Should we be providing Interdisciplinary Studies as its own course?

Recently, our school held its annual 3E Conference – a gathering of educators from several continents, all meeting to discuss ways in which we can further push the boundaries of education and support our students to become energized, engaged and empowered.

The focus of this year’s conference was on personalized learning and strategies for making learning more connected to the lives of our students.

* sidebar, the conference organizers showed an amazing sense of humour branding the conference with the tag line, “This time it’s personal”, and at the same time shouting out to Jaws: The Revenge, one of the ultimate good/bad movies of all time.*

During the course of the conference, I found myself in many conversations regarding the integration of disciplines in order to create more authentic and meaningful learning.

In other words, IDUs.

For those in the MYP community, IDUs (short for interdisciplinary units), are a requirement – one IDU (assessed using the special IDU criteria) per year level, each academic year.

Like so many things in education, IDUs are one of these items that we all philosophically get behind, yet practically, often find difficult to implement (again, it would seem, the enemy may be timetabling).

Finding time to plan, implement and assess an IDU can be a bear – to the point where it is potentially a deterrent to the teacher’s developing the unit.

So if the logistics behind IDUs are potentially a deterrent to their implementation, why not make “Interdisciplinary Studies” its own MYP course?


Lionel Elvin has a very poignant thought about a model of disciplinary education:

“When you are out walking, nature does not confront you for three quarters of an hour only with flowers and in the next only with animals.”

This may sound silly, but he has a point.

While most of us are aware of Finland ditching traditional subjects in recent years in favour of a “Phenomenon based” education, curriculum specialists such as Heidi Hayes Jacobs have long advocated for a greater amount of interdisciplinary learning in schools. “Outside of school”, Jacobs writes, “we deal with problems and concerns in a flow of time that is not divided into knowledge fields…it is critical that students see the strength of each discipline perspective in a connected way”. She said this, by the way, in 1989 – this is nothing new.

In fact, you could make the argument that an integrated approach to education is the most authentic way in which we can learn things – in context, with multiple disciplines supporting us to create solutions to problems, express our creativity or satisfy our curiosities.

When you are out walking, nature does not confront you for three quarters of an hour only with flowers and in the next only with animals.


So how can MYP schools approach building Interdisciplinary Studies as a course of its own?

The sky is the limit to how we could approach this really. High Tech High in the United States provides one interesting model, Finland provides another.

But in the context of most MYP schools I have encountered, three initial ideas come tomind:

1. Interdisciplinary studies could become a rotational subject, experienced in a trimester or semester timeline. This would be fairly easy to plug into a schedule, however, it might make the course seem superficial – more of a “have to do”, hit-and-run experience than a sustained and meaningful approach.

2. Interdisciplinary Studies could become an alternate programme for students who opt-in. These students would naturally spend less time in other disciplines and more time satisfying requirements via more robust interdisciplinary experiences. Schools such as Shanghai American are currently following a model such as this. While this would be a good way to pilot the a new course, it does potentially lend itself to exclusivity.

3. Reduce the number of hours for traditional subjects and have Interdisciplinary Studies make up the majority of a student’s timetable. This would still allow for students to experience disciplinary learning (something Jacob’s highlights as critical to the interdisciplinary experience) and would allow schools to put into practice a framework for learning that is more authentic than traditional models. This might mean the MYP would have to give on its “All strands, twice a year” assessment model, but an argument can be made that the “sacrifice” of less exposure to the disciplinary strands would be more than worth it.

Day to Day

Students can, and, when possible, should be involved in the development of Interdisciplinary units. – Heidi Hayes Jacobs

In terms of how the course might look on a day-to-day basis, I will again pull from Ms. Jacobs who notes, “Students can, and, when possible, should be involved in the development of Interdisciplinary units”.

Within the classroom, we would see students identifying actual problems in their own lives/communities and seeking authentic ways to solve them. Students using design thinking and a process such as the one suggested in The Quest for Learning, to begin to design their own interdisciplinary units and success criteria.

In this model, the teacher becomes a servant leader – seeking out opportunities for students to go deeper with their thinking, supporting students in making the necessary connections to local and online experts and liaising with expert teachers in necessary areas of subject integration (it doesn’t take a math teach to recognize when math might be needed in an IDU).

In this model, teachers don’t need to be subject experts, just experts in supporting students to design their experience, connect with relevant experts and reflect on their indicators of success, by facilitating co-assessment between the student, experts and teacher.

