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.
We all know that modeling is perhaps the most powerful aspect of teaching – that we might tell students to do something 1000 times with no effect, but do it ourselves for them to see and the effect is palpable.
Yet, how often do we genuinely model the things we are constantly expecting our students to do, become competent at and comfortable with?
Speaking in public is a classic example. We expect it of our students every day… we expect them to respond to questions or contribute ideas in whole class discussions – yet how often does silence fall in staff meetings or workshops when teachers are expected to do the same? “Oh… I’m not comfortable speaking in large groups…” Hypocrisy. And what of assemblies? Putting our students in front of 100s of other students and expecting them to cope yet hiding away in fear if the same is asked of us? “I’m terrified of public speaking!” Hypocrisy.
Its the same with openly sharing our mathematical thinking… “Oh, I’m not comfortable with that, I’m terrible at maths” or drawing “Oh, I’m not doing that in front of anybody… I am so bad at Art” or publishing their writing “I’m scared about putting myself out there.”
It is an endless stream of hypocrisy that culminates in the ultimate hypocrisy – teachers who talk constantly in meetings, presentations or workshops yet lambaste their students when they do exactly the same thing in their lessons.
So, to redefine schools, we should get teachers well out of their comfort zones, or fill schools with teachers who are ready and willing to step out of their comfort zones or just remove the whole idea of comfort zones completely. Unless, of course, we’re going to respect the comfort zones of our students and allow them to be limited by them (after all, how do we know that isn’t the right thing to do?) And, maybe we should be up front and call people out on hypocrisy and remove the “do as I say not as I do” mentality permanently.
Our schools could be full of teachers who are sharing their talents, who are putting themselves out there, who are giving it a go despite not “being comfortable with it”, who are willing to recognize their shortcomings and addressing them, who are leading by example.
To be a teacher who truly has an effect on students you must know learning. To know how to teach is not sufficient, instead you must become skilled and dexterous at noticing learning. And this is learning without predetermined boundaries. Contexts yes, boundaries no. For when we establish too narrowly the boundaries of learning we instantly rule out learning that is new and different.
To know learning, you must know life. An adult who “lives to work” will struggle here as a direct result of inevitably becoming rather narrow minded. An adult who is aware, who is regularly challenged and exposed by new situations, an adult with knowledge beyond her own area of expertise is much more likely to be able to see learning of different types.
This type of person sees and makes connections that enrich life in their classroom. Most of these connections are spontaneous and not planned for. This type of person responds to students in a way that makes the student feel that they are part of a wider world, not a classroom bubble. Connections are frequently made with media, knowledge, literature, ideas, people, businesses, organizations and aspects of society that lie within and beyond the walls of the school.
When this culture of connections exists in your classroom, learning can take many forms… sometimes being so “disguised” that it looks unlike learning in any traditional sense. Learning lies in the background and provides forward momentum for students regardless of what it is they are doing.
If you were to walk in to the classroom of a teacher like this, you would see them:
- Creating contexts in which students are engaged and energized.
- Differentiating – in a sophisticated sense – so that students are pursuing their own inquiries or working on their own projects.
- Getting out of the habit of playing “guess whats in my head”. Sharing ideas and making connections with and for students as and when they are needed has a profound effect on the directions students can take.
- “Noticing and naming” the learning that is taking place in order to validate what students are doing and help them plot their way forward, navigating their way through their curriculum.
- Establishing a meaningful reflective process that creates a culture of intrinsic motivation for students.
- Taking steps to set classrooms up as “learning studios” that are dynamic spaces that change according to what students are doing.
- Skillfully and intelligently documenting learning using different forms of media.
- Empowering students by deliberately creating a “culture of permission” in which students feel that they can give things a go and that their teacher is able to work with them to make things happen.
Do you know any teachers like this? I do. And all too often they are in the minority. How do we change that?
Both my daughters had swimming galas this week. On Saturday morning, guess what they were playing… yep, swimming galas.
This is a pattern in my children’s lives. When they have real experiences, those experiences become part of their play, part of their language and part of their landscape. After a trip to the doctor, they play doctors for weeks. After a train journey, they build trains out of dining chairs. After a meal in a fancy restaurant, they create fancy restaurants and write menus and act like chefs.
Pretty obvious really.
But, it does make me think about schools and how much learning comes as a result of real experiences. As a teacher, the most powerful learning opportunities always came from times when I was able to provide them with real experiences. Unfortunately, the nature of schools often means that learning is divorced from real experience. We counteract that by trying our best to recreate the real when we can. We try our best by using the virtual resources that the Internet gives us. But, nothing can or should replace the real experiences that are available by going to real places, speaking to real people or making real emotional connections.
When those things happen, learning is inevitable.
