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)!

Constantly Provoking Our Own Thinking

There is no doubt that the concept of student agency is out there in the education community. However, it seems that many of the conversations seem to be mainly floating around the pedagogical level, with the main focus being “How do we do it?”

I think if we, as an education community, remain only on the pedagogical level, then we’re missing the point.

Conversations about student agency need to dive down below the pedagogical to the philosophical and also political level. As educators we must be critically thinking about and engaging in conversations centering around: power, compliance, control, democracy, freedom and children’s rights. Specifically what those concepts look like… or don’t look like… or should look like… in schools and classrooms.

Yet, this is quite hard hard to do because many of us are products of the education system ourselves. Which means we have 20, 30, 40+ years in the current paradigm – both as students and then as educators. This can make it very difficult for us to stand outside the system in order to objectively and critically analyze it.

So I think it’s crucial that we continue to provoke our own thinking, and each other’s thinking, about these concepts. And one of the best ways we can do that is by choosing to expose ourselves and each other to provocations. Different stimuli that make us confront our own thoughts and feelings and presumptions and biases. Things that make us not only think, but also feel. Things that provoke our emotions, as a way to notice, explore and understand our own thinking.

Over the past year I’ve been slowly collecting an array of provocative quotes, tweets, images, cartoons and sketchnotes that I’ve come across that have provoked my own thinking and emotions. I’ve begun to share them in the workshops I lead about student agency to help other educators confront their thinking and feelings too. So I thought, why not share them here as well!?

So here is my personal collection of student agency provocations to get us, as a larger education community, feeling… thinking… discussing… not just about the “how” of student agency, but more importantly about the “why”.

(Links to more provocations)

Agency and the rise of “new power” (article)

Sir Ken Robinson – Bring on the learning revolution (Ted Talk)

Sir Ken Robinson – Do schools kill creativity? (Ted Talk)

7 Sins of our Forced Education System (article)

What works can hurt – side effects in education (academic journal) (and keynote speech)

The Future of Human Work is Imagination, Creativity and Strategy (article)

The role agency plays in happy children (article)

What kids need from grown-ups, but aren’t getting (article)

10 provocative quotes from “Deschooling Society” (article)

The case for the self-driven child (book review/interview with author)

Why school is not ready for us (Tedx Talk)

What skills will employers value in 2020? (article)

Kids don’t fail school… school fails kids (article)

Are we ready for exponential change (video)

What works may hurt – side effects in education (video)

What student agency provocations would you add to the collection?

What has helped provoke your thinking about power, compliance, control, freedom and children’s rights?

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

HWEO/WWA in Studio4

#Studio4 at ISHCMC are currently beginning a long unit that will run until the end of March. There has been a lot of thought and planning into how this unit might run and it is already feeling VERY right!

Here is a sneak peek of our current week for our students (and this is only 2 periods per day!)Screen Shot 2019-01-16 at 6.28.22 PM.png

Amazing, right?

I have begun to write a progressive blog post about the Studio 4 journey with this particular unit. Since it is progressive, I will not post it here, but it can be found on my blog: http://innovativeinquirers.weebly.com/blog/hweowwa-in-studio-4

I have written about the first two phases and our plans (which may change) for the rest of the unit. I will continue to add and edit it as we go along. Please follow us on our journey and share any thoughts, challenges, ideas, or similarities that you are experiencing with us. It is definitely an exciting time for education. I wish I could have had these opportunities at school when I was their age!

The Power of the SDG’s

This was originally posted in authors personal blog Empower 2 Be…

Now, let me start by highlighting a few embarrassing admissions…1. I am not a vegan or vegetarian but fully believe we all should be, 2. while I believe in the fair treatment for all living things I do NOT do enough to make this happen! 3. I know I should recycle and do everything I can to protect our environment but I am often LAZY and don’t make it a high enough priority! I don’t mind people being on their “soapboxes” about the above issues because we need more of the world to be sharing those boxes if we want to improve the mess that we have made!

In short, I am the biggest factor as to why the world is in the physical state it is in. Now I am not saying that I am the singular cause for all the devastation but I am part of the problem…the reason being that I am not an anomaly…in fact, I will put it out there and say I think I may be a sad example of the norm. I WANT to do more, I KNOW I should do more, BUT I DON’T!

