Thursday, October 23, 2014

Feeling like a leader

***Although I wasn't part of the live feed, the impetus for this post came from a review of Thursday's #pypchat on Leadership in the PYP***

 This year is an interesting one for me professionally. It's the first year that I'm not either a classroom or specialist teacher and have taken on the role of PYP Co-ordinator/Deputy Head of Junior School. It's a fantastic opportunity for me and I'm currently on a very steep learning curve - but sometimes I find these to be the best.

Several of my colleagues have stepped into similar roles over the past few years and I've was eager to gather their perspectives prior to beginning of this year. Two of the most sticky pieces of advice I received were 'now your day is going to much less structured, but your work will also be much less visible - you need to make it visible' and 'I've found that teachers generally want to feel like you've got their back when it comes to teaching and learning'.

Now this is going to sound like an excuse, but I really have been super busy. Seriously. I've found myself doing much more of the admin/clerical side of things instead of the curriculum development that I was expecting. To use a PYP format, there's been.....

An increased emphasis on.....                              A decreased emphasis on.....
       Organising co-curricular lists and sign ups       Organising collaborative experiences for teachers
          Completing paperwork for the office                                  Co-teaching lessons
                      Writing emails to parents                                       Writing blog posts here
Engaging in discussions about students shifting grades    Engaging in discussions about inquiry

I could go on. And I will.....

An increased emphasis on.....                              A decreased emphasis on.....
Bus timetables                                                            Assessment
                 Duty schedules                                                 Innovative learning initiatives
                               Managing                                                                    Leading

It is is the last point that I'd like to speak to specifically. Firstly, I don't think you can be a good leader without also being a good manager. So I understand that some of these tasks are important. I also understand that my context dictates a hefty amount of my practice - and that this will change over time. But over the past couple of weeks I've made some specific changes to my schedule that I think have improved the way that I perform my role.

As the initial onslaught took hold my first move was to protect the time that I have with my family. I have two young daughters and, while I could easily be at work with plenty to do until after 7pm each night (as I'm sure any teacher would understand), no-one is giving these years back to me when I'm retired and my girls are only this age once. So I leave work 'early' in order to spend time with them before they go to bed and pick things up later on at night. This was my number one preference, but it didn't solve my admin/curriculum balance issues. Further adaptation was needed.

My second change began only two weeks ago. Because it is my first year as PYPC, and I know that I need to get my head around every UOI across the entire school in order to manage the vertical and horizontal articulation of the POI (and contribute to the development of each UOI), I meet with each grade and specialist weekly. Our previous PYPC met with each grade fortnightly and specialists less frequently (there were different times built into the yearly schedule for her to catch up with teams that don't exist this year). She was highly experienced and also had a greater understanding of the POI as she had played a major role in establishing it - so I figure she didn't need the regular catch ups that I do. This takes up quite a large portion of my week and I've been finding that the rest of my time is being spent organising things that I find less desirable (although acknowledge the importance of....).

In the week before break I cancelled all meetings with grades and specialists. Not only did it feel good to send out that email, but it provided me with a great opportunity to do more of what is important about my role - become visible and support teachers. Firstly, I was able to give time back to teachers - only 40mins but its better than nothing. Time is such a valuable commodity and any opportunity that I can provide to give it back to people is surely worthwhile. Secondly, the impact of my decision was limited because of the timing. I met with everyone during weeks 1, 2, 5 & 6 of each UOI. This means that I was a part of the reflection process as a UOI was winding up (although it is on-going throughout the UOI) and also helped to develop the next planner to implement. In weeks 3&4, the UOI is typically humming along so there is less need to meet with me. During these weeks I can use the free time to co-teach with grades, lead lessons so that class teachers can observe their students, assist teachers with provocations, assessments and documentation, and also be on hand to celebrate learning as it occurs. This is where my passion lies - being involved with the moments of learning.

This is also where I cross over the intersection of management and into leadership. Being able to observe behaviours and habits in students and teachers - to provide them with feedback on their learning and practice (and for them to return the favour). Being able to take part in exciting discussions and trials of innovation and creativity. Being able to capture the wonder on a child's face and build on it to create meaningful learning experiences. Being able to listen.

