Celebrating the journey

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Photo credit: Pexels.com

I work in Studio 5 at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC). It’s a personalized learning environment that puts learner agency at the core of our belief system. As an advisor, I’m often asked questions like…

  • How do you track growth?
  • How do you know where your learners are at and their next steps?
  • How do you communicate this to your learners? Their parent(s)/guardian(s)?
  • What do you assess? How is it tracked?


In this post, I hope to elucidate what I do, which looks fairly similar amongst my colleagues, yet with some nuanced perspectives and ideas to make it their own. In other words, it is “a way”, not “the way”.


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Image adapted from Pexels.com

Assessment Philosophy

We, in Studio 5, don’t believe in assigning numbers or grades to students; there’s a significant amount of evidenceabout their lack of efficacy towards motivating students to learn. Thus, we believe in advising learners towards becoming intrinsically motivated in what they want to learn about (i.e. placing importance on learning how to learn). We value developing lifelong authentic skills over anything else.

Since our studio model operates within the context of the IB’s PYP, the Enhanced Approaches to Learning (AtLs) make a lot of sense to use as our assessment vehicle. First, they were just redeveloped and introduced this year in the enhancements to the PYP; this translates to longer-term stability. In addition, the AtLs are present (with growing complexity) throughout the MYP and DP frameworks of the IB, therefore adding carry-over in the continuum of a learner’s journey. 

These ideals in what we value stem from the Learning and teaching section of the enhanced PYP documentation.


The IB posits that, the AtLs “are grounded in the belief that learning how to learn is fundamental to a student’s education.”  These “skills also help to support students’ sense of agency, encouraging them to see their learning as an active and dynamic process“. (Learning and teaching, IBO, p 26)


Any educator that currently works with these AtLs knows that they are not easy to synthesize and interpret from the PYP documentation alone. To simplify these AtLs for all stakeholders in our community, we use a modified interpretation of the skills in infographic form developed by a former advisor, Suzanne Kitto (@OrenjiButa). 

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Tracking Growth

Instead of grades, we use a Studio 5 designed continuum called the Gradual Increase in Independence (GII). Ultimately, our goal is for the kids to lead, or at least be independent in relation to their approaches to learning (AtLs). More metaphorically speaking, we want them to be in the driver’s seat of their learning journey. 

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Another @OrenjiButa creation


A PYP Philosopy

To help guide what our studio model planning, learning and assessment looks like in depth, it’s important to note that we are not just pulling stars out of the sky in our ideals. All of our philosophies are deeply rooted within the philosophy of the enhanced PYP framework. The bullets below are particularly salient to our everyday practice:

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(in Learning and teaching, IBO, p 28)


Long term planning

Over the course of the year, we, as an entire school, have a year long inquiry into “Who we are” as learners, individuals and as a community. Our exhibition (PYPx) lends itself nicely to “Where we are in place and time” for our children to reflect on their culmination of learning within the PYP before embarking into the MYP. This leaves the rest of the year open in terms of our Programme of Inquiry (PoI) to allow the children to set sail in three different Self Directed Units of Inquiry (SDUoIs). I know you may think that my math is wrong here, but SDUoIs tend to be trans-transdisciplinary (yes, we made that one up), leaving lots of room for balanced, horizontal articulation in our grade level.

​As advisors, we assist our learners in backwards planning their SDUoIs on six week timelines. During week seven, we host mini-exhibitions (or as we like to call, a “Take it Public” – otherwise known as TIP) in between SDUoI cycles. We give our children the agency in how they choose to TIP, which I have blogged about here, and so has my colleague, Taryn, here.

These TIP events also are wonderful low entry, high ceiling, and, what Mitch Resnick, at MIT’s Media Lab, likes to call, “wide wall“, celebrations that showcase learning journeys. They also help spark ideas, innovation, iterations and motivation for the next round of SDUoIs, which students spend the rest of week seven planning for. In general, to overly simplify our long term plan, it would look something along the lines of this:

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Note that WWA lasts year long, but we spend a very concentrated focus in the first term.



As mentioned above, many of the SDUoIs that the children plan, tend to hit several transdisciplinary themes. We get our students to track this in hyper-doc assessment folders that are shared with their parents and advisors. The aim of this is keeping the transparency window of communication and support open.