As an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (IBPYP) teacher for the last 15 years, action has always been part of the plan. Getting our students to take action and DO SOMETHING from what they have learned in class. My big issue with this has always been that this action has normally been teacher initiated OR forced OR superficial OR a one-off event OR inauthentic OR ABSENT altogether! It has always been a challenge for me…how do I bring this great learning that is happening and enable the students to recognize the action they can take that is both authentic and sustainable?

In 2015 the United Nations did educators all around the world a HUGE favour! They released the Sustainable Development Goals…the SDG’s! At first, I wasn’t aware of the power that these 17 ambitious goals had but 3 years later (has it only been 3 years?) classroom teaching has changed forever!

ผลการค้นหารูปภาพสำหรับ SDG's

What started off 3 years ago as forcing connections between what we are doing in the classroom to the SDG’s is now a case of units changing and evolving as we see ways that we can make more authentic opportunities for our students to see the power that they have as leaders in helping the world achieve these goals! What started off being a blanket decision of “all grade levels will connect at least two units to an SDG throughout the year” has now resulted in many grade levels connected all of their units and representing ALL of the 17 SDG’s throughout the school year.

I am lucky to work in a school that has adopted the SDG’s as a leading force to all that we do. The SDG’s are up around the school, EVERYWHERE! We hosted the first IB Regional Conference that was themed around the SDG’s and ALL students, from the 3-year-olds in Discovery to the 18-year-olds doing the diploma, are exposed to them. The result is that 3 years in I am no longer having to “introduce” my 4th graders to the SDG’s as they already know them! We are now able to take our knowledge and build on it and use our voices to work towards them.

Here are some ideas that my students wanted me to share:

  • start up a group of “SDG Guardians” in your school! Warriors, who come together every week and discuss and implement ways to spread the word of the SDG’s throughout the school and local community #SDGguardians
  • challenge your students to implement Teaspoons of Change
  • facilitate the inquiry of your students learning about the SDG’s! What can they find? What do they connect with?
  • have your older students make SDG board games to play with your younger grade levels that will teach them about the goals and what they can be doing
  • connect with Teach SDG’s to find more ways to embed the SDG’s into your classrooms #teachSDGs
  • have your PYPx students work towards an SDG for their exhibition! Challenge them…can their work lead to a sustainable change?
  • empower your students to look around the school and find changes that can be made towards different SDG’s (for example…is your school still laminating? What is all this plastic doing to the ocean?)
  • connect with NGO’s and organizations in your community who are working towards one or more of the SDG’s…how can you work together to make a bigger impact?
  • incorporate the design cycle and inquiry cycle into their learning process…can the design cycle be part of the “taking it further” with the inquiry cycle?

What I have noticed in the last three years is that the more student agency I enable the more sustainable and meaningful the connections the students are making! Last year our 4th graders were able to choose the SDG they felt the most passionate about. They created a social enterprise and used their profits from their market day to work toward making their action proposal a reality! (see my previous blog post for more information!) This year it has been incredible to hear that some of these students have continued on with what they started, in grade 5 and are running bake sales and lemonade stands at school and in the local dog park, to continue working with the NGO they connected with in grade 4.

 

I have noticed that each year the students come in with a greater understanding of the SDG’s and a more heightened motivation to take action! We have students advocating for equal rights for girls and boys on the soccer pitch and meeting with the athletics department, students convincing peers to purchase bamboo straws as prizes for their SDG game rather than candy because the candy is wrapped in plastic, making recycling boxes for the classrooms, marching in the local LGBT parade to support equality for all…the list grows every year! To me, this is the power of a “whole school approach”! If the message is the same every year and the approach is through empowering self-initiated action NOT forced teacher-driven tasks, our learners will learn what power they actually possess to make a change!

As an educator and a facilitator of learning for my class of little humans, it is MY responsibility to ignite in them a passion to take action and make changes so that they don’t become another me! They need to DO more, ACT better and INSPIRE the older, and younger, generations to make a change!

Who we are…as learners

This was first published on my blog: Honor Learners.

We started our year with our IB PYP unit of inquiry, Who we are. The big idea behind the unit was to support our Kindergarteners to begin to understand who they are as learners to provide a strong foundation for them to take ownership of their learning.

Our provocation was based on the Pixar short film, Piper. You can read more about this in my previous post here. Next, we read Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andrae. As learners made connections between Gerald and Piper, they began to discover what good learners do and as a result, our learners began to understand how having a growth mindset supports learning.

