Tuesday, July 27, 2010

There are numerous pathways to understanding

One of the joys of working in an IB World School is the emphasis the IB places on learning how to learn. The PYP curriculum is broken down into the written curriculum (what do we want to learn?), the taught curriculum (how best will we learn?) and the learned curriculum (how will we know what we have learned?). As PYP teachers, therefore, we have to give equal attention to the content, our pedagogy and assessment.
This year I’ve had a number of conversations with friends who are teaching secondary students about the “dumbing down” of the curriculum. Some of these are colleagues I used to work with when I was teaching in England, who are concerned about the standards of the GCSEs and A’Levels in England being lower in recent years; some of them are colleagues in international schools who are worried about the number of students they are teaching with special needs and how we are meeting these needs. One of the words that has cropped up frequently in these conversations is “rigor” (or the lack of it). Sadly, some of them have even referred to differentiation as the “dumbing down” of the curriculum.
In my holiday reading I came across a quote from Alfie Kohn:

A lot of horrible practices are justified in the name of “rigor” or “challenge”. People talk about “rigorous” but often what they really mean is “onorous” with schools turned into fact factories. This doesn’t help kids become critical thinkers or lifelong learners.
If we accept that there are many ways to learn something, differentiation should be making the learning more stimulating and meaningful for students at a level of challenge appropriate to each of them. It should not involve “dumbing down”, however there is no point in a student struggling to learn or show his or her understanding in a way that is too difficult, when he or she may be able to do this in a simpler way more appropriate to his or her abilities. For teachers finding ways to do this is challenging - in fact finding ways of meeting individual student needs is one of our greatest challenges as teachers and something that we cannot just change overnight. Many teachers are also concerned about the amount of time and work it would take to differentiate their classrooms. In their book Making the Difference, Bill and Ochan Powell make the point that differentiation shouldn’t involve adding something extra:

It is, in fact, a different way of doing the same thing – but from the perspective of the learner, doing it more effectively and more efficiently.
Earlier this school year several of my colleagues went to Rome for a differentiation workshop with Carol Ann Tomlinson. As I travel to school with one of these colleagues, we had many great discussions about this workshop in our drives back and forth. I didn’t attend the conference, so this is second hand, but the main message I got from these discussions is that developing a differentiated curriculum is a slow process. With 6 units of inquiry, we should perhaps aim to differentiate one unit in the first year, and then another the year after. Colleagues in the same team may well be working on differentiating other units that we can then share. My aim for next year as an IT teacher, therefore, will be to ensure that during the course of the year, each grade level has at least one unit where the students have a choice in how they use IT for the “finding out” part of the inquiry cycle, and a similar choice in how they use IT for showing what they understand.

Photo Credit:  Crayola by Thomas Hawk

Assessment OF learning –v- Assessment FOR learning

I first heard the phrase “assessment for learning” when I attended a Project Zero Summer Institute while I was a teacher at the International School of Amsterdam. Although at the time I’d been teaching for nearly 20 years, this institute changed the way I thought about teaching and learning and I came back from it feeling like a new teacher ready to revise everything I’d ever done before.



My own experience of assessment when I was at school was that it was always assessment of learning. At the end of each year of school we had exams in every subject and ended up with 2 grades: the % we had scored on the exam and the ranking of where we were in the class for that subject. Having my exam scores compared with the other girls in my class probably wasn’t very helpful for me in knowing if I was actually making progress in my learning. In my class of 33 girls I was always somewhere in the top half of the class and the assessment never really bothered me. I think I would have had a different experience and opinion had I been somewhere in the bottom half and I would probably have become extremely demotivated - no matter how much progress those students were making the other girls were probably making equal progress and they still ended up at the bottom of the list!



This May my son, who is at university, did his end of year exams. One of the papers was made up entirely of multiple choice questions, which is something that, coming through the IB system, he was not used to. Throughout his schooling and in particular during the final 2 years of the IB diploma, he was working on developing higher order thinking skills, and here he was at university being asked to simply recall facts. Somehow this seemed wrong and he did not do particularly well on this paper (despite gaining top marks on other papers). He learned a lesson from this: next year he has looked into the various modules on offer and how they are assessed and he has chosen the ones that more closely fit his style of learning and demonstrating what he knows. One of the modules, apparently, is assessed orally, which he is really good at. Thankfully he is able to make this choice so that hopefully his final degree will more truly reflect his abilities and efforts.



At the International School of Amsterdam I was introduced to the idea of formative and summative assessment, but it was only after attending Project Zero that I began to realize that writing reports that included an average grade for the course or trimester, was not actually a useful way of showing what the students knew and could do.



Assessment of learning is a snapshot – it shows where a student is at a particular time and is often used with benchmarks or learning outcomes. Assessment for learning is different as it is used not only to look at student progress but also to motivate the students and promote further learning – the student is not given a final score or rank, but is part of the process of finding out where he or she is on the learning journey and how best to move forward. As such, assessment for learning focuses on how students learn, not just what they are learning and therefore student self-assessment is very important. Perhaps the biggest difference is that assessment for learning is constructive and encouraging and deals with the students’ individual progress and accomplishments as well as indicating what they need to do next in order to improve, whereas assessment of learning may end up being destructive – of confidence and motivation – and the student may end up not wanting to learn more.



All of this is very well, but the problem that many teachers may face is that they have to write reports at the end of a year or semester where the students are given a final grade. Like most teachers, I used to do this by averaging the scores, but after attending the Project Zero Summer Institute I came to realize that this was not very productive. Last year I taught IB Geography and since I knew the students would have to write essays in their final exams, we did a lot of work on how best to answer the questions using the rubrics provided by the IB. About 4 months before the students took their final exams, I had to write a report and come up with a predicted grade. At this point it would have been ridiculous for me to come up with a grade based on the average, as the students had all made progress throughout the final year of the course and the average would actually give them a lower score than they were currently achieving - it made more sense to look at what the students had already mastered and what they were still working on in order to determine the grade. This year I have faced the same issues with MYP Technology – some students only actually reached the criteria at the end of the year and an average would not have reflected what they actually could do by the end of the course. Perhaps some of them only actually managed to do some of these things days or weeks before school finished in the summer, nevertheless they could do them.



Last summer one of my friends ran a half marathon. Although she didn’t run it particularly quickly, and although she was overtaken by many runners on the way, the important thing for her was that she finished and that she didn’t stop or give up. In the same way, education should not be a race to see who can cross the line first, it is more about making sure that all the students reach the line eventually, at their own pace and then celebrating each one, regardless of how long it takes them to get there.

