Monday, April 29, 2013

Rethinking learning - pursuing passions

I'm flipping through my copy of Educational Leadership (which makes a refreshing change after being in a school where it was taken away from teachers and reserved for admin only!) and I've come across an interesting article by Will Richardson.  It caught my eye because Will writes about the division between students being able to pursue their interests and passions using technology outside of school, while in school they are limited by lists of standards and outcomes.  Since this year we have explored various options for students to pursue their own passions in school, such as the recent Day 9 Project, Independent Studies, the Curiosity Project and 20% time, I was especially interested to read this article.

Will writes that the biggest impact technology is having is that learning is now "truly participatory in real-world contexts".  Technology allows students can connect with others outside of school, and not just connect but communicate with, collaborate with and create with.  He writes about students driving their own learning and refers to a situation where "people whom we will never meet in person become some of our best teachers."

There is a world of difference between schools that focus on the technology, that talk about a one-size-fits-all approach such as "a SMARTboard in every classroom", or an "iPad programme for all Middle Schoolers", for example, and a school like mine where from Grade 4 upwards students can choose to bring in their own devices (laptops and mobile devices) to use as they learn.  The reason that some school leaders still insist that there is no evidence that technology improves learning is because the mindset of these educators has not changed - they are simply "adding on" technology to what is already happening, instead of re-envisioning what learning can look like.  Recently, during a visit by next year's new teachers, I showed a video that I'd taken by simply walking from the 5th floor of our campus down to the ground floor and capturing everything that was going on.  Most of the time the students didn't even notice that I was filming them.  These new teachers spoke over and over again about the "engagement" they saw, which disappointed me because what I really wanted them to notice was the rigorous learning, the way that students were creating and sharing their knowledge with others through blogs, ePortfolios, conference calls and so on.  What I wanted them to see was that the students were empowered to learn independently, many were not actually in their learning pods with a teacher but were spread out all over the school pursuing their own inquiries and in some cases actually teaching each other.

In the Educational Leadership article Students First, Not Stuff Will Richardson writes:
What, if instead of delivering the same, common education to every student, we focused on developing the skills and dispositions necessary for them to learn whatever they need to learn whenever they need to learn it?  That means rethinking classrooms to focus on individual passions, inquiry, creation, sharing, patient problem solving, and innovation.
This, to me, sums up what it means to rethink learning.

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Open -v- closed questions: the importance of the first word

I was talking with our elementary school librarian today about questions.  We were discussing how in Independent Studies we moved the students from simple to more complex questions to research using command words.  During this discussion she told me about a book she was reading about open and closed questions.

A closed question is one that can be answered with a simple phrase or one word answer.  Examples include "Where are you from?" or "Do you speak English?"  Closed questions are:

  • quick and easy to answer
  • fact based
  • keep control of the conversation with the person asking the questions
The first word of close questions is often a word like:  do, would, are, will and if.

Open questions are ones that require longer answers because:
  • they are about opinions or feelings
  • they involve the respondent thinking
  • they give control of the conversation to the person replying to the question
The first word of open questions are often words such as: what, why, how and describe.

The process of moving from closed to open questions was described to me by Ms Heeru.  She said students could first of all generate questions, then be informed about the difference between open and closed questions, then go back to their list and identify which of their questions were closed questions, and finally rewrite these to make then open questions for research.  As we plan for our last unit of inquiry with our Grade 5 students after the PYP Exhibition is over, I want to try out this process with the students as they discuss their transition to Middle School.

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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Thinking is driven by questions

Another online course I'm currently engaged in is Bernajean Porter's Creativity, Curriculum and Multimedia course via ASB's Online Academy.  This is a 6 week course and I absolutely love it as Bernajean's focus is on rigor.  She says:
Learners need to be guided to be meaning-makers going beyond fact-based information FIRST . . . then media-makers.  If the content is not worthy - then no reason to waste time and resources in packaging "superficial thinking" up with creative digital tools!
The most important thing that I think many teachers doing this course have come to fully understand is that producing slideshows, videos and so on is not automatically "Creating" on Bloom's Digital Taxonomy, if the content of the media is simply a fact-based remembering of information.  Even though I've been a technology teacher and coordinator for 13 years now, I'm learning a lot from analyzing the student products that Bernajean is providing.  Now the most important thing I'm looking for in these media products is the thinking - what I'm looking for is the questions, not the answers.

