Friday, January 5, 2024

Parents as risk takers

I'm a parent myself and so I know how stressful it can be to choose a school for my children.  In my case, because I'm an educator and my children attended the same schools where I worked, it was also a case of trying to find a job I would like in a country where we could live easily as a family, as well as one that offered the IB programmes that we were all engaged in - this narrowed down the search considerably!  In my role as a school visitor, I meet with parents in every school I visit and the first question I invariably ask is, "Why did you choose this school for your children?"  I typically get similar answers - some parents intentionally sought out an IB school as their children were already in one in a previous country or location, some parents found a school that was close to where they were living, some parents tell me that they didn't really have much choice as the school depends on benefits offered by their employer, some parents talk about the reputation of the school and for others it seems it was just luck.  There has also been a time when I asked this question and I was told by a father that he actually was using this school as a "holding pattern" as his children were on the waiting list for a more prestigious school in town.  Having said this, he went on to say that his children were so happy at the school that he had now changed him mind about moving them when a space became available.  Invariably parents talk about the change they have seen in their children, the increase in motivation and interest in what their children are learning at school, the skills that their children are developing which will benefit them in the future and the values that are embedded in an IB education.  Sometimes I meet a parents who tell me that they went to an IB school themselves and so wanted that choice for their children.  Most parents, it seems, are risk-takers: even if they don't know much about the IB itself, they appreciate that the traditional system of education that they went through is not the best preparation for a changing world, and they are therefore seeking something different for their own children.

The parents often ask me question as well - especially once they know that I'm also a parent and that my children went to schools and moved through the PYP, MYP and DP.  Of course they want to be reassured that the choices they made for their own children were good ones.  Up until recently I have not had hard data to back up my responses in these conversations, but recently I came across an IB publication about research on the programmes and I downloaded and read the PYP document.  Here are the key findings from research:

  • A study in public elementary schools in the USA found improvement in school climate in PYP schools - citing increased attention to social-emotional learning and the whole child, transdisciplinary instruction and greater teacher collaboration due to the requirements of the PYP.  After a school was authorised the study showed significant improvements in safety, caring relationships, fairness, parent involvement and a decrease in bullying.
  • In Colombia a study of PYP students shown the overwhelming majority (89.3%) enjoyed being a student in their school.
  • A study of the PYP exhibition in China, Kenya, Mexico, Russia and the UK showed that the exhibition helped develop critical thinking and international mindedness.
  • In Australia, a study about wellbeing showed PYP activities and practices promote wellbeing and again indicated more positive school climates, higher levels of teacher engagement, student participation and wellbeing.
  • A global study has shown robust results with regards to the assessment literacy of PYP teachers and assessment cultures within PYP schools, based on a holistic and ongoing approach to assessment - the researchers found a rich array of assessment activities and strategies as well as a strong grasp of the evidence required to assess student growth in knowledge, understanding and skills.
  • Also in Australia, students at PYP government schools performed at higher levels in reading and numeracy in Years 3 and 5 when compared with students in similar Australian schools.
  • In New Zealand, achievement in PYP schools generally exceeded achievement when compared to schools with similar student populations.

It's good, of course, to have the results of research studies carried out from around the world, but I think the biggest advocates of a PYP education are the students themselves.  Over and over I hear that the students are happy and engaged in their learning, and as a parent I look at my own children, now successful adults in their 30s, and feel thankful that we were also risk takers in choosing to live and work in various countries in Europe and Asia when they were younger.

Image by Daniela Dimitrova on Pixabay. Free for use under the Pixabay Content License

Monday, January 1, 2024

Supporting wellbeing in schools

Over the past few years research studies have shown the important link between wellbeing and learning outcomes.  Even before the pandemic wellbeing has been shown to impact cognitive functioning, learning engagement, focus, mood and behaviour, mental health and a more responsible and healthy lifestyle.  As I visit IB schools for evaluation visits, many of them have Programme Development Plans around wellbeing, in some cases as a response to students returning to physical schooling from online learning with issues related to fear, stress and anxiety.