As I observe and interact in the playground, I hear our kindergarten learners talk about how they are challenging themselves to climb to the highest point, or get across the monkey bars. I see them failing and trying again. I see them encouraging each other. I see them learning.

The next part of our unit was less successful. The plan was to learn about our learners’ passions and use this knowledge to inform guided inquiries. I think this fell apart for many reasons. First, we were (and still are) trying to figure out how we function together in our learning hub. We were trying to establish routines and we should have taken more time to do this with learner input, rather than making decisions for them.

Secondly, I think we were either too structured and should have had a more organic approach, or that we were not structured enough and we were trying to run before we could walk. To add to that, I think we were trying to cover too many concepts and skills, thus highlighting the need to develop our understanding of concept based inquiry.

Going forward, my role is not to control every aspect of learning. My role is to support learners as they lead their own learning. I can do this by helping them to develop an understanding of the process of learning as we learn, and I feel like documentation and making learning visible is going to be a key part of this process.

We have had many successes in our Kindergarten learning space, and while it is great to celebrate the great moments, I feel it is also important to share the challenges and fail forward, because this is where our own learning happens.  I shall continue to ‘risk and reflect’ to honor our learners.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

References

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 https://www.edutopia.org/blog/the-year-of-agency-beth-holland

International Baccalaureate. (2017, November). The Learner in the enhanced PYP. Retrieved from http://blogs.ibo.org/sharingpyp/files/2017/12/2017-December-The-Learner.pdf.

Kearns, G. (2017, December 11). Why student agency already exists. Retrieved from https://www.renaissance.com/2017/06/01/blog-why-student-agency-already-exists/

Levinson, M. (2016, April 11). Next Generation Learning: Bringing Student Agency Back to Schooling. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/next-generation-learning-student-agency-matt-levinson

Merrill, S. (2018, June 14). Flexible Classrooms: Research Is Scarce, But Promising. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/flexible-classrooms-research-scarce-promising

New Zealand Ministry of Education. (2016, November 15). Learner agency. Retrieved from http://nzcurriculum.tki.org.nz/Curriculum-resources/NZC-Online-blog/Learner-agency

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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcM2Sos091Y&list=PLOkeXFURWAFpzz-uzQ-nG-HTv0kq-iy_x&index=7 L2 Talks Europe

Stevens, K. (2016, April 22). 5-Minute Film Festival: Student Voice and Choice. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/film-fest-student-voice-agency

Taylor, M. (2017, December 15). Exciting, authentic, connected…transdisciplinary learning! Retrieved from http://blogs.unishanoi.org/mtaylor/

The Science of the Individual and the Case for Agency

“If a teacher tells me what to do, I’m not really thinking” – Third Grade Student

Lately, many educators have been discussing the importance of learner agency and, as many people know, the new enhancements to the International Baccalaureate’s Primary Years Programme (PYP) will be introduced in 2018. The enhancements will offer a deeper focus on agency. I’ve read a lot of exciting blog posts and tweets regarding the upcoming changes. Many educators are naturally asking themselves WHAT these enhancements will mean for their schools and HOW they will implement them. As an educator who runs a choice-based Visual Arts programme in an IB World School, I’m keenly interested in agency. Over the past two years, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on and researching the WHY in my classroom and it has transformed my practice. As I anticipate the enhancements to the PYP, I have been curious to go deeper with the WHY for agency and I encourage other educators to reflect on and research the WHY for agency in their own practice.

New PYP Model

(IB, 2017)

What is agency? According to the International Baccalaureate,

Agency is 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.

Agency is present when students partner with teachers and members of the learning community to take charge of what, where, why, with whom and when they learn. This provides opportunities to demonstrate and reflect on knowledge, approaches to learning and attributes of the learner profile. (IB, 2017)

Why should we focus on Agency?

For an answer to that question, a good place to start is The End of Average – How to Succeed in a World that Values Sameness by Todd Rose (2016).

The Science of the Individual

Rose (2016), in his fascinating book, describes himself as a high school dropout with a D-minus average. By the time he was 21, he was married with children and trying to support his family with a stream of low-wage jobs. One might have thought that he was on a road to a life filled with poverty and struggle. If we fast forward to today, Todd Rose is the director of the Mind, Brain and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. What he has learned about the Science of the Individual and himself along the way is the secret to his remarkable transformation and the subject of his book.

