Improving our reading power
A new year full of new momentums and motivational drives. For me, this brought the changes of a new grade (now fourth) and new awesome colleagues.
With all these changes, what a great time to use this opportunity to work with our lovely primary pedagogical coach, Fiona (@Fi_Hurtado).
Fiona's coaching style is beautifully summed up in the diagram below, which she constructed:
My goal was to improve reading practices in my homeroom so our coaching relationship tends to lean on the "dialogical" side. The "why" came from the data in standardized testing last year. It's just one data point, sure. It may have been just my cohort, may have been related to my pedagogy, but if there was one area that the data suggested my kiddos could've been more "above average", then it would be in reading.
From all of this, an inquiry began to happen. Some of my key driving questions were:
From these questions came answers:
After this initial inquiry, synthesis of the books, and mentorship from Fiona and Corie, a game plan was created!
Step one: A collaborative inquiry into powers that reading gives you in life.
Wanting to know what my kids knew already, I was thoroughly impressed. We added a few things to this list as time went on, but this powerful collation of ideas would serve us well in step five below.
Step two: Introducing CAFE through a slow unpacking and inquiry into all the strands of the acronym.
I'm sure the suspense is killing you by now - CAFE unpacks to... Comprehension - Accuracy - Fluency - and... - Expanding Vocabulary. Each of these can be broken down further, which my learners and I took the time to inquire into the meaning, represented in the following slides.
Step three: Co-constructing an Expanding Vocabulary Practice
This was a bit of a curve-ball in terms of the timing (would've introduced it just a bit later) as it was student-initiated action. After unpacking CAFE, one of my learners came to me with an idea about how to work on our vocabulary, which led to a discussion, and we co-constructed success criteria. What we came up with is the following:
Step four: Student self-assessment of the CAFE criteria
Using a traffic light system, students self-assessed where they thought they stood with each criteria. Afterwards, they conferenced with me. As is often the case, students are brutally honest and self-aware, when given the opportunity:
Step five: Creating a student-centered approach to identification, goal setting documentation and evidencing CAFE growth
This built upon what I had previously been doing in Studio 5 last year, however with use of CAFE, it allowed for a more explicit and student accessible focus. Having Fiona offer some critical feedback (e.g. like forgetting to add an example - Doh!) before pushing it out to students on Google Classroom was super helpful.
Here is the EVIDENCE LINK in the example pictured below:
Step six: Student cycles of improving their "Reading Power"
Success and expectations were co-constructed. We came up with two week cycles, which is definitely an appropriate amount of time for the next while. Ideally, I told my learners that I'd like this to be weekly, so we'll keep having check-ins to see whether or not this is a reasonable and fair expectation.
Each day (mostly), we do a unit-related read aloud, of which I draw out specific goals that my learners are working on explicitly. They are free to use these examples in their evidence. I usually follow this up with a CAFE related skill-building lesson that ties in with the writing genre we are currently working on.
In addition, most days of the week, we have a silent reading time where learners read independently for twenty minutes after lunch. Students are encouraged to acquire evidence from these books as well. After this time is when students work on achieving their goal and I get to conference and check in with how they are going.
There's been plenty of tech upskilling for the evidence part and round one took a little longer than two weeks, but I'm confident we'll get there. The kids are super excited to get "crushing" their next CAFE goal and it's so awesome to see the buzz on their faces after overcoming all of their resilience battles. I'm proud of these nine and ten year olds.
Here are a couple examples that I have permission to share (if you click on the photo - it will link you to the evidence):
So what's next in this coaching cycle?
What are your thoughts? / A call to action...
I leave you with a quote from this favorite poet, naturalist and philosopher...
Assessment in abnormal times
Like many educators I know, this return to blogging is long overdue ....
Disclaimer: I am not an assessment expert. The aim of this post is two fold -- to provide some key strategies as well as some examples -- in regards to what I feel has had successful outcomes in terms of assessment during school closures due to COVID-19.
To begin, here are three key strategies that I feel could be applied to any context...
Key Strategy One: Transparency (i.e. "No Secret Teacher Business")
A winning strategy in any classroom, whether you're physically distant from your learners or not, is transparency (i.e. "No secret teacher business") among stakeholders.
