Looking At (but not seeing) the Same Things

The room was packed. Twenty-five ninth graders and their teacher, a three-person camera crew, fifteen parents of incoming eighth graders and the principal stood flat-back against three of the four walls. For a while we all occupied the same space together. We observed the same lesson, listened to the same voices, and breathed the same air. But we all came away with very different conclusions about what we witnessed.

The principal guided parents of incoming ninth graders in and out of this classroom all day. It was one a few classrooms in her building that she could “bank on” to be a hit with visitors (and the one she suggested we film).

When the principal opened this classroom door she could depend on seeing engaged and well-disciplined students. The teacher was passionate about her subject (English literature) and it showed. She recited passages from the book they were all reading by heart and spoke with enthusiasm and authority. The curriculum was 100% aligned with standards, the learning objective written neatly on the white board.

My companions, film professionals, gave the class rave reviews. “She really knew what she was doing in there; the students were so well-behaved,” I heard them say.

What none of them knew, not even the camera operators, was that what we were actually filming was a prime (and common) example of student disengagement.

Our cameras were trained on a single, randomly selected student in the front row. We “dummy mic’d” several students giving students the impression that our objective was to film the teacher’s interaction with all the students. But in reality, only the teacher’s and this one student’s mic were operating. We trained a tight lens on this student for 90 minutes (it was a block period, ostensibly to allow for deeper work and project-based learning opportunities).

After filming, we calculated the amount of time this student was reading, writing, listening and speaking academically during this 90-minute period. The results are heart breaking and stunned the teacher.

During the 90-minute period this student sat and listened (mostly to the teacher) for 86 minutes. He participated once, to ask a clarifying question (taking less than 10 seconds) and read for a total of 3 minutes. He never wrote. According to the students we spoke with and the teacher herself, this was a typical class and this student is a good student.

The teacher spent the evening before re-reading the chapters and preparing for a discussion. But the discussion was really only between herself and 4-5 students. The remaining 20 students were passive listeners. Those who did participate were only marginally active and engaged. They responded to the teacher’s questions rather than asking their own. They were rarely pressed to back up their claims with evidence or take on a different perspective or explain in great detail. These were cognitive activities that were taken on by the teacher.

What happened in that classroom that people missed? Taken together, it looked lively and engaging. But a closer look, a tighter frame, revealed something very different. The students were compliant, not curious. They knew exactly how to “do school” but it was a classic example of how “learning gets lost.”

What does engagement look like then? If you were to witness true engagement in action, what specific things would you see, hear, or even feel?

Here’s my initial Take. What Might You Add?

  • Students are doing most of the (academic) talking
  • Students are asking the majority of the questions
  • Teacher moving in and around students rather than rooted at the ‘front’
  • Students physically leaning into their work
  • Happy buzz of discussion/conversation distributed among all students
  • Students groaning when it’s time to conclude



Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Inquiring as Teachers

Inquiry. The heart of the PYP. In a PYP school, we encourage our children to inquire, wonder, think and dream. It comes to kids naturally, and so mostly, we encourage and provide a safe space where they can do that.

But, as adults, teachers in that setting, how much do we inquire? How much do we ask questions? How much do we really flex our teaching practice in order to let the students be free to wonder?

I think it’s hard, sometimes, when we’ve been in the same setting for a while. We’re comfortable. Things are working. And we don’t question as much as we should.

We also don’t inquire as much when we don’t listen to each other and ourselves the way we try to listen to our children. In a recent blog post on Edutopia, David Hawley, from the IB wrote about the importance of asking ourselves reflective questions every day about our practice:

  • What should we stop doing?
  • What should we start doing?
  • What should we continue doing?

This post really stuck with me. I think it’s important to ask questions all the time and feel safe to do so. It’s also important to surround yourself with teachers that inquire as adults. It’s important for a school to put adult reflection and inquiry as much at the center of things as it is for our students.

How does your school put this in place? How do you encourage teacher questions? How do you listen?

First published on Solid Ground

Posted in Inquiry | 1 Comment

How structured should structured inquiry be?

