Grade 3 Research Skills Unit

I feel lucky to work in an amazing team of Grade 3 teachers and with support staff at ISHCMC that inspire me, challenge me and work with me respectfully & collaboratively! We have the same vision of where we feel education should be moving and while we deliver lessons in different ways, we respect each other and often learn and build on each other’s ideas.

This collaboration led to our most recent unit that was focused on research skills. As I mentioned in previous posts (Studio 3 / Studio 3 & Skillz Studio) our team has been working to shift the focus of learning from knowledge-based to skills based.

This was a Where We Are in Place and Time unit (PYP) and we decided that the focus would be on research skills. Students would inquire into people from history during the unit (or into any topic during the provocation and Skillz Studio). They would and learn a lot of knowledge, but the focus of teaching, reflecting and reporting would be on the research skills. Students would explicitly learn how to formulate questions, collect information, record information and present their research findings.

Instead of starting the unit by breaking down the central idea and lines of inquiry, we decided not to put them up at all. Instead, we just put the word “Research” on the wall. We started by asking: “What is research?” and “What are the rules for research?” We had a bit of discussion and then students each reflected on sticky notes to record their understanding before starting the unit.

Then we gave them a provocation – a real provocation. We told them that they would do some research. They would work individually, for 1 week, for 1-2 periods a day, on 1 topic, and have something to share on Friday.

> “Mr. Billy, what should I research?”
> “What do YOU want to research? What are YOU interested in?”

> “Mr. Billy, where should I find the information?”
> “Where do YOU think you should find the information?”

> “Mr. Billy, Are these notes OK?”
> “Do YOU think these notes are Ok?”

> “Mr. Billy, how should I share my research?”
> “How do YOU think you should share your research?”

How often do we truly let students explore on their own without meddling? I’m not going to lie and tell you that I was hand-off the whole time, but I tried my best. After a few days, we started to see the specific needs this cohort of students had in terms of their research skills. Some areas were better than we thought, while others needed more help. Overall, a big theme we noticed was that they found research easy… because they weren’t researching a specific question, they were reading for information. Instead of letting their questions lead their research, they just let the book tell them information. This actually had us re-evaluate our central idea and lines of inquiry to fit the needs of the students. It also had us re-evaluate the way we were planning on teaching and we thought about new ways to address the specific skills these students needed.

After we reflected, our central idea and lines of inquiry were:

Central Idea:
> By researching, we can understand about individuals through history.

Our lines of inquiry:
• An inquiry into why we research (function, causation)
• An inquiry into the research cycle  (function)

After the provocation was the “meat and potatoes” of the unit. This was the part where we explicitly taught the skills of research. This was a more structured part, where students were still given agency, but where we explicitly taught and practiced the skills needed to research. As a class, we developed the specific parts of the research cycle and through the unit explored each one. During the unit, students inquired into different people as a way to structure and scaffold their learning.

Questioning:

As I mentioned earlier, through our provocation we discovered that students were not using questions to lead their research, but rather reading for information. While this might seem like semantics, it isn’t. When you research, YOU lead by searching for the answers to your questions. When you read for information THE BOOK leads and you are passively letting the book tell you information.

> “Research is hard!”

This would be a common thing I would hear – and it’s true. When students did find the information they were looking for though, it led to a very satisfying feeling and they were excited to share it with others.

As a way to teach/model questioning, we decided to use a question formulation technique. As a class we generated questions and used them for research we did together in class about sharks. As a class we:

  1.          Asked as many questions as we could.
  2.          Did not stop to judge, discuss, or answer any questions.
  3.          Wrote down every question as stated.
  4.          Changed any statements into questions.

Initially, we thought we would focus on thin and thick or open and closed questions. As we got into it though, we realized that it wasn’t specifically about the questions, but about the researcher. If the researcher is inquisitive and wants to “dive deeper” then even closed questions could provide a lot of opportunities. For example, How long are shark’s teeth can be seen as a thin question, but the researcher can go deeper by asking if different types of sharks have different lengths? Does that affect the type of food they eat? Instead of snorkeling at the top of the water, we encouraged students to grab their scuba pack and dive deeper down.

After working on questioning together, students generated their own questions to lead their research into the people they chose to inquire into. We didn’t focus on the types of questions, but on the researcher and how deep or shallow they went with their inquiry.

