Reflecting on Content vs. Skills, Attitudes and Concepts

This is merely a reflection post. No fancy tools or strategies. A simple look at how we teach.

Recently, I’ve attended several workshops, which got me thinking about how we teach. One workshop I attended recently was a good example of how not to teach.

It had been a while since I had participated in such a workshop. The workshop was partially teacher-driven, in a direct instructional method. When one of the facilitators asked for questions, he would then immediately answer them. He often remarked on his surprise when we weren’t thinking like he was thinking. I hesitated to ask questions because I didn’t want a pat answer. I wanted to discuss. I didn’t want to be told what to do. I didn’t want content just forced down my throat.

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 11.02.24 AM

from the IBPYP model: http://www.ibo.org/pyp/

Since entering the PYP system, I’ve become more and more driven by inquiry and have enjoyed learning in workshops or professional development through inquiry. I understand the workshop content, about the Exhibition or language for example, through the bigger concepts, attitudes and skills. I’m the type of learner who thrives on this, and really, aren’t we all?

Yet, I still come from a background of direct instruction and traditional school and so without knowing it, I’m still often driving at content, which is only one part of the PYP. It’s the subject area, not the approaches to learning. In another recent workshop, or really planning sessions we had with Kath Murdoch, a profound and respected inquiry-based educator, I realized I’m still too focused on the content.

I planned a great provocation four our next unit, How the World Works. Students got a chance to tune in to different stations about different forces that shape our earth. I appealed to different types of learners, from rock handling and observation to watching videos and playing with Google Earth. However, in reflection, it was all about content. What do they already know about how the earth changes? What are the initial assumptions?

Knowing where students start with their understanding of a subject is important. However, it is just as important to focus on how students approach their learning. So, we need to pre-assess where they are with their skills for the unit. Kath pointed out to us that our unit seemed to be about scientific communication, and we agreed. How well then, she asked, do we know where kids are with their scientific explanatory skills?

Hmm. A simple question but it really made us think. I don’t know. Even in the last unit, I was focused on making sure they understood the central idea: How organisms rely on each other. I wasn’t focused on the skills, attitudes and concepts as much. I was aware, but thinking back, was it really driving me and my students?

So, we’re on the right track again with this unit, thanks to some helpful advice from Kath. We’re planning a pre-assessment to see how well they can communicate their understanding about anything they know that has some scientific basis: how day becomes night, the purpose of eyelashes, what fruits and vegetables do for our bodies. We’ll brainstorm with the kids about some ideas they might be able to express and then we’ll see how well they express them at the beginning of the unit.

We’ll analyze and reflect on their scientific explanations and then continue to study examples of professionals and older students expressing their scientific understanding. We’ll focus on communication in writing, reading and in math throughout the unit. Students will zoom in on a branch of earth science related to how the earth is changing. But, they’ll keep the focus on how they communicate their understanding. How do they do it well?

It makes sense, but sometimes it takes a little nudge from someone who looks in from the outside. Our habits, our background is rooted deep within us, and we need to keep reaching out to teaching through inquiry. Teaching skills, concepts and attitudes that are so important in life: the IB approaches to learning.

How do you teach? How do you reflect on your teaching?

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Inquiry with Evernote vol 3 | Introducing the Inquiry Learning Resources Project

In the summer of 2013, I started using Evernote to collect and curate resources for planning and pursuing inquiry learning, as I blogged in the posts, Inquiry with Evernote vol 1 and Inquiry with Evernote vol 2 . Since then, my collection of notes has expanded. More importantly, the channels from which I collect these images, videos, and articles have become much more diverse and poignant. Most importantly, I am slowly refining my tagging strategies to make the collection more conceptually connected and social and environmental action oriented.

Now, I would like to introduce the Inquiry Learning Resources Project. The effort to build a digital notebook of inquiry provoking notes continues, but I have expanded the project to social media.

Evernote

The project’s primary home is the public notebook, Inquiry Learning Resources. Feel free to join, search, and utilize it for your classroom or personal inquiries.

Tumblr

This project was inspired by a desire to organize the fascinating content I discovered on Tumblr. Resources are shared on the Inquiry Learning Resources blog and using the tag #inquirylearning. That blog accepts submissions, so if you’re on Tumblr, feel free to contribute.

Twitter

I set up the account @provokinquiry to share resources on Twitter, and also using the #inquirylearning tag. Hopefully it will also be a great way to raise awareness for the project.

Pinterest

The public board Inquiry Learning Resources on Pinterest is also a great place to share. Please ask to join to submit pins.

