Friday, November 15, 2013

A question of mindsets

I'm currently reading Mindset, by Carol Dweck. It's a book that I've been meaning to read for quite some time now, having heard much about the ideas in workshops and from other colleagues. Our Middle and High School Head asked her faculty to read it as part of their professional reading this year and I was able to get my hands on a spare copy.

The general idea is fairly straightforward. There are two mindsets (the view or attitude that someone adopts) about oursleves: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. Fixed mindset people believe that you are born with a specific amount of talent and ability for something and that no matter how hard you work you won't be able to really change this level. They believe that 'abilities are carved in stone' (pg. 6). Fixed mindset people constantly feel as though they have to prove themselves. This is because if they can't appear clever and smart then the only alternative is that they appear dumb, seeing as they can't do anything about their current ability levels. Therefore, they generally choose tasks that are just difficult enough for them.

Those who hold a growth mindset believe that you are born with a specific level of talent and ability for something but this can be altered by practising and honing your skills, knowledge and understanding of particular disciplines. They don't believe that your traits are 'simply a hand you're dealt with and have to live with' (pg. 7). Growth minded people believe that a person's qualities can  be cultivated through their efforts and that everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

When I first heard about these two mindsets, and as I began reading the book, I considered myself to be firmly in the 'growth' party. I definitely believe that I can improve myself by working harder and thrive on challenges to my thinking and abilities in the work that I do. This is also recognisable in the people that I choose to associate closely with. My wife is an amazing woman. But I'm not attracted to her purely for her gorgeous looks, fabulous singing voice and sense of humour. She is someone (probably more than anyone else) that sees my faults and helps me to work on them, challenges me to be a better person and encourages me to learn new things. She doesn't undermine my self-esteem but she does foster my self-development. I also thrive on learning opportunities. This weekend we have an EAL expert coming to our school to run a workshop on EAL learning styles and to give us some ideas and techniques about how to teach EAL students. Some of our teachers are upset that they have to give up their weekend. Sure, this is an inconvenience for all of us. But Dr. Rojas has a busy schedule and cannot come at any other time. Even though it is on the weekend, this is still a great opportunity to learn and improve our skills, knowledge and understanding of teaching EAL students - and our entire student body are EAL (save a handful of students). These are all attributes of someone who has a growth mindset. I will say though, that I don't always adopt this stance. If I'm confronted with difficulties in things that I'm not passionate about then I'm far less inclined the put the effort in to improve, especially if my starting point is fairly low. Anyone who has seen me dance would agree with this.

I'm only part-way through the book, however, and I'm starting to discover some interesting elements to the mindsets. Perhaps I'm not as growth oriented as I first thought. Apart from choosing particular tasks that allow them to prove themselves to their peers, fixed mindsetters also regularly ask themsleves evaluative questions such as: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser? They feel smart when something comes easily for them (and others struggle with it), when they finish something and its perfect, and when they don't make any mistakes (pg. 24). I can admit to asking myself these questions and I definitely feel the same way about some of the answers above that have come from people with a fixed mindset. Does this mean that I'm not a growth-minded person after all? Probably not. The fact that I'm even asking myself these questions indicates that I don't believe that someone is born one way.

Carol's message is at the beginning of the book is that 'everyone has the ability to change their mindset'. My current stage of understanding is that I appear to be on some sort of mindset continuum. I would predict that I'm more towards the growth end of the spectrum, and I don't feel like there's a clear cut position of being totally in one or the other (for me at least). I do feel smart when I can do things that others have difficulty with. But I also believe that this is a result of the hard work that I've put in over many years - it hasn't just happened. I also don't feel that because I can do something well that it doesn't mean that I can't still improve at it.

So this all points to me having more of a growth mindset than a fixed one. I am curious to find out more about the intricacies of each mindset and I wonder if, as my understanding of each continues to develop, my idea of where I place on the mindset continuum will change?

Photo credit

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Scaffolding Action

At the beginning of our school year here at BHA, our Elementary Principal spoke to us about the development of a service culture within our school. This is one of our school wide goals for the 2013/14 year so she wanted to give us the opportunity to work on some ideas before the students arrived. Seeing as we're in the PYP part of the IB, we figured that service would best be developed through the Action component of our units of inquiry.

Taking action can be a tricky element at times. Aside from the personal risks and challenges that someone must take in order to organise and implement meaningful action, there are also preconceptions from teachers to deal with. I bought one of these preconceptions with me. It's something that I'd never considered too much but now that I've had the opportunity to think through things in a more focused way, my understanding has moved to a new (hopefully better) place. I was of the opinion that teacher generated action was not worthy of a PYP classroom. The reason for this is that it simply wasn't meaningful to students if it didn't come from their own inquiry.