Collecting Information:

How would students choose the person they will inquire into? Students needed to be exposed to a variety of people to choose from, but we didn’t want to curate a list ourselves. Instead, we had the idea of asking our parent community. We asked each parent for 3 ideas of important people from history who they thought students should inquire into. This not only sparked conversations at home but also introduced us to interesting people from around the world!

After collecting all the names, students alphabetized and posted on the wall all the suggestions parents had about who they should research. Students then choose people from the wall and completed a sheet identifying the physical and digital sources they could find about that person.

     

We discussed reliable vs. unreliable sources and curated some places where students might find information using QR codes. We discussed possibilities of interviewing people, if that made sense, and took books out of the library to create our own Grade 3 library (also learning how to search for books remotely). We discussed safe search engines like Kiddle and Kidrex and explored how results came up when searching. We learned about ads in the results and to look at the link to see if it is a reliable source.

We talked about skimming & scanning when looking for information and students were encouraged to find information from multiple sources and compare it. Some even found conflicting dates for the birth and death of ancient people and this sparked some interesting discussions. We also discussed legal ways we can use images and how to cite them. Kiddle’s encyclopedia is a great resource for this!

Recording information:

Often we expect students to just take notes, but do we explicitly teach them how to do it? Using a shared text and research into sharks, we explored different ways to take notes. We looked into boxes & bullets, mind-mapping, two-column notes, graphs & charts, and sketch-noting. I modeled each one with our joint text and then students explored and experimented on their own.

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We discussed which ways worked for them and which they didn’t like using. We did gallery walks to learn from each other and shared tips and strategies.

Students really enjoyed sketch-notes and that was probably because we have a resident expert right in Grade 3 with my co-worker Libby McDaniel (‪@wecanbeawesome ). She creates her own personal sketch-noting journals, which are incredible, and inspired many students! In addition, I was inspired by her to try and record the progression of the unit on the class whiteboards and keep the learning visual through the unit.

Presenting Information:

Before diving into “flashy” ways to present our research, we focused on writing an information report. As a class, we jointly wrote one based on the shark research we had done together and then students wrote their own. We gave them a loose structure to follow with an introduction, main body, conclusion, and citations. Not only was this important for students to learn, but it also kept them honest about the amount and detail of their research.

After students wrote an information report, we wanted to spark ideas about other ways they could present their information in more engaging ways. We had a wonderful discussion talking about “traditional” ways to present information and “out-of-the-box” ways. We came up with a wide range of ideas, many of which we as teachers had not thought of previously.

Students chose a variety of ways to present information in engaging ways, such as becoming the person in a hot seat, creating games, making movies with green screens, interviewing the person (playing both roles), writing books, creating interactive posters, delivering Keynote/Slides presentations, etc… We met together in small groups with similar ways of presenting and jointly created expectations. This way, students knew what the expectations were and how to challenge and improve themselves. One of my students even changed her whole project after working together in the small groups as she wanted to level-up her presentation!

Skillz Studio:

Finally, after students had presented their information about the person they inquired into, we moved on to the “dessert” of the unit (with a cherry on top). Now that the students had time to specifically learn their research skills and practice with guidance, they were ready to go it alone. They had 2-weeks to manage their own time, with some must-dos, but mostly working on their individual research projects.

During Skillz Studio, students chose a specific research skill to develop and also a specific self-management skill. Since they had already done two different research projects, they were able to identify areas of strength and growth. They independently worked through the research cycle with a presentation at the end to their peers, teachers and their parents in our community.

There were some teacher workshops, but also a lot of student workshops. Again, since students had the chance to go through the cycle two times already, many felt confident enough to teach their peers. Not only did they focus on research skills, but also on self-management skills (as this wasn’t their first Skillz Studio either).

      

The most difficult parts of helping 21+ students work on individual projects during Skillz Studio are keeping track of all their work & goals, knowing which stage each student is on, figuring out who needs help and with what and helping students manage their time. It is a lot to keep track of and we have been constantly experimenting with different ways and ideas to do so.

To manage work, we tried a new idea. We used a shared Google doc with a graph on it that we shared with students. As students completed a section of the research cycle, they would upload evidence on Seesaw and then change the color on the chart (Green for done, Yellow for in progress, Red for I need help). I would then look at the evidence and add a tick mark. If there was a question, I would change the box to orange and talk with them about my concern. It is not perfect but worked quite well as a way to manage the organized chaos and keep track of everything happening. This is something we are still working on, developing and improving as we go. Any new ideas are quite welcome.

