Making Better Teachers

making better teachers

Last week, I was interviewed by Kevin O’Shea who is currently working in Beijing, China as a PYP/Nature/Outdoor educator.

Kevin it the host of the BRAND NEW Making Better Teachers Podcast 

From following Kevin on Twitter and listening to his podcast it is obviousl that Kevin is a learner – and has this thirst for wanting to know more. Through his podcast his has explored a number of issues with regards to education and the different perspectives in varying contexts in education.

He contacted me to talk about our #ISHCMCIB model of self-directed learning in our #ISHCMCIB Primary PYP setting.  It was a pleasure sharing some of the great work our educators are doing at our school, and an honor to talk to Kevin and his followers.

If you would like to follow Kevin on Twitter, his handle is @MadForMaple

His wordpress site is: 

“What does student centered learning look like? Where is it going? In this episode we speak to Tania Mansfield, PYP Coordinator at International School Ho Chi Minh City about their Studio model of student centered learning. What is it? How was it developed and where is it going? “

Following the podcast, I realised that there were so many more educators and schools exploring the concept of AGENCY and pushing the boundaries of education, that I had failed to mention. So I have begun to compile a “Connections for Change”list for others to connect to.

There are also a number of ever growing educators on Twitter that I have begun to save in “Twitter Lists” and you are welcome to add to these lists.

This is not an exhaustive list and I ask that if I have missed some amazing blogs, educators, schools, twitter feeds that you please add to this so that we may all continue to learn.




The signals within the noise…

Our discomfort has been in that we continue to struggle with the definition of ‘success‘. We are opposed to defining success of learning and the success of a child through one time and place statistics or data points, on standardised assessments and on what can be measured through numbers and graphs. We constantly battle with the question – ‘how do we measure what matters?’

In our model, we see learners living the PYP, thriving, growing in confidence and becoming more reflective and self-aware whilst developing skills to motivate themselves and their peers. We see learners, who although on our radar as students of concern, fly because in our environment of self-directed learning,  no one is putting them in a box or pre-planning their path for them – but rather allowing them time, space, freedom and, most importantly developing respect and relationships within the model to support them and their learning.

So we struggle – to answer the question “How do we know our model of self-directed learning is successful?” as we continue to resist against the needs of others outside the model, and advocate for the needs of our learners within the model.

In September this year our principal, (@peterson_kurtis), provided us with a provocation to help us unpack our struggle:

“Our gut says its good – but how do we KNOW?”

He introduced our Studio 5 team to a text by Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise.


As a team we collaborated to record all the data we had collected last year, and compared it to the data we were planning to collect this year.

As you can see – we are not short of data.

We are literally drowning in evidence and data. Some of  the data is qualitative, some of it quantitative. Some collected and curated by advisors, others by learners. Some of it standardised, some of it subjective and collected through conferences, observations and conversations.



Data Summary – HERE – Our gut says it’s good but how do we know?

But look at it – there is what Nate Silver calls, just too much ‘noise’. There is too much for us to decipher, streamline and present….. so Kurtis challenged us – so where are the signals?

This began more conversations and reflections, how could we decide on the signals if we didn’t know their purpose , how were these signals to be used?

There has been alot of time and energy invested in this pilot of self-directed learning so we are a little hesitant to move forward without purpose – a little wary of agendas and resistant to feeling we’re being pushed back towards traditional thoughts and ways of  measuring success, assessing and collecting data…. so we hesitated… and reflected.

adaptA few meetings later, our Head of School (@rebelleader18) added to the conversation.

He introduced the short video Adaptable Minds –  which questions whether we are focusing on what matters in learning?

He also sent out follow up clips for us to reflect on which included development and celebration of the character strengths from




purposeIf our gut did believe that this model was successful – and we had all this ‘noise’ – could we, as a school, a group of determined educators who were committed to change, could we come up with “an authentic system that shows growth of our learners in a self-directed model.” 

The challenge was set. Next meeting, we brainstormed some criteria for such a system:

A system that:

  • was applicable from our youngest learners through the PYP and MYP to our eldest learners in the Diploma programme.
  • showed growth of the learner over time
  • allowed next steps and goals to be set.
  • would be transferrable and valued across age groups
  • would be transferrable and valued in other schools
  • authentic and embedded in real life context and learning 
  • was suitable for all learners
  • meaningful to all
  • manageable 
  • simple, effective and purposeful for all stakeholders

We then went to the research. There were so many conversations globally, so many schools working towards change, there must be something we can use as starting block to give us some direction.

So we went to the research, took time to read, reflect, dig deeper, discuss and then sort what could work for us, and what would align with our criteria?

