Meeting the Learners

Expectations. The word has joined the list of my least favourites.

What are the expectations for this unit?

What phase are you teaching?

How are you differentiating?

These are the questions my grade 6 colleague and I used to ask each other when we planned together.

There were other questions that naturally arose in staff meetings because we were trying to understand what each grade level should be teaching and assessing.

What phases are you using in grade 4?

How do you split the phases up through the elementary years?

You don’t.

You meet the students where they are and build from there.

But that seems harder to do at first. It seems like it might take more planning and thinking, so I suppose I can understand why a one-size for all lesson plan, watered down or extended for differentiation purposes, is considered easier to offer.

What we’re basically doing though is saying: You’re in grade X now so you’ll be doing this.

But how can that work? Some of my students only started learning English this year. A few have learning difficulties and a few were ticking off the highest phase objectives before the first month had even ended. Even if there wasn’t any of the above to be aware of, they are all at different stages in their learning across the programme, and they all have different things they want to learn and ways to learn anyway.

Cue supposed planning headache.

But I can deal with this. I want to deal with it. Yes, it may require a little extra planning, on my own maybe, but I want to help each student feel like they are progressing, that they are capable, that they can succeed, that they are able to persevere, take risks and take charge of their own learning. I need to do this.

I have to meet them where they are and help them set their own goals. I need to look across the phases and use objectives as a guide for the individuals in my room, so they can show me what they have already mastered and then help them to create personal success criteria which will take them forward when they are ready. I need to help them learn to look for feedback and support when they need it. I need to help them learn at their own pace, in their own way. I need them to be using the word expectations about their own learning.

Expectations. The word won’t go away.

There must be expectations!

How can you not have them?!

How do you know what to teach?! 

You meet the learners. They can decide.


Studio 5 – Too Much Too Soon?

I want to be a rebel, but I feel like things are getting a little outside of my comfort zone.

(UPDATE: I realise that being out of your comfort zone is probably what being a rebel is all about!)

Don’t get me wrong, I’d bite your hand off to be pushed to innovate as much as Studio 5 has done, but I want to ask a few questions to understand how far we should go.

  • Is the last year of elementary school too late or too soon for the level of student agency that Studio 5 is proposing?
  • Is it too much to offer this level of freedom outside the Exhibition?
  • Can we not still offer voice, choice and agency whilst still following a programme which offers a balance of disciplines, ie. by following each Transdisciplinary Theme?
  • Is there not enough space within each Transdisciplinary Theme in the PYP for students to still take control of their learning and direct it around the breadth and depth that each theme offers without students having to create a unit from scratch?

I get it, they should have choice etc, but are we actually doing them a disservice by exposing them to the multitude of subjects that exist? Can we still provide space for student agency even if students are not all planning their learning from scratch?

I’ve been wondering about what agency means and if a ‘choose anything you want to learn about’ limits the possible options students can have access to. Can a student find their passion or talent unless they explore every element of language, art, mathematics, science etc.? When are they ready to decide what they want to learn? How long does it take to expose students to every strand of every discipline?

Of course they’ll develop interests away from school and these should be respected and we should be aware of them, but are we redefining school as a place where learning about the world, even though you didn’t choose that topic, is a considered a opportunity missed?

Should we be asking how student agency can exist in a programme that still offers a spectrum of opportunity to learn from a predetermined list of disciplines, or should students be able to choose to learn anything they want at any time?

I think we should try first of all not to create a system which provides too much structure and predetermined lessons which do little more than provide an opportunity to test comprehension. That’s obviously not helping anyone develop curiosity or maintain what was there to start with.

Let’s provoke, challenge, question and make space for our students to inquire about the world around them, and let’s take the opportunity as their guides to open their eyes to the wonders of the world whilst allowing them to bring who they are to the table, too.

I’m imagining something like this: take the theme How the World Works. We want the children to be scientists, to observe, to question, to experiment, to challenge themselves. What if we provide them with provocations, stimulating images, stories about the universe, information about scientists, about the different strands available to choose for their inquiries and then see where their curiosity leads them. Sometimes you don’t know that you’re fascinated by whale sharks until you discover them. Sometimes you can’t marvel at the power of nature until you see it in action.

The point is to offer them these options at each grade level instead of focusing on one in particular each year; that way they can still develop deep conceptual understanding about how the world works whilst developing knowledge in the area that fascinates them. There’s no need to necessarily teach natural disasters in grade 3 and biodiversity in grade 4, for example.

We can let their curiosity take the lead whilst sparking the fire.

Studio 5 has created something which challenges the preconceptions of the school model and taken it into the stratosphere, but has it also given the students too much freedom of choice too soon? Have the students explored enough to know what they want to do? Has personalised learning gone too far?

I’m just wondering, of course. Any thoughts and opinions would be greatly appreciated.

