Monday, November 12, 2018

Planning for academic language acquisition

Over the past several years I have been fortunate to be involved with some thinking around the area of language acquisition. This originated at my previous school, where the student body was 98% non-English mother-tongue (L1), although it has carried over into my current school as we continue to explore the role that language plays in the development of international mindedness.

One piece that has emerged specifically from this inquiry into language acquisition in an immersed environment, was the desire to create a reference tool that would be useful for teachers - particularly when the support of EAL expert teachers was unavailable. We thought that there were several aspects of language acquisition were important to consider with regards to planning for learning but also felt that most teachers didn't have time to delve into the reams of resources that we'd collated. So our aim was to produce a format that was able to be accessed easily - 'a one pager'. Here is an example of what we're currently working with:
G5 HTWW by Dave Secomb on Scribd


The tool continues to evolve as different teachers use it - for example, we're currently looking at the best way to structure the vocabulary section. It's been particularly interesting to see the German department explore this model during this academic year.

You can see that the planner is separated into seven sections. The top three outline the broad context within which the inquiry will take place. We use First Steps as a common, though not exclusive, planning tool at my school so take the language features and text structure from there. This ensures consistency between the different classes for a particular grade without limiting everyone to a specific genre. We also identify a language objective that runs alongside the content understanding (central idea) of the unit. Again, we do this to ensure consistency across the grade in terms of what we are working towards with the students. After all, if achievement and progress in terms of the unit of inquiry is contingent on the acquisition and application of specific language features then we have a responsibility as educators to scaffold this learning with the students.

The following four sections are based on the key elements for an immersive model: Academic Language; Translanguaging Strategies; Linguistic Scaffolds and Differentiation. It is an expectation that all teachers across the school differentiate for their students so we acknowledge the importance of it but direct most of our energy into developing the other three sections. Academic Language can be looked as the building blocks of CALPS (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency). Working alongside this, the linguistic scaffolds are the mortar which hold the bricks in place. Translanguaging strategies are ways of leveraging the learner's L1 proficiency to access the additional language(s) they're learning.

It is worth noting that this tool is not designed to constitute an entire language learning program for a school or grade. It is aimed at informing pedagogy in the 'Learning Through Language' focus. While it will inevitably inform practice in all three areas of Halliday's model, the primary aim is to help develop the students' proficiency in being able to use language as a tool for inquiry. We would advise that there should also be a dedicated focus on 'Learning Language' and 'Learning About Language'. It's also important to note that, although this planning tool was originally devised for use with EAL students, there will undoubtedly be some aspects that are effective for all students in the class, particularly with the focus on academic language. The IB addresses this point in their publication Language and Learning in IB Programs (pg. 24) when discussing CALPS:

"However, it cannot be assumed that even those whose first language is the language of instruction are familiar with academic language. Some may be fluent in a dialect or non-standard variety, may have had little exposure to reading and writing in the language of the school and may also need to be made aware of the types of discourse necessary for school."




Photo by Diomari Madulara on Unsplash

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Compassionate Systems Framework

For the past couple of years my school has been involved with a project in collaboration with MIT and the IB, as well as several other IB schools scattered around the world. This is a guest post from our Director of Teaching and Learning, Jacob Martin, who explains the scope of the collaboration far more eloquently than I. It's exciting to be a part of this project and I'm interested in seeing where it goes and what part this framework might play in the enhanced PYP in our context.  

As a leading International Baccalaureate(IB) World School, we are frequently asked to participate in the development of educational practice at IB schools. One of the most exciting recent projects ISZL is taking a leading role in is the development of a new set of classroom practices called "The Compassionate Systems Framework". This is a combination of systems thinking tools often used in the classroom (examples here) and the development of a compassionate mindset in students. We have been truly amazed by the results of some of the works we have done with teachers and students at our school and the project is becoming a global educational project with ISZL leading the way. The project stems from the work of Peter Senge at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).


