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!

Cool Coding

Sometimes I think people forget that the pencil, the printing press and pulled paper are all forms of technology. As they are ubiquitous in our lives, it would totally blow our minds if someone were to look at us and say, “Ya, I don’t really do pencils.”

But the other night I was out with a very influential leader in education who essentially stated that very thing, “Ya, I don’t really do technology.” Jaw drop.

Every era demands different skills.

As a kid I learned to grow a garden, build a tree house, stunt ride my bike (the scars on my body attest to this) and generally cause chaos. And all those things are still valid, just as the pencil and paper are still valid forms of technology. For instance, I used a saw to build my tree-house and my parents didn’t say,

“Hell no Tosca, you have to go beaver on that tree and keep it old-school, girl.”

Nope, they let me use the available technology I had at my disposal. More than that, they took the time to teach me how to use it responsibly, with care, and to get the most out of it in order to harness my creative ideas and projects.

Now, we are teaching kids to code.

The tools that I have listed below keep programming within easy reach of children. They are designed on the “low floor, high ceiling” philosophy, which makes it easy for a beginner to build working programs. We are teaching kids to code, not so much as an end in itself, but because our world has changed: so many of the things we once did with pencil and paper we can now do in code. We are teaching coding to help our students craft their future.

However, the real goal rests not in the student’s ability to code, but the complex network of skills that are contained within coding. Among other things, this entails thinking logically and algorithmically but also creatively, and collaboratively.

Enter the teacher.

As a PYP teacher, coding to me is a natural fit within the context of an inquiry-based, conceptually driven, program of inquiry. Kids, when coming up with creative solutions for complex questions need a plethora of skills to reach the transfer goal of being able to show their understanding in new contexts. In the PYP, these skills are unpacked within the context of the inquiry.  From Thinking skills and the acquisition of knowledge, to Self management skills and codes of behavior- coding for kids hits on so many of the skills that students within the PYP explore each day.

The real challenge is not the students, but the teachers. Getting teachers to understand coding is not scary- some unobtainable pie-in-the-sky, crazy, new-fangled, young teacher thang. Nope. I’m 38, yo. AND I have a learning need. AND I can rudimentary code, all-thanks to the kids programs I have listed here.

Teachers need to understand that they do not need to be experts in the tools that they introduce to students. The tool is just that, a tool. Teachers are guiding students to develop the higher order thinking skills needed to play the role of a programmer. And those are skills we ALREADY teach everyday.

So what are your ideas for fitting coding into your units of inquiry? What Transdisciplinary theme could you fit the use of these resources authentically under? What are you already doing in your learning communities? I would love to hear from you!

Websites:

http://www.crunchzilla.com/code-maven

http://www.crunchzilla.com/code-monster

http://hackety.com/

http://www.codecademy.com/#!/exercises/0

http://www.stencyl.com/

http://scratch.mit.edu/

http://www.tynker.com/

http://twolivesleft.com/CargoBot/

http://gamestarmechanic.com/

Apps:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/daisy-the-dinosaur/id490514278?mt=8&affId=2104173

https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/kodable/id577673067?mt=8&affId=2104178

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/id617098629?mt=8&affId=1736887

http://movetheturtle.com/

Want EVEN more cool tech tools for the classroom?

http://www.ed-ucation.ca/3/post/2013/11/day-1-of-global-education-conference-2013-globaled13.html

Start a coding club at your school!

https://www.codeclub.org.uk/

Cheers!

Tosca Killoran

EDITS* Forgot some gravy-

http://www.codechef.com/school

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!):

Image

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.

Tuning in to author studies

We are about to start author studies here in my Kindergarten class, but first, we took some time to tune in.

The notion of tuning in is often misunderstood. Some teachers regard tuning in as initial explorations of a unit’s content or concepts, which is not altogether incorrect- provoking student interest and identifying personal connections is a necessary component of the start of a unit of inquiry in order to help students begin their journey to deep conceptual understandings. However, teachers must also tune in to their students– What do they already know? What do they think they know? What do they want to know? How is this relevant to their lives? This valuable information will expose misconceptions, reveal student interests, uncover students’ own life experiences, and encourage questions, all of which should, in turn, guide the direction of future inquiries.

Kath Murdoch (the well-known inquiry rock star) suggests the teacher’s primary role during the tuning in phase of inquiry is to “… stimulate, question, record, mediate and, above all, to listen.” (p.12).

With this in mind, I started the process of tuning my students into the concept of authorship via a simple thinking routine, whilst I tuned into them, their prior knowledge, and what may interest them as we learn about various authors and their work.

Part one

First, we defined what an author is. The general consensus was that an author is someone who writes a book.

Next, the students brainstormed what authors do. It was a slow start for the students (“It’s their work….. it’s a job”), but once the first student mentioned that authors write to tell us a message, “….like something they want to tell you…”, then the ball really got rolling!

