Wayfinder Learning Lab

"Learning is about living, and as such is lifelong." Elkjaer.

1 Comment

Give a Student a Fish…

“Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he’ll feed his family for a lifetime.” Anne Ritchie, 1885 (maybe)

This short post, again related to Understanding Learners and Learning, Visible Learning and MYP: Mind the Gap, revolves around my (admittedly flawed) memory of an old aid advert, a bit like this:


After defining learning and thinking critically and reflectively about the nature of inquiry and why there might be a tension across the MYP-DP transition, I want to think briefly about the learner that crosses that gap, using the obvious metaphor of the fisherman as the learner and the fish as the content, skills and conceptual understandings that the student brings up from MYP to DP.

What kind of student do you want to come up to your DP class from MYP? The kid with a boatload of fish or the thinker with the ability to catch more fish?

For authentic inquiry (critical, reflective, future-focused, consequence-oriented, ‘what-if’ thought (Elkjaer)) to be successful, students need some fish in their stomachs. We can’t ask good questions of nothing, nor can we evaluate the empty. So content and skills are needed by the student moving into the Diploma Programme. But is it the MYP teacher’s job to pre-teach everything to a DP student? What is important to know and be able to do? What conceptual understandings and approaches to learning are the most advantageous to develop, to ‘clear the path’ for effective learning and success in terminal assessments?

What happens if we ‘teach’ our students too much before they get to DP? Two things concern me here: interference and motivation, both of which I need to learn more about as I continue this assignment.

The first is the known negative impact of interference: the effect of incorrect or poorly-formed conceptual understandings on future learning. This is outline in Hattie’s Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, and is of particular relevance to the thoughtful science teacher; students come up to our classes with a multitude of prior learning (correct or otherwise) that can either help or hinder their learning. If they arrive with a solid understanding of the concepts of evolution (Biology) or energy (Physics), for example, they will be better able to make connections (transfer) this learning as they modify existing patterns or construct new schema. Conversely, if their existing understandings are misconceptions these need to be undone before effective learning can take place, and this is very difficult to do. These misconceptions may come from poor prior teaching, superficial learning (e.g. content cramming) or in the confusion between discipline-specific and everyday use (e.g. ‘power’). I would argue here for a very carefully-constructed conceptual curriculum in the MYP years, one that emphasises not a large body of content but a highly-effective approach to constructing correct conceptual understandings.

Parallel to this is the concept of cognitive load and ego-depletion: we need to maintain a careful balance between effective learning to the point of competence and over-exertion to the point of no learning. Knowing is pleasant, but learning is uncomfortable. The ideal student coming up from DP would be fluent in the basic skills, concepts and knowledge that they learned in MYP: the basics of this core curriculum having been automatized and committed to ‘System I’, the ‘fast-thinking’ part of the memory (Kahnemann), leaving cognitive load ready for the heavier lifting in higher-order thinking (‘System II’, slow-thinking’). This is all described with much greater competence in Hattie’s Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn.

This might be a challenge to teachers ‘across the gap’ as the urge to cover content can be a strong one, but perhaps we should rather think of it as developing students who can fish well over those who are paddling upstream with a boatload of rotten trout.

The second issue that concerns me is one of motivation. In a highly content-driven, test-focused, behavioural/empirical classroom we risk creating or reinforcing a culture of extrinsic motivation, in which grades are king and are used to positively or negatively reinforce learning behaviours (ego orientation). When everything is accounted for, where is the motivation to learn as a true learner, to be truly inspired to know more? In soe school cultures we might say that it doesn’t matter how the students learn, as long as the results are high, but in that case are we really educating them or are we just passing them on to the next set of accountants?

With an inquiry-led, cognitive/rationalist classroom can we develop a more intrinsic motivation to learn, to develop a greater self-efficacy as learners in order to be more critical and reflective in our thought: a mastery goal orientation? How can the MYP classroom develop students effectively through the Approaches to Learning so that they are ready to get fishing as soon as they start Diploma and are carrying with them a solid set of conceptual understandings that will help them transfer their learning and make new connections?

Finally, do we really need to pre-teach such a great deal of content in the MYP that there are no new discoveries in the Diploma Programme? How motivated are we to re-learn what we (think we) already know and what is the effect of boredom (coupled with potential interference of misconceptions) on the effectiveness and meaning-construction in what we are trying to learn?

Once again the tensions in the transition from MYP to DP represent a fine balancing act, one for which I need to do a lot more learning.


Greeno, Collins & Resnick. Cognition & Learning, chapter in Berliner, D. & Calfee, R. (eds.),Handbook of Educational Psychology, Macmillan, New York: 15-46

Illeris, Knud. Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning theorists… in their own wordsChapters by Knud Illeris, Bente Elkjaer.

Hattie & Yates. Visible Learning & The Science of How We Learn.

Kahnemann. Dual Process Theory.


On a parallel aid-related note, here’s a quick video from the World Food Programme on that old saying:


An Inquiry Crossfader: Authentic vs Effective Learning?

In reading more about Understanding Learners and Learning, learning theories and high-impact teaching and learning strategies I got thinking again about a conversation Jon Schatzky and I had a year and half ago about a continuum of inquiry. I’ll use this post to morph the idea into an Inquiry Crossfader, using it to acknowledge some of the (real or perceived) tensions in transition across the MYP-DP gap. This is by no means an exhaustive discussion on the topic, and there is a lot of thinking still to do (apologies for the rambling). Your thoughts are appreciated in the comments or on Twitter (@iBiologyStephen), especially if you have constructive criticism or pertinent journal articles to share. 