Around the world, countries, schools and families dealt with the Covid pandemic in different ways.  In some countries schools did not ever go online, and in others there was online education for certain age groups and not others.  What is clear is that some countries were hit much harder than others, and measures taken were more extreme.  We know that students lost family members, teachers and school administrators which led to a heightened sense of fear of the future.  We also know that awareness about viral infections, how our bodies function and how we deal with difficult emotions has also increased, and many people have actually developed new healthy habits and behaviours as a result.  Many schools have also intentionally promoted connectedness, and open and positive dialogues about wellbeing.  In addition schools have identified that some community members have experienced more difficulty and stress and have added specialist support services to meet the needs of these members.

School closures affected over 190 countries and 1.5 billion students.  However various studies have also shown that there are strategies that can mitigate the impact of this on academic performance.  Although some students may have lost 1/3rd of expected progress in reading and maths during school closures, we also know that students did learn a lot informally during school lockdowns.  In addition questions have been raised about what the role of education is when the future is unknown and complex, and alternative ways to learn and assess learning have been explored.  There have been many positive learning experiences during online learning and schools can build new learning experiences from these.  Assisting students in setting new individual learning goals, and celebrating small achievements can build confidence and motivation at this time.

One of the biggest challenges learners faced was that of uncertainty - not just about what was going to happen in school but also in life in general.  One of the IB learner profile attributes is risk-taker, the capacity to approach uncertainty with forethought and determination ... to become resilient in the face of challenges and change", and yet not everyone is open to new experiences or can tolerate ambiguity.  A continued state of uncertainly may affect wellbeing and the giving up of school-related goals that were once seen as important and meaningful.  The world continues to change rapidly, so learning new things and dealing with unfamiliar situations is going to become increasingly important - in fact what has happened in schools can be seen as a valuable preparation for life in a changing world.  

Looking back, it is clear that no country or school had the perfect response to navigating the changes in education in recent years.  In the IB publication Why wellbeing matters during a time of crisis we are presented with the following strategies:

  • Learn from the crisis - there are opportunities for significant innovation and development and it is important to reflect on past actions, what worked well, what should be kept, and what could have been done differently.
  • Become confident with uncertainty - it is important to embrace the unknown and to foster the creation of new routines.  Learning about complexity, sensitive and controversial issues may help strengthen our tolerance for ambiguity and new challenges.
  • Invest in wellbeing routines - such as strengthening relationships and creating a safe and trusting learning environment.  
  • Re-design a wellbeing pedagogy - encourage students to set individual goals and embed wellbeing practices into the school experience.  Foster a sense of belonging.  Plan activities and workload so that all members of the community are not overwhelmed by demands.
  • Dare to experiment, share and innovate - trust your capacity to make the best decisions for your specific context.
During the pandemic, schools were champions in providing wellbeing support for students, teachers and parents.  The main challenge now is to capitalise on this experience to embed wellbeing into the day to day life of a school in order to support a healthy, flourishing learning environment for all students.

Image by Healthguru on Pixabay. Free for use under the Pixabay Content License

Sunday, December 31, 2023

Learning loss

When I visit IB schools as part of an evaluation team, I always carefully read through what the school has shared in its self-study questionnaire.  Invariably, when asked about challenges the schools have faced in the 5 year period under review, we are told about the impact of unplanned school closures and remote learning during the pandemic.  We hear about the loss of learning and the lack of development of many key social, communication and self-management skills.  

In my local schools I hear about this a lot too.  There is a government initiative to employ tutors to help students "catch up" with "lost learning".  The question is, what is actually meant by this, and is tutoring going to help?

At my previous school in India we did some research into learning loss as part of the R&D core team - this was before the pandemic so we focused on what happened during the long summer vacation - and as a result of this we temporarily prototyped a new school year calendar.  Looking back, it seems that most of the data we considered came from the USA where there appeared to be a drop in achievement in English and maths scores after the summer holidays.  The results of this data were inconclusive about the impact of a shorter summer holiday on learning.