Eventually, this course would not only promote more authentic learning and increased empowerment of learners, but may potentially push schools towards offering flexible timetables, purpose-built learning spaces and a community approach to teaching – one that goes beyond “team teaching” and extends into “it takes a village” territory.

Considering that life never presents itself to us in a silo-esque way, why should we present learning in this way to our students?

How does your school handle IDUs? What ways are you looking to increase student involvement in Interdisciplinary learning?

I am personally going to advocate to facilitate an Interdisciplinary Studies course option to be put into place at our school during the next academic year. I am excited to hear the feedback I get and will share any progress.


Elvin, L. (1977). The Place of Common Sense in Educational Thought. London: Unwin Educational Books.

Jacobs, H.H. (1989). Interdisciplinary curriculum: Design and implementation. ASCD.


Parents + Student-Directed Learning = ?

Originally posted on my personal blog empower2b.

So this week I was faced with the challenge of introducing the unfamiliar approach of student-directed learning to the families in my class. I knew many had heard about it through their children and was already getting many questions about it. I assured them that all would be answered and addressed at my Back To School Night presentation before the students were too far into the process of establishing their routines.

I know my class this year and their excited little selves were going home exclaiming things such as:

  • I don’t have to do any math if I don’t want to!
  • I get to do what I want, ALL of the time!
  • Ms. Mel TRUSTS ME to take responsibility for my learning, I am in charge!

Now I am not a parent but I KNOW that if I was and I was being told these things by my 4th grader I would be wondering what the hell was going on up there at the school! So I had to make a plan and address a few key points at Back To School Night that would reassure them that I have not devised a plan that would allow me to sit on Facebook (NB.I don’t even have an account) while the kids had free reign over their day!

STEP 1: What are the key takeaways that I wanted all parents to leave understanding at the end of my 30-minute presentation? This is what I decided were the priority…

  1. The purpose of student-directed learning.
  2. What SDL looks like in the classroom.
  3. How the curriculum requirements are met.
  4. SDL allows me to meet the individual needs of ALL of my students.
  5. SDL enables the students to gain a deep meaning of concepts.
  6. SDL is an authentic way for students to develop skills such as time management.

This is a lot of information to cover in a 30-minute presentation which also requires me to ensure that the parents “get to know me” and the different aspects of the school day. It was time to get creative!

STEP 2: Putting together the presentation.
Over the previous two years, I have presented on how I am creating a student-directed learning environment. These were my starting points of what I was going to put into the presentation. I included many photos of the students during the different stages of the week as well as some clips of the students explaining what their week looks like (last year this was a “Could” do activity for them to include in their portfolios and have come in useful for me as well!).

STEP 3: Creating a hook.

So we always teach the students to “hook their audience”, wouldn’t it be better if I tried to do the same thing? When thinking about explaining the purpose of SDL I took to Twitter to see what I could find that other people were doing and I saw that a teacher had asked their parents to fill out a graph where she was tracking the age the students in her class first started walking. What a fantastic idea (I wish I knew who it came from so I could site this great idea!)! I HAD FOUND MY HOOK!

STEP 4: Presenting to the parents

On the night of Back to School Night, I asked the parents when they arrived to put their child’s name on the graph. It was a great way of explaining to the parents about the value of differentiation. Why is it that we are ok with the students gaining skills as babies at different stages yet we want them to all be learning at the same pace and time when they get to school? The graph enabled them to see that their children all learned to walk, talk, and crawl at different stages.

I highlighted that by allowing the students to be directors of their learning in the classroom they will be able to schedule their tasks when it suits THEIR learning styles. If they find a task challenging they can schedule this at their prime learning time of the day (we have spent a lot of time discussing whether they are morning or afternoon people and how this affects their focus at these times). I also was able to show the parents the different structures in place that the students will be using to help them with the process.


I then showed them some of the reflections from the students from last year, including a video of them that a group of students put together for their portfolios at the end of the year. The parents were able to see the ability I will have to offer a more individualized program for their students.


Step 5: Parent Feedback

Following back to school night it has been exciting to hear from some parents who came along. Here is what two of them had to say…

“Thank you also for introducing your way of teaching and your ideas about it. I was really impressed and love the idea of being responsible for the students own learning. As a trainer for life balance and relaxation I  – of course – appreciate the idea to somehow adapt the schedule to one’s own biorhythm! It is a quite progressive idea and I LOVE IT and support it!!”

“Thank you for the great presentation you gave on Back to School night. I really appreciated hearing more about your approach and I am excited to follow … development of his schedule and learning this year.”