Facebook

Resources are also shared on an Inquiry Learning Resources Page on Facebook.

The future

My immediate goal is to get in the habit of updating regularly, although completing projects is always a challenge due to the crunch of the school year before January. Hopefully, more inquiry educators will want to collaborate to help expand the project further!

The post, Inquiry with Evernote vol 3 | Introducing the Inquiry Learning Resources Project, originally appeared on Symphony of Ideas (ideasymphony.blogspot.com).

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Sophisticated Inquiries in MYP Humanities

During the first unit of my Grade 10 MYP Humanities class, after a Blitzkreig through the various government systems and political ideologies, I give the students two concepts – ideology, and governance. The rest is up to them: the topic of their inquiry, the product they create to show their understanding, the assessment criteria and the due date (within parameters). Their inquiry choices always astound me.

I always have the usual bunch interested in finding out why Hitler wanted to exterminate the Jews, or what life in Fascist Italy or Cultural Revolution-era China was like for its citizens. But there are always a few who go beyond the usual – inquiring into the effect of British imperialism on the world, or of liberalist ideology on modern social democracies – topics that you’d normally find in university classes. Many of my international students always make it personal, inquiring into political eras their families have told them about but never researched themselves since don’t live in their “home” country – the effects of Nazism on Czechoslovakia, the dictatorship in post-war South Korea, life under Pinochet in Chile.

I give them a choice of 18 different formats in three categories: oral, written, and visual. They need to cover one from each category; again, choice has resulted in creative outcomes. Instead of the typical oral presentation, students are creating screencasts. Instead of the typical written essay, students are creating newspapers, manifestos or fictional stories. Instead of the typical visual poster, students are creating propaganda or graphic stories.

In the end, I feel confident that I’ve turned a typical, predictable classroom (“let’s write an essay about Stalin”) into a learning environment that’s highly differentiated, engaging for all students and pushes them into a level of sophistication that I normally couldn’t plan for.

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Learning to Learn by Learning – a Reflection on a Collaborative Project

In a post a few months ago I mused on the idea of providing time for teachers to tinker and explore. My feelings were that like the students we teach, we too all have areas of interests that we never quite get a chance to unpack. I was reminded of this again recently by Edna Sackson who spoke about enlivening a professional development day by empowering the voices of the staff at her school and giving them a chance to present, rather than simply bringing in outside providers. Although I have experienced this to some degree in regards to ICT at my school, where we ran a session where various staff provided different sessions, I have never really heard of it been offered as a whole school initiative. I was therefore left wondering, why don’t more staff share and collaborate, whether online or off?

A point of collaboration that I have been involved in this year was the development of a conference presentation with Steve Brophy. As teachers we often talk about collaboration, yet either avoid doing it or never quite commit ourselves to process. Some may work with a partner teacher or as a part of a team, but how many go beyond this, stepping out of the comfort zone, and the walls of their school, to truly collaborate in the creation of a whole project?

Having spoken about the power of tools like Google Apps for Education to support and strengthen collaboration and communication, I decided that what I really needed to do to take the next step was to stop preaching and actually get out there and actually model it. I really wanted to work with someone in not only presenting a range of tools that make collaboration more possible, but I wanted to use those tools to actually collaborate and create a presentation from scratch.

The first time I met Brophy was online. The Ed Tech Crew ran a Google Hangout at the end of 2013 focusing on the question: what advice would you give a new teacher just appointed as an ICT coordinator? I put down my thoughts in a post, Steve commented and wrote a response of his own. It was these two perspectives, different in some ways, but the same in others, that brought us together.

Since then we have built up a connection online – on Twitter, in the margins of a document, within blog posts themselves, via a few emails – growing and evolving the conversation each step of the way. For example, Steve set me the 11 question blog challenge, which he had already taken the time to complete himself. We were lucky enough to meet face-to-face when we both presented at Teachmeet at the Pub in February.

What I think clicked in regards to working with Brophy was that although we teach in different sectors, coming from different backgrounds, we shared an undeniable passion – student learning and how technology can support and enhance this or as Bill Ferriter would have it, ‘make it more doable‘. We therefore decided to put forward a proposal for the Digital Learning and Teaching Victoria conference around the topic of ‘voices in education’. Interestingly, once the submissions were accepted those wishing to present were encouraged to connect and collaborate with other members in the stream, rather than work in isolation. However, we already were.