Inquiry: "critical reflective thought." As teachers we can set the balance between telling students what to know generating authentic inquiry. With careful design we can turn both effective and authentic learning up to 11.

Inquiry:critical reflective thought.” As teachers we can set the balance between telling students what to know generating authentic inquiry. With careful design we can turn both effective and authentic learning up to 11.

Defining Inquiry

Definitions of inquiry differ depending on who you talk to or who you are teaching. A PYP teacher might use a description of inquiry as largely student-driven questioning that drives the curriculum, is highly open-ended and can lead students in many directions in terms of curricular outcomes:

“[The PYP is committed to] structured, purposeful inquiry that engages students actively in their own learning. In the PYP it is believed that this is the way in which students learn best—that students should be invited to investigate significant issues by formulating their own questions, designing their own inquiries, assessing the various means available to support their inquiries, and proceeding with research, experimentation, observation and analysis that will help them in finding their own responses to the issues. The starting point is students’ current understanding, and the goal is the active construction of meaning by building connections between that understanding and new information and experience, derived from the inquiry into new content.” Making the PYP Happen, p29 (emphasis mine)

This is a fine approach to teaching and learning, especially in younger years where the backwash-effect of university entry is not a driving factor in school-wide or classroom-level decision-making with regards to teaching, learning and assessment. It is certainly the way I want my own young children to learn. However in my (anecdotal) experience the term inquiry meets resistance in the march on up to high school, as teachers feel the pressure of terminal assessment and more heavily prescribed syllabus outcomes or standards. It can be seen as too open-ended, or ‘loose’, perhaps sacrificing ‘standards’ for exploration. When we look at Hattie’s learning impacts, the open-ended inquiry-based learning that these teachers fear rates below average with an impact of just 0.31 (average d=0.4); entirely understandable when the tools for measuring learning in older students tend to be highly standardized and based on a pre-determined set of syllabus outcomes or core skills.

I’d prefer to use Bente Elkjaer’s definition of inquiry as “critical or reflective thinking [that] concerns consequences,” a future-oriented approach (‘what-if’ rather than ‘if-then’) in which meaning is “identified by anticipating ‘what-if’ consequences to potential actions and conduct.

As we think about the role of inquiry from this perspective, we can see myriad opportunities for authentic meaning-making in the experience of learning without sacrificing the pedagogies of ‘effective’ teaching and learning. It is a definition that agrees with the PYP approach to inquiry quoted above, as well as being an appropriate description of higher-order learning in a middle or high-school classroom. It does not discount the role of skills and content in the class; otherwise what is our core curriculum and upon what do we build conceptual understandings? It instead opens the door to more student-centred approaches to learning (such as modeling science), that require a student to think critically and reflectively, construct meaning in their learning and apply their factual and conceptual understandings to new situations through transfer.

I would be highly skeptical of any teacher who said they didn’t want to develop critical and reflective thinkers in their classes and instead preferred to keep the learning to only that which can be easily measured through simple testing.

Effective vs Authentic Learning? 

A deliberately provocative – and not necessarily true – dichotomy: are we teaching for a measurable impact, to get results (effective) or are we aiming to build meaning (authentic)? Where I observe conflict across the MYP-DP gap (again anecdotal) it tends to be as a result of a teacher determining their philosophy (and resultant practices) as either/or, when we should be concerned with both. 

In the most extreme of cases and most simplistic of distinctions between competing educational philosophies we might split the camps into ‘results-getters’ (objective-focused, effective learning) and ‘meaning-makers’ (inquiry-focused, authentic learning), the two approaches being exemplary of an behavioral/empirical perspective on learning and a cognitive/rationalist view respectively (see Cognition and Learning, in the references below). A results-getter would take pride in high student scores on standardised testing, where a meaning-maker values the impact (lifelong?) of the learning on the student in a more transformative sense. Of course, it is entirely possible to construct meaning in a highly content-driven high-school classroom, just as it is to fail to construct meaning in a low-functioning pseudo-inquiry environment: in a car recently, my 6yo daughter and I had a conversation on the difference between worthwhile ‘inquiry’ questions and superficiality such as ‘are we there yet?’ Nevertheless, the tensions into a high-stakes DP class from an inquiry-focused MYP class hinge around the (real or perceived) conflicts between a teacher-directed, outcome-driven pedagogy and a more open-ended inquiry-focused approach to learning in the classroom.

I would argue that the master teacher gets the balance right.

Depending on your subject it might be true that opportunities for open-ended inquiry become more limited in the vertical progression through the currciculum, yet the opportunities for engaging students in critical and reflective thought should remain and even strengthen as students develop a more solid conceptual foundation and set of discipline-related skills and content. The sciences, for example, fit into this category: we focus on building solid conceptual understandings through MYP yet experience a highly-prescriptive outcomes-based syllabus in Diploma Programme; as a result we risk losing the spirit of learner-led inquiry that characterizes true science as students get older and it is important in terms of both motivation and the aims of our programmes that we help students construct meaning and relevance in their studies.