The most exciting part for me though was the feedback from my students the following day. They were so excited to have been talking with their parents about the different things that they have been doing in the classroom and the new understanding that they have of themselves as learners. This is the best result for me, to have the students connecting with their parents and sharing the learning journey with them.

Step 6: The future

I have invited parents to come in and be involved in the classroom and see how it all works. I believe that an “open door policy” is the best way for the parents to feel included and informed about how their students are learning. I look forward to seeing how the year progresses and am hopeful the parents will be with us for the journey…and now understand that their students are still doing math every day 😉

Agency…Empowering students to direct their own learning

Originally posted on my personal blog empower2b.

In a world that is constantly changing, how is the education system going to evolve? Senge et al. (2012) suggest it is time to move away from the traditional schooling system that originated from the industrial era. This is an opinion is evident in the movement seen in education recently. According to Holland (2015), “…2016 may be the year of student agency — the ability to act independently within a given environment and assume an amount of control and empowerment” (Holland, 2015, para. 1). In the second half of 2018, this self-directed learning movement is gaining momentum as schools and organisations, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB), make student agency the main focus. Pushing outside comfort zones as educators and looking at how to elevate the learning environment for each individual learner is the first step to innovative teaching. (Couros, 2015)

In order to enhance opportunities for students to develop a skill set to enable them to be successful in employment that may not currently exist, educators need to be risk-takers and push past boundaries of the familiar. It is no longer possible to offer the “same” experience that has always been provided and be satisfied and successful professionally. Classroom diversity is also a realistic norm in today’s schools with class populations offering a range in academic level, cultures, beliefs and the life experiences children have had. This is particularly the case in the international school setting and educators need to cater to class populations that do not fit the one-size-fits-all mould. So how? How do schools encourage their educators to create a learning environment that provides individualised programs to ALL students, no matter their needs? When preparing for lessons, how can students be guided to take more responsibility for their learning journey? The answer is agency!

“Students have a sense of “agency” when they feel in control of things that happen around them; when they feel that they can influence events. This an important sense for learners to develop. They need to be active participants in their learning.” (NZ Ministry of Education, 2016)
Couros (2015) states that students “…must learn to collaborate with others from around the world to develop solutions for problems. Even more importantly, our students must learn how to ask the right questions – questions that will challenge old systems and inspire growth.” (Couros, 2015.) The concept of ‘agency’ is not a new educational term; many may argue that teachers have always been looking for ways to individualise learning for their students. John Dewey talked about the importance of student-directed learning in 1938 when he highlighted “that students should assume an active role in their learning process so as to develop the skills for becoming successful members of their communities.” (Holland, 2016, para. 6)  Agency enables all of this to happen!

The IB is currently releasing a series of enhancements to their Primary Years Programme (PYP), and one of the major changes for the programme is the inclusion, and indeed focus, on student agency. The PYP defines agency as being  “… the power to take meaningful and intentional action, and acknowledges the rights and responsibilities of the individual, supporting voice, choice and ownership for everyone in the learning community.” (IBO, 2017) Stevens (2016) believes that creating opportunities for students to have a voice and choice towards their own learning journey enables them to “…feel that that their opinions and ideas are heard and valued by their peers and teachers, they’re much more likely to be engaged with their education.” (Stevens, 2016, para. 1)

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Figure 1. IB PYP enhanced organizing structure. This figure illustrates the structure the PYP will take beginning in 2019.

Through voice and choice students are empowered to have a say in what their learning journey should look like, resulting in them believing that they are in control of their growth. It is difficult to see how you can have agency without empowering the students; in fact, Kearns (2017) suggests that “empowerment is synonymous with agency.” (Kearns, 2017, para. 9)

Levinson (2016) suggests the students of today are using the knowledge and skills that they are developing outside of the classroom to move them forward and often beyond what their teachers are aware of. Enabling a self-directed approach in the classroom allows students to have the agency to use skills to further develop inside the classroom and possibly assisting those they are with.  One goal of agency is student action. Action is an essential element of all IB programmes and can take various forms, such as: social justice lifestyle choices, participation, social entrepreneurship, and advocacy. (IBO, 2017)
Agency can take many different forms and like its purpose with students, enables educators to create an individualised environment in their classrooms. However, in ALL cases where agency is the goal, student-directed learning should always remain the focus. Students will have increased choice and voice throughout their day or in the way they organize their learning. These may include, but are not limited to:

  • Personalising learning through individual schedules
  • Teacher- and student-led workshops that students can sign up for
  • Creating physical learning environments to support the social, physical and emotional well-being
  • Creating a culture of respect in the classrooms in which students feel supported to take risks and be accountable, even when they make mistakes.
  • Collaborating and co-constructing learning and learning goals.
  • Genius Hour / iTime / 20% Time / Passion Projects

