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?
​—
Please add the answers to these, your feedback, comments, and/or suggestions below!

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

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Studio 3 & Skillz Studio

I am fortunate to be working at a school that understands education needs to change in order for students to be prepared for their very different future that lies ahead of them. ISHCMC encourages us to experiment with new ideas in the classroom and push traditional boundaries.

The whole school has been moving towards something I strongly believe in and have been pushing for since I arrived; shifting the focus from knowledge-based curriculums to skills-based teaching and learning.

Last year, my colleagues and I in Grade 3 started experimenting with ways to change our units to be more skills focused and allow students more agency. I wrote about our experience last year. We keep moving forward, learning from our mistakes, and trying out new ideas.

This year we decided to do something a little different, and so far it has been working quite successfully.

We are an IB school and instead of doing 6 consecutive Units of Inquiry, we decided to make 2 of them yearlong. We did a yearlong focus on Who We Are (where students explored all the skill families) and How We Organize Ourselves (focused on digital tools and self-management skills). This took some organization ourselves, as we needed to make sure we planned in advance for students to check back into these units, reflect on their learning, and record their reflections for reporting.

We decided to focus all of our units around “skill families.” We started with Who We Are, which exposed students to all the skill families and they reflected on their areas of strength and growth. We then planned to explicitly teach and assess skills through each the units. In addition, we ordered and structured units so that the skills built on each other. Skills that were explicitly taught during one unit were then used in the following unit, but not explicitly focused on.

  • Who We Are – All skill families
  • How We Organize Ourselves – Self-Management Skills
  • How the World Works – Social Skills
  • How We Express Ourselves – Communication Skills
  • Where We Are in Place and Time – Research Skills
  • Sharing the Planet – Thinking Skills (although this skill overlaps with others)

Finally, we also added what we call “Skillz Studio” to the end of each unit. These are 1 to 2 week slots where students take over their schedule, have significant agency and focus further on the on the particular set of skills they just learned in addition to using and reflecting on their self-management skills.

We just completed our second Skillz Studio after our How We Express Ourselves unit. This unit focused on communication skills and students inquired into the central idea: “Skills and Techniques influence how performers tell a story.” Through the unit, students developed their speaking, non-verbal and presentation skills through reader’s theater performances. At the end of the unit, during Skillz Studio, students had the opportunity to use the communication skills they developed by creating their own presentations. Some chose to work independently, while others chose to work collaboratively. They chose stories to tell, either writing their own or adapting stories already written. They then spent almost 2 weeks managing their own time (self-management skills) to prepare and present their story in their choice and style (communication skills).

There were a wonderful variety of stories and presentation methods, such as stop animation, puppet shows, live movies, dances, mini-musicals, podcasts, etc…

How do you assess this type of learning? Each student chose 3 specific sub-skills, or techniques, that they wanted to develop over studio time. For example, a student who wanted to develop speaking skills might choose to specifically focus on “speaking loudly and clearly” or “using expression, emotion, and exaggeration when performing.” Of course, all of the different techniques were developed with the students. We kept a record of their skills on the wall too, so that we could see who else was working on the same techniques and check back in and make sure they were focused on their goals. We also had daily reflections on Seesaw and on the board to make sure they were on track to complete their projects.

In the end, students presented their work to the community in an exhibition. They received feedback from their parents, other parents, teachers, and their peers. Students talked about the skills they learned and used to create their presentations and the growth they made over the studio time.

Most were incredibly successful in their projects, but others struggled, especially with their self-management skills, needing support to complete their projects. This is all part of the learning though, as often failure and struggle is the best form of learning.

For their final report, students, parents, and teachers created it jointly.

Before Skillz Studio, students reflected on what they were going to do, which skills they were going to focus on and why. After studio time, their parents reflected on the skills their child improved the most in, need to continue developing, and how they have grown. Then, students reflected again after their parents about the skill they improved the most in, the skill they are the best at, and the skill they still need to develop. They also reflected on how they have grown and changed as a performer.

This narrative constituted the written portion of their report. There were also tick boxes for each of the communication and self-management skills. As their teacher, I marked where I thought each student was, based on the Gradual Increase of Independence (developed by @OrenjiButa). I then had meetings with each student to discuss where they thought they were in each skill. Using evidence that I had, and evidence from the students, we negotiated their final marks together.

I absolutely love this style of assessment as it gets to the truth. Instead of just having the teacher be the judge and jury, the assessment comes from students, parents, peers, and teachers.