Photo Credit:  Gold Coast Marathon by Michael Dawes

The IB Learner Profile – Communicator

When I was a class teacher I used to make sure that every student in the class worked with every other student at least once during the year. Sometimes I gave the students a choice, but they had to pick someone they hadn’t worked with before. Sometimes I managed the groupings to put together students who would not naturally have chosen to work together. The IB Learner Profile defines communicators as:

They work effectively and willingly in collaboration with others.
Of course sometimes the students grumbled about these groups, but I had a clear expectation that they would have to make a success of working with everyone. I told them that in life we don’t often get to choose our colleagues or our neighbours therefore it was an important life skill to be able to get on with people – they didn’t have to like the person they were working with but they did have to respect them and make an effort to work productively. I promised all of them that if they didn’t make a success of the grouping this time round, I would be sure to give them another opportunity later in the year to work with that person again and do a better job of it. Most times I didn’t have to do this more than once. What often amazed me was that at the end of the activity I would often ask the students how they had got along in their group. Many of the students said things like: “Well, I wouldn’t have chosen to work with him, but we did a good job together.” Others actually said “I work better when I don’t work with my friends – I just get on and do what we have to do and don’t mess around or chat.”

Eventually the students came to accept all the groups they were put into. They learned how to work with all the other students in the class in a respectful and positive way in order to get the job done, and they were also able to articulate what they had done in their groups, what had been successful and what still needed to be improved upon. I think as a result of these group activities all the students became better communicators.

Photo Credit:  Team Work by yckhong

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Start with a blank planner

At my old school, our PYP Coordinator used to tell us to “start with a blank planner” rather than pull out the planner we had completed the year before and rework it. Actually a lot of teachers grumbled about this approach and said it was reinventing the wheel, but now that I’ve moved to another school I can see the logic behind it. If we always start with the end in mind it’s easier to think about how to get there. If we start with what we did before, with a book we used the previous year or a favourite activity or lesson plan that we are simply recycling, we merely end up with an activity-based learning experience rather than truly focusing on the concepts we want the students to understand.

Photo Credit:  Blank by Cameron Cassan

What sex is your brain?

The BBC website used to have a quiz on it called What Sex Is Your Brain? It was an interesting little quiz involving various tasks and reacting to various (very similar) images of faces. A couple of months ago I attended a workshop in Munich with Dan Pink, looking at the differences between the left and right sides of the brain. I was interested to learn that some of these are gender based.



As a child growing up in the 1960s I had a pretty traditional upbringing. I wore skirts and dresses and played with dolls. My brothers wore trousers and played with cars and train sets. All of us went to single-sex secondary schools. During the time I’ve been a teacher I’ve heard over and over again that boys do better than girls in science and maths. This wasn’t an issue when I was at school, as there were only girls so we were all expected to do well in those subjects. Looking back I would estimate that there were as many girls who were interested in and who chose to study science subjects as there were who chose to study languages and arts. Of course some subjects were not offered at all at my school: woodwork, metalwork, technical drawing and so on. In the country as a whole, however, I would guess that in the 1960s and 1970s boys did better than girls and probably went to university in greater numbers.



I started teaching in the early 1980s – the schools I worked in were all mixed and girls and boys did all subjects together (I remember, for example, the boys doing needlework, sewing some amazing embroidery onto their denim jackets). At the time I was full of lofty ideas and would have laughed at anyone who said boys did better than girls in the sciences – I would probably have argued that boys and girls had the same opportunities and would do equally well. My actual experience, however, was that the girls tended to do better in ALL subjects (though I didn’t actually teach either science or maths at that stage). I put this down to the fact that the boys tended to be more inattentive and restless than the girls, and the girls tended to be more conscientious, to concentrate and get on with the tasks. I sometimes also wondered, especially after I started teaching technology, if the girls did better because I was a woman and was acting as a positive role model for them.



More recently it seems that “girls are the new boys” as one UK newspaper put it. There is a gap between the achievement of girls and boys in most Western countries. Boys are more likely to drop out of school than girls, and next year it is predicted that 60% of students studying for degrees will be women. So we are back to the age-old question: are the brains of boys and girls different and is it nature rather than nurture that accounts for these differences?



Brain research has shown that the male brain is more asymmetric than the female brain and that it is more specialized. Studies of stroke victims show that females seem to use both hemispheres of their brains for language, whereas males use the left more. Other studies have shown differences in brain development – areas of the brain that are involved in language and fine motor skills mature earlier in female brains, whereas spatial memory matures earlier in male brains.



Girls have often been described as having “face to face” friendships – they talk together, share personal details and so on as their language skills are more highly developed. Boys, whose early development is more spatial, have been described as having “shoulder to shoulder” friendships – they are more likely to be involved in sports or playing games rather than engrossed in conversation. Clearly these differences in the brain make it easier for girls to sit still and concentrate in class, especially when the activities involve a lot of listening or language.



More studies have shown that the human eye and ear varies between males and females too. Boys are more sensitive to movement, girls are more sensitive to colour and texture. This could explain why girls find it easier to include lots of visual details in their writing. Girls also have more sensitive hearing than boys which could be why boys are louder and why girls appear more distracted by noise in the classroom.



Boys and girls react differently to competition. This could be because there is more oxytocin in girls’ brains – this has been called “the bonding chemical”. With less oxytocin in boys’ brains they are more likely to be risk-takers, impulsive and aggressive and more competitive.



Looking at all the medical evidence, therefore, it would seem that nature is more important than nurture in determining success at school – but this is probably because of the way schools are set up and the way classes are managed making them more friendly to the female brain. Currently, with more than 100 identified structural and chemical differences between the male and female brain, it would seem girls have a learning advantage in schools. However as teachers we have a responsibility to make our classes more “boy-friendly” and to come up with different activities that help boys to focus and concentrate, as well as different assignments that will enable them to show what they know.



(Final thought: I’ve just watched University Challenge, Oxford –v- Cambridge, and out of the 8 contestants 7 of them were young men. Does this disprove my idea that girls do better than boys at all levels of education I wonder, or is it a reflection on boys being more competitive?)

Photo Credit:  Their World by RossWebsdale

The Medicalization of Misbehaviour

The title of this post was coined by Leonard Sax, writing about the dramatic increase in the use of drugs such as Ritalin by parents to deal with poor attention and disruptive behaviour in their children. Sax says: “In a bizarre turn of events, it’s become politically incorrect to spank your child, but it’s OK to drug him.”

I was talking about this issue with my own 19 year old son recently. When he was in 3rd Grade he was diagnosed as having ADD and Ritalin was one of the options we were given, but which we refused. We felt that with the right sort of support in school, the right sort of classroom management and organization, the right sort of stimulation and interest, medication could be avoided. The school was supportive and offered him a weekly session in social skills, which was extremely helpful. He was also given a laptop computer to help him with his poor writing skills.



I remember at the time having a conversation with the mother of another student in his class who was being medicated. She said that the way she looked at it, if her daughter had been diagnosed as diabetic she would not hesitate to give her insulin, therefore when her daughter was diagnosed with ADD she did not hesitate to give her Ritalin. The implication was that by “withholding” medication that was “needed” this was in some way similar to child abuse.