Opportunities to create agency in the classroom

When changing the climate of the classroom into one that is focused on being student directed, a fun and empowering place to start is the physical environment. Merrill (2018) states, “Flexible spaces, educators agree, alter the fundamental dynamics of teaching and learning, giving students more control and responsibility, improving academic engagement, and undermining the typical face-forward orientation of the traditional learning environment.” (para.15) When establishing a class climate at the beginning of the year, task the students in the class to “create” their classroom environment (Refer to figure 4 for an example of the classroom environment one class created during a mathematics geometry unit.).

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Figure 2. Taylor (2017) Flexible learning space.  This figure illustrates the results of a student-designed classroom during a transdisciplinary mathematics unit.


When teachers create a flexible learning environment the students will be empowered with the agency to develop their weekly goals and to sign up for focused teaching groups with the teachers or with students who believe their enhanced level of understanding will enable them to teach their peers. This will assist them in gaining a greater awareness of their strengths and weaknesses academically and also encourage them to be proactive in deepening their understanding. To assist students in gaining a more accurate self-awareness, they reflect on their learning of the literacy and numeracy achievement standards. They explain their decisions of where to place each standard by providing of their evidence of learning.


In his presentation at the Learning 2 conference Sam Sherratt (2018) discussed the importance of moving students away from being compliant and, instead, empowering them to take the lead. Stephen Downes (2010) states, “We need to move beyond the idea that an education is something that is provided for us and toward the idea that an education is something that we create for ourselves.” (Couros, 2015, p. 31) In an upper elementary school classroom, students are taught how to create their own weekly schedule.  Using their weekly goals the students decide upon the focused workshops and tasks that they will undertake throughout the week. With guidance from their teacher students focus on ensuring they have a balance of curriculum areas, a range of independent versus group work opportunities, and also meeting their individual needs with focused instruction.


Figure 3. Empowered to create. This figure illustrates the student’s taking responsibility to schedule their weekly lessons and sign up for workshops.
Senge (2012) highlights the importance of students learning by being “alive”, and not compartmentalized into subjects that are looked at in isolation. In the IB PYP the focus is on providing the students with a transdisciplinary curriculum where different subjects are taught and connected simultaneously.  “Understanding a world of interdependency and change rather than memorizing facts and striving for right answers” (Senge et al., 2012, p. 65) is the goal. Through the units of inquiry undertaken throughout the year, the focus on content is overtaken by the importance of teaching concepts and skills. It is through the transdisciplinary inquiry that students get to take true control over their learning and achieve a level of learning that is authentic and connected to the wider world. Through asking questions and making connections between the key concepts and the different curriculum areas, the students can gain a realistic understanding of the unit. Assessments are no longer based purely on the content being addressed but instead a reflection of the learning they had made. This learning could be in literacy or maths but also the skills they developed and the connections they had made.

A real example of how agency can lead to authentic action

As students of the United Nations International School (UNIS), there is a level of responsibility to take action and help make improvements in the wider community.  A culture of student-directed learning and agency helps make this process of taking action a more authentic one. As students set their learning goals for the week, throughout the units of inquiry they set action goals that refer to how they can apply their new understandings practically. With teacher guidance, they are encouraged to look to the broader community, outside of the school, and gain different perspectives on the topics they are looking at.

It is through the transdisciplinary inquiry that students get to take true control over their learning and achieve a level of learning that is authentic and connected to the wider world. Let’s consider a real example. Fourth-grade students are looking at the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The teacher introduces the unit and the students ask questions that highlight their wonderings about the topic. Through these discussions and inquiry, the students begin to make connections to the rights of the Vietnamese children that they see outside the school every day. What rights are the local children accessing? What are the different circumstances that affect the rights they have compared to the students at UNIS? Soon the students are exploring a range of different avenues, all connected to the UN convention. They are working individually, in pairs or in small groups. They are emailing the local embassies and UN headquarters asking for information and interviews. They are working with a member of the Vietnamese staff in the school, to organise and attend field trips to the Hanoi Old Quarter to talk with local kids and find out more about them.

All of a sudden their “learning” is real and connected to where they live. They have popped their international school bubble and are seeing the world through a more realistic perspective. Then one day the teacher asks them: “what are you going to do now you have learned all of this?” Brainstorming begins, ideas flow and the excitement levels rise. All of a sudden the question, “As students of the UN, what is my responsibility?” makes sense, and an answer is achievable!