Designing for No One

In his book, Rose tells how, in 1952, the US Air Force was trying to figure out why they were having so many problems with their fighter jets. At first they blamed the pilots. Then they blamed the technology. Next they blamed the flight instructors. But it turns out that the problem was the cockpit. The cockpit had been designed to fit the average pilot’s body. Lieutenant Gilbert S. Daniels was asked to conduct a new study of the dimensions of the pilots, since the last time the Air Force had conducted such a study was almost three decades prior. Daniels measured over 4,000 pilots on ten physical dimensions. Air Force researchers thought that most of the pilots would fall within the average range on all dimensions. But what Daniels found was that no pilots were within the average range on all dimensions. Not a single pilot. By designing a cockpit for the average pilot, the Air Force had “designed a cockpit for no one”. The Air Force took these findings seriously and made a bold move. They demanded that the cockpits be “designed to the edges” of the dimensions of their pilots. The final results were things like adjustable seats (we use these daily now!) and adjustable instruments. [Rose, 4]

The Average Man and the Averagarian Approach

Rose is a researcher and a specialist in the Science of the Individual. He details the fascinating timelines, historically significant events, scientists, and research findings which led to the first practices of collecting large amounts of data from many individuals and averaging them to look for ways to make sense of society, education, medicine, and industry.

Adolphe Quetelet is one of those early scientists. Born in 1796 in Belgium, Quetelet borrowed the method of averages from astronomy to form his social science and was responsible for promoting the concept of the average man, according to Rose (26-31).

The Impact of the Averagarian Approach on Industry and Education

Rose writes that Frederick Winslow Taylor was responsible for the standardization of the work environment. In the 1890s, Taylor was working at a steelworks company when he began to look for ways to improve the speed of various tasks, standardize them to the “one best way”, and time them for efficiency. Even today, anyone who has worked in a factory or production environment has probably worked within the approaches for standardization that were first introduced by Taylor. (Rose, 40-45)

By the early twentieth century, this “Taylorist” approach of standardization within the industrial world had a profound influence on education in the United States. “The educational Taylorists declared that the new mission of education should be to prepare mass numbers of students to work in the newly Taylorized economy.” (Rose, 50) By 1920, students were provided with one standardized education.

Edward Thornkike advocated for sorting students according to their ability. The fast learners (believed to be the talented students) were identified and had a clear path to college. The average learners were expected to take up jobs within the Taylorized economy. The slow learners were given little support. (Rose, 52-56)

These influences on industry and education are still present in society today in the form of employee rankings, standardized tasks, efficiency ratings, standardized tests in schools, grading systems, standardized text books, bells to signal the end of each class, IQ ratings, personality tests, etc.

The Research and the Three Principles of Individuality

What does the research tell us about things like averages, IQ tests, grades, etc. in relation to the individual? Like the story of the Air Force fighter pilots, over and over again, Rose details how averages can range from uninformative to terribly misleading when it comes to describing or trying to understand any one individual.

If the research is telling us that averages are not adequate in trying to understand the individual, what other approach might work? Rose outlines three principles of individuality: the jaggedness principle, the context principle, and the pathways principle.

jaggedness

The Jaggedness Principle

Rose (81) explains that we often simplify things in our mind to just one dimension. For example, if we think about size, we might think about a person being large, medium or small. However, the reality is that people come in all shapes and sizes, so that their dimensions create a jagged profile. See example below.

airforce-dimensions

(Rose, 2016)

A one-dimensional approach of large, medium or small fails to capture the true nature of human size (Rose, 82). Additionally, looking at the average fails to capture the true nature of size.

The same is true for talent and intelligence, according to Rose. Yet, businesses and schools continue to look at one-dimensional factors mentioned above such as employee ratings, standardized test scores, grades, IQ scores, grade-level textbooks, etc. 

The Jaggedness Principle in the Visual Arts Class

When students partner with members of the community and take charge of “what, where, why, with whom, and when they are learning” (IB, 2017), they are developing across multiple dimensions. The jaggedness principle tells us that each individual is unique across these multiple dimensions. When students approach learning from their own particular dimensions, perspectives and interests, they will grow and develop at the pace that is best for them and in a way that sparks genuine curiosity, as they follow their passions.