(UPDATE: After sleeping on these thoughts, I have also realised that I’m looking for a way to go as far as possible towards what Studio 5 is offering students, whilst imagining an easy transition model for others to follow towards student agency within the POI that we currently use. I know full well that I need the support of school leaders to make my dream a reality.)

The Right Path, This Time

Things are going better but they can still improve.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I was torn when it came to deciding what was right for students. The last UOI was no exception. Even though part of me was determined to ‘go for it’, in the end I didn’t go for it enough. I’m taking small steps but I’m itching to take the giant leap. Something is holding me back.

Throughout the unit something bugged me and I spent ages afterwards writing a reflection to try and think about how we could ‘get it right’ next time. I think I spend too much time thinking about how to make each unit better next time.

What it really needed was for me to take enough of a risk to drop what we had planned as the learning goals and go with what the students were discovering and thinking, creating the unit together. In the end, I tried to find a happy medium but it was really a little bit of time for them and a little bit of time for me to ensure I could measure their learning based on the lines of inquiry we had created.

That’s not to say that the provocations we planned, the case studies and picture books we used, and the Skype session with a scientist weren’t worthwhile, but there’s that lingering feeling that we missed out on making something even better. I’m looking through their unit journals and rediscovering their questions and wonderings, the knowledge they gained individually, and I’m kicking myself because that last step was what it needed to really be about what mattered to them.

Let’s try again.

Lost in the Learning

After reading Michael BondClegg’s post about timetables, which got the wheels turning in my mind again, I remembered that I had been meaning to write about two reflections by one of my students in response to the learning she had planned.

Students have been planning their days for a while now. It’s one of those things that has changed the face of our learning so much that we can’t go back; we don’t want to go back. It’s incredible how it has transformed the environment from ‘waiting to learn’ to ‘can’t wait to learn’. The benefits to the students’ time-management and reflection skills has been enormous, and it has also helped me identify better where, when and how to intervene to amplify the learning.

Anyway, here are the reflections:

March 5th 2018

This is my daily plan of today! So today I started with science, and I answered the Galileo questions, next i did some unit. After break and P.E. I planed to do some maths, but then I said my self today I was not in the mood for maths like everyday.😂 So I concentrated in genre writing, and wrote some poems.

March 14th 2018

Today most of the time I did maths, because I wanted to improve my knowledge in time. I didn’t do the writing because I did science but, you know when you do something and then you get SO concentrated that you don’t remember what you wanted to do next? That, that happened to me. Next I want to do some writing, I didn’t do writing that much this week. 📝✍️

This is the line that got to me the most: ‘you know when you do something and then you get SO concentrated that you don’t remember what you wanted to do next? That, that happened to me.’

That’s kind of what Michael is talking about when we respect students’ choices, help them access deep learning, and not cut off their creativity.

First it made me happy, I mean this would never have happened if I was making all the decisions. But then I realised that the students were still thinking of all the tasks they had to do. Not easy to get lost in your learning if you’ve got a list to tick off each day. Also, some students were disappointed if they didn’t do what they had planned. That wasn’t what was supposed to happen!

There are always bumps along the road…

So, recently students have not been planning their whole day from start to finish but, instead, choosing what to start with and then changing when they feel they need/want to. They then reflect on their learning afterwards, thinking about what, why and how they learned, and what they want to do the next day. This has helped students avoid thinking that they must change task just because they decided that they would do so at a certain time. This tended to happen because that’s what they had been doing for so long, and the planning sheet they were given was too similar to a regular timetable. My job hasn’t changed much from guiding them to balance their choices during the week and helping them develop their skills and understanding.

Now it’s enough for me to ask them what they want to learn, and off they go. Hopefully to get a little lost.

Collect, Collaborate, Inspire

Padlet! A great tool in so many ways. I’ve used it before to gather student responses as a virtual pin board for questions and prior knowledge, but recently I’ve discovered a great way for students to collect examples of artwork that inspires them, and cite and share resources with other students that are following similar inquiries as part of the PYP Exhibition.

For a self-directed art inquiry project, I collected websites and examples of artwork by famous artists of each medium they could choose as a provocation, but the students then also added more examples that they found online as inspiration for their own designs.

Made with Padlet

For the PYP Exhibition, which is also in process at the moment, students collect and cite different resources that can help develop their understanding of their chosen topic. By sharing a Padlet with other students who are inquiring into the same topic they can collaborate more effectively and show evidence of their sources.

The great thing is that these can also be shared to invite other collaborators outside the classroom to share resources or advice that could assist their inquiries. So, with that in mind, please feel free to add any resources that you know could help. 🙂

Here are the topics:

Made with Padlet

Made with Padlet

Made with Padlet

Made with Padlet

Made with Padlet

Thanks in advance!

To find out more about Padlet and learn about the many ways you could use it in your classroom click here.