By the end of this unit of inquiry, the students in grade four were taking authentic action! They created social enterprises with a goal of achieving their desired actions towards giving Vietnamese children less fortunate than themselves, access to their rights. The following six weeks, as they worked on their new unit of inquiry, focused on building a small business (in their case, a social enterprise), and keeping in mind their end goal.

Following a successful Grade 4 Market Day, the students jumped straight into planning for their actions. They organised pencil drives for a local charity, went shopping with the school gardener, made gardening kits, and then delivered them to families living on the banks of the Red River; they purchased a Lifestraw water filter and gave it to a small rural community school, and they purchased teddy bears for each of the children in an orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City. The classroom was buzzing and the students were driven!

Upon reflection, students stated that they felt that they had gained more than just an understanding of the content about children’s rights. They stated that their time management skills, communication skills, and collaborative skills developed significantly and allowed them to take more risks. When reflecting on staying with the transdisciplinary, student-directed approach, they unanimously requested to stay with the new classroom approach. The students want to be held accountable for their learning; they want to be in control of their education journey!

For many educators change inevitably brings a sense of loss to those involved and evokes a number of different positive and negative emotions (Fullan, 2001). For innovation to be successful there needs to be collaboration and buy-in from the entire school community. (C. DeLuca, personal communication 2018) By empowering teachers and other members of the school community to have input and a certain degree of voice and choice, more support for the change will be achieved. (A. Richardson, C.Stander, and M.Taylor, personal communication 2018) Transparency and clarity are necessary in order to ensure that students are meeting the requirements that the school asks for. Inviting teachers into those classrooms where the innovation is in operation is a way for them to visualise the reality, see for themselves what it “can look like”, and to give them the opportunity to ask questions and inquire into the possible concerns they may have.

When communicating with parents, an open-door policy is also a strategy that Taylor (2017) suggests is successful. Provide the background and research for the change with an open invitation for them to come and witness the changes for themselves. Ask for feedback prior to the parents coming into the classroom so that you are able to address these areas during the open house. The key is to remember that parents want what is best for their child and their child’s future. Show them the big picture and the evidence of results.

“If innovation is going to be a priority in education, we need to create a culture where trust is the norm.” (Couros, 2015, p. 69) and to do this, educators need to be comfortable playing with the unknown and be ready to make mistakes. As a school community, it is important to value a shared vision that is centered around student learning being current and according to the latest research. The priority should always be on preparing the students for their future, not for a future that is now in the past.


Couros, G. (2015). The innovators mindset empower learning, unleash talent, and lead a culture of creativity. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting.

Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a Culture of Change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Holland, B. (2015, December 9). The Year of Agency. Retrieved from

International Baccalaureate. (2017, November). The Learner in the enhanced PYP. Retrieved from

Kearns, G. (2017, December 11). Why student agency already exists. Retrieved from

Levinson, M. (2016, April 11). Next Generation Learning: Bringing Student Agency Back to Schooling. Retrieved from

Merrill, S. (2018, June 14). Flexible Classrooms: Research Is Scarce, But Promising. Retrieved from

New Zealand Ministry of Education. (2016, November 15). Learner agency. Retrieved from

Senge, P. M., Cambron-McCabe, N., Lucas, T., Kleiner, A., Smith, B., & Dutton, J. (2012). Schools that learn.: A fifth discipline fieldbook for educators, parents and everyone who cares about education. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Sherratt, S. (2018, April 09). Already breaking moulds: Studio 5. Retrieved from L2 Talks Europe

Stevens, K. (2016, April 22). 5-Minute Film Festival: Student Voice and Choice. Retrieved from

Taylor, M. (2017, December 15). Exciting, authentic, connected…transdisciplinary learning! Retrieved from

Action has no meaning if the ‘Teacher’ plans it!

Screen Shot 2018-09-03 at 7.02.55 PMWithin my ten years of working with the IB curriculum ‘Student-Action’ has always been central to my practice, a ‘golden chalice’ at the centre of all learning. Not only to me but to many of my colleagues and administration a like. There has been so much discussion and importance placed on the idea of ‘student-action’ with, I fear, many of us not fully understanding its full implications or importance. I myself have been more than guilty of playing my part in creating myths and misconceptions in regards to student-action.

Unfortunately, to often than not, ‘student-action’ has been something very much teacher or school prescribed with little or no input from the students. In may cases it has been the teacher that has come up with the idea and then presented to the children. Once the children accept and adopt the idea it is then wrapped up and parcelled as ‘student-action’. We seemed to have lost sight in the idea of authentic student-action, something that does occur but then again may not.