One of the resources I read through recently was Elizabeth M. Role's The Art of Questioning.  In this she writes that fields such as biology and physics only stay alive to the extent that fresh questions are generated.  She writes:
Questions define tasks, express problems and delineate issues.  Answers, on the other hand, often signal a full stop in thought.  Only when an answer generates a further question does thought continue its life as such.
This is an interesting question:  if it is true that only the students who have questions are thinking and learning, then why are we giving students tests and examinations that call for answers?  Would we be better to ask them simply to list all the questions that they have about a subject?

A lot of research has been done into classroom questioning which has given us the following conclusions:

  • instruction which includes posing questions is more effective in producing achievement gains
  • oral questions are more effective in fostering learning than written questions
  • asking questions is positively related to learning facts BUT increasing the frequency of questions does not enhance the learning of more complex material
  • posing questions before reading and studying material is effective for students who are older, high ability and known to be interested in the subject matter BUT very young children and poor readers tend to focus only on material that will help them answer questions if these are posed before the lesson is presented.
Research has also been done into "wait time" which refers to both the amount of time a teacher allows to elapse after he has posed a question and before a student is invited to speak, and also to the amount of time a teacher waits after a student has stopped speaking before replying.  Here are some findings:
  • for lower cognitive questions a wait time of 3 seconds is positively related to achievement (less success with both shorter and longer wait times) 
  • there is no wait time threshold for higher cognitive questions - students become more engaged and perform better the longer the teacher waits
  • increasing wait time leads to teachers listening more, engaging students in more discussions, increasing teacher expectations regarding students, and expanding the variety and higher cognitive questions the teachers ask.
So often as teachers we are focusing on the answers that our students are giving us, yet research seems to show that it's the questions and the way that they are asked that are the most important - for both the students and the teachers.

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Moving from teacher-centred to learner-driven

Over the past several months I've been doing an online course with Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey entitled "The 5 W's of Personalized Learning" (the W's are what, who, where, why and wow).  The final module of this course asks us to create a presentation about personalized learning explaining why it is important to transform education.  I've been thinking about this in the light of working in the PYP programme, and about how inquiry plays a role in the different stages that schools can go through as they move from teacher-centred to learner-driven education.

The first stage shared by Barbara and Kathleen is teacher-centred with learner voice and choice.  During the recent webinar they shared a very useful graphic about what this stage looks like for the teacher and the learner:

I have looked at this stage from the perspective of a homeroom teacher planning a unit of inquiry, which at ASB happens as part of grade level collaborative planning with myself and the PYP Coordinator.  There is a focus on standards and on how technology will be integrated.  I am also aware that students do set goals for their own learning.  Sometimes students have a voice in how they express what they know and what they produce, but often everyone in the class is expected to make the same kind of presentation.

From a PYP perspective Stage One corresponds quite closely with what we call teacher-directed inquiry, as teachers come up with the questions that address the lines of inquiry for each unit.  Students do have voice and choice in that we encourage student questions and give them many opportunities for sharing their thoughts and wonderings.  However the focus of the unit is not really on the students' questions if they don't match up with the pre-determined learning outcomes.  During the course of the unit, some of these questions will naturally be discussed and answered, but they will not be the focus of the inquiry.

The second stage in moving towards personalized learning is learner-centred.  Again Barbara and Kathleen provided a graphic about what this looks like for the teacher and the learner.  

As I reflect on this, I see that ASB is working towards many of these.  In some grade levels there has definitely been a dialogue with students about the design of a flexible learning space, and I think some teachers have started to ask for student input into the design of the rubrics.  All students from Grade 1 upwards to maintain an ePortfolio with evidence of their learning, though we do not yet use digital badges.  Teachers are not required to maintain an ePortfolio showing tech integration linked to the NETS-Ts but we have had tech meetings with each grade where we have discussed these standards.