How structured should  inquiry be?
The desire to create an effective pedagogy which enables students to both learn through inquiry and learn to inquire, raises an interesting tension within many
practitioners. The key questions of  ‘How much structure should the teacher provide?’ and ‘How much free inquiry should occur?’ challenge many teachers when planning for inquiry
One way I’ve posed this question in the past is to ask:
“How do we ensure that our scaffolds help build learning without providing a
straight jacket for it.”
The complexities of answering this question touches all areas of inquiry based learning and teaching.
Very Brief Theoretical Background

The concept of scaffolding derives from the work of Jerome Bruner. The term was first used when Bruner was working with Wood.D.J. and Ross.G on the influential 1976 paper: The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology 17, 89- 100. In this article, (p90) scaffolding is described as being, “essentially of the adult “controlling” those elements of the task that are initially beyond the learner’s capacity, thus permitting him to concentrate upon and complete only those elements that are within his range of competence.”
A good summary of Bruner’s work can be found at:http://www.simplypsychology.org/bruner.html#sthash.KoX5tlwF.dpuf.
Bruner in developing his views on scaffolding was building on the work of Lev Vygotsky and in particular Vygotsky’s theory of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).
The ZPD is “the distance between the actual development level as determined by
independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined
through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable
peers” (Vygotsky 1978 Mind and Society, The development of higher psychological
processes : p86).

So what does this mean in the Classroom?
Implication 1
Teachers and students need to have clarity about the learning intentions of an inquiry.
Given its multiple elements and inquiries complexities it is vital that teachers and students have clarity about the purpose of an inquiry. To put it simply what are we scaffolding towards? Once the purpose of the inquiry is clarified teachers and (increasingly as they become more skilled in the process and autonomous in their learning) students, are aware of what critical points need to be scaffolded to help students reach the desired learning.
Since students do not begin an inquiry with the same combination of knowledge, skills and understanding this leads to the second implication ….

Implication 2
A Inquiring Classroom must be a differentiated classroom
No student embarks upon an inquiry with exactly the same level of mastery and therefore the same requirements for scaffolding. It is vital that effective pre assessment is carried out to ascertain which elements of the inquiry are initially beyond the learners capacity so that inquiry can be scaffolded.
Clearly there is a level of practicality that needs to come in here. Most of us have a life, we can not create unique scaffolds for each student for every task. Careful decisions thus need to be made about the most effective grouping strategies required to meet the diverse learning needs of students.
The key point is that we must not assume that one scaffold fits all. In addition we should be constantly and actively seeking data as to the level of scaffolding a student requires as they move through an inquiry. An inquiry classroom must be a flexible and responsive classroom.
This leads onto the third implication of structured inquiry…
Implication 3
Assessment must play a central role in the Inquiring Classroom
Genuinely formative assessment must be at the heart of the Inquiring Classroom. We must be constantly seeking data to let us know where a student is in their learning journey and how their scaffolding needs to be adjusted. If an assessment does not lead to a refinement in teaching as well as in the students learning its simply not been worth doing.
This leads onto the fourth implication…..

Implication 4
Feedback is key
John Hattie in his latest book Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on
Learning (p16) notes “The act of teaching requires deliberate interventions to ensure that there is cognitive change in the student.”
This deliberate teaching act of providing focused feedback, complimented with new input delivered at the optimum time, is essential to effective structured inquiry. The  teacher also needs to be in tune with the feedback they are getting from students, in terms of both the students own learning needs and the impact of the teachers own pedagogy. This focus of feedback both given and received allows the teacher to time and structure teacher interventions to maximise their impact on student learning.

Final Thoughts
Inquiry is a complex and challenging pedagogical approach which requires a teacher to be constantly aware of the purpose of the inquiry, the needs of individual students and the level of independence with which students can successfully engage in an inquiry.
When successful  inquiry leads to the excited,motivated and aware learners I’ve seen in many classrooms.
When done less successfully  inquiry can lead to one of two extremes:
Firstly inquiry with no structure. This often results in students who are working in a disorganised way on ‘busy’ surface level tasks and are lacking the structure to move their inquiries onto a deeper cognitive level.
Secondly structure with no inquiry. Here the ‘inquiry’ is entirely teacher led with students feeling no ownership over their own learning and thus are not making the personal connections with the content that are required to develop understanding.

To finish with thought from Edward de Bono in his 2009 book Think! (p48) “If you are in a locked room,you need a formal key to get out of the room. This key does not determine where you go once you are outside. Structure is your key.”

I look forward to hearing how practitioners around the world have addressed the
challenges inherent in the pedagogy of  inquiry to ensure that they provide every student with effective scaffolds to ensure deep learning in the present and the high levels of motivation, knowledge, skills and understandings required to expand that learning throughout their lives.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Adventure Time – An experiment in student driven learning

Most formal curricula have hundreds of outcomes. If you were to address them individually, you’d need to be at school for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for about 20 years…

What if you relinquished control and let learning happen?