Our research included:

Through all of this research, we liked alot of the pieces, but some were more secondary based and thus not applicable to our early learners, and some were still driven by ‘subjects’ and curriculum needs instead of the learner needs.

atlsWe eventually came back to our PYP ATL skills. Sometimes time and space to explore and gain perspective leads us to appreciate what we had in front of us the whole time.

These 5 skills were what we believed learners needed…so how could we incorporate these into a system that fit all the criteria we had set for ourselves?



We continued to look at some of the tools and resources out there that could support us in our tracking of the ATL skills – but they were more about tracking rather than the learner….so we kept exploring.

In the weeks between meetings, 3 things happened.

  1. The IB officially released the 3 documents making up the newly enhanced PYP Principles to practice.
  2. Our Former Studio 5 colleague, Suzanne (@OrenjiButa ) updated her wonderful graphics incorporating the new PYP ATL skills.
  3. Our student success team shared with us their student developed learning portfolio for student reflection, goal setting and action.

These 3 events helped us move forward in our purpose:

atl 5

ATL;F01 Pg 27 Learning and Teaching (IB PYP Publications)

The document “Learning & Teaching” from the IB PYP included this graphic on Pg 27  to represent the 5  interrealted Approaches To Learning Skills.

It was so similar to our Studio 5 graphic, we were encouraged to move forward.




Suzanne’s graphics helped us review and reflect on the changes to the ATL Skills in the PYP and compare and contrast to the MYP ATL Skills (graphics developed by @ndbekah)



ilp templ

The template that our student success team have been using for our learner led ILP conversations gave us a format that was already proven, that gave our learners ownership of their learning and gave them a voice to set their own goals.

And this all helped us in formulating an idea…. however, if this idea was to meet all our criteria we needed to start a conversation with our MYP colleagues to see if our plan would be:

  • applicable for our older learners in the MYP through to our eldest learners in the Diploma programme.
  • would be transferrable and valued across age groups 

So we presented our plan…..

  • to develop a system orientated around the ATL Skills that gave learners choice, voice and ownership of themselves, their learning and their next steps.
  • to develop a continuum using both the ATL PYP Skills and MYP Skills that guided learners in their reflection and assessment of their learning and inform their next steps.
  • to have this system directly feed into the learners’ Evaluations of Learning as they reflected on who they were as learners.
  • to develop a system that followed our students as they advanced through to the MYP & DP.

This is what we presented to the MYP:

Learner’s Journey – Self-Directed Model

The MYP team, were very supportive and positive in response to our thinking and plans to move forward.


They reflected that they had been working in Grade 6 individual google sites designed for students to develop reflective practices.

They had also come to the conclusion that the ATL Skills were the direction to head in, but they’d not yet got to discussions about an ATL continuum.

So this is where we now are: (December 2018)

  • We have our purpose and the criteria to meet support that purpose.
  • We have our signals – the ATL skills
  • We have a plan that this will feed directly into the learner Evaluations of Learning, so that learners will be reflecting on themselves as learners through the ATL skills and not through the traditional subjects in PYP & MYP.
  • Evaluations of learning will reflect learners as ‘Researchers’, ‘Communicators’, ‘Self-Managers’, ‘Thinkers’, and ‘Socialisers’ and will include next steps and goals to be shared with others.
  • We have already removed grades from our Evaluations of learning  – we believe the power is in the narrative and the conversatsions leading up to and following the development of the learner reflections.

Our next steps moving forward are:

  • To revise and review the ATL continuum that our ATL committee developed using the new enhanced PYP ATL Skills descriptors
  • To explore the use of a google site for students to use that will follow them through their ISHCMC life and can be transferred to new school contexts.
  • To explore and play with the potential with our learners and get their voice and feedback whilst assessing the best way to ensure the format is  manageable  and simple, effective and purposeful for all stakeholders (as agreed in our criteria)
  • To introduce to our lower PYP grades levels and begin the conversation with them is this something they could adapt and use developmentally?
  • To follow up plans to silence some of the other data that is creating ‘noise’ so that the data we collect continues to be learner owned.

We’d be interested in hearing from anyone who may be on a similar journey, or have found ways to manage student digital portfolios of learning for a whole school ( K – 12 system)  or have maybe found alternative ways to develop “an authentic system that shows growth of our learners in a self-directed model.”  

Those beautiful questions.

Last month Edna Sackson published a new blogpost, Liberating the Programme of Inquiry.