As a way to help manage goals, I met students in small groups based on their research goals to share strategies and ideas. I would also check in with students based on the graph. In addition, students also met in small groups with people who had the same self-management goals. Students were either working on their organization, time-management or informed choices.

As a group, students worked together to come up with some ways that they could be successful during the 2 weeks. Those focused on organization skills made daily checklists and reflected at the end of the day. Those focused on time management skills used timers in short intervals to keep them on task. Those working on informed choices drew icons on their arm to remind them to make good choices about where they sat, to focus on their work and to talk less. Through daily reflections, students decided if these strategies were working for them or if they needed to make some changes for the next day.

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Managing time on devices can be challenging, even for adults. Brain breaks are encouraged, but when the breaks end up longer than the time spent on the project it isn’t a break anymore, is it? So, as a way to keep track of the time spent on each app when using their iPads, students posted a screenshot of their usage for the day using the screen time app. This was really eye-opening for many students who didn’t realize that they were spending that amount of time doing things that were not helping them along with their project. Others used the app to set daily limits on apps, including productivity apps like Google Docs. They wanted to make sure that they were focused when working and this time limit helped them.

We also focused on the learning environment. I used to work in a real studio back in my design/advertising days. In a real studio, there is a lot of shared space, but everyone also has their own space where they can work. Some students started to develop their own spaces on their own, and so we decided to encourage this and asked students to re-arrange the room so they could create little areas for themselves to work. They were able to choose an appropriate place to work and focus and were able to leave things they created and made.

In the end, we had a Share Fair where students presented their research to the community, in engaging ways. They had all their notes and materials to share as well if anyone wanted to learn about their process. The visitors filled in reflection sheets and shared critical feedback about their presentations and the work they had done. Having a requirement that students share the work they have done is an important part of making the work authentic and allowing the community to decide if the learning was worthwhile and if the students were a success.

Reflections:

As in the past, students helped to mark and write their assessment for this unit. We also like to try and have at least one other perspective to balance it (parent, peer or teacher). For this unit, we decided to have the teacher write a part too. Students reflected on their growth and understanding of research through the unit, their strengths and learning targets. As their teacher, I also wrote a reflection, from my perspective. I then met with each student to share my thoughts and observations and we discussed them together, using evidence to support each of our sides. Finally, we negotiated the final marks for each of the research and self-management skills, using evidence. It is not a simple process, but I think it is worth it. I hate being the judge and jury and enjoy working with students to really dig deep and get to the truth. It is going to take some new and different ways to do assessments if we are going to focus on skills. So far, this has been working quite well, but I am absolutely open to suggestions!

In the end, I feel that this was a really successful unit and was a good model for how to focus units on skills as opposed to knowledge. It allowed students to learn the skills explicitly and gave them multiple opportunities to practice them. There was incredible motivation, student choice, and variety of topics explored and ways presented. I’m not going to lie and say it was easy or that everyone achieved their goals. While some flourished others struggled, but that is the point. It is always a difficult balance of teaching and support in order to allow students to learn from their mistakes. In the end, it was a really great learning experience for everyone. Not only was there a lot of knowledge learned, but also a lot of skills learned too.

Next steps:

We are always tweaking and talking about how to improve for next time. For example, this year we curated websites for the students and touched on search engines. We thought about focusing more on how to use search engines to find information next time.

This is a work in progress and as always I am open to suggestions to help improve the learning experience.

 

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Agency Driven Curriculum

The most dangerous experiment we can conduct with our children is to keep schooling the same at a time when every other aspect of our society is dramatically changing.” ~ Chris Dede

‘Is it our curriculum that allows for the scope of student-agency or is it student-agency that should drive the curriculum?’ This is a question that I have pondered on considerably in the past several months. I believe the distinction is important and has implications as to how we approach the curriculum and how we manage our time. The answer may also suggest what we value within education.

Through conversations with educators it seems that the current trend is that many are still working with the curriculum and timeframes that they have had previously. Within these already fixed curriculums and timeframes they are looking for greater opportunity to allow for student-agency. It is amicable but in this scenario student-agency may occur but it is very limiting and arguable unauthentic when the scope and timing of learning has already been predetermined by the teacher? This approach to the curriculum creates an unnatural learning environment, drastically limiting the opportunities for agency to flourish. We not only increasingly limit the choice of the learner but fail to recognise student voice and ultimately ownership of their learning. 