To the school community when any form of ‘Action’ occurs, or even better documented, it is a demonstration of success for the school and to the programme. Due to its importance ‘Action’ is something that has needed to happen and so must be considered and planned for. Teacher’s, including myself, would plan their inquiries with ‘Action’ as its end goal without considering the importance of  ‘authentic’ or even ‘student-initiated’. Very often I have seen pre-planned allocation for ‘Action’ as part of Summative Assessment tasks. ‘Action’ that would be taken to demonstrate the success of an inquiry and then be forgotten when they begin their next.

I have even worked within schools in which the implementation of Action has been so high that it has been insisted that each grade ‘must’ be seen to be responsible for some form of ‘Action’ throughout the year. Yearly Overviews have been constructed with planned Actions for each grade penciled in at the beginning of the year before a student has even stepped foot through the door. Not only is this form of ‘Action’ premeditated it is very much meaningless to the students. I believe that this kind of thinking forces the issue of ‘Action’ in an unnatural way. It constructs group collaboration within year groups without taking into consideration the importance of individual and personal action that occurs almost on a daily basis within our class. More often than not it is the individual and personal actions that happen within a child that have the most meaning.

I have noticed that we have a tendency to miss or disregard ‘student-action’ if it is individual or personal. We seem to be waiting for the kind of ‘student-action’ that will change the world, something big and something very important. While these kinds of Actions are very nice it makes us forget and miss the small actions that are taking place within our classrooms on a daily basis.

It may seem that I place little importance in student-action at all but quite the contrary. I have come to believe that authentic student-action is possibly the only way to fully assess student understanding. No matter what the curriculum contents I believe we can never have a comprehensive assessment of student understanding unless they demonstrate in an authentic ‘real-life’ context.

For example, I could be teaching my Early Years class to be able to count 10 objects. Within the timeframe of my teaching my formative assessments show that a child can be successful in counting 10 objects but how can I be really sure that they understand? It is when they transfer this knowledge to a ‘real-life’ situation that I can fully assess their understanding. Next day, if I were to observe the child in role-play counting 10 oranges to give to his friend then I know that they not only understand but are able to transfer this knowledge to ‘real-life’ situations. Is this not an example of authentic student-action? 

Screen Shot 2018-09-03 at 7.02.29 PMThese kinds of demonstration of learning are visible in my classroom on an almost daily basis. It is these little demonstrations of knowledge that provide my assessment for understanding. Only this week I was witness a new child in my class asking ‘Will you be my friend?’ to another. It may be a coincidence that we have been having many discussions about being a good friend and making friends. We sometimes forget that Action may come in the form of personal change and does not always have to be through the planting of trees or cleaning our rivers. It may be as simple as making a friend.

Student initiated action does not have to be a change in the world but a change in the child. Taking action by using their learning in real-life situations. This is what authentic student action looks like and it cannot be planned for it has to come from the child. So to all those that worry that action is not happening in the classroom just take the time to observe and listen. It has to be the students voice, choice and ownership that shines through.

Where Do I Start????

Changing the way I approached the classroom environment last year completely changed the way I approached my teaching. Letting go of the control I had over where the students sat and how they worked was the first step to me recognizing the power in giving over some control to the students and allowing them to take responsibility for their own learning. By December 2017 I was teaching in an entirely new way that saw less structured scheduling and more voice and choice for my students. I became OBSESSED with reading other peoples ideas and trying them out in my room and I was a skipping record that only talked about the one topic with anyone who would listen to me.

Fast forward to August 2018 and I am STUCK! I have NO IDEA where to begin! I continue to read and see other peoples ideas and love all of them…but where do I start with this new class of students? How do I start the year in the way I closed the previous one? I have to admit I am struggling not to go back to my old ways. I am seeing blogs and tweets about amazing experiences teachers are having in their classrooms as they have their students start on their next learning journey. Disheveled classrooms being created and designed by the learners, tasks being written and undertaken, workshops being offered…the inspiration is endless and I find I have replaced my Facebook (I deactivated my Facebook account over the summer and haven’t looked back!) time suckage with Twitter and blogs…but instead of inspiring me on what I can be doing in my own classroom it is often causing PANIC! Why does it look and seem so easy for these incredible educators and why do I seem to be blocked in finding a way for it to work with my class? I would literally be failing at that point…myself and my new, enthusiastic class of students.