The same content-loaded high-school course could be taught in different ways, and the learning experienced by students depends highly on the teacher’s philosophy of education. The focus on effective teaching and learning in these classrooms is relatively straightforward as the clearly-defined objectives of the syllabus make it easier for the teacher to employ high-impact practices such as formative assessment (d=0.9), feedback (d=0.73), spaced practice (d=0.71) and reciprocal teaching (d=0.74). The greater challenge might be to ‘make space’ for inquiry to apply student learning in order to make meaning through critical reflective thought, though it only takes a basic understanding of the higher-level assessment descriptors to see that transfer, critical inquiry and reflection play strongly into student achievement.

On the other hand subjects such as Design, with minimal prescribed content, should allow students to really spread their inquiry wings through their application of the design cycle to authentic problems and design challenges as they get older, building upon the skills, knowledge and concepts they have developed in earlier years. Making meaning should therefore be easy as student-interest drives the curriculum. In this case ‘effective teaching’ might present the more significant challenge: even an excellent teacher would need to think very carefully about how to deploy high-impact teaching practices and to know their impact as students follow diverse lines of inquiry.

So where does the Inquiry Crossfader come in? 

This is just a way to visualize the dichotomy outlined above, in order to emphasize that we can ‘set the slider’ for any of our classes and that we need to bear both effective and authentic teaching and learning in mind in our curriculum and instructional design. The table below the diagram highlights some of the characteristics of the philosophy and the classroom practices that characterize the opposite ends of the crossfader; I have attempted to draw some comparisons between practical conceptualizations of each approach, though this is open to editing and adjustment as I work on the assignment further. Below the table is an expanded outline of the relevance of the components of the DJ metaphor.


Aligns with behavioral/empirical perspectives on learning:

  • Knowledge is an accumulation of stimulus-response associations.
  • Transfer is a gradient of similarity between prior and current learning in terms of associations and stimulus/response. Motivation may well be more extrinsic, based on a desire to achieve grades over making meaning in learning.(Greeno, Collins & Resnick)
Aligns with cognitive/rational perspectives on learning:

  • Knowledge is concept-founded, where learning is a process of conceptual construction (constructivism).
  • Transfer is the application of generalities and problem-solving from conceptual understandings.
  • Motivation is more likely to be intrinsic, with a desire to learn and make meaning taking priority.(Greeno, Collins & Resnick)
Objectives are clearly-defined and generally pre-determined. Objectives might be be (partially) defined but student inquiry forms an important part of the curriculum outcomes.
Generally content-based curriculum. Generally concept-based curriculum.
Deployment of high-impact teaching practices might be more straightforward as progress towards defined, pre-determined outcomes can be easier to measure. Deployment of high-impact teaching practices might be more difficult as progress towards defined, pre-determined outcomes can be messier to measure.However, clearly-defined success criteria should still allow for a lot of formative feedback and improvement.
Teacher’s role as the expert of content and assessment. Teacher’s role as the coach or mentor of the learner.
Thinking may be more determined by ‘if-then’ scenarios, in terms of stimulus-response.(Elkjaer, in Illeris) Thinking may be more determined by ‘what-if’ scenarios (future-focused pragmatic approach).(Elkjaer, in Illeris)
Grading might suit a simple points/percentages system in which students ‘earn credit’ for completion and scores in controlled assessments. Assessment is more likely to be criterion-based (or standards-based), in which grades are linked to (and evidenced by) mastery of descriptors. There may be more diversity in assessment tools used, though these need to be very carefully designed*.

*See Grant Wiggins’ recent post on the false dichotomy between testing and projects as assessment tools. No matter the perspective on learning, we need to construct effect assessment tools… by design. 


Labouring the Metaphor

As a bedroom DJ in a past life, I’l take the liberty of outlining the diagram with the relevance of each part.

Two turntables. The left represents the content-driven (behavioural/empirical) approach, where the right represents the inquiry/concept-driven (cognitive/rationalist) approach. As the DJ builds a set, the balance moves from left to right, as the DJ switches records, though many turntablists use both at the same time to build layers of complexity; this is analagous to the master teacher ensuring both effective and authentic learning are taking place.

Volume control. As well as controlling the balance between each track, the volume of each can be controlled. Consider a complex mix between a highly-effective and highly-authentic classroom: the crossfader is set near the middle, yet both tracks are ‘turned up to 11’.

Beat-matching. A difficult skill to master, where the DJ needs to keep the tracks in time in terms of tempo and alignment of bars: transitions between records should not be noticed by the audience or the botched mix leads to an uncomfortable dissonance. The analogy here is that students notice when a teacher ‘switched gear’ artificially, as the beats go out of step and cause confusion.

Building the set. DJ’s don’t make it up as they go along: they plan their set for peaks and lulls, for the big moments and the build-ups. They start with the end in mind and know what they want their audience to experience; they practice backwards design. With a solid foundation of content (the records in their box) and a knowledge of where they can be flexible (differentiation), they can adapt their set to suit the feedback of the audience and meet their needs. Building the set might also apply to vertical articulation of the curriculum, building a student’s cumulative experience of a discipline over the years, morphing inquiry as the years progress.

We might go a step further to over-egg the analogy and add a microphone, where the teacher makes the teaching visible to students, outlining the what, the why and the how of learning in the classroom, making learning intentions clear and acting as a credible coach. We might also add the headphones, where the teacher previews and fine-tunes the learning experience, predicting and preventing mishaps or a poor mix, and uses feedback to improve the performance. Finally we could add the recording equipment – the formative and summative assessment data – with which the teacher can gain feedback and make adjustments regarding teaching and learning for future lessons.