Looking at this through the lens of the PYP, this stage would be one of teacher guided inquiry, where the students' questions are seen as more important and are combined with the teacher questions to decide the direction of the inquiry.  Students would work in groups based on their curiosities about the unit, and would come up with two or three broad questions that the group as a whole could investigate.  Students themselves would discuss how to go about answering the questions.  In teacher guided inquiry, students would have input into how their understanding of the central idea of the unit would be assessed;  they would also create their own rubrics so that they could assess what it is important for them to know, understand and do.  The summative assessment of the central idea could be the same for all students, but the way they demonstrate their understanding may be very different for each group or for individual students.  At ASB there are a couple of units of inquiry where I've seen evidence of this type of student voice and choice.

The third stage of personalized learning is learner-driven with the teacher as a facilitator and mentor.  

Looking at this from the PYP perspective, this stage would be characterized by independent inquiry.  In this case the central idea would be the same for all students, but individual students could come up with additional central ideas for their own inquiry.   In Stage Three students are also working collaboratively to decide how to organize and carry out their investigations, how they will show their understandings and how they will be assessed.  They mange their time and decide what resources they will need.   At ASB we are most likely to see teacher guided inquiry during PYP Exhibition, Independent Studies, the Curiosity Project and the 20% time that some teachers give their students.  In the PYP Exhibition teachers throughout the school act as mentors to groups of students, they meet them regularly to discuss their progress and can suggest modifications or improvements.  The students themselves are more involved in self- and peer- assessment.  We also have teachers who meet with individual high achieving students throughout the school to help them set goals and to mentor them on personal projects that they are engaged in.  For example we have a Grade 5 teacher who meets regularly with a Grade 1 student who is interested in producing digital art and publishing his own eBook.

I was interested to see that at this stage the teacher is responsible for building his or her technology skills to support the learner and to assist them as they work in an online environment.  This points to personalized PD for the teachers and the importance of the role of the tech coordinators in providing this.  At ASB we are currently conducting a tech audit with the hope of being able to provide such personalized PD to our teachers next year.  In addition, many teachers on the school's R&D core team do research, test and share different approaches to learning.

I feel that I have a lot of material already that I can put into the presentation for my online learning course.  My experience of Independent Studies, the Curiosity Project and the PYP Exhibition is that students are very motivated once they are in Stage Three of the personalized learning model.  Currently we are mostly at the first stage, but with many initiatives going in in separate parts of the school in the other two stages as well.  I'm confident that with the right support, teachers can move forward with our goal of personalizing learning for all students.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Designing Spaces

Last weekend we hosted the 1:1 Institute for our new faculty and on a walk around our new campus I heard our Elementary Principal, Joe Atherton, remark that 80% of the furniture was on wheels.  The simple reason for this, he said, was that we have built a school of the future.  In 30 years this campus will still be functioning as a school, yet we have no idea of what a school of 2043 will look like, or what the needs of students in 2043 will be.  Much of what is inside the school, therefore, can move.  We don't have any rooms, but instead have moveable partitions, and more and more we are moving out of learning spaces that look like traditional classrooms and spreading ourselves around the entire floor space. Currently most floors in the building have 3 homerooms of 20 children each.  These 60 students work with 3 homeroom teachers, 3 teaching assistants, 1 classroom assistant and a host of other specialists such as the literacy coach, maths coach, reading specialist, EAL teachers, student support teachers and members of the tech department.  With up to 10 teachers working with these 60 students at any one time, it's easy to see that we can group and regroup often so that each students is getting the best possible experience.

When designing our new school last year, it was clear that the move from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy would have pedagogical and spatial implications that we would need to take account of in our plans.  We needed to create a series of spaces, spread out over 7 floors including the roof, that provided a more individualized experience for students.  Planning for the future involved thinking about a flexible design that could be easily moved around when needed to create better learning environments for our students.  For us the focus has been on the needs of the learners, and giving students more voice and choice has led to them making decisions about where they will work.  Giving teachers more voice and choice has led to some of the floors already having learning spaces moved around in order to make the best use of the available space.

What I have observed is this:  a comfortable and relaxed space has had a positive effect on learning.  We no longer have "wasted" corridor space and classrooms with doors, but have huge spaces where we can group learners by abilities, interests and needs, including quiet work spaces and "wet and messy" areas.  We have provided tech support on every floor where there is a 1:1 laptop programme.  We have wonderful specialist learning spaces such as an art room, a music room and a science lab.  We have even provided a parent cafe.