I've often felt like a leader throughout my career. But to be honest this year has felt the least leadershipesque of all. Sure, I get to talk to people and it feels like they value my advice - perhaps they see me as a leader, I don't know. But to me a leader is someone who is able to support and be a part of (when required) new ideas, someone that causes learning, someone that models, observes and shares great practice, someone that scouts talent (all forms) in students and teachers, and someone that turns challenges into opportunities. I feel like I was able to do more of this when I was a grade-level leader, now that my job title has changed the tide seems to have turned. I'm working on turning it back.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Reimagining our Early Years program

This year at BHA we have several professional learning communities operating in unison. I'd like to touch on one of those in this post. The team of five teachers in the kindergarten, plus any other teachers interested in learning about the early years, are currently in the beginning stages of redeveloping their approach to teaching and learning. They're working through the valuable and collaborative process of developing a shared image of child. I was lucky enough to be able to be part of a group that went through a similar process in my previous school and found the conversations both challenging and rewarding.

So far this group has examined their own personal opinions and ideas about children. They were asked to share what they thought a child was and these responses were collated and discussed. Teachers were given the opportunity to highlight which elements of everyone's statements they agreed with and which parts they still had questions or other wonderings about. This required further discussion to unpack and will be useful to re-visit later in the year once everyone has had the opportunity to reflect on their own and others' ideas.

This graphic was created to help make visible the key words about image of child that the group valued as a collective.
The session today was spent looking at these words and talking about what they meant. There were some comments about similarities between words, about which words were by-products of our images, and which words were useful to help support the creation of our image.

The next steps for this group will be to narrow down the words to a smaller selection - we're thinking between 5 and 10 - that truly sum up our thoughts about our image of child. From this list they will map out what it is that they believe they should be doing in order to foster the growth of this image of child in their classrooms (and across the school).

It promises to be an exciting year for this group of teachers (along with the rest of the faculty of course!). We're lucky to be hosting a regional IB conference in November and all of these teachers will have the opportunity to attend workshops that will help grow their understanding of a play-based curriculum. We'll also be looking to connect with like-minded schools in order to share ideas, practices and strategies. I'm very much looking forward to being part of this process.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

How not to be ignorant about the world

I had the pleasure of seeing Hans Rosling some years ago at a conference that I attended. His engaging presentation style matched the thoughtful information that he shared. I found this talk to also be interesting.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The 10 most important skills in 2020

This caught my attention today - an interesting summary. I'm currently in the middle of a MOOC about the assessment of 21st century skills and there's a lot of cross-over. One that particularly interested me was transdisciplinary - the ability to recognise connections and understand concepts across multiple disciplines. Despite this skill being repeatedly raised there are still very little school curricula that teach in this way. The PYP is one (although this method changes in the MYP and DP programs) but even if a curriculum framework favours this style of teaching it still takes a highly skilled teacher to implement it effectively. There are many PYP classrooms that still teach in a very segregated, discipline-based structure.

Important Work Skills for 2020

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Opportunity and expectation

I thought I might post a couple of videos that have recently been doing the rounds o the web. Working at an all-girls school, with a focus on empowering girls and women, plus having two daughters of my own, these really struck a chord with me.

I've been thinking a lot about women's empowerment over the past few weeks. Its one of our school-wide goals for next year and we'll be discussing it with the senior leadership team when I return to work in August. At this stage I'm working with two words: opportunity and expectation

It's part of our role as educators to ensure that our students are exposed to opportunities that they may not have discovered on their own. These opportunities could be in specific subject fields such as science, language or maths, or in other areas such as leadership. Opportunity is not enough, however. We need to hold high expectations of our students and they need to hold high expectations of themselves. Hattie reports that self-reported grades - the teacher finding out the student's expectations and pushing them to exceed these expectations - have the greatest influence on student achievement. Once a learner has performed at a level that is beyond their own expectations, she gains confidence in her learning ability.

