Reflecting on PYP Planners

I have rarely found the process of reflecting at the end of a Unit of Inquiry via the PYP Planner (sections 6-9) an informative or productive process – as a teacher or as a coordinator. Don’t get me wrong, reflection is an important approach to teaching that all lead learners must use. Taking aside the often debatable, reflective questions asked in these sections of the planner, personally, there is something missing…something that makes the process inauthentic…

Most of this reflective process is done solo by the teacher, collaboratively with teachers on the same unit or with a PYP coordinator. Although this should take place, there is one stakeholder, the most important in all schools, that does not get any input for these sections of the reflective process – the students! Teachers and coordinators should make room for students step in the reflective process on the PYP planner. They should involve the very people they planned the unit for!

Why don’t teachers ask the set reflective questions with their students? With support (and modifications for age and language), students should be able to answer all of the questions.

Section 6  – student understanding of the Central Idea….

Students should be able to give feedback on how you designed assessment tasks. They should actually be architects of the assessment tasks. Therefore, they should be given to reflect on their effectiveness.

Students should be able to give evidence of how they showed an understanding of the Central Idea. After all, isn’t this the purpose of a summative task?

Students should be able to draw links between the Central Idea and the Transdisciplinary Theme. This allows the teacher to see if students actually have an understanding of the Transdisciplinary Theme they are inquiring into. This would allow students to see how their Unit of Inquiry is linked to a larger picture. It would push teachers to actually ‘unpack’ the Transdisciplinary Theme.

Section 7 – the development of PYP elements…

Students should be able to identify the Key Concepts, Approaches to Learning, Learner Profile attributes and Attitudes from the unit and cite evidence of their development with these PYP elements. Teachers should be making these PYP elements explicit in their daily teaching. Students should see what PYP  elements they are trying to improve.

Section 8 – student initiated inquiries and action…

There would be no better way than having students fill out this section. It is often hard to recall or collect all the inquiries that happen over 6 or so weeks. Students should be able to show what questions they developed from the unit and explain what actions they took that were initiated from the unit. It will come straight from the source

Section 9 – often used for keeping notes on success or areas to improve…

Students should have a large voice in this part. They would be able to tell you what worked for them and what you need to improve as an teacher.

All this would require teachers to be open minded and open to criticism. However, this would be a valuable and crucial method of reflection. Providing students with opportunities to have their voice present on PYP planners would give a true reflection on the learning that actually took place. It would make these sections of the planner more authentic. It would also reduce the subjective view a teacher could make.

It is time to put planners in the hands (or minds) of our students! It is time to put students in the centre of the reflective process!

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The Purpose of a Central Idea

After recent training courses with Kath Murdoch and Lynn Erickson, I have thought deeper about the purpose of Central Ideas. For years I have heard many PYP teachers arguing about what makes a good Central Idea or that Central Ideas are often too broad or inaccessible for students (especially from lower primary teachers).

I have often seen Central Ideas beautifully displayed on classroom walls, but have never really been used or have been used ineffectively. It ends up being wasted space, where a more interactive use of ‘the third teacher’ would be more beneficial for the students.

I have also witnessed many ‘unpackings’ of  Central Ideas. This usually ends up being a mind map discussion with the class and is ultimately a vocabulary lesson. With that box ticked, the teacher feels that they can move on to the content of the lesson, occasionally (or not at all) dragging the Central Idea back into focus, reminding of the students that they must show their understanding of it when the summative task is shared with them.

At the end of it all, what is the use of a Central Idea? Why do school administrators insist that they must be present in the PYP classroom?

I suggest that the Central Idea is purely for the teacher, with the main purpose to keep the teacher on track – ensuring that they try to help the students reach that conceptual or enduring understanding throughout the unit.

One thing that bugs me about Central Ideas being ever present and referred to is that it stifles any chance students have in making their own generalisations about their inquiry. The teacher has already made the generalisation for the students, so why should they even bother?! One of the goals of  concepts-based teaching is to develop the skills and knowledge within  students so they can transfer them and make their own generalisations and understandings about the world. Are we undoing a student’s great thinking by limiting to a teacher’s perspective?