Something that works very well for my learners, parents and I is a shared Google Sheet that all have viewing access to, communicated in more channels that they could ask for. This document serves as our first port of call for any 1:1 conference or discussion. It also includes links to student work, where necessary, that are only accessible to those who need to see it.
This document includes a legend, and three tabs, one for inquiry, math and literacy, respectively. Not pictured are the student's names in rows of the first column.
If I've sold you already on doing something like this, awesome. I'd strongly suggest that before you introduce it to students and parents, that you elucidate that any learning in life happens at different times. Some learners, particularly during COVID-19 school closures, are going to take longer than others.
Let them know that this is okay.
Whilst we have been using this document all year, parent/guardian and student feedback is overwhelmingly positive as they know exactly where to channel their focus and see where to next. They also know what I'm looking for, have responded to, what is due, and more. It is a wonderful starting point to any conference with either stakeholder.
In students, I find that it promotes self-regulation, self-efficacy and more.
Key Strategy Two: Honor the asynchronous aspects of learning
Sure, some lessons or projects need have a due date and, when left too long, the learning, concepts and/or big ideas fall out of context. However, in my experience, the majority doesn't and we have to honor that humans develop and learn at different paces. The asynchronous nature of learning things at different times and locations is particularly amplified at present. Some of our learners are not on the same schedule as us (i.e. the teachers) due to a variety of reasons out of their control. In my context, I have learners that are overseas in their home country (including different time zones), sharing one device with multiple people in their family, and others that need to work at a pace or schedule that works better for their family.
Be flexible. Let go. Know that you'll be doing right by your people!
Key Strategy Three: Provide more opportunities for assessment AS learning happens
Again, I don't think any of these strategies are isolated to being physically distant from our learners -- these are pillars of sound pedagogical philosophy. In a world where we are trying to step away from the pernicious industrial models of education, assessment as the learning takes place naturally creates a home for more of a student-centered approach.
Don't get me wrong, there are definitely times where we, as educators, need some quick assessment for learning to gain prior knowledge or inform us on where to next. And surely, after multiple assessment opportunities as the learning takes place, there eventually needs to be a point where there is an assessment of learning.
Assessment as the learning takes place promotes a student-centered learning environment because it fosters the ownership piece of learner agency. Some ways we can achieve this can be giving more opportunities for our students to create their own success criteria, giving ample opportunities to self assess and reflect upon their work, as well as allowing for more time to reflect, practice and improve on the feedback given to them.
When it comes to examples - think BIG - projects that is!
Bigger projects, allow opportunities for inquiry, choice, exploration of big concepts, knowledge transfer and more.
But what about academic honesty? This is not the cure all - end all on this question many of you have ruminated upon during this time, however bigger projects allow for ample opportunities for feedback (i.e. assessment as learning). Since all educators have a pretty good pin on the voices of their learners, my personal opinion is that this issue is quite easy to highlight when or if it becomes apparent. Multiple feedback loops give the opportunity for teachable moments, student reflection and correction of this if it academic honesty were ever to arise. From my experience, I feel that the more voice and choice that you give within the spectrum of the project, you'll find that this concern becomes a non-issue.
Let's look at a couple examples: #1 - Geometry town
After learning about various concepts of shape and space, students were asked to engage in an independent Geometry Town project. My colleagues and I decided to make the task 2D over 3D because most of the things that needed to be assessed could be done in 2D, which also be less time and material intensive for the students. Next, we gave our learners their three-part assessment checklist and provided an exemplar of "a way" the project could look like once completed. This was supported with video instructions as well. Students could choose to represent their town digitally or on paper.
Before submitting their projects, students were encouraged to self-assess their work using the criteria, and get feedback from an elder in their household, too.
Where we fell short was not including student voice in the assessment criteria, which could have been easily accomplished with a Google Form. This will be an area of improvement for next year.