I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on the empowerment of women - leave a comment if you want to be part of the conversation.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Why inquiry isn't cyclical

I just watched a fabulous video that summarises a lot of key ideas about inquiry. Although this is specific to scientific inquiry, I think the lessons are transferable to all other areas of inquiry.

What I like most about this video is the analogy of the cycle of inquiry being similar to a game of pinball. You do not progress through an inquiry in a linear manner. Instead you revisit, revise and retest ideas, questions and theories. The visual design of many inquiry cycles has lead to these sorts of questions being posted in social media forums:

In fact, last year Kath blogged about her own inquiry cycle in order to bust some myths relating to it.
The visual produced in the video includes some nice animation that hasn't been captured on the screen shot. Essentially its the grey arrows that play such a big role in this model. They rotate back and forth, in and out of the green circle. It aides to highlight the notion that when we inquire into something we're continually gathering and interpreting data, analysing outcomes, gathering feedback, exploring and discovering.
Perhaps the title of this post is a little misleading. There is still a cyclical process involved with inquiry, but it is important for us to remember that no inquiry (or writing) cycle was designed to be a linear, hierarchical process. It's messy, unpredictable and continuous. Check out the video for a more detailed explanation and some links to further reading.


Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Giant of Jeju - an inquiry into patterns

I'd like to share another teaching engagement that my colleagues and I introduced yesterday. We called it the Giant of Jeju and it is adapted from a lesson that the Maths Coach at one of my previous schools introduced to us.

I love the premise of this task. Its shrouded in mystery from the beginning and that seems to hook the students in. It also give them very little concrete information to work with so there is a lot of scope for inquiry and divergent thinking. We begin by showing the students a picture of a hand, telling them that a group of archeologists discovered this fossil imprinted into the Jeju terrain. Their role, as genetic researchers, is to predict as accurately as possible how tall the Giant would have been when it was alive. We aligned the learning targets with our mathematics central idea and provided guidance through key questions that were related directly to the task. Here's the summary that we provided the students with:

The Giant of Jeju by Dave Secomb

In Making the PYP Happen, inquiry in practice is characterised by a series of actions that could include: exploring, wondering and questioning; experimenting and playing with possibilities; making connections between previous learning and current learning; making predictions and acting purposefully to see what happens; collecting data and reporting findings; clarifying existing ideas and reappraising perceptions of events; deepening understanding through application of a concept; making and testing theories; researching and seeking information; taking and defending a position; solving problems in a variety of ways. This task requires students to perform many of these roles in order to solve it.

One of the best things about this task is that there is no single accurate answer. So even if two groups arrived at a solution that was similar, they still had to defend their findings and explain why their predication was more accurate than another. Several groups worked off premises that were based on flawed logic or showed no pattern. They arrived at answers that were vastly different from the majority and were found out when they had to prove their accuracy with reason. Some of these students were able to recognise this as it became clear to them while they were trying to explain their answers to the rest of the class. Those that still managed to arrive at solutions that were similar to others had their theories tested by questions from their peers asking them how they knew that they were accurate. Two or three groups had very similar (and accurate) answers but were unable to prove why their solution was correct. Many times throughout the year we've talked about the importance of process over product and this is a difficult idea for a lot of our girls to grasp because they have come from systems of education that value the opposite approach. This task helped to clarify to them why the process is so important.

Some solutions and reasons:
  • 2.8m due to a ratio of 1:1.97. This is because we measured the length of our hand and our height from one of our group members. Then we applied that calculation to the Giant.
  • 3.02m due to a ratio of 1:2. This is because the Giant's hand is twice the size of one of our hands.
  • 2.66m because 9.5 of our hands make up our total height so we multiplied the length of the Giant's hand by 9.5.
  • Arm length = hand length x 7. Arm + head + legs = height. So the total height is 4.86m.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Our current UOI in Grade Five is using the central idea 'A balanced lifestyle contributes to well-being'. Although our hope is that they never truly end, we're coming towards the scheduled end of this inquiry. Over the past five weeks the students have explored the different body systems, how they function and interact; the different elements of lifestyle and how they influence each other; and the effect of reflection on achievement. Yesterday my teaching partner and I introduced a forum for discussion about some aspects of our learning. We presented the students with a series of statements and they were all required to take a stance in relation to their level of agreement. They could choose one of the following four options:
  • Completely 100% agree
  • More agree than disagree
  • More disagree than agree
  • Completely disagree
This was a great formative assessment opportunity for us as teachers because it required the students to make a decision and then justify it to everyone else. The strength of their justification provided an insight into their understandings about the UOI.

Philip Cam, in his book 20 Thinking Tools, states:

"In collaborative inquiry, agreement and disagreement represent patterns of convergence and divergence in thought that enable us to tack back and forth into the wind, and give our inquiry its forward movement"

We were lucky to have three teachers in the room during this task so while one of us was moderating the discussion, the other two could take notes on specific students and their responses. Later on we caught up to read over and discuss these. One example of a statement we posed to the students was this:

It is ok to spend a lot of time on your work if its something that you are passionate about.

This statement infers that if you are spending a lot of time working on something then your lifestyle is not balanced. It helped the students to test their understanding of balance, how lifestyle and elicited a variety of responses. One of our students said that she completely 100% agreed with this statement. When we asked her to explain why, she said that even though you're spending more time on your work, because its something that you're passionate about it means that your mental and emotional well-being will be strong. And you'll also be able to develop your social well-being because you'll be around people that are interested in the same thing as you. Wow. This showed us that she had a very strong understanding of the elements of well-being and how they can connect with our lifestyle choices.

This engagement also has benefits for other areas of the classroom community. First of all, it is inclusive. If someone doesn't have a solid understanding of the question or statement posed then they are able to discuss it with their peers while they arrive at a decision. They also have the ability to listen to other people's perspectives when they are giving reasons for their choices, and can change their position on something if their thinking shifts during the process. We have a lot of students with English language needs at our school and they were able to join in this activity without the fear of being put 'on the spot' in front of their peers. This activity also helps students to learn about and deal with instances where there are differences of opinion, clashing of ideas and debate over perceived truths. These are vitally important skills to develop and we were impressed to see the way that our girls handled themselves when challenged by their peers and teachers. 

Here are the statements that we used.

Lifestyle Agree:Disagree Statements by Dave Secomb

This video shows a discussion with Professor Cam and his views on teaching philosophy in schools.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Why inquiry?

Part of the learning process is something that is referred to as internalisation. This occurs when individual thinking transfers from an external social plane to become part of a person's mental function. Ratner states that these functions are formed as 'individuals engage in practical social activities and can then be applied in different contexts'. A simple example if this is addition. As someone internalises each of the different processes of addition then they can use these in a variety of contexts (e.g. adding decimals when using money, weight and length).

Simon Davidson says that in any high quality teaching approach students should leave with skills, knowledge and conceptual understandings. These can be achieved in most approaches to teaching. Students will be able to read, write and add. They will be able to use maps, glossaries, rulers. They will have a knowledge of social studies and science. To many people this is enough - 'as long as my child can do these things then I don't care how they learn it'. It is also what many people have experienced from their own education, which is why some people - most typically parents - question approaches such as inquiry learning. Its probably inaccurate to say that they don't support this approach or that they're anti-inquiry (well, maybe some are), more that they've got little experience with this way of teaching and are eager to make sure that they're children are taken care of. A lot of the time inquiry is a messy process and there aren't specific tests that can measure results and show parents how much their child has learned that day. This can worry parents and might lead them to request for a 'back-to-basics' approach (more about this later). Ultimately though, they are simply concerned for the well-being of their children.

The big differences between beliefs about learning reveal themselves when we compare models of teaching. Two of the most common found in schools around the world are the aforementioned inquiry and didactic. Inquiry is underpinned by a constructivist theory of learning, where understanding is crafted by each individual learner, usually in a social context. A didactic approach is typified by a stimulus-response way of learning that is initiated by the teacher (i.e. teacher says, student does). It is important to note that both have benefits.

When we focus on the initial topic of this post - internalisation - the importance of an inquiry approach is unveiled. As I mentioned before, if either of the two approaches - inquiry or didactic - are well executed then the results for the students can be positive. However, inquiry learning offers something to support internalisation that a didactic approach doesn't - a social plane. I'd like to try and use a sporting example as a metaphor here - team sports to be more specific.

