Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Designing Engaging and Rigorous Learning Experiences

From the very beginnings of my career as an educator, I’ve been passionate about curriculum and learning. I was lucky enough to start my international teaching career at the International School of Amsterdam which was one of the schools involved in the International Schools Curriculum Project, which later became the PYP. 

At the start of my teaching career, I think I was very focused on student engagement - I wanted my students to be interested and happy and I assumed that this would lead to deep learning. After doing a summer school at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, however, I came to realize that I needed to focus more on rigour. Following that, in every school I’ve worked, whether as classroom teacher, PYP Coordinator or technology coach, I’ve encouraged teachers to think critically about what they are doing and to redesign learning to address higher-order thinking. 

When I first started at the American School of Bombay, I realized that technology was everywhere and as the Director of Educational Technology I was keen to inquire into how it was being used. We carried out a multi-year tech audit and discovered that most of the engagements that students were doing using technology only really tapped into the lower-order thinking skills of “remember” and “understand”. 

A lot of coaching was necessary to help teachers shift the learning engagements from lower-order to higher-order thinking. In my many years as an educator, I had come to appreciate that “engagement” was not enough - students can be very engaged in tasks even when they are not learning very much. Our job as teachers is to design the learning so that students will go deeper and engage in higher-level thinking. 

Over the years, I have made numerous presentations and conducted several workshops about designing strong learning experiences in schools around the world. It was super that Toddle invited me to turn some of this experience into an eBook.  With this book, my hope is to share a compilation of the process and key ideas for designing engaging and rigorous learning experiences with the wider PYP community! 

This eBook will walk you through the process of examining the learning experiences you have planned and provoke you with questions to redesign those with a goal to promote higher-order thinking. I will share several examples of different engagements that I have designed for the Toddle Community and will explain how student thinking can shift when we ask the right questions. I will also directly address how technology can be used to promote creativity and will give examples of where student agency can be encouraged in order to help students to be independent and more responsible for their own learning.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Demystifying the related concepts


I lead many PYP workshops, and one of my favourites is Making the PYP Happen: Implementing Agency.  I absolutely love working with teachers new to the PYP to help them make connections between the various elements of the programme.  One of the most challenging aspects for new teachers PYP is writing central ideas.  In my workshops I walk them through a process of identifying the related concepts they want to address in a unit, and then we work on how we can put these together with a strong verb in order to write a central idea that will be universal and timeless, and so transferable to new contexts.  Of course at this point the question arises: where do we find the related concepts?  The seven key concepts are already defined by the PYP, but the related concepts are sometimes trickier to find.

The related concepts are generally drawn from the individual scope and sequence documents.  Of course the documents you use could also be the national curriculum documents of a particular country.  You will also find related concepts in the descriptors of each PYP transdisciplinary theme and in the PYP strands in each subject scope and sequence.  Drawing concepts from the different subjects, and putting them together into a central idea, will ensure that the unit is truly transdisciplinary.  

This resource contains six tables, one for each transdisciplinary theme, broken up into strands, each of which contain several related concepts.  Toddle has done a brilliant job, as always, of publishing these in an easy to use format.

I hope this resource is useful to you as you design your PYP units.

Click here to download Your Go-to List of PYP Related Concepts

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

A Virtual Learning Action Plan for School Leaders

After months of lockdown and doing very little, I've had a busy few weeks recently. I've led 4 IB workshops at schools around Europe as well as several online on-demand workshops. These on-demands are new: as many workshops leaders cannot travel to schools to lead face to face workshops, the online platform has been adapted so that teachers from a single school can do an online workshop together. I've also been involved in virtual school visits - both to authorise and evaluate schools, and I'm soon going to leading workshops "live" using Zoom or other platforms as well. The times are changing and hopefully I'm changing with them! Recently I've also been involved in developing a new resource for Toddle. This is a virtual learning action plan aimed at school leaders that contains a downloadable review tool that leaders can use to consider an action plan that is aimed at supporting students, empowering teachers and partnering with parents during these uncertain times.

The inspiration for this came from a post on Twitter from @jaydostal who wrote:
School is important during this crisis, but not as important as the needs of our families who are experiencing anxiety and fear as we develop our new normal. Our kids and families need us more than ever to model social and emotional learning before content.
This tweet got me thinking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and how it connects with the work that school leaders do.  The wonderful graphic design folk at Twitter turned my thinking into this great graphic.  In my opinion, Maslow's Hierarchy has become even more important at this time of global pandemic.