This summer our son told us how glad he was that we had encouraged him to cope without medication, by changing the circumstances he was in and giving him strategies to cope. He is quite a “sparky” sort of person and he feels that medication would have dulled that spark. I’m very aware that we were lucky: being in the international system class sizes were small, teachers were excellent, problems were picked up and dealt with immediately and extra support was provided. I also bless the teacher who alerted us to the fact that there was a big gap between his ability and his actual performance in class. This support isn’t available to all students. I’m also very aware that some students benefit tremendously from the right medication and that without it those students would be at risk of failing or dropping out of school altogether. However over the 28 years that I have been teaching I have noticed a year by year increase in the percentage of students I teach who do take medication and my question is: do they all really need it and are there alternatives that have not yet been explored?

Photo Credit:  Day 242/365 by thp356

G & T (part 2)

Having written a little about gifted and talented students a few days ago, I’ve been asking myself how it’s possible to define G&T. I have heard teachers in the past who referred to these students as being the top 2-3% of students, but I’ve been wondering how this has been measured. Today I came across a diagram that seems to give me some answers. This diagram is based on the work of Renzuelli’s Three Ring Conception of Giftedness.



Evidence of Ability: abstract thinking, high levels of verbal and numerical reasoning, rapid information processing, applying learning to new situations, making connections to real life situations.

Evidence of Creativity: original and flexible thinking, making new connections, taking risks.

Evidence of Commitment: focused attention, enthusiasm, involvement, sustained interest, perseverance, setting high standards.



In addition to the above, it seems that gifted students should be producers of knowledge, rather than just consumers of knowledge. This is because they have managed to find new connections.



One of the interesting things I’ve been reading about gifted students is that many of them may actually be under-achievers. For example they may be bored or switched off the tasks given to them so may not show much commitment. Also, because a lot of classroom work may be easy for them, they may not have fully developed their problem-solving abilities or be very responsive to new challenges. Because they have not experienced much failure, they may not know how to cope with it or how to reflect on and learn from a bad experience.



How to teach gifted students is not something that I’ve thought about a lot during my teaching career. Perhaps the fact that I started off as a secondary teacher and then moved down to primary has given me a few extra resources for dealing with some of the high achieving students I have come across over the years. What I realized this year, however, is that not all primary teachers have this experience and many of them may be overwhelmed. I’m thinking in particular about teachers in the upper grades of primary school. For example, a 5th grade teacher with a student who is working at an 8th grade standard in maths may not have the experience of secondary maths to fall back on in order to enrich the lessons for that student. This teacher is probably not a maths specialist and may feel unsure or inadequate when dealing with a student who is gifted in maths. A secondary teacher who teaches throughout the secondary school and who has a 6th grade maths student working at a 9th grade level is probably in a better position and may have a lot of resources to give that student enrichment work.



In most of the schools I have worked, both national and international, the focus of the special needs/learning support department was to support the students who were struggling, with little support for the students who needed to be accelerated. I’ve never been in a school with a G&T programme and I’m not sure I really agree with it, but I am wondering now what is the best way to support gifted students in their regular classrooms.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The IB Learner Profile – Reflective

The response to my last blog post about the IB Learner Profile attribute “caring” caused me to think in much greater depth about our roles as teachers. As I thought back on my experience in IB World Schools over the past 22 years, I realized I was exhibiting another attribute of the Learner Profile – being reflective.



While I’ve often heard the phrase “learning from experience” it’s clear to me that you don’t often learn from experience alone – the only way you really learn is to reflect on that experience in order to change or develop something. When you have a negative experience you may actually learn nothing at all from it except not to do it again. Because this year we have had serious problems with the technology actually working in our school, many teachers have not had a great experience when they decided to use technology in their classrooms. For example, one teacher decided to do photography with the students as part of the How We Express Ourselves unit of inquiry. She planned the lesson well and made a Powerpoint using examples of images from a friend of hers who is a photographer. The students were encouraged to think about composition, colour, texture and light when taking their photographs around the school and they went out and took amazing photos following this lesson. So far so good.



The problem came with transferring these photos from the cameras to the computers. The first experience of this was a total disaster. Heidi had booked a set of MacBooks and planned to do the activity in iPhoto so that the students could edit and frame their photos before saving and printing. She already knew she couldn’t get a wireless connection in her classroom, so had arranged to use the dining room. The first problem she encountered was that it was not possible to log onto iPhoto as a class. Once she had sorted out this problem she was faced with an extremely long transfer time for the students actually getting the photos onto the network. At this point Heidi may well have given up and decided to do a different activity, but through reflecting on what had not worked we were able to try different ways around this, such as using the wired lab, rather than doing the activity on wireless laptops, and transferring the photos onto the computers using the cables. Although we still had problems (different versions of iPhoto on the labs and laptops), we were able to manage them. At the end of the unit, when we finally reflected on what the students had learned – and what we had learned about the technology – we decided that we would still like to use photography again as it was a great experience for the students and the final images they printed out and saved for their portfolios showed they had understood the different photographic techniques Heidi had shown them, but we also realized that we would have to make several changes to the way we used the technology in order to be successful.



Teacher are often accused of having just one year of teaching experience and repeating it many times. We all know of teachers who regularly recycle their lesson plans from one year to the next and who use the same old, tired resources year after year. To break out of this cycle it is important to be reflective, to think carefully about what worked and what didn’t and why, and if we then decide to do a similar activity in the future we will be doing it in a different way in order for it to be more successful.

Photo Credit:  RefleXive Alice by Cambiodefractal

Teaching in Isolation and Silence in Staff Meetings

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been staying with my mother for the past week and have been without internet and feeling rather cut off, that I’ve been thinking a lot this week about teachers working in isolation.



At the end of our school year we had several staff meetings where information was given out to us, and where both good and bad news was met with what was mostly silence. Now this could be because we were at the end of a very tough year and the teachers were probably just exhausted. However it could also be because for whatever reason teachers just didn’t want to express themselves openly at these large all-school meetings. This is rather worrying as I’ve always thought that silence in meetings is a bad sign, and that teachers working in isolation is a major problem for schools trying to improve student learning.



Roland Barth writes in Educational Leadership (March 2006) “the nature of relationships among adults within a school has a greater influence on the character and quality of that school and on student accomplishment than anything else. If the relationships between administrators and teachers are trusting, generous, helpful and cooperative, then the relationships between teachers and students, between students and students and between teachers and parents are likely to be trusting generous, helpful and cooperative. If, on the other hand, relationships between administrators and teachers are fearful, competitive, suspicious and corrosive, then these qualities will disseminate throughout the school community.”



As mentioned before in previous posts, in an IB school everyone should be aspiring to the IB Learner Profile. We are all learners – teachers and administrators as well as students. The aim, therefore, is for us to make our schools into professional learning communities where we work together to improve teaching and learning for all. When our schools become professional learning communities it becomes impossible for teachers to work in isolation or for staff meetings to be silent – as we are all collaborating, sharing the responsibility for and reflecting on how we are meeting our goals. This also puts some responsibility onto the administrators running these meetings, however. Staff meetings shouldn’t really be places where information is passed out (this can be easily done in an email, daily bulletin and so on). Instead they should be places where we are positive and constructive, where we celebrate good practice, share ideas, listen to each other even when we disagree and work towards greater understanding of issues and they should be places where decisions are made with input from all.

