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.
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!
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
My wife came home today and talked about how great it had been working with one of our colleagues on something. The way she talked about it really synthesized many of the things I have been wondering about recently, particularly with regard to planning, collaboration and why (or why not) people are able to do it well.
She talked about how the generation of ideas had been centre-stage and that this person had been able, so quickly and naturally, to adjust her initial ideas based on new information that led to inevitable change. Rather than be upset about it, take it personally or complain about this new information and the reasons behind it… she just adapted.
This is a great example of the ideas being much more important than the ego. This is something that is inherent in good teachers. They love to discuss ideas, to share them, to develop them, to change them, to play with them and even to return to the original ones! They know that these processes are vital as teachers struggle with the complexities and challenges of making things as purposeful as possible. They know that their part in this process is important, valuable and worthy of their time.
Most importantly, they know that the process exercises their brain, expands their thinking, keeps them fresh, challenges their intellect and helps them make connections with other people.
They know they’re learning.
Critical in all of this, also, is the understanding that we shouldn’t fear our own ideas, we shouldn’t fear “being wrong”and we shouldn’t be annoyed by the refining of our ideas by other people – that’s the exciting part! As educators, we try to guide students towards being able to exchange ideas without an adversarial approach – “I’m right… you’re wrong” – but so often get caught in that petty, dichotomous behaviour ourselves.
Take a look around you when you’re next at school. Look out for the people who…
- just come out with their ideas without second-guessing themselves or other people’s interpretation
- love to listen to other people’s ideas just as much as they love to say their own
- visibly learn and grow as ideas are shared
- refer to other people’s ideas
- have a sense of excitement, freedom and chattiness about ideas
- discuss ideas socially as well as professionally
- understand that ideas are not about knowing everything
- know that the discussion of ideas is time well spent
- understand that ideas are not responsible for the people who thought of them!
… and let them know you appreciate them.
By contrast, but equally important, keep your eye out for the “Idea Killers”! (see the fantastic list of 16 ways people kill ideas in this posting, from which I also got the header image for my posting)