In regards to planning and collaborating, it was all pretty ad hoc. A few comments in an email, brainstorming using a Google Doc, catching up via a Google Hangout, building our presentation using OneNote (click for PDF). Most importantly though, there were compromises at each step along the way. This was not necessarily about either being right or wrong, but about fusing our ideas together. So often I feel that we plan presentations with only our own thoughts in mind. Although we may have an idea of our intended audience, nothing can really replace the human element associated with engaging with someone else in dialogue.In regards to the substance of our actual presentation, I put forward the idea of dividing it into Primary and Secondary. However, as things unfolded, this seemed counter-intuitive, for voices are not or should not be constrained by age. So after much dialogue we came upon the idea of focusing on the different forms of connections that occur when it comes to voices in and out of the classroom. We identified three different categories:

  • Students communicating and collaborating with each other
  • Students and teachers in dialogue about learning
  • Teachers connecting as a part of lifelong learners

A part of the decision for this was Brophy‘s work in regards to Digital Leaders. This focus on students having a voice of there own really needed to take some pride of place, especially as much of my thoughts had been focusing on the engagement between students and teachers.

The next point of discussion was around the actual presentation. In hindsight, I fretted so much about who would say what and when, as well as what should go in the visual presentation. This is taken for granted when you present by yourself as you say everything. However, when you work with someone else it isn’t so simple. The irony about the presentation was that so often plans are often dispersed in an effort to capture the moment.

This is exactly what happened and I feel that it worked well. Sometimes the worst thing you can do is to stick to the slides, because somehow that is the way it has to be, even though that way is often a concoction in itself. The other thing to be said is that the slides also allow people to engage with the presentation in their own time, in their own way. I sometimes feel that this is a better way of thinking about them.

The best aspect about working collaboratively with someone was that by the time we presented we knew each others thoughts and ideas so well that it meant that if there was something that one of us overlooked then the other could simply jump in and ellaborate. This was best demonstrated in our shortened presentation for the Scootle Lounge, where instead of delivering a summary of what we had already done we instead decided to go with the flow. The space was relaxed with beanbags and only a few people, therefore it seemed wrong to do an overly formal presentation. Focusing on the three different situations, we instead bounced ideas off each other and those in the audience, for surely that is what voice and expression should actually be about?After growing our presentation together, the challenge we set for others was to reach out and connect, whether it is online or face to face. Contribute, collaborate and be open to new perspectives and be prepared to be inspired and grow as a learner.

So, how have you collaborated? What did you learn? What is it that holds you back? Feel free to share below.

Listening to Voices – FULL PRESENTATION – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

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Stretching out thinking and slowing down (is less more?)

The idea was simple. Give the kids a map, tell them they are part of a tribe of neolithic nomads, and choose the best place to settle. Parameters were set. A story was hatched.
It could have been a nice afternoon. It could have resulted in a good debate, maybe a list of pros and cons. Instead, I stretched it out, made the thinking more explicit. We went slowly, reflecting at each step, asking what we know and what we still need to know.

We teased apart the thinking, stretched it out, and ended up with the following progression of lessons, and a nice artefact to share with our parents and the learning community demonstrating how we inquire:



Things to wonder about… our perception of time spent on tasks

- the process was largely emergent, and was unplanned from step to step. As a teacher I just listened and looked for gaps in understanding, and then tried to fill them. By the end, they were doing it themselves, saying they weren’t ready to make a decision. The extra time spend became a thinking tool in and of itself. Should I have planned something like this out from the beginning? Should I have sat down in a collaborative planning session and created a sequence of lessons like this? Or is the planning time better spent creating the task itself, and leaving the stretching out to the teacher, who is living in the moment with his/her class? How important is learning to listen as a teacher? How can we improve on this skill?

- there are so many thinking skills involved in any provocation that we create; why do we rush from activity to activity? Does the planner leave us feeling like we have to get to every activity we put on there? Does it take our perception of time and shorten our attention spans?

- this took almost two weeks to finish and I admit, while I was spending two weeks on one seemingly simple activity, I felt guilty, like I wasn’t doing enough; why is that? Where does this feeling come from? Does the quantity of tasks we do in a unit equal quality? To what extent should we limit the amount of learning engagements and focus on the thinking involved?

In the end, I regretted nothing. It was a powerful progression of lessons, it was intentional yet emergent, and the kids were completely aware of the reasons and the meta-inquiry behind it all.

My burning question, is less more?
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Using Visible Thinking Strategies to Develop Expert Learners

Supporting Inquiry with Scaffolded, Collaborative Journal Writing

Communicating peopleVisible thinking is all the rage. I’m glad!

