children just want to look, talk, feel, experience, ponder, notice, appreciate and wonder. But, I have caught myself rushing them. Hurrying them up towards some imaginary or completely unimportant deadline – the need to be early, on time or not late.

It doesn’t really matter if I’m early, on time or not late. My children matter. their experiences of the world matter.

It’s shocking for an educator to do this to his own children. But, we do it to our students every day. We hurry them from lesson to lesson. We dictate their agenda all day. We reduce break times. We don’t give them enough time to eat. We decide if they can go to the toilet or not. We treat “inquiry” as a stand-alone subject that we do in the last period, if they’re lucky. We make their lives busy, indeed we teach the art of “busyness”, as if we don’t trust them to do anything of value if we don’t.

And yet, we all know that the most powerful learning happens when we slow down, when we give them sustained periods of time, when we don’t interrupt and when they’re making choices about why, how and what to learn.

Old habits die hard. How much of modern schooling is still “old habits”?

Being a PYP Teacher Part 4: Collaborate with your students

 

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Kath Murdoch says that inquiry teachers “let kids in on the secret”, and I totally agree.

Far too often, we keep all of the planning, decision-making, assessment data, idea-generation, problem-solving and thought-processes of teaching hidden away from our students. Because of this, teaching becomes something that we do to students, not with students. As long as we are doing all of those things ourselves, behind closed doors, education will retain its traditional teacher-student power relationship and, no matter how often we use fancy words like “agency” and “empowerment”, students will continue to participate in, rather than take control of, their learning.

PYP teachers take simple steps to “let kids in on the secret”, to collaborate with their students.

They begin by showing students that their thoughts matter – they quote them, they display their words, they refer back to their thinking and they use their thinking to shape what happens next. When students become aware that this is happening, their relationship with learning instantly begins to shift.

Then, PYP teachers start thinking aloud – openly thinking about why, how and what to do in front of their students and not having a rigid, pre-determined plan or structure. This invites them into conversations about their learning, invites negotiation about how their time could be used, what their priorities might be and what their “ways of working” might be. There is a palpable shift in the culture of learning when this starts happening, from compliance to intrinsic motivation.

Finally, PYP teachers seek as many opportunities as possible to hand the thinking over to their students deliberately – not only because they have faith in them, but also because they know their students are likely to do it better than they can themselves! It’s shocking how frequently we make the assumption that students are not capable of making decisions, or need to be protected from the processes of making decisions, or that getting them to make decisions is a waste of “learning time”. As soon as we drop that assumption and, basically, take completely the opposite way of thinking… everything changes. Hand things over to them and they will blow you away! I still love this video of my old class in Bangkok figuring out the sleeping arrangements for their Camp and doing it way better and with more respect than a group of adults ever could!

So… today, tomorrow, next week… look for ways to let kids in on the secret, and let us know what happens as a result!

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.

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!