One of the readings that we were given helped me to move my understanding forward. It was a combination of sections from a book called Educating for Global Citizenship by Boyd Roberts. One part described a perspective of student participation that was defined by Hart's ladder of participation. You can see in the diagram below that there are eight levels. The first three are defined as non-participation and the top five indicate different levels of student participation. What this tool has helped me to realise is that, while we want our students to think, act and reflect independently, they need modelling to see what this looks like - just like anything else. It means that it's ok for adults to suggest and even initiate action in our classrooms and schools.

Seeing as we're inquiring into systems for our current UOI, my teaching partner in Gr. 5 and I decided that we would take advantage of a couple of authentic challenges that had recently arisen in our school community and see if the students could develop some systems that would help to solve them. We used Hart's ladder to identify where we landed in terms of student participation - to make sure that what we were planning was still considered as being participatory. We think we're at level six - Adult initiated, shared decisions with youth.

The two challenges that we posed to the students were (1) Find a way to organise, collect and store recyclable materials for use in our Maker Space (which is currently under construction) and (2) Develop a system that could help us organise how the students in Residence use the Branksome Hall Bikes (they were being left all over the campus and not being returned).

We then gave the students a lot of autonomy in the process. They could choose which cause they wanted to work for and collated their ideas with the other members in their group.  We thought is was important for the girls to recognise that once an idea was put on the table then it belonged to the group and could be improved on -  the girls were very good with this and, as a result there were some fantastic suggestions.  For the bikes group, some ideas included fixing GPS monitors to each bike and having them send information back to a central location (e.g. the security office) so that they always knew where each bike was; developing Branksome Hall Asia currency  that each student could use to pay a deposit on each bike they borrow; and creating a bike borrowing list that everyone had to sign up on before they could borrow. The Maker Space group wanted to create a commerical to be shown at Assembly so everyone could see what they wanted; they contacted journalism club to get them to write an article about our challenge for the school newsletter; and they are in the process of designing a Branksome Hall Asia recycling bag that will be given out free of charge to everyone at school to encourage them to bring in materials from home.

Although these ideas were initiated by the classroom teachers, it is clear that the decisions are being made by the students. They still have ownership over the action that they are taking and it is meaningful for them. Our hope as classroom teachers is now that the students have seen what this looks like then they will be able to initiate action of their own accord. They may still need more examples - and that is fine - the important thing is that they are involved as an active part of the process.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Developing Essential Agreements

At the beginning of the year many classrooms create Essential Agreements - a class consenus that will guide the behavioural expectations throughout the year. At best these are student centered (and led) notions that are meaningful and real. At worst they are a hastily put together list of rules that a teacher expects students to abide by.

These can be an important product for a classroom. They make a statement about the sort of culture that everyone feels should be developed throughout the year. My teaching partner this year in Grade Five (along with others from previous years and schools also), and I felt that this was important enough to spend at least a week on in class. Below is the outline of what we tried this year. So far it has worked, but we might change some things for next year.


This is a popular video that I'm sure has been shown many times in many different classrooms, workshops and offices. Nonetheless, it contains many underlying themes and messages that can be very useful to tune into. Below are some of the answers that our students came up with (although there are many more that could also be raised).

It hooked the students into thinking about the types of behaviours that the PYP and inquiry based classrooms encourage.

The Dot Game: This is a game that I played at a workshop about Group Dynamics. Everyone pulls a piece of paper out of a hat that is either blank or has a dot on it. There are less dots than non-dots. The game has a few simple rules: Non dots must tell the truth. Dots can choose whether to tell the truth or lie. The aim of the game is to form the biggest group of non-dots possible before the time is up. If a group has just one person in there that is a dot then the entire group is out of the game. Once the time runs out, each group reveals how many members they have and any dots can reveal themselves and see how many groups they managed to knock out.

The game reveals many different social lessons:  establishing the truth can be difficult, whether reputations count, trust, faith, should you always believe the people that you’re working with? Are there hidden agendas? Alliances/cliques, the importance of listening to other ideas, irrational exclusion, the difficulty of making decisions without the facts or data to back it up, the importance of a sense of belonging. This game is also a good platform from which to raise the important beliefs about how we should treat each other. 

Freyer Model: Another task we ask the students to complete is using a Freyer Model to help define each element of the Learner Profile in order to come up with a definition that is meaningful for the students. Although its difficult to read, I've included an example from the 'Inquirer group' for this year. I've also used this organiser with Grade Three classes but haven't tried with any students younger than that. I've found that it helps the students to make stronger connections with what we're asking them to model. If students don't know what it is they're aiming for then there's little chance of them achieving it. That's also a metaphor for teaching in general, I believe.

So, below are our Essential Agreements for this year. They took just over a week to develop and I think the students have a solid grounding in what they stand for, and will continue to build meaning throughout the year.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A new renaissance

Last week I found this article via twitter that gathered the opinions of a variety of people (including one of the Muppets). They were all asked what the one tangible idea about education they felt was worth spreading. Their answers were interesting to read and ranged from removing homework, to differentiation, to teacher training to university graduation.

The university opinion stuck in my mind for a couple of reasons - (i) I believe that this has a 'tail wags the dog' effect on education where many reform movements get stifled by the time they reach the stage of higher education because of the requirements to enter places such as Universities. If students need to be ranked in order to get into these places then society has generally fallen back on the only way they know how to do this - through summative testing. There seems to be a slow push towards a more formative approach over the past 10 years (give or take) with some education systems placing greater emphasis on the year (or in some cases years) long work of students. Some higher education institutions also now place greater value on 'non-academic' (for use of a better word at 6am in the morning!) entrance qualifications, such as service programs. Others are moving away from exam-based entrance results, preferring to observe a larger snapshot of student work through alternative reporting tools, such as portfolios. This is generally a positive move in my opinion.
(ii) I read a post just this morning on a friends blog where she talked about a university revolution - where universities face transformations over the next 20 years. You can read more about it here.

Have a read through the list of ideas here and see which ones interest you the most. Whichever you choose, it appears that we are approaching or are already in a renaissance period of education, where interest is renewed and many ideas are generated. These periods can be confusing for education practitioners due to the large amounts of new information available to them. They have to decide where they lie in terms of these new perspectives and practices. But it is not only teachers - and this is what makes it so difficult. If there is an Art renaissance then the artists themselves are redefining what art means and the consumers do just that - consume. This has an affect on the period at the time but doesn't really impact on those people's (the consumers) day to day lives. But in education our students aren't merely consumers - they are active builders of the renaissance. What happens every day can affect them for their entire life. They have years to experience the development of Impressionism but they only get one year of Grade Five. So we have to remind ourselves that we're not only going through these changes ourselves, but that our actions also impact the lives of many students, parents, friends - and everyone has an opinion.

So renaissance periods can be difficult times. But they're also very exciting.

Photo Credit: Prabhu B Doss via Compfight cc

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A new start

Today was the first day with students at my new school - Branksome Hall Asia. This photo was taken just as I walked out of the Upper Junior School Pod, looking back to the School Centre with the Performing Arts building on the left. We spent the day interviewing all returning and new students. This gave them the chance to get to know me a little bit, me the chance to get to know them a little bit, and also for the parents and I to meet. This is especially important for our residence students as their parents will leave tonight back to their homes in other parts of the world. While its been a busy two weeks here its also been reasonably casual - I certainly can't recall a calmer start to a school year for me personally. This is partly due to the way that JoAn (our Principal) has organised the induction and collaborative weeks, and also partly due to the fact that we are only in our second year as a school so there are some things that are not set up that we don't have to worry about yet. That said, its going to be a very busy year as we prepare for PYP and MYP accreditation in October, following our confirmation last year as an IB World school. We'll also be charged with developing planners, setting up routines and structures and also working to establish a culture that best enables us to deliver the program to our students.

Although I signed with BHA in January, I've been keeping abreast of the school's updates over the last six months. We had a smooth arrival to Jeju and have settled into our new house comfortably. The usual induction week activities (setting up bank accounts, internet, photos etc) were interjected with a couple of bright spot moments:

(1) Service learning & Inclusion: I'll admit that when I signed on one thing that concerned me about the school is that it will essentially be an educational opportunity for the rich. This is true, in part, but the school recognises this and one their school goals this year is to develop a service learning culture. Our Director, Peter Kenny, spoke to the staff and reiterated that a culture of service has to develop from within the attitudes of the student body itself. He said that it must be reflective and also must involve some form of action. I noticed his referral to the core elements of the PYP. To help foster this attitude, the school offers scholarships to Korean students who would otherwise be unable to attend BHA. In a breakout session with JoAn she spoke about Hart's ladder of participation and after our discussions we were given time in our grade teams to plan for action in our first UOI. This was a very effective way of getting us to explicitly plan for one of the five key elements. She had also used the same technique in a session the day prior when we'd discussed concept based learning. The article about participation cam from a book called 'Educating the Global Citizen' which I'm keen to get hold of. This session in particular helped us as a staff to understand ways that we could foster action and participation with our students. Certainly in my own practice I've often expected that action should come solely from the students and that if it didn't happen then there wasn't much that I could do about it. I've now been thinking of possible ways that I can model and engage the students in action from the start of the year. This will hopefully help to encourage them to take their own action as the year progresses.

(2) Doing things differently - In the introduction for the new staff only, and again once the existing faculty returned, we were all told that the leadership of the school has full faith in us as practitioners. We were told that the school wants to live its vision of being the 'pre-eminent educational community of globally minded learners and leaders'. To this end we were told that, although we are aligned with our philosophical beliefs of the IB, we were encouraged and expected to do things 'a little differently'. This means taking risks, learning from failures and supporting each other in our initiatives. Glen Radojkovich, our Head of school & his wife, JoAn, both mentioned this next part on different occasions without knowing that the other had said it. It was certainly inspiring to hear the same clear message from our leaders.

(3) The Learner Profile - Another things that was mentioned on the very first session of the very first day was the  importance of the Learner Profile and how it is central to everything we do in this school. This was especially good to hear after working in schools who's standard line were 'we aren't an IB school, we're a school that offers the IB'. The current staff here are a mixture of nationalities, some having experience in other International Schools and others coming directly from their home countries. The important thing about them all, however, is that no matter where they come from, they're all willing to try and learn about the PYP and try new things out - not just bring their 'suitcase curriculum' with them.

I'm very excited to get started with all of the students tomorrow and am looking forward to testing myself, trying out new things and learning from my failures this year.

Friday, May 24, 2013

iPads: Us or the students?

We are approaching the end of our year long pilot with iPads in Grade Three. We've had 20 iPads to share between five classes for the year and I personally feel like these have been a useful addition to the classroom. I believe the general consensus of our Leadership team is that iPads are best used for consuming rather than creating, hence they may not be the best investment for the school. I'd like to make two points in regard to this. 

Firstly, teachers and admin teams are generally making this decision. While they may collaborate, the buck ultimately stops with them. Some might say that's fair enough too. After all, the school is providing the budgets to purchase hardware and the teachers are responsible for making sure that learning occurs. Why shouldn't they have the final say? I'm not saying that they shouldn't have a voice in this decision, but they shouldn't be the only voices. If they are then I believe that the system of feedback & decision making has some limitations. 

All teachers and administrators are making decisions about technology that is relatively new to them. The first iPads were launched around 3 years ago and before that us old timer adults used laptops, desktops, calculators, abacuses and chalk and slate! If the school were deciding whether to introduce individual blackboards for every student then almost every teacher would be qualified to contribute an opinion, having been at school at some stage in their lives where a blackboard was used. I'm fairly confident that every one of these teachers would also  feel quite blasé about the initiative. However, for someone that never before had any way of sharing some written information (or a diagram) with a class of between 20 - 40 students, this could be quite exciting. That's how most of us feel about iPads too. These are machines that are capable of doing things that we've never been able to do before. But not for a lot of our students. iPads were released in 2010. They operate similarly to iPhones, which were launched in 2007. If we use a random marker of 3 years of age for a child to be able to use one of these devices effectively (and it could even be younger), then that means that conceivably a student up to the age of 10 wouldn't be able to remember a time when these weren't around. The point I'm trying to make is that for some of our students will consider iPads to be technology just as much as some teachers would consider a television technology. Thomas Whitby, from The Educator's PLN, puts it quite nicely when defining what technology is:

Now let’s look at the student perspective. There isn’t one kid today in our modern culture that doesn’t have access to a computer. Most kids today live with cellphones, if not Smartphones. If you don’t know already, a smartphone is simply a complex computer with phone capabilities. What many adults don’t get is that computers and smartphones are not considered technology by kids. They are not in awe of the capabilities of these tools. They expect it. It is part of their world. Educators should not be so arrogant as to think that they have the ability to decide whether or not kids can use these tools for learning. The kids do it with, or without adult permission. Any educator has the right to choose to live in a cave however, they do not have the right to drag their students in there with them.

It was stated at a staff meeting recently, with reference to a possible introduction of BYOD for our Elementary students, that 'we need to give time for the students to be comfortable with using these different types of technologies'. I disagree with this. A high majority of our students are already comfortable using a myriad of devices. I think a more accurate statement would be that 'we need to give time for the teachers to be comfortable managing these different types of technology'. An even better statement would go more or less along the lines of 'we need to give time for teachers and students to collaboratively learn how these technologies can be used most effectively'.

When we talk about creating on iPads - or any similar device, our students need to be given a voice. How can adults alone make the decision that laptops are better for creating and iPads are better for consuming? As adults we are dealing with new technologies that change the way we consume, collaborate and create. Of course we'll prefer 'the old way' of doing things - we're comfortable with it, we know how it works and we've been doing it that way for several years. However, we shouldn't always be making decisions for students on the back of our own experiences. In the end it all has to come down to the students. 

My second point refers to the development of these types of hardware. While I agree that there are some instances where I prefer to create on other devices (such as laptops), I've maintained the line over the past couple of years that as apps are developed in more elaborate ways then creation becomes easier and preferable on the iPad. My students have experienced this to an extent this year. The two examples I'd like to share are from the DoInk and Blogger apps. Doink was previously available as a Web 2.0 site and the students used laptops or desktops to create animations. I have found it to be a great tool for formatively assessing student understanding of certain concepts throughout a unit of inquiry. DoInk ceased to be available as a website this year and now can only be used as an app. It is available for iPhone and iPad and my students this year thought that it was easy and effective to use on the iPad (having used it in previous years on the laptops). This year we used the program to see how well the students understood how changes in the Earth could impact the way humans live their lives. You can see that we had some varying results here and here

Many of my students also prefer to update their personal blogs using the iPad (and Blogger app) instead of on the laptop. We had originally used Posterous and when it shut down it turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the app for Blogger is much more effective to use. The mobility of the iPads means that the students can blog from almost anywhere and this also serves to personalise their learning. Not all aspects of blogging are better on the iPad though. We can't edit HTML code on the iPads and its more difficult to embed other documents in some cases. As I mentioned at the beginning though, as the apps improve so will the creative ease. The ways that schools and teachers use iPads also have an impact on how effective they can be for content creation. Two recent posts from a Swiss International School and a school in the USA highlight this. Another friend of mine also alerted me to this publication, which highlights the value of mobile devices and social media in the pursuit of personalised learning.

The choices we make are generally made with the best of intentions. But education is changing and we need to be mindful of who we're making decisions for: Us, or our students?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Skype call is a learning call....supercharged

Today in Grade Three my students and the students from another class skyped with Kenn Nesbitt, poet and author. The teachers have organised this for the two years prior to this - he's quite engaging and relates well to the students. If you'd like to read more about this then check out the posts by one of our previous ICT teachers summarising the process here and here. I've used the word 'supercharged' in this post title because this year the students in my class added a few extra elements to the process.

Each year the classes have skyped with Kenn they've researched about him beforehand, used google maps to see where he lives. After that they skype with him and generally complete some sort of class reflection. We've completed all of this again over the past couple of days and today we added two additional things. Part of the pre-learning tasks involved working through what a skype call as a big group would look like. The students learned about where to look, that some people would have specific roles during the call, and some other general tips for the whole class. We also introduced live tweeting and blogging as part of the learning. If you look in the background of the cover photo you can see two of the bloggers, two of the question askers (in the background holding up a sheet to help each other read), and Kenn on the big screen.

We've used twitter on and off throughout the year so the students in my class are familiar with what it is. They're still getting to grips with the inner workings (re-tweets, follows etc) but they've been keen to learn about it. Some of my boys had their tweet re-tweeted by Zlatan Ibrahimovic earlier on in the year during our unit of inquiry about role models, which was really exciting for them! We had three designated tweeters that would provide live updates throughout the call. This served as a great resource to help the students re-connect their thinking after the call had finished and we were back up in our classroom. It also helped in the reflective process by reminding the students about some of the key messages. By tweeting they were also listening very carefully for the big ideas that they could take away about poetry and Kenn himself. Here's a couple of examples of their work:

We also had three students writing blog posts in real time as the call was happening. The bloggers were able to provide more background information about the call and expand on the ideas that they learned about as it was happening. Because we were using iPads for both tweeting and blogging, the students were able to easily take photos and upload them instantly to their posts. Check out an example of one of the posts here.

The call went very well. As I said before, Kenn was fantastic with the students so that obviously helped a lot. The students thrived using the technology and hopefully the other class that participated in the call with us saw how useful it could be (some teachers have been a tad skeptical about blogging and tweeting this year). There are definitely improvements that could be made though. Firstly, the iPads were ideal for this task and I'm glad we had the opportunity to use them. The Blogger app is also quite good, but you can't seem to edit things in HTML mode on the iPad like you can on the laptop or desktop. This meant that we couldn't re-size some of the photos that were too big on the post. I was surprised how frustrated this made some of the students - but we had given Kenn the links to our blogs so he could check out what they had written later on. I'm glad they care so much about how their work looks. Isn't it amazing what an authentic audience can do for kids!? I also think that I could have used twitter more effectively this year. We've used it as a questioning tool during our class and that has worked well. But we only follow a couple of accounts so we're not connecting with other learners as much as we could be. This has been a big oversight on my part.

I'm moving school at the end fo this year but I hope the Grade Three classes continue to connect with people like Kenn. The students have really enjoyed the experience and have redefined their learning by using some of the technology we have available.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Sir Ken Robinson's message

The above video is another talk by Sir Ken Robinson. I chose to post this talk as I think it is a nice summary of his message regarding education. His first book, 'Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative' is one of the few resources I've read that has dramatically changed the way I teach, and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in education. 'The Element' is also a great book and I'm eager to read the second book in this series - 'Finding Your Element' when it is published on the 21st of May.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The only problem was the flying chickens

Our next Unit of Inquiry looks at the power of imagination and creativity. Passion projects, Genius Hour, Oasis Time - whatever you choose to call it, is going to be a big part of our approach for this UOI. We figure that this is a great opportunity for us to let our students really go for it without having too many other 'demands' on us. Hopefully the results will be so amazing that this will become more of a regular structure next year.

We followed an system to plan this UOI that is referred to as the 'bubble up approach'. This means that we aim to connect each students' passions to our own curriculum framework. So the students are deciding on their own passion and then bubbling it up through their own persnal UOI to choose a TD Theme, skills, concepts, specific subject areas, action opportunities and anything else that applies to their inquiry. 

We've called upon the expertise of many teachers outside of our regular grade level teachers - there are many experts that can help us. One of these, our librarian, is helping us organise a group of students that want to explore Minecraft. She has run an after-school club with some middle school students and is amazed by how well they manage themselves as a group, make decisions and achieve goals together. In fact, their only problem was that someone was creating flying chickens and sending them around their Minecraft world. This was dealt with by the group once they all discussed the problem and decided on an appropriate outcome. We're hoping that our grade three students can achieve some similar results. Other inquiries include cooking, creating on-line games, building designs out of wood, organising sports tournaments, creating music and artwork.

It is now early August and I've finally had time to get around to completing this blog post that I started last school year. This gives me an opportunity to further reflect on the outcome of this inquiry. First of all, and probably most importantly, the students loved this UOI. Unsurprisingly, they were all highly engaged and used their imagination to create, innovate and solve problems. What was most interesting in my class is that some students started out pursuing individual inquiries and then decided after a week or two to connect their work with another person. An example of this was a student thAt wanted to organise a race car tournament. He approached the woodwork group and convinced them to design a special track for the tournament. This group the recruited one of the music people to compose some tournament tunes so it would be more of a party atmosphere. Finally, they organised the cooking group to bake some tasty treats for the audience on the day. Conversely, the group of three that initially started out inquiring into ways that they could help endangered animals ended up splitting into a pair and a single because yet couldn't all decide on one way to work together. 

The students completed weekly reflections that centered around six conditions of creativity and how well they were using these throughout their inquiry time. These conditions are outlined in my post 'An Oasis of Creativity'. Some students have better meta-cognitive skills than others, but this task (one of the only 'must-do' items that I asked them to complete in this UOI) kept them coming back to consider the lines of inquiry. 

What didn't work well? Some things. The planning process needed to be better scaffolded for these students. Some were able to identify each essential element but many found this very difficult. Perhaps this is because they haven't done much of this type of work before and hopefully it will help them to make better connections in the coming years. Another problem was finding the time for the students to meet with other teachers or students. This UOI was at the end of the year and, while that means that some events in a school's yearly calendar were out of the way, many teachers especially were busy tying up things for the end of the year. I imagine this will be a problem at any time of the year though. The third difficulty was maintaining the right balance between creativity and efficiency. We had to give appropriate time to the students to allow their creative ideas to flourish, but we also had a specific timeframe that wee had to adhere to. This meant that some students needed the odd hurry up and others needed to be reminded of the ample time that they had left. One other critique that was given by another teacher was that she felt that the UOI was too 'airy fairy' and that her students weren't learning anything concrete. I believe that this speaks more about that particular teacher's mindset and practice than the abilities and productivity of her students. Creative work and inquiry must involve some level of 'cloudiness' and the right amount of time must be spent in order to move through this period. 

Overall I think the UOI was a success. There are definitely things that I will change when I apply this approach to my new class this year, but the value for the students is far too great to give away. The fact that the students can make their own choices about their learning allows them real ownership and, I believe, yields much more powerful results in terms of learning.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Seeds of Growth

This is an article that I recently contributed to our school newsletter:

The Seeds of Growth: Why creativity is essential in education.
We live in a world that is changing faster than ever before and facing challenges that are unprecedented. These sorts of challenges require innovative ideas and approaches. As such, many governments, companies and people are interested in innovation. The difficulty with innovation is that it cannot be just turned on like a switch. Innovation is a process that involves three parts:
  • Imagination - The power to bring to mind the things that aren’t here in the present.
  • Creativity - Applied imagination. The process of putting your imagination to work and having original ideas that have value.
  • Innovation - Putting original ideas into practice. [1] [8] 

Education, in a nutshell, has three main roles: 
Economic: To provide the skills required to earn a living and be economically productive; 
Cultural: To deepen understanding of the world; 
Individual: To develop individual talents and sensibilities. [8] 

If these roles are examined through the lens of creativity then it becomes difficult to separate them.
Economic - Business leaders constantly promote the desire to hire creative, innovate employees who can work in teams and communicate well. In 2008, and again in 2012, IBM conducted a survey of over 1000 CEOs around the world, asking them what were the keys to their future and prolonged success.  A summary of their answers shows that top performers: 
  1. Hunger for and embrace change, rather than react to it.
  2. Innovate beyond customer imagination to reach the technologically sophisticated.
  3. Seek new ways to organise globally to tap worldwide talent. [5] [6] [10]
The economy is asking for graduates of education who are competent in these things. In a world where over-qualification is becoming more of an issue, businesses aim to recruit the best staff possible and they look closely for these attributes. Educating the population through an out-dated, industrialised model will not achieve the economic goals it sets out to. So, instead of educating our students with the same model as the past 100 years, we must approach it in new ways. This means that some of the things you see happening at school will look different to what parents may remember them to be like when they were younger [1] [8].

Cultural - The world is becoming more connected, complicated and challenging.  Finding ways to live together is becoming more interdependent and dynamic. As the world becomes smaller, the ability to collaborate and understand how others feel becomes more and more important. A major part of innovation and creative thinking is the aspect of collaboration and working in teams. This is not to say that new ideas are thought of exclusively with other people, but generally ideas and innovations are created and improved on through the critical feedback of others. Focussing on creativity in education means that students have opportunities to develop the key skills of collaboration. Without these skills, cultural education becomes more difficult to achieve [1] [8].

Individual - Education is also about helping people find their own course in life. It is about helping them find what has value and meaning for them. It is of course important to have some commonalities across all schooling systems - everyone needs to be able to read, write and add. However, it is also important to encourage human capacity amongst all of the students we teach. This means we need to breakdown the traditional ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’ dichotomy and value the passions and expertise of all. Everyone has talents, inspirations and skills and education should allow these to flourish [3] [4] [7] [8] [11]. 

It was stated earlier that education must be approached in new ways. In PYP schools (and other similar programs) we follow a curriculum framework and philosophy of learning that actively encourages the development of essential attitudes, one of which is creativity. We allow elements of choice for our students in their learning. We assess them individually and as teams. We give them opportunities to play, explore and pursue personal inquiries. Creativity is about making connections and developing relationships. In PYP schools we have a transdisciplinary curriculum where students are encouraged to seek connections between what they are learning and how it relates to the world, themselves and to others [2]. We utilise new technologies that present fresh possibilities for creative work. We strive to create environments that encourage risk-taking.

As human beings we have an extraordinary power - the ability to imagine things outside of our current experiences and to express them in forms that other people can engage with and grasp. No other species on Earth has this ability. If you’re pursuing original thinking then there are a lot of wrong turns. Failure is not the right way to describe this - it is experimenting to see what works and what doesn’t. If you live in a culture where you’re frightened of failing then innovation and creativity starts to be inhibited. If fresh thinking and new ideas have less emphasis, and the focus shifts to ‘getting the right answer’, then people become frightened of making mistakes and being wrong. If you’re afraid to try something new then you’ll never come up with anything original. [1] [7] [8] [9]

As teachers, we endeavour to create conditions that provide our students with the freedom to be creative. Our aim is to give children the opportunity to allow their skills, knowledge and capabilities to shine.

[1] All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education (1999). National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education. 

[2] Boyer, EL. (1995). The Basic School: A Community of Learning. San Francisco, USA. The Carnegie Foundation for
the Advancement of Teaching.

[3] Edwards, C, Gandini, L and Forman, G. (1998). The Hundred Languages of Children. Greenwich, Connecticut,
USA. Ablex Publishing Corporation.

[4] Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice. New York, USA. Basic Books.

[5] IBM CEO Case study compendium. Published by IBM Corporation. Available for download at:

[6] Leading Through Connections: Highlights of the Global Chief Executive Officer Study. (2012). Published by IBM Corporation. Available for download at:

[7] McGrath, J. & Davies, D. (2012) The Future Will Not Be Multiple Choice. Published by Mind Shift. Available for download at:

[8] Robinson, K. (2001) Out of Our Minds: Learning to be creative. Capstone Publishing, Chichester, West Sussex, UK.

[9] Stanford Breakfast Briefings - The Enterprise of the Future. Available for download at:

[10] The Enterprise of the Future: Life Sciences Industry Edition (2008). Published by IBM corporation. Available for download at:

[11] Vygotsky, L. (1999). Thought and Language. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. The MIT Press.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The importance of standardisation

Standardisation in education is a topic that garners many opinions. Some believe that it is essential in order for all students to receive a guaranteed level of education. Others say that standardised testing plays a vital role in allowing the stakeholders of education to track performance of both students and teachers. Some state that an over-reliance on the standardised approach has created havoc in the teaching and learning that is supposed to occur in education institutions. 

Traditionally, mass education of the population, in order for them to serve the needs of the workforce, lead to school curricula becoming standardised. This was done with the best of intentions and the general reason is that this approach is in the best interests of the economy. A hierarchy of subjects also developed and Ken Robinson highlights this extensively in his speeches on creativity. As time has moved forward, so has standarisation. Now there are not only standardised curricula that is followed at schools but, in some places around the world, standardised testing of students has become prevalent. A few examples of what this has lead to includes the creation of league tables, tracking of performance, high-stakes testing (and cultures of 'teaching to the test'), and the ability for schools to judge their individual curriculums against world standards.

I recently read an interview with Pasi Sahlberg, who is the Director General of CIMO (Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation). In the interview he talked about some of the keys to the success of the Finnish education system. He also mentioned standardisation. He says that he believes standarisation has been focussing on the wrong parts of the education system. He states that instead of over-standardised teaching and learning in schools by prescribed curricula, the focus should be on the standardisation of three things:

  1. A universal standard for financing schools, so that resources are channeled to schools according to their real needs. 
  2. A universal standard for time allocation in schools, allowing pupils to have a proper recess between classes and a balanced curriculum among academic learning, the arts and physical education.
  3. A universal standard for teacher preparation that follows standards in other top professions. He also suggests that initiating a bar exam type of system would go a long way towards higher professional standards in teaching.
These questions were answered in the context of the education system in America, so they obviously don't apply to every school around the world. There are, however, some key points that all schools could consider. Other national systems and governments could look at their own resource allocation and teacher training systems - could they work better? How does the distribution of funds operate? Is it equitable? Should it be? 

Any school could look at Sahlberg's advice on time allocation - what does your timetable look like? Do all subjects receive equal weighting? What is your institution's perspective on this? Are students receiving appropriate amounts of time for breaks between learning? How do you train and develop your staff? Are there pre-requisites for your staff before they're considered for hiring - or in terms of training?  

These are questions for all leaders to be considering, and should be considering if they want to continue to improve - or indeed transform education.

Photo credit

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The value of creativity

I'm in the process of writing a short article about the importance and value of creativity in school. Below are four interesting clips that I've recently watched. I think they highlight several key points relating to my topic.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Play versus work

It took me a long time to learn the difference between play and work - Al Gore, 2005.

On the weekend I watched 'An Inconvenient Truth'. The above quote appeared about half way through and really stuck with me. I think most school's mission statements should be phrased in a similar way, but that's not what this post it about...

As I've mentioned before, my colleague and I are trialling our own Outdoor Learning program this year. We've based it off our highly successful Early Years model that has been running for two years now. In one of my previous posts I spoke about the benefits of getting out of the classroom. It has really helped us to further differentiate our teaching this year and we would definitely be advocates for continuing it in the future. An additional (and unexpected) bonus is that its also allowed us to bring greater authenticity to our work back inside the classroom. Last month we spent two and half hours on a Thursday afternoon working on mean, mode and median. Many teachers like to teach maths in the mornings because they believe that their students are more alert and receptive. We were very surprised to observe the kids' enthusiasm for their work for a long period of time on an afternoon at the end of the week. The reason is because they were using real data that they had collected from their outdoor learning experience earlier that week. The learning was all about them. And they were highly engaged.

This week we thought we'd take advantage of the snowy slopes out the back of our school and do some sledding. The plan was for the students to time themselves doing three sled runs down the slope and we would then use the information for our data handling work in class. We've been exploring measurement so there were obvious links there too. I also challenged them to think about any connections recognised throughout the activity. What was the relationship between sledding technique and time taken? Between the amount of snow and time taken? Between different students? What is this thing called friction?

The students knew last week that we would be doing this activity and two of them approached my colleague with this question: "If we're going to be sledding, then what will we be learning?" This is great for at least two reasons. One, they're thinking about the learning opportunities that might be happening in the things that they're doing. Ron Ritchhart would probably classify this as a learning-based environment, where the participants look for opportunities to develop understanding, instead of a work-based environment, where the participants only see activities to be completed. They know that they're at school to learn and when the learning isn't obvious to them then they feel like they have to dig a little deeper. What a great attitude to have. The second, and probably most exciting, reason is that the kids aren't finding it easy to determine between having fun and learning. Long may it continue.