Where did students benefit? They could design their town as creatively as they liked and could work on or offline. There were some constraints in order to achieve the assessment criteria, but it was designed to allow for as much diversity as possible. Plus, following an Understanding by Design approach, students were given the criteria before they started the project. Best of all, there was no hard due date (even though we gave them one) and they could go through as many feedback loops and photo submissions that they wanted in order to achieve success.
Pictured below, is an example of a how, through multiple feedback loops and submissions, a student was able to achieve a greater amount of success.
Example #2: Literacy and inquiry - Information report
In a summative project for a PYP, How the world works, inquiry into scientific topics of their choosing, students were asked to write an information report.
To try and be as brief as possible, students chose topics generated from the science curriculum domains, then chose big questions to explore within that topic. Some key research skills taught and developed were learning how find resources (mostly online and our digital databases, given the current situation and limited access to offline material), how to TRAAP test these resources, skimming and scanning, summarizing, and more. Then, came all the scaffolding and teaching of skills of how to write a five paragraph information report - the text features, structure, writing introductions, body paragraphs, conclusions, referencing and more.
No easy feat in any context, particularly a home learning one. This took longer. That was okay.
This is a salient point - learning takes longer in a context without our learners physically present. It needs to slow down. Bigger concepts need to be broken down to their finest nuance and explained succinctly and explicitly through multiple methods. Remember: Keep things as simple as possible.
For this project, my colleagues and I also wanted to create as many opportunities as possible for a variety of feedback loops. These loops included all the people they had access to - self, peers on chats, elders in their households, and their teachers.
This project had roughly twenty feedback loops. Many were with the teacher through submission and response, but I will also include some of the other ways that we varied our assessment as the learning was taking place.
Assessment in lieu of physical presence of your kiddos does require some additional "out of the box" creativity and thought. Some key strategies, regardless of whether or not you're in front of your learners, are being transparent as possible with your stakeholders, honoring the asynchronous nature of learning, and thinking of more ways to include assessment as the learning takes place. These strategies are not synonymous with learning at home -- the bonus is that you're probably familiar with doing some or all of these already.
Embedded in the examples and strategies above is creating plenty of opportunity for student voice and choice in ways that they can demonstrate their understanding. Through this, students become empowered and more intrinsically motivated. As a result, they take more ownership in their learning. In the excellent book, Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning, John Spencer and A.J. Julianni posit that more ownership develops students that are able to, "Figure out what they know, don't know, want to master and what they'll do to improve." Thus, is it is crucial that we teach and provide opportunities to consolidate these 21st century skills. Our learners will only stand to benefit by being more meta cognitive, self-regulated and efficacious souls in the driver's seat of their own learning.
I'd love to hear from you! What have been some of your key strategies and/or examples for assessment during this time? Please share in the comments below. 😊
Celebrating the journey
I work in Studio 5 at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC). It's a personalized learning environment that puts learner agency at the core of our belief system. As an advisor, I'm often asked questions like...
In this post, I hope to elucidate what I do, which looks fairly similar amongst my colleagues, yet with some nuanced perspectives and ideas to make it their own. In other words, it is "a way", not "the way".
We, in Studio 5, don't believe in assigning numbers or grades to students; there's a significant amount of evidence about their lack of efficacy towards motivating students to learn. Thus, we believe in advising learners towards becoming intrinsically motivated in what they want to learn about (i.e. placing importance on learning how to learn). We value developing lifelong authentic skills over anything else.
Since our studio model operates within the context of the IB's PYP, the Enhanced Approaches to Learning (AtLs) make a lot of sense to use as our assessment vehicle. First, they were just redeveloped and introduced this year in the enhancements to the PYP; this translates to longer-term stability. In addition, the AtLs are present (with growing complexity) throughout the MYP and DP frameworks of the IB, therefore adding carry-over in the continuum of a learner's journey.
These ideals in what we value stem from the Learning and teaching section of the enhanced PYP documentation. The IB posits that, the AtLs "are grounded in the belief that learning how to learn is fundamental to a student’s education." These "skills also help to support students’ sense of agency, encouraging them to see their learning as an active and dynamic process" (IBO, p. 26).
Any educator that currently works with these AtLs knows that they are not easy to synthesize and interpret from the PYP documentation alone. To simplify these AtLs for all stakeholders in our community, we use a modified interpretation of the skills in infographic form developed by a former advisor, Suzanne Kitto (@OrenjiButa).