I would argue that rather than developing a curriculum that allows for agency we allow student-agency to develop the curriculum. If we dictate the how, when and where of learning we are sending a clear message that our learners are incapable of making these decisions on their own. As we follow our set path of learning objectives and routines we are sending a clear message to our learners that their wonderings, interests and self-inquiry have less value than the learning objectives of our curriculum.

I don’t think the answer is re-inventing the curriculum rather than re-imaging our approach to it. I believe that it is more about breaking it down and co-creating it with our learners in a way that is meaningful and purposeful to them. Creating a less structured curriculum that allows for flexibility of learning, authentic inquiry naturally leading to authentic student-agency. A more flexible approach to learning, coupled with strong academic advising structures allows our young learners to find their strengths and interests, and to change direction if needed. Flexibility does not mean that teaching isn’t without structure. Our learners are still dependent on their teachers for providing some element of structure so that they can put in context and make sense of their learning. What we are doing is transferring ownership so that you are working for the learners and not the learners working for you. Being flexible allows educators to respond to different learning abilities, needs and interests. Authentic learning environments should be in constant motion, filled with disruptions, discussion and new ideas. The more flexible a teacher’s approach, the better they are able to adapt to the room and the higher the chances are of increased student participation, engagement and ownership creating a more natural learning environment. It allows students to naturally explore subjects through their own questions, ideas, previous knowledge and level of intelligence. Real learning rarely follows a predictable and clearly linear pattern.

Please read my previous blog posts on how I have worked towards creating a less-structured and flexible approach to the curriculum:

From Learners to Leaders.

Adopting a Flexible Approach to the Curriculum

Teaching Learning Behaviours and Why the Process Matters.

Student agency is nurtured when teachers see learning as layers of choices that are made increasingly by students as they develop their ability to use the information in front of them to make them.Sam Sherratt

They see or seek the possibilities for layers of choices and providing the time, space and resources to ensure the layers are accessible to all.” Tania Mansfield

We often limit students’ agency and limit their imagination due to our own logical thinking. We are adults who come with our own culture, our own background and the wisdom of our world view. We often don’t recognize this as we plan provocation and provocative learning engagements.” – Kristen Blum

Developing a less structured approach to the curriculum is more than just an experiment but also has some grounding in research:

Consistent with Vygotskian developmental theory and programs that build on that theory, such as Tools of the Mind, less-structured time may uniquely support the development of self-directed control by affording children with additional practice in carrying out goal-directed actions using internal cues and reminders. That is, less-structured activities may give children more self-directed opportunities. From this perspective, structured time could slow the development of self-directed control, since adults in such scenarios can provide external cues and reminders about what should happen, and when. Findings offer support for a relationship between the time children spend in less-structured and structured activities and the development of self-directed executive function (EF). Children who spent more time in less-structured activities displayed better self-directed control. By contrast, children who spent more time in structured activities exhibited poorer self-directed EF. Executive functions (EFs) in childhood predict important life outcomes. Thus, there is great interest in attempts to improve EFs early in life. Time spent in less-structured activities would give children opportunities to practice self-directed executive functioning, and lead to benefits.’ – Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning.

 

Agency in Writing

Last year I wrote about the idea of studio time and opening myself up to agency in learning. This year I am trying to explore agency beyond the limits of studio time. I’m interested in the opportunities for learner agency within and beyond my practice.

  • How can I notice opportunities for learner investment?
  • When does a learner’s natural curiosity provide a potential launch point for inquiry?
  • How do I build my own capacity for noticing and harnessing the inbuilt learning tendencies within my class?
  • Where, in the past, might I have ignored or worked around the curiosities in the room and continued doggedly towards my curriculum goals?
  • How can I continue to provide quality learning experiences for students but focus on building learner agency within those experiences?

In other words, how do I plan a ‘good lesson’; one I know is targeted to student needs,  but one that also invites learner agency?

With that in mind, I have reflected on an imperfect example of my experimentation with this idea.

