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