Instead of grades, we use a Studio 5 designed continuum called the Gradual Increase in Independence (GII). Ultimately, our goal is for the kids to lead, or at least be independent in relation to their approaches to learning (AtLs). More metaphorically speaking, we want them to be in the driver's seat of their learning journey.
A PYP Philosopy
To help guide what our studio model planning, learning and assessment looks like in depth, it's important to note that we are not just pulling stars out of the sky in our ideals. All of our philosophies are deeply rooted within the philosophy of the enhanced PYP framework. The bullets below are particularly salient to our everyday practice:
Long term planning
Over the course of the year, we, as an entire school, have a year long inquiry into "Who we are" as learners, individuals and as a community. Our exhibition (PYPx) lends itself nicely to "Where we are in place and time" for our children to reflect on their culmination of learning within the PYP before embarking into the MYP. This leaves the rest of the year open in terms of our Programme of Inquiry (PoI) to allow the children to set sail in three different Self Directed Units of Inquiry (SDUoIs). I know you may think that my math is wrong here, but SDUoIs tend to be trans-transdisciplinary (yes, we made that one up), leaving lots of room for balanced, horizontal articulation in our grade level.
As advisors, we assist our learners in backwards planning their SDUoIs on six week timelines. During week seven, we host mini-exhibitions (or as we like to call, a "Take it Public" - otherwise known as TIP) in between SDUoI cycles. We give our children the agency in how they choose to TIP, which I have blogged about here, and so has my colleague, Taryn, here.
These TIP events also are wonderful low entry, high ceiling, and, what Mitch Resnick at MIT's Media Lab likes to call, "wide wall", celebrations that showcase learning journeys. They also help spark ideas, innovation, iterations and motivation for the next round of SDUoIs, which students spend the rest of week seven planning for. In general, to overly simplify our long term plan, it would look something along the lines of this:
As mentioned above, many of the SDUoIs that the children plan, tend to hit several transdisciplinary themes. We get our students to track this in hyperdoc assessment folders that are shared with their parents and advisors. The aim of this is keeping the transparency window of communication and support open.
By planning for the whole year Who we are unit and having our PYPx as Where we are in place and time, this offers the learners flexibility to either "Pivot or Persevere" in their self-directed inquiries in terms of the time allotted for each inquiry. We keep the traditional six week plan as it gives our learners an adequate amount of time to inquire deeply into something they are passionate about. In addition, from a time management perspective, it gives an authentic deadline to prepare for in regards to taking their learning public. Some inquiries do need longer than six weeks and/or continue to motivate children to persevere. When that happens, we, as advisors, help our learners to continue to step further out of their comfort zone.
Pre-planning - Setting a purpose
To help our inspire our learners, we help them in finding their autonomy, mastery and purpose (ultimately their motivation), stemming from Daniel Pink's work in his book Drive.
At the beginning and throughout the year, we, as advisors, offer a variety of workshops ranging from writing stories, cooking, photography, dance and more. We encourage our kids to do the same; some run workshops on slime making, Scratch tutorials and more. All of this aids our learners in finding their intrinsic motivation for what they are passionate to learn more about.
For those that need a little further inspiration as to what to inquire into, we use this question grid as a diving board:
After a purpose is set, the final piece of the puzzle is a Simon Sinek fueled "Why, How and What" purpose planner. These planners help with initial conferencing to push our learners out of their comfort zones and also help connect them with the wider community (my colleague Taryn has documented this in great detail here).
Inquiring and reflecting on achievement
After all the pre-planning and reorganization of learning spaces to reflect the context of the inquiries, the wheels are in motion! Children have their specific weekly goals for their SDUoIs from their six week backwards planners, of which they expand upon in greater detail in their weekly goals.
In my advisory, learners set four SMART weekly goals on Monday morning. The first is a personal goal which can be anything in their life. Children tend to balance out their screen-time, get better at their mindfulness practice, or aim to be better humans in their connections with others. The second goal is a communication goal, related to any AtL within