How to Make it Stick (or Making Mathematicians)

When I first embarked on my PYP journey, I found maths the hardest discipline to teach in an inquiry-based way. I didn’t know where to start.  I had always been teaching maths skills and then helping students answer word problems with these skills. But then I finally discovered Graeme Anshaw‘s blog.

Suddenly, maths was now something we could explore with student questions and more relevant examples of its place in our daily lives, thinking more conceptually and using more open-ended tasks. The difference was immediate and I felt more confident, but I could still see that some of my students weren’t grasping the concepts or mastering the skills and strategies. This approach was clearly new to most of my students, as it was to me, and I needed more help.

So I went back to Twitter (the PD centre that never sleeps) and it was there that I discovered Number Talks via Dan Finkel‘s, Robert Kaplinsky‘s DOK (depth of knowledge) tasks at, and started chatting with Abe Moore about how his students were self assessing their learning, and the game changed again.

Number talks are the best way I’ve found so far to ensure each student can approach a maths question at their personal level of understanding, whilst learning multiple strategies to solve a problem from their peers.

DOK tasks have the glorious ability of ensuring students can demonstrate understanding as they learn skills and strategies, whereas in the past I’d be teaching them strategies that they would then apply to solve word problems.

Abe taught me how each student can assume responsibility for their learning and to provide evidence of their understanding, which has filtered through to all of the areas of learning in my room.

Armed with these tools, my room is now full of students teaching each other strategies, explaining tasks to each other and gradually developing understanding at their own pace. I have more time to identify misconceptions and areas that need strengthening. The whole set up is more similar to the writing sessions that I have introduced thanks to the way I learned to teach the writing process from Literacy for Pleasure. Students are now learning to be writers and mathematicians, and the deeper concepts in both areas have more of a chance of ‘sticking’ because they’re learning to be rather than just learning to do.

Which Way is the Right Way?

There’s always a battle going on in my head about what’s right for students these days.

The concept of student agency has challenged us to ensure students are the architects of their learning, but I was worried I was going too far and ignoring the programme content knowledge. Recently, I’ve been having a lot of ‘back to the drawing-board’ moments.

I want them to feel empowered, of course, and have voice and choice, absolutely, but was I sacrificing the knowledge and conceptual understanding part of the programme; Was I allowing too much freedom in their choices and feeling like I was asking them to be too compliant if I gave them objectives to meet?

When Abe Moore shared his plan for helping his students self-assess their learning and decide when they were ready to show evidence of their understanding, I realised more than ever that there is a programme I’m following with hundreds of components tucked away into essential elements and learning objectives across many disciplines. And then I realised that, although I had the essential elements pasted on my walls, and I was making success criteria with students, they weren’t necessarily aware of the objectives that the programme contained. I have been using these objectives to plan learning engagements and ensure learning needs are catered for, so why am I the only one who knows about these in class?

I just want to explain that I am personally against one-size-fits-all objectives and I have been working hard to ensure students are not just receiving so-called ‘grade-level expectations’ because they happen to have been born in 2007, or because they’re in Grade 6. I’m constantly scanning the PYP scope and sequence phases and ensuring students are able to develop skills and conceptual understanding at phases which are relevant to their current needs. I have also begun to ask them to create their own learning objectives and set their own expectations for their learning. This makes assessments which require grades particularly difficult, but I’m striving to find a better way and this starts by ensuring that students are aware of their strengths and areas for growth; otherwise, what’s the point of assessments at all? By involving students more in the assessment process to help them make progress, I’m involving them in assessment FOR learning, and assessment AS learning (to quote recent blog posts and Twitter threads by Monte Syrie and George Couros). Self-assessment was invented for a reason so why ignore it and just revert back to solely teacher reported assessment…?

Going back to the objectives; if Abe is sharing learning objectives with his students in maths, I wondered how this would work in all disciplines. So I shared them with the students to help them self-assess their strengths and next learning steps in our last Unit of Inquiry under the theme: Where We Are in Place & Time. (My plan was to also help them work towards writing their own report cards, inspired by Abe and Taryn Bondclegg.) Most of the objectives fell into research, communication and thinking skills; here I could help them identify their current conceptual thinking, research skills and writing ability. I used objectives from different phases and only in some areas did I need to explain how one objective shows greater proficiency than another. I wanted to avoid to some degree students comparing themselves to each other. They were asked to decide how proficient they thought they were on a friendly scale of: P=I need to practise more, OK= I’m doing OK but there’s still room for improvement, and VC= I’m very confident at this/ I can teach this, (which of course doesn’t mean we can’t still improve, but there’s a feeling of higher competence and independence).

Here’s an example of a student’s self-assessment/ report for a Unit of Inquiry with my comment. Unit 3 report M

The students will ‘happily’ get on with any task I throw their way, but I hope they are beginning to realise that the decisions I make for them are designed to help them grow and that there are many opportunities for them to make decisions for their own learning needs and interests.