New thoughts on best practice for distance learning

Conversations with students, teachers and families throughout distance learning were insightful and inspiring. Collectively, I believe, they will help shape the future of learning and provide guidance for shifting best practices. Here I have compiled the thoughts and reflections of our community from our experience with distance learning to think about shifts in best practice.

Best Practice #1: Trim the Fat

“The key to school reform is throw out half the curriculum – any half.”

Brian Harvey

WHY: Less is more. This call for a consolidation of the curriculum has been shared before; Gary Stager calls the curriculum today “morbidly obese.” Seymour Papert is quoted “At best, school teaches a billionth of a percent of the knowledge in the universe, yet we quibble endlessly over which billionth of a percent is important.” And more recently our students themselves have been asking us to reconsider: “Students call for shorter classes, less work in post-COVID classrooms.”

HOW:

  • Step back and look for meaningful learning opportunities and let go of the rest. Ask ‘what truly matters, what is essential learning, what do our students really need to know’ to focus on more powerful learning and build experiences that have depth over breadth. Clarify, edit, and curate for powerful learning.
  • This is a great opportunity to consider the idea of “power standards” = longitudinal, integrated (interdisciplinary, latitudinal connections), foundational, building blocks. Ask yourself, ‘Is there anything we have to do this year that is essential for next year?’ The opportunity for going beyond the identified power standards can be a part of intentional unit design, especially when we have helped develop self-directed learners.
  • Look for the big ideas and concepts that are transferable within your content and the key details to support students in building skills and understanding.
  • Prioritize the process of learning and skill building over memorization.
  • Review your units across the year; are there connections and clear links between units, then consider combining them to create integrated, transdisciplinary units. Make connections between disciplines through concepts and develop transferable skills.

Further reading: “Marie Kondo The Curriculum” by Jal Mehta and Shanna Peeples

Best Practice #2: Build Independence

WHY: Children want to be independent, we need to be purposeful in supporting these skills. Independent students know how to be self-directed, they can follow passion into purpose and have the potential for life long learning.

HOW:

  • Provide predictability through routines and clear guidelines that allows students to know what to expect and navigate the learning on their own. Allow for choice in the routines and time and learning so students can become self directed.
  • Create daily schedules, pacing charts, and calendars for students. Or better yet, support self-directed learners to do this for themselves.
  • Focus on goal setting, allow students to set their own goals and reflect on their progress to understand where they need to go next. Follow students where they lead and honor their process.
  • Model or walk through the process together step-by-step so they can then try it out on their own.
  • “What am I doing for students that they could be doing for themselves?” ~ John Spencer Invite students in as active participants in their learning as co-planners and co-assessors. When students know expectations (co-created success criteria, clear objectives) they can push themselves.
  • Video is a tool for self-directed learning, students can pause and go back to rewatch to access the lessons as they need.
  • All resources should be accessible so students can be independent, try to make it as easy as possible for students to find and get what they need without having to ask for help or permission. Curate content and resources that allow students to self navigate (less is more, too much choice can be overwhelming).

Best Practice #3: Cultivate Relationships

WHY: Learning is a social, we learn from each other through our interactions and communications with others. We can create learning environments (online and off) that maximize our students’ opportunities to interact with each other through communication, collaboration, and feedback.

HOW:

  • Asynchronous learning experiences need to be complemented by synchronous experiences to maintain community and relationships. When we added on live meeting times (synchronous) we saw an increase in engagement and participation in the asynchronous learning.
  • Have fun together and make time for celebrations and “social calls” (ie. Zoom games, exhibitions, writing celebrations, birthdays).
  • Build a class community virtually through regular opportunities to meet and connect. Synchronous sessions (such as with Zoom) are a meeting point, and enable teachers to bring students together who wouldn’t normally have met. But also, consider other platforms that will allow students to interact with each other (ie Flip Grid, SeeSaw blogs, live word cloud, live polling).
  • Pre-recorded morning messages are a great way to start the day, set the stage for learning and touch base with students. Students need experiences that allow them to communicate with each other and as well as with their teacher. You might add in a Q&A session or “office hours” for your students to select when they need to meet with you for extra attention.
  • Small groups allow for better collaboration and communication, it has been indicated (and we found through our distance learning experience) that an ideal size is no more than 4 students.
  • Design projects that encourage collaboration between students, each one might take on a different role or area to combine with the strengths of others. We might learn from how businesses collaborate across distances (“How to Collaborate Effectively If Your Team Is Remote” ~HBR)
  • In face to face school students continuously share their learning and work and provide each other with a real time audience. Online exhibitions of work can cultivate relationships by allowing students to connect and share while also giving them that peer audience and feedback.
  • Knowing our students before we entered distance learning meant we had already established relationships, if we are to do this again we might want to consider looping teachers or looping classes and dedicating the first “unit” of the year to simply getting to know each other (identity and community).