Where it is possible to recognise tensions in the transition from a open-ended inquiry in the MYP to a more content-driven assessment-led Diploma Programme, it is not helpful to do so with such broad and definitive strokes. Inquiry, if defined as “critical and reflective thinking” is not only possible but strengthened as students progress up through the school, even if the form of that inquiry looks radically different from the PYP and early MYP years. We need to recognise that all classes at all times sit somewhere on the crossfader between the two approaches, and are likely to demonstrate characteristics of each. A master teacher is striking the right balance in each moment between the two sides, making adjustments where needed so that learning can be both effective and authentic.

Crank it up to 11.


Useful Sources: 

IBO. Making the PYP Happen: A curriculum framework for international primary education.

Greeno, Collins & Resnick. Cognition & Learning, chapter in Berliner, D. & Calfee, R. (eds.), Handbook of Educational Psychology, Macmillan, New York: 15-46

Illeris, Knud. Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning theorists… in their own wordsChapters by Knud Illeris, Bente Elkjaer.

Hattie & Yates. Visible Learning & The Science of How We Learn.


“Learning is about living, and as such is lifelong.” Defining Learning


Quote from Elkjaer’s chapter on pragmatism in  “Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning theorists… in their own words.

Over the past couple of months (well, in those stolen moments), I have been reading up on Understanding Learners and Learning for my current Bath MA International Education unit. Where at first I was dubious about the value of going over ‘the old stuff from my PGCE year’, I have found it once again to be intellectually stimulating and challenging to my thoughts as an educator. In trying to prevent myself from being spread too thin (2014 is going to be a freight train), I am writing on what I know, taking a pragmatic look at my “MYP: Mind The Gap” work and presentation and connecting it to the Visible Learning impacts of John Hattie as well as digging deeper into key learning theories.

Somewhere in a coffee shop in Java…

In reading the assigned literature, following the breadcrumbs and accessing more and more literature on the topic of learning, it becomes ever more apparent that the more we learn about knowledge and how it is constructed in the mind of the learner, the more questions we have. Learning is complex, multi-faceted and highly context-specific, yet despite all our differences we may be more alike in our learning than we are different. As educational research builds a stronger database of evidence for an against methods, resources or ideas, careful thought and a dedication to “knowing our impact” may help us determine what is working best in our own classrooms.

So what is learning, really? This post presents some key definitions I’ve picked up on my reading so far.

Learning is the process by which knowledge is increased or modified. Transfer is the process of applying knowledge in new situations.“(‘Cognition and Learning’; Greeno, Collins & Resnick).

This broad definition is helpful as we discuss learning ‘across the gaps’ between MYP and DP, from more inquiry-focused teaching and learning (our ideals as IB educators) to the higher stakes of terminal assessment (and the need for effective and evidence-based methods that allow our students to be ‘successful’). This definition by itself does not do learning justice, however, and Greeno et al, have used their extensive literature review to outline three major perspectives on knowledge, learning, transfer and motivation.

The Behaviorist/Empiricist (B/E) perspective views knowledge as an “organized accumulation of associations and components of skills,” where learning is the “formation, strengthening and adjustment” of associations between stimulus and response and transfer is dependent on a gradient of similarity between the known and the unknown, or “how many and which kinds of associations needed in the new situation have already been acquired in the previous situation.”

The Cognitive/rationalist (C/R) perspective “emphasizes understanding of concepts and theories in different subject matter domains and general cognitive abilities, such as reasoning, planning, solving problems comprehending language.” Learning is understood as “a constructive process of conceptual growth,” and through this constructivist approach transfer is based on the assertion that “concepts and principles of a domain are designed to provide generality [… and is…] assumed to depend on an abstract mental representation in the form of a schema that designates relations that compose a structure that is invariant across situations.

In the Situitive/pragmatist-sociohistoric (S/P) views, knowledge is “distributed among people and their environment” and learning is situitive/interactive, taking place “by a group or individual (and) involves becoming attuned to constraints and affordances of material and social systems with which they interact.” Success is determined more by successful participation in the community, rather than through subsets of skills or tasks, and “the practices of a community provide facilitating and inhibiting patterns that organize the group’s activities and the participation of individuals who are attuned to those regularities.” Transfer “becomes a problematic issue,” does this refer to transfer to new tasks within the same community or to those beyond the community?

In the simple overviews above, we might consider that various elements of our programmes, teaching and learning can be seen to represent the different perspectives at different times. It is possible here to draw comparisons between the exam-focused IBDP class and the inquiry-driven MYP class, or between two teachers’ clashing philosophies on teaching the same course.  There appears to be a clear connection between the content/standards-driven curriculum and the B/E perspective, for instance, whereas a more concept-driven approach favours C/R thinking and the S/P views might better represent those classrooms that represent true ‘learning communities’ or those in cultures (such as in the East) that are less individualistic in their values.


In Knud Illeris’ excellent book Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning theorists… in their own words, Illeris writes:

“Learning can broadly be defined as any process that in living organisms leads to permanent capacity change and which is not solely due to biological maturation or aging.”

I like this one in its distinction of the natural biological growth of capacity from the environmental effects of causing learning. Illeris goes on to describe learning as the interactions between the environment and the individual with the content and incentive; he also describes four types of learning: mental schemes (brain-based organisation of learning outcomes), mental patterns (a more content-specific level of knowledge that allow for transfer), cumulative learning (the formation of new schemes and patterns), and assimilative learning (the addition to and modification of existing schemes and patterns).