Other studies have been done into the impact of natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes and bush fires on learning - though it is unclear how much of this loss is contributed to by the disaster-related consequences such as home being destroyed, evacuation to new areas, PTSD and so on.  Research does suggest that mental health can be affected for up to five years after a disaster and some students will need long-term support long after the disaster is over, however it also found that there is no evidence for increased school disengagement or poorer academic performance when there is a strong post-disaster response that mitigates the adverse effects.  

There is some data, too, about the potential impact of Covid-19 on learning.  For example LSE (London School of Economics) writes about a national crisis in post-pandemic school absences and states that "a huge slice of the COVID generation have never got back into the habit of regularly attending school". In the UK persistent absence is over 20%, and greater in the most deprived areas of the country - which is worrying.  Of course one thing that differs with school closures due to natural disasters is that during the pandemic most schools did provide some online instruction.  Clearly schools are now faced with more learner variability post-pandemic, however on the plus side we also know that schools are aware of strategies to overcome this.

Perhaps the biggest impact on students has not been on academic results, but instead on the need for schools to provide more holistic, social-emotional support and to focus on increasing motivation and engagement in learning, in particular with secondary rather than primary students, as they appear to have suffered more stress and therefore need more strategies to support them.  

The IB has identified key factors that can mitigate the impacts of "lost learning":

  • the development of skills to support resilience
  • a positive school environment
  • using assessment to support teaching and learning
  • goal-setting
  • differentiation
In addition for PYP students it is definitely worth considering the positive impact of a greater sense of autonomy and self-efficacy (learner agency).  In all schools I've visited, it does seem as if learner agency has strengthened in recent years, which may well be one reason why primary students appear to have fared better than secondary post-pandemic.

Image by Klimkin on Pixabay. Free for use under the Pixabay Content License

Learning in and about turbulent times

As the year closes, I think it's always good to look back on what has been achieved.  This year I have worked in 35 schools and have led regional workshops for participants from many more schools.  In some cases I have also worked with the same school multiple times as a consultant.  At the same time I've been blessed to have also been given the opportunity to work with the PYP curriculum managers over the past year as a consultant on a variety of different projects, such as the new subject continuums, the learning progressions pilot and the PYP glossary.  Most recently I've worked on revising pillars 1 and 3 of the FPiP (From principles into practice).  All this work has been rewarding and fulfilling.

This year has also seen turbulent times as the world continues to be rocked by global conflicts.  Following on from several years of disrupted education as a result of Covid, I am seeing a high level of anxiety in schools these days, as well as educators rising to these challenges with an increased focus on wellbeing.  When I'm in schools for evaluation and verification visits I hear a lot about how schools have coped with crisis - and how many are still dealing with it.  Back in 2020, in response to changed education patterns as a result of Covid, the IB published some crisis support resources and today I thought I'd take a look through these and see how relevant they still are to the situation facing schools around the world.

When I lead PYP workshops, I notice that one of the hardest things teachers grapple with is writing strong, significant central ideas.  In my work on the FPiP, I have been able to refresh some of the "old" central ideas to make them more relevant to the current thinking in the PYP.  Actually even though I know this makes me sound a bit geeky, I really enjoy revising central ideas as I think it is "hard fun".  It was therefore good to look back to some examples of central ideas that help students to learn about issues such as dealing with crises.  Units of inquiry are frequently safe spaces for students to work through challenging issues, so how can we write strong central ideas that work with all of the transdisciplinary themes?  Here are a few examples:

Who we are:  In times of crisis, people look to support the basic needs and well-being of themselves and others

Where we are in place and time:  Communities change through human displacement

How we express ourselves: People connect through the sharing of ideas, feelings and experiences

How the world works: Crises disrupt human and natural systems

How we organise ourselves:  Individual and collective action can have far reaching impacts in times of crisis

Sharing the planet: Responses to conflict can support or obstruct pathways to peace and justice.

Image by Sutorimedia on Pixabay. Free for use under the Pixabay Content License

The power of play

A couple of months ago I became a grandma (now known as GrandMaggie).  Compared to when I had my own children 30 years ago, there is now so much research available about the first weeks, months and years of a child's life.  I have dipped in and out of books that my daughter-in-law has been reading (my son actually admitted that he has read 4 of these too which is quite an achievement for him), and I've watched the excellent AppleTV documentary series called Becoming You which deals with the first 2,000 days of a child's life (basically from birth to age 5) and how they learn to move, talk, think and love.  The series covers over 100 children in 11 different countries.  However the thing that is consistent across all these children is that they learn through play. 