Cultivating relationships is equally as important for our family community. Parent communication and partnership is key for student success, bring parents into the classroom community.

  • Keep an open line of communication. Host parent workshops, share best practices and pedagogical beliefs, explain why we are teaching this unit in this way, share unit objectives, encourage questions.
  • Suggest resource lists (or provide materials if possible) for families to collect and set up in an area that is accessible to the student so they can be independent. This might include designing a home makerspace.
  • Help families feel comfortable with distance learning (and/or hybrid learning if this is the direction your school is moving in). Parents can help set the tone for the success of students, children will watch their parents and follow their lead, if families are worried students will be worried too.

Do not ignore the relationships within your teaching team. Teamwork is so important, teachers have been more actively planning and problem solving together than ever before.

  • Team norms build trusting, collaborative relationships. New team norms had to be discussed in the new online environment. Alignment and agreements created an intentional work culture and helped with accountability and consistency.
  • Agree upon a regular meeting time each week (or multiple times per week) to connect with colleagues “face-to-face” and co-plan, co-reflect. Stay in touch across distances by using other communication tools too (ie. WhatsApp). And don’t forget about the social calls!
  • Accessing the curriculum online allowed for specialists to contribute their expertise to the learning and boarden the repertoire of all teachers.

More Resources:

Best Practice #4: Personalize learning

WHY: We live in a world that believes in the myth of the average learner, but understanding learning variability is critical for designing environments that allow success for all. By personalizing learning we can recognize talents that might otherwise have been overlooked. These are the takeaways from a talk delivered by Todd Rose, “Variability Matters.” His work with learner variability later led him to author the book Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment. He talks about this on the Harvard EdCast: “How Personalized Learning Can Lead to Success.” He learned from his research that fulfilment is about what matters to you, it can’t be dictated by standards or norms. But we (teachers) can help students find out what matters most to them by helping them better understand their own identity and what skills they need to achieve their goals.

HOW:

  • Distance learning has provided us with the opportunity for a paradigm shift, to trust children! If we are ready to accept this new perspective and relationship with our students then we are ready to dive into personalized learning.
  • What if we trusted students to decide how they will meet the standards/objectives? @TheStoppelsShow suggested we might give students the standards (not textbooks, worksheets, or packets) and allow them to decide how they will meet those. But why stop there, provide students with provocations (essential questions) and outcomes to design their own learning project (there is never only one right way to do something). Help them to become inquirers, researchers, curators of information and resources, and to become creators who “do” something with their learning. Ask them “What do you need/want to learn, how do you want to learn it and what will you do with the learning? How might it benefit others/yourself?” With our students being at home in so many different environments and with access to so many different materials this approach is even more crucial for equitable learning opportunities.
  • Continuing on with this idea of trust, shared ownership and personalized learning has caused a shift in assessment practices (see below). When learning is personal it cannot be solely yours to to grade, judge and critique, it must be shared.
  • Technology has always been thought of as the key towards personalized learning, I might disagree (personalized learning does not take place through an adaptive online curriculum that is based on an algorithm) but I do think it is a great tool for supporting self-direction. The key is to remember not to rely on technology but to use technology to your benefit; humanize distance learning through the use of technology, get to know students, their needs, their interests and how to help them feel personal fulfillment through growth.
  • Students have been given the opportunity to discover new passions at home. Let’s harness those new found passions and also continue to provide more options and choices for learning about future passions. Provide students with a menu of choices for learning, have them discover what motivates them and reflect on why.
  • However, only focusing on student interests means they’ll never know if they have any other interests. Ask them to take risks and try new things, tell them they have the choice to decide if they love it or hate it but they must try it out (perseverance). Giving them the reflective power to learn about themselves and what truly motivates them will shape the path to self-directed learning.
  • Personalized learning has to be accompanied by reflection and responsibility. Students have to be responsible for their choices (agency) but can only learn about this through reflective opportunities. Instead of marking them off for not turning in work or not attending online lessons ask them “Why are you making the choices you are making?” As teachers we need to step back and not always provide the next step. Students need to find their own strategies and path towards success.
  • Provide all students with opportunities and invitations to learning by designing more flexible “environments.” How do your students access content, directions, information for lessons? Does it all have to be read? What if you vary it with audio, video, visuals, and other written formats like infographics with less text? Be intentional, differentiate learning plans before hand and tier tasks.

