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


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A pragmatic approach to inquiry: my article in IS magazine

Click to read.

Click to read.

This article, “(Re)defining inquiry for international education,” is based on a thread of thought started with my “MYP: Mind the Gapconference presentation and continued with an MA assignment. It was published in the most recent issue (Autumn | Spring 2014) of International School Magazine, edited by University of Bath tutors and international education gurus Mary Hayden and Jeff Thompson.

In the article “(re)defining” refers to clarifying the meaning of the term inquiry, so that we can give access to high-quality inquiry learning to students through the whole continuum. It builds on anecdotal experiences in discussions that ‘inquiry’ has been framed from one end as a weak, free-for-all alternative to teaching and critical reasoning. This is a misinterpretation, and the article advocates for a reminder of what inquiry is and a working definition of inquiry as critical reflective thought (after Elkjaer & Dewey) that is future-oriented, but based on strong foundation of effectively-taught skills and knowledge (after Vygotsky, Hattie…). From the other end, it is important to understand that inquiry looks and feels very different as disciplinary studies become deeper and more authentic.

This is of particular importance to IB schools. Stakeholders need to understand that an inquiry-based framework is not a knowledge-free curriculum, and that a high-stakes test-based assessment at one end is no excuse to crush the exploration out of the learning process.

In essence: we create an outstanding curriculum that gives students knowledge and skills to work with and has lots of room for them to put them to use in critical, creative and reflective problem-solving. Use high-impact strategies to teach those skills and that knowledge, to avoid misconception and to ensure that these critical thinkers have a solid foundation of raw materials for future learning.

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Read the full article on IS Magazine’s website here, or download the magazine (pdf) here (or just the article pdf here).

Click to read my article on Inquiry in the Autumn | Spring issue of International School magazine.

Click to read my article on Inquiry in the Autumn | Spring issue of International School magazine.


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Growth Mindsets in Differentiation & Feedback

Nothing suggests 'loser' quite like a table for one and a book with that cover blurb. ;)

Nothing suggests ‘loner’ quite like a table for one and a book with that cover blurb. 😉 #GrowthMindset

After reading/hearing so much about Carol Dweck’s Mindset over the last couple of years, I was finally able to read the book on the train from London to Bath. I’d become so familiar with the ideas that it felt like 200+ pages of déjà vu, although the main messages are perhaps worth reinforcing.

It’s an easy read, in a style similar to Pink, Goleman, Gladwell and co., though I did find myself skimming over yet another American sports example (Woods, Wooden, Jordan, Wie, Yankees, McEnroe). There were some interesting sections on leadership, parenting and relationships, though I was really looking for more practical advice on how to build growth mindsets in my students.

Some key messages for parents and educators

  • A fixed mindset is seen as a personal success or failure, a (permanent) label on a person of their worth.
  • Fixed-mindsets value ability over effort and when effort is put in it is in order to affirm one’s status at the top; they might be seen to ‘learn’ a lot as they perform highly in tests and assessments, but this may be due only to the effect of their achievement affirming their fixed mindset.
  • Fixed mindsets see difficulty as a weakness or threat and so may not put in the effort in case they fail.
  • Growth mindsets embrace the challenge of difficulty and see the value in learning as a journey.
  • Growth mindsets demonstrate resilience in failure and use difficulties to set workable plans for improvement
  • Growth mindset leaders and teachers embrace their own personal learning and seek to develop learning communities: it is OK to not know… yet.
  • Growth mindset leaders take time to listen, learn and evaluate fairly. They surround themselves with knowledgable inquirers and weed out the fixed mindset culture of fear and/or affirming status. They might be lower-key than the high-powered fixed-mindset hero-leaders, but they build a more sustainable and trusting culture.

Feedback and Mindsets

Samudra, determined to ride the space tower thing at LegoLand. Photo (c) Stephen Taylor.

Samudra, determined to ride the space tower thing at LegoLand. Photo (c) Stephen Taylor.

It is clear that our words and actions as parents and teachers reinforce kids’ views of themselves and their behaviour adjusts accordingly. By focusing on personal feedback (praise or criticism), we may affect the mindset of the child, either reinforcing the ego or damaging the student’s motivation to improve. By focusing on tasks and processes, looking at how we can improve, we might help students develop more growth mindsets. A good strategy for effective feedback that builds on the growth mindset might be Hattie’s Three Levels (Task, Process and Self-regulation).

Differentiation and Mindsets

When we focus on ability-related feedback, conversations or behaviours are we limiting the growth mindset? Dweck suggests that this is compounded when the curriculum is ‘dumbed-down’ and that having high expectations for all students, coupled with valuable feedback, will increase achievement. Sounds obvious, but may not always play out in class. Avoid the temptation to make the curriculum easier for the ‘less able’ students and instead Differentiate Up from a core. Challenge everyone, support everyone.

Approaches to Learning and Mindsets

We all want our students to do well, but more than that we should want them to love learning and become enthusiastic lifelong learners. Taking steps to weed out fixed-mindset behaviours and language from our classes and our cultures in order to develop strategies towards becoming more growth-oriented might bring us part of the way. This is where we can start to see the importance of the Affective skills clusters of the IB’s Approaches to Learning, and will likely be an area that requires significant teacher (and parent) professional development. Coupled with a strong curriculum and high-impact teaching and learning and we might just get there.