I loved taking our new teachers around the campus last week.  It made me appreciate, yet again, just how lucky I am to work in such beautifully designed learning spaces.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Throw yourself, new faculty of 2013

This is not Juhu Beach, but I suppose it could be.  At the 1:1 Institute for new faculty this past weekend this is the quote that they chose to represent their feelings about their move to India and to ASB.  They went through an interesting process to choose this quote and since I was a part of this I want to share this process with you.  But first, let me step back a bit.  If I was to look back to my arrival in India, what would my quote be?  Well, I guess it would be "Embrace India".  So I have done that and it is true:  if you embrace India, then India will embrace you.  There is not a single day, not even a single hour, when I have had second thoughts about the decision I made to move to India.  The country has given me a rich cultural experience, and the school has given me a rich professional experience.  I have grown as an educator more in the past 8 month than probably in the 5 years before that and I have grown as a person too.

Choosing the quote.  We were split into groups - I can't remember how many groups, but I would guess around 6 groups that had about 6 people in each group.  We were handed a set of cards to look through - each card contained a famous quote.  Apparently there were about 80 different quotations, spread out among the different groups.   As a group we had to choose our favourite quote, one that represented the feelings of the new faculty about their experiences at the 1:1 Institute and their hopes for their move to India.  There were some quotes we eliminated straight away, there were others that we discussed for a time, but eventually our group chose the one we wanted.

We stood around in a large circle.  A person from every group read out the quote they had chosen and the 6 quotes were displayed for us to look at again.  Then we could vote - but not for the quote our own group had chosen.  This one, by C. JoyBell C. was the one that got the most "thumbs ups", and by the way it wasn't the one that our group had chosen.

Later it occurred to me that I didn't know who C. JoyBell C. was.  I had to do a bit of research to find out more about her.  It turns out she's a writer of poetry and prose, but still quite hard to track down.  The photo above I got from one of her Facebook Albums.

So this is what I wish for our new faculty:  life, growth, change, learning and throwing themselves out into the open, because I know for sure that we will support you.  And while you are out there, please don't forget to embrace India.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Unwritten Rules

Every school has a culture, and much of what is part of that culture is unwritten, what used to be called "the hidden curriculum" when I first started teaching and it included things like whether students stood up when a teacher entered the room, or if they had to walk on a certain side of the corridor.  There were schools where you always addressed teachers as "Sir" and "Miss", others where you used their last name and others where you used their first name.  There were unwritten rules for teachers too.  In a simple example, in one school I worked you had to bring in your own mug which you used when you wanted a cup of tea or coffee.  If you didn't bring a mug, you didn't go to the cupboard and take someone else's.  In another school there were a variety of mugs which possibly had belonged to someone at one stage, years ago.  In this school you grabbed any clean mug from the cupboard and used it, and when you were finished you washed it up and returned it to the cupboard.  Both systems worked like a dream, but you did need to know the system.  It would not have been good in the first school, for example, to be drinking from someone else's mug in the staffroom if he walked in and wanted to make himself a drink.

When you move to a new country there is also a difference.  In some places I've lived I've been a "hidden immigrant" because I look the same as everyone else in the country - because of this people expect me to "know the rules" and to act in the same way.  This is easy with some things (clothing, food etc), but harder in others (for example greeting people or saying goodbye, do you shake hands, kiss, kiss twice, kiss three times - each of these has been a norm in different countries where I've lived). In other countries I'm obviously the foreigner.  People expect me to act differently and I'm just seen as a bit of an oddity - for example I cycle to school here in India which is definitely strange, whereas in Holland this was completely normal.

This weekend we ran a 1:1 Institute for new teachers who will be joining us as ASB next school year.  Our Superintendent, Craig Johnson, talked about unwritten rules and shared a few.  He came up with these unwritten rules by asking the present faculty what they thought the rules were.  I'm copying a few of my favourite ones below:

* Work with the best of intentions and assume that others do as well.
* Ask good questions.
* There is no "us" and "them"-there is only "we."
* Change is the only constant.
* Our destination is always student growth.