Back in the day–we usually referred to visible thinking as explicit thinking. But, as with many solid, worthwhile constructs, they are not readily adopted and so often reappear decades (or centuries!) later under a new name with new advocates and with a new dream that maybe this time things might stick and better the lives of students.

So it is with visible thinking.  The basic idea is to uncover the implicit and inert thinking and to make that thinking discussable and perhaps available to others. For it is by objectifying knowledge that we can come to understand it.

John Seely Brown once suggested,

“The hope is that we might be able to find ways to help students discover knowledge about knowledge, thereby setting the stage for acquiring truly domain-independent skills, such as how to reflect on the knowledge they already have, and to identify the causes underlying the mistakes they make.” (Brown, 1985, p184)

So, how do we support students in making their thinking visible?

There are many perspectives, frameworks and strategies. A favourite of mine is that of David Perkins, one of the pioneers on making thinking explicit. His recent work with a team at Harvard’s Project Zero has resulted in a book Making Thinking Visible. A worthwhile read! Also, visit the Making Thinking Visible website for wonderful resources.

What are Novice and Expert Learners?

I personally love the literature on expertise and how it may serve us. We can think about novice learners and expert learners and ask “how do we move novices towards greater expertise in learning”? Scardamalia and Bereiter have done a great deal of work in this area and the following has arisen from their research over the years.

This graphic shares some of the differences between novice and expert learners.

(Click it, then click it again to see full size.)
Novice/Expert Infographic

Novice/Expert Infographic

What is Scaffolded, Collaborative Journal Writing?

So, how can we help students become more expert?

I have used journal writing extensively–both offline and online. But not simply private, individual journal writing. I prefer collaborative, scaffolded, journal writing environments.  This provides all the benefits of journal writing, collaboration, and the use of scaffolds or procedural facilitations. (You can set this up in a blog, wiki, or other social space–although it is a bit of a ‘hack’!)

journal medSome Benefits of Journal Writing:

  • Cappo & Osterman suggest that “as students communicate their ideas, they learn to clarify, refine, and consolidate their thinking”.
  • Countryman says, “I believe that to learn mathematics, students must construct it for themselves. They can only do that by exploring, justifying, representing, discussing, using, describing, investigating, predicting–in short by being active in the world. Writing is an ideal activity for such processes”.
  • Journal writing allows for the externalization of knowledge through language. Language plays an important role in making knowledge explicit by objectifying experience. So as students engage in writing about their knowledge they are indeed exploring, stating and questioning what they know. Journal writing allows students to state their understanding of a topic or problem replete with all the associate bugs. These buggy statements are then explicit and can act as a medium for mediating new understanding in collaboration with others.

Some Benefits of Collaboration

Cloud Computing Small textA collaborative form of journal writing leads to unique experiences that have qualitatively different results than individual journal writing. Students not only reflect on their own thoughts and processes, but also exchange information about both the subject content and the processes and strategies used by others.

Stated somewhat differently, Perkins and Salomon maintain that “learning takes place in a social context (e.g., reciprocal teaching), whereby justifications, principles, and explanations are socially fostered, generated, and contrasted”.

In the Zone Scaffolding

Scaffolding in the zone (as in Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development) can encourage students to consider their own higher level strategies and promote the active decontextualization of knowledge. It may allow the user to decenter from personal thoughts and think about other considerations. Confused roadsignIt facilitates an internal dialogue when no other partner exists to bounce ideas off. In the zone scaffolding can take many forms, but I have used prompts, questions or sentence starters and make these available to students in a blog template as they write their entries.

You will see that the scaffolding prompts (below) tie directly to the characteristics of the novice-expert continuum in the infographic–although they are categorized as planning and reflection starters.

Comment Starters

Usually students quite naturally respond with social commentary, but often not with substantive assistance that might help their classmates to reconsider, or to think more deeply, about how they are doing in their project. So I recommend to also include comment or discussion starters.

Connective Words or Elaboration Triggers

In addition to the prompts for the journaling and the conversation, a list of connective words can be available to students to help them to elaborate their thoughts. So if a student initially writes, “I want to learn animation”, selecting a connective word such as because, might result in further consideration of the goal perhaps resulting in sub-goals. “I want to learn animation because then I will be able to demonstrate how red blood cells are produced. In fact, I will be able to use it in lots of projects.”

Classroom Support

A teacher can also enhance the use of these public journal entries by structuring certain activities for their use. For example, to have students focus on using knowledge as a tool, the teacher could request:

“For the next group meeting, I would like you to read the blog (journal) entries of your group members for the current project and print out the ones that show that a piece of old knowledge has been used in a new way.”