As someone who has spent most of 2023 deeply embedded in the work of the PYP curriculum team, I also decided to take a look at one of the IB publications entitled Inquiry through play, which is a document aimed at supporting PYP parents (and grandparents!).  Both the documentary series and the publication highlight that from birth children are hands-on natural inquirers and that they learn through playful interactions with people and their environment.  

I really like the way this publication links play with the approaches to learning skills, which help a child to be successful not just in school but throughout life.  There is a great graphic which I'm coping below that shows how play can help develop these skills (click on the image to enlarge it).

The IB publication goes on to describe how play not only develops skills, but also is important for the social, emotional, physical and mental wellbeing of children.  For example play can encourage children to explore their own creativity in a way that is fun and enjoyable, and it can also help children to make meaning of what has happened to them, and can help them to recover a sense of normality and overcome emotional pain, thereby helping to give them control over their own lives after an experience of loss or trauma.  

For me the most important thing is that children are naturally capable - they have a sense of agency and they are curious learners.  According to UNICEF and the Lego Foundation, play has 5 characteristics:

  • It is meaningful and helps children make sense of the world as new experiences are connected to something already known, so building understanding.
  • It is joyful and encourages motivation and pleasure.
  • It is actively engaging - children become deeply involved.
  • It is iterative, encouraging children to practice skills, try out possibilities and discover new challenges.
  • It is social - children communicate ideas in order to build deeper understanding and more powerful relationships.
There are many different types of play.  It can be free play which is child-led, or it can be guided play which is scaffolded by an adult.  In some cases play can be adult designed and controlled or scaffolded such as when playing games with rules.  

What advice does this document give to parents to encourage free play?  This falls into 5 main areas: materials, space, time, mess and support.  Materials can be commercial produced toys or can be objects that are found around the home, which can stimulate imaginative play (for example boxes, small objects for sorting and counting and so on).  Play can take place indoors or outdoors, in large or small spaces.  However it is important to provide plenty of uninterrupted time for play so that children become deeply involved.  Play is often not tidy so it's good to be OK with some mess.  Finally it's valuable for parents to join in with the play, while being careful to respect the child's rules and decisions (so supporting the play rather than leading the play).  Joining in with the play means you will be talking to your child and showing them you value what they are doing.  It also helps you to model behaviours that you want to encourage such as turn taking and problem solving.  Focus on asking open-ended questions to encourage discussion such as "I wonder what would happen if you ....?" or "Why do you think this happened?" or "Is there another way to try this?"

Of course the first 2000 days are only the start.  Play is something that continues beyond childhood.  The National Institute for Play explains how play is important for a health life: we need to play to keep our brains flexible, ward off depression, sustain optimism and sharpen our social-emotional skills.  However play is also very individual: playing a sport may or may not be playful, depending on your attitute, and something that looks really difficult, such as writing a book, may also be seen as play if the person doing it is engaged and feeling content with the challenge.  Clearly we can all benefit from adding more play into our lives.

Image by FeeLoona from Pixabay. Free for use under the Pixabay Content License

Monday, July 31, 2023

Learning progressions in the PYP - next steps

This post is a follow on from the last one and is looking forward to what can be expected in schools that are involved in the progressions trials that will run up to December this year.

First, a quick recap for anyone who did not read the previous post.  In April this year a Learning progression development report was published.  It stated that most curriculum is divided into standards that are chunked into discrete year levels, rather than showing connections over time.  The idea of the PYP progressions is to give explicit support to teachers so that they understand not just what learning looks like, but also how it fits into the picture of what has come before and what students will engage in later.  The aim, therefore, is to identify the transferable skills that can be developed through the subjects.  For example we talk about IB students being inquirers, so the aim is to describe what inquiry looks like in each subject, what skills are involved, how to develop them, and how to monitor and evidence the progress of these skills.