In the same book, Bente Elkjaer discusses the pragmatism as a “learning theory for the future,” basing her discussion on John Dewey’s ideas of the role of experience in learning. She quotes David Kolb’s 1984 ‘working definition’ of learning below:

“Learning is  the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.”

Here the idea of ‘experience’ becomes important, as the transaction between the subject and the worlds they occupy and which “concerns the living, the continuous response to and feedback between subject and worlds, as well as the result of this process. It is within this experience that difficulties arise and are resolved by way of inquiry.” This introduction of the term ‘inquiry’ is crucial in my discussions with MYP: Mind the Gap (and to anyone in an IB setting), and I appreciate Elkjaer’s definition of inquiry as “critical or reflective thinking [that] concerns consequences.” It is future-oriented, not locked to the past, where “meaning is not ascribed in a priori terms (‘if-then’); rather it is identified by anticipating ‘what-if’ consequences to potential actions and conduct.” Elkjaer asserts that “a scientific mind is, and should be, part of people’s lives (…) demonstrated by exerting still more informed inquiry and critical and reflective thinking.

As we look through the MYP: Next Chapter guides (and the newly-published IBDP Sciences guides), we can see that there is an importance on creating the rounded learners, who at the lower-levels of achievement can recognize, recall and describe and who needs to ‘learn for automaticity’ (Hattie), yet at the the higher levels needs to have solid conceptual understandings and transfer. As teachers we need to ensure we meet these diverse needs and mind the gaps: not just between the demands of the MYP and DP but also between the B/E and C/R perspectives of learning, between the knowledge and the transfer of that knowledge and between where there learner is now and where he/she needs to be.


Learning is about living, and as such is lifelong.” Bente Elkjaer

Pragmatic thinking is, to me, an important approach to educational discussions. It does not, as Elkjaer recognises, mean that a pragmatist is focused only on results and solution-finding, even at the expense of ideals; pragmatists do consider the result, and do search for solutions to existing (and predicted) challenges but we do not roll over in our convictions for the sake of easy passage. It instead means that “pragmatism concerns the understanding of the meanings of phenomena in terms of their consequences,” and is why I would describe myself as a pragmatic idealist. Pragmatism is a learning theory that empowers educators and learners to develop a responsiveness to challenges through the method of inquiry: critical and reflective thought and an open-ended understanding of knowledge.

I continue to be convinced that those of us teachers who are privileged enough to be working in environments such as international schools, with the luxuries of good behaviour and a focus on curriculum and learning, should be feeding into the global learning community through educational reserach, sharing practices and collaborative, self-directed professional development.

If you have any favoured quotes that ‘define learning’, please share them with me in the comments, or on Twitter (@sjtylr).


Greeno, Collins & Resnick. Cognition & Learning, chapter in Berliner, D. & Calfee, R. (eds.), Handbook of Educational Psychology, Macmillan, New York: 15-46

Illeris, Knud. Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning theorists… in their own words. Chapters by Knud Illeris, Bente Elkjaer.

Hattie & Yates. Visible Learning & The Science of How We Learn.



Hattie & Yates: Visible Learning & the Science of How We Learn

This brief review of John Hattie and Gregory Yates’ Visible Learning & the Science of How we Learn (#HattieVLSL) is written from the multiple perspectives of a science teacher, IB MYP Coordinator and MA student. I have read both Visible Learning and Visible Learning for Teachers, and regularly refer to the learning impacts in my professional discussions and reflections. While reading the book, I started the #HattieVLSL hashtag to try to summarise my learning in 140 characters and to get more people to join in the conversation – more of this below. 

EDIT: March 2017

This review was written right after the release of VLSL, in late 2013. Since then, the ideas of ‘know they impact‘ and measurement of learning impacts have really taken off in education, particularly in international schools. Critics of Hattie (largely focused on mathematics or methodology) are also easy to find, though the Australian Society for Evidence Based Teaching concludes that “statistical errors do not change any of the findings” and that “Visible Learning remains the most significant summary of educational research ever compiled.“. We do need to be mindful that what works in some contexts might not work in others, and that the visible learning impacts could be used as a set of signposts for further investigation in our own contexts, rather than a list of ‘must do’ strategies for all classes.

The rest of this blog post has remained untouched since 2013. 


Summary Review (the tl;dr version)

Visible Learning and the Science of How we Learn (#HattieVLSL) is an engaging and accessible guide that connects the impacts of Hattie’s meta-analyses with discussion of current understandings in the field of how we learn. It reduces the ‘jargon of learning theory’ to the implications in terms of learning and teaching (without overly dumbing down), and aims to facilitate clarity through relegating researchers’ names to the references (and focusing on the findings in each of the 31 chapters). This aids swift reading; it would be useful for the novice teacher as a general overview of teaching and learning at the start of their studies in education. On the other hand, the academically-minded will be sifting through the references and hitting the internet for supplementation and more susbstantial explanation.

It is a practical volume and can be dipped into and revisited as needed, though as a ‘how-to’ guide for high-impact practices, Visible Learning for Teachers (VLT) is more immediately actionable. It would serve well as a companion to VLT and should be of particular interest to teachers who want to dig deeper into the issues or to leaders who want to think more carefully before making decisions that affect teaching and learning.