For the past 100 years, Visual Arts classes around the world have not changed much (Hathaway, 2013). The practice of introducing adult art to children and having them copy either the paintings or the style has become something that we expect from art programmes (Hathaway, 2013). The results of such lessons are often quite pleasing to the adult eye and we deceive ourselves into thinking that the students have been creative and interested in the learning. I used to approach my classes in the same way. After some honest reflection, I realized that cookie-cutter lessons are neither creative nor interesting for the students. Like the findings from Rose in his book, students come to the Visual Arts class with a variety of interests, passions, knowledge, skills and developmental levels. Their profiles are jagged. Giving the students agency (giving them a choice, voice and ownership of their learning) makes sense because one size does not fit all.

context

The Context Principle

“…(T)he context principle…asserts that individual behavior cannot be explained or predicted apart from a particular situation, and the influence of a situation cannot be specified without reference to the individual experiencing it.” (Rose, 106). What this means is that personality traits we often use to describe someone are not consistent in all contexts. Rose gives the example of “Jack”.

IF Jack is in the office, THEN he is very extroverted.

If Jack is in a large group of strangers, THEN he is mildly extroverted.

IF Jack is stressed, THEN he is very introverted. (106)

Yet we tend to think of people as either extroverted or introverted; honest or dishonest; aggressive or non-aggressive; or creative or not creative. The context principle illustrates that our traits are influenced by the context in which we find ourselves. Additionally, not all people respond to specific situations in the same way.

The Context Principle in the Visual Arts Class

Through the context principle, we learn that each student reacts to various situations differently. Therefore, as teachers and members of the community are partnering with students, we must understand that part of our responsibility is to create a range of opportunities so that each student will be successful. That means offering students agency to choose options that provide the best context in which the students will thrive.

In my Visual Arts class, I used to decide on the lesson idea, choose the materials and try to scaffold everything in such as way so that there would be little or no failure within the class. However, no matter how much I tried to infuse my own excitement into the class and scaffold the lesson, there were inevitably cries of “I can’t do it!” “Do we have to do this?” “Is this good enough?” Now my approach is radically different. I now use an approach that is similar to the Reading and Writing Workshop Model for children’s literacy (Children’s Literacy Initiative). The concept is simple: IF Jack is reading something that he loves THEN he is likely to read longer and think more deeply about his reading. This will have an obvious effect on his literacy development. Similarly for Art, the approach I use is called Teaching for Artistic Behavior which regards students as artists, supports different needs and interests of students, and creates choices for multiple learning opportunities. (TAB)

Now, my classroom is designed with context in mind. Students are presented with a classroom full of interesting materials to explore (cardboard, sticks, a variety of paints, coloured papers, clay, fabric, wool yarn, glue, scissors, etc.) The art room is a safe space where students are invited to explore materials and express their ideas. Mini lessons offer artists and concepts to think about, skills and tools to practice or reflection time. The rest of the time is spent supporting students to discover contexts in which they thrive. IF Jack is exploring his own passions and curiosity THEN he is likely to be more engaged and take more ownership of his learning. 

What I’ve discovered is that curiosity usually leads to something more challenging. For example, many elementary students love to make paper airplanes. One first grader recently commented to me that learning how to make a paper airplane was one of the highlights of her year. Given the freedom of choice and materials to explore making paper airplanes students might make planes until they are tired of folding papers. What happens next is important. Once they see all of the paper airplanes on the table, someone might have the brilliant idea that they should build an airport. Now a group of students is exploring architectural modeling, all the while developing spatial reasoning and collaboration skills. One second grader recently commented about an airport he built with his classmates, “I didn’t think I could build something that big. It helped my confidence grow.”

Later the same students might decide to build a model of a city or paint a map and develop a story that goes along with it. Yong Zhao said, “When a child has a reason to learn, the basics will be sought after, rather than imposed.” (Zhao, 2012) The context principle explains why the proper context helps students develop their own reasons to learn. This leads us to the next principle: the pathways principle.

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The Pathways Principle

Edward Thorndike introduced the idea that “faster equals smarter” into the educational system. (Rose, 130). But, are speed and learning ability really related? In the 1980s, Benjamin Bloom conducted a research study in which two groups of students were taught a subject that they did not already know. The first group (“fixed-pace group’) was taught during fixed periods of instruction that were standard at the time. The second group (‘self-paced group’) was taught the same material over the same total amount of time, but they had a tutor who permitted each individual to go at their own pace (sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly). In the first group, 20 percent of the students achieved “mastery of the material” (a score of 85 percent or higher). In the second group, 90 percent of the students achieved a mastery score. With flexibility in the self-paced group, most of the students performed very well. (Rose, 132) 

If not all students learn at the same pace, what about sequence? Do all students learn in the same sequence? Kurt Fischer is a scientist in the field of the science of the individual. According to Rose, Fischer has studied a wide range of developmental issues, such as how young children learn to read. (137) For example, Fischer discovered that there are three distinct sequences in which a child might progress to learn to read single words. Fischer recognized that two of the sequences have similar results, however, the third sequence results in reading difficulties. As a result, now children who follow the third sequence can be identified and receive the proper support.