– To help us learn to read.

– Because they want to tell a story.

– So they can tell us something.

– So we can listen to an author’s story.

– Other people might enjoy their stories.

The students noticed that a lot of them had the same idea, that authors write to tell us something. This is when we made our first generalisation, a ‘big idea’- authors write to tell us things.

It was at this point that one student called out, “Authors write books and poems and posters, too!”. After lots of excited “Yeah!” comments were made, we all agreed that this should be our new definition of ‘author’.

Part two

We started to think about the different things authors write about. It was another slow start, but after I asked the students to think of their favourite books and what they were about, then the ideas flowed!

I especially like the comment that authors write about “….what they are thinking about.” When I asked this student to elaborate, he replied that they write about what they like, which another student connected to the students’ own published books that are displayed around the room. This led the students to the realisation that they are authors! Whoa!

As we had been thinking about authors some more and we had uncovered new information, I revisited our first ‘big idea’- the generalisation that authors write to tell us things- and asked if the students wanted to change it. It was a 50/50 split as to who wanted to change it, and who wanted to keep it the same. A bit of persuasive discussion ensued:

– It’s OK already.

– But we can put the things that authors write about.

– Everything?

– Yes! It tells us more information.

– Yeah!

It was at this point that I jumped in and asked if we could say all the things authors can write about in one or two words. Silence. I suggested the word anything, then another student suggested everything. One student called out, “Authors can write to tell us about anything!”. We had our new ‘big idea’.

Part three

I changed today’s question from ‘How do authors write?’ (waaaay too abstract) to ‘How do authors share what they write?’ (much more focused on what I wanted the students to think about, which were the different ways we can access and read authors’ work).

One student had mentioned recipes yesterday, and I explained at the time that recipes were also a way authors could share what they were thinking about and what they liked, so it was added to today’s section of the poster, too.  When we started today, the word ‘recipe’ seemed to prompt the students’ thoughts immediately. Students got into the flow of this idea straight away, which surprised me as the relatively straightforward questions from the past two days seemed to stump them at first. Sometimes they just need a little nudge!

Once we had thought of different ways authors can share their writing, we made connections between them- can you read a recipe in a newspaper? On an iPad? How about via an audiobook? The students realised that there are many different ways authors can share their writing, and many different ways we can read about things, not just via books.

One student suggested we change the definition of author again to include all the different ways authors can share their writing……..

Which brought us back to our ‘big idea’. Did it need to change again? The students all agreed that they wanted to change it to include today’s new information, so we ended up with……..

We wrapped up by stepping back and marveling at how our understanding had changed over the past few days as a result of thinking about new ideas and making connections between these ideas.

No student questions came up throughout this entire process- are they interested in author studies? I’m not entirely sure, but my next step is to actually ask them! Once the ball gets rolling, I anticipate my students will start to ask lots of why and how questions. In the meantime, we’re going to start with Dr. Seuss as he is a class favourite. They seemed to enjoy the process of creating generalisations, what we are calling ‘big ideas’- I wonder if we can make generalisations about authors and their work?

But for now, we are tuned in and ready to start finding out about authors through author studies!

Murdoch, K. (1998). Classroom Connections: strategies for integrated learning. Eleanor Curtain Publishing: South Yarra, Australia.

Basic Inquiry Doesn’t Have to be Sexy

I am now embarking on my second year out of the classroom, and surprise-surprise, I miss it. I’m not ready to go back just yet, but there are a few things that I am particularly excited about trying and nothing but my own classroom will do.

One is 1:1 iPads. I spend just about every minute of every day supporting a 1:1 iPad program, and in every class I enter, I can’t help wonder what exciting things I could have done with students if I’d had them in my own class.

The second is my evolving view of inquiry and assessment. Like most educators my age and younger, inquiry is a concept we’ve been quite aware of since teachers’ college. As PYP teachers, inquiry has been at the heart of our program and something we discuss frequently with colleagues and students. We don’t take assessment lightly either. In fact we often design elaborate projects that span weeks in an effort to create a meaningful final assessment.

There’s a problem though and it lies in how we choose to define our terms in practice. I’ve become concerned that all too often, despite our best efforts to resist it, “meaningful” degrades into “sexy”. What activity will get the kids really excited? What product will wow parents and colleagues? Can I one-up my teaching partner with my pedagogical wizardry? We lie to ourselves when we say we are immune. When we walk into a room of students working collaboratively on an avant-garde project, our impulse is to label it good and it may well be, but it also may be “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

A little competition is healthy, and I’ll be the first to promote creative projects as a valid way for students to explore new ideas, but we must resist two assumptions if what we are trying to win is student understanding:

  1. Don’t automatically assume that teacher-directed discussion is antithetical to inquiry.
  2. Don’t assume that a lengthy project assesses understanding better just because it took longer.