I used to think you were smart.” Calvin and Hobbes strip that neatly sums up fixed vs growth mindsets, used on p40 of Dweck’s Mindset.

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I’ll admit, the idea of Mindset seems a little too neat for me – we are more nuanced and complex than either-or (which she recognises in the book). Personally, for example, I would see myself as very growth-mindset in that I seek development, learn more and reflect on everything; however, I can take perceived failure or criticism very personally, which is a more fixed-mindset trait. I also recognise that the book is aimed at a mass-market audience, and so there is much reference to ‘our research’ without a lot of depth. I would prefer a more academic, education-focused edition of this, with fewer popular-culture, big-CEO or sports stories and more about how this has been investigated.

As a tool for teachers, the language of fixed vs growth mindset will make it easier to have conversations with students and parents, and we can develop or make use of strategies that reinforce the nature of learning as a growth process. I am looking forward to seeing how schools start to put some of these ideas to use in their development of the Approaches to Learning.

I have added this book to the MYP Coordinator’s Bookshelf , but would really recommend any of the other books as good reads before moving onto this one. 

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This is a total cheese-fest, but anyone who says they don’t like Dolly has a heart of stone. Her recent single, Try, does a pretty neat job of capturing the Growth Mindset and the role of effort in success – and it’s the theme song for her literacy charity, Imagination Library.


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Content & Inquiry in a Google World

Edit (March 2018): This is an old post (2014) now, but the meme below keeps running. A lot has been written about inquiry and technology in the last four years, so I’ll leave some notes in [green]. Some related posts, if you’re coming new to this blog. For context, I work in international education.  

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Content & Inquiry in a Google World

If you’re an educator on Twitter, you have seen this graphorism doing the rounds, included in this post on Larry Ferlazzo’s blog, which in turn reproduces brain-based education guru Eric Jensen’s Education Week Teacher article Boosting Student Learning. 

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There’s nothing quite like a cute graphorism to get people chucking stones on Twitter. Click for Larry Ferlazzo’s post.

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Sweet. We’ve got 1:1 and access to Google and a bunch of hyperlinks. Job done. Well, not quite. Within context I agree with the other four of Jensen’s responses, but this image has been bugging me a bit, being tweeted and retweeted without the full article or argument attached.

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Before going ahead*, I recommend reading Larry Ferlazzo’s (@LarryFerlazzoResponses series on the ‘five best practices’ that teachers can do to help their students become better learners’. There are some really useful quotes in there, representing a range of perspectives on what makes ‘effective’ student learning and what builds effective learners.

*As always on this blog, the links are way better than the post ;> 

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tL;dr Version

I don’t know anyone who can successfully teach ‘content-free’ in middle-high school, even when students are in charge of the learning. We do need to ensure that we teach good content: relevant, current, useful, interesting. We need to teach that content well, using effective methods for our own students, knowing our impact and ensuring as much as we can that we don’t reinforce misconception. Google is a tool, not a teacher, and a teacher who could be replaced by a search engine should be. At the same time, we can’t crowd out the opportunities for creative, critical reflective thought (inquiry). We need to help students make connections and the selection (and teaching) of content is crucial in building conceptual and transferable understandings. We need to ensure that students know enough to be able to ask good questions. 

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 Content’s role in an inquiry-focused, connected education

This list represented my  mindset regarding content, curriculum and pedagogy in 2014. They are written from the perspective of an international IB practitioner in a secondary science classroom (MYP & DP), and as a programme coordinator (MYP) and MA International Education nerd. Some of this treads similar ground to my MA assignment on MYP: Mind the Gap, much has been covered by others.

1. Strong inquiry teachers DO teach content. All teachers teach content. When we teach a student a fact or a skill – whether it’s just in time or just in case – and think it’s worth teaching to others, and then we make a note of it and save it for later… it’s content. Yet these same strong teachers recognise that not all content is equal, and that students come first – they’re the reason we’re employed.

[2018: I think that teacher content mastery – which is not the same as “knowing everything” – is critically important in a student-driven inquiry curriculum.]

2. Strong inquiry teachers put curriculum before pedagogy, making sure that – to the best of their ability – the content, skills and concepts of the unit are worth learning in the first place. They then focus on how to best cause learning in their own students, in the ways that work best for them. It can be hard to let go of favourite content (or to adapt to new circumstances), but there is little point in honing excellent pedagogy founded on weak curriculum. Otherwise our students will know less valuable (or dangerously wrong) stuff – but they’ll know it really well.

[2018: This becomes ever more important in the move to greater student agency and control of the curriculum. How do we keep the productive struggle going, for each student (or team) as they navigate the many options open to them? A command of the “need to knows and where to go’s” moves curriculum from calendar to compass, which requires a teacher to have a lot at their fingertips.]

3. Strong inquiry teachers check the understandings of their students with regard to conceptual and factual accuracy – and then take explicit action on this information. This aims to reduce the interference effect on future learning of misconceptions formed from poor prior learning. If it is content worth teaching it is content worth remembering – and using to build future schema. If we want students to grasp a concept, we will explicitly plan to teach it using factually accurate content. This doesn’t mean and exhausting list of facts, but a rock-solid foundation of knowledge and skills, based on solid formative assessment principles and vigilance for misconception. [2018: This may well prove to be harder in an student-owned classroom than a standardised one, as the differing paths reach different content checkpoints at different times as a result of different experiences. There may be an opportunity here for some worthwhile edtech development. I highly recommend “What does this look like in the classroom” for up-to-date research-to-practice for secure foundations.]