#HattieVLSL is highly quotable and provides many provocations for further thought and ideas that might challenge a teacher’s thinking or way of doing things. It is concise with short, well-structured chapters, each ending with  an In Perspective summary, some study guide questions that could structure discussion (or a teacher learning community) and some annotated references to pursue. Discussion of ‘Fast Thinking & Slow Thinking’ is fascinating.

Although very strong, at times it feels like the examples used (Gladwell’s Blink, Khan Academy) are aiming for a more populist market and might open the book to criticism. Where we have bought copies of VLT for all teachers as a catalyst for teacher learning communities, this volume might better serve those who are interested in the theoretical basis for learning, perhaps as their own reading group or learning community.

I recommend the book to anyone who is already a fan of Hattie’s work, or who has an inherent interest in connecting learning theory and studies with the learning impacts, or visible effects in the classroom. I have learned a lot through reading this volume, have been inspired to learn more and will likely be boring others by talking about it for a good while.

More detail and some tweets after the divide… 

Continue reading


A Web Chart of the International Dimension of a School [MA Assignment]

Could we use this web as an evolving, visual representation of the international dimension of our schools?

Could we use this web chart as an evolving, visual representation of the international dimension of our schools?

Over the summer I was working on an assignment for the Bath MA in International Education. Here is the result, a piece of work I’m proud of and which I’ve uploaded with permission from my tutor.

The whole field of internationalism and global-mindedness in education is exciting, expansive and still-expanding. Through my reading about the challenges of defining an ‘international education’ and the many qualities that it encompasses I realised a single operable and visual tool might be of benefit to schools, researchers and the generally interested.

As a result, I have started to develop this web-chart of the IMaGE of a school (international mindedness and global engagement), and plan to strengthen and test it over the coming assignments and dissertation.

The simple idea behind it is that if we can identify the various elements of a school that can affect (or be affected by) internationalism, and the ways in which they exert tension on each other, then we can develop an evaluation rubric or other measurement tool. The resulting web-chart for the school at that moment in time gives a visual identity or definition of its degree of promotion of the values of international education. This could be used as a comparative tool (within the school over time, between schools, between stakeholder group perceptions), and may be used to help schools develop action plans for further development of their international domains.

Here is the full assignment. Apologies for some of the missing spaces – that is a bonus feature of SlideShare. 


Some related posts: 

I love talking about this topic, so if you like what you read, please leave a comment or find me on twitter: @IBiologyStephen.


How “international” is your school?

As I have been reading more about international education and how difficult it can be to define, it has become clear from the readings and resources from the University of Bath that there are certain elements that make up the international dimension of a school. In thinking about my own assignment, I realised it would be useful to have a visual metric or estimate of the level of realisation of these elements, so that I could use this to discuss how my school has changed in recent years and how it may be affected by potential short and long-term change.

This post and presentation are to be more fully fleshed-out over time; for now this is a store for the idea: a proposal for how we might create a quick snapshot of the level of international education promoted by a school. To turn this into a valid and reliable product is a deeper academic job. 


A Radar Chart of the International Dimension

Radar Diagram of elements of the international dimension. Click to open the presentation.

Radar Diagram of elements of the international dimension. Click to open the presentation.

I like this form of data visualisation, where the elements can be identified and arranged, then evaluated and connected.

What are the elements in this radar chart?

The categories (elements) attempt to identify aspects that can promote international education in a school. None exist in isolation: they are all closely related to some or all of the others. I have tried to place the most closely interacting elements next to each other, though this is debatable.

  • The elements of students, curriculum, culture, values & ideology and global citizenship education have come directly from the Bath Uni readings.
  • I have put faculty & leadership together. I wasn’t sure to what extent leadership and policy needed their own category: the effects of leadership should be evident throughout the school.
  • I have added the element of Action, as a way to differentiate between the culture and written curriculum of a school and its visible impact in terms of student learning and action. The written or intended curriculum could be a shining example of unit plans and mapping, but if this is not put into practice, it is not promoting the values of international education. Action plays an important role in the centre of the IB programme models, encompassing not just service learning, but any actions that lead to change in the students and those affected by their learning.

How should the radar chart be interpreted?

  • As the axes radiate from the centre, the resulting plot shows a greater shaded area with a higher degree of realisation. I have chosen an arbitrary IB-style 1-7 scale here, as it allows for sufficient variation between levels. However, this is not to suggest that the IB’s approach to international education is the only way to deliver an effective international education.
    • A school that reaches the ‘ideals’ of international education would show a high degree of coverage, and this would be balanced around the chart.
    • A huge caveat here is that for each of the seven elements, the seven levels of realisation need to be given a carefully-considered set of descriptors for the evaluation to have validity and reliability. This in itself is a big task (and perhaps another MA assignment), which could be achieved through an in-depth literature review of each element.
      • Each element needs to be reviewed in-depth based on the literature, to produce a rubric.
      • Otherwise the scales are based on perception, rather than critical evaluation.
  • My initial idea was to invert the axes and have the greater degree of realisation – the ‘7’ – at the centre, suggesting a bullseye or target. This turned out to be too difficult to create, but also the natural interpretation of a radar chart is that ‘bigger is better’, so I didn’t want to cause confusion.
  • Radar charts are good for identifying skew and change. A school may be strong in some elements, but weak in others, pulling the data to one side of the chart. An intervention, programme change or other factor might cause change in some elements over time. As the elements do not exist in isolation, these changes could impact other elements, and therefore the overall international dimension of the school.