From his research, Fischer suggests that we use the metaphor of a “web” to describe the process in which each step we take in our development opens up a range of possibilities (Rose 138).

The Pathways Principle in the Visual Arts Class

The pathways principle teaches us that each student’s learning journey will be a unique path in which the next steps are revealed as the student makes progress in their learning. Giving students opportunities for agency will give them the power to make meaningful and intentional action as a result of their learning and such action will illuminate the path to next steps in the student’s journey as they reflect on their knowledge and approaches to learning.

In the Visual Arts class this year, there is a grade four student who started the year without much confidence in his own art-making skills. After some exploration and discussion, he started making geometric designs with a ruler on paper and then carefully colored them. Next he started a collage project cutting out geometric shapes. He immediately asked permission to abandon the collage project because he had something bigger in mind. Now he’s working on a large poster-size painting of a cityscape (using the skills he learned with the geometric designs). He asked me if I could display his painting in the room and ask students from other classes to offer him some feedback. Recently, he saw me working on two large canvases 2.5 meters tall with the grade five class. He asked if his next project could be on such a large canvas. I suspect that we have an installation artist in the making, as his projects grow larger and more complex with each step.

A third grade student has taken a very different path this year. She started the year making large expressive abstract paintings with bold, bright colors. Lately she has been exploring model making as she collaborates with a classmate to build miniature furniture models. Last week they designed and built a model car together. Two other students in the same third grade class have spent most of the year on a series of elaborately detailed drawings for shoe designs, taking breaks in between designs to do small 3-D modeling projects. “If a teacher tells me what to do, I’m not really thinking,” commented one of the shoe designers. 

All of these students can describe their learning journey in the Visual Arts class this year. Because they were given opportunities to express their agency, they each thrived as they explored different pathways.

It’s Time for Agency

The jaggedness principle, the context principle and the pathways principle provide us with answers to WHY agency is important. Like the one-size-does-not-fit-all lesson the US Air Force learned in 1952, it’s time for educators to respect student agency and partner with the learning community to fit each student’s educational experience to their own individual, multidimensional traits and characteristics. It’s time for educators to present students with opportunities to choose contexts in which they learn best. It’s time for students to be given permission to follow pathways that make sense for each individual. Knowing what we know now, it’s time for a greater focus on agency. As a Visual Arts educator, I want to be committed to helping students, as individuals, develop their learner agency, make choices that are relevant to them, express their own voice, and take ownership of their interests and learning.

Follow me on Twitter: @artwithron    or on my blog: artwithron.com

Resources:

Children’s Literacy Initiative. Reading and Writing Workshop. https://cli.org/resource/reading-writing-workshop/

Hathaway, Nan E. (2013). Smoke and Mirrors: Art Teacher as Magician. Art Education. http://teachingforartisticbehavior.org/wp-content/uploads/ArtEd_May13_Hathaway.pdf.

IB (International Baccalaureate). November 2017. The Learner in the Enhanced PYP. https://resources.ibo.org/pyp/topic/PYP-review-updates/resource/11162-46068/data/p_0_pypxx_amo_1711_1_e.pdf. Accessed 26 May 2018.

Rose, Todd (2016). The End of Average – How to Succeed in a World that Values Sameness, Allen Lane, USA/UK.

TAB (Teaching for Artistic Behavior). http://teachingforartisticbehavior.org/resources/sample-page/about-us/

Zhao, Yong (2012) “World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students.” Corwin.

An ode to my rebel mentors

Ever since I heard Taryn’s story at the #IBSG2018, I have been reflecting deeply on my teaching and learning journey over the last two decades and more. Her talk was inspiring and it was almost like a coming out story that resonated with many of us who have earlier struggled to come out of the classroom closet! She had the courage to come out and share her humble yet powerful story… a simple act of human revolution I’d say, for lack of a better word (I find ‘rebel’ to have this popularly clichéd negative label and now through this blog, over-used). She had the courage to come out and confront constraints and challenges and turn them into opportunities… there was no more room for fear or worry. She had the courage to come out and review and reflect on her teaching practices, so that they ultimately contributed to making learning real and meaningful.