I hate to say it, but after 10 years in the classroom, these are things I’m just coming to terms with. These ideas are not my own and they are not foreign to IB audiences. I’ll focus on the first question of inquiry and save the second for another post.

Collaboration and group projects are not synonyms for inquiry. They may be good strategies to facilitate student inquiry, but we should not mistake those activities as proof of meaningful inquiry.

Most of us have taken an “Inquiry in the PYP” course, and in them there is usually a little bit of everything approach. I agree that we need a mixture of structured learning, guided inquiry, and open inquiry.  In my opinion, however, we all too often focus our planning around open inquiry because it lends itself so well to designing activities and products of which we can be proud. But if student learning is to be the true object of our pride, then we must come back to guided inquiry as a central element of our teaching — even if we risk being labelled “traditional” — the ultimate put-down in a PYP school.

For those looking to really focus in on inquiry free from all the bells and whistles,  Kimberly Lasher Mitchell is a great place to start. She recommends the following teacher stances to promote inquiry. Note that these are norms of communication rather than clever frameworks to design engaging activities.

  1. Provoke discussion and challenge thinking
  2. Stay neutral and judgement free – don’t say “good, great response”
  3. Invite elaboration– let them think through their theories
  4. Honor student theories – even the wrong ones
  5. Teach students to listen to each other
  6. As students think out loud their opinions becomes clearer and teachers can assess student knowledge and understanding
  7. Ask students where they have got their information from
  8. Wait time –give time for students to think and to get the courage to express their thoughts
  9. Paraphrase or reiterate to guide discussions back to the central idea
  10. Use the IB Learner Profile to elicit responses

Most of it is basic stuff, but reading that list doesn’t do justice to Kimberly’s insights. Her DVD, however, brings each of these into full focus and there are several extended model lessons to watch. There’s nothing sexy about these lessons, but in them, you get to see her go into an unfamiliar classroom and lead students in a unplanned, guided inquiry that owes more to Socrates than to Maria Montessori. At first it is almost painful to watch as she patiently follows the students’ silly theories, but in time, it becomes clear that there is a purpose and this purpose is being pursued with some very specific teacher behaviors. If nothing else, it is good to be reminded that, like doctors, we practice our profession. There are specific methods that we can employ when working with students in order to promote their learning. Sometimes they aren’t natural or easy.

Here’s a snippet I’ve uploaded:

Here’s the problem though. If you, a parent or an administrator were to walk into that classroom and stay for just three or four minutes, you would leave thoroughly unimpressed. They are sitting at their desks facing a teacher at the front of the room for God’s sake!

What do you think? Is it possible for PYP teachers to resist the circus-act and strip inquiry down to its most basic form and purpose? Is this dialectical method really compatible with constructivist theory? If there’s room for both, how do we resist falling for the sexy one every time?

The Role of Provocations

If you haven’t engaged in a #pypchat via twitter I strongly recommend it. Every two weeks a different topic is discussed on twitter for an hour with PYP educators around the world. This past week “powerful provocations” was the focus.

I love the idea of a great provocation to get children thinking about concepts and ideas. In fact, I felt as though this would actually be an area where I might feel confident sharing ideas and past experiences. Early on in the hour of chat I realized I’m just scratching the surface in terms of provocations and a mind shift occurred.

In the beginning of my career I truly had no grasp of provocations. It was one of those things that fell through the cracks in any PD I experienced and I was busy enough trying to stay afloat that my own independent inquiry into  the idea was the farthest thing from my mind. I remember it clearly years later, on every unit planner I considered the unit texts we had available as the provocation. Then one day a new colleague of mine took nearly everything out of his classroom one night, leaving the walls bare and shelves empty, and the next day had his students complete tasks with limited resources. It was then that I realized that the provocation should be powerful and leave an impression.

At my current school we try to engage the children in a provocation that connects to our related concepts but does not actually focus on the central idea. The idea being that we get students interested in the concepts and then connect that to the focus of the inquiry. In fact our newly developed inquiry model begins with “an invitation” to the unit, occurring through our provocation.

During the #pypchat I began to realize greater possibilities for the purpose and scope of provocations. @whatedsaid made me recognize that a provocation can be simple and yet still powerful, such as a question or statement on the board, a song played or a few images displayed. Provocations can connect to related concepts but also can be linked to creating new student questions, a new direction for the inquiry or action. The idea that provocations can happen throughout a unit was another point made and that had me instantly thinking of my current unit and ways in which I can continue to engage students in thinking and questioning right through to the summative assessment. Using provocations within emergent planning can help ensure student-led inquiry is truly happening.

The bottom line of it all was that the best provocations, no matter their form or level of sophistication, would leave a lasting impression on students, one which they would often think back on and connect to their learning.

Last year I used this provocation to get my students thinking about evidence. It truly was an experience that they would continue to talk about for the rest of the year and the concept of evidence was seemingly entrenched in their minds.

The #pypchat has become my provocation for teaching.

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