By planning for the whole year Who we are unit and having our PYPx as Where we are in place and time, this offers the learners flexibility to either “Pivot or Persevere” in their self-directed inquiries in terms of the time allotted for each inquiry. We keep the traditional six week plan as it gives our learners an adequate amount of time to inquire deeply into something they are passionate about. In addition, from a time management perspective, it gives an authentic deadline to prepare for in regards to taking their learning public. Some inquiries do need longer than six weeks and/or continue to motivate children to persevere. When that happens, we, as advisors, help our learners to continue to step further out of their comfort zone.

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Students, with the help of advisors, track their themes. This is visible to all stakeholders in their shared assessment folders.


Pre-planning – Setting a purpose

To help our inspire our learners, we help them in finding their autonomy, mastery and purpose (ultimately their motivation), stemming from Daniel Pink’s work in his book Drive. This, less than two minute, video sums up Pink’s work on motivation nicely.

At the beginning and throughout the year, we, as advisors, offer a variety of workshops ranging from writing stories, cooking, photography, dance and more. We encourage our kids to do the same; some run workshops on slime making, Scratch tutorials and more. All of this aids our learners in finding their intrinsic motivation for what they are passionate to learn more about.

For those that need a little further inspiration as to what to inquire into, we use this question grid as a diving board:

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After a purpose is set, the final piece of the puzzle is a Simon Sinek fueled “Why, How and What” purpose planner. These planners help with initial conferencing to push our learners out of their comfort zones and also help connect them with the wider community (my colleague Taryn has documented this in great detail here).

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SDUoI Purpose Planner



Inquiring and reflecting on achievement

After all the pre-planning and reorganization of learning spaces to reflect the context of the inquiries, the wheels are in motion! Children have their specific weekly goals for their SDUoIs from their six week backwards planners, of which they expand upon in greater detail in their weekly goals.

In my advisory, learners set four SMART weekly goals on Monday morning. The first is a personal goal which can be anything in their life. Children tend to balance out their screen-time, get better at their mindfulness practice, or aim to be better humans in their connections with others. The second goal is a communication goal, related to any AtL within that skill family. Third is a math goal and the last is their weekly SDUoI goal.

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A personal goal of being more balanced with screen time. Documented in the learner’s digital portfolio.

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By the end of the week, the expectation of my learners is that they have a face-to-face conference showing the documentation of their SDUoI, math and communications skills goals. To help with the transparency piece with parents, children post their set goals on Monday to their portfolios, then also reflect mid-week on the progress of their achievement.

In terms of the weekly timetable, we keep things open, save single subject pullouts. Each day revolves around the PYP’s action cycle of “Choose-Act-Reflect” (commonly known as CAR time). The first and last block of each day, I have my specific learners that are under my pastoral care. However, during the middle blocks, these are the “ACT” blocks where our learners connect with peer and experts all around our community. Advisors are all diversified in their expertise and are working with a wide range of children, Studio wide, throughout these act times, not just the ones in their advisory. The only expectation is that their homeroom, or CAR time, advisor knows where they are and that an adult is in the area to supervise them wherever they are. Morning CAR blocks allow for check-in, choosing and planning their day and setting goals for the week (i.e. “CHOOSE” blocks). The last period of the day involves reflection, documentation and thinking about next steps (i.e. “REFLECT” blocks). 

Here is an example of a day planner that our learners complete and conference with an advisor on before they “ACT”:

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Each learner “chooses” how they will “act” out their day in the morning. Then “reflects” at the day’s end and thinks about next steps for the following day.


Where do the math and communication skill goals come from?

Probably the question that we’re asked most often.

Unlike any other school, we spend time to get to know our learners. We use diagnostic tools in order to garner that information through interviews like Probe, Gloss and looking at writing samples. That data gets analyzed, broken down into communicable and actionable next steps, then verbally communicated to the learner. This information also gets shared and put into their assessment folder, which is their “one-stop shop” hyperdoc platform that is shared with parents with commenting rights. 