As if by coincidence, I came across this passage in the book I’m reading at the moment (“Night Train to Lisbon” by Pascal Mercier):
“Thus it was 11,532 times that I clenched my teeth and went back into the gloomy building from the schoolyard instead of following my imagination, which sent me through the school gate and out to the port, to a ship’s rail, where I would then lick the salt from my lips.”
Perhaps an education based on real experiences would mean he wouldn’t have to make that choice.
I was recently very fortunate to attend a keynote speech by Richard Gerver (@richardgerver) during the IB Annual Conference in Singapore.
One of Richard’s quotes that really resonated with me was:
“One of the most important things we need to do in education is get out more.”
This a short and simple statement but, like many short and simple statements, it asks many questions!
How often do we venture beyond the walls of our schools?
It’s funny… “field trips” are viewed as a special event and are done, in most schools, pretty rarely. In my school, for example, most grade levels have ventured out of the school only once. There are many reasons for this – costs and the fear of anything “happening” are often the biggest barrier. Indeed, I know of one IB school in Australia in which it is strictly not allowed to take students on field trips! How about that?
Yet, every time we take students outside of the school there are learning experiences above and beyond those we planned for:
- Genuine connections with the real world
- Improved sense of place
- Observations of people’s behaviour
- Improved ability to look, see and notice
- Rich language and conversation
- Emergence of prior knowledge and wisdom
- Natural curiosity
- Greater bonds between students
- Bursting the bubble by going somewhere new, expanding horizons
- Revealing information about students as individuals in different contexts
- … and more
You see, very often teachers have a limited understanding of the learning objectives that will be reached by taking the kids out somewhere. But, if we realize that everything is learning, everything is an opportunity to develop, everything is a formative assessment – from how well students behave in an art gallery, to how curious they are in a botanical gardens, to how well they talk to strangers at a market, to how they sit and eat during a picnic. It is all real learning.
How well do teachers know the world outside the school?
I work in an international school and, of course, you get all types. In Bangladesh, I worked with local teachers who had never stepped foot in the local markets – that was for servants to do. In China, I worked with people who detested China and refused to enter into society at all, purely frequenting expat restaurants and bars. In Thailand, I worked with people who spoke literally not a single word of Thai. In Vietnam, I work with people who go from school to home and back again over and over and over each day, week, month and year. Of course, there are the complete opposites in each school too – one of my colleagues here speaks the language pretty fluently and has covered nearly every corner of the country in his travels.
My concern is that we are, in these schools, teaching many students who live in a privileged bubble, our schools are often bubbles themselves and many teachers also live in a bubble. What are we teaching them then?
I find it fascinating to provoke people in international schools by asking what difference it would make to the curriculum if the school was suddenly picked up and dropped in a completely different country in a completely different city. Rather soberingly, in some ways, the answer would be “not much”.
What connections does the school have with the community?
Inspired by the stories of two-way community connections that come out of Reggio Emilia, I do wonder about how schools can become genuine parts of their local community. Like a watch, schools seem to have become a “single-function device” – kids get dropped off here and we teach them. How else do we serve our community though? Is student art displayed in local restaurants, shops and public places? Are the students encouraged to initiate projects that feed into and have an impact on the local community? Are the expertise and talent from the local community brought into the school to create those connections? Are the students visible in the local community?
It seems we are stuck in some rather tired looking moulds (schools excel at that!). We can break those moulds by getting out more, as Richard says.
How does your school do it?
“Nearly the weekend”
“Holidays coming soon”
In schools, you can’t go five minutes without hearing people saying these words, or something similar. In that sense, I suppose it is no different from the average workplace. What does make it different to other workplaces though, is that kids might hear us. What is the main lesson they will learn from hearing those words?
That people wish their lives away.
It’s such an astounding contradiction. Nobody wants to get old quickly, yet everyone consistently wishes the weekend and the holidays would come sooner. Weird.
One of the main causes of this problem in schools is the cycle of “busyness”. We make our days, weeks, months, terms, semesters, years so frantic, so chock-full of frenetic activity that we are constantly in desperate need of a break. We exhaust ourselves…
Who is to blame? Well…
- school leadership has to take some of the blame. As soon as we step out of the classroom we unavoidably and instantly forget what it is like to be a classroom teacher, so we pile things on with little empathy or understanding.
- the “mould” of schools also has to take the blame – they are expected to be these busy and rather frantic places!
- teachers are also partly to blame, we are not exactly Masters in the Art of Saying No – either to ourselves, to our students or to our colleagues. As a result, we take on more, and more, and more, and more, and more, and more… and then we struggle to put our finger on the exact reason why we are so busy (except, that is, for those who are able to simply point their finger at school leadership and say “its their fault we’re so busy”!)
The funny things is… you know who isn’t to blame?
If they could, they would hang out, relax, play, be creative, come up with ideas, start their own little projects, socialize and probably do a massive amount of learning!