So far, this style of teaching and assessing skills has been quite successful. The units give students a chance to learn about the specific skills and develop them. Then the studio time at the end gives them a chance to really use the skills and be independent. Our next unit is focused on research skills, and I’m looking forward to it!

Of course, this is still a work in progress and we are still experimenting and exploring how to specifically teach and assess these soft skills and prepare students for Studio 5 and for their futures. Any ideas or thoughts are much appreciated!

Studio 3

In order for students to be successful in an environment where they are empowered with their own learning choices, they need to have the skills to be successful. I believe that explicitly teaching and assessing these skills should be the focus of what we do in school.

I teach grade 3 at ISHCMC and just as our colleagues in Studio 5 have been experimenting with different ways to give students agency in their learning, we have been doing the same thing. How do we prepare students for the Studio 5 model? How do we teach them the skills they need in order for them to be successful?

We have been experimenting with focusing a unit on a particular set of skills, explicitly teaching and assessing them. Then for the final part of the unit, opening it up for the students to put their new skills to the test. An example of this was our WWAITAP unit where we explicitly taught research skills through the content of explorers and then students used their research skills to find out about various topics that interested them. Always coming back to the skills, not the content.

Most recently, students practiced their self-management skills by planning and organizing their week. We had a list of “must-dos” that students needed to accomplish. How they organized their time, where they worked, and how they decided to complete their tasks were up to them. No matter how they decided to work, everyone agreed that by Friday afternoon, all the tasks would be completed.

Students reflected every morning about the specific things they wanted to complete for the day and if they were on track for getting everything done for Friday. Then every afternoon, they reflected on their accomplishments, frustrations, and changes, if any, they would make the next day.

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This sparked some amazing discussions about how people work in different ways. Some liked to get everything done in the beginning and have free time at the end of the week. Others liked to mix in playing with work and still, others preferred to play earlier in the week, needing the pressure of the deadline to work at the end.

We had many discussions about the fact that there is no correct way to work. What is important is discovering which way works for you and knowing yourself as a learner. In the end, I asked them to reflect on their experience and here are some of their reflections:






I thought it was a really successful week and most students found the time quite motivating and fun. Interestingly, some actually preferred the more standard approach. Those students tended to be the ones who do not have as much self-control and need to develop their self-management skills, as opposed to being told what to do. It is those students who would benefit the most from this approach.

Of course, this is still a work in progress. We are still experimenting and exploring how to specifically teach and assess these soft skills, prepare students for Studio 5, and for their futures. Any ideas or thoughts would be appreciated!

Feeling Backwards About Backwards Design

Until recently (like, last week) backwards design felt right. I always tried to have the end in sight and figure out with the students what learning engagements they could encounter to get to that end. “Best practice,” right?

On my path for more agency with my students I am beginning to question this. Our new unit is really what is making me think more about it. Here is some background information about the unit, if you are interested.

How We Organise Ourselves
CI: Technology is an integral element of our lives
LOI1: Responsible consumption of technology (Responsibility)
LOI2: The positive and negative aspects of current technology (Reflection)
LOI3: The advances that technology has enabled (Function)

We keep trying to think of a summative assessment for this unit… where are we going with this? What do we want them to accomplish or know? How can they show this?

We have had multiple thoughts from “how to” videos showing online safety, to blogs with comments and questions from students safely and positively interacting with each other, to a “show what you know” type thing where they can just tell us (in any form) what they know about the central idea and lines of inquiry. We are also toying with the idea of bringing in the Sustainable Development Goals and having the central idea and lines of inquiry be the driver/lens for it.

Of course formative assessment is key. I don’t want to ignore that fact. We need to be monitoring student actions and knowledge of all lines of inquiry as we go. But if students with agency are choosing their own paths for their learning, should we be contriving a summative assessment for them based on what we think is best? Is this fitting student needs or ours?

I suppose the “backwards design” is starting with the why. Why is this unit important… For us this means why do we need students to know about how technology is an integral element of our lives? Why do we need students to know how to consume technology responsibly? Why do we need students to know the positive and negative aspects of technology? Why do we need students to know the advances technology has enabled? It is a hard one because really it is for their current and future use of technology in their own lives inside and outside of school. The real summative assessment is if they are actually using technology safely and positively as they get older, after they leave our classrooms.

Maybe the “show what you know” is the best option for now? Maybe a mini portfolio of examples of their positive tech use and knowledge in the unit? Aren’t the central idea and lines of inquiry what we want them to accomplish or know? Should we use that for our backwards design thinking instead of a summative? I’m not sure where we are headed, but if students reflections along the way show their knowledge, I am not sure we need to contrive a fake summative for them. Do we?

Original post here