And so…

Lynn Erickson’s 3D Model of Concept-based Learning – founded on facts and skills.

4. Strong inquiry teaching recognises that a concept-based curriculum is still a content-founded curriculum. The effective selection of skills and content (facts), combined with strong pedagogy and metacognition, allow students to build the over-arching ‘concepts’ that should be more transferable. Although transfer is hard, we have Transfer skills in the ATL Framework. See Ilja van Weringh’s recent posts on a PD weekend with Lynn Erickson for more useful quotes & tips.

5. Strong inquiry teaching activates inquiry as creative, critical reflective thought – and this needs high-quality raw materials. A strong educational experience uses a foundation of good content knowledge and skills and doesn’t just allow students to develop their learning from there – it forces them to engage, think critically and evaluate their own learning. This is critical pedagogy, and it causes inquiry. Students need to know enough to be able to ask good questions, otherwise it is enquiry in the weak simple-questions sense, not inquiry in the critical and reflective sense.

[2018: Just take a look at the MYP descriptors for Levels 7-8 in the subjects or 6-7 for overall grades. They are very aspirational, impossible to achieve without age-appropriate subject-level (and ATL) mastery, and require sophisticated thinking.]

6. All strong teachers DO connect learning; content-focused and inquiry-focused teachers alike.  Strong teachers know what the connections are between the content and emphasise these with students. Strong teachers love and recognise it when students make these – or entirely new – connections by themselves. See this post by Harry Webb on ‘who exactly is going around ‘disconnecting’ the facts?‘. [2018: In a modern, connected, inquiry-driven curriculum, does this make it more important for the teacher to be a connected learner in their own right?]

7. Strong teaching takes place within your own academic, social, political or cultural context. Almost all middle and high-school teacher have an outside curriculum influence that guides or dictates contentthis is curriculum as the snapshot of our culture. With this set of standards, benchmarks or assessment statements, we have  content. A good teacher will be creative, differentiated and engaging in how it is taught, but it is still content. [2018: These foundational documents, can act as a guidebook in the quest for learning as learning becomes more student-owned. Could a diverse classroom of learners be creating their own units drawing from standards sets of their home countries?]

8. Strong inquiry teachers recognise the role of content is changing due to technology, but not in the way that quote might suggest. Google is a tool that opens up a world of information, but information is not curriculum and not all information is born equal in terms of its value within curriculum. Not only must we now make sure that the content we are teaching students is correct and misconception-free, we need to also learn how to help students evaluate and appropriately apply the information they find in their own online inquiries. We need to learn to master a parallel curriculum – a set of content and skills of digital, media and information literacy. Good job we have some ATL clusters for those too, eh?

[2018: I still think this, and since the original post we have seen a huge shift in the use (and misuse) of information for political means. Furthermore, we have even more powerful tools for inquiry at our command, from data searches and Wolfram|Alpha to fantastic media resources, Gapminder and the SDG’s. Tech stands in position to amplify and transform a robust curriculum into something very special.]

9. Strong educational design and teaching should inspire students to want to know more. Strong teaching might help them aspire to greatness. But a strong teacher will also try to help students recognise that learning is hard, that significant effort is rewarded with greater learning and that the privilege of education is worth the sometimes uninspiring work of practice. Strong teachers care about their students and their students know this.

[2018: This sings to the core of being a modern teacher. We all get into this job with ideals at heart, and the emerging role of the connected international educator as a learning designer leads to new challenges – and amazing opportunities.]

10. I need a number 10. Maybe you can add one in the comments, or on Twitter.

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What is the effect of ‘Googling’ on memory and is it a bad thing?

This paper (pdf) (summarized in the video below), outlines some studies on the externalisation of stored memory.

If students develop a dependence on search engines for recall of simple facts (or computation of simple maths facts), are they at a disadvantage to students who are able to recall and apply already automatized learning? Kahnemann’s Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow idea might suggest so – as we learn for automaticity and store information in the fast-thinking System I memory, we so free ‘cognitive load‘ for higher-order System II thought: inquiry as critical reflective thought.

If we activate effective learning of critical content through effective pedagogy, do we then help ensure the automaticity of this foundational knowledge, leading to more effective inquiry? Are students less likely to waste time (and cognitive load) on simple searches or computations? What would you think of an adult who had to constantly search simple facts or turn to calculator to make change?

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Personal Reflection

[Updated March 2018]

I teach science in an international school and I’m IB to my core (MYP & DP, kids in PYP). I believe in school education for a better world, not just as a stepping-stone to university, but I’m a pragmatist at the same time. I have a job to do, and that’s to educate and to do so as well as I can. I want my students to be lifelong learners with useful skills, useful knowledge, empathy and global literacy. I also need to support this in my colleagues, in my various roles.