Some questions to consider:

  • How might the radar chart change over time for a school that is just starting out? For example, a ‘national-plus’ type school that opens with a generally homogeneous population of students and teachers, gradually introduces IB programmes, grows, hires more expat teachers, attracts a greater diversity of students, strengthens curriculum and action?
  • Does an international school need to be a good international school in order to be a good school?
  • How might market forces change the international dimension of a school? Would this tool help visualise the difference between a school that runs the IB Diploma as a product versus one that runs it as part of its core philosophy?

My Own Assignment

My plan from here is to consider the impact of the introduction of the MYP to CA on its level of realisation of the ideals of international education and to predict what might happen as a result of the upcoming summative evaluation of the programme. To do this, I’ll draw on the literature about the elements and ideals of international education, before focusing on the role that curriculum plays in this, and then use this to evaluate our current state and possible future.


Further Reading

IB Publications (access through the OCC with login)

Academic publications (library access or purchase might be needed)


What is an international education?

I’m taking this week to be locked away at the University of Bath, working on my current unit ‘Education in an International Context‘ as part of the MA in International Education. I’ll probably write a couple of blog posts as I filter my thinking and structure this piece of work.* 

My half-Indonesian, half-British, Japan-living son with a Canadian-born flower girl of English parentage. How will their educational experiences compare?

Sitting with some relatives after a fantastic family wedding last week, I realised that over the years I have started to take for granted the differences between my own formative experiences of education and my family’s current reality of something more powerful, something special. Over what basically amounted to an extended, well-fed reunion in France, there were many opportunities to tackle the predictable comments about being a teacher at the start of a long summer. There were also many conversations about why we’d want to go overseas and to stay overseas; about how our children are benefitting from our choices and how their education goes hand-in-hand with these choices and my work.

I was able to hone in on the issues that they might recognise immediately: better behaviour, more freedom to learn, less testing, a broader world view, international friends and travel, multilingualism, rich professional development. It was much more difficult to communicate the nature of international schools: the mission of the IB, the inquiry-based nature of their programmes, the rigour and academic head-start of the IB Diploma, the Next Chapter of the MYP, the educational and professional freedom and opportunities that go with the programmes, the general sense of decency and global-mindedness that one experiences.

When you start to really think about international education and what it means, it gets really complex. Of course, if it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be enough material for a Masters-level unit!

My own school education was as far from international as you can find. A small-ish town on the edge of the English Lakes, I had one half-Indian friend at school and one Muslim friend who worked with me in the pub. It was English National Curriculum all the way in the years just before the internet burst into education. The Encarta CD-Roms in the library were our view on the world. Even the Geography GCSE exam featured a farm along the road from us. It was a good education, in a good school, in a good place.

My daughter’s education is shaping up to be something spectacularly different. She has many friends from many countries, has already – at six years-old – experienced schooling in Indonesia and Japan. She is in the PYP and loving it, a ready learner and inquirer with a developing set of positive global values. Her peer group, teachers, travels and the internet are a window to the world. Hers is a great education, in great schools in great places.

But this is a simplistic comparison between two extremes of internationalism. I was reminded of the many shades of internationalism over the last couple of weeks in my conversations and as I thought about my own journey. In a multicultural society, every school is, to some extent, and international school. The inner-city London school with multiple different languages and significant and diverse immigrant and ESL population is arguably more international than the homogeneous, nominally ‘international’ school I started out at in Jakarta, almost exclusively catering to Chinese-Indonesians. Where one is infused with international students and their values, the others aims to teach them. What about the embassy schools, oases of their nation culturally and curricularly isolated from their host nations; the private schools that use the IB programmes as a product versus those that buy into the philosophy; the cross-community schools in Northern Ireland that aim to foster peace and understanding (clear values of internationalism) across a divide that is essentially invisible to the outsider?

Already I can see the rich 100-year history and changing curricular and cultural face of my current school forming the background for what should shape up to be an interesting exploration of internationalism and education.

Better get reading.


*As with the last unit, Curriculum Studies, the course leaders have provided an excellent set of stimulus resources on the course wiki for Education in an International Context, as well as a good range of prompts for the assessment. For those not familiar with the model here, we are basically given some resources, a choice of questions and then six months to prepare a  5,000-word critical analysis. Summer schools are possible, and I attended a great one on Assessment two years ago, though I do like the autonomy of getting on with things.

Leave a comment

Teachers as Researchers & Engaging in Academics

Read it!

In the 1806 of Susanna Clark’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, magicians are scholars of magic rather than practitioners. They study magic, wonder where it went and discuss it. Mr. Norrell is the only ‘practical magician’ in the country, a position he holds dear until along comes Jonathan Strange: first as a pupil, then as a master in his own right. I loved it – all 1,000 pages plus – and one thing that has stuck with me in the six years since I read it was the use of the term magician not as someone who ‘does magic’, but as one who studies, just as an historian doesn’t make history.

It popped back into my head this week after reading this:

Which I was drawn to by this:

If you’re still reading this blog and haven’t read Tom Sherrington’s Guardian article, read it first.


Most science teachers aren’t scientists.