The resource considers the effective use of technology and also give some guidelines on returning to school after virtual learning.  Please click here to access the action plan.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

What's New and Different: The PYP Exhibition

This is my final post about what is new and different in the Enhanced PYP. Moving on from this I am going to start a series of posts about the areas of the PYP that are seeing a deeper focus and guidance in the Enhancements such as learning environments, a community of learners, inquiry, concept-based, transdisciplinarity, the learner profile and the approaches to learning.

The Exhibition is the culminating experience that is undertaken by students in the final year of the PYP where they demonstrate their ability to take responsibility for their own learning.  As a result, students collaboratively demonstrate their understanding of an issue they have chosen to explore.  This inquiry is both individual and with their peers, and is guided by a mentor who is member of the learning community (for example a teacher, a parent or an administrator).  The Exhibition is a demonstration of agency, so students plan, present and assess their learning and they also demonstrate their capacity to take action.  They may select the key and related concepts, develop their own central ideas, come up with the lines of inquiry, and decide what skills they need to develop.  They design their own learning goals and decide on the criteria for success.

The Exhibition may be one of the six transdisciplinary units studied during the final year of the PYP, or it may explore a global issue that crosses many transdisciplinary themes.  It may happen within a specific time frame, or it may run alongside other units.  In one school I know the Exhibition was a year-long inquiry.  However it looks, the important thing is that the Exhibition is collaborative, involving working with peers, teachers and mentors, and that time given for regular sharing and feedback.   Throughout the process students will be demonstrating the attributes of the learner profile, exploring multiple perspectives, reflecting and taking action as a result of their learning.  The Exhibition is also often used by schools as a celebration of the PYP and marks a transition to the next stage of their education.

Since student agency is at the heart of the Exhibition, I'm often asked by schools that I consult with about how much guidance teachers should be providing.  For schools in the consultancy phase, there is actually no requirement that they complete the Exhibition before authorisation.  Schools that are less experienced with the Exhibition may prefer to have more of a guided exhibition.  However as schools become more experienced, the Exhibition should move much more towards a student-led one.

In a guided exhibition students are probably all using the same central idea, though they can develop their own lines of inquiry.  As schools become more experienced they can involve the students in writing this central idea - a great process I've used for this is the consensus protocol developed by Adaptive Schools.  Again, with a guided exhibition I have seen schools decide on a particular way that students would communicate their learning - one school I worked at did this as a TED-talk by groups of students.  As schools become more experienced, students can have more choice about how they want to communicate and what action they want to take.  

With a student-led exhibition students will develop their own central ideas and lines of inquiry.  They take full responsibility for planning their inquiries, deciding how to communicate their understandings, and they are capable of assessing their own learning against success criteria and giving feedback to others to improve their learning.  Students will also be initiating collaborative actions that have local, national and/or global significance.

While students are agents of their own learning, they are supported by their teachers and mentors.  Mentors can be drawn from all members of the learning community and they meet with students regularly to help students set and meet their goals.  Students are responsible for setting up the meetings with their mentors, and the mentors are responsible for asking questions, suggesting resources, helping to interpret the information that students find, and facilitating interviews or trips outside the school.

Perhaps one of the early challenges in the Exhibition process is to identify globally significant issues or opportunities from which students can develop their central ideas.  Right at the start of the Exhibition process, students and teachers need to be discussing local and global issues that have meaning to them.  At this point some students want to narrow down their inquiries, but I've always found it important to keep these inquiries quite broad so that there are possibilities for detailed investigations by all students over a long period of time.  The inquiries need to be accessible to all students with differing abilities, interests and strengths.  Often I've found that from these initial discussions it's possible to put students into collaborative groups that match the passions of all group members - these groups are generally across the whole year group, not just in each class, though it is possible that different classes may each develop their own central ideas based on the interests of the students.  It's important though that each of these groups is contributing to the collaborative inquiry - each group perhaps looking at a different facet of it.

The Exhibition process is what is important - but in every PYP school where I've worked there has always been a culminating product or experience.  This does not have to be large, but it is one that is shared with the whole learning community in various ways.  Students explain the process and their inquiry journey, as well as their final understandings, so they will share journals, feedback, reflections and so on, as well as the product which could be a speech, dramatic performance, song, poem, film or something that they have built.