Best Practice #5: Be intentional

“What is the ONE area we can work on that will make the biggest impact?”

Lee Ann Jung

WHY: This practice is directly related to the first practice, “Trim the Fat.” Teachers are designers of learning and should be intentional in their design; a student’s interactions with learning should be considered at each point of the design process. Piaget reminds us that “knowledge is a consequence of experience,” let’s be intentional as we design those experiences.

HOW:

  • Think about how you can get your students off the screen and exploring their community and environment.
  • Make thoughtful decisions about which and how many platforms, new technologies or applications you introduce and why.
  • Anticipate rather than react to learning needs. Use or develop a continuum for skill building (ie. skills for independent learning, skills for new technologies) that will allow you to meet and guide a student from where they are.
  • Be even more purposeful with your choices as everything takes a bit more time in distance learning.
  • Create a culture based on “Purpose over Power,” this may include focusing on learning progress over work completion and attendance.
  • Set aside time to look at student work and then use the results to intentionally inform practice.
  • Consider how you will provoke the learning in an online environment and invite students into the process (what resources are available?).
  • Shape the path for learning with clear aims that will allow students to be self-directed and navigate the journey themselves and share this at the start of the lesson/unit.

Best Practice #6: Limit talk time

WHY: Be purposeful with your time with students, limit talk time, less is more. A Microsoft research study indicated that the average adult attention span is 8 seconds, this has been highly disputed but what is agreed upon is that our videos need to capture our audiences’ attention in 10 seconds (after 30 seconds if you have not been able to fully engage your audience, you could lose 33% of viewers and after one minute, 45% of viewers ). Further studies have shown that shorter videos are better. The average Youtube video length is 4 minutes (while 2 minutes on Facebook). Wistia has some great graphics that show that less than 50% of your audience will watch the entire video if it is 4-10 minutes, while almost 60% will stay until the end of a 1-2 minute video.

HOW:

  • Get the most important moments in the beginning of your video (cooking videos often show the finished product at the start of the video to hook the audience).
  • If you have a lot to say chunk it into shorter, more digestible videos. You could create a playlist that links the process in interrelated videos that come together as a whole.
  • These videos should be your lesson broken into individual segments, clearly titled and with “white space” in between. This white space might give time for thinking routines or interactive experiences, helping students reflect and consolidate along the journey.
  • These same practices should be taken into consideration when adding text or designing slides/pages for lessons (less is more, hook them in the beginning, chunk lessons and provide “white space” or think time).

Best Practice #7: Teachers as researchers

WHY: The Cambridge dictionary defines research, “to study a subject in detail, especially in order to discover new information or reach a new understanding.” As teachers we should consider that the main bulk of our work lies in research for new understandings about learning.

HOW:

  • While looking at student work as a team is one tried and true way to research learning this has new meaning in distance learning as it sometimes is the only evidence of the learning process we collected. A helpful and simple protocol might be “What. So what? Now what?”
  • Pedagogical documentation can be sustained by asking students to record themselves at work or to share an audio file of their explanation of their process or thinking.
  • Teachers have developed expertise by planning and reflecting in one area and then collaborating to integrate the experiences and make connections between subjects.
  • With the curriculum and lessons online we have learned more from the practices of our colleagues and built meaning together. Be intentional about learning from and with each other by “opening classroom doors” virtually.
  • Trying new strategies in distance learning has afforded teachers the opportunity to research new best practices.

Best Practice #8: Assessment is learning

WHY: Learning is defined in many ways (here are 10 definitions) but is generally a transformative process that through experience adds knowledge, understanding or skills that contributes to future connections and learning. Assessment is the collection and analysis of data on learning used to refine and improve learning. If the objective for learning is to learn more and the object for assessment is to learn better then assessment is learning and learning is assessment. With this view assessment becomes a way of thinking that advances learning (not for measurement) and illuminates the path to self-directed learning.

HOW:

  • Looking back at intentionality, be intentional with assessments. Minimize the amount of assessments and carefully consider what evidence we need in order to know if learning is taking place. Students can record and explain their thinking with new digital tools, which means teachers can better assess the learning over the knowledge and students are given the time and space for reflection.
  • Engage students in thinking about their own learning. When students are a part of the design process through co-designed rubrics or checklists there is more room for self-directed learning and self assessment. Ask them to be a part of designing what they want to learn (goals) and how they will know they have learned it (success criteria). Some teachers have been setting up self-check stations (though platforms such as Kahoot, Quizlet) to allow students to better know where they are and where they should go next.
  • Because the learning has been shared and documented online teachers can have better records of growth/process and can help students move forward with more intentionality and personalized learning.
  • Our students are now immersed in the internet and at home with siblings and parents; these are all great sources for information. Instead of worrying about if they are copying, Googling or getting help from others, let’s celebrate this collaborative and self-directed learning. Then, when we want to assess if this collaborative learning has been effective, look to the higher tiers of Bloom’s taxonomy and ask students to move beyond recall to think, synthesize and act, to become creators not just consumers of information. GOA’s “Designing for Online Learning” course suggested these 3 questions to guide the design of assessments:
    • How can my students apply their knowledge?
    • How can my students create something as a way to demonstrate their understanding?
    • How can I create opportunities for students to justify a stand or decision?
  • When it comes to reporting we had opportunities to move into a fully narrative report without grades. We used a strength-based approach to share what the students were able to accomplish, how they grew and their future potential (strength-based does not mean being dishonest about opportunities for growth but is a shift in how we view and speak about challenges).
  • Some teachers included family and student reflections in reporting to take into consideration how they co-learned with their families.
  • Teachers looked to the evidence observed and documented to share what they know about who that child is as a learner.
  • As we look towards the new school year there are a lot of concerns about filling gaps. But I believe we have an amazing opportunity to change the narrative from falling behind to leverage the power of moments and hear about all the learning that did take place. Can we start the year by asking students and families to share with us their stories from distance learning then build on those successes and support the challenges identified?

Best Practice #9: From feedback to feedforward

“If you’re going to use your precious time to give feedback, plan classroom activities so students can respond and act on it.”

Dylan Wiliam

WHY: Feedback is generated through learning, reflection and assessment but Joe Hirsch, author of The Feedback Fix simply stated the issue with this: “People can’t control what they can’t change, and we can’t change the past, and that happens to be the focus of most of the feedback that we give or receive.” So we simply need to shift feedback into feedforward – looking for next steps and positive actions. Read more here: “Moving from Feedback to Feedforward” ~ Cult of Pedagogy

HOW:

  • We have not been able to give feedback in the same way we may have in a face to face classroom so we need to be creative and responsive.
  • Parents and peers are great sources for feedback and the power of self-assessment cannot be over emphasized, how will you design opportunities for self-reflection?
  • Tech has provided us with a great tool for feedback, teachers can share specific information with students (via Screencastify voice messages, audio recordings, annotations) that allow students see their own work while listening to suggestions for next steps. Choice within feedback gives students options for different ways of doing things and ownership of their process. This idea of audio recording information allows students to hear their teacher’s voice, the tone, receive verbal encouragement and hear the thinking aloud.
  • In addition to your Q&A sessions or office hours, create a discussion space for students to support each other.
  • Let’s say it again, less is more. It takes more time to provide feedback in an online environment so think carefully about what feedback you’ll offer students; what are the one or two most relevant suggestions for moving them forward in their thinking?
  • Through the modeling by the teacher for effective processes for sharing feedforward information students can view each other’s work online and give each other feedback.
  • It is important to connect with our teachers to continue that relationship building (some one-to-one opportunities can be very effective for this). And many students want validation and praise for their work, while we do want self-directed learners, we all love to be reaffirmed that we are on the right track. Balance this with specific information about what you liked about their process and learning (beyond what is right or wrong). Also consider ways you can prompt further self-reflection, when they ask “How did I do?” respond with How do you think you did?”

What if… students had job descriptions

At school we have been having discussions around assessment, reporting and in particular the design of our report card. We have started by dreaming and learning; dreaming “what if…” and learning about other models. Then the other day I listened to a podcast on coaching in the business world, the speaker said we have to separate performance appraisals from growth, development and learning goals. And as I thought about this I came back to the conversations I have been having about report cards and assessment and grading. Are we separating evaluations of performance from learning? Should we be? The business world and psychologists have been discussing motivation for decades now, maybe even longer, and the research findings are being shared. We are beginning to better understand what motivates employees to learn and achieve; how is this translating to the world of education and how we approach learning with our students?

My thoughts brought me back to what the podcast speaker said about separating performance appraisals from development, growth and learning goals. And I thought more about our report card and what we are assessing and evaluating. How do we separate performance appraisals from learning for our students? What is the performance we are appraising? In the business world the speaker, on the podcast, was talking about separating the job performance of the employee from their development and learning goals. The appraisal of job performance is based on a job description. And I wondered, should we have a job description for students? Is that is how we could evaluate their performance separately from their learning? Would we then be able to look at their accomplishments as learners and celebrate that growth separate from their responsibilities at school?

But what would a job performance look like for a student? I had a quick think about this and started a rough draft of some initial ideas.