What if the students had opportunities for authentic, meaningful, self-directed learning, through which many of the curriculum areas were addressed?

Last week I visited Jina’s class as they were preparing to present their pitches for ‘Adventure Time’. The couple of pitches I witnessed incorporated multiple curriculum areas and a broad range of trans disciplinary skills.

It’s interesting, then, that teachers think they can’t spare the time for this sort of learning!

I’ll be observing the learning with interest as this experiment unfolds and documenting it here.

Here’s what the kids are saying…

Posted in Inquiry | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Power to Say “No”

How often do you say “No” at an educational institution? This isn’t about the power of positive thinking and offering encouraging words to students. It’s about saying “No” to things that get in the way of learning.

Over the years, I’ve honed in with students on learning. What is it? How do they do it? How can they improve as learners? What type of classroom set up helps us learn best? How do we structure our day to learn best? Learning is exhilarating, engaging, fun, exhausting and helps us grow as individuals. I love actively learning with my students and love it when we’re all surprised and disappointed it’s lunch time or snack time or home time.

Why, though, does so much want to get in the way of students learning? Here are a few things that can get in the way of real learning:

  • assemblies
  • performances
  • meetings
  • a billion standards
  • standardized assessments
  • busywork
  • worksheets
  • excessive data collection
  • lots of celebrations

Sure, all of these could be learning experiences (I think). However, overuse of many of these things is hindering learning.

Today, I said “no” twice to these things and ended up looking like the grumpy teacher. I’ve heard the phrases, “But we always do this.” “It’s cultural.” “The kids expect it.” “The parents really want it.”

What’s behind my “NO,” though, is time and learning. I want my students to be the best learners they can be. I want them to flex their mind muscles and their body muscles and be active lifelong learners who can reflect and change the world. Most teachers want this.

Recently, teachers in Seattle, Washington, went on strike for more pay but also to enforce some other ideas that help with student mental and physical learning –like more recess and an end to the use of standardized test scores to evaluate them. Teachers across the US want to get rid of standardized tests, in large part because they take so much time out of learning.

A great short talk titled “What Gets Cut?” that I listened to recently came out of Learning2 in Manila this year. In it, Reid talks about time and all of the standards required in schools. Both the PYP and Common Core have an impressive 129 standards that need to be met…just for 3rd grade. Is this excess of standards helping or hurting our learning?

I agree with Reid. My cup is full. My students’ cup is full, and we just want to learn.

Do we have the power to just say “No?”

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The better to inform you with

This entry was originally published in my blog Ser y Estar:

‘Oh! Grandmother,’ she said, ‘what big ears you have!’
‘All the better to hear you with, my child,’ was the reply.
‘But, grandmother, what big eyes you have!’ she said.
‘All the better to see you with, my dear.’
‘But, grandmother, what large hands you have!’
‘All the better to hug you with.’
— Little Red Riding Hood.

A few days ago I was a spectator at our PYP 5 & 6 summative assessment presentation, and as it’s customary, witnessing what PYP students can do caused me to wonder and reflect on my personal journey. I applaud how PYP teachers are able to foster in students the confidence that is needed as learners to have the courage to take risks, to apply what they have learned and to make appropriate decisions and choices. I salute everyone in the community who enjoys being part of PYPers’ learning and support them in processes such as cooperation, collaboration, and leading or following as the situation demands. Most importantly, I will always appreciate and celebrate students’ creativity and imagination in their thinking and in their approach to problems and dilemmas. I will always be grateful to anyone who grants me the opportunity to experience how information and experiences are transformed into learning.
IMG_5563          IMG_5565

As I watched PYP 5&6 presentations for their Where We are in Place and Time unit, which focused on the impact certain events had in shaping the world we had today, I could not help by wonder:

  • Was my generation interested in looking at what had shaped us?
  • How did we document the part of history we were living?
  • How much of what we lived and/or documented is appreciated and utilized by younger generations?
  • Does the fact that the internet empowered us to document our past and share information imply that the passion with which we lived and experience happenings cannot be felt or perceived?
  • Would the experiences we lived be more intense and impactful if we had devised a way to document them?
  • What kind of bridges with the future are learners of the present building as they establish connections between the past and the reality they are living in? How can we, adults, contribute to this and learn in the process?
  • Are we transforming information with tactful purpose and precise intention so that it is useful to those who will look at it in the future?
  • Do we acknowledge the big opportunities we have to take action where we are in place and time in order to foresee where we could be (in place and time) in the future?