After this he did an interesting thing - he asked the new teachers what they hoped would be an unwritten rule here at ASB.  Again I'm pasting some of my favourite quotes from the new teachers below:

* If you get a chance to "sit it out" or "dance"... DANCE!
* If it's best for kids, let's do it.
* Demand the best of everyone and offer the support to be successful.
* People first - caring and serving.
* Maintain balance of some kind.

We had a very busy 3 days.  The new teachers were involved in classroom visits with the teachers they are replacing as well as their transition buddies.  They got to see apartments where they will live.  There was a business fair where they could get organized with phones, bank accounts and so on.  We had sessions on using technology, "speed-geeking", innovation, 21st century skills, culture shock and so much more.  We took them out to local restaurants, we organized tours of the local area, shopping malls and downtown Mumbai and they had to produce a presentation to share with us on the last day.   And all of this happened more than 3 months before any of these new teachers is officially employed by the school - they will arrive in July and we want them to hit the ground running.

Looking at the feedback we received it's clear that these 3 days were very much appreciated by our new teachers.  ASB flew them here, put them up in a hotel, and in some cases even paid for substitute teachers at their current school to make sure that everyone could attend this institute.  I don't know of any other school in the world that does this to transition new teachers to their school.  For most of the new teachers it has confirmed their decision to move to ASB and India - they are excited and looking forward to the professional and personal opportunities that are sure to come their way. So I am going to end with my very favourite quote by one of these teachers about what coming to ASB will mean:
We are pushed every moment of everyday at this school to be better, but that push is met in equal force with support, making success possible, and the process enjoyable.
I am, in my 12th year of teaching, going to be a 1st year teacher all over again in so many ways.
Photo Credit: Patrick Hoesly via Compfight cc

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Reflecting on Day 9

We have an 8 day rotating schedule at ASB, so the first question that people have asked me when I've said we're having a Day 9 is "What the heck is that?"  Day 9 happened on the elementary campus.  It happened because the secondary campus was holding a parent conference day with no lessons for students, and because we needed to keep both campuses on the same day of the schedule.  We therefore had an extra day, and someone decided to call it Day 9.  It was a day that was completely blank on my schedule - what was going to fill it?

At ASB this year one of our goals is personalized learning and having students pursue their passions.  Our other goal is 21st century skills.  While we are eventually going to focus on 9 of these skills, this year we are looking at these 4:  collaboration, critical thinking, information fluency, and creativity and innovation.  As our elementary principal, Joe Atherton, wrote in an email to us.  "There’s no better way to impart our values and skill to our students than by intentionally modeling them ourselves."

The idea behind Day 9 was to base it completely on adult and student interests - we would all follow our passions for a whole day of learning.  All classroom teachers, specialist teachers and teacher assistants were asked to develop a learning project, either on our own or with a partner, based on our own interests,  and then to offer this project to multi-age student groups.  Students were given the opportunity to look at the projects the teachers had come up with and to sign up for the one that most interested them.  The idea was that at the end of Day 9 we would share our learning with the elementary school community.

So what did we come up with?  Teachers used a Google Document to share their essential questions.  Here are some examples of what they wanted to know and do:
  • How can we design, build, test, fly and revise model aircrafts to explore ideas about flight?
  • How do you connect with nature in an urban environment?
  • How can you express your creativity through poetry ?
  • How our actions can positively change the lives of others.
  • How can we use everyday sounds to help create a piece of music?
Our librarian and I decided we would work with photography. We wanted to see how photographs could be used as both documentary and as art. Our aim was that each student would shoot, edit and publish an eBook of his or her photography to share at the end of the day. 

The first thing we did was to give the students a lesson in photography. We had students from Grades 3-5 who had signed up for this, and they were all coming with different skills and experiences. At the start of the day we wanted to give them some examples of different types of photography that they might like to try out. We showed them examples of photojournalism and how they capture events, news, culture and lifestyles. We also showed other types of photography such as portraits, food, sports, nature and wildlife. We talked about using photography as art, including abstract photos and about the difference between candid and posed shots. My daughter Rachel, who is studying art history at university but currently home for the holidays, showed her photography blog and a book of photographs she had published for her MYP personal project where she compared different cultural aspects of Thailand and Switzerland.