Subject guidance will be published next year and will include the following (Fig 2, taken from the above publication)

One question I'm often asked when I go to visit schools, is how explicit does the teaching of the Approaches to learning (ATL) subskills need to be.  The skills have now been grouped to indicate different behaviours of inquirers.  For example learning through play, investigating with purpose, expressing themselves using multiple representations, interacting with others, and reflecting on themselves and their learning.

Let's take a closer look at how these subskills for investigation can be identified for each subject:
  • Language skills can include identifying purpose and context, perspectives, evaluating, questioning and challenging ideas and information.
  • Mathematical skills include finding patterns, data collection and evaluating and justifying conclusions.
  • Arts skills include exploring tools, processes and materials.
  • Science skills include predicting, hypothesising, designing and interpreting data
  • Social studies skills include posing and refining research questions, utilising primary and secondary sources, timelines and sequencing, and considering the reliability of evidence sources.
  • PSPE skills include identifying, refining strategies and reflection.
I am more than excited to be part of the team working on this trial in schools.

Image by M W from Pixabay

Learning progressions in the PYP

As a number of my readers will know, I've spent the past couple of months working with the PYP Curriculum Managers on the learning continuums that will eventually replace the current scope and sequence documents.  It has been an interesting and exciting time, and the next stage of this looks like being school-based trials of the materials being developed.  But before we start on that, let's step back a little to think about learning progressions themselves and how we have got to the place we are in now.

A little over two years ago, the Learning progressions research report was published.  This report was a literature review that would provide the direction for the development of the PYP learning progressions.  In fact over the past 20 years there has been a lot of research done into this area - with some of the research referring to this as progress maps, continua, competencies and learning trajectories.  What all of these have in common is that they reference the skills, understandings and capabilities that students acquire in different stages of learning.  This enables teachers to identify gaps in skills and knowledge in order to plan for next steps in learning.  It's very much a future-facing approach to curriculum development and moving students forward - but as there has been no agreed process for developing these progressions to date, it provides the PYP with a great opportunity to develop these progressions for itself.

At this point I think it's important to be aware that assessment needs to be integrated seamlessly with instruction:  this includes checks for understanding throughout each and every lesson, the designing of rigorous engagements for students, and observing and monitoring student performances.  As stated in the report, "learning progression[s] strengthen the connection between curriculum and assessment."  This is an enormous help to teachers who traditionally have had difficulty in determining next steps in learning and the feedback they need to provide that will move the learning forward (feedback to feed forward).

The term "backwards by design" is one that has been used regularly to describe both the PYP and MYP curriculum planning.  This involves using the curriculum to set goals/outcomes and then deciding how the learning will be assessed before choosing the instructional methods that will support the learning acquisition.  In this way "All activities are seen as assessment tasks".  However learning progressions focus more on a "forward by design" process which allows teachers to design tasks beyond what is currently being taught in order to identify if learners are achieving past what is taught.

Of course many PYP schools have to deal with national or state standards, assessed by standardised assessments that measure the educational requirements for a particular grade in each subject area.  Often student learning outcomes and success criteria are proscribed; in these cases the focus is often more on the accountability for outcomes rather than in improving instruction.  Again, many schools deal with mandated scope and sequence documents, which do not recognise that learners in a particular grade and subject are starting at different points and learning in different ways.

Learning progressions are very different from these approaches!  They are focused on longer time periods (not just one academic year) and the acknowledge that students will lie at different points along the progression - hence the vital importance of differentiation.  Learning progressions, therefore, do not reference age or year levels, but instead present as a continuum showing increasing expertise.  In this way they provide a reference for establishing where each student in in their learning and for monitoring their growth over time.

As well as this, learning progressions are rooted in Vygotsky's zone of proximal development, and they encourage learner agency as students can make decisions about their own learning and next steps and teachers and others in the community can use them to make decisions as to how better to help.

It's important for educators to realise that the PYP is not a syllabus, but a curriculum framework.  Although the progressions will describe the skills of an IB learner and what they can do, they are better seen as a skeleton from which schools can design their own scope and sequence documents.  Some of the progressions will be subject based and others will be skill based - thereby making the approaches to learning visible.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay