Wednesday, December 30, 2015


Yesterday I had the pleasure of catching up with a colleague who is currently on sabbatical as she completes a M.Ed (Music) degree in New York. She was back over this side of the world visiting some family and friends for her break before heading back to continue her studies. It was wonderful to hear about some of the projects she's been working on over there and how they might be put into practice when she returns to BHA next year.

One project that stuck in my mind was that of a game that she was developing as part of one of her courses. The basic idea is that as students play the game they are rewarded for improvisation based on a section of music that they are looking at. The idea here was to diverge from just replicating a set piece of music. Of course there are monsters involved too. In order for my colleague to get her idea off the ground she had to connect with a software developer and a game designer, which she found on campus. Together the three of them developed her idea and are at almost at the stage where they have a piece of software to work with. They're hoping to test it out in schools sometime throughout 2016. Their hope is that their product will be a point of difference as it will be able to be used by teachers with multiple students at a time (i.e. a class) instead of an individual app or game, which appears to be the norm with these sorts of products.

None of this would have been possible if they hadn't have worked together. My colleague isn't a gamer and doesn't know where to start when it comes to designing games. Likewise, the software developer and game designer aren't attuned to what it is like to be working with 20-30 six year olds on a regular basis. Without collaborating, the result would not be what it currently is. This is the sort of collaboration that occurs everyday in the 'real world' - multidisciplinary teams working together to solve ill-defined problems. It is not, however, the sort of collaboration that we always design in our classrooms. In many cases students are told that they have to work together with certain people, or are told that they need to be in groups of two, three or four. This is not preparing students for a life beyond school in the 21st century. Consider the PYP Exhibition - the landmark culmination for the final year of a PYP student's journey. How many times are students grouped together because they have a faint connection to something that they'd like to inquire into. 'Oh, you're interested in researching the migratory patterns of whale sharks? Great, we'll put you in the 'over-fishing' group'. Or, worse still, they're given a choice of things that 'they'd like to explore' and groups are formed that way. Collaboration in the Exhibition, or in any similar process, should be about students inquiring into their passions and, when they inevitably reach a point where they need something that they can't do for themselves, they reach out to someone else and work together with them. If they then go back to their individual work once that part of the job is done then so be it - this is a microcosm of life. Yes, in the real world you don't always get to choose who you work with. I've certainly worked with a range of different people that would not have been my initial first choice. Sometimes there are group members that simply don't contribute to the collective - either by choice or readiness. Sometimes there are learning styles or approaches to work that suit some more than others. Sure, these can happen. But ultimately I find that there is an element of natural selection that occurs with these sort of experiences and things are straightened out. Even if you are required to work with a group that you consider to be low-functioning, you are not bound by it.  There are a variety of avenues to access skills and knowledge in order to build your own understanding along the way.

The dynamic world that we live in means that it isn't feasible to expect one person to be able to manage complex tasks alone. Real collaboration requires every member of the group bringing something to the table that can be used to help the greater good. In terms of assessing this, there are structures that teachers can put in place that allow us to measure how well each person shares their specific information. This is 21st century teaching and learning.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015


Over our recent break here in Korea our Early Years Coordinator at BHA attended a workshop with Fiona Zinn that explored the documentation of student learning. Our Early Years program is inspired by the Reggio approach and considers documenting student learning to be a key pillar of this. Laura returned from the workshop full of ideas that she wants to implement with the team and today she shared some of these with the specialist teachers about how we can develop the framework of our portfolios.

We consider the use of portfolios to be an important element of our assessed curriculum. They provide students and parents with valuable information on progress, feedback and an opportunity for reflection. As the IB states in Making the PYP Happen...'a portfolio is a celebration of an active mind at work. It provides a picture of each student’s progress and development over a period of time both as individual and group learners. It enables students to reflect with teachers, parents and peers in order to identify their strengths and growth as well as areas for improvement, and then to set individual goals and establish teaching and learning plans.' (pg. 50)

To develop our approach to portfolios, Laura spoke about framing them around three areas:

(1) The voice of the teacher - this could come in an explanation of the task that the students engaged in. It could also discuss the type of play that occurred during the task. This section might have more 'teacher talk' as the purpose is unpacked.

(2) The voice of the student - this section could include photos or videos of the students. An opportunity to record a reflection would also be represented here. The opportunities are vast in this section as they allow for student input into the documentation. What ownership does the student have over the learning in the sample? How are they reflected in the work?

(3) Analysis of learning - this section highlights  the skills, knowledge and conceptual understandings that are addressed in the learning experience. How are the students achieving this?

I think this is a nice framework to reference when we think about developing portfolio pieces. There is plenty of scope for creativity in the way that this is interpreted, however, the focus is firmly on the student and the learning. Laura also lead the discussion around aspects such as graphics, colours and fonts. Her explanation here was that the colour should come from the students themselves instead of from things such as banners, borders and zany fonts. We also discussed the use of images as a form of communication, especially considering that 90% of our student and parent population do not understand English easily yet.

This was a great opening discussion and one that I look forward to continuing with the team as we unpack our beliefs and understandings regarding documentation. I'm hopeful that the rest of the Junior School will be inspired by the work of this group.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Who is the self that teaches?

I've spent the first part of this school year delivering some IB workshops and am currently preparing to deliver a couple more in the next few months. Some interesting things that I've been reading about lately relate to the idea that the more familiar we are with our inner terrain, the more sure footed our teaching and living becomes.  As important as teaching methods and strategies may be, perhaps the clearest indicator of one's ability to perform is an insight into what is happening inside them as they do it. With that in mind, it can be useful to consider the following profiles and to decide which one best aligns with each individual.

The following were developed by Art Costa and Robert Garmston as part of Cognitive Coaching. Credit is also due here to JoAn Radojkovich and Julian Edwards for introducing these to me in this context.

As an educator, what do you believe your role is?
Cognitive Processor: To develop students' ability to think clearly, to use intellectual reasoning to solve problems and to make rational decisions.

Self-Actualizer: To nurture the individual child's unique potentials; to allow full development of his/her creativity and sensitivity, and to encourage personal integrity, love of learning and self fulfillment.

Technologist: To diagnose the learner's needs and abilities, to design instructional strategies which develop skills and competencies, and to produce trained people who are able to function efficiently in our ever-changing technological society.

Academic Rationalist: To transmit to young people the basic knowledge, skills, traditions, academic concepts and values necessary to interpret, participate in and further essential content of the disciplines.

Social Reconstructivist: To create a future world condition of peace, harmony, equality and love; to foster a new society with humans who can live together in balance with their environment and with each other.

Which profile do you most align with?

Which profile do you think best aligns with your parent community?

Can you belong to more than one profile?

Is it possible to shift from one profile to another? Does the experience of a teacher define which profile they are most likely to identify?

When would this sort of information be useful for schools? For teachers? For prospective employees or clients?

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Sunday, June 14, 2015

The power of the PYP

Our school year here at Branksome Hall Asia finished on Friday for students. Of the many highlights throughout the year, two stood out for me during the last week - Grade Five and Six graduation. This year we have transitioned Grade Six out of the Junior School and into the Middle School. The knock on effect of this is that everything that the Grade Six do in their final year had to be doubled as it was also the final year for the Grade Fives.

As the Grade Five and Six students reflected on their achievements and highlights throughout the year, many of their speeches mentioned the Exhibition as a defining moment for them. This is unsurprising - it is a major event for Junior School students. One speech in particular really stood out for me and I asked her permission to share it here.

Jiyeon only joined BHA this year. I covered a lesson for her class teacher earlier in the year and not long after she arrived. At BHA we have a very high number of English language learners - about 98% of our student population do not have English as a mother tongue. So the fact that Jiyeon didn't speak much English when she first arrived wasn't a major concern. What was causing a few alarm bells to sound off was her lack of engagement and apparent interest in even trying. The class teacher and I were concerned that, given she would be leaving the Junior School at the end of the year, we may not be able to provide Jiyoen with the best possible opportunities for success. What a difference three months makes. Jiyeon not only presented this speech in front of her graduating peers, parents and teachers, but she also had a speaking role in the school production and presented with her Exhibition group to students from other schools in Jeju.

Graduation speech

 Hi, I’m Jiyeon from VF, and I’m here for graduate my short 6th grade. I came this school in this year, and my English skills grow quickly. At first day of this school, I was really nervous. I think I only said maybe 3 sentences in class. I thought I don’t have enough English skill to study in this school. Well, that was fact.

 But, my school life changed when I did exhibition. I learn very many things, and I did very many new things. I wrote my first English script for presentation, and I wrote my own English essay. Actually, my writing skill grows in fastest speed. Before exhibition that was hard to write only 1 or 2 sentences. But now, I can write 23 pages of narrative, and half page of speech. I am very proud of myself.

 In 6th grade, I learned that we need to be a risk taker. When I see the IB learner profiles, I always think [I want to be a risk taker]. Because I’m not a risk taker, and I think that is most important thing in my life. In class, I don’t put my hand up when teacher ask some question. Because I always worry about when my answer is wrong, and when teacher doesn’t pick me to answer. But, when I take a risk, all things changed, and I realized. I need to take a risk! But that is hard. I think this is something that I need to improve on when I go to 7th grade.

 After summer vacation, all 6th grades become 7th grade, and start learning MYP program. We will never forget our grateful 6th grade teachers, parents, and friends.

 Thank you.
This speech has so many wonderful messages. The impact that Exhibition has. The benefits of risk-taking and the connection between the Learner Profile and learning. The power of reflection (and it is clear that Jiyeon is very reflective). Huge credit to Jiyeon for the amazing progress she has made this year - surely great things await in her future. Our Grade Six teachers also deserve to revel in our praise for it is their support and encouragement that has helped this to occur. If there was ever an example of the power of a growth mindset coupled with a PYP education - this is it.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Seeing is not believing

Over the past three days my school has hosted Mark Church, of Making Thinking Visible fame. He visited us to hold preliminary discussions about us developing a culture of thinking and hopefully the faculty will decide that this is something worthwhile continuing so we can begin to delve into some different perspectives on teaching and learning.

I was lucky enough to be involved with several of the breakout sessions and one idea that was raised was that the students we teach don't necessarily believe what they see. Instead they see that which they already believe. This refers to the notion that a teacher could deliver a lesson in which they think that something has been taught, yet the student still harbours preconceived ideas. The example that we discussed regarding this was of the ideas of two students explaining that in a completely dark room your eyes would adjust to be able to see an object. Despite prolonged questioning and a carefully arranged experiment that allowed the teacher and student to sit in a room with absolutely no light, the student still maintained that her eyes would adjust to be able to see the object. Her original prediction was 2-3 minutes, then 5-6 minutes, then an hour or two and in the end she still maintained that her eyes would adjust - but it might take a year or two! This example showed that, even though the student was willing to shift her perspective slightly, she still did not believe or understand that the eye cannot see anything unless there is a light source. The lesson here for teachers is to recognise that its not necessarily the evidence that is presented that will cause a shift in conceptual understanding, but the ideas and opinions that students have around it that matters. The power is in the hands of the learner.

The acknowledgment that students have ideas and opinions has significant implications for teachers. Discovery learning, project learning, problem-based learning and the variety of other pedagogies fall short of the mark if they are enacted in a way that doesn't listen to or value the voice of the student. They need to be embedded in inquiry. If the impetus for learning is coming solely from the teacher then they will only produce the same results as behaviourist approaches to teaching.

I'm currently reading a book by Marcia Behrenbruch called 'Dancing in the Light'. In this she identifies two approaches to planning in inquiry classrooms. The first she terms 'planning for purpose'. This refers to the teachers' role in planning. It leaves less room for student-initiated inquiries but answers questions such as: 'What are the significant, relevant, challenging and engaging conceptual ideas that should be addressed? What knowledge and skills could be developed through these ideas?' This sort of planning in progressive curricula is based on the 'Backwards by Design' framework. The second approach to planning is referred to as 'planning for possibilities' - a term that I was immediately drawn to. This process supports the development of student inquiries around the identified conceptual understandings. A variety of frameworks exist and all encourage student questioning at the classroom activity stage. When these two frameworks support each other, a teacher achieves what Behrenbruch refers to as an 'integrative inquiry approach'. This is student-centered yet also allows for state, national or school requirements to be met within the curriculum. The craft of the teacher is dedicated to managing the interplay between the two frameworks, guiding the development of knowledge and skills identified in their 'planning for purpose', whilst also reflecting on the direction that student inquiries are taking. This is managed by formative assessment and focused through the conceptual lens(es) for understanding.

Mark also highlighted three types of data typically gathered by schools. That which we can count, that which we can see, and that which we can hear. He talked about filling up data buckets and that a great number of schools have a very large 'counting data' bucket, but much smaller 'seeing' and 'hearing' buckets. He referred to the analogy of a 4 year old visiting the doctor. If the doctor weighs the child, measures their height and takes their temperature then they may easily conclude that there is nothing wrong and they're perfectly fine. However, a thorough doctor would also, for example,  listen to the child's breathing and heartbeat, look for any abnormalities in or outside of the body. These may point to something else and give reason to further exploration. The point is that all three types of data tell a part of the story but none tell the full story alone. Schools must ask themselves how they are filling and scrutinising their three buckets of data. If we acknowledge that students come to our classrooms with ideas, opinions and preconceptions then we must ask ourselves how we are finding out about these? How are we getting our students' thinking into our heads, instead of the other way around?
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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Why don't we do what we do?

When I was in Primary School I remember (on more than one occasion) being inundated with information that turned out to be completely irrelevant and useless to the task at hand. My teacher was looking for an opportunity to allow the class to engage in critical analysis and debate over what was relevant in our learning. Many of us simply took what we were given and tried to make the most of it but some figured out what was going on. It was an effective way to help us consider that not all information we receive is to be believed and that we need to think for ourselves in order to prioritise and seek relevance. I believe that sometimes schools fall into the same trap that my peers and I did all those years ago. The current trend of results-by-testing is influencing the world of education and the information being delivered to schools, in many cases, lacks relevancy.

PISA, ISA, TIMSS and other similar assessments are widely considered the best 'progressive' measures of 'how a school is doing'. In the absence of alternative measures, schools bend their philosophies to allow these sorts of tests. The often argued strengths of these assessments is that they bring an element of comparison between schools. They can be used as a measure to see how your school matches with world or regional trends. Certainly in my experience, through working in international IB schools around the world, it is primary parents who find this information most interesting and useful as it helps them to keep track of whether their children will be able to cognitively assimilate into their home environment should they move back. Other suggested benefits range from teacher accountability, predicted future success and student motivation.

However, is this accurate?

Perhaps. It is fairly easy to construct thoughtful discourse, based on current research, to counter the arguments on motivation, feedback and the effects of autonomy on productive output. I would like to discuss the comparison reason. This is one that I find being given more frequently, as if it serves as some sort of justification to allow this sort of assessment practice to take place despite it not aligning with school goals or strategic vision.

Governments in many countries use the sort of data that PISA et al. provide as a basis for reform. If their curricula are designed around these models of statistical analysis then there's every chance that the best way to elicit data from their students is through the use of subject specific standardised achievement tests. Some national curricula fit this model. Some used to and are changing. Some are quite the opposite. Yet an overwhelming majority, regardless of their policies on education, use these tests to track their progress against each other. They're also used, as mentioned before, by many international schools (that are by and large devoid of government regulations and restrictions) to see how they stack up against each other.

The basis of the PYP is a theoretical and experiential belief in qualitative research. The early initiators of the ISCP (which later became the PYP) looked to theorists such as Bruner, Gardner, Vykotsky and Piaget, those that aligned with their perspectives, experiences and beliefs as educators. For schools that follow a true PYP approach, these tests are foreign. The time spent preparing for them is wasted and the data that they receive back from them can be easily misconstrued. Some schools look at the setup: criterion referenced (heaven forbid that a school is using norm-referenced tests); will provide us with feedback on our students' performance; helps us to validate our curriculum - tick, tick, tick, let's do it. If we look closer, however, we see that there are not as many common threads as first thought:

(1) Criterion referencing is usually generated for specific grades, whereas the PYP supports the notion of non-linear phases of learning. The method isn't aligned to beliefs about learning and there is a clear gap in the planning-teaching-assessing cycle.*NOTE* I accept that there are PYP schools that organise their curricula into grade level expectations.

(2) These sorts of large-scale assessments are graded externally and can take a long time from being written for the results to be returned. There is little value in receiving feedback on a performance completed three months prior.

(3) Assessment beliefs in the PYP are built around the notion that skills and knowledge learned in context lead to the construction of conceptual understandings. These are what teachers make evaluations on. There is little hope for a standardised assessment to offer any sort of authenticity or context when it is being administered in many different places around the world. PYP teachers construct contextual scenarios for their assessments, based in real-life problems and issues. Yet they then receive data based on cookie cutter assessments given completely out of context, and, in some cases, that only judge one's ability to memorize than to think critically. Then they're expected to respond to it.

(4) Many of these tests collect information on Language, Mathematics and Science. Sometimes Social Studies too but the first three are generally always in there. These are valuable disciplines but there are many others as well that also offer a great deal of opportunity for cognitive stimulation. Are these not important? The PYP maintains a very strong stance in the importance of a holistic education. By subscribing to these assessments a school is valuing certain types of skills, knowledge and understanding as being more important than others.

Research that quotes data received from these sorts of tests should not be used to make decisions about the future directions of these programs. I'm not anti-data. If we are able to collect relevant and accurate data about successes that other schools and/or countries have, in ways that support our beliefs behind teaching, learning and assessment, and it can be made available so that others can learn from it, then we should. My questioning lies in our ability measure achievement qualitatively rather than the current obsession with quantitative measures. Why don't we collect and use data based on the types of assessment practices that we believe in?