Photo Credit:  No Going Back by Mariano Kamp

G & T

For about half of my teaching career the only meaning the letters G and T had for me was the gin and tonic I would have when I got home from a day at work. It was only after being a secondary teacher in England and the Netherlands that I moved into middle school education and came across an American colleague who had been a gifted and talented teacher in his previous school.


Having a gifted and talented programme was entirely new to me. As mentioned in a previous post, I had spent a number of years in remedial education, but in my schools in England and in the international school where I worked in Holland, there was no real focus on the students who were at the top end of the spectrum. Back in the early 1980s when I was a newly qualified teacher, the closest thing to a gifted programme was the fact that the school where I worked was streamed by ability. The school was in a town called Knottingley, and the way the classes were streamed was that the “top” class was K, the next one down was N and so on. Right at the bottom was my remedial class (4Y). Later, when it became not so politically correct to label the classes in this way, they took on the surname of the teacher so my class became 4M – the students, however, still always had the feeling that they were at the bottom of the pile.


One of my brothers was seen as being a gifted student when he was at school in the 1970s. Again, there was no provision for this at his school, but the head teacher (who had studied astrophysics at university) did withdraw him for some lessons in order to teach him privately. I suspect quite a bit of the motivation for this was that the head of this suburban school in a fairly deprived area of east London wanted the kudos of getting one of his students into a “top” university. My brother did end up going to Oxford to study astrophysics and whether or not he would have done this without the intervention of his head teacher is open to debate.


I still know very little about the gifted and talented programme offered in some schools so all I have are questions about effective or desirable these programmes are. Of course students who have already mastered the current content (in maths for example) or who master it very quickly need to be stretched further, otherwise they will actually be learning less than others in their class for whom this content is new. But my questions revolve around whether or not this could be better accomplished in a regular classroom instead of these “special” students being withdrawn. Surely it must be possible to offer enrichment options or different activities for those students? And surely it must be possible to give more support to the teachers who are providing these extra opportunities to gifted students?


(In the case of my brother he dropped out of Oxford after a year and a half and went to Southampton University where he completed a degree in engineering.)

Photo Credit:  Gin and Tonic by Pedro Moura Pinheiro

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Thoughtful and thought-provoking teaching

This past year at school I have been talking more and more about giving students choices about the way they show what they know. Oftentimes I have been in collaborative planning meetings where teachers have been discussing a summative assessment for their unit of inquiry and the discussions invariably centre on just one way of assessing the students – so that it looks the same for all and can be assessed using the same rubric. Even when teachers have come up with great central ideas, they still find it hard to come up with differentiated summative assessments that allow each student to show his or her understanding in a unique way.



Of course, the first and most important task for us at these planning meetings is to have a good central idea. Because the PYP is concept based rather than topic based, it’s important to come up with concepts that have “enduring value” – they will still be as important 20 years in the future. The first time I ever dealt with the idea of concepts rather than topics was when I was working at the International School of Amsterdam in the early 1990s. Up to this time, as a social studies teacher I had been given a text book and had basically used this to teach the class for a whole year. Suddenly instead of a year devoted to ancient civilizations, or one devoted to 20th century history, we came up with concepts such as “revolutions” that could be studied across time, including the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, the Russian revolution and so on. At another school where psychology was also taught as part of humanities, students studied the “Lucifer effect” (what makes ordinary people do bad things?) and because humanities also included history students had the choice of looking at various events that demonstrated the Lucifer effect such as the genocide in Rwanda, Russia under Stalin and so on.



In the same school in her English lessons, my daughter also worked on concepts. These included things like “rags to riches” themes with stories ranging from The Ugly Duckling through to The Elephant Man and “monster” stories that ranged from Beowolf through to the script of Alien. Two years on, she is still able to remember the concepts covered and what’s more she can read a book or watch a film and see how closely the story fits with these themes.



From these few examples it’s clear to see that differentiating around a concept is far easier than differentiating around content that must be covered. In the case of the Lucifer effect, students had a choice about what to study, in the case of my daughter’s English lessons students also had a choice of literature and also of media (as they could choose to watch the movies).



This year I’ve also been concerned with trying to differentiate on the product that students create to show their understanding – this product should also reflect their interests and learning styles. For example our Grade 4s studied the concept of belief systems, which gave them a choice of what they wanted to investigate. They had a choice of 3 different ways of showing their understanding . Some students chose to interview someone of a particular religion and then to write about the interview. Some students chose to find images and then to record a VoiceThread showing their understanding, others decided to write a script and record it as a movie. Years ago, when I was a 5th Grade teacher we also used to have a weekly book sharing session. Each week one student chose a book they had recently read that they wanted to recommend to other students in the class – this meant that during the course of a year each student shared just 2 books they had read. They could share this book in many different ways – some chose to make an oral presentation, some chose to make a board game, some chose to make a comic strip, others came dressed up as a character from the novel and some students decided to make a shoebox diorama of a scene in their book. When I look back on the book sharing sessions I see them as being so successful because each student was able to share his or her book confidently in whatever way they wanted – students used their strengths and therefore produced high quality work. One of the biggest successes of this was a boy who struggled all year with his reading and writing, but who was respected by the rest of the class for the amazing “graphic novels” he produced based on the books he had read. If he had been asked to write a summary of the books he would have struggled with his writing and therefore would not have been focused on the content of what he was trying to get across and would not therefore have made a very convincing recommendation. For Max, the greatest measure of his success was that other students chose to read the books he had illustrated.



In allowing students to make choices about how best to show their understanding, it is very important for the teachers to develop good questioning techniques to encourage all students to develop higher order thinking skills – it is these open-ended questions that will allow multiple entry points into the subject and that will allow students to access the concept at their own level. It is these questions that will be challenging and thought-provoking, which in turn will lead to the students being motivated and thoughtful in their inquiries. In addition, to address the concerns of teachers who want to end up with just one rubric to use with all students on their summative assessment, this is possible with a concept-based curriculum such as the PYP. The rubric assesses the understanding of the concept, which should be the same for all students, even when the content, process, product or learning style of the students and the way they have reached their understanding of the concept may be different for them all.

Photo Credit:  Smile at a Stranger by 1Happysnapper

Asking the students what they think

This week I’ve been at my Mum’s in England. I’ve been travelling around on public transport and seeing students who used to go to my old school. This got me thinking about how I viewed my own teachers when I was at school, over 30 years ago. I’ve also been continuing to read the Bill and Ochan Powell book Making the Difference. In Chapter 4 of this book Bill and Ochan quote a survey carried out by Jean Ruddock - asking students what qualities in their teachers they thought would lead to an increase in student learning. This is what the students said:



1. Teachers should enjoy teaching the subject – and pass on this enthusiasm to the students. This enthusiasm comes from a deep knowledge of the curriculum and the belief that this content is important for students to learn. The teachers’ enthusiasm is seen by students as being more important than the actual content.