A sportsman or woman trains hard to learn the skills of their game. They can become experts in kicking, passing, shooting, running, blocking, tackling, whatever is required of them to participate effectively. They can also learn the rules that define their sport plus the strategies that their team hopes will help them achieve their goal. However, none of these play out perfectly to plan once a competition starts and there is an element of social interaction. Social engagement brings new perspectives, different challenges and fresh ideas. Suddenly they cannot pass the ball to a specific position like they did in the training drill because there is a defender standing in their way. They have to re-evaluate and make a different decision. The effectiveness of their choice will be reflected in how much they have practiced the skills, how well they know the game and their level of understanding about how the strategy connects to the bigger picture. They can have a solid grasp of the skills, knowledge and understandings, but if they don't know how to apply these in a social setting then they're not of much use to anyone. The same applies to something concrete in schools around the world: reading. Through the internalisation of the processes involved with learning how to read, one not only acquires the skills of reading, they also become part of a community of readers & interact around books.

A more didactic approach to learning is sometimes requested by parents if they feel that inquiry isn't meeting the needs of their children. As Bambi Betts says, 'everyone is an expert in education because they had one once… unlike technology, or medicine, or telecommunications, parents have been to school.  They have been primary ‘users’ of the place called school and the thinking goes… ‘I turned out pretty much ok, didn’t I’ (they think) – so just keep doing what you did when I was in school.’   Familiarity as a design principle for schooling actually breeds complacency'.  The challenge when following a solely didactic approach is that if something is learned by rote, then there is no exploration of the association or relationships that is shares with other concepts. The result of this is a poor level of understanding and that it is difficult to remember. That's not to say that there are never any moments where direct instruction might be beneficial for a student. But educators should be mindful of how their beliefs about education are being put into practice.

Humans are not independent and autonomous. We do not live in separate spaces all of the time or experience the world in separate subjects. We live and work with each other & use our learning as part of a community. Didactic teaching separates social organisation and content. It diminishes context, which has implications for understanding. Inquiry learning creates a community of learners dedicated to understanding, not just following a curriculum. This is a vital part of learning for our students as they grow into the world.

Photo credit

Thursday, February 13, 2014

My distraction - part 1.1

Just over a year ago (which is quite scary when I write it down!) I briefly broke the trend of this blog to share the news of the birth of my first child - a beautiful baby girl called Kajori. Well, she's 14 months old now and I'm extremely lucky to be able to share this news for a second time as my wife gave birth to another gorgeous baby girl just over a week ago. Her name is Haruna and I hope for three things: (i) She lives a happy life and fulfills all her wildest dreams (ii) Kajori and her will be best friends for forever (iii) the Berghuis Secomb girls will take it easy on their old man as they grow up (I'm horribly out-numbered!).

Thursday, January 9, 2014

All you need is a pulse

I believe that one of the most important aspects of student learning (and therefore success) in any classroom is the relationship between the students and the teacher. This is therefore one of my highest priorities every year - and I also believe that it is one of my biggest strengths as a teacher. A combination of knowing where students need to go with their learning, and allowing them the freedom to explore their own passions is important. I also believe that some of the best learning occurs when teachers are students and the students are teachers (the empathy facet of understanding). For this to successfully occur it is important to develop a culture of respect, trust and collaboration amongst the students and teachers.

Once in an interview I was asked to identify three things that need to occur for successful learning to take place. There are many, many factors that influence learning but I finally settled on the new three Rs. The '3Rs' was a popular acronym when I was in Primary School - Reading, Writing & Arithmetic (see what they did there?). While these are all important literacies to develop, and their associated skills give students access to conceptual understandings, in isolation they don't necessarily always guarantee successful learning. So for that short meeting I coined the 'New 3Rs' - Respect, Risk-Taking and Reflection. Respect goes both ways. More successful learning will occur if the teacher respects the perspectives, backgrounds, learning styles and competencies of his or her students, and students should return that respect to their teacher. If students don't feel as though they are in an environment where they are free to take risks and try new things then the learning will suffer. This is a key element of inquiry teaching practice and it also applies to teachers as employees as well. Finally, we learn by trying or doing something and then reflecting on the experience before trying again. When we learn there is constant evaluation happening and in a variety of forms. So these were the three things that I highlighted at the time.