Some beautiful questions to drive thinking, to challenge norms and to stir up those creative juices in response the newly published, PYP Enhancement documents. Before the publication of the documents, there had been many rumours and wonderings gleaned from the drip-drip of information coming from the IB. The new long-awaited documents now provide more clarity on the direction of the PYP,

I was recently running a PYP workshop, when Edna’s blog post was raised in open discussion. Some saw these beautiful questions as a relief , a celebration and step in the right direction and embraced the possibilities.

Others were more critical – these beautiful questions were pipe-dreams, un-realistic, and pushed the boundaries of the PYP just a little too far.

Before responding, I paused to reflect and remember that as learners and educators we are all in different places in our ‘PYP journey’, working in different contexts, within different parameters and are developing our understanding through different pathways. So, although I wanted to react and respond to those that were more critical, I understand that some may see these these beautiful questions as just that ….’beautiful’. But I urged…. they are not impossible.

At International School of Ho Chi Minh (ISHCMC) , some of these beautiful questions are very much a reality.

Edna’s Beautiful questions: 

  • What if….whole school unit of inquiry, linked to our whole school focus?
  • What if we we have the same central idea for all the classes at one grade level, but each group of learners develop their own lines of inquiry?

Since 2015 ISHCMC have had a whole school unit of inquiry, under Who we Are. This unit was developed in response to a need in our school of a consistent approach to our understanding of  being a learning community and is the first unit for the beginning of the year across all grade levels and specialists. You can read about the ISHCMC journey developing this HERE.

In 2018 – our whole school Who We Are unit looks like this

wwa#1wwa #2

This central idea and unit was developed for a purpose, a need in the school community and relevant to the school and the needs of the learners at that time. Over the past 3 years we have grown as a school, we have changed as a school and our learners have grown and their needs have developed, so this year we will review our process, our central idea and ask ‘is the purpose still true.’  Our whole community teachers, learners and parents focus on this inquiry as a community and it sets the tone for our year ahead – an inquiry into Who We Are.

Edna’s Beautiful questions:

  • What if units do not follow one after another, but rather overlap and intersect?
  • What if one unit incorporates two trans disciplinary themes? 
  • What if some units are year long, some short, some ongoing… depending on content, concepts, trans disciplinary possibilities and student interest?
  • What if we actively seek unexpected combinations of learning areas, like science and poetry? 
  • What if one unit incorporates two trans disciplinary themes?
  • What if we wait to develop the lines of inquiry till we see where the learners want to take it? 

At ISHCMC we have anumber of units that overlap, that flow into each other ( same central idea but different TD theme and lines of inquiry.  See our POI HERE across our grade levels.

ee 2018

Early Explorers @ISHCMCIB  – POI  – 2018-2019

In Early Explorers this year, we have all four units of inquiry running simultaneously over the year, and are observing as learners are invited to provocations and learning engagements and we are noticing, naming, documenting and responding to learners and their learning.

In Kindergarten last year we had two units running parallel, How the world works and How we express ourselves. (Previous blog post on this)  It allowed for time, space, connections and inquiry to happen. It transformed 2 lots of 6 weeks of  ‘hurry-time’ into 13 glorious weeks of inquiring, curiousity, play and the ‘so what’. Now with the new enhancements this unit has been rolled into one under How we Express Ourselves – with an authentic focus on science and maths, bringing the awe and the wonder to how the world works and how we are inspired to create.

Our Grade 3 team this year have played with theit units of inquiry. That beautiful “what if…” and the culture of the ‘Permission of Yes’.  They have put the authentic needs of their learners first whilst  designing their year. They now have 2 year long units, one of which threads itself through all of the other units of inquiry, because learning is not a silo. They have one unit that re-occurs (because learning never stops) and 3 that now have more time to explore and inquire.

g3 2018

Grade 3 @ISHCMCIB – POI – 2018 – 2019

Edna’s Beautiful questions:

  • What if we actively seek unexpected combinations of learning areas, like science and poetry?

We are forever trying to fit Arts, Music. PSPE etc into our classroom units….but transdisciplinarity in not a one-way highway…. learning is learning.

This year, our Head of PE & I sat and watched kids playing at camp. We observed individuals and groups. We observed who picked up sticks and stones, and what they did with them, who observed and interacted with nature, who created natural game zones and courts and who climbed, ran, sat and played.

This led to a ‘eureka’ moment for both of us. We marveled as we watched and chatted just how much authentic maths and science there was in this 30 minutes of outdoor play.  So… we wondered, why could the maths, science and arts not be integrated and taught through the PE units and lessons? And why could classroom teachers not take more advantage of  more classroom time to bring learners outside to explore maths and science concepts through PE and outdoor exploration?

So, with a stick, drawing in the dirt we started brainstorming and mapping possibilities and opportunities for data collection, measurement , and forces through the athletics component ot the PE unit whilst ensuring learning had multiple pathways as classrooms maths units incorporated athletics and swimming and games into their real ife math applications.