In over 20 years of working with students on the PYP Exhibition, I've taken on many roles.  I've been a homeroom teacher, a PYP Coordinator, a technology coach and a mentor.  I love the Exhibition process and I am always amazed at the growth I see in students during the process and what they eventually come up with as their products.  The Exhibition brings together the entire PYP:  students show how they have developed as learners and as internationally minded young people who know how to make a difference in their own lives and how to enhance the lives of others.

Photo Credit: Ars Electronica Flickr via Compfight cc

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

What's New and Different: Assessment in the PYP

This is almost my final post about what is truly new and different in the Enhanced PYP.  I still want to do a post about the Exhibition, and beyond that will start to explore the areas of the Enhancements that are more of a deeper focus or where there is more guidance.  This post is going to deal with assessment and there are quite a few important differences in the Enhanced PYP - so this could be quite a long post.

For me I think one of the most important differences is the shift away from the summative assessment, which used to be required at the end of each unit of inquiry.  So important was this summative, that it was generally discussed by teachers in very the first collaborative planning meeting, as it was in the first box of the planner.  Traditionally the teacher was the assessor.  Now assessment is built in throughout the planner, it involves evidencing the learning by the students themselves as well as peers and teachers, and it is ongoing, made up for formative and summative.  There is no longer any requirement to have a summative assessment at the end of every unit, as the process of gathering, analysing, reflecting and acting on evidence of learning is what is used to inform next steps in teaching, a process now known as feed forward.  Because of this, both students and teachers need to develop their assessment capability, to consider the learning goals and success criteria and to focus on assessing both the learning process as well as the learning outcomes.

The fundamental purpose of all assessment is to gather and analyse information to inform teaching and learning through an understanding of where the student is at any given point in time.  Throughout the learning process, it identifies what students know, understand and can do.  This backward and forward-looking approach uses feedback to help students to know what they need to learn next.

The whole learning community should be involved in assessment:  students become more effective learners when they are actively engaged in assessment and when they can reflect on their progress, set their own goals, and act on constructive feedback.  Teachers become more effective when they reflect on their practice and adjust their teaching based on the evidence of learning and when they support students to become assessment capable.  Parents also become more supporting partners when they understand the learning goals.  Schools as a whole develop as learning communities when they use the assessment data to evaluate both the depth of the curriculum and the effectiveness of teaching.

In PYP: From Principles into Practice there are a list of the characteristics of effective assessment:
  • Authentic - connected to the real world
  • Clear and specific learning goals and success criteria
  • Varied - using a wide range of tools and strategies
  • Developmental - focused on an individual student's progress and not on their performance in relation to others
  • Collaborative - involving both teachers and students
  • Interactive - with ongoing dialogues about learning
  • Feedback to feedforward - where feedback is used to inform future learning.
Assessment in the Enhanced PYP has much more emphasis on student self-assessment, where students review and evaluate their knowledge, understanding and skills.  When students are able to do this, they become more responsible for their learning as they are able to incorporate feedback, plan, make corrections, and implement improvements in their learning.  Ultimately students are able to reset their own learning goals as they know where they are going in their learning and can consider what they need to do to get there.

To help students become more assessment capable, success criteria should be co-constructed.  Students need an understanding of what quality work looks like, they need to know how to incorporate feedforward into their learning, they need time to reflect and they need practice with both self-assessment and peer-assessment.

As mentioned earlier, traditionally assessment was a backwards by design process where teachers designed the summative assessment right at the start of the units by identifying what they wanted students to know, understand and do.  They often stared with designing the summative assessment and then worked backwards to plan the learning engagements to ensure that students would have the understanding, knowledge and skills to be successful in the summative.  In the Enhanced PYP there is also the term "forward by design" which supports the development of the learner profile and approaches to learning and "soft" skills that cannot easily be measured - and as a result the learning process is valued as much as the learning outcomes.