This blog post is not going to be a great one, in fact, I may not even post it…it is me trying to sort out where I am at and where I want to get to, and most importantly, HOW do I get there? On moving up day last school year I sold a great sell to my new class and they have come back raring to go on the student-directed learning journey! My struggle has been how to incorporate the student-directed approach into the community building sessions. How do I introduce the students to the different routines that we will be following and building our new class community while preparing them for a successful transition into a classroom structure that is entirely new to them?

I decided to place a greater focus on the students looking at themselves as learners and who they are as learners. Instead of talking about general aspects of their lives with each other they had a great focus on who they are in their role as a student. The students completed a MICUP (Multiple Intelligence Checklist for Upper Primary) and identified the different categories of intelligence that are their strengths and those that are more challenging. They interviewed each other about their learning preferences when working in the classroom (asking questions such as what time of the day do you feel more focused?). They then used the answers to create “Learner Profiles” of themselves.


As a class, we brainstormed what we believe our roles are in creating a successful learning environment. We looked at the UN values and the school values and used our understandings in conjunction with what we brainstormed about the ideal classroom and we wrote our own list of values that we will strive to achieve (the students decided to use values rather than work agreements, rules or essential agreements).


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As we worked through all of these tasks and activities we continued to reflect on our key learning objective of “I can explain who I am as a learner and how I will work in my class community to achieve success in grade 4.” At the end of the second week of school, we did a class health check where we reflected on how we were feeling as a class. It was a great math lesson where we created criteria and then followed the data handling process of collecting data, recording data, analyzing data and drawing conclusions. The class thought we are doing a great job as 90% rated themselves as feeling between a 7 and 10 out of 10, however, we quickly agreed that it is not a success until everyone in the class are feeling this way. By looking at our class values they quickly came up with an area of focus for next week and possible ways we can help everyone feel emotionally safe in the classroom.


As I sit here and procrastinate planning for the week ahead I am thinking of where to next…pre-assessments are 90% done, the classroom community is established and now just needs time…but what is the regular school week going to look like? What I am realizing is that I am needing to practice what I preach in my class…I need to be the open-minded one and I need to be balanced when I am preparing for the week ahead. Most importantly though I need to be the risk taker!

How are you going with your start to the year? What has worked and what have you learned to do differently next time?

Thoughtfully Approaching Children’s Artwork

Recently a woman I know posted a photo of her child’s artwork on Facebook. The photo depicted a small box neatly painted green with various designs and embellishments on it. The caption said, “My son brought this home from school today. I asked him what it was. When he said he didn’t know I told him to throw it in the trash.”

We might ask ourselves, how could the parent in this story be so critical of her child’s artwork. It might surprise you to know that she has a PhD in Education. We’ve all thrown away children’s artwork when the time seemed appropriate, as it would be next to impossible to save everything. Likewise, we’ve all witnessed examples of what we might consider not being the child’s best work. But it was the manner in which the parent was so immediately dismissive of the piece which I would like for us to consider.

Aside from likely hurting the feelings of her son, the parent missed a golden opportunity to better understand the thinking dispositions behind the artwork. You might be saying to yourself that you didn’t know there were such things as thinking dispositions in art. You are not alone and that’s why people sometimes don’t know how to respond to original, age-appropriate children’s artwork.

What are thinking dispositions in the visual arts and why are they important?

In the book Studio Thinking 2 – The real benefits of visual arts education (Hetland 2013), the authors, along with researchers from Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero and others, present eight Studio Habits of Mind. These habits of mind are thinking dispositions that are nurtured in the visual arts.

Studio Habits of Mind (Hetland 2013)

Observe – Learning to attend to visual contexts more closely than ordinary looking requires

Envision – Learning to picture visually and imagine next steps

Express – Learning to create works that convey an idea, feeling or personal meaning

Develop Craft – Learning to use tools and take care of the art studio

Engage and Persist – Learning to embrace problems, develop focus and persevere

Stretch and Explore – Reaching beyond capabilities, playfully exploring without a plan, embracing the opportunity to learn from mistakes

Reflect – Learning to think and talk with others about artwork, making judgements

Understand Art Worlds – Learning art history and current practice, learning to interact with other artists

“Explore” pieces and “care” pieces are both important to develop Studio Habits of Mind

In our PYP visual arts class, we give equal importance to artwork that results from exploring with materials and artwork that is carefully crafted as a special take-home or show piece. Studio Habits of Mind develop through both types of art making. As members of the school community, I encourage everyone to thoughtfully and joyfully approach the children’s artwork, asking questions such as: “What’s your favorite part of the work and why?” “What was most challenging?” “Tell me how you did this.” Not everything about art can be easily expressed in words, but these questions will help the students to learn to talk about some aspects of their work and reflect on the process.