Student Job Description

Summary

Students are citizens of today and our community who come to school to share their voice and create meaning with others through relationships and shared experiences. Each student carries their own potential that is revealed through interactions.

Responsibilities
  • Agentic designers of learning
  • Play
  • Identity (know yourself / be self-aware)
  • Expression
  • Risk-taking
Skills
  • Self-management/emotional intelligence
  • Self-directed (accountability/goal setting)
  • Communication
  • Learning to learn
  • Social/emotional
  • Creativity
  • Growth mindset
Preferred
  • Parents/families as partners
  • Passionate
  • Engaged
  • Curiosity/inquiry

As I was writing this I was reminded of Loris Malaguzzi’s Image of the Child. I wonder how our image of the child impacts the “job description” we expect of our learners? I am left with this thought swirling around (as I also continue to contemplate what our image of the human might be… but maybe that should be another blog).

So I come back to this question: if we could come up with a “job description” for the student how would we then evaluate their “performance” separately from growth, development and learning? And I am beginning to think, what if our reports to parents were a continuous dialogue on how we can partner together to support the “performance” of learners as students. Then what if learning, growth and development could be shared as stories authored and shared collaboratively by all partners in education?

What if…

What’s next?

Designing for Learning

We are loving the PYP enhancements especially the agency being honored for all IB educators to shape their own understandings and develop the PYP for their own contexts. We have fully embraced this idea of ownership through the ability to craft our own unit planner.

We knew we wanted to explore a new way of planning because we had been feeling “boxed in” by the old planner. We thought we could adapt all the things we loved about the PYP planning process and put into a format that fit our needs and our context.

But first we wanted to learn from others and so we called on the expertise of thoughtful educators within our PLN. Edna Sackson, Sonya terBorg and Taryn BondClegg were quick to reply and very generously shared with us their work and the thought behind the changes they made in their own contexts. The Programme Communities on My IB has samples of planners and planning processes and is a wealth of information compiled from the work of educators around the world.

To begin our process we began with our Instructional Leaders team and together we explored the question “why do we plan?” We discussed the purpose of planning and uncovered some new truths and beliefs for ourselves.

    • We design experiences and environments that provoke learning
    • We design for the learning of all learners
    • We design for learning together
    • We design for learning in response to learners
    • We design for learning to take us from knowns to unknowns
    • We design for learning that honors the individual learner
    • We design for learning that honors the agency of the learner, the learning community and learning and teaching

Guided by our beliefs we explored planners and templates created by other schools, educators and organisations; we analysed them alongside the traditional and updated PYP planners from the IB. We discussed what we loved and what we would change; we explored what excited us and what worried us; we celebrated the work of others and found connections to our own contexts and needs.

From these discussions and the lists of wants and needs that came out of these explorations I drafted a new planner for our school that we called the Design for Learning. To accompany this document I also made a Reference Page that could support the process and the dialogue that emerges from collaboratively working together to design for learning. We took these two new documents to our Common Planning Meetings and Planning Retreats (which maybe we should change the name of to something that honors our belief about designing for learning). We used them to help us in the process of designing the learning for our fourth and fifth units making adjustments and changes in response to the voice and needs of our learning community. With a final draft ready to go we had one last critique for our sixth unit. While we do not consider the Design for Learning to be a fixed document that can no longer evolve with the growth of our learning community we did want to be able to continue designing for learning without having to constantly reflect on the document and process.

You can find both our Design for Learning and Reference Page linked here and at the end of this blog. We would like to share these back freely as others so generously shared their thoughts and processes with us. We would also like to give credit to all the educators who have shared and have guided our own thoughts and reflections through this process. We did not create this we simply melded together many ideas from others into a document that fits who we are.

Our Design for Learning begins with the voice of our learners. We follow this with the choices of our educators as learning designers. These choices honor the components of the PYP, such as the TD Themes which reflect a structure to the world that allows us for connections, concepts that give meaning to a unit, knowledge that is transferable, skills that are universal, attributes that reflect who we are becoming, and lines of inquiry which shape a path of learning grounded in a central idea. While we honor the agency of our learners we also honor the agency of the curriculum and our teachers. In this way we outline a structure that includes the elements of the PYP while also considering the environment, both of time and space, that lays before us. But once we saw ourselves as designers and co-designers and not planners we realised that we cannot fully plan a unit on our own, and so, our Design for Learning ends before it begins. We stop at a skeletal overview allowing the learners to take their role as partners in the Design for Learning.

Our weekly Common Planning meetings are shifting to become opportunities to share pedagogical documentation as action researchers and designers for learning. We hope to focus on this next step in the process of designing for learning in the coming school year. We have some ideas for this that were inspired by our inquiries into Reflection and a visit from Anne van Dam; we have included below the Design for Learning documents some provocative questions that will guide our continued collaborations and reflections and inform the weekly learning.

We still need to further explore the role of the single subject teacher, the role of the wider learning community, how to better include our young learners in the conversations when collaboratively designing for learning and, as always, constantly reflect on our choices and actions as lifelong learners. We would love to hear your feedback to help us feedforward in our learning journey.

Design for Learning

Reference Page

Inclusion

Last school year we decided to focus our inquiries towards inclusion. And so we reflected, evaluated, revised, planned, and then this year implemented our ideals. It has been an incredible journey. We have had to reflect consistently to make changes and alter our plans. We’ve learned a lot and grown even more.

There have been some key words and phrases that have shaped and have defined our journey with inclusion, these are: Learning is Inclusive, nothing about me without me, what’s good for one is good for all, “push in” or “pull out” is the wrong question, silos or systems, reflect society or transform society, models of disability, co-teaching, community, we need him/her and Who We Are. I’d like to walk you through what these have meant for us.

Learning is Inclusive

Any collaborative journey has to begin with a shared understanding of the goal and destination.

Learning is inclusive:

    • providing meaningful, challenging and relevant learning for a diverse community
    • empowering self reliance, independence, confidence and grounded in a sense of belonging
    • when students see themselves as part of the learning process.
    • taking into account different learning styles
    • it is culturally sensitive

You hear conversations about inclusion from our teachers, teaching assistants, specialists, our parents and especially our students. The children model for us the ideal that learning is inclusive better than any other community members. They are our living goal.

nothing about me without me

This was a statement our Principal brought back with him after visiting Reggio with Next Frontiers Inclusion. It encapsulates the ideal that learners should have ownership over their education. With this belief we brought in three-way conferences in addition to our student-led conferences. We also reviewed our IEPs and ensured that any meeting involving a child’s education plan included the child. We used their voice and their choices to help structure their educational plan. Nothing about me without me.

what’s good for one is good for all

We had some realizations as we discussed learning support and how it had been approached. We found that our EAL teacher had some strategies for working with her students that our Learning Support teacher could use with her students. We realized that what was good for one student could be good for a multitude of students. And so we took EAL and Learning Support and Counseling and brought them together. We also looked at the supports that we had in place for learners we had previously labeled as students with need and we extended the same opportunities to all students. So now every child at ISU has a Personal Learning Profile that they co-create with their teachers and which outlines how they learn best. The idea of an IEP being good for one has now been extended to all. What’s good for one is good for all.

“push in” or “pull out” is the wrong question

Some of our discussions when creating our strategic action plan for inclusion were focused around “push-in” models of support or “pull-out.” Over the course of our learning journey we came to realize this was the wrong question. We needed to be flexible with our approaches. Every student learns differently and every teacher needs to adapt their strategies to fit the child and situation. Inclusion isn’t a this or that question, it is a reflective process that finds the strategies best fit for the teacher and learner. “There is no one right way to teach. And there is no one right way to learn. Be deeply suspicious of anyone who tells you otherwise.” (NFI, A Practical Guide for School Leaders, 2014)

silos or systems

We completed an audit of our learning support department, inclusive beliefs and practices as well as how our school functions as a whole. Are we a school of silos or systems? If you look up the meaning for silo in this context you’ll find this: a system, process, department, etc. that operates in isolation from others. Our learning support department had been just that, a silo. And so we had to find a way to make our support services an integral part of our learning system. We moved our learning support teachers and staff to a more central location, together. And we brought them into partnerships with teachers, specialists, parents and students.

reflect society or transform society

Kevin Bartlett commented, “Do schools reflect society, or do schools transform society?” and this question has come to guide our actions. We decided in those strategic planning meetings that we want to be a school that transforms the society we live in. We want our model of inclusion to be the model our children bring into their world, a model that accepts differences, embraces uniqueness, celebrates successes, welcomes failures as learning experiences, values identity, cultivates self-confidence, nurtures community, and helps “create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.” (IBO Mission Statement)

models of disability

This was the topic of a choice workshop led by one our learning support teaching assistants. It made us all question what we viewed as a disability. We walked away with new understandings; there is no thing as a “disability” what we have instead are “disabled environments.” Our schools and communities and society as a whole provide the disabilities. The individual could be abled if the classroom had a ramp instead of step, the individual could be abled if the language of instruction was Swedish instead of English, the individual could be abled if the written assessment was completed with voice to text instead of a pencil. And so we came to the understanding that there are no “learning disabilities” only “ curriculum disabilities,” “environment disabilities” and “teaching disabilities.” Our goal is to start providing the support not just to our young learners but to our adult learners in order to help reduce the disabilities we and our environments propagate.

co-teaching

As we were trying to find solutions to the problems we identified in our audit of learning support we came to the conclusion that co-teaching might be part of our answer. If we could find a way for our learning support teachers and staff to become co-teachers in our classrooms we could better provide relevant and personalized learning for all our learners (teachers and students alike) that would lead to developing self-confidence and community. And so we embarked upon a journey of partnership building. We soon realized that a co-teaching partnership involves so much more than just teaching, it is co-planning, co-reflecting, co-assessing and co-learning. And with dedicated time for each of these elements of a co-teaching partnership we are building a collaborative team that will remove “teaching disabilities” from our learning environments.

community

Maybe we should have seen this coming, if we were inquiring into inclusion, community would be a natural component; after all inclusion is defined as the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure. Our goal with inclusion is to provide learners with a meaningful learning experience in an environment where they feel safe and supported in a community that fosters self-confidence and honors individual identity. Which again brings us back to community and provides a better understanding of why community is just so essential in this journey towards inclusion. It is a cyclical relationship, education helps cultivate inclusive communities and community helps cultivate inclusive education. We have to have a strong community in order to achieve any of these goals and so community has become a buzzword around school and is the focus for why we do what we do.

we need him/her

This has been a phrase said in several meetings we have had with parents, teachers and administrators. In becoming more inclusive we have been welcoming more learners with higher needs into our learning community. Some of these needs are new to us and we are learning how to best support the learners (teachers, parents and students) on their journey towards success. We embrace the challenge of learning and developing our abilities in order to meet a wider array of needs. Our students have provided us with these learning moments that have allowed us to better our abilities. And so this has been shared with our community in comments such as: We need her, she has been teaching us how to support a child with language processing delays. We need him, he has shown us techniques for anger management. We need him, he will teach us how to better support a child with autism. An inclusive school with diversity in learners enriches the whole community.

Who We Are

This one is not about where we have been but where we are going. A TEDx Talk by Mariana Atencio, “What makes you special?”, reminded me that in order to appreciate our differences we have to appreciate that these are what makes everyone special and unique. And to do this you first have to really understand what makes you special. To see that your differences don’t define you but are what makes you different makes you special and is the key to your individual success. Affirming identity to build self-esteem is at the core of the IB’s principles of teaching for learning diversity; “Students with a positive identity are more able to take the risks necessary for successful learning.” (Learning diversity and inclusion in IB programmes, 2016) A yearlong, school wide journey into Who We Are will help us inquire into our identities and build self-esteem for all our learners and community members.

“Can Action be about finding a Passion?” or “Travel agents for learning”

I am currently mentoring an Exhibition group which has caused me to reflect on the process of learning, of choosing a passion, of following an inquiry, of taking action… all of which I hope to apply to my role as coordinator and facilitator of Professional Learning for our teachers and staff. My reflections of both processes are below.

My first thought refers to the IB guidelines for Exhibition which state: “Students are required to engage in a collaborative, transdisciplinary inquiry process that involves them in identifying, investigating and offering solutions to real-life issues or problems.” Why do we focus on issues and problems? This is a rather negative view of the world, that the only things worth inquiring into are the problems and issues that surround us. I’ve done some reading on Problem Oriented Thinking and researchers have found that it does not help us find quick/effective solutions in difficult situations and can have negative effects on motivation; while Solution Oriented Thinking leads to greater impetus and innovation. Solution Oriented Thinking sounds more like the kind of action we’d like to inspire in our learners.

This brings me to my second thought about Exhibition, action. While the IB is very straightforward in their guidelines that “action may not always be clearly or immediately visible or measurable” they do state that action is evident “whenever a particular behaviour results from the learning involved.” And so I ask, can the PYP Exhibition be about finding a passion or interest? Can passion be the action of Exhibition? Maybe so if we release our learners from the confines of issues and problems? Our learners are young and are busy discovering the world around them. We want them to embrace those discoveries with enthusiasm and a curiosity that is contagious and inspiring. We want them to find their passion. (I highly recommend reading more about the power of autonomy, purpose and passion in Angela Duckworth’s book “Grit” or Daniel Pink’s book “Drive”)

My third reflection on Exhibition actually took place a few years ago; we found that we were asking students to plan their journey using the ideas of Backward Design and yet they didn’t know where they were going, they were at the beginning of their journey. And so we have moved the crafting of a Central Idea to the end of the process and the writing of their Lines of Inquiry to a more organic as we go process. Having a Central Idea laid out from the beginning is like setting a goal for inquiry, but true inquiry is not goal focused, there is not one straight path or one definitive answer, it is an expedition with many routes, crossings, wanderings and passages (see this great blog about Exhibition vs Expedition).