We then set off on a walk around the school and in the road outside the school. We were looking for colour, shapes, textures and patterns. We found plenty of these and several examples of the other sorts of subjects to photograph too. We even went into the school kitchens to photograph some food.

This had taken most of the morning, but before lunch I wanted the students to start editing the photographs. We showed the students PicMonkey and had them transfer all their photos to their laptops and start to edit them. We told them to concentrate on 4 main themes and to save their photos into separate folders based on these themes.

In the afternoon we continued with the editing and saving of photos, and then put our favourite ones into a Google Presentation. We asked the students to choose about 5 photos for each of their 4 themes and to add these into the slides with titles. Once the presentations were finished we exported them as PDF files.

Our final job of the afternoon to get ready for the sharing session was to upload the PDF to FlipSnack to turn it into an eBook. This was easy and we were able to produce great photographic eBooks within a matter of minutes. We put our books on display and got ready for other students to come and visit us so we could share our learning.

So that was it - an entire day devoted to taking, editing, presenting and publishing photographs. Take a look at some of these and you will be amazed by the photos. We were amazed by the passion. We all learned a lot from Day 9 and we all had fun doing it.

Grace's Photography
Kavya's Photogrphy

Pseudo Problems -v- Real Things

I came across the term "pseudo problems" last week in a keynote by Ewan McIntosh.  Then later that week, as part of an online course I'm doing called Creativity, Curriculum and Multimedia (which I have to say is the best online course I've ever done!), I had an assignment to evaluate a lesson for rigor.  This lesson plan was a real puzzle to me - the students had to invent a society, make up a story about the culture of that society, make artifacts and bury them, and another group of student would dig up the artifacts and try to work out what the culture was.  There was no formal assessment of this lesson.  Now before I go further let me say that once a very long time ago when I was a 6th Grade teacher, I did something similar based on an activity called Dig.  I can't remember much about it except that an enormous amount of time was spent making and painting pots and other things, breaking them up, and burying them in the school garden.  We then moved to an area that the other 6th grade class has prepared, gridded out the area, dug and kept records of what we found and where we found it, reassembed the broken bits of pots and so on.  We had one student record the dig on video.  I also want to point out that this was before we had an internet connection at school, and we had no way of being able to find artifacts from archaeological digs or of connecting with an archaeologist.  When I look back now I think it was a fun activity that the students learned absolutely nothing from.  This was a typical example of a non-rigorous activity that got dumped by me, along with about 70% of what I was doing, on my return from the Harvard Project Zero summer school some years later, when I decided that there was no learning going on.  This was a liberating experience and I've never looked back since.  If I was to design a similar experience today I would have students find archaeological sites on Google Earth, I would have them skype with an archaeologist, I would have them find museums with artifacts from ancient cultures using the internet and have them work out what these show about the cultures.  Most importantly of all I would have the students involved in designing the assessment of their learning.

A couple of years ago I attended the ECIS IT Conference that was held in Prague.  One evening event was a visit to Prague Castle, as the family who lived there sent their children to the International School of Prague who were hosting the conference.  During the course of the evening, the owner of the castle and some students from ISP gave a presentation about a project they had been involved in.  When the castle was finally handed back to the Lobkowicz family in 2002,  twelve years after the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, many "unusual" objects were found in the castle.  The family had no idea what they could be.  They therefore handed them to students at ISP and asked them to investigate them.  The students did the research and eventually were involved in writing out the museum cards for the castle once the artifacts were put on display.  This to me is a wonderful example of an authentic problem and one in which I'm sure a huge amount of learning took place.

As I'm looking at numerous projects as part of my online course, I keep coming back to the same statement by Bernajean Porter, that creativity involves a lot more than using "the razzle-dazzle of digital tools".  The majority of student products that are made using technology are simply summary reports providing fact-based information - the students are information consumers who later regurgitate the same information in a digital presentation of some kind.  What we are should be looking for is going beyond that - we need to examine the learning.  We students to be involved with "real things" and not with "pseudo problems".

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