Ironically, soon after the woman I know posted and ridiculed the photo of her son’s green box on Facebook, I came across a remarkably similar green box by Jean Pougny in the Pompidou Centre in Paris. I imagine it’s worth a small fortune. Like many modern art pieces, the significance of the piece is in the original thinking behind it, rather than any special technical skill of the artist. By seeking to understand the process and thinking behind it, we learn to recognize it’s value.


Hetland, L., Winner, E., Veenema, S., & Sheridan, K.M. (2013). Studio thinking 2: The real benefits of visual arts education. New York: Teachers College Press

Learning to ‘Let Go’ in the Presence of Agency.

Screen Shot 2018-08-26 at 7.16.49 AMLike many in education I have been swept away by the wave of ‘Student-Agency’.  The new era in education is seeing the voice, choice and ownership of learning being willingly transferred from teacher to student. Our young learners are enthusiastically taking charge of their learning environments, increasingly making the decisions on what, how and when they would like to learn. With the aid of the learning environment we provide they are in every sense becoming their own teachers. So where does that leave the teacher?

To many educators the change in dynamics is welcomed but then to others it can be a challenging process to give up their authority in the classroom. It may certainly cause some bruised egos with the realisation that teachers are no longer the fountains of all knowledge or the central figure of authority and learning within a classroom in which they claim some ownership.

It is my belief, and even hope, that the changes that are taking place are irreversible and represent a new direction in education. But still, I have been left with much to ponder. This new learning environment is certainly much different than the one that I entered over a decade ago. I was much more certain in my role as a teacher back then when I was allocated ‘my’ classroom and it was ‘my’ responsibility to create detailed lesson plans for the week that ‘my’ ‘good’ students would follow. I can still remember the hours spent during my evenings and weekends creating a precise learning agenda for the week. Then the wave of ‘student-agency’ swept over my world.

At first, there was a period of time that I felt a little lost. I was insecure in my new role and setting. What was my purpose if the students had taken ownership of their own learning? The classroom was no longer my own and I was no longer the fountain of all knowledge. I had even given over control of my detailed lesson plans, which at one point, I had taken so much care and pride in creating and implementing.

I found myself going through a period of self discovery as I tried to find new purpose to my role as a ‘teacher’. I began my journey by developing a deeper understanding as to the ‘why’ these changes have happened. Once I fully understood the implications and benefits to the student’s learning all that was left was for me was to rediscover my purpose. It required a change in mindset and a sense of ‘letting go’ but once I achieved this it changed my world.

Screen Shot 2018-08-26 at 7.19.20 AMWithin the learning environment I am no longer outside the learning process but I have become an active member within it. No longer the fountain of all knowledge but now working alongside the students in their journey of discovery. The joy I once had of providing students with knowledge has been replaced by the increased pleasure of being alongside the children as they discover the knowledge for themselves. In my new role I find myself being a guide, mentor, motivator, counsellor, friend, facilitator, questioner, observer, philosopher, parent, listener and learner. I feel that the term ‘teacher’ can no longer be an accurate description of my duties.

My weekends and evenings are no longer spent in the creation of lesson plans but now I am more inclined to reflect on the days learning thinking ‘where to next?’. Rather than providing planning my role is to provide opportunities for learning and developing skills. Guiding my students to the next step in self discovery. I am reminded of quotes from Seymour Papert, who said “The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge.” And second, from Carl Rogers, who wrote “I have come to feel that the only learning which significantly influences behavior is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning. It seems to me that anything that can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential and has little or no significant influence on behavior.”

Throughout my journey of self discovery I have come to realise that just as the students have become their own teachers, I have made the opposite journey from teacher to learner. With a change in my own habits I have more time to pursue my own interests. During my free-time I am more inclined to research educational theory, write educational articles and blogs, connect with like minded individuals on social media and exchange ideas and practice. Do I still spend hours planning? No! Does this make me less of an educator? Absolutely not! At no other point in my career do I feel more passionate and  informed about educational issues and child development. At no other point in my career do I feel more confident in being in a position to support, engage, and develop the students within my class.

When ‘Agency’ came it did not just give voice, choice and ownership to the students but it also gave it to the educators as well. It gave us greater freedom to take ownership within our own careers and the benefits are enormous to both the students and teachers. Providing agency to our students does not have to be a challenging process in fact it should feel liberating.