Over the last couple of months, each blog on this alliance has been such a lovely revelation into our own interpretations of Agency in the classroom. Whether through the glimpses into a learning journey, or through some personal reflections, each post has been like a jigsaw piece helping in co-constructing the IB rebels’ understanding of Agency. Interestingly, when I reflected back, I realised that my journey into teaching from Day 1 had been filled with Agency… just that it was not very explicitly talked about or consciously acknowledged by me. Agency had been like the oxygen I was breathing in and out in my classroom, but I had not been mindful of the same.

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With the original mentor… my mom

I take this opportunity to share some of those experiences, simultaneously acknowledging the contribution of some great educational visionaries and leaders, and in many ways educational rebels of their times, who have directly or indirectly mentored me on my own journey.

Where it all began…

I got into teaching by chance at the young age of 21, after a disillusioned year of work in the corporate world, which I was officially trained for. With a historian and author father and a mom who was a college professor, I had teaching in my genes, so to say… and hence, took to the world of education much like fish is in water.

One of my earliest mentors in education, apart from my parents, was Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore needs no introduction. He was the first Asian to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913 for his famous work ‘Gitanjali’. Being Bengali, I was also steeped in the works of Rabindranath Tagore, as a cultural mandate.

Rabindranath_Tagore_portrait_(4)

Don’t miss the rebellious look in Tagore’s eyes

Tagore advised, much before the IB era, “Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.” His educational models of schooling and higher education at Shantiniketan are still matters of research interest, as people from across the world travel to study and learn from one of the earliest global universities of modern times. Reading, singing, acting and dancing to Tagore’s stories, poetry and plays, all through my childhood, I realised early on, that there are many artistic languages that can be used to express our thoughts and emotions and that aesthetics in whatever we do is something worth striving for.

His famous poem reads:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

This was my first immersion into real Learner Agency.

When students make you a teacher

My first teaching experience was in the most amazing Sahyadri School, founded on the philosophy of J. Krishnamurti. He was a noted philosopher and educator who talked greatly about the inquiry model and learning through observation. The Krishnamurti Foundation of India runs some of the oldest and most reputed schools in India and I was fortunate to join one of their newer establishments.

The environment was free, students did not have a uniform, the classes were structured flexibly through the day, and the learning spaces were accessible (especially the Art Room and the fields) through the day. Students were exposed to a wide range of arts and they organized an annual Art fair selling the products they designed and created through the year. The first two batches of students I taught there, walked me on the path of becoming a teacher. And Krishnamurti’s philosophy of education, helped me understand what it meant to be an educator.

j_krishnamurti

True inquirer

In his 1st talk to students at Rajghat School Banaras, on 4th January 1954, he posed the question “Don’t you ask yourself why you are being educated? Do you know why you are being educated, and what does that education mean?” and after discussions, summarized it as “Proper education is to help the student to meet this life, so that he understands it, he won’t succumb, he won’t be crushed under it as most of us are…. Your education must enable you to understand this pressure, not to yield to it but to understand it and to break through it, so that you, as an individual, as a human being are capable of a great deal of initiative, and not merely traditional thinking. That is real education.”*1

The air was filled with students and teachers having voice, choice and ownership in what they learnt and how they learnt… agency infused the learning environment and culture, so to say. This, being my first experience in teaching, became an anchor in forming my own educational beliefs.

A simple school with a visionary leader

 I was fortunate to thereafter work in a school, where the philosophy was simple… a school is a place for children, and hence, must be run by what children need and want. The students designed the uniform of the school (which included denim bottoms for comfort), the classes were broken down into large group and small group instructions, where students could go for specific lessons of their choice in the smaller groups. Jenny Mosley’s Golden Time and Circle Time were fundamentals of students’ behaviour management, as again the choice to behave in a certain way was placed in the hands of the students themselves. Classes could be held under the shade of a tree, on the field or in the computer lab. Learning could be expressed through the arts.

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With Madhavi Kapur and the core team at Aman Setu

It was a happy place where students and teachers felt empowered, important and inspired! A simple school that was led by a visionary leader, Ms. Madhavi Kapur… became the training grounds for me to not only acquire technical skills, but also to understand the emotional and psychological dynamics of learning. A balance of the head and the heart was guided by Ms. Kapur, and implemented by a great team of teachers and leaders. Today, the foundation in her memory continues to do active work in the field of making learning and education agentic and empowering through its own school called Aman Setu and its own curriculum and training centres!

