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!

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Reflection, goal setting and TIM

This post was originally shared on my blog, Honor Learners.

We have been working towards helping our Kindergarten learners develop an understanding of who they are as learners.  A key element in supporting our learners to take ownership of their learning are the skills of reflection and goal setting.

As part of our writing workshop, we conference with our learners during and after writing.  We encourage them to identify their sunshine, things they did well, and their areas for growth, what they still need to learn. Initially, this required lots of modelling, and now most learners confidently engage in these reflections.

We decided to use the same model of sunshine and growth for our three way conferences. As teachers, we created a Seesaw activity (link) and decided the criteria. However, after being challenged to consider what choices we as teachers were making for our learners that they could make for themselves, our plans changed. I asked my collaborative team if I could lead a lesson that would result in the learners making the decision about the criteria.

With their support, I planned a three part lesson using the Torrance Incubation Method (TIM) and I incorporated some elements of Creative Problem Solving (CPS.) The TIM model is based around incorporating a creativity skill, or approach to creativity as I prefer to call them, into each part of your lesson: heightening anticipation, deepening expectations, and extending the learning. I found the following this resource useful when trying to understand the model myself.

The approach to creativity I chose to integrate into this lesson was ‘putting it into context.’ As we heightened anticipation, we explained the why behind the conference and asked learners for help to decide what learning they wanted to share. As we deepened expectations, we used the creativity tool ‘stick ’em up brainstorming’ to generate ideas of what learning we could share. Finally, in the extending learning, we converged our ideas because we had to take into consideration the length of each conference. We supported learners, by grouping ideas or creating clusters. Then we voted on some or rephrased a few more. We found that the criteria developed and selected by learners was very similar to that of the teachers. The difference was, that they seemed to expect more from themselves!

As a reflection of the conferences, I found that they were the most productive conferences I had been a part of. Most learners were honest with themselves and everyone had goals to work towards. As a teacher, we just need to ensure that we revisit these goals and use them to guide our learning.

To take this further, I decided to plan a series of TIM lessons to focus around goal setting in writing. I decided to work with a group of emergent + writers, who are demonstrating readiness by applying initial sounds and more to their writing.  using a variation of the the gradual increase of independence. The tool was introduced to us by Taryn BondClegg (@makingoodhumans) and designed by Suzzane Kitto (@OrenjiButa) who has shared her resources here.

My variation to the gradual increase of independence was to make it more visual for younger learners and link it to our sunshine and growth model.

I chose to turn the success criteria for writing that our learners have been generating into visual, movable cards. I was also able to personalize the process by the number and content of the cards.

You can get a copy here.

The learning outcome for the lesson was for learners to self assess themselves as writers. The creativity goal was to ’embrace the challenge.’  We heightened anticipation with a word hunt that we then had to puzzle together as a sentence. In the deepening expectation phase, I we explored the metaphor of seeds needing lots of help and sunshine being something that helps seeds grow. I then challenged learners to self assess their learning. The final part of the lesson, extending the learning, was the challenge to find evidence of the criteria in their writing books. This led to interesting discussions about what we were really doing well and things we needed to work on to improve our writing.

For the subsequent lesson, I decided to help learners narrow their focus, by choosing one goal to work on at a time. The creativity goal I chose to integrate was ‘making it swing, make it ring.’ First, I integrated a lot of kinesthetic whole body movement into our phonics lesson prior to writing. We also played a hand mirroring game to heighten anticipation. To deepen expectations, we referred back to our gradual increase of independence and took our discussions from the previous lesson further. Learners began to realize that they could keep doing the things they did well, and spend more attention on what they thought were shared or guided goals. I suggested working on one of those goals at a time might be more productive. Finally, to extend the learning, we came up with actions for each of the criteria we had chosen. The great thing was that each learner had ownership over the goal they chose.

I have begun to see that some learners are really supported by focusing on one goal at a time and are keen to prove it to me during our conferencing.  As I conference with learners, I ask if they want to share their goals with their family. As learners share their goals, they are adding an element of accountability to their learning.  Some have felt ready to do this, and I have embedded the creativity skill of ‘highlighting the essence,’ as I support learners to share both the process and their goals with their families. With permission, here is a link, to one learners’ goal sharing.

Through this series of lessons, I have been embedding approaches to creativity using TIM and I have been applying my own learning to promote learner agency. I found that identifying and embedding the creativity skills or approaches to learning, made lessons more engaging. My next step is to make these approaches to creativity more explicit in our teaching and learning.