One huge change in the Enhancements is the Four Dimensions of Assessment:  teachers monitor, document, measure and report on learning using an integrated, ongoing process.   These four dimensions are not equal - in fact the PYP chooses to put the emphasis on monitoring and documenting the learning as these are critical in providing actionable feedback for the learner.
  • Monitoring learning - happens daily in every lesson.  It involves observation, questioning and reflection with a view to checking the progress of learning against students' personal learning goals and success criteria.
  • Documenting learning - this is the evidence of learning and can be physical or digital, including checklists, rubrics, learning journals, learning stories and portfolios.  This documentation is hared with others to make learning visible and apparent.
  • Measuring learning - captures what a student has learned at a particular point in time.  It's important to note that not all learning can be or needs to be measured.
  • Reporting on learning - gives clear information about learning to students and parents.
Finally a little word about feedback.  We know from the work of John Hattie that feedback is one of the most effective teaching practices, and should therefore form the core of assessment.  Feedback provides an opportunity for reflection and action and it promotes continuous improvement and celebrates success.  We also know from the work of Dylan Wiliam that "formative peer assessment, where students are helping each other improve their work, has benefits for the person that receives feedback but also has benefits for the person who gives the feedback."  Peer feedback is important because it is done in the context of relationships and is given in language that students naturally use.  It has also been observed that students are more ready to accept feedback from one another, and in giving and receiving feedback as part of the inquiry process, students increase their assessment capability.

Photo Credit: Ken Whytock Flickr via Compfight cc

Monday, June 8, 2020

What's New and Different: Learner Agency in the PYP

Until a couple of years ago I'd never used the word agency, and it took a bit of getting used to.  This was definitely a new word in my PYP vocabulary, but I used it all the time now, so let's first think about what it means.  According to the section on Learner Agency in PYP: From Principles into Practice agency "enables people to play a part in their self-development, adaptation and self-renewal with changing times" (Bandura).  Specifically as this applies to the learner it means that students "use their initiative and will, and take responsibility and ownership of their learning."  Being able to do this means students must have self-efficacy:  a belief in their ability to succeed.

Although this post is about learner agency, I think it's important to point out that ALL of us have agency.  For example a school needs to think about its own unique context.  What may be good for one PYP school may not be such a good fit for another.  In the same way teachers also have agency.  Just because there may be many teachers in a grade level who collaboratively plan the units of inquiry, it does not mean that inquiry will look the same in all classes.  Teachers will be tailoring the inquiries to the needs and curiosities of their own students - and one class may look very different from another.  There is now much more student voice and choice: whereas previously when planning teachers chose both the resources, strategies, and the way that students would learn and show their understanding, now students can play more of a role in planning, resource acquisition and writing their own inquiries. 
[They] take initiative, express interest and wonderings, make choices and are aware of learning goals.  They are actively engaged, and monitor and adjust their learning as needed.  Students offer feedback to others and consult on decisions that affect them.  In school, students take responsibility for their learning and collaborate with teachers and other students to plan, present and assess learning needs.
As mentioned before, this is only possible when students are confident in their abilities to make choices and decisions, and teachers recognise this by showing students that they are partners in the learning process.  Students need to be encouraged to ask questions, make choices and express their opinions so the role of the teacher is vitally important in encouraging and finding opportunities for students to develop these skills.  The role of the teacher in an agentic classroom is to:
  • create shared classroom agreements and routines so that there is a culture of respect and trust and where all students feel welcome and safe
  • ask for student input into the design of the learning space
  • involve students in decisions about what, why and how they learn
  • personalise learning, drawing on each student's capabilities, needs and interests
  • listen to students' wonderings and perspectives and respond in a way that extends each student's thinking
  • give open ended tasks so that students can explore their own interests
  • give opportunities for students to try new things and to develop creativity
  • make time for student action
  • monitor learning and reflect on when students need help and when they do not
Students learn by doing, so it's important to intentionally teach the ATL skills that students need to be successful.  It's also important that students are given opportunities to demonstrate the attributes of the learner profile.  Build in time for reflection, so that students can plan for their own next steps.  Also encourage students to give feedback to their peers, which may well involve grouping and regrouping students in different ways.

Remember that agency and action are closely linked.  Agency is the power to take meaningful and intentional action, while acknowledging the rights and responsibilities of everyone in the community.  It is not a case of teachers "giving" agency to the students, but in setting the conditions where it can be supported and grow.

Photo Credit: Joe Shlabotnik Flickr via Compfight cc

Sunday, June 7, 2020

What's New and Different: Action in the PYP

I started this series of posts at the beginning of this year.  I think one of my motivations to do this was that when I visit schools or conduct workshops I'm often asked about what is new in the Enhanced PYP, and I wanted to have a clear idea in my own mind about what is truly new and different, and what is simply a deeper emphasis.  Of course events in the past few months have overtaken us - all my workshops and schools visits were cancelled from March onwards, and I found it difficult to motivate myself to continue with this task.  However, I'm back on track again now and am planning my next few posts on action, agency and assessment.  This post is about action.

Traditionally action was often seen as something that was "done" at the end of a unit, sometimes even linked to a summative assessment.  Now it is viewed much more as an integral part of the learning process and something that can happen at any time.  It's an important aspect of international mindedness as well because "through action, students develop a sense of belonging to local and global communities.  They understand and recogise the interconnectedness and interdependence of issues and consider these from multiple perspectives".  When considering these different perspectives it's important to reaslise that students may consider the consequences of their action and then in fact make a responsible choice and decide not to act, if there may be a negative impact on others.  The emphasis here is on making a positive change.

Action doesn't have to be big:  in fact it can be as simple as changing your mind about something.  It can be individual or collective, and may well take place outside the school and may not be immediately visible or impactful.  When I think about this, it reminds me of reading about how Greta Thunberg started small by taking action in her own family at the age of 8 after she first learned about climate change.  Initially she persuaded her family to lower their own carbon footprint and impact on the environment by becoming vegan, upcycling and giving up flying, and only later, when she was 15, she started spending her days outside the Swedish parliament calling for stronger action on climate change, which of course then grew into a worldwide movement.  Another great example of an action that started in a small way is the Bye Bye Plastic Bags campaign started by 2 girls at the Green School in Bali.  Melati and Isabel Wijsen, who at that time were aged 10 and 12, noticed that plastic was littering the beaches and roads of Bali and started an action campaign on the island.  This has now grown into an international movement, yet it started, according to the girls, after they were inspired by a lesson in school about people who took action to make a difference, such as Nelson Mandela, Princess Diana and Mahatma Ghandi.

How about our youngest students?  Well in this context action can start simply as small adjustments in their own behaviour, how they interact with others, and in making appropriate choices.  The important thing is that action makes a difference in the life of the student and also, potentially, in the lives of others both within and outside the learning community.  Although the action is initiated by students, it can be supported by others in a collaborative way. 

I really like the way that in PYP: From Principles into Practice it describes the different forms that action can take.  Let's look at these and consider some examples:

  • Participation - this means being actively involved and contributing as a member of a group and can take the form of school and community projects as well as taking action with peers and family.  It can involve taking part in decision making for example in class or school meetings.
  • Advocacy - this is publicly supporting positive social, environmental or political change.  Again this can be very small scale such as sharing ideas with others, or it can be larger such as being part of a campaign and arguing for positive change.
  • Social justice - this form of action involves human rights, equality and equity.  It involves exploring issues of fairness from different perspectives as well as challenging assumptions and generalisations.
  • Social entrepreneurship - this is supporting positive change by responding to the needs of different communities through identifying and addressing challenges and opportunities in innovative, resourceful and sustainable ways.  It could involve such actions as establishing a recycling system or a garden club to grow vegetables.  It may involve connecting with local businesses and organisations.
  • Lifestyle choices - this means making positive lifestyle changes, for example in the area of health and wellbeing, or the sustainable consumption of food, energy, water and materials.
Since action is student-initiated, what is the role of teachers?  Teachers can support student action in many ways.  In PYP schools teachers can plan for inquiry that will support students making informed choices and create opportunities within the units of inquiry for action to happen naturally.  Teachers can also help students to develop the skills they will need to take action.  Teachers can also engage students in dialogue about what action is, acknowledge the various forms of action they see taking place, allocate time for action and collaborate with students to help them to plan and carry out action, for example through contacts with the local communities.

When thinking about action, and in particular the changes in the Enhancements, it's hard to think about these separate from agency.  Since the emphasis is now much more on student-initiated action, this can only happen in connection with student agency, where students feel empowered to link their learning to real-life issues and to initiate change as a result of their inquiries:  "When students see tangible actions that they can choose to take to make a difference, they see themselves as competent, capable and active agents of change." (Oxfam).  I'll be writing about student agency in my next post.

Photo Credit: mrsdkrebs Flickr via Compfight cc