Some things to ponder:
- Make clearing out your school calendar a regular and rather therapeutic process. If nobody really knows why things are done, chuck ’em. If events don’t go right back to your school’s vision, chuck ’em. If there doesn’t seem to be learning involved, chuck ’em!
- Find ways to break the mould, to seek more time rather than seek more activity. Instead of filling time with things, take things away. Instead of valuing “busyness”, value being purposeful. Instead of trying to do too much and ending up not doing it well, do a few things and do them well. Instead of segmenting your days into little portions, spread things out to create bigger portions. Instead of creating huge, ever-evolving to-do lists with your students, sit back and see what they come up and then decide how and what to teach. Just try, and keep on trying. It is the only way to break these stubborn and damaging moulds and traps we consistently find ourselves in.
- Be kind to yourself. Keep things simple, don’t try and do everything that comes into your head. Empower your students by letting them know anything is possible, but keep your own agenda for teaching short and simple. If there are things you have to do, do them – it is amazing how much time can be wasted sitting around moaning about the things you have to do instead of just doing them!!! If you believe you shouldn’t have to do them, be part of driving for change – suggest alternatives, do the research, stake a case.
So… there you go. Believe me, I am equally prone to all of these things and equally guilty of falling into all the same traps. I am writing this as much for me as for anyone else.
We just returned from an overnight trip to the Creativity Center of Arts in Malindi, Mombasa. The previous 5 years (in Grade 5) students have been going to Tsavo National Park to learn about wildlife and sustainability. Being a new team member it was time to invigorate this trip and connect it to the Exhibition – time to power it up! Promoting and advocating change was difficult. Parents were confused and annoyed that their child would not be going to Tsavo. This line of thinking is quite dangerous. It actually reveals a little bit of the school culture and tradition that has lingered around here… but, I won’t dwell on that. While we were met with a lot of resistance, there was also some strong support coming from the other camp of parents who could see what we were trying to do. The other parents just needed to be educated, they needed to see the value in changing. In the end, we were able to make changes and it is our hope that this change remains till something better or more fitting can be offered. That is the main reason for change, right?!
The past week has been buzzing. We bonded. We listened to each other. We shared stories and observed students playing with ideas, tapping into their creativity and allowing their imagination to flow. In short, we saw another side that we would not have seen, unless we as teachers stayed true and were bold enough in pushing what we believed in.
So how did we organize and plan for this and then bring it back to the Exhibition?
Transdisciplinary Theme: how we express ourselves
We offered 6 different creative/expressive experiences. This is an example of Team 1. The other 6 Teams simply rotated through each experience.
The trip was balanced between creativity, The Exhibition (setting the scene) and bonding with one another though meaningful downtime.
Tuesday 4th of March
Time to relax and feel the space. We had one Exhibition session.
Wednesday 5th of March
We ran 3 art sessions and had 2 Exhibition Sessions. 3 Hours of downtime.
Thursday 6th of March
We ran 3 art sessions and had 2 Exhibition Sessions. 3 Hours of downtime. Honored student work in the gallery.
Friday 7th of March
We ran one session on pulling the pieces together.
I would be happy to email the full schedule to anyone that is interested.
Why did this work so well?
We gave students the room to explore, seek, observe, and just be. We were surrounded by nature and creative art pieces that adorned the resort from the moment you stepped inside to the very rooms you slept in. We were in it.
What did we achieve as a result of immersing kids in it?
I am confident in saying that ‘most’ of the kids have shifted in terms of how they see themselves as artists and as people.
It is like they have come back as different people. Ready to learn. And hungry to experiment with their ideas. We have introduced a book called the X-pand book. Essentially, it is a sketch book where they can draw, sketch and conceptualize their ideas.
During the sessions we talked about and listened to each other. We took them through a real process to play around with ideas and think about their convictions. Their convictions about what they believe, what is important to them and of the world around them and what they really care about.
It is much more powerful to add photos to illustrate this….. so here goes.
The students are writing down their experiences, then their reactions to those experiences, then thinking about which one mostly inspires them to take action and then the best way to express it.
The power of bringing in experts. Armando Tanzini is a real artist. It is his resort and he opened it up to us to use. He inspired and taught the students so much about art, in a way that we could not of done.
Students were thinking about what mattered to them and what they did during that day. This was very powerful.
Students started to defend and challenge each other on what matters to them. This really personalized their thinking as they had to communicate with one another.
Armando honored their work like real artists. he removed his own work from the gallery and put the students’ work in there. It was like the staging of the Exhibition and we hadn’t even started.
The point I am trying to bring out is that real learning is messy and sometimes you have to fight for it. We could have easily done the same trip from the year before, instead we demanded different. We kept the child at the center and in the spotlight of real teaching and learning. When things get hard whether that be from parents, teachers even administration stay with it. That is putting the kids first. That is the type of school I want to work in and be part of.
Does anyone want to share how they approach the PYP Exhibition?