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Aside from these diagnostics, we also get our students to notice, name and document next steps when they arise. This could be when they notice a pattern when reading through research and/or pleasure. Or it could be when they are writing their daily reflections, their own end of term evaluations for reporting, or in their documentation. Sometimes it may be through the feedback they get after taking it public, or something they noticed themselves. As an advisor, I’m always looking to assist my learners with the notice and naming of this real-time, authentic feedback in the context of whatever they may be doing. Through open-ended questions, it further develops my learner’s metacognition to achieve that end goal — to be the driver’s of their own learning journey.

More specifically for maths, we also triangulate the data for next steps through the diagnostic grade-level assessments on Khan academy and get learners to save the results by concept area for actionable next steps. Another data point is through the notice and naming within the context of their self-directed units. It may be looking at symmetry through a photographic lens, measurement when building things up in our FabLab, and/or determining  profits from entrepreneurial sales during market days and determining the percentage necessary to donate to a pre-determined charitable organization.

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Khan Academy diagnostic assessment

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Neural bridges are richly built when constructed in authentic contexts.


The documentation of goals

Mentioned above, learners set four goals weekly, three of which are documented and accessible via their assessment folder (their personal goal is reflected upon in their digital portfolio). All three goals (SDUoI, Communications Skill and Math) all follow a similar process: Stated goal, successes, challenges and next steps. The expectation is to be media rich in the documentation and the students are generally their best judges as to when they’ve achieved mastery, or persevered long enough, on a particular goal. 

​Below are examples of each of these three documentation goal areas.



A communications goal example: 



A documented weekly math goal…



A documented SDUoI goal…



What about summative assessment?

As for whole Studio summatives, all advisors do some variety of one at the end of each SDUoI cycle, but I’d argue that it’s more formative if anything as it is used to inform the next self-directed unit. The kiddos self reflect on their motivation, use of experts, get feedback from advisors and parents, then use all of this to inform how they should continue to push themselves further on their next endeavor. 

Because of the very nature of the personalized learning within the studio, children tend to summatively assess themselves actively and often, with advisor conferencing, when they feel they have persevered long enough on a goal. They have the documentation of their journey to prove it. Thus, there are summative assessments taking place, just on different timelines and in smaller doses.

Click on the link below the following image to see an example of a self-directed unit summative assessment…


Click here to see the full assessment folder



How does all of the assessment mentioned above get communicated?

As mentioned above, the “one-stop-shop” hyperdoc assessment folder is shared with the parents at the beginning of the year. This keeps the transparency and communication window with parents entirely open from week one.

In addition, children reflect daily in their learning portfolio, which for most tends to be Seesaw.

Furthermore, several three-way conferences are held throughout the year. At each of these times, we tend to focus on different aspects of the AtLs. In our first conference, after term one, we looked solely at the self-management AtL family as it linked in nicely to our Who we are inquiry, specifically, who the children are as a learner (note that the enhanced AtLs were not yet released).

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Our first 3-way conference springboard to conversation and future goal setting. Note: These were the old AtLs.


For our most recent three-way conference, we used the enhanced AtLs to reflect on our growth up until that point. Each stakeholder chose two sub-skill strengths and growth areas, respectively. Then we discussed actionable steps together that our learners can use when setting goals within the Studio as well as support on how these goals can be achieved at home.

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Our mid-way 3-way conference springboard for looking at growth from the beginning of the year, as well as setting goals for the remainder. Enhanced AtLs incorporated.


Finally, Studio 5 learners write their own evaluation of learning (EoL). Advisors support them through the writing process, and each term, they report on a different aspect of their growth as a learner. Sometimes it’s math, other times it is their self-directed inquiries. All use the AtLs as a vehicle in which to benchmark their growth. Afterwards, advisors add a comment on the bottom, often just needing to show support for their honest, humble and very transparent reflections. 

The students writing their own EoLs was and still is one of the many things that I love about my current place of employment under my current role. It’s such a powerful and purposeful form of authentic writing.

On that note, I would love to encourage everyone reading this to do the same. Even just once. See what the parents think! Why not have a go?!

The letting go is never easy when you are trying to establish a culture of learner agency. However, remember that with the right scaffolding and support, any human can be an empowered and capable agent of their own learning! It’s extremely energizing!