Edna’s Beautiful questions:

  • What if we wait to develop the lines of inquiry till we see where the learners want to take it?

We have a number of units where the first line of inquiry is the tuning in….and we wait.  If it is the learners unit, their inquiry and their learning, why do we insist on planning all 3 lines of inquiry at the beginning of the unit?

But, I wonder if maybe even writing the first line of inquiry is taking it too far?  What if the provocation is exactly that –  a provocation where we as educators observe and wait.  There is power in the wait. It creates that precious ‘think time’. So what if  we as educators also used this ‘wait time’ to observe, to reflect, to probe and to then discuss next steps forward?  (Found this mindful link that explores this idea) and we then bring all the student data back before we go next steps and respond to learners ….and plan which path to take for tuning in and true inquiry.

Edna’s Beautiful questions:

  • What if we analyse our program of inquiry in terms of the concentric circle model and check the balance between opportunities for self discovery and thinking beyond ourselves?

At ISHCMC we don’t have a concentric circle model – although we are watching and learning with interest what Edna and her team are developing and using with their learners at Mt. Scopus.

21st cent

Our Head of School (@rebelleader18)  provoked our thinking last year –  “What if all units focus not just on developing knowledge, understanding and skills but on developing human beings?”

So during our reflections we include the attributes of the 21st Century learner – how did this unit help to develop and contribute to building better humans?

Edna’s Beautiful questions:

  • What if every grade level has at least one unit that is individual and personal, student selected and student driven?

At ISHCMC, our Studio model of self-directed learning allows for complete learner choice and mapping of the learning through the studio.  Follow some of our educator blogs – Making Good Humans & Innovative Inquirers to learn more.

This year, Studio 4 and Grade 3 currently have incomplete central ideas (the ellipsis is our friend!) ….where learners choose how to complete the Central Idea – giving them ownership of the unit, ensuring accountability of their learning and giving them the opportunity to construct their own understanding and to have ownership of their learning.


Grade 3 – Where we are in Place & Time


Studio 4 – How we Organise Ourselves  & Sharing the Planet

Edna’s Beautiful questions:

  • What if we liberate ourselves from the traditional curriculum prison and explore new vistas? 

Yep….what if ?  What if we were brave and daring? What if we put learners and learning before curriculum and standards and paperwork – What if ? What if we asked more of these beautiful questions and turned them into a reality? What if?

I look forward to reading how others have turned beautiful questions into reality within their learning contexts and how Edna and her team approach their POI review this year – we will be watching , learning and asking more of those beautiful questions.


When the rebel becomes the norm….

At International School of Ho Chi Minh City, we are very proud of our #rebelalliance and are blessed with a leadership team that constantly pushes, provokes, and celebrates our thinking and learning and teaching.

As a learning community we are proud of our innovative approaches to learning and teaching,  our open learning spaces, our culture of thinking and cherish our culture of “Why?”

Studio5This year there has been a spotlight on Studio 5. This was our bold move this year and the action that took place in response to Sam Sherratt (@sherrattsam ) and Kurtis Peterson (@peterson_kurtis ) wondering  “What if?” .

Over these past 8 months,  we have enjoyed the spotlight, appreciated the support from afar and have happily shared our successes, challenges and thinking. We have been proud that our own learning has provoked much needed conversation about the change needed in schools and this in turn has reaffirmed our belief in what we are trying to do.

Although a Studio 5 Advisor, I also wear the hat of PYP Coordinator, so although I dedicate 10+ periods of my week to Studio 5, I also attend planning meetings, have numerous corridor coversations and try to spend as much time as I can with learners throughout the school. During my time outside of the Studio 5 hub, I’ve had this uneasy feeling, this nagging-doubt that has driven my thinking and reflections.

Is what have been so busy promoting and focused in Studio 5 really so special?

I went back to our documentation, our evidence of thinking and our reflections and pulled out some the elements of what we think makes Studio 5 so special:

  • Students leading their own learning
  • Students managing their own timetables, schedules and priorities.
  • Students seeking experts from the community to support, mentor and guide
  • Student organised field trips
  • Advisors available to guide and support the cycle of ‘Choose-Act-Reflect’
  • CAR time
  • Student written Evaluations of Learning
  • Student organised and run workshops for their peers
  • Voice, choice, ownership
  • Entrepreneurship

Over the past few months, as I have visited classrooms and corridors this is what I’ve been observing, hearing and feeling:

Grade 4:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

  • Students commiting to taking action from their learning and making ‘pitches’ to members of the community to support and advocate for their ideas towards supporting the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Students visiting Smile Cafe and committing to supporting our local community
  • ‘Agency days’ which provides time and choice for students to schedule their priorities, setting goals and scheduling their day.
  • Students having time and support to have a dedicated CAR time to discuss their goals and conference with mentors.
  • Students self and peer assessing against the ATL skills.
  • Student written Evaluations of Learning.
  • Students planning their own inquiry, having voice, choice and ownership of  their learning through their Unit of Inquiry.