I have moved from co-constructed success criteria with learners to learners have interactions with their success criteria and developing a much deeper understanding of how the success criteria supports learning. Learners have made choices and have begun to take action. For those who have not taken action yet, they are beginning to see the need to take ownership for their learning as we reflect and conference, and I am confident they will when they are ready. In addition to engaging in goal setting, learners have been learning about goal setting. With lots of opportunities to choose act and reflect upon goals, it is my hope that our young kindergarten learners will have the skills they need to make informed choices, take risks and continue to grow and learn.

As a final reflection about learner agency, I do not want to say that I am releasing control of the learning, as that is not something I ever had. I would say that am making a conscious effort to support learners to have ownership and accountability of their learning.

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.

pathways

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.

The simplest moments are often the most valuable.

play in the in between

We open up and create, fully in the moment, not excluding anything, but fully focused on the unfolding crisis we are creating on the table top. First the building, then the fire, the rescue and the rebuilding. Themes of desperation, courage, fear, and hope.  Four boys and one adult are playing with magformer blocks, wooden blocks, lego figures and paper. Spontaneous, enjoyable, sustained and engaging. Imaginative improvisation. No rules, except those that support the safe classroom environment of Kindergarten free flow, play centres.

The previous description is what came to mind when asked to reflect on a time when I experienced, “playing in the in-between” at the workshop, Exploring International Mindedness through “Playing in the In-between,” during the IB Global Conference. I learned there that the “in-between” arises when adults and children play together in the way described by Cynthia à Beckett. Praglin defines “In-between” as “a meeting-ground of potentiality and authenticity, located neither within the self nor in the world of political and economic affairs. In this space, one finds the most authentic and creative aspects of our personal and communal existence. . .”  It as a focus upon relationships that resonated with me due to my previous work with nonviolent communication (NVC.)

This group of boys from my example, often complained about each other. They could be described as, “Frenemies.” Two of the boys often attempted to dominate the others to play to their individual ideas, scripts, and outcomes. This often led to periodic conflict, and complaints, like, “Why is he the boss?” and “I don’t want to go to school.”  I would say, “Can you make it so everyone has fun?” Easier said, than done.

When I truly join in the play, like the time I reflected upon, everything changes and it, seemingly effortlessly, becomes fun for everyone.  When I implore, counsel, and plead for fair play nothing much changes, at least not quickly.   When I truly play in the In-between then everything changes. I am grateful to Dr. Cynthia à Beckett  for reframing these sometimes, seemingly insignificant play times for the wonderful connecting moments that they truly are for children and adults.

What makes these moments of “playing in the In-between” really that important?  They feel significant and they leave a trace afterwards. They matter for the relationship. They matter for individual development of many attributes of the IB learner profile. They strengthen connection, gather polarities and hold opposition lovingly. In my example the children involved asked to play the scenario out again for the next four days.  It become more and more elaborate and involved a rotating cast of participants.

When have you experienced “playing in the In-between?”  I would love to hear your stories! And what about play in education?  Play is a big topic that needs more unpacking. What do you think?

References

à Beckett, C. (2010). Imaginative education explored through the concept of Playing in the In-Between, in Imagination in Educational Theory and Practice, a Many-sided Vision. Nielsen, T., Fitzgerald, R. & Fettes, M. (Eds). Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Praglin, L. (Fall 2006). The Nature of the “In-Between” in D.W. Winnicott’s Concept of Transitional Space and in Martin Buber’s das Zwischenmenschliche, in Universitas. V2#2

 

What’s worth learning?

Recently I gathered a group of volunteers from Grades 4 and 5 to help me look at our strategic plans for the coming year. We had identified three areas of focus (space, community, engagement) and I asked the students for their ideas, suggestions, questions, wonderings, thoughts and opinions for each area. There were so many inspiring and thought provoking statements that have caused me to pause and reflect. But today I’d like to look at one line of comments they wrote down, “we always have the same subjects… more variety/options.” I asked our learners what they meant by this and they asked me why school is always about English, Math and History? They wanted to know why couldn’t they learn about other areas like Psychology, Design, Carpentry, Mechanics, Video Games, Robots and Statistics.

I’ve been thinking about these questions and statements over the past few weeks. And I am stumped. Why can’t we learn about these other areas? Why do we tend to focus on just a few subjects? Do our units of inquiry allow enough breadth? How do we know what we need to learn and teach? Is it still relevant for today?

What is worth learning?

As I thought about this I saw a Twitter post (with linked blog post) by Eric Sheninger that made me think further about what might be worth learning:

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 12.17.23 PM

The skills listed refer to jobs of the future as outlined by the World Economic Forum: “advanced robotics and autonomous transport, artificial intelligence and machine learning, advanced materials, biotechnology, and genomics.”