Young people throughout different cultures and circumstances are confronted with the complex contradictions of the interconnected, interdependent systems in our world (e.g. climate change, human migration, terrorism, substance use, etc.). An essential question for the future of education is how do we help students to reflect on, deeply understand and respond mindfully and compassionately rather than just feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of these systems. With the growing interest in education in social and emotional learning (SEL) and mindfulness today, we feel it is especially timely to show how these can combine with skills in understanding systems and complexity to establish a cognitive and affective foundation for global citizenship and what we at ISZL call “International Mindedness.”

We are looking to developing the skillsets of a systems thinker with our students, through using a variety of systems thinking tools and practices: seeing deeper systemic structures underlying surface events, and how mental models and “artefacts” shape those structures. But, even for skilful systems thinkers, complex issues can easily be seen as something outside of ourselves, or something we understand intellectually but not emotionally. “Systems sensing” skills help to “sense into” the multiple experienced realities in any complex setting.
Over time, these skills can combine to nurture a compassionate stance. One technique involves understanding the structural sources of problems that go beyond individual people or groups (avoiding a blame based culture). Another lies in staying “next to that other” and feeling with them how they feel yet with less internalisation of the other’s emotional state than can occur with empathy alone (and the consequent feelings of being overwhelmed or “emotionally high-jacked”) and yet also holding an intention for others’ well-being - which is why compassion is seen in many developmental traditions as a cultivated, refined state of being.
In this framework we deliberately cultivate compassion as an essentially attribute of the mind: to cultivate compassion is to be able to appreciate the systemic forces that influence people’s actions. It is the capacity to hold paradoxes - to see and sense the larger system with all its interdependence and interconnectedness and all the unintended consequences of human behaviour - without judgment but with real care for the system and everyone involved in it.
In a world where snap judgements and beliefs are often used to justify actions, where the media bubble we each inhabit is reinforcing stereotypes and beliefs, we are looking to provide our students with a way to see problems more deeply and to understand and find compassionate solutions to them.

Monday, September 17, 2018

PYP for new parents

Well, it's been almost a full year since I've last posted on this blog. So much has been happening over the past year and there's lots to write about. I have actually been doing a lot of writing - just not in this format and the time hasn't yet quite been right for me to get back into it. Looking back at some of my most recent posts, there's some things that I'd like to revisit - but I'll save them for another time. To get things started again, I thought I'd share a presentation that I facilitated last week with our new parents at ISZL.

Starting at a new school is always a nervous time. Will I enjoy it? Will I make friends? Will I know what is going on? And that's just the parents! It's logical that if a family moves to a new country with their children and they can settle into a new school quickly then is eases the burden on the rest of the move. In my years of experience working with new families I often find that those that weren't entirely sure about whether it was the right decision to move can sometimes narrow their focus on things that they might be able to have more control over. School is one of those things. Offering opportunities for parents to listen and discuss their experiences and ideas around education can help to ease any concerns that they might have.

Let's not hide anything here - the PYP is different to many approaches to primary schooling in different places around the world.  What's helpful for parents to know, in a curriculum sense, is that their kids will be more or less learning similar subjects to what they're used to (although this may look a little different in practice), we look for regular opportunities to collect data on whether their children are learning, and that there's a school-wide focus on for learning for the future. Oh, and there's very minimal home learning - more on that in a separate post.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Second Machine Age


Over the past couple of years I’ve been randomly exploring what the future of education and learning might hold for us. Recently I’ve been dipping in and out of the book: The Second Machine Age: Work, progress and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. This was published in 2014 so even now there’s a risk of some of the things mentioned becoming negligible. More on that in later posts. 