2. Teachers should enjoy teaching young people and create a climate that is supportive and encourages risk taking.

3. Lessons should be interesting and should be connected and relevant to life beyond school.

4. Teachers should be willing to have a laugh, but at the same time should know how to maintain order.

5. Teachers should be fair. This is a difficult one as fairness could be defined by students as equality (treating everyone the same) or it could be defined by them as equity (treating everyone according to their needs). One interesting thing to come out of the report is how the students defined unfair treatment. Most of the time they meant unreasonable instead of unfair and this implied they did not understand the reasons for decisions that were made. Often a teacher can be seen as fair just by explaining the reason for a situation to the students.

6. Teachers should be easy to talk to. This calls for teachers to have well developed listening skills and for them to be trustworthy as well as being able to give sound advice.

7. Teachers should not shout – this is often seen as threatening and inhibits risk taking, creativity and higher level thinking.

8. Teachers should not make comparisons between schools, classes, students or siblings as this can undermine self-esteem and achievement. A negative self-image leads to failure in school.

9. Teachers should explain things without making students feel small.

10. Teachers should not give up on their students – having high expectations are extremely powerful. If we aim too low this sends a message to students that they are not capable or that we don’t care.



When I reflect back on my own time at school, I can easily identify the teachers who enthused and motivated me. I’m sure, for example, that I went on to study Geography directly as a result of the love of this subject by my A’Level Geography teacher who was always going off to different parts of the world on field trips and who would bring back and share with us her slides and photos. This probably influenced me to become a bit of a globe-trotter as an international teacher myself, and in turn may well have been the reason why my son, who is now at university studying Geography himself, became interested in the subject.



Bill and Ochan make another important point. Many teachers, when asked to recall a particularly successful lesson or teaching experience, tend to recall lessons from their own childhood rather than recent ones by their colleagues. This is a worrying finding as it indicates how isolated many teachers are in their own rooms – they may plan collaboratively, but often the actual teaching goes on in isolation in many classes. Teachers, therefore, often lack recent examples of pedagogical excellence.



In my own teaching I’m extremely lucky. As an IT teacher who is responsible for integrating IT into the curriculum I’m never teaching alone. Either the class teacher brings his or her class to the lab and I work with them there, or else I go to their classrooms and do the IT there. This has been one way of professionally developing the teachers with IT of course, but I have learnt so much as well from going into the classes and seeing what the teachers are doing and how they are doing it. Our aim is to co-plan, co-teach and co-assess all the units of inquiry. We are not there yet, but we have made a good start.

Photo Credit:  Chinese Class by cleverCl@i®ê>

Monday, July 12, 2010

Learning Outcomes -v- Differentiation

This year at school we have started to focus on drawing up learning outcomes and to this end the curriculum leaders have begun to use Atlas Rubicon to map the curriculum.  At the same time some teachers have attended a workshop on differentiation with Carol Ann Tomlinson.   On the face of it, it might seem that we are moving in two different directions:  on the one hand developing standards and benchmarks for the knowledge and skills expected at each grade level, which would require some sort of standardised assessment and on the other hand looking at each student's achievement on an individual basis and allowing each student to express his or her knowledge in the way he or she chooses.

This year some students at school were involved in stardardised tests - my 10th Grade daughter, for example, was involved in ACER testing last October for mathematical literacy (which gave a measure for quantity, space and shape, change and relationships and something called uncertainty which appeared to measure her grasp of statistics and graphing), reading (which measured her retrieval of information, interpreting and reflecting) and writing (which measured her performance in writing a narrative and in exposition/argument).  The tests were from the Australian Council for Educational Research and apparently the results show how she measured against other students in international schools.  Although it was interesting to see the results, they were of very little use to us as parents - the narrative reports written by her subject teachers were what we were really interested in.  At my school there was no "teaching to the test".  In fact, since my daughter was new to the school this year, her scores were no reflection at all on the teaching and learning that was going on at the school.  However in other schools I have definitely heard of teachers being put under pressure to prepare students for these tests (the results of which are made public to the parents) and in the weeks before the tests this preparation has influenced the class instruction.

Many, many years ago, when I was also a classroom teacher, I also had to administer some standardised tests:  the Iowa tests.  In my international classroom with almost no students from the USA, and with many students who were not native English speakers, the tests did seem to be very unfair, in particular the maths paper which had American measurements on (such as lbs and oz) which were a complete mystery to my students.

I'm not totally against benchmarks, of course - in fact in my subject (IT) I have drawn up benchmarks for  various IT skills from K - 12 (though this is under constant revision).  Benchmarks allow the teachers to know what is expected - however differentiation should allow students to reach these benchmarks in different ways.

Back to my holiday reading .... today I have read further into Bill and Ochan Powell's book Making the Difference.  They have drawn up a graphic organiser for differentiation which has Knowing Your Students on the vertical axis and Knowing Your Curriculum on the horizontal axis - there are therefore 4 quadrants.  I have tried to reproduce a simple version of this below:


The Beginning Teacher lacks experience of the curriculum and probably has not had enough time to develop many different instructional strategies.
The Relationship Orientated Teacher has a deep knowledge of the students but lacks advanced knowledge of the curriculum - this teacher creates a wonderful, supporting classroom atmosphere and is popular with the students.  Learning activities may be fun and engaging but may lack depth.
The Subject Orientated Teacher has an excellent knowledge of his or her subject and knows how to teach it so that students do well in exams.  This teacher teaches the subject, rather than the students, yet often has the reputation of being one of "the best" teachers because of the exam results or because of being given the brightest and highest achieving students.  This teacher often uses a limited range of instructional strategies.
The Differentiating Teacher has knowledge of the students and the curriculum, comes up with clear learning goals and has a wide range of instructional strategies.  In this classroom there are challenges, but they are not too difficult (which would result in frustration) and not too easy (which would result in boredom).  This teacher is able to judge the "readiness" of each student and can adjust the tasks accordingly to encourage the students to move forward at a pace that is suitable for them.

I like this model, which clearly shows that there is no contradiction between having learning outcomes and being able to differentiate the instruction - in fact standards and benchmarks and differentiation are complementary!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Caring and Differentiation

After the comments based on my last blog post, I've been thinking some more about caring over the past few days and how a caring teacher will be one who creates a differentiated classroom to respond to the needs of all students.  In order to clarify some of these thoughts, I have gone back and read a chapter from Bill and Ochan Powell's book Making the Difference, which I first read during a series professional learning community meetings in a previous school where this issue was discussed.