Are skills what is worth learning? Is that what we should be really focusing on? Then what about knowledge? While I can see the math and science within each of these future jobs I do not see the point of learning these subjects in isolation. Should we be looking at more opportunities for transdisciplinary learning?

And so once again I return to the question posed by our students, what about other areas of study? And therefore what’s worth learning? I am beginning to wonder what are we teaching? And do we focus too much on what we think should be the learning?

Sugata Mitra said in his TED Talk, Build a School in the Cloud, “I think we need a curriculum of big questions… but we’ve lost sight of those wondrous questions. We’ve brought it down to the tangent of an angle.” Are we focusing too much on the “facts” that need to be learned and not enough on the passion of learning?

The Teacher Questions in a PYP Unit of Inquiry are often written last and many times as an oversight. But without really good questions where is the inspiration for curiosity? We have determined what should be learned and we have the scope and sequence (or curriculum objectives, standards, benchmarks) to back us up. But have we considered what’s really worth learning and what will inspire our learners to think creatively and discover their passions?

When we plan our Units of Inquiry we write Central Ideas and Lines of Inquiry as statements of what we think our learners should understand and inquire into. These inquiries have to fall under one of six Transdisciplinary Themes. Is this too confining, is it really all that is worth knowing? Does it allow for voice, choice and ownership?

Can we forget about the scope and sequence, the planned units and focus instead on wondering, questioning, discovering? Can we accept that children will learn even without adult intervention and curriculum objectives? Aaron Browder suggests in his article, “Can we stop obsessing about learning,” that we can and I am inspired by this idea.

But I also wonder how our learners will discover what they don’t know? How will they learn if they are unaware of the options for learning? If we never introduce them to multiplication will they figure it out, if they do how much time will be spent on the journey, is it worth it?

slide1
From: https://dojo.ministryoftesting.com/dojo/lessons/not-sure-about-uncertainty

rumsfeld-unknown-unknowns-752x284

From: https://poststatus.com/known-knowns-known-unknowns-and-unknown-unknowns/ 

So if the purpose of school is not to teach bits of knowledge that can be found through any good Internet search, is it to teach subjects that would never be learned in isolation outside of school? Or is school a place of wonder, where we discover ? A place where passions are born and students learn how to learn? Sugata Mitra said it best:

“It’s not about making learning happen. It’s about letting it happen. The teacher sets the process in motion and then stands back in awe and watches as learning happens.”

Let’s look at how we can set the process in motion, how we can inspire and provoke and question. How we can show our learners their unknown unknowns? Let’s reconsider what’s worth learning

Accept a piece of homework, even if it’s 10 years late.

This post was originally posted in my blog Ser y Estar.

I started teaching when I was 22 years old. I used to teach EFL in Mexico, and many times, as I was getting my class ready, I was asked if I knew were the teacher was. I moved from teaching EFL at language institutes to teaching Foreign Language/Language B/Language Acquisition and later on Language and Literature at a bilingual school in 2002. At that time, I also collaborated in a Cultural Radio Station, and was doing theater. This is the first time I ever write about my journey in a blog entry.

I used to teach in High School, and was one of the youngest teachers at the school where I used to teach. I used to think that being young was what helped me connect with students. Then I started thinking that being involved in the radio and in theater and always having something to talk about is what helped me bond with them. But it was later when I stared developing the pleasure of listening to my students’ stories and dreams when I think I started shaping the form of the teacher I am now.

It was 2006; at school, discussing the book “Memoirs of a Geisha” and making comparisons with the movie was a ‘hot topic’ with my students, especially when I introduced them to a telenovela that was popular when I was a child: Oyuki’s Sin, a Mexican Telenovela based in a Japanese context- those were the days of real creativity. The best part of our discussion emerged from looking into “what may happen when a foreign context (Japan) was used to give life to a story whose characters were very Mexican?” I don’t think I was even aware of the word ‘inquiry’ at that time, let alone interdisciplinary learning, but it just felt so right to do things that weren’t necessarily just about ‘language’ in a traditional conception.

Thus, we started talking about how we could use one of our favorite stories originally written in Spanish and use Japan (since we were talking about a lot) as a context. The objective was to write a theater proposal for a group of potential sponsors, in the hope that they would agree to finance our play. The exchange of ideas was great; students were speaking without my constant reminders. It was noisy, but it was meaningful. Questions navigated the waves of energy in the classroom: What colors would we use? What language would characters use? How could we choose the best names for our characters?

