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



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.


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.


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:

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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