When paths cross and merge

I had the good fortune of encountering a spiritual and humanistic life philosophy around this time in my journey, based on Nichiren’s Buddhism. As a member of Soka Gakkai International, I began exploring the principles of Soka Education founded by the founding President of the organisation, Mr. Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, who himself was a reformist educator by profession in Japan in the early 1900s. The current honorary President Dr. Daisaku Ikeda writes, “Education must inspire the faith that each of us has both the power and the responsibility to effect positive change on a global scale.”

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The Soka schools and the Soka Universities (see full list here), follow this basic principle in teaching and learning through their efforts to spread peace, culture and education. Though, I have neither studied nor taught at any Soka institution, practicing this philosophy helped me absorb the tenets of Soka education.

Reminiscing on a teacher’s reflection, “The smallest failure can destroy a child’s confidence, and the smallest catalyst can trigger explosive growth. The challenge for the teacher is to believe in each child’s potential.”*2, I realised that truly believing in students is the best way to empower and inspire them. When we truly believe with our heart that children can become successful in what they wish to pursue on their own interest, we are already opening up the path towards their success! In a way, I realised that if I believed in my potential as an educator, my faith would manifest in my students in the same manner… what could be a more powerful expression of agency than this?

Encountering the IB way

 As my educational beliefs continued to strengthen and get rooted by my personal and professional experiences in life, I was headhunted to work in an IB school near Mumbai. The initial year at the start up got me some IB training and soon I landed myself into a new school, Pathways World School, where I spent close to a decade (Jan 2005 to June 2014). I grew from being a specialist teacher, to being a home room teacher, to becoming a Grade Level Coordinator, followed by leading as a PYP Coordinator and finally doubling the role of a Primary School Coordinator. More recently, I have been heading the Primary Division at my current school, which is Singapore International School, Mumbai. I was also lucky to make it to IBEN in 2011 and also was selected to lead workshops online. Before this begins to sound like my resume, let me explain why I am sharing all this. The IB allowed me to explore so many avenues as an educator thereby giving me so much ‘Agency’. I could play different roles, don different hats and yet at the end of the day, call myself a teacher first.

The IB Mission Statement itself talks about developing ‘inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect’ and creating programmes that ‘encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.’. From its inception, Agency has been latently embedded in the IB ethos. Whether it was working as an educator, or as a student, it allows every one to enjoy the process of learning. Everybody becomes a life-long learner.

If we are to promote true international mindedness, we will need to develop the attributes of the Learner Profile and the knowledge, the conceptual understanding, the skills and attitudes and eventually lead students to taking meaningful action. None of this is authentically possible without agency. The process, which reflects in the curriculum as well as the pedagogy, has to be an experiential one, wherein students and teachers together work together to construct meaning and reconstruct new ideas and innovations. Students, teachers and parents need to explore choices and share their voice on issues they feel close to, thereby, taking ownership of that learning.

Student action, as originally conceptualised, could not have happened without Agency. Agency too, has all the attributes of the Learner Profile embedded in itself and here is a correlation I did for the same, which is of course not the only way to represent it.

Slide1At the end of the day, agency as a concept is not new at all. We are becoming more conscious of education being a process of developing independent, life-long learners capable of taking meaningful action. Agency is thus, a journey of inspiring our learners in every possible way to take steps towards good. The culture of a school’s leaders, teachers and parents ultimately determine how authentic agency is at a school.

I end with a quote that seems to summarise it all:

“A school’s CULTURE resides in the hearts and souls of its leadership, teachers, staff and students. A true Culture of Learning will tend to transcend the physical walls of the school and flow out into the community.” Robert John Meehan, Educator, Author, Poet

 

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Sources (except for the ones which are hyperlinked):

*1: http://jiddu-krishnamurti.net/en/1954/1954-01-04-jiddu-krishnamurti-1st-talk-to-students

*2: http://www.daisakuikeda.org/main/educator/essays-on-education/treasuring-every-child.html

Image of Rabindranath Tagore: Wikimedia Commons

Image of J Krishnamurti: http://domainededieu.over-blog.com/article-krishnamurti-se-liberer-du-connu-74291562.html

Image of Dr. Daisaku Ikeda: http://www.sgipanama.com