Students’ presentations and pieces of work are successful when they provoke reflections in spectators, evaluators, collaborators, and teachers. In this particular case, I am happy to refer to QAIS PYP 5&6 learners’ presentations as outstanding reflections of their learning process for they were able to:

  • Live their learning as a community, showcasing several attributes of the learner profile, each with different layers of depth.
  • Utilize a variety of tools and techniques to create videos that showcased the outcomes of their research, their voices, and their interests.
  • Look at the school surroundings, their local context, and aspect of global scale in their presentations, hence demonstrating that their awareness of the fact that information that is shared has a point of origin (where it is created), but it belongs to anyone who has access to it, and it is part of our job to make sure this information reaches as many individuals as possible.
  • Involve the community in their learning process, thus realizing that everyone around them is a potential tool that can contribute to their learning.
  • Help their peers, assuming a variety of roles (actors, camera men, extras, editors, to mention a few), and contributing to others’ success.
  • Make an informed choice on the focus they would use to present their big ideas and findings. And most importantly to
  • Contribute to the universal repository of information with their view of how they see those events that shaped the world they live in.

IMG_5560        IMG_5562

I arrived at Mr. Oussoren’s classroom; the door was ajar; teachers and students were getting ready to present their projects; I entered, trying to make as little noise as possible; I did not want to sit- I like to stand when I embrace experiences like this, with arms wide open; I was happy to see how these little giants spoke about big events in the world and how they engaged in their projects with determination and vision; and I saw the strange creatures they were: wearing multiple hats, playing with their voices, using tools as if they were mechanics of learning.

As I wondered, in silence I asked:
‘Oh, students, how powerfully you are sharing your learning!’
‘All the better to inform you with, señor,’ was their silent reply.

Posted in Collaboration, Inquiry | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Leading by Learning – Building a Hut

flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

I’ve spent the last few days on Year 4 Camp at Camp Sunnystones. It was a fantastic opportunity to connect with students while completing a range of unfamiliar activities. With this, exploring what it is they care about. Having spent so long focusing on feedback and growth, it was great to explore the human element in it all. Instead of dwelling on progression points and achievement standards, the focus was on mastering the particular task at hand and how we could support each other to get it done.

Although there was some focus on the environment and sustainability, the current learning focus at the moment, many of the conversation came back to the school’s four core values:





Another significant opportunity that arose though was the opportunity to be a meddler in the middle. Although we may not consider ourselves as ‘sages on the stage’, the structure of curriculum, instruction and learning spaces means that there is a tendency to manage the learning more than allowing it to happen. Camp provided a space for this as there are not many teachers with a background in archery or orienteering. A particular example of leading by learning was during the hut building exercise.

The activity involved working in teams to build huts with the materials lying around. The only requirement was that everyone had to be in sight of the camp fire. This meant that the camp guide always had an eye on where groups were at. It would have been easy to spend the few hours wandering between groups, discussing how the huts were going and providing advice. Instead, we decided as a group to place ourselves in the learner’s shoes and build our own.

We started with an idea, to find three trees with forks that we could somehow connect in order to make a roof. Although we could have spent time debating which idea was best, it was important to get behind one idea early and adapt from there.

As with many ideals though, we soon had to compromise. Either the good spots had already been taken or such a space did not exist. We did find two trees which we felt offered some potential. So we found a fallen limb and put in place our first support.

flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

The problem was that we could barely reach the beam and decided quickly that it just was not going to work. So we went back to looking.

We finally found a new space with a set of trees which seemed to offer some prospect. Although not ideal, we all felt it had some potential. So we all split up and set off to gather materials for our hut.

flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

Beginning with two strong limbs, we proceeded to assemble our humble abode. This process involved taking different roles, sharing reflections and providing suggestions. Although we had a clear purpose, the hut was a constant negotiation, cycling through the iterative process.

flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

What was interesting was the inspiration that it had on the students. Some visited to see what we were doing, others took it as a challenge to better what we were doing. One student told us that we were too noisy and weren’t very good at keeping secrets. While many adapted some of the aspects of our final pitch when they presented their huts. What was fantastic though was that, in the end, everyone benefited. That is the power of the room, or in our case, the bush.

For me, this activity represented what Jackie Gerstein describes as a model learner, where not only do educators share the process, but are open and conscious about the steps involved.  This is coupled with a willingness to fail in order to succeed. I was also reminded of the measurement for collaborative problem solving.

What about you? What experiences have you had where you have modelled the learning? Flipped the learning by leading the way? As always, I would love to know.

Published originally at Read Write Respond

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment