Thursday, November 25, 2021

The cow heart never would have happened.

This week I had the privilege of co-presenting a global call for Compassionate Systems practitioners based around the use of check-ins and the influence they can have on the various social fields that we are a part of. The conversations were rich and the whole experience gave me an even greater appreciation of the importance of the relational space when it comes to collaboration and learning.

Part of the presentation focussed on some of the check in experiences that I've observed or helped create. We discussed that it is the responsibility of the hegemonic individual to cultivate the space because they have more impact within it. In a school or classroom setting this is typically the teacher's responsibility. Over a number of years, in a few different contexts, I have been exploring the concept of learner agency and I briefly highlighted that for an agentic environment to flourish the stance of the teacher requires a shift to being that of a learner. This causes a disruption in the tacit power structure of schools and, for some, it could also create an existential crisis about what it actually means to be a teacher, but that's a discussion for another post.

When an educator listens and values the ideas of children in the learning environment, deep learning can occur. One of the examples that I shared showed how a teacher in a Kindergarten class used the Wheel of Emotion to explore some of the concepts in a picture book that they were reading. Along with the data she was collecting around the student's level of understanding around various conceptual literary ideas, she was also supporting the development of their emotional literacy in being able to recognise and name emotions and feelings. The Wheel of Emotion was used alongside several other learning experiences as well and quickly became a part of the student's toolbox in their inquiries.

The teacher's acknowledgment that students are powerful learners with the capacity to engage with big ideas, coupled with her willingness to genuinely listen and respond, meant that the responsibility for cultivating the social field within the learning environment was a shared one. This provided an opportunity for further meaningful learning. 


One day, as the students were exploring different 2D shapes, one of the students identified a heart shaped object. The choices the teacher had were to either re-direct back to whatever the regular shapes were that were a part of the written curriculum, or to follow this idea further. Again, we come back to the identity of the teacher and her professional stance as an educator. As I'm sure you can guess, she chose the second option. The questions and discussion that followed revealed insightful ideas and connections to the social-emotional learning that the students had familiarity with as they explored the symbolic connection between the heart and the emotion of joy - 
what does a 'double joy' feel like?, as well as scientific connections to the structure and function of the heart, which also included discussions around shape, capacity and volume. 

When the students asked if your heart could break, the dialogue shifted to an exploration of perspective between the biological functions of the heart and what happened if they didn't work, compared with the emotional feeling of having a broken heart. As their curiosity grew, the teacher was able to organise for a cow's heart to be delivered to school for them to dissect, helping to confirm some of their theories about the structure and strength of some of the materials, as well as supporting the generation of new questions and ideas.


Now, I love a rectangle and a triangle as much as the next person, but sometimes those shapes just aren't enough. The cow's heart wouldn't have happened if the teacher wasn't willing to engage with the ideas of the students around 2D shapes to see where they went. Supporting an environment where they felt comfortable to co-create the learning meant that the social field was a generative one and the learning took on a different level of meaning. The result was a combination of mathematical, scientific and social-emotional learning that highlighted the strength of a transdisciplinary approach to inquiry.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Compassionate Systems Professional Growth

Wow, it's been a long time since I've posted here! I've been doing a lot of writing since my previous post, but in a different format so have found it difficult to maintain my effort in this space at the same time. I am hopeful that this post is the mark of renewed commitment to my blog (although I've said that before). Here's hoping!

Back in 2018 I shared our school's involvement with the development of the Compassionate Systems Framework - a project born from Peter Senge's work of MIT. The ideas that underpin this framework have been finding their way through our school - primarily in the Primary School where I work, but there are also some seeds in other areas of the school as well. It's an interesting time.

Alongside this, over the past few years we've been trying to find a way forward with our professional growth model. We previously had a setup where we would run a series of lesson observations, using a long checklist of indicators to provide feedback for teachers. There were also pre-observation and post-observation meetings, goal-setting plans, collaborative partners....the whole package was simply to unwieldy to do well and ultimately left everyone feeling the same way my Dad did when I told him I'd cooked him a vegetarian dinner - unsatisfied.