I have been experimenting with teachers with this theory and have played around with stripping down Units of Inquiry to the core concepts that we want the kids to understand. Instead of spending time going through the motions of ‘unpacking’ the Central Idea, the teachers have been spending time ‘unpacking’ the Key Concepts selected for the unit (example). Once the students are confident with the Key Concepts, they are then used as the lenses needed to look at the related concepts planned for the unit. The students don’t have to try to understand a long, convoluted sentence. They just have to understand two words (a Key Concept and a related concept).

This approach has been supported by one great idea that I gained from a recent Lynn Erickson workshop: that is to develop stronger teacher questions. The first step is to develop strong Lines of Inquiry. Instead of using a key word or phrase for a Line of Inquiry, develop Central Ideas (or enduring understandings) for the Lines of Inquiry. These Lines of Inquiry are not to be given to the students, burt are to be for teacher planning only. Use these stronger Lines of Inquiry to make stronger, conceptual teacher questions (using a ‘how’ or ‘why’ question). These  questions should be displayed in the classroom. These are the questions that help guide student inquiry. They do have to be used wisely though.

Develop factual questions (‘what’, ‘when’, ‘who’, ‘where’ questions) to be the basis of learning engagements. Develop these from the conceptual questions. Again, this develops stronger inquiries to scaffold student thinking. Using the knowledge developed from these factual questions allows students to try and answer the conceptual questions in any form they wish to show how. The factual questions also allow teachers to feed in the content needed for the inquiry. An example can be seen here. Allowing the students to answer conceptual questions allows them to think deeper and allows these teacher to see if the student is reaching the conceptual level desired.

At the end of the unit, using the student’s conceptual understandings, allow them to produce a generalisation summing up the unit. This will require some scaffolding through a thinking template or discussion. I have  seen some success with this approach, which will only grow stronger as the students have more chances to make generalisations. The first attempt of generalising from a group of 6-year old students can be viewed here. The teachers shared their Central Idea at the end of the unit, prompting further debate with the students and the tweaking of their understandings. Students were also given an opportunity to display their understandings of their own generalisation in any form they chose (great summative task).

The various teachers involved commented how this approach freed up their teaching, allowed for deeper understanding of Key Concepts and related concepts and promoted true student inquiry.

It may be time to see for ourselves who actually needs a Central Idea. Maybe the Central Idea is best kept on a planner.

Opening Up Summative Tasks

I finally have something to add to this blog… I hope it is worth it.

I am probably the most guilty of creating outlandish summative tasks that hook students in, take days (even weeks!) to finish and look like inquiry at its best. My thoughts have changed a lot over the past couple of years. An Understanding By Design workshop a few years back asked us, “Is the juice worth the squeeze?”. Is it really worth setting up these amazing activities, when you could get the same outcome in 10-20 minutes.

Another thought from that course was whether rubrics have a role in summative assessment tasks. For me, rubrics are essential for providing instant feedback and scaffolding for a learner – much needed for formative assessment tasks. They are great for developing skills and knowledge. However, I think that they have no place in a summative task. For a task to be truly summative, teachers need to remove the scaffolding and see what students can do unaided. Rubrics provide too many hints in “getting it right.”

A recent workshop with Kath Murdoch nurtured this thought further….. why not have students select their own way of showing their understandings. So last week, I developed this (please note, it is a draft!):

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Based on the work of Wiggins and McTighe’s Six Facets of Understanding and that spark from Kath Murdoch, I am starting to wonder if this model can help students select their own summative task.

My proposed structure is having students firstly complete the following sentence starter:

I can _____________ (insert one of the verbs in the middle circle) my understanding of the Central Idea by _____________ing (insert one of the verbs in the outer circle)…. and that is as far as I can get. Obviously the student completes their planned task, but something is missing from the complete equation. Maybe this is where you can come in!

I believe that this model helps open it up to a range of possibilities, allows for great transfer of understandings and encourages creativity.

Feedback more than welcome! I need to get over the final hurdle.