Around 2010-12ish, the pendulum of my beliefs on education swung more towards the quote than it does now. As the role of EdTech and 1:1 access to instant, broad, authentic and real-time information became more powerful as pedagogical tools opportunities the excitement of open inquiry threatened to overcome critical reflection on what would work. I was (and remain) a risk-taker in the classroom, but I never had the bravery to hand the subject guide to the students and tell them to ‘just Google it’ as a course plan. I’m glad now that I didn’t. I still do use a lot of tech in teaching, mainly for workflow, feedback and creating new opportunities for real learning. Much of it now is in GoogleApps, with other tools, but when the best learning can happen without a screen, we put them away!

When I built online resources like i-Biology.net and various internal systems I was trying to put the content in place to make room for exploration and inquiry; by setting up a system of what I deemed reliable and useful content, I thought I could ‘derail’ the learning process and ’empower every learner’ to grow at their own pace, in their own zone of proximal development (lots of conferencing). I have experimented with various on and offline project-based methods, from the open to the teacher-directed, and have found through the experience (and student feedback), that there is a need and a demand for the teacher’s effective and explicit intervention, but that this need is often unpredictable and dependent on a complex web of cause-effects. This has been confirmed through my MA and professional readings, most recently looking at the work of Hattie, Kahnemann, Willingham, Dewey, Vygotsky, Elkjaer and more.

We are employed as the expert in the room, the guiding hand that not only facilitates student learning but which activates it. We need to set up a culture of thinking and of measured academic risk, but we also need to be there to protect students from going (too far) down dead-ends. Productive struggle and (worthwhile) failure are important to learning, but we need to spot when this is starting to replace opportunities for learning. This is especially true when there are high-stakes terminal assessments looming. The strongest students would likely have done just as well under any set of classroom practices – perhaps despite rather than because of my choices. Those students less ready to control their own learning struggled more, fell behind and needed much more direct intervention. The path through this first decade and a half of my teaching career is littered with the fallen bodies (and vestigial webpages, documents and ideas) of schemes that didn’t make the grade.

So now I’m starting to be happy with how I’m getting things set up. I’m comfortable with the importance of my role as a teacher to bring students to meaningful inquiry and the centrality of (the right) content in getting us there. The coming years are an opportunity to put this into practice, to test and refine inquiry as creative critical reflective thought based on curriculum as a careful curation of connected content taught carefully and purposefully with pedagogy as a on ongoing feedback loop.

Having said all this, exam success often means taking a Vygotskyian approach to inquiry when I’m more Dewey at heart. This is heightened by the dreaded GPA, backwashing pedagogical/assessment demands, and I continue to seek ways to focus on learning over grades. I’m very much looking forward to a future of learning that effectively crosses the traditional-progressive divide and empowers learners in all attributes of the learner profile – including knowledgeable.

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I wonder how many points this post could have scored on an edu-jargon bingo-card. Also, see this 2019 piece on “how to think without Googling.”

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If you have comments, please leave them, here or find me on Twitter.


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Faculty PD: Assessment Principles & Practices (and a stretched golf metaphor)

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve put a lot of work into developing Wednesday afternoon PD sessions for middle and high-school faculty on Assessment Principles and Practices. We’ve chosen to do this now, as this is an easy entry point for work on MYP: Next Chapter and it is always valuable PD to think about, evaluate and strengthen our practices. It builds on a lot of the good work that CA has been doing in recent years to improve assessment.

The inspiration for the theme came from Ken O’Connor’s (@kenoc7) blog post on “23 reasons why golf is better than classroom assessment and grading,” as well as some of Rick Wormeli’s (@RickWormeli) great series of videos on Assessment in the Differentiated Classroom. The aim was to emphasise the importance of the connection between the objectives of the unit and the assessment tasks, resulting in strong, worthwhile assessment taking place. As part of the discussion we connected the objectives of the MYP subjects to their respective assessment criteria and strands.

So far we have completed two of three (or more) sessions on this, with the first being a general overview, including revisiting our Assessment Policy and a Socrative Space Race, as well as sharing with colleagues from different departments. The second session focused on scaffolding tasks and was kicked off with Wormeli’s provocative talk on redos and retakes, before having some exemplary teachers show their scaffolding and student support tools to teachers. The second half of the session was devoted to further developing our own tasks and in later sessions we’ll evaluate these and think more carefully about what to do with ‘broken’ assessments and how to make best use 0f learning data.

The curriculum team, including Tony (@bellew), LizD (@lizdk), LizA and I were impressed by the feedback given in a one-minute essay between sessions and in the quality of collegial conversations taking place. It is clear that CA has come a long way in assessment philosophy and practices in recent years.  I am grateful to be in a place where we can work towards progress, share our practice and improve together as a faculty.

Here is the presentation. Apologies for stretching the golf metaphor to breaking point, but I wanted to also use it as a way to model use of CC images from Flickr. I’m trying to find a happy medium here between attractive ‘presentation zen’ for the PD sessions and functional informational flipbooks for teachers to refer to and use in their later work as they’re embedded to the faculty guide.


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The Gradebook I Want

As the MYP sciences roll into the Next Chapter and we mull over the new guides, objectives and assessment criteria, we have the opportunity to reflect on our assessment practices. The IB have provided a very clear articulation between course objectives and performance standards (see image), which should make assessment and moderation a more efficient process.

There is a clear connection between the objectives of the disciplines and their assessment descriptors in all subjects in MYP: Next Chapter.

There is a clear connection between the objectives of the disciplines and their assessment descriptors in all subjects in MYP: The Next Chapter.

Underpinning these objectives, however, are school-designed content and skills standards. These are left up to schools for articulation so that the MYP can work in any educational context and this is great, though it does leave the challenge of essentially tracking two sets of standards (or more) in parallel: the MYP objectives and the internal (or state) content-level standards. In a unit about sustainable energy systems, for example, I might have 15-20 content-level, command term-based assessment statements, each of which could be assessed against any (or many) of the multiple strands for each of four MYP objectives.

As I read more about standards-based grading (or more recently standards-based learning on Twitter), I become more dissatisfied with the incumbent on-schedule assessment practices presiding over grading and assessment. I want students to be able to demonstrate mastery of both the MYP objectives and the target content/skills but I am left with questions:

  • If they score well on a task overall but miss the point on a couple of questions/content standards, have they really demonstrated mastery? How can I ensure that they have mastered both content and performance standards?
  • If they learn quickly from their mistakes and need another opportunity to demonstrate their mastery on a single content-level standard (or performance-level standard), do they need to do the whole assignment again? What if time has run out or there is not opportunity to do it again?
  • As we move through the calendar in an effort to cover curriculum and get enough assessment points for a best-fit, are we moving too superficially across the landscape of learning?
  • More importantly, is the single number – their grade – for the task, a true representation of what they know and can do? How can I present this more clearly, to really track growth?

My aim with all this is to encourage a classroom of genuine inquiry (defined as critical, reflective thought), in which I know that students have effectively learned a solid foundation of raw materials (the ‘standards’, if you will), upon which they can ask deeper questions, make more authentic connections and evaluate, analyse and synthesise knowledge. 

Lucky we have Rick Wormeli videos for reference. Here he is on retakes, redos, etc and it is worth watching (and provocative). There is another part, as well. If you haven’t seen them yet, go watch them before reading the rest of this post (the videos are better, TBH).

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What do I do already? 

  • Lots of formative assessment: practice, descriptors on worksheets, online quizzes.
    • In each of these, there is a rubric connecting it to MYP Objectives
      • Each question is labeled with the descriptor level and strand (e.g. L1-2a, L5-6b, c).
      • I don’t usually give a grade, though do check the work. Students should be able to cross-reference the questions with the descriptors, carry out their own ‘best fit’ and determine the grade they would get if they so desire. This puts feedback first.
    • Learning tasks usually include target content standards
  • Drafting stages through Hapara/GoogleDocs to keep track of work and give comments as we go
  • An emphasis on self-assessment against performance descriptors and content-level standards (and goals for improvement or revision).
  • I use command terms all the time: every sheet, question, lesson where possible.
  • Set deadlines with students where possible and am flexible where needed.
  • In some cases reschedule assessment or follow up with interview or retake (but not as standard practice). As Wormeli says above (part 2): “at teacher discretion.”
  • Track student learning at the criterion-level (MYP objectives), though with current systems (Powerschool), not in great detail at the objective strands (descriptors) level (e.g. A.i, A.ii, A.iii).
  • I do tests over two lessons, giving out a core section in the first, collecting and checking in-between classes. In the next session, this is supplemented with extra questions that should allow students to take at least one more step up. For example, a student struggling with Level 3-4 questions would get more opportunities to get to that level, whereas another who has shown competency will get the next level(s) up.

What do I want to do? 

  • I want to also be able to effectively track every student’s growth in the content standards and develop deeper skills in inquiry (critical reflective thinking).
  • Develop a system for better tracking learning against the individual strands within each criterion (e.g. A.i, A.ii, A.iii).
  • Better facilitate development of student mastery, allowing us to move further away from scheduled lessons and into more effective differentiation and pacing.

What would help? 

I would really like a standards-based, MYP-aligned, content-customisable gradebook and feedback system that is effective in at least three dimensions:

  • Task-level to put levels for each task, each of which might produce multiple scores, including:
    • Various target content-level standards
    • MYP objective strands at different levels of achievement
  • It would need to allow for retake/redo opportunities for any and all standards that need to be redone – not necessarily whole assessment tasks. 
  • It would have to focus student learning on descriptors and standards, not on the numbers, in order to help them move forwards effectively. Students would need to be able to access it and make sense of it intuitively so that they could decide their own next steps even before I do.
  • It would super-duper if the system could produce really meaningful report cards that focus on growth over the terminal nature of semester grading.
What would a three-dimensional gradebook look like?

What would a three-dimensional gradebook look like?

 

Here is Rick again, describing another approach to a 3D gradebook:

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Taking It To Twitter


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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. 

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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… 

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Of Planners & Practices: Reflecting on Student & Professional Learning

This week we used the Wednesday PD time to set up formal collaborative reflection on units. Nothing ground-breaking, perhaps, but an opportunity to have good discussions with colleagues about how the planned and taught curriculum are matching up, how we are meeting students’ needs and how we are thinking purposefully about connecting articulation and action in the classroom.

The emphasis was on conversations before computers and questions before suggestions, with the departments first talking through one unit together then breaking into planning pairs/groups to reflect on a unit each. The remaining time was given to capturing the reflections in ATLAS. We will repeat this periodically through the year, and it is hoped that HOD’s will continue the model when their departments meet for planning and reflection.