After some reflection, a couple of key points were identified: (i) There is a belief at the school that there needs to be a differentiated system in place to help all educators develop and refine their practice; (ii) There is a feeling that the performative model of the past is not best placed to serve our needs in the future. We've had a play around with some different iterations of classroom visits, walkthroughs and coaching conversations but nothing has felt quite right for our context so far. Parts of these approaches were clearly worth leveraging, but no approach on its own worked well enough for us to confidently adopt. We're mindful that we may be missing opportunities for members of our learning community to engage with each other, but at the same time we don't want to rush into a model that isn't sustainable. 

Coming back to Compassionate Systems, over the past few months I have been thinking about what we do as a school to help our community members respond mindfully to the complex challenges they face. Teaching is a complex profession. Learning is a complex process. I wondered if there were some tools or ideas that might be helpful for us with our professional growth inquiry. 

You can see the iteration of the model that I'm currently working with below. In a nutshell, it is based on the idea that by focussing our attention on the things that we want, instead of those that we don't, we are able to develop a vision of personal mastery and, with the right support, sustainable change. This requires us to be highly tuned to our sense of self and starts with a consideration of our own well-being. For this model, I have followed the work of Richard Davidson and the Healthy Minds Program to frame the structure of well-being. Davidson's 4-Pillars of Well-being overlap nicely with Senge's Core Leadership Capacities of aspiration, reflective thinking and systems sensing. But we're a school, not a life coach. Well-being is a skillset that can be developed over time and there is a personal responsibility of practice and training on the part of the learner. For this reason, the focus of the initial conversation around well-being is centered on purpose instead of attempting to encompass all four pillars. After some tuning in through the Work and Meaning Inventory (WAMI - has there ever been a better acronym?), this first stage of the process occurs between a learner and a school leader and the conversation map is based around the first four questions on purpose:

  • What sort of educator do you aspire to be?
  • How are you integrating what you learn as a practitioner into your daily work?
  • What sort of observations can we put in place to capture growth?
  • Where have you embraced changes to impact the learning of your students?
There are additional questions that can be followed up with on the basis of how the conversation is going and could be used to delve into other areas of well-being, if necessary.

From here we move into the second phase, which takes the step from leadership of the self to the acknowledgment that we operate in systems that are both personal and universal. Phase 2 requires the collaboration of the rest of the learner's team and addresses a key component that was missing in our previous model - the need for psychological safety and the idea that great teams make more mistakes because they don't hide them and because they try new things. We already have a lot of research-based indicators of strong learning practices so there's no need to re-invent the wheel here. These can still be used as prompts for generative conversations around learning. The sheer number may be overwhelming and perhaps needs to be pruned - but there's no doubting the potential for conversation starters that they provide.

This phase allows an opportunity for the learner to engage in an additional reality around their practice, thus providing further perspectives of truth so that they can deeply understand the present before they go about designing the future. We have some conversation starters, some strategies for observing practice and some guiding questions that can be used to identify what it is that you currently do with your students and why. There are two vital factors here:

(i) Because the opportunity is given for the learner to identify a more nuanced version of their current reality (through the help of their team), any improvement that is ultimately suggested engages the mental models of the learner (Robinson's Theories of Action), instead of bypassing them. Through engagement, the current beliefs, practices and implicit ideas that are driving behaviours are understood.

(ii) Because the onus isn't on the various members of the team to manage the improvement a specific person, the opportunity exists for low-risk, honest discourse and the leaner has the opportunity to reflect on what it is that they might do that makes them resistant to change.

The third and final stage allows learners to identify something to pursue that is meaningful to them (as opposed to someone else). It asks the teacher to return to their leadership partner to reflect on what it is they they'd like to grow, and to put in place the conditions to allow this to occur. For this, the mandala for systems change is the suggested tool. An important part of this phase is the short-term and long-term indicators that are agreed upon. There is no point looking at the outcomes of an agreement (long-term indicators) if only half of the strategy is implemented. This is why we must identify and examine implementation indicators (short-term) as well.

This may all sound great, but whether it actually works or not is unknown - it's a pilot setup with a small group of teachers at this stage. I'm sure it will take several additional iterations before it's close to something that can be more widely used. But, as Senge says, it's not about what the vision is, it's what the vision does. This model may not work at all, but in the process of trying, we might find something that does.

Compassionate Systems Professional Growth Model by Dave Secomb on Scribd

Thanks to the prodigious wisdom of Peter Senge, Mette Boell, Richard Davidson, Viviane Robinson, Lisa Lahey and Robert Kegan for their inspiration in the design of this model.

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.