I invited a few Art teachers and a few others from the school of Marketing to serve as the potential sponsors, and my students presented their projects to them. Needless to say, my students were petrified, but they knew what they had to say so well, that once they felt how their ideas impacted their audience, they gained confidence and managed to get the fictional aid they were aiming for. I was proud of them, but I was partially unhappy for one of my students was not able to present. He had not finished his proposal and decided not to go to school that day.

I had read descriptions of this student had and seen illustrations of how he envisioned his stage (See below). When I checked my email and saw his apologies for not being in school and asking me if he could submit this task later, I could not say no. We had invested so much thinking and energy in making this happen that everyone deserved to show their work. Sadly, due to work of his father, they had to leave the city a few weeks later. I had not yet received “his homework”. I left Mexico in 2007, and I never saw what this student of mine could have produced.

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The incomplete homework I received via email in 2006.

I had resisted joining Facebook, but gave in when I found it practical to help me connect with my friends and family in Mexico. I soon started connecting with past students of mine too. Obviously, I connected with this student I have been talking about as well. We never discussed that homework again. Our passion for music, cinema, and literature remained the main topic of our conversations.

Then all of a sudden, a few months ago, as I was reminiscing on my experience doing theater, and as he shared how he has taken the short films he’s made to films like San Sebastian and even Cannes, that legendary homework came up and he said: “I actually have to show you something; it’s not red; it’s not Japanese… But there is a Japanese face, and it has a Japanese title (Tomoki= Wise Tree)”. A deadline that was not missed, and a late submission have never been more welcome. He had done this 2 years ago, and I was seeing how his life experience had transformed what he did with paper and paint into a beautiful universe of light, movement and image.

I had to wait 11 years for that incomplete moment to come to a closure, and the wait has been so worthy. As I reflect on what I value in my journey as an educator, relationships always comes as a high-ranking value (maybe the highest). I believe that a lot of the ideas I come up with and the journeys I design make sense and HAPPEN because they are designed for the students I have at that moment, they are never replicas of something I did before.

In 2006 I used my blog to write about my theater journey. However, here is one of my very first blog entries about education. I remember that I started to write a reflection about one of the female characters in the play I was participating in and could not conclude it. I changed the content of the blog and wrote a note of appreciation for my students. In retrospective, I think that the day I wrote the blog post linked above was that day when I realized I wanted to be the educational version of Peter Pan: I wanted to stay a learner… I wanted to stay curious and full of possibilities at heart… Rebel at heart.

A space to call their own (part 1)

I want to spend some posts discussing the spaces in which we teach and learn. And I want to keep these posts short because, well, life, and I’d like you to actually read them and not skim, scan, browse, sweep, or any of the multitude of reading skills our brains have perfected in the age of social media.

So…we’re asking our students to spend 8+ hours each day in our spaces and it seems to me that any discussion of student agency should include those tangible walls, floors, and ceilings.

At my school here in southern California we’re in the midst of a space makeover with an eye on emphasizing 21st century learning and interdisciplinary units. In this backdrop, a couple of recent experiences has me thinking about how our spaces could be used in a way that truly foster student voice and agency:

  1. I had the opportunity to visit High Tech High, a K-12 school in San Diego. If you’ve seen the documentaries Beyond Measure or Most Likely To Succeed than you already have an idea what this school is all about — intense PBL, no letter grades or report cards, and student empowerment. In terms of space, High Tech High’s minimalist, no-frills approach is a refreshing (and, quite frankly, jarring) departure from the often manicured setting that classrooms can become. There are no posters or bulletin boards that no student ever looks at, and no collection of dusty books that no student ever wants to read. There is lots of white space, lots of empty physical space. Lots of opportunity.
  2. Dovetailing nicely on this visit, I picked up The Space by Rebecca Hare and Robert Dillon. It’s a wonderfully concise and thoughtful book that challenges teachers and administrators to consider the goal of every inch of the classroom. Like High Tech High, the authors preach minimalism, and they also emphasize student voice in designing and maintaining the space. I highly recommend this book.

So over the next few weeks I’ll be posting about how our teaching and learning spaces can promote student agency. I’d love to hear your ideas, especially if they are concrete, tangible risks you’ve taken in your own spaces. For example, here’s one simple thing I did recently: I asked our head custodian to create a white board desk for me–I call it my ‘brainstorming desk’– out of a broken white board and an old desk.

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I’m not totally satisfied with the results, since my 8th graders often just want to doodle on it, though I think with more modeling and emphasis on how it connects to the ATLs (Use brainstorming and mind mapping to generate new ideas and inquiries) it could be the start of something really special. One message that both The Space and High Tech High have made abundantly clear: more writeable surfaces!