The book begins by shedding some light on the title. The authors quote anthropologist Ian Morris (author of Why the West Rules - For Now) as he describes human societal progress. There have been some pretty major events and developments that most of us would consider landmark moments - things that have significantly changed the course of things. Domesticating animals; farming and agriculture; great wars and empires (Ottomans, Romans, Arabs and Mongols); philosophical leaders such as Confucius, Buddha and Socrates; the establishment of major faiths (Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam); systems of writing and number; Democracy, The Black Death, Christopher Columbus - the list goes on. It is difficult to single out one of these as being the most important. Different groups of people from different backgrounds will all have valid reasons why their choice should take the top spot. In his work, Morris aims to somewhat settle this argument. He developed a way to quantify what he calls ‘social development’. For an in-depth definition of his equation and the various factors that play a part, take a look at either his book or the 2nd Machine Age, which briefly describes it. In a nutshell, though, it’s defined as ‘a groups ability to master it’s physical and intellectual environment to get things done.’ The results of his work are, in a word, astounding. As the graph below shows, numerically speaking, almost everything mentioned previously hasn’t mattered all that much when compared to one other thing. The axis show social development graphed against total worldwide human population:


As you can see, progress was pretty much static for a long, long time. Until around 200 years ago when we see a dramatic shift. Something sudden and profound arrived which bent the curve of human population and social development. This was the Industrial Revolution and, more specifically, the steam engine developed and improved by James Watt. Prior to Watt’s developments, previous steam engine designs could harness about 1% of the energy released by burning coal. Watts’ design increased this by threefold and started us on the path to being able to overcome the limitations of muscle power and generate massive amounts of useful energy at will. This lead to factories and mass production, railways and mass transportation - the things we now recognise more commonly as modern life. Brynjolfsson and McAfee call this the First Machine Age - the first time that our progress was driven primarily by technological innovation. They claim that computers and other digital innovations are doing for our brains what the steam engine did for our muscles. This is the Second Machine Age.

The authors generalise three conclusions from their work:
(1) We are living in an age of incredible digital progress. The technologies that we experience as part of this are not new (Time magazine declared the personal computer its “Machine of the Year” in 1982). But just as it took generations to improve the steam engine to the point that it could power the Industrial Revolution, it’s also taken time for us to enhance and refine our digital engines. 

(2) The transformations bought about by digital technology will be profoundly beneficial ones. Technology can bring us more choice and freedom in our consumption - information from books and friends, entertainment from superstars and amateurs, expertise from teachers and doctors to name a few. Economic historian Martin Weitzman claims that “the long-term growth of an advanced economy is dominated by the behaviour of technical progress”. Technical progress is improving exponentially.

(3) Digitisation is going to bring with it some thorny challenges. All benefits have challenges that must be managed and this will be no different. Technological progress is going to leave behind some people, perhaps even a lot of people, as it races ahead. It’s a great time to be a worker with the skills and education that allows you to use technology to create and capture value. Unfortunately, though, it’s not a great time time to be a worker with ‘ordinary’ skills because computers, robots and other digital technologies are acquiring these skills and abilities at an extraordinary rate. It’s important to discuss the likely negative consequences of this second machine age and start a dialogue about how to mitigate them. The problems won’t fix themselves but they’re not insurmountable.


With digital technology advancing into the realm of the stuff of science fiction, the authors stress that the choices we make from now on will determine what that world will look like. In future posts I’ll outline some of their research and ideas for the future. The implications for education could be monumental and I look forward to being a part of this.


Photo Credit: dluders Flickr via Compfight cc

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Maths POI

Over the past two years I've been leading a group of teachers through an inquiry into the way we structure our mathematics scope and sequence here at Branksome Hall Asia. During the first year of this process we identified aspects of our current scope and sequence document for mathematics that we felt needed further clarification or enhancement. We wanted to maintain the conceptual focus that is essential for the PYP so decided to keep the same descriptors for the Constructing Meaning and Applying Understanding sections that are highlighted in the IB Scope and Sequence document. We'll examine these as part of our next review.

For the Transferring Meaning section, different working groups focused on each strand of mathematics - Number, Data Handling, Shape and Space, Pattern and Function and Measurement - and rearranged them into organising titles that encompassed the important aspects of each strand. For example, in Pattern and Function the strand titles were - Identifying Patterns, Representing Patterns and Rules and Relationships. The aim of this was to make the progression of learning indicators in this section more explicit for teachers to use as signposts for their learners' next steps. We designed each indicator to be written in two ways - an 'entry in to phase' version and an 'exiting phase' version. This helps with differentiating content for individual learners as they work towards a conceptual understanding.

The resulting document is rather lengthy and in some ways this is unfortunate. As a group we discussed our concern that some teachers may use the scope and sequence as a 'to-do' list, hastily aiming to tick off as many of the learning indicators as possible. Well-intentioned, but not conducive to the development of conceptual understanding. The relentless pursuit of doing and knowing doesn't allow time for true reflection or any form of genuine application in order for the content to take on meaning for the learner (i.e. understanding). So, while we had a useful document for teachers to use as a road map for their students' learning, it wasn't as effective as it could be.

I was fortunate to connect with some deep educational thinkers during a visit to Thailand a couple of years ago and was introduced to the idea of a maths POI by Mignon Weckert. The maths POI provides a conceptual framework for mapping the maths scope and sequence across the grade levels. Because it focuses the learning around big ideas, it helps teachers to assess for understanding in mathematics and ensures that facts, procedures and algorithms are underpinned by concepts.

The implementation of this has been an interesting exercise. We are coming to the end of our first year and some parts have worked well while others need tweaking. A couple of common questions are:

(1) Is the PYP is meant to be trans-disciplinary then why are we planning all of our maths as standalone units? We are fully committed to the trans-disciplinary nature of the PYP. However, we are also aware that not all units allow for a seamless weaving of mathematics alongside the other disciplines. On review, the eagerness our teachers to embed all of their maths into the POI was leaving us with some areas that weren't being addressed, or were only being addressed as an after-thought (i.e. "oh my gosh, there's only 2 weeks left of the year and we haven't looked at mean, mode and median yet! Quick, do this, kids!". By mapping everything out into conceptual units, we can ensure that a cogent arrangement of the scope and sequence is achieved without any gaps in the learning. Once this was finalised, teachers then looked for the links to their units of inquiry. This helped to decide the order that each unit would be taught in as teachers were able to see if the unit itself provided a lens to inquire into the mathematical ideas, or if they needed to be introduced prior to the UOI so that maths could be used as a tool for inquiry. So although they're planned as standalone units, the teaching of them is still as trans-disciplinary as it was previously.

(2) If the PYP is designed around phases of learning then why do you assign units to certain grades? This is aspect that we've found the most difficult to manage. Students are not robots that progress in a perfectly linear fashion each year they attend school so of course some are ready for different aspects of a maths concept than others are. The message to our faculty has been that, additional to the other benefits of this framework, the Maths POI provides us with a system for organising the units. The way we've approached the application of this (i.e. the teaching side of things) is that teachers in a grade could be accessing unit of inquiry planners directly above or below the one that is allocated to them. This isn't the perfect system yet. We need to figure out a way of tracking which students have had access to different UOIs than might have otherwise be expected. Its not fair on, for example, a grade four teacher if they plan to work with their allocated measurement unit only to find out that half of the students have already investigated these ideas during the previous year. It's feasible that class teachers could be running three separate (yet related) maths units concurrently to cater for the readiness needs of the students in the class. This is a tricky balancing act on by itself, let alone without a clear system of knowing who's where. So, in summary, the units are arranged by grade but the actual teaching still adopts a 'phase' approach with students working at several different stages.

The Maths POI is a useful way of framing teachers' thinking about their teaching of mathematics. It provides a way to unpack content in a way that aligns closely with the principles of the PYP. The real impact, however, is in the teaching and assessing that accompanies this approach. If teachers plan conceptually but teach traditionally then it serves no purpose.