So if we are going to ask our learners to act as Solution Oriented Thinkers and innovators, to help them discover their interests and passions, to go on an expedition of learning we have to think about how we are going to help guide them to their departure point. Imagine someone told you that you could inquire into anything you’d like, anything in the whole wide world, what would you do? I find that sometimes our students are stumped by this kind of proposal, they have no idea what to do when presented with such a plethora of choice (see this great TED Talk about the problem with too many choices). We need to allow our learners the experience of choice in all units (or in learning) leading up to Exhibition to enable them to be able to navigate choice in Exhibition.

When looking at a year of Personalised Professional Learning I have been thinking about these reflections, about how we learn, how we find our passions, how we inquire and how we take action. And so as I begin to draft the structures that will frame our learning journey for next school year I am taking into consideration all of these thoughts I’ve had with our learners through Exhibition.

And so I begin again with issues and problems. So often we ask teachers to select Student Centered Goals to guide their Professional Learning Community (PLC). And while this sounds good in writing in actuality we are asking teachers to analyse data in order to find issues within the teaching and learning for problem solving. We have gone back to Problem Oriented Thinking. What if instead we asked teachers to be Solution Oriented Thinkers. So instead of looking for the causes of problems we look for solutions, we focus on what is working instead of what is not working, trying out new solutions instead of investigating old problems. This is also called a Strength Based Approach (which I wrote about in an earlier blog and has been used in both education and business).

Allowing teachers the freedom to focus not on what isn’t working but on what is allows us to better understand the strengths of our teachers. This will expose their passions and interests and cultivate experts in our schools. Teachers with passion will be motivational educators who help to reimagine what learning can be for their students. They will be transformative leaders within our schools. Teachers with passion will lead with action.

But we cannot ask our teachers to name this action at the beginning of their Personalised Professional Learning journey. We need to drop the word and idea of goals from our framework for teacher inquiry. A goal indicates a clear path and a defined target. If we truly want our teachers to be learners we need to allow them the flexibility of inquiry. They need the chance to explore, to go down the wrong path, to wander and discover their true understandings as a part of their expedition. We want teachers, just like our students, to write their central ideas not as a goal for inquiry but as a result of the journey.

Which brings me again to my last point, the paradox of choice. How do we help all of our learners to navigate the freedom of choice? We need to act as travel agents for learning. By definition a travel agent is a person whose task is to simplify the travel planning process for their customers. They assist customers with choosing their destination, transportation and provide information about travel requirements. Travel agents provide travellers with timetables and travel literature. In large travel agencies, agents may specialise, in smaller agencies, travel agents have a broader range of responsibilities. (from: https://gradireland.com/careers-advice/job-descriptions/travel-agent)

Let’s show our learners the whole world and then help them decide on the journey that will allow them to discover and develop their passion.

Student Centered Units of Inquiry

Our Reflections, Choices and Actions in creating more student centered Units of Inquiry

Last school year we focused on our Learning Principle:

Learning is inquiry driven:

  • is conceptual – developing an understanding of transferable concepts
  • is engaging and of interest to us
  • is active and hands on
  • when we make a personal connection to the topic

As a staff we completed a book study on “The Power of Inquiry” by Kath Murdoch and in teams (because just like students, teachers also learn better together) teachers went to Kath Murdoch’s workshop, “Teaching and Learning Through Inquiry.” This year we had Tania Lattanzio come and work with us on differentiating our curriculum and her voice coupled with our inquiry into inquiry led us to revisit our teaching and consider new ways to engage students in learning. There have been so many wonderful changes to the teaching and learning happening within our school due to our focus on inquiry but instead of a rambling on about all of them I thought I might focus, just for now, on the changes to the Central Ideas and focus of the units.

One of the big reflections from our learning was that our units need to be more student centered. With this reflection in mind we revisited many of our units and considered how appropriate they were for the children, how much room for inquiry they provided, how engaging they would be and if they could provide for student voice, choice, and ownership. (there is a great blog post on Making Good Humans that questions the need for planned units at all which might be the next step for all schools to consider as they attempt to build more student centered units of inquiry)

So here they are, a sampling of our revised units that we hope are more student centered. We would love your reflection (comments or ideas) to push us further in our thinking.

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