Bill and Ochan describe a differentiated classroom as "a place where teaching and learning are flexible, purposeful and respectful."  It's interesting that they come back to the word respectful, which is something else I've been thinking and blogging about recently. The word respect comes from the Latin word that means "to look again" and a respectful classroom is one where the students are given "equal opportunities for the development of conceptual understanding".

Carol Ann Tomlinson points out that differentiation involves flexibility of instruction, activities and assessment to fit a diverse group of learners.  Therefore the caring teacher will be listening to and observing his or her students and will change the method of instruction, the time allowed to do the task, the materials, the content, the groupings of the students and the means of assessment so that each student can be successful in reaching the learning goals.  Bill and Ochan describe this as the teacher "purposefully designing and orchestrating the multitude of classroom variables to achieve the maximum learning of all students".

Bill and Ochan are writing from their experience in international education.  Over the years there has been an increasing need to differentiate in international schools as the student population in those schools has changed dramatically - at one time they served the diplomatic and business community where the students had a good level of English and were all expected to go to university after they finished school.  Some of these international schools were satellite schools of private schools in the UK or the USA and educational standards were based on those of the home country and they were therefore selective schools with inflexible curricula.  Nowadays many international schools have large numbers of students who arrive without speaking any English at all.  Some of their parents only have a rudimentary knowledge of English too - in fact on a number of occasions I have been in parent-teacher conferences where the student has had to translate everything for his or her parents.  For some of these students the only place where they speak English is at school, for example last year I taught a Taiwanese student for IB Geography who only ever spoke, read or wrote in English at school.  In my 22 years in international schools I have seen a big increase in EAL (English as an Additional Language) learners as well as students who have learning disabilities.  In one school where I worked the father of one of these students got elected onto the Board and then became Chair of the Board and pushed through policies that allowed more inclusion of and support for these students.    Several of the schools where I have worked have had debates about what "excellence" in education is:  is it just academic rigor and getting a certain percentage of the students to "top" universities, or is it one that includes all students and strives for each student to reach his or her potential, whatever that may be?

When I worked at the International School of Amsterdam we had a visit from Thomas Armstrong who ran workshops for the teachers on multiple intelligences.  Some years after that the school started to send teachers to the Project Zero summer institutes and later started using the visible thinking routines.  It was fantastic to be part of these initiatives, which profoundly changed the way I taught as they raised awareness in the teachers that their preferred learning and teaching style may well not be the preferred learning style of most of the students.

Carol Ann Tomlinson challenges teachers to reach ALL students and to do this not by looking at what the students cannot do (ie they have ADHD so can't sit still for long, or they have a learning disability so can't write etc) but to focus on what the students CAN do - what their interests and strengths are.  Teaching that takes account of the diverse needs of the students often enriches the educational experience for all the students.

Bill and Ochan Powell maintain "effective teachers can teach most children".  Many schools run learning support programmes that happen outside of the classroom in the hope of trying to "fix" the problem and then return the students to their regular classes.  In one school where I worked there was a programme called Fast ForWord, a reading intervention programme (which always seemed to be called Fast Forward and sort of implied that the students doing this programme would improve quickly - the Fast ForWord website claims the progamme "gets the brain fit for learning").  Now I don't want to discuss the merits or otherwise of this computer based programme, but only to comment on how this affected the students who came to me for the IT lessons.  As Fast ForWord happened at regular times each day, the students were withdrawn to do it and missed whatever was happening in their regular or specialist class.  It didn't fit neatly into our schedule, therefore students came and went during the lesson.  Sometimes they just got started on something and had to leave it and go out to their FFW activity, other times they came in mid-way during the lesson, having missed all the instructions, brain-storming and so on had had to "catch up".  At the end of the school year we were always given statistics about how much improvement the FFW programme had made for the students.  My personal feeling always was that it was the class teacher who had worked with those students for most of the day, caring about them and differentiating the curriculum for them who had made the most difference, not anything that happened when the students went out to a special programme.  Bill and Ochan argue that removing children who learn differently gives classroom teachers very negative messages:  that they don't have the skills to teach those students and that the education of those students is not their responsibility.  In fact they argue that "the most important asset in a school is the teaching faculty", effective teachers are effective with students of ALL achievement levels and that "strategies that define and comprise good teaching are applicable to ALL children".

Photo Credit:  Be Yourself by Victor Nuno

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The IB Learner Profile - Caring

I've just read an excellent blog post today on Caring in Education which I found following a tweet from @vickyloras.  I was so excited, as I finally managed to meet Vicky in person yesterday afternoon after following her on Twitter for a while.  We are both teachers, we both arrived in Switzerland at the same time last year and by a strange coincidence both ended up living in the same place, and while we have had different experiences we have a lot of common ground too.

Caring is one of the attributes of the IB Learner Profile.  The IB programmes "promote the education of the whole person, emphasizing intellectual, personal, emotional and social growth through all domains of knowledge ..... educating the whole person for a life of active, responsible citizenship."  The IB Learner Profile applies to everyone at the school:  students, teachers, administrators and parents, who are expected to support the learning.  Caring, therefore is something that teachers have to do explicitly.

The IB describes a caring person in the following way:
They show empathy, compassion and respect towards the needs and feelings of others.  They have a personal commitment to service and act to make a positive difference to the lives of others and to the environment.
Nel Noddings' article discusses the reciprocal nature of caring.  Most teachers are hard-working and care about their students, they have goals and try to encourage the students to reach these goals.  Sometimes these goals may be set by the school or an outside examining body.  From the outside, Nel argues that these teachers appear caring, but this is not the whole picture as it does not take into account the students' feelings of being cared for (or not) and the students' views of whether they think the teacher is a caring person.  In fact Nel mentions that some students confuse class control and hard work with caring.  Although in these classes the students may be working hard and doing what they are told, they may have little interest in what they are doing - the teacher has not really engaged them or explored topics of mutual interest and therefore they do not really feel cared for.

Caring does not happen in isolation - it is a two-way process that involves the teacher paying attention to the feelings and expressions of the students and getting feedback.  It is empathetic, rather than sympathetic and it involves responding to the actual feelings of the students in a positive way whether or not the teacher shares those feelings.  It also involves a response from the students so that the teacher can see the caring has been received.  Nel says:
Without an affirmative response from the cared-for, we cannot call an encounter or relation caring.
When a teacher is caring, he or she is automatically differentiating as s/he knows the needs of each individual student and helps each one to achieve their goals.  It's important to engage in dialogue to discover their needs, interests, strengths, weaknesses and how they best learn.  Once the students feel listened to, that their feelings are accepted, they will begin to trust and accept what the teacher is trying to teach.  The teacher also benefits as he or she has a greater understanding of how to plan lessons to reach all the students - thus by caring the teacher becomes a better teacher too!