A sequence of learning:

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Our year began with an inquiry (Who We Are) into the actions of individuals in a community and an exploration of character strengths and dispositions. A few weeks in, and as teachers, we are interested in giving students an opportunity to share what they have learned but also experiment with the role of workshop facilitator. What dispositions do they need to apply when planning and facilitating a learning experience for younger students?

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Most students were really excited by the idea and found it to be a positive learning experience (besides a few who complained about having ‘a few disruptive kids to deal with’…pause for my raised eyes and response along the lines of…’that must have been awful for you’). With more future learner-led workshops in mind, I wanted the reflection to also be future thinking. We used Harvard Project Zero’s Compass Points thinking routine to explore what might be considered if we were to do something similar again.

As always, when I have a writing opportunity in mind, I find learners have more success when they are able to verbally share their thinking first. So we talked with our thinking partners and shared some responses as a class.

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Sidebar: How awesome is my handwriting?

So with the shared vocabulary and ideas visible for all learners, I posed a writing task. Yes. Controversial, I know. I’m normally an advocate for learner choice in writing but sometimes I break from that. What I don’t do, at any point, is identify an intended genre. Instead, I ask that we write something with:

Purpose: To prepare others to run a workshop

Audience: My class next year

So then came the pivot point. Questions from the crowd. This is where I would normally have the outcome in mind but now I’m trying to notice the natural direction the learners are wanting to take the piece.

“Can it be funny?”

“Can it be an ad on TV?”

Without saying it, I was expecting they would produce a basic list of lifehacks for workshop leaders, or a set of tips for success (which some did). With opportunities for experimentation, stopping and sharing, collaboration and advice giving (to each other), what was written was so much more diverse. The personal voice was better developed. The creativity was strong. The informal sharing provided entry points for idea development amongst learners who were struggling with opening lines or in finding a tone for their piece.

Next…

We paired with our thinking partners again. Here is where I got a bit too experimental.

“Share your writing with your thinking partner. Identify an area of strength and an area for improvement in each of your writing. Your job is to use this information to suggest mini-lessons for next week’s writer’s workshop. The mini-lessons will be opt-in workshop style, so they don’t have to be for everyone. Here is the writing section of the Australian Curriculum (displayed on the board…yes, I know…not exactly practical) for you to use as a resource.”

So this is where I would do something differently if I had lesson over. Duh. The WHOLE writing section of the Australian Curriculum. HAHAHAHA!!! As if. Perhaps an abridged set of learning outcomes? Or even better, a co-created resource describing author skills.

What it did do, however, was provoke and generate a whole range of questions about what is in the curriculum. Another agentic moment noticed. Now…what to do with it?

Here is the list of mini-lessons they created:

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I was able to use the opportunity to develop metalanguage for what they were describing as a need. For example, “I want the paragraphs to flow into each other in a way that makes sense”. Ahhh, cohesion. Notice, name.

So they didn’t really use the curriculum on the board which means they know what they need.

SO

What are the possibilities? Where could we go?

  • learner-led mini-lessons?
  • teacher-led mini-lessons?
  • optional publishing of the pieces for REAL audiences (year 4 students who will plan their own workshops)?
  • filming of the TV ads during studio time?

Is Your Classroom a Protectorate?

It finally dawned on me that as a teacher, if  I have an incessant need to control and have complete and outmost authority in the classroom, then guess what?  That. Makes. Me. A. Coloniser. I said it. It isn’t entirely our fault because sometimes we do teach as we were taught and we inherited a curriculum. It is a systemic issue.

It has been a few months experimenting with student agency a couple of fails and  I have come to a realisation that  student agency isn’t a fad that is here for the trend and just the hype of it. It is human. At the core of humanity and our existence.

We are agentic beings which means denying my learners an opportunity to inquire and dictate what they choose to do is violence.  It goes against human nature. Which is why  they are bored lifeless when I keep shoving  rubrics in their faces because as humans, their learning cannot be compartmentalised. It cannot be pigeonholed.

My role as a teacher wasn’t meant to be restricted to being a source of information. I am meant to listen, offer advice, understand, empower as they travel this tumultuous journey of inquiry and self discovery. My role isn’t to create benchmarks which let us be honest, are usually meant to rank children and compare them against each other or narrow what our expectations of them are. But working together as allies to beat the system, we rewrite benchmarks to make sense to each individual, we navigate them our own way, we are outlandish in how we express ourselves and we are occupying our space and doing it loudly, annihilating the tick-boxes just so we can be us.

If my learners left my class unaware that  it is okay to be on a self discovery journey where you feel supported and heard then I would have failed as a teacher.

I have to make a conscious decision every day to check myself, that I do not come up with the bar for what is considered the norm, that because as human beings we are always changing and evolving and that it is okay, that is what matters. That we work together to create structures that help us learn, that I do not have all the information and that is fine, that I m constantly learning from them. Their opinion is as good as mine, I am one of them. That report cards aren’t something that I sit down and conjure up. We do this together. We do make decisions together, we vote and decide, even when it goes against what I think. That they are here now, they are human and they count, they matter. That I will empower them with tools against an oppressive society that feeds off their complacency and twists them into conforming beings.

As a Ugandan on a journey of decolonisation, I understand what it means not to meet the standards and be expected to conform. I get it when you do not fit a box and have to bend yourself so that you fit someone-else’s expectations.

 

An Enhanced Mindset: Principles to Practice

“With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” – unknown

Screen Shot 2019-02-22 at 5.28.52 PM“Exciting times for education,” is a common phrase I have enjoyed using in recent times.  I feel positivity in the air and can feel the winds of educational change blowing across my face. The likes of Sir Ken Robinson has called for a ‘learning revolution‘. I for one am firmly convinced that the revolution is already in full swing. With learning communities around the world at various stages of readiness for the implementation of the Enhanced PYP, moving from ‘principles to practice’, I believe we are on the verge of a monumental shift in educational thinking, and philosophy with regards to the direction and purpose of education. A new generation of educator is asking more than ever, ‘What if’ with regards to what education could, should or ‘must’ be.

The changes won’t be easy and will feel uncomfortable for many community members, educators and learners alike. It will involve a cultural, social and structural change within many educational institutes. In the storm of this re-organising will come the inevitable re-distribution of power and responsibility to all stakeholders and members of the learning community. A reassignment of roles and  none more so than to the learners themselves, and with it will come great responsibility. The burden of power and responsibility can no longer be shouldered by the few but must be carried by the many. Throughout this process and beyond the concept of ‘learning community‘ becomes increasingly important and vital in establishing and maintaining the values, beliefs and culture of learning within all schools.

Education is a social or collective endeavour and a benefit to the community as a whole, as well as to the individuals within it. Everyone in the learning community has agency; they see themselves as contributors to its ongoing strength and success, and take action to bring about change.’ The Learning Community in the Enhanced PYP, May 2018

As the monumental shift in practice is a social and collective endeavour then the success or failure depends on the engagement of a collective learning community. It is my belief that the greatest challenge to any learning community will not be their ability to implement change on an immediate and superficial level but to ensure that the change becomes part of school culture, touching the hearts and minds of all learning community members, creating learning partnerships that are supportive and inseparable from each other.

Establishing partnerships among all stakeholders, and recognizing what each member independently and collectively brings to the community, is the first step in building relationships. Through these partnerships, members of the community come together to develop and to support a shared vision, mission, beliefs and values. The Learning Community in the Enhanced PYP, May 2018

I believe that the importance in sustainable and positive change is not just about a ‘shared vision, mission, beliefs and values‘ it is much more than that. It is about a shared mindset. The creation of an ‘Enhanced Mindset’ within all members of the learning community that not only recognises what we are doing but ‘WHY’ we are doing it. In short, and not to be understated, we are given an opportunity to develop an educational system that benefits the whole of humanity by the creation of generations of autonomous learners self-driven by curiosity and a love of inquiry. As Warren Berger has recognised, ‘curiosity and inquiry’ will be the attributes most valued in the future world. It will be the ‘WHY’ that will be the question that drives positive and sustainable change within learning communities. Without really understanding and appreciating the the ‘why’ our actions can never really have true purpose or any real sustainability.

Screen Shot 2018-08-26 at 7.16.49 AMTo be able to support the development of a shared and ‘Enhanced Mindset’ amongst all learning community members it is important that the journey from ‘principles to practice’ not be rushed. The process of change must be organic and it must be allowed to develop and grow at its own natural pace. We should be going through a process of planting the seeds of change and then tending to them carefully over time. The process should provide enough opportunity for different members of the learning community to become involved, to digest, understand, and recognise the “Why’ at each stage of our preparation. There must be time allowed for all voices within the learning community to be heard, from staff, student, family and community partners. All these community members have a shared power to make a change and a shared responsibility to support the emerging values and beliefs of the school. To be able to achieve this it is vital that all members have an ‘Enhanced Mindset’ of what we are trying to achieve and more importantly, ‘WHY’. These voices must be heard throughout the process if sustainability the values and culture are to remain. Community members not working in isolation but as part of a unified learning community in which each and every member is fully aware that they are they agents of change and the power and responsibilities that brings. Over time the principles that we hold so dear will naturally become practice within our learning communities.

The Trials of School Reform

I am currently working on my MEd in Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Toronto. The current course I am taking is Teachers and Educational Change. We had to pick a leadership experience and answer questions regarding what happened and what did you learn.

I thought I’d be a risk-taker and share, here it is:

Innovators and leaders in the area of school reform have been arguing that schools, as we see them today, are not preparing our students for the dynamic, ever-changing world that we live in today. The way we have done school in the past can no longer reliably prepare our students; thus, we are faced with the uphill task of reimagining schools to meet the needs of our learners. The institution of school was developed in the industrial era; the intent was to produce blue-collar workers and to create a docile population who would do as they were told in order to mass produce what was needed on a societal level (Wagner & Dintersmith, 2015). An education system that was based on command and control and the standardization of teaching methods (Wrigley, 2011).  Fast forward to 2019: many schools around the world still have yet to change. With the rise of technology, artificial intelligence, and diverse vocational opportunities, we must ask ourselves if we are meeting the needs of our children and preparing them for the demands of what the years beyond school will ask of them.

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(Image Credit)

In 2016, I was given the opportunity to be the Primary Years Programme (PYP) Coordinator which entailed overseeing curriculum design and implementation of Kindergarten through Grade 5. This was my first formal leadership position in a school. Having only taught for two and a half years prior, I had a lot to learn and needed to learn fast. As a young female in leadership with little experience, I felt that the integrity of the programme was riding on my shoulders as we had an evaluation visit approaching the following year. I came in with a clear and strong vision; what we were doing needed to change and we had to start reimaging school as we knew it.

How it began:

I began to provoke teachers through TedTalks, articles, quotes, books and memes. I encouraged the use of Twitter to collaborate with teachers and schools on a global level and as a platform to share their new learning and journey in transforming education.

Here are some of my favorite thought-provoking memes, videos + Ted Talks:

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How change came alive…

After provoking, questioning and reimaging, it was time to make real change.

  • LEADERSHIP STRUCTURE: I removed the departmentalized approach to the primary school; this meant no longer having a lead science, math, and language teacher and rather using a more integrated approach to teaching and learning. Transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary learning is fundamental to the International Baccalaureate (IB) PYP framework, so to allow for learning across the disciplines to become more fluid and integrative, we restructured the teacher leadership model to grade level clusters: Kindergarten, Grades 1-3 + Grades 4-5
  • TEACHING + LEARNING: I made the push for inquiry-based teaching and learning. I stopped the purchasing of workbooks and invested money in professional development and training for teachers. Teachers were encouraged to stop using worksheets and instead to focus on learning experiences that were meaningful, relevant and engaging.
  • REPORTING + ASSESSMENT: My final and most profound change, and the one that was received with most resistance, was the removal of numerical achievement levels. The school had been using a numerical 1-7 scale, and we changed it to a four-level letter achievement continuum (Not Yet Meeting, Approaching Expectations, Meeting Expectations, Exceeding Expectations). At this point in the journey, we were making impactful change. As educators, we know what we send home is what we value. If we value feedback, growth and true learning, our report cards needed to reflect that. We wanted to make the process more transparent to our learning community and allow for student voice in the process.

Learning take-aways:

  1. Change is uncomfortable and I wanted to change fast. I tried to change too much, too soon and did not stop to see if the community was ready.
  2. Building trust and relationships with my colleagues from the onset was important to my success as a leader and to the integrity of the program. Getting to know your staff, asking about their family – seeing them as human beings first can go a long way. Teachers do not have superhuman powers.
  3. Mutual Respect. At the end of the day, not all teachers agreed with my views or decisions but there was underlying and mutual respect as professionals.
  4. Being a young female in a leadership position, there was a perception that my age denigrated my capabilities as a leader. Some viewed age as the primary marker of a successful leader and carried this negative bias towards me in my role.
  5. Having a collective vision of the programme is important. The IB does outline standards and practices that schools must adhere too. However, within that, there is flexibility as no two schools are the same. I wish that at the beginning of this journey, I looked more into our school, our community, our needs
  6. Lack of Mentoring as a new leader. When new teachers enter the profession, there are new teacher induction mentoring programs. What happens to the leaders? At some point, everyone was new to leadership, right?
  7. Purpose – The Why? I remember watching Simon Sinek’s – “The Golden Circle” early on in my leadership journey. This helped me question what we were doing and also remove the excuse “this is how we’ve always done it.” I think every decision that is made should have a purpose. What I wish I had done is ask: What is the purpose of education at this current school? Look at the purpose through the lens of the teachers, students, parents, and administration.
  8. Community Support + Buy-in. In order to make change that is sustainable, you cannot be alone on an island or the lone fish swimming upstream. You need support from teachers, administrators, parents, and students – complete buy-in. This was my biggest challenge. Although I had tremendous support from most teachers, the school administration and parents did not always welcome the changes being made. These changes created turmoil in the community and with the lack of support, it went back to “how it’s always been done.” I believe this part was lack of readiness for change and my learning takeaway from this – The learning community was not ready – YET.

Now what…

This learning experience over the past two years helped me grow as both an educator and a leader. It was the coming together of staff, a collective “we” and risk-taking, piloting and try new pedagogies. Through thoughtful reflection, professional development sessions and authentic collaborative opportunities teachers felt a sense of purpose within the school, they felt creative freedom and agency for themselves as teachers.  Currently, I am back in the classroom taking risks and trying to reimagine school within my four walls. Although I do not have a formal leadership role, I am still an agent of change within my four walls and taking many aspects of that which I learned in my role as PYP Coordinator and putting it into practice. I hope to be back in a formal leadership role in schools and just as I am reimaging the classroom, I hope to reimagine school leadership and help others see how incredible school can be when leaders embody a growth-minded approach.

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Reference List

Pont, B.; Nusche, D.; Moorman, H. (2008). Improving School Leadership: Volume 1:  Policy and Practice; OECD: Paris, France

Wagner, T., & Dintersmith, T. (2015). Most likely to succeed: Preparing our kids for the innovation era.

Wrigley, T. (2011). Paradigms of school change. Management in Education, 25(2), 62-66. doi:10.1177/0892020611398929

Party Planning? Ugh.

Party planning. At those two words I can feel the stress begin to creep into my neck, the sweat starts rolling, I can feel the anxiety begin. This has always been the most dreaded part of being an elementary teacher for me. Until last year.

 

I am extremely lucky to work with some crazy smart, thoughtful people. Last year, one of these wonderful colleagues told me he and his class plan parties using the key concepts. This has been a complete game changer. It not only gives the students agency and a feeling of ownership, it helps them gain a deeper understanding of how we use the key concepts throughout our life (plus the added bonus of taking the dreaded party planning out of my hands).

 

For example, our recent Valentine’s Day party was planned by students using the key concepts. They asked to work in small groups and think through the concepts before they shared out whole group. They thought of the different perspectives of the people involved (“students, families, school”),  function (what and where things were going to happen), and my personal favorite causation (“so we can show our love for one another”), among others. After much discussion, they decided that reflection and change should be done after the party. There was some disagreement here because, “Reflection should be happening all the time, though!”, and “Change will be going on during the party, not just before and after!”. But, the majority won out in the end to wait.

 

My responsibility was to send a note to families with an invitation to join us and to let them know the responsibility their student had signed up for. I was also responsible for writing each student’s name on a paper and to provide heart-shaped post-its so their peers could write compliments to each other. This, I could handle!

 

The students that signed up for music brought a karaoke machine with lights and fun music. Three students planned challenges to do during dance breaks. Cookie decorating was done by some as they watched their peers floss, Fortnite, and do the worm. Families chatted, ate, and a few learned the newest dance craze. Clean-up was a breeze because it was understood that “It’s part of responsibility!”.

 

Needless to say, this year party planning doesn’t cause me anxiety like before. I know that my 9-11 year-olds have it under control. They have genuine ownership in their party and are developing so many skills as they plan collaboratively. I encourage you to try this approach (even if you don’t break out in a sweat at the idea of a party!).

Key Concepts