Or,

“…print out the ones where the comments provide direct help with the task.”

Challenges

Several challenges exist.

One, this can become simply another classroom exercise–worksheet-like. NOT the intent. Try to engage your students in developing their own sentence starters. Engage in the discussion by adding comments that are substantive.  Model what you want the kids to do. Encourage the philosophy in the classroom that thinking is a highly valued activity.

Two, the tools (wikis, blogs, Diigo) are not designed to ease the use of these starters.  I have had students copy and paste the ones they want to use into their post or into their reply. But, availability is the issue.

Three, ideally you want the kids generalizing this behaviour and appropriating the use of deep discourse. In order for that to be the case, it must serve the kids well. This may require your effort in making the connection.

Request of you…

It would be beneficial if you would share your ideas on how you have used journal writing, scaffolding or collaboration to help your students to become more expert learners!


Scaffolding Prompts

Planning Starters

I want to know…
I want to learn…
I think…
My goals for this project are…
I don’t understand…
I wonder…
I am having difficulty with…
I am breaking my project into…
A similar task I have had before is…
The steps I plan to follow are…
Different ways to solve this task…
 

Reflection Starters

I learned…
Things I want to learn are…
I think…
I have managed to…
I have changed my plan…
I didn’t get as far as I planned because…
I got further than I had planned because…
The steps I did first were…
My next step will be…
 

Comment or Discussion Starters

I agree with you because …
I disagree with you because…
Check…
I think…
I believe…
Have you thought about…
Maybe…
I am confused…
Another explanation…
I don’t understand…
You need to…
Your journal entry would be better if…
 

Elaboration Triggers

study
thanks to
that’s how
that’s why
therefore
think
try
until
wish
wonder
in that case
in view of
look forward to
otherwise
plan
realize
remember
since
so
expect
explain
feel
figured
give up
guess
hope
if…then
intend
another
as a result of
attempt
because
believe
consequently
consider
decide
discovered
discuss

Previous version originally published on The Construction Zone

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Losing Control When Students Take Over.

In previous years we have started school with a week of orientation. We did team building activities, had a huge, crazy scavenger hunt, and had students on a high ropes course. Although we felt those were successful approaches to the start of a new year we decided to do something different this year. So we started by continuing the Water Project that we ended with last year.

The Water Project was our best project ever because of how much ownership the students took of it. But this was a new class of kids whose only connection to the project was seeing it in the hall. How would we get them to buy in?

On the first day of school we brought in two guest speakers from LGROW, a local agency of our city government that works to promote good management practices of the Grand River Watershed. They shared who they were and the needs of their organization. We also did activities to teach students about watersheds and management of them.

Students brainstorming poster designs

Students brainstorming poster designs

By the third day students were looking at local problems and proposing solutions. At the end of the day they selected one of three “realms” to be a part of: Helping LGROW, working on our local campus, or working more broadly on a watershed where they live (our students come from all across the county and live on many different local watersheds that all feed into the Grand River). Once they were in these groups, they broke down into sub groups of things like making professional posters, promotional videos, and designing a social media campaign for LGROW. Other groups are designing a rain garden and a rooftop garden to grow vegetables for our school. They were calling local businesses for information and networking with the culinary and Ag science programs on our campus. The third realm groups are designing projects around their local watershed and some have already brought in water samples.

Student leaders are emerging in all groups. These kids are skilled and passionate about doing these things. One of the really cool things to me is that I had no preconceived ideas of who the leaders would be because I am just trying to learn their names. So I don’t know their academic history, but it feels like all kinds of kids are finding their niche and rising to the challenge. Yesterday one of the members of LGROW came back to school and the students pitched their ideas to him for feedback. He loved them.

This project will be unique for us in that students will work on it every other Friday for two hours for the rest of the year. It will be the first time that we try to sustain a project over time. One of the advantages of this is it gives the students time to do real work and develop relationships with the community and businesses that is just impossible in a 3-4 week timeframe.

Last year ended with students taking over and owning their learning. This year we are starting off with students taking over and owning their learning. I am very excited to see the real work that my students will do this year. Instilling this culture to start the year is so powerful! I am confident that they are going to surprise me this year.

So how do you get students to own their learning? Challenge them with real work for real people for a real purpose. And then quite honestly get out of the way. Teachers are still there to guide, but we must not control the project. One of my strengths is a lack of organization. So I dream big possibilities and give them to students. My lack of planning everything to a T gives the students space to take over and run the project. Sometimes all is takes is less of us so that there can be more of them.

What have you done to let students own their learning this year?

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