Earlier this morning I also read a guest post on Ken Wilson's blog by Sue Lyon Jones.  I urge you to read her whole post, as it is fascinating.  In a nutshell, without any teacher training at all, Sue took on a group of "unteachable" kids who had either dropped out or been excluded from school because of disruptive behaviour.  The most important thing Sue did at the outset was to talk to them and show a genuine interest in them.  The students realised she cared, and they started to shape up, behave and care about themselves too.  Sue describes this job as the most rewarding job she'd done - so she got a lot out of it as well!  Sue lists what she learned from this experience:

  • There is no such thing as a “one size fits all” lesson. Students are individuals and need to be treated as such.
  • Find out what your students’ interests are and what motivates them, and work those things into your lessons.
  • Listen to your students and be sensitive to their needs.
  • Create a positive classroom atmosphere and make opportunities for fun – students who are having fun rarely (if ever) misbehave.
  • Praise your students sincerely and often for good work done.
  • Don’t spoon-feed your students – they need to be challenged and encouraged to think for themselves.
  • Be a mentor to your students; nurture their hopes and dreams and encourage them to aim high – if you have low expectations of your students, then they will live down to them.
And finally (and perhaps most importantly)
  • There is no such thing as an unteachable student. All students have potential – the key to unlocking it is making a connection with them and finding out what makes them tick.

My final thoughts on this can be summed up in another tweet I read earlier this week:
If we truly are caring teachers, if we are engaging in dialogue with our students, listening to them and planning our lessons accordingly, and we are already getting feedback from them in order to inform our planning, then we are making a positive difference in their lives.  So what on earth would we have to be afraid of with students evaluating us in return?

Photo Credit:  The Joy of Teaching by J.C. Rojas

Ethical Education

The final of the Five Minds for the Future that Howard Gardner writes about is the ethical mind which is the fulfillment of one's responsibility as a worker and a citizen.  For most of the chapter on the ethical mind, Gardner writes about "good work", work that is excellent, ethical and engaging.  This brings me back to my previous post Respect, Motivate, Achieve, as it seems that work that is ethical is respectful and takes account of the implications for the community or even the world;  work that is engaging is meaningful, challenging and motivating; and doing work that is excellent in quality is an achievement to be proud of.  Education therefore needs to prepare students for a life of good work.

Perhaps one of the problems of trying to educate for ethical behaviour is that of agreeing what this behaviour looks like.  Gardner mentions the following qualities:  truthfulness, loyalty and fairness.  The IB aims to create a better world through education and mentions other qualities, in particular respect and inter-cultural understanding:
The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.
The IB learner profile also mentions that IB learners (all of us in the IB World Schools) should strive to be principled and caring.

Respecting others should lead to ethical behaviour.  Respect is all to do with how someone thinks and acts towards others, but ethics goes one step further and involves how people should behave as world citizens.  It involves going "beyond the personal point of view to the standpoint of an impartial spectator."  Gardner suggest you ask yourself two questions:  if my mother knew everything that I was doing, what would she think?  and, if the editor of the local newspaper printed it, would I be ashamed or proud?

Should students be learning ethics at school or is the place to learn these the home?  Certainly students spend more time in school and in the company of teachers than they do at home in the company of their families.  Education can therefore play a key role in what Gardner describes as "active citizenship" as teachers act as role models.  Students notice the behaviour and attitudes of their teachers, how they interact with each other and with the students, how they respond to questions, answers and the work of the students and so on.  Therefore education can promote an ethical mind, especially when students understand why they are learning what they are learning and how to use this knowledge constructively to "create a better world".  Community service is an integral part of the IB programmes (known as "action" in the PYP, "community and service" in the MYP and "creativity, action, service" in the DP) so that students come to see that their knowledge is meaningful and that ethical action can create a better world for us all.  Howard Gardner says:
Good work may begin in the bosom of the individual, but ultimately it must extend to the workplace, the nation and the global community.
Photo Credit:  That Way by Justin Baeder

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Respect, Motivate, Achieve

The title of this post is the motto of my school. I was told that when a new mission statement was being drawn up last year the one word that was mentioned by all members of the school community (students, teachers, parents) was respect. I'm not entirely sure about the connection between the three words, however. Is there a connection? Does respect have to come first before students become motivated? I do think that motivation has to come before achievement. And if we all agree that respect is so important, what can we do as teachers to foster or even to teach respect?

The respectful mind is another of the Five Minds for the Future that Howard Gardner writes about. Respect is an awareness of and appreciation for differences among human beings. With six billion people living in hundreds of countries and speaking thousands of languages it would seem the most important thing in the world to be able to live peacefully together. Respect goes beyond mere tolerance, just being able to live alongside each other and ignoring or putting up with differences. Respect involves accepting differences and learning how to value them. In an international school, especially one in a non-Western part of the world, respect is essential.

Gardner writes about the "kiss-up, kick-down" mentality of many people - those who behave in a respectful way when they have something to gain by it or in a public setting in order to appear respectful. Others want to be politically correct so appear to act in the same way towards everyone without distinguishing anyone at all - yet that too is not real respect which acknowledges differences.

Living in Thailand gave me many lessons in respect - in fact the whole society is based on respect (which may sound strange after the events of recent months in Bangkok - but don't mix up political divisions with a lack of respect). Living in a country where I was so obviously a minority was also an eye-opening experience and something I learned a lot from. In Thailand teachers are VERY respected so in some ways it was a bit of a shock to return to Europe.

Gardner addresses the issue of how schools can encourage respect. He points out that it's possible to have high standards of achievement in subjects such as maths and science, even in environments that are very intolerable. Therefore the responsibility for teaching respect falls more on the social sciences, humanities, arts and literature. In the early years of schooling respect can best be fostered by encouraging the students to work together on projects where they may have different perspectives. Books, movies, games and so on can also encourage discussion and respect for individuals or different groups. Perhaps in international schools it is easier to have some of these discussions as there are often many diverse opinions and even values. For example a friend of mine was once asked by the father of one of her students not to talk about her partner with the students (he was also a teacher in the school) as his daughter had picked up the fact that they were not married. This man, who was from the Middle East, said it was against his family's religion to live with someone out of marriage. This teacher, however, was able to point out her values and expectations of a relationship. She respected his point of view, but it was not hers.

In many national systems there is now debate about issues that really are not important in international schools where they are just a given. Politicians in England, France and the Netherlands have debated whether or not to allow the wearing of headscarves, turbans and crucifixes, whether girls should be allowed to wear trousers if this is not part of the school uniform, whether Sikh boys have to be clean shaven and so on. I've never had to deal with these problems in international schools, as it seems just part of the climate of respecting and celebrating the differences of others.  I think, therefore, that respect is probably the most important of the three words of our school motto.  If we are caught up in situations of disrespect then clearly we will not be so motivated and therefore our achievements will be limited.

Photo Credit:  Shy Wai by Wanderinghome

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Marching to the beat of a different drum

I've been thinking about the creative mind today and how many people who nowadays are regarded as being highly creative, such as Vincent van Gogh or Galilei Galileo, were in their own day regarded as lunatics or heretics and as a result suffered all kinds of discouragement and disparagement for their ideas and works. Their "genius" was only recognised years or even centuries after their deaths.