This brings me to the point of this post. John Hattie once stated: 'All you need to enhance achievement is a pulse. Everything works.' Hattie's seminal work on the influences on student learning analysed thousands of pieces of work in order to find out what it is that really makes a difference to learning in the classroom. His point was that there is an abundance of research about what makes a difference in classrooms - and everything makes some impact. Therefore, anyone can make a convincing argument, with data in order to support their claim. An example of this might be someone who wants to mandate one hour of homework per night in grade three. They could point to the fact that doing this much homework will improve student learning (and it will). Unfortunately for some, homework can also reinforce that they cannot learn independently, can undermine motivation and can internalise incorrect routines and strategies. So which side do we take? According to Hattie, homework has an impact of 0.29 on student achievement (the figure in Elementary school is 0.15). To put that in context, 0.40 is the benchmark for a years learning. Any initiative that produces a result above that is considered to be worth doing while those that fall below that mark need further consideration. Hattie's work enables us to see which are the things that we definitely should be doing, and which ones we should think twice about. This not only has implications for teachers and their students, but also for teacher training and development.

For a description of the top 10 influences on student achievement - check out this glossary.

So almost anything we do as teachers can have a positive impact on student learning and achievement. What is important for teachers is to understand the impact that we're having on our students and choose the practices that encourage the most growth.

Photo Credit: AMagill via Compfight cc

Top 100 tools for learning

Following  on from my previous post, I was looking through some of my old drafts and noticed that I'd already began writing a post about using Twitter almost a whole year ago. That post highlighted the results of a survey about the best on-line learning tools. In 2012 Twitter came out on top of the list. I was curious to find out if it was still considered number one.

Top 100 Tools for Learning 2013 from Jane Hart

I had also kept an old article from a newspaper in Australia that highlighted some of the ways that teachers are using Twitter  in their classrooms. It talks about the social media revolution and the role that it plays in today's classrooms. It states that social media use is now the number one activity on the web. I'd be interested to hear how other teachers are using Twitter in their classrooms.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Twitter as a PD tool

A little over 2 years ago I created my own Twitter account. I was encouraged to do this by a friend of mine. She told me that she found Twitter to be the best way to stay abreast of latest trends, information and ideas. Since then I have created a PLN that stretches across the globe and have learned a great deal as a result.

People use web 2.0 tools in many different ways. I know teachers and schools that use Facebook to help in their learning. Pinterest, Slideshare, Livebinder, Prezi, Glogster - the list goes on and on. Personally, I use Facebook for my personal life and Twitter for my professional life (although sometimes the two combine).

#Pypchat is something that I've become closely involved in this year. I've been following it for a while, but had never participated in a chat because I lived in Europe and the #pypchat was run on a timezone in Asia so I was always too late. I've since found out that there are other #pypchats sprouting up all over the world (Europe, Americas) so are opportunities wherever you live.

Twitter also provides me with countless links, feeds, trends and articles that have helped grow my understanding of a great deal of topics, as well as quick connections with educators around the world who are very generous with sharing their expertise.

Sometimes I feel like Twitter gives me too much information to keep up with - we do live in the New Media Age after all! Luckily there are options that help to filter information so that you can be more accurate in both your search for and contribution to certain topics. TweetDeck is one that I've used before (although there are may others) and it works well for me. Twitter also uses hashtags (#) to help categorise information - like #pypchat.

I believe that Twitter has a real place in the classroom and can help to contribute to authentic learning engagements. I try to incorporate it into my classroom wherever possible so that my students can also benefit from it. Last year one of my Gr. 3 students received a tweet from Zlatan Ibrahimovic during our UOI on role models - he was chuffed!

Twitter has transformed the way I access information and collaborate with others. Best of all, it offers me fantastic professional development on a daily basis (and its free!).

If you would like to learn more about #pypchat then you can find out about it here.