Letting go is hard to do…

Guest post by Art teacher, Elena Sacks…

As most specialist PYP art teachers know, time is always of the essence. We need to cram in as many skills and techniques into the year as well as tying in with some units of inquiry. I always have felt compelled to feed the children with information as well as modelling techniques.

Lately I have begun to let the students learn what I used to spoon feed them through self discovery. I got to a point in my teaching where I realized that the majority of kids were switching off as I rambled on excitedly, together with numerous visual examples on my smart board. In reality, the kids just wanted to “get on with it”.

After being mentored earlier this year by a fellow teacher (Jocelyn), I soon realized that I did far too much talking. This became evident after Jocelyn filmed me teaching. When I reviewed the footage, my first reaction was “God I talk a lot!” It was then that I decided to reassess how I conducted my lessons. Jocelyn also advised me to read the book “The 5 Minute Teacher”.

After some reassessment, I decided that it was time to let go and hand over more ownership to the students. Initially I found this difficult to do, but very soon I realized that by letting the kids work more out for themselves, and the less I tried to control the lesson, the more engaged the majority of the class was. Yes the less is more theory definitely rang true! Surprisingly there was less petty socialization during the lesson and more discussion about the activity and sharing of ideas.

Last week I took the letting go a step further. I had never let the children go off in different directions to do an art activity outside the art room. This was because I always wanted to make sure I could oversee and have control of the activity. I decided that I wanted to do a photographic project with my Year 6 kids to tie in with their Science inquiry. They would need to go around the school in small groups to photograph. I was very nervous before the first session: What if they mucked around when I was not in sight? What if they didn’t stay on task? I decided to bite the bullet and just see what happened.

To my surprise the kids behaved responsibly, working collaboratively in groups of threes and fours. I merely became an observer, only engaging with them if they required some assistance or advice .

The students spent a good hour experimenting with ways to create ‘forced perspective’ photos. The only provocation I gave them was a 40 second clip and two photographic examples. From there they had to work out how this concept worked and why or how it connected to their Science unit of inquiry.

Here are some of the results:

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 6.47.23 pm Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 6.47.51 pm Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 6.47.58 pm Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 6.48.04 pm

Yes letting go is hard to do and I still struggle with it at times, but when I do manage to do it, I feel a sense of exhilaration and success for myself and the students!


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Differentiating for “Gifted and Talented”

I’ve been thinking about how to differentiate more for “exceptional students” lately, and today a woman from Tournament of Minds talked to us about a gifted and talented program we will offer at our school. She made me think about whether adding an additional “gifted and talented” program is necessary at an IB school. I’m not convinced yet. I’m curious what others think.

In any educational program, we have a diverse learning student body. I teach at an inclusive PYP school, and we have a range of learners, from those with special needs to exceptional learners. It’s always a challenge to engage everyone, I agree. However, I don’t think adding a program just for gifted and talented is the answer.

Here’s what I know about Tournament of Minds, a program out of Australia, from our workshop this morning and some research. It’s a program that offers the following:

  • problem solving with demanding, open-ended challenges
  • an opportunity for passionate students to demonstrate their skills in a public way
  • a chance to develop skills like enterprise, time management, and the discipline to work as a team
  • competition
  • knowledge and appreciation of self and others
  • a chance to encourage experimentation and risk taking
  • an ability to expand and reward creative and divergent thinking
  • a chance to stimulate a spirit of inquiry and a love of learning

Here’s where I’m confused. The PYP, a program where I’ve worked now for 8 years, seems to be a place where we do all of that in the classroom with all learners (ok, except the competition). The IB Learner Profile, attitudes and skills stress:

  • risk-taking
  • knowledge
  • communication
  • cooperation
  • collaboration
  • creativity
  • time management

and inquiry…into open-ended problems…self-directed learning. And, it’s for all learners. The message I got this morning was that Tournament of Minds (TOM) would allow those students who are gifted and passionate a chance to shine.

However, aren’t we supposed to allow all learners to shine in our everyday school life?

In a brochure from the IB: What is an IB Education, it says:

Through the interplay of asking, doing and thinking, this constructivist approach leads towards open, democratic classrooms. An IB education empowers young people for a lifetime of learning, independently and in collaboration with others. It prepares a community of learners to engage with global challenges through inquiry, action and reflection.

I’m a passionate PYP educator, and I believe in trying to find challenges that allow students to think critically about problems in the world around them. In my diverse classroom, open-ended problem solving has been the best way to engage all learners. I’m concerned that by offering an after-school program for “gifted” learners, it diminishes what we do in the classroom or allows some an excuse to carry on with a traditional method of teaching because the “gifted” are taken care of after school.

I don’t know, but I’m wondering and inquiring…What do others think? Is the extra “gifted and talented” label and program a thing of the past? Is it something we should already be doing in every classroom in the IB…or in any school for that matter?

Originally posted on https://kdceci.wordpress.com/



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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



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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

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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.

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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…

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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?”

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