Grade 3:

  • Students planning their own workshops, and signing up to attend others hosted by their peers.
  • Students identifying the peer experts in the room and seeking out support and help when and where needed.
  • Students self and peer assessing the ATL skills and being accountable for ‘Why’ and ‘What next?’.
  • Students signing up to promote their cottage industry products at the local craft market and raise funds for their chosen charity cause.
  • Students coordinating their own field trips.
  • Gamifications of units of inquiry providing development of skills, voice, choice and ownership of learning.
  • Students visiting Smile Cafe and committing to supporting our local community
  • Students having choice, voice and ownership of their learning, and development of skills.
  • Students collaborating to acheive a shared goal and presenting plans to a mentor.
  • Students seeking out expertise in the community.
  • Students planning their next steps in their learning.
  • Students co-authoring with peers their Evaluations of Learning

Grade 2:

In their final unit of the year, the Grade 2 team planned a provocation which they termed “Studio 2”.  A day of voice, choice and ownership where students would take ownership of the day scheduling their priorities through the MoSCoW method and tracking their successes and challenges. Teachers stood back to observe and assess students’ self-management skills, the focus of the unit.

The result?  Grade 2 students met the challenge, ate it up and asked for more. Teacher left wondering why they had not introduced this model earlier in the year.

Over the past 3 weeks we have seen Grade 2 students (7 & 8 Years old):

  • Scheduling their days and setting own priorities
  • Setting conference times with teachers
  • Planning their unit of inquiry and having voice, choice, ownership of who, what, where, when and how they follow their inquiry and present their learning.
  • Parent & student co-suthoured Evaluations of Learning.

Grade 1:

  • Choice days – a day a week where Grade 1 students plan where, when, who and what they learn during this time.
  • Throughout the year, teaching teams have planned units to ensure scope and depth for student choice, voice and ownership of their inquiries.
  • Carousel activities which provide students time and choice to plan what ‘workshops’ to attend and where.

During an ‘unstructured’ afternoon in Grade 1, teachers observed students setting up their own ‘workshop’ corner and inviting others in to learn from them. So now ‘workshop corners’ are an embedded part of Grade 1.

Kindergarten & Early Explorers:

Our youngest learners,  2 years – 5 years,  are the embodiment of Agency – having choice, voice and ownership through their environment, through social interactions, through play and purposeful provocations.


So through my wonderings and wanderings I have begun to collect evidence of the Studio 5 elements that we are now seeing throughout #ISHCMCIB ….rebel to norm

As I reflect back on my first wonderingIs what have been so busy promoting and focused in Studio5 really so special? 

YES!”  It is very special and a lot of hours and hard work have been put in to honour the elements that make Studio 5 a model of self-directed learning.

But my wondering  has now shifted,  it seems that although the rebels in Studio 5 may have led the way, the next steps for the rest of the #ISHCMCIB community to follow their lead have been very natural ones. It seems to have now become the ‘norm’. It’s Who We Are, what we do and how we learn best…. by Empowering, Energising and Engaging our learning community.  This wasn’t the original plan, its grown out of a  collective hunger and need for something better.

As a community, we took the lead from the ‘rebels’ and now its become the norm, and it wasn’t so painful, nothing was broken and its been beautiful to watch, to be a part of, and, after all, its what our learners deserve.

I wonder where our next wave of rebellion might take us?

(Some photos and images are taken from twitter feeds and #ISHCMCIB tweets from our #ISHCMCIB educators. Please follow them on twitter to share and celebrate our community and learning (@rupal611 , @cheevers143   @makingoodhumans  @billybillyedu  @peterson_kurtis )









Celebrate the UnExpected…

Just come in from a conversation with my Studio 5 partner – reflecting on our learners and their day. We’ve had some wins today…. and some of the learners in my CAR group needed those wins. However, in reflection, the real wins have not come from the expected learning.

B is organising a field trip to a local rock-climbing space. A few hiccups along the way with regards to risk-assessments being completed, bus bookings, invoice requirements (and the Vietnamese tax laws!) and parent permission forms. He’s almost there…. and the field trip is scheduled (and re-scheduled) for next week. The expected win was in his ‘inspiring others to rock-climb’, the unexpected win has been the coordination of logisitics and systems and B is now being an ‘expert’ on the paperwork, systems and oganisation of field trips.

T has been working over the past 4 weeks to improve his table-tennis skills. He has documented his journey through video and his weebly and reflected on progress made in his skill development. The expected win was the development in his table-tennis skills. The unexpected win came through his struggle as he navigated his way through movie editing software, learned that YouTube would not allow large files and thus had to clip and split files. Then discovered YouTube would only allow ‘royalty free’ music – and had to reload the music overlay. The unexpected win is that T is now an expert in this software and the process involved – and his confidence has gone through the roof as others are coming to him for help.

O is running a series of science experiments, is videoing and presenting these on her weebly blog. She began this process two weeks ago and was heavily reliant on the adults to help order equipment, set-up safety protocols, video the experiment, record and edit the whole process. As with any busy school, she then found the adults were not as available in the second week – and she was on her own. The expected win is a series of science experiments with reflections on her weebly blog. The unexpected win is that O has developed belief in herself and her abilities, has gained in independence, has developed video and editing skills and her confidence in herself has soared.

As my Studio 5 partner and I were quietly celebrating these unexpected wins, he reflected that we need to say “no” more often when our learners come for advice and help. This sounds a little harsh considering our role is to advise and support, but reminded me of something my sister used to say ‘Empower, don’t Enable”, and is very much aligned to what Stephen Taylor (@sjtylr) and Sam Sherratt (@sherrattsam) recently tweeted “If we want students to learn how to make decisions, we need to let them make decisions”. 

If we continue to hold learner’s hands, advise them every step of the way, do everything for them, and ‘rescue’ them as they head towards failure then how will they ever have the opportunity to celebrate those unexpected wins?  And after all, whose learning is it?


Shu – Ha – Ri

Wikipedia ( gives the translation as:  “to keep, to fall, to break away”.  The name comes from Japanese martial arts (particularly Aikido), and is a way of thinking about how you learn something and the idea that a person passes through three stages of gaining knowledge:

  • Shu (守), “protect”“follow the rule”: in this phase the practitioner apply every method, approach or rule that the teacher provides. The rule is followed to the letter. This is where it’s important to follow every detail, even if it seems unimportant, and not deviate from the teachings.  The rules are also repeated over and over in order to assimilate them. This is important not because a specific path is better than the other, but because following a single path till the end is the most efficient way to learn.
  • Ha (破), “cut”“break the rule”: the practitioner has now reached a level where all the rules are well known and it’s possible to break them when necessary. The practitioner is also able to teach other learners, discuss the topic and improve the discipline itself. This is when the rules are questioned, the reason of their existence is put into the spotlight and the foundation becomes visible from the high point of the Shu studies.
  • Ri (離), “depart”“be the rule”: the practitioner now doesn’t just follow the rule, methods and approaches: the practitioner is the rule, transcends the rule. The concepts are so well assimilated that are second nature, and they can be even completely abandoned if the goal requires it. The practitioner is extending the discipline.

As a PYP school, we have the IB Standards and Practices to guide us as we develop our written, taught and assessed curriculum. I say ‘guide’, because I do believe that is what they do – they ‘guide’ they do not ‘tell’.

Applying the idea of Shu-Ha-Ri to our understanding of the PYP,  there are those us who are just beginning their PYP journey and in the Shu (守) stage of their learning . They want to know ‘how’ its done, what it ‘looks’ like and ‘what’ to do. We’ve all been there and we’ve had to go through that time of learning, of struggle and trying to unpack the documents, the jargon and what it looks like in action.

As we’ve become a little more comfortable and had a little more experience with the PYP, we move in to the Ha (破) stage. Those with a little more confidence, who’ve had time to not only unpack the documents but also to begin to question and discuss their content and had time to ‘live’ it, time to plan, guide and reflect on units of inquiry and develop a better understanding of the PYP.  We are ready to ‘play’, to ‘test the deeper waters’.

Then there are those of us in the Ri (離) stage. Those who have had time and experience,  had some successes and failures,  learnt through mistakes and challenges and had time and opportunity to learn with and from others, look deeper into the documents and look past assumptions and actually pull out the intent of the words and then….. make them our own.

When it comes to understanding of the PYP, we all have both teachers and administrators in each of the stages of  Shu (守) Ha (破) Ri (離) and there are those that may never move from the first two stages, and that’s ok.

ISHCMC logo in circle.png

The International School of Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC) is renown for its innovative approaches, and this is mainly due to a leadership and a culture that believes in disrupting the norms, being creative, seeing things in a different way and first and foremost having our students learning as the priority in this fast changing world.

Our Mission Statement has the three words “Energized,  Engaged, Empowered”  embedded into it and this permeates our culture of learning at ISHCMC.

We embrace and welcome those practitioners ready to move into the Ri (離) stage – competent practitioners who are confident enough to question and challenge the status quo, innovate and are wanting to take some bold steps forward.

For the last couple of years, our leadership and our teaching teams have stepped boldy in Ri (離) when considering our Programme of Inquiry and our Units of Inqiury and this has continued this year, as we have truly stepped in the Ri (離)  and have thought outside of the box when designing units of inquiry.

At the forefront of our purpose has always been to consider our learners  –  what works best for them, what are their needs, what is authentic, relevant and will allow our learners the time to develop their understanding, their skills and give them the opportunity to grow, to share their learning and to have the chance for this learning to lead to student action.

Who We Are – Whole School Unit – Year Long Unit

Two years ago, leadership saw a need to address the culture of our school, who we were as individuals and as parts of the learning community and our codes of behaviour within the school.  The team sat down and proposed a whole school unit of inquiry under Who We Are that would permeate through everything we did in the school and as part of the community and would give us a chance to reflect on ourselves, our community and define Who We Are.

The Central Idea for our Who We Are unit is “Our choices about how to act define who we are and who we are becoming, as individuals and as a community.”  The unit runs through out the year, is focused on in the first 5 – 6 weeks of the year in all grade levels (EE2 – Studio 5) and is the continued focus in our assemblies. To read more about our whole school unit for Who We Are  you can read a little background here.

How the World Works  – Early Explorers

At ISHCMC, we have our youngest learners – our Early Explorers; EE2 – 2 Years old. EE3 – 3 years old and EE 4 – 4 years old.

To promote and support collaboration, we are, this year, planning together across the three age groups. Just before our planning session for How the World Works, we had been following with interest the announcements to the ‘Enhanced PYP’ and the focus on play, and has just returned from a Reggio-Emilia weekend PD wih Fiona Zim.

As a team, we were committed to ‘PLAY’ as the essence of the unit and developing an enduring understanding that learning happens through play.  The unit was under How the World Works, and this was to be honoured, but whilst EE2 & EE3 thought it developmentally appropriate to focus on construction, EE4 thought their learners were ready to be scientists.

This led to us designing a shared Central Idea, Lines of Inquiry and Key Concepts, but the two units have different lens that they are focusing on through the tuning in stage and are guided by appropriate teacher questions.

As an EE team we developed the Central Idea:  “Play encourages exploration and discovery”  and the Lines of Inquiry are:

  • An inquiry into play  (Form)
  • An inquiry into what we learn through exploration (Causation)
  • An inquiry into the connections between play and learning (Connection)

One unit, one transdisciplinary theme,  three age groups, one Central idea and set of Lines of Inquiry being explored through 2 different lenses, construction and science.

How the World Works & How we Express Ourselves –  Kindergarten

Our Kindergarten team have planned their unit of inquiry that has two transdisciplinary themes running at the same time with one central idea and lines of inquiry for 12 weeks. The goal was to provide our Kindergarten students the time to play, explore, discover and create and provide opportunities for our young learners to explore elements of both How the World Works and How we Express Ourselves.

The Central Idea the team designed is:  Interacting with light can inspire creative expression

The Lines of Inquiry:

  • An inquiry into light
  • An inquiry into what creates light and where we find it
  • An inquiry into how we use light for creative expression
  • An inquiry into how light sparks emotion and feeling.

Where we are in Place and Time – Grade 3.

When the Grade 3 team sat down to plan their unit on Where we are in Place and Time, we were very aware that our essence was ‘exploration‘ – what followed was a number of discussions as to the type of exploration that the unit could lend it self and we struggled a as we wanted to be able to leave the unit open so the students could have choice, freedom and opportunity to inquire and ‘explore’ both in depth and breadth.

During planning and formulation of the Central Idea – we as adults couldn’t come to a consensus on the wording and were concerned that if we did choose certain words we would close off opportunities for our learners.

We decided we didn’t want to ‘tell’ the learners what to think and thus, in a moment of  Ri (離) ageed on presenting to our learners an incomplete Central Idea.

Does this ‘break’ a couple of the rules and guidelines set by the IB for a Central Idea? Absolutely, but we think we’ve been able to bend these through the final task for our Grade 3 learners.  The final task of the unit for our learners for them to complete the Central Idea themselves and be able to present, debate and justify their choice of words and have the supporting evidence through their research and own explorations.

The Central Idea: “Exploring the unknown leads to…..” .

Lines of Inquiry:

  • An inquiry into what it means to explore. (Form)
  • An inquiry into an explorer’s journey (Form, Causation)
  • An inquiry into the effect of exploration (Causation)

How we Organise Ourselves & Sharing the Planet – Grade 4

The Grade 4 team’s How we Organise Ourselves unit was to focus on economics and trade. Through discussions around the essence of the unit, the Grade 4 team agreed that the enduring understanding should be responsibility as consumers and an understanding of the impact of consumerism.

As we unpacked the unit, read previous unit reflections, it became clear that 6 weeks would not be enough time in a busy school to unpack this with the learners in a meaningful way that could lead to student action.

We noted that the following unit was scheduled to be Sharing the Planet. We wondered, if we could possibly unpack the knowledge, concepts and big ideas for the 6 weeks of How we Organise Ourselves – and then use the time dedicated to Sharing the Planet to apply this knowledge, develop skills and then lead to learner action?

The creative thinking and our inner Ri (離) kicked into action. We began to brainstorm and draft Central Ideas that would fit under both Transdisciplinary Themes with the overarching concept of responsibility.

The Central Idea the team designed is:  “Economic activities impact societies”

For How we Organise Ourselves, our lines of inquiry are:

  • An inquiry into economic activities. (Function)
  • An inquiry into the factors that determine price. (Causation)
  • An inquiry into the roles and responsibilities of the producers, traders and consumers. (Responsibility)

And then, once our Grade 4 learners had a grasp on trade, economic activies and the different roles involved in economics and trade; we rolled naturally into the Lines of Inuiry for Sharing the Planet:

  • An inquiry into finite resources. (Causation)
  • An inquiry into the relationship between resources, people, and the planet (Function, Causation)
  • An inquiry into action towards sustainability (Responsibility)

The units ran back to back over 13 weeks and led to Students making ‘pitches’ for sustainable action and developing an authentic sense of responsibility as consumers. We continue to be amazed by their dedication to action.

Four Units – One Central Idea – Self-Directed – Studio 5

studio-5-logo-draft-1-2-e1519653111335.pngOur Studio 5 model seeks to disrupt the norms of traditional enducation and totally commit to celebrating and embracing self-directed learning and student agency.

Through our learning journey – we began the year by looking at each unit of inquiry in isolation and started with our whole school unit of Who We Are as we established routines and explored who we were as a Studio community and as individual learners.

We then headed into How the World Works…. but we struggled, and so did the students. Although the team had planned for room for deep inquiry, we felt that it was still the teachers’ planning and for a model that was trying to push and celebrate agency this felt uncomfortable – for all involved.

So we went back to  planning, and wondering and asking “what if?” The Studio 5 team came to planning with an idea and some questions:

  • “Could we have one Central Idea that would span the remaining 4 units of inquiry?”
  • “Did all learners have to be on the same Transdisciplinary theme at the same time?”
  • “Did they have to be on only ONE Transdisciplinary theme at a time?”
  • “Did each student’s unit have to be of the same length of time?”
  • “Could we not approach the rest of the year, and the remaining units as we did the PYPx – allowing students to plan their units, make connections and drive their learning?”

These led to more questions and wonderings – and not all of them have been addressed (yet!) but we embraced our Ri (離) and went for it.

The over-arching Central Idea for Studio 5: ” Success hinges on motivation” 

The Lines of Inquiry:

  • An inquiry into what is means to be successful
  • An inquiry into the pathway / process to success
  • An inquiry into reasons that we persevere or pivot

With students choosing their own learning , identifying which of the Transdisciplinary Themes they’ve connected with and which of the concepts, ATL skills and attributes of the Learner Profile they’ve explored and developed.

You can follow our #Studio5 journey on Twitter, through the personal blog of one of our practitioers Taryn Bond Clegg ( ) or by visiting our Studio 5 website (

Reflection –

It is important to remember that there is no perfect Programme of Inquiry, but, at ISHCMC we are committed to learning, to creative thinking, to reflecting and to taking bold steps and continuing to embrace the philosophy of  Shu (守), Ha (破), Ri (離) because that’s who we are and we believe “Our choices about how to act define who we are and who we are becoming, as individuals and as a community.”

imagesFor those a little sceptical and nervous about the ‘IB’ visitors or the IB Standards not being adhered to  – I say; ‘read the documents, unpack their essence, understand the language and the intent then play a little with Ha (破) and take that first step – because afterall, no one is going to bleed or get hurt and if conversations are about the learners and the learning …. then really, what can go wrong?

Then, when you and your team are ready – embrace the Ri (離) – ’cause its a little bit magical when it happens!

ISHCMC Programme of Inquiry 2017 – 2018   –  HERE to view.