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A quick personal reflection. 

I feel like we’re turning the corner – culturally and professionally – at the school.

I feel like discussions are far more positive and collegial than when I first arrived a couple of years ago. I know in Science we are having more conversations across MYP-DP and MS-HS, and we are learning a lot from each other. As a faculty we’re making incremental progress towards seeing planning (and ATLAS as its vehicle) as being central to the development of both quality curriculum and effective practices. Student learning is the focus of our discussions and the great work that all teachers are doing across the school is becoming more apparent with every week. This is a good school of good people doing good things and getting better.

Like any school, there is still a lot of work to do, but I am proud of what we are accomplishing and am grateful to be a part of the process. In terms of curriculum leadership we’re providing structure and resources to allow departments and teachers to get on with their own learning as professionals and trying to give them the opportunity to explore and grow together. We will cycle through curriculum, differentiation, tech and planner hotspots, student learning goals and reflection through the year, and as MYP:NC guides come out will look at how best to prepare for next year.

First copies in Japan? Maybe…

I am super-excited about our Teacher Learning Communities focus for the year, based loosely on Dylan Wiliam’s framework for Embedded Formative Assessment and using Hattie’s Visible Learning to focus group learning on practices that work, in order to help us meet professional goals, student learning goals and to better meet the needs of our students. I’m a Hattie fan-boy (his new book, ‘Visible Learning & the Science of How We Learn‘ arrived today), and based my IBAP presentation MYP: Mind the Gap on his work. It is really accessible and great as a stimulus for thought and further learning. I hope all teachers are as enthusiastic about this opportunity as I am – this kind of opportunity for self-directed PD is not frequently given in schools.

The start of the year has been exhausting – far more so than last year. Many hours have gone into preparing resources and working with leadership on the Wednesday sessions, along with ATLAS work, meetings and trying to get to work with teachers. I have my own full classes, a really cool opportunity with push-in learning support in G8 Science, family, MA Study, #MYPChat leadership, becoming an IB Educator (MYP school visitor), the MS Girls’ Football season has just begun and there is more going on. Every stone unturned reveals more work that needs to be done – and I do need to try my best to meet everyone’s needs as positively as possible.

But I still feel that it is all worth it. We are making progress as a faculty, becoming more ‘can-do’, more genki.

As DJ says, “we are responsible for our own culture,” and it is a privilege to be able to influence that culture.


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You Can’t Differentiate Mediocrity.

Good teaching is differentiation: knowing our students, knowing our curriculum, knowing and using a range of strategies and finding opportunities to give students what they need. It is knowing who is learning what and how and it is knowing our impact as the teacher in the classroom. An excellent differentiated curriculum and classroom needs to be first excellent, then differentiated: you can’t differentiate mediocrity. Differentiation depends on effective collaboration between teachers and between students and faculty. It needs an atmosphere of respect and inclusion and a common goal of student learning. 

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A concept map for differentiating instruction, from Leadership for Differentiating Schools & Classrooms by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Susan Demirsky Allan.

Over this week at CA we have had Sandra Page come back in from ASCD to help teachers level-up from last year’s work, which was largely and introduction to differentiation and establishing a common language and set of strategies around it. Then  over the weekend I attended a separate JCIS weekend workshop at Osaka International School, led by Naomi Nelson (part of Bill and Ochan Powell’s Education Across Frontiers), on ‘Differentiation: Making Inclusion Happen.’ It was a powerful week of PD, with Naomi’s weekend sessions being particularly useful as a coordinator. With so much professional learning taking place – as MYP Co, science teacher and HOD Science – it will be a challenge to summarise this all into one post and you will likely recognise much of the ideas here.

An Overview

The differentiation content in each session was largely based on the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson, with the common language of differentiating Product, Process, Content (and Affect) by Readiness, Interest and Learning Profile. As a focus at the school we have been working mainly on building teachers’ readiness in Readiness, Process and – to a much lesser extent – Product (assessment).  The work we have been doing has been supported by resources on the school’s faculty guide and in the ATLAS planners, as well as department-based sessions with Sandra.

The Curriculum-Students Balance

Naomi did an great job of crystallizing the connections between an excellent concept-based curriculum with the practices of teaching in the differentiated classroom. Building on Tomlinson’s work, the mantra became an excellent differentiated classroom is first excellent, then differentiated. We need to build on a strong knowledge of an excellent curriculum, and the process of building and articulating that excellent curriculum is the foundation of progress. As part of this curriculum, we need to be aware of the greater conceptual understandings of our unit and the minimum acceptable evidence of understanding of our students to be successful in the unit. We must know where we need to go, and then think about how we might bring in readiness and interest to get there.

Screen Shot 2013-09-23 at 9.31.55 PMA strong curriculum doesn’t, however, mean a slavish devotion to content over all else. We are educators, not fact transmitters, and must ensure that the students remain in the balance. By knowing our students – their interests and readiness as a group and as individuals and what makes a successful learning environment – we can start to meet their needs as learners. We should use formative and summative assessment data as a regular part of our own teaching feedback cycle.  A differentiated classroom is responsive; the opportunities to respond are planned.

A good differentiated classroom encourages inquiry, but does not lose the curriculum in the balance: a classroom too student-oriented doesn’t easily help progression or maintain ‘standards’ (and as a result, open inquiry as curriculum ranks pretty low on Hattie’s impacts). However, if we focus only on the content, insisting that all students must meet our personal standards at the same time in the same way in order to be ‘successful’, then we are doing our learners a huge disservice.

“Differentiate Up”

A successful differentiated classroom does not sacrifice standards or make things ‘easier’ for students. We don’t give everyone an undeserving top grade because they worked hard or we feel bad for them. We certainly don’t adjust our grading fairness. Instead, we ‘differentiate up’ by making clear our expectations of all students and providing extension that takes the most ready to the next level. We do not differentiate the significant concepts, unit questions or key content by readiness – instead we make it clear how students can go beyond, to extend themselves. We ensure that students sit in the zone of proximal development, an area of tension where they are forced to learn not through giant leaps but through an invitation to challenge and to flow. For those less ready we can provide more process support, scaffolding, coaching and clarification. When all students are clear on what they are required to understand, know and do then we have a solid foundation for differentiation.

By differentiating up, we avoid dumbing down.

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Developing a Repertoire of Strategies for Effective Differentiation

Strategies for differentiation might be a good entry point for teachers who want to see it in action, and to learn to see the benefit of putting the learner at the centre of learning, though they can only go so far if we are not also thinking critically about curriculum development. Both Sandra and Naomi had plenty of strategies to share – here are a few that I have tried and know to be effective in my own classes, which largely hinge on formative assessment, feedback and adjusting my practice, student groupings or learning processes. If you have read this far, you might want to put some of your favourites in the comments.

  • Exit Tickets
    • 1-minute essay (summary of learning)
    • 3,2,1 (3 things I learned, 2 I will practice, 1 question I have)
    • Response to a conceptual or challenge question
  • Socrative Space Races
    • Usually used as a warmer to get groups working together
  • Quia Quizzes
    • Strictly formative, these are for practice and immediate feedback
    • Based on content or skills of the lesson/ subtopic
    • Results help me decide – before class – who needs what help and who needs extension
  • Think-Pair-Share, Headlines, and other Making Thinking Visible Routines
  • Drafting stages of assignments (and feedback, through GoogleDocs and Hapara), to differentiate assignment-based lessons by readiness in terms of completion, skills to develop further or content-based understandings
  • Interest-based choices for students in topics for assignments, essays, research questions

Some strategies I want to try more: 

  • “Tell Me Something” paired reading
  • Cognitive Coaching in classes
  • Round Robin Reflections
  • More effective use of different ‘entry points’ to units as part of the tuning-in process

Respectful Tasks ≠ Labeling Students

A differentiated classroom feels like a community of learners, rather than rows of pupils. With flexible grouping and respectful tasks built on a supportive learning environment and a genuine care for students we can differentiate to meet students’ needs. It is often raised in differentiation sessions that teachers are wary of stigmatising students with the label of being ‘needy’ – and ‘not labeling students’ is a high-impact strategy on Hattie’s meta-analysis. However, giving students that they need, in a manner that encourages growth is not the same as permanently or obviously labeling a student. If we manage students effectively in a caring environment, we can ensure that students are given an appropriate level of challenge (and they will appreciate it).

If we differentiate by readiness only, all the time, we run the risk of creating a ‘tracking’ system in the class – but there are many ways to keep the groups flexible – by interest, level of completion of a task, preference of style (where appropriate, such as direct instruction, reading, problem-solving) or just simply through random groupings.

Students like to know why they have been grouped and in a supportive learning environment, it is OK to share our reasoning. Teacher-student relationships are high-impact on Hattie’s scale, and effort spent in cultivating them is energy well spent.

Differentiation as a Collaborative Process

One of the strengths of Naomi’s workshop was the focus on collaboration as a foundation of effective differentiation. We spent time looking at student responses in groups, trying to deduce students’ thought processes and it was a really useful task to look at the problems from others’ perspectives. She gave an overview of and time to practice Cognitive Coaching techniques, as well as an opportunity to use case studies in  groups to think about the seven norms of collaborative work:

  • pausing (the ‘gift of time’)
  • paraphrasing (“So you’re saying…”)
  • putting inquiry at the centre (of the issue)
  • probing for specificity (“Tell me more about…”)
  • putting ideas on the table (and knowing when to take them off)
  • paying attention to self and others
  • presuming positive intentions (one of my favourites and one if which we must always be mindful)

I wonder what the novice differentiators made of these sessions that were a step away from the direct student-teacher practice of differentiation, but I could really see the value of them as an MYPCo and HOD.  I think we could use up-skilling as HODs in thee practices in order to run more effective, supportive and collaborative meetings in our departments.

Where Would I Like to Go Next?

As a coordinator in the school, I tend to see lots of opportunities for development. A small breakthrough for me over the last couple of weeks (and in part due to attending IB School Visiting Team Member Training) is how we can develop the practices of differentiation and collaboration in-step with curriculum review and strengthening. I would like to have sessions and differentiated PD that build on our work on ATLAS to really connect curriculum to practice through strengthening our curriculum and assessment while developing strategies for formative assessment and differentiation. I really want to open up classrooms, build a stronger community around professional learning and peer-support. We should form vertical curriculum groups, including elementary teachers, to look critically at the standards underlying our curriculum.

I think if we were to have Naomi come to the school next year, she could work with the whole faculty on differentiation strategies and student learning goals and with the HODs on collaboration, cognitive coaching and leading effective meetings. In ongoing Wednesday-afternoon PD we can continue to focus on practices and building an excellent, concept-based, rigorous curriculum and careful collaborative moderation of student work.

I really want to develop our ties with local IB schools more carefully – a shared PD day with OIS would give an opportunity to have day-long jobalikes and a keynote, and if we go a step further we can implement the model we used in IBDunia in Indonesia for the IB teachers’s conference, drawing on the wealth of talent our community has in the classrooms to teach the teachers.

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We’ve come a long way as a school over the last few years – we’re ready to really level-up and MYP: Next Chapter is the perfect opportunity to do this by thinking carefully about who we are, what we teach and how we get there. Finally, the graphic below is an attempt to communicate (in a single slide) how we can use readiness and interest most easily in MYP and DP.

An attempt to capture how we can differentiate by readiness and interest in the MYP and DP. This is in repsonse to teachers' concerns about how we get started and avoid 'dumbing down' or work within the boundaries of our curriculum framework and assessment regulations.

An attempt to capture how we can differentiate by readiness and interest in the MYP and DP. This is in repsonse to teachers’ concerns about how we get started and avoid ‘dumbing down’ or work within the boundaries of our curriculum framework and assessment regulations.


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Moving in One Direction: Finding Ourselves with an ATLAS Curriculum Map.

This week Tony (@bellew, Curriculum, IBDP & PD Coordinator) and I gave a presentation to MS-HS faculty during our Wednesday PD time on “Why we map with ATLAS Rubicon.” Here it is. 

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I’m willing to bet that if you’re a coordinator and your school uses a mapping tool like ATLAS Rubicon then you have heard the question “what’s the point of using XYZ?” on enough occasions to make you question it yourself. ATLAS is not a new thing for the school, and we have a great faculty here, but it was seen that there was a need to address directly the why and how of our curriculum mapping. So this week, Tony and I prepared, edited and presented a faculty PD session on why we map the curriculum and why we’re using ATLAS to get it done.

Timing was important for this presentation; we’re in the early stages of the year, having spent a few years trying to populate planners and articulate the curriculum, and now we’re looking to analyse, improve and use curriculum development as professional development across the school. For some it feels like we’ve been working towards completion for years, and it is important that faculty realise that if we see it as purely an exercise in box-filling accountancy that we will learn little and grow less. Instead we should be approaching it is an ongoing process, a cycle of review and improve, of collaboration, reflection and inquiry into our practices. We need everyone to be on the same page, moving in One Direction towards a stronger curriculum.

The slide-deck is posted below. The One Direction connection, tenuous though it may be, was an attempt to lighten a pretty dry topic – how many song titles can you spot? No apologies for the texty nature of many of the slides: the presentation has been added to a faculty guide page on curriculum mapping and needs to be self-explanatory for teachers looking back. Some slides we did not need in the presentation have been added back into the slide-deck for completion.

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How did it go?

I think it did the job. The survey responses were positive and some teachers were thankful for the clarification. It was important to recognise that we were building on the good work of a lot of good people, and I think it was generally well received. There were some good discussions at the tables, and some entertaining headlines in the closing task (one has been re-purposed for the title of this blog post). The survey responses have given us plenty of actions to take on making ATLAS more useful for teachers and many of these have been taken care of already: the team at ATLAS have been very swift and accommodating in our development of planners over the last couple of years.

This was worth doing, and I recommend it to any coordinators who sense a resistance to curriculum development. I do feel that we have been able to address the issues and are more unified and it has given us a lot of food for thought in further development of curriculum and in-house PD sessions. Over the last couple of years we have done a lot to customise the planner to meet our needs as a school, connecting each section to PD resources and explanations – this has been well worth the ongoing time and effort.

Next Steps

It is clear from the feedback that teachers want more in-school time to work on planners. The HOS is clear that Wednesday PD time is for development, not secretarial work, so we need to manage this effectively. Also, we are in the midst of a stay-or-go summative evaluation of PYP and MYP in the school, so a lot rides on the results of that; however the use of ATLAS as a mapping tool will always be there. Here are some of the things I’d like to do with regard to curriculum development as professional development at CA:

  • Continue to evolve the planner and supporting linked resources so that teachers and departments are autonomous in development and confident in the expectations. This allows for more differentiated development.
  • Continue planner hotspots to allow teachers to choose their sessions for development of curriculum – and practices – for different elements of the planner.
  • Look again at assessment in a whole-faculty manner in semester 2.
  • Continue to check and provide feedback on exemplar planners for each department.
  • Provide resources and guidance for departments to help them make the most of collaborative planning sessions.
  • Continue to meet teachers at their request for development help – but add more walk-throughs in classes to see where more support can be given in translating curriculum into practice.

If the summative evaluation results in an affirmation of MYP at CA:

  • Use the opportunity to explore who we are using the standards and practices. We are CA and we are an IB World School.
  • Help departments set plans for transition into Next Chapter planners, and add a Stage 3 (hidden from public) section at the bottom of ATLAS planners as a ‘sandbox’ for this development.

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So now that’s done, we continue our march onwards towards developing the ‘Best Curriculum Ever…’