I’m certainly not, and I can live with it. I’m a teacher. I have friends who are PhD’d up and active in research: they deserve the title. Perhaps I should be called a scientician, in the Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell sense. As a non-practicing scientist, a teacher who is responsible for many students, most of whom won’t go into the sciences but may end up in the arts or humanities, I have no right to be a discipline snob. But I do understand the scientific method and I can apply this to education.

I love the breadth and currency of science across disciplines and sharing that with students much more than the minutiae of specialism (I think months in a fridge counting cells did that to me). I model the scientific method with my students as we learn about Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Environmental Science, but we are not adding to the canon of scientific knowledge as much as we are marching on to the assessments that will get the students out of school and (perhaps) into universities… where they most likely still won’t be real ‘scientists’ until they near the end of their degrees or become postgrads. I can live with that, too, even though I would much rather free up the curriculum to engage students in ‘real science’. We have some good opportunities in the IB MYP and DP for exploring science, and students from our school are engaged in some interesting self-directed science projects.

I hope that as science teachers we’re sowing the seeds and nurturing the roots of scientific inquiry and literacy; that as our students grow beyond our reach our influence remains in some of them and they are engaged in real science. If we have a cognitive surplus that is not engaged in genuine scientific research, then we should harness it to improve education.


Maybe one day I’ll earn my stripes as an educationalist.

I am actively engaged in my own PD, in ‘experimenting’ with learning in my class and with working on an MA in International Education. As my foundations in educational theory and research develop, these informal ‘experiments’ in my classes will hopefully develop into more controlled and reliable projects. I will admit that my inner qualifications-snob did at first shop around for an education-related masters that gave the title of MSc, but I dropped that soon enough when I realised that the international & education elements were more important to me, my values and my family.

I agree that using schools as research institutes could be incredibly powerful PD. We, as science teachers, don’t need to to feel threatened by the perceived ‘soft science’ approach of educational research. Good educational reserach is by no means soft. Just look to the Hattie meta-analysis for evidence of this.* We could take ownership of our own professional development, draw on academic research and apply our understandings of the scientific method, reliability and validity to the work that could take place. The work we produce would be evidence-based, in our own useful context. It would be cognitively engaging and would really count as development – perhaps much more so than the passive forms of PD that tend to be ‘done to’ teachers.

There are bound to be challenges to this, though. Masters-level work or real research in schools takes a significant amount of effort. What is clear from Sherrington’s article is that his school is fostering a research environment – it has become part of the school’s values and I find it difficult to see how really effective research could develop in a high-pressure environment.

As teachers in international IB schools, we have to live up to high expectations, but I would argue that we have fewer of the significant challenges that might inhibit others: behaviour, funding, the whims of educational governance. I look forward to seeing the research that is produced in IB schools (and through their own Journal of Teaching Practice).

I would love to see the sciences lead the way.


*The Hattie meta-analysis gets its own post because, you know, blogs.

Leave a comment

Curriculum Studies Assignment: Physics & the MYP

With permission from my tutor, here is my Curriculum Studies assignment: A critical review of a Grade 10 Introductory Physics course as part of the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme, examining selected aims and purposes and analyzing the extent to which these are, in my experience, achieved in practice.  Catchy title, eh?

Some quick reflections on the process and the product: 

  • In the early stages of this unit I really got into the academic reading. The resources set up by the University of Bath are excellent and you can get an idea of what was there (as well as my responses to the tasks) here.
  • It did become a bit of a slog in the writing stages: I took this unit entirely online and there was no activity on Moodle or elsewhere. As a result, I blogged all my thinking and ended up with some interesting discussion and feedback via Twitter.
  • My tutor, Mary Hayden, was a great support. I do wish I’d had the opportunity to meet with her in person for this, as we were limited in our exchanges by the asynchronicity of timezones and busy schedules. As a result the pace of my work slowed, but in the end it came out OK.
  • The importance of getting a good draft in early became apparent here. In the last unit, I had just moved to Japan and was buried in work and adjustment. The MA work suffered and the best I got in was an outline. In this unit, I was able to submit well-structured drafts and received rich and workable feedback. This is something I emphasise in my own teaching, but when the shoe’s on the other foot it is easy to fall behind. The moral of the story – get good drafts in early, front-load the effort, and the results will pay off.
  • Although I enjoyed the academic side of things in the Assessment unit, I really got into it here and this unit helped me realise that I am happiest in the teaching and curriculum side of things – as a teacher, coordinator and instructional leader.

I’m taking a couple of months off now, and will pick up another unit in March and another summer school. I think the best way for me to work would be to get started on the units early, and then come to the summer school with work formed and ready for feedback, rather than waiting to get there to get started.

Anyway, here it is.

Leave a comment

MA Assignment: Proposed Assessment in MYP Next Chapter Sciences

This is a piece of work I submitted in February for my MA in International Education unit on Assessment with the University of Bath. I was given permission from my tutor to post it on this personal professional reflective blog.

It explores some of the issues of validity and reliability in the proposed changes to assessment in the MYP Sciences as the Next Chapter comes into focus. Please note that none of the proposals mentioned in this assignment have been ‘signed off’ by the IBO, as there are elements still in the pilot scheme.

Thanks to Malcolm Nicolson and Sean Rankin for their support in the process.

Next up: Curriculum Studies! Now that the year is starting to wind down (or screech towards the final day), my mind is starting to be filled with thoughts of what’s coming next year in the role of MYP Coordinator. I’ll try to base that assignment on an issue of relevance to CA as well.