In the past couple of days I have been reading and writing about Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner.  Gardner has described the importance of mastering at least one major school of thought and being able to synthesize ideas from disciplines.  The creative mind, however, is very different from these as it involves going off in a new direction from the current thinking in those disciplines.  It involves being dissatisfied with some aspects of the current discipline and therefore doing something different.  It involves challenging authority.  It does not involve marching to the beat of someone else's drum, but creating your own rhythm.  People with creative minds are not afraid to fail or to seem ridiculous:  they are able to pick themselves up after disappointments and try again.  James Dyson, for example, spent 5 years trying out over 5,000 unsuccessful prototypes before he eventually made his bagless vacuum cleaner.  In addition he had to start selling his product in Japan as no manufacturer or distributor would sell his product in the UK.  During the 5 years he worked on his invention he received little or no support and relied on his own optimism and self-belief to bring his ideas to realisation.  In a similar way, Vincent van Gogh, who today is known as one of the world's most creative painters, died largely unknown despite producing over 2,000 paintings, drawings and sketches.

I have blogged a few times before about creativity, in particular I wrote a post based on Sir Ken Robinson's TED Talk.  Today in many countries and also in international schools there is a growing emphasis on a uniform or national curriculum, very prescriptive learning outcomes and standardised tests.  These are probably an anathema to the creative mind.  In contrast, Gardner's suggestions for schools to encourage creativity involve open exploration in early childhood, multiple solutions to problems while students are exploring the various disciplines, playing games from other cultures and rewarding innovation and the ability to envision different possibilities and outcomes.  He also maintains that it is important to be able to give and receive constructive criticism.

The creating mind is also very different from the synthesizing mind.  The goal of synthesis is to integrate what has already been established by different disciplines.  The goal of creation is to extend knowledge in new directions and as such it is only recognised as being creative when an idea or product exerts an influence on subsequent work, for example, in the way van Gogh is now regarded as one of the founders of expressionism and modern art.

Creativity can, of course, be used for good or for bad and there are many who will point out the problems with, for example, genetic engineering, as well as the benefits.  Therefore as well as developing creativity we also need to think about how these creations may be used.  For this we also need to have moral, respectful and ethical minds.

Photo Credit:  Dhol Player by Swami Stream

Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Thinking

Yesterday I was reading The Disciplined Mind chapter in Howard Gardner's Five Minds for the Future.  Today I've turned to the chapter entitled The Synthesizing Mind.  This mind has the ability to integrate ideas from the different disciplines into a new whole, and then to communicate this to others.

In a world where knowledge is ever increasing it's important to be able to synthesize well, but it's also extremely difficult.  If even just being able to master one discipline can take up to 10 years, how long will it take to master different ones that encompass different perspectives?  In addition, when the amount of information is continuing to increase, how are we to know when we have achieved synthesis?


Gardner writes about different kinds of synthesis:  for example narratives that have been pieced together such as the Bible or textbooks; taxonomies such as the Dewey decimal system and the periodic table; complex concepts such as natural selection; theories such as Darwin's theory of evolution and so on. 

Gardner suggests that the most ambitious form of synthesis occurs in interdisciplinary work and he cautions us that true interdisciplinary work must involve the combination of at least two disciplines that are genuinely integrated rather than just put together.  The integration has to lead to understanding which could not have been achieved just through the study of one of the disciplines.  One example I could think of to illustrate this would be the work being done in the field of biotechnology.

In the various schools where I have worked around the world, I've often heard the term interdisciplinary used to describe activities students were involved in. For example a few years ago I worked in a school which had a "Leonardo Day".  During this day students came in dressed in Renaissance clothing, and did various activities such as painting, design, writing, maths,  history and so on all loosely connected with the achievements of Leonardo da Vinci.  This day was part of the MYP Homo Faber area of interaction (now called Human Ingenuity) which questions why and how we create and what the consequences are of this.  The IB describes the area of interaction in the following way:

This area of interaction allows students to explore in multiple ways the processes and products of human creativity, and to consider their impact on society and the mind.
Human ingenuity allow students to focus on the evolution, process and products of human creativity and their impact on life and society. Human ingenuity provides opportunities for students to appreciate and develop in themselves the human capacity to create, transform, enjoy and improve the quality of life.
Now I don't want to criticise what happened during this day, but I think I would like to ask some questions about whether this is really interdisciplinary thinking.  During the course of the day, the students went from class to class doing a variety of interesting and fun activities and I'm sure they did get a lot out of it.  However as this was a stand-alone day not really connected with what they were studying in their MYP subjects then there probably wasn't much real disciplinary thinking going on.  This makes me question how much interdisciplinary thinking was happening and how the disciplines were being productively linked in the students' minds.  At the heart of this, my real question would be:  what new understandings did the students come to, as a result of their experiences during Leonardo Day?
Further on in the chapter on The Synthesizing Mind, Gardner discusses multiperspectivalism.  Obviously our students are not at the stage where they have mastered the various disciplines they are studying, therefore perhaps our role as teachers should be to expose them to the perspectives of those who have mastered them.  Perhaps by having our students consider the perspectives of different experts they will be able to synthesise the different ways of thinking.  And today, there is easy access to these different perspectives using the internet to connect, communicate and collaborate.
Moving on from the MYP, the next programme encountered by our students in international schools is the IB Diploma.  As mentioned in a previous blog post, the 3 IB programmes move from being transdisciplinary, to interdisciplinary and finally to disciplinary.  One requirement for the IB Diploma is that students have to study the theory of knowledge (TOK).  The IB explains why this is one of its core requirements:

It offers students and their teachers the opportunity to:

  • reflect critically on diverse ways of knowing and on areas of knowledge
  • consider the role and nature of knowledge in their own culture, in the cultures of others and in the wider world.
In addition, it prompts students to:
  • be aware of themselves as thinkers, encouraging them to become more acquainted with the complexity of knowledge
  • recognize the need to act responsibly in an increasingly interconnected but uncertain world.
As a thoughtful and purposeful inquiry into different ways of knowing, and into different kinds of knowledge, TOK is composed almost entirely of questions. The most central of these is "How do we know?"
It is a stated aim of TOK that students should become aware of the interpretative nature of knowledge, including personal ideological biases, regardless of whether, ultimately, these biases are retained, revised or rejected.
TOK also has an important role to play in providing coherence for the student as it transcends and links academic subject areas, thus demonstrating the ways in which they can apply their knowledge with greater awareness and credibility.

Here, therefore, in the last two years of their schooling, the students are exposed to ways of thinking which should help them in developing a synthesizing mind.  I have never studied or taught TOK myself, however based on the discussions I had with my son when he was doing the IB Diploma I wish this had been something that had been offered to me when I was a student.
Photo Credit:  Eduardo Luigi Paolozzi:  Newton by Istvan