​Here is an example of a more recent student written EoL …

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To wrap up …

If you’re new to agency and/or personalized learning, I’m sure there are still many questions that I have left unanswered. In addition, this is “our way”, and much of the above is even more adapted to make work for my specific advisory. I’m not suggesting that it is “the” way. Always start, collaboratively, with your “why”. Then determine what the “how” and “what” will look like in your context. 

Agency, in an educational setting, after all is about valuing voice, choice and ownership in one’s learning. A good start would be linking to the concept of this blog post — that of celebrating process, rather than product.

Growth does not have to be measured in grades or letters. Things are changing (albeit at a snail-like pace). Heck, even Harvard is pondering the very notion.

If you’ve gotten this far, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to read this rather lengthy post!

I’ll also leave you with John Spencer’s, less than two minute, amazing video about what happens when students own their own learning (this message and more is also evident in his and Julianni’s astounding book, Empower).


In what ways do you celebrate the journey over the destination?

What other ways that you track the growth of your learners beyond grades and numbers?

What are some of the ways you’ve “let go” and have introduced learner agency this year?
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Please add the answers to these, your feedback, comments, and/or suggestions below!

I do share ideas on this topic and more on Twitter (
@juouelle)!

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Agency in assemblies

Have you ever been an audience member at a school assembly/performance and either struggled to be entirely attentive or even worse, awake? I don’t know about you, but I have struggled with both for the majority of school assemblies that I have attended both as a student and educator.

For me, this leads to an interesting inquiry…

Are whole school assemblies still needed in 21st century learning models?

Some things that come to mind to advocate for their relevance may be:

  • Whole school celebrations/announcements/messages/initiatives
  • Giving students opportunities to display skills to mixed aged groups and the wider community
  • Giving the wider community an opportunity to join in on events at the school​

Image credit: Jaime Fernández | Pexels.com

What can assemblies still offer students in the 21st century?

I think for the people performing, it is a worthwhile experience. Particularly for students developing their communication skills and other skills the performance may require. Stepping out of your comfort zone, after all, is where the magic happens! Moreover, if the performers have voice, choice and ownership in what they are presenting, assembly performances would help strengthen neural pathways in their development of these skills, since they are likely intrinsically motivated to be there.

However, as an audience member, how much agency is really offered in a typical school assembly?

Here’s the gut check. It is highly likely that your school’s assemblies consist of a regimen that is far from agentic. Masses march on down to a central meeting space and are forced into some presenter centered environment. The audience norms are to be still, quiet, and attentive (i.e. compliant) for often too lengthy a period of time, dealing with the uncomfortable seating arrangement that the setting has to offer. As a result of this, behavior outcomes aren’t always ideal and some students and teachers leave frustrated or more. 

Disclosure: I am not sitting on a pious perch. I, too, am guilty of engaging in this routine. Organizational compliance is a tough animal to beat sometimes. However, if we advocate for working alternatives, then why not be the voice of change?

Are all assemblies robbers of joy?

No. I’ll argue that assemblies, in moderation, offer nice opportunities to show support for your fellow community members and the learning that is taking place. In addition, sometimes a whole school celebration (or unfortunate mourning) is necessary.

However, I’ve yet to encounter a school where a schedule of multiple grade level assemblies hasn’t been the expected norm in the yearly planning.

So how could we move toward offering more agency in assemblies? 

Instead of droning on with the same old, same old “compliance festival”, how can we “flip” the model to offer more agency for both presenters and audience? How can we still honor opportunities for learners to display their skills to a wider audience, allow for the greater community to celebrate this learning as an audience, and try to resolve the boredom crisis of the assembly model?


Photo credit: Guilherme Almeida | Pexels.com

One solution: The workshop approach

​By no means am I proclaiming that this is the best, nor the only way to offer more agency in assemblies. However, I will describe what my team and I do, and the perceived benefits. 

The context (i.e. Where the magic happens)

First, I’d like to mention how fortunate I am to work in an environment where “I wonder if…” or “What if…” ideas and innovations are celebrated. Generally speaking, if it’s going to be good for the kids, then my organization encourages us to try it. In addition, this idea is not my innovation or brainchild; it is the result of collective values and ideas of my awesome team, which includes the administration staff that supports us. In fact, this idea doesn’t rest solely within our grade level, as I’ve seen the grade threes run workshops for kids older and younger than them, too!

What is this place you speak of?

I work in an awesome environment called Studio 5 at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City, or ISHCMC for short. Studio 5 is built upon personalized learning and putting the learner at the center. It is an environment that highly values student agency.


The Studio 5 logo at ISHCMC

The workshop approach explained

Like all other schools I have worked for, the yearly calendar at ISHCMC includes multiple grade level assemblies. A  select few of these assemblies still remain the same, however, the rest tend to lend themselves toward more innovative interpretation.

A non-negotiable is that we, as a grade level, are expected to offer several assemblies for grades 2-4. This translates to about 16 classrooms. Traditionally, that would mean all 16 classrooms would gather en masse in one location. Our grade level would have to collectively decide on a performance theme, then, possibly, the learners may have some voice, choice and ownership of what the presenting could look like within the context of that theme. At least in my 15 years of teaching at quite a few schools, that’s the way that it has gone. It’s also how I remember it as a learner myself.

Our alternative approach is that we gather as a studio (grade-level), and have a transparent discussion. We, both advisors and learners, discuss the non-negotiable timetable aspect of offering something to grades 2-4 and giving parents a chance to celebrate some of the amazing learning happening at ISHCMC. Then, like the majority of things that happen within Studio 5, we equally include the learners in planning of what it could look like. More often than not, students tend to gravitate to wanting to offer workshops over anything else.

What does it typically look like?

Students in Studio 5 are owners of their own learning and engage in self-directed units of inquiry, or as we call SDUoIs (think PYPx, but more frequently). They’re all, to some degree, “experts”, in a wide variety of topics that they’re intrinsically motivated about. This “expertise” covers a diverse range from computational thinking, design, “Chefsperts”, “Sportspertise”, “Craftsperts” and more.

Given this experience, workshops tend to make sense. We give the kids opportunities to lead in mixed age groups, which, as Dr. Peter Gray posits, allows children to learn more efficiently within their Vygotskian Zone of Proximal Development (i.e. ZPD). For example, an 8 year old child has a much better chance of understanding how to dribble in basketball from a 10 year old, rather than an adult who may have had years of experience playing the sport.

In Studio 5, the expectation is that we have a shared common agreement and responsibility in taking our learning public beyond the PYPx at least once throughout the year. So, come assembly time, getting volunteers for workshops tends to be quite simple.

From there, we, as advisors, provide scaffolding and support in order for the children to be successful in their workshops. We hold workshop meetings, mini inquiries into what makes a good workshop, help them with choosing the right year level for them, contacting the right people, booking resources, providing opportunities for feedback and more. Come workshop day, they’re more than prepared to lead. 


How Studio 5 advisors help track and support workshop leaders.
Data organization credit: Jenny Morley

Come worshop day, the proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the pictures…

Photo credit: Ha Thien, Kim Han, Thuy Pham and Stephen Flett

What’s the big why for the students to run workshops over assemblies? 

To them, it makes a lot of sense:

  • Engagement: Hands on for the audience; less watching, more doing.
  • Smaller audience = less intimidation
  • Empowering and energizing: It’s fun and exciting to run a workshop on things you love and sharing that passion with others.
  • Agency: They get choice on who they want to present with, the topic, the class, and the audience size

What are some of the advantages for the audience?

  • Experiential learning rather than merely observing an experience
  • More comfortable environment: Often their classroom, but sometimes in outdoor spaces or in the kitchen.

What could we do better?

  • Having workshop leaders send formal emails to their parents to come in, attend and participate in their workshop. Parents do know informally through the children and wider school communication letters.


A call to action!
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If you resonated with any of the above, why not give the workshop approach a go? Start with a design thinker’s approach – empathize with your stakeholders and come up with your collective why.


Photo credit: MrJanzen 1984 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D
Wikimedia Commons

What are your thoughts?

Do you have any creative alternatives to adding more agency in assemblies? What are your thoughts as to whether or not assemblies still fit within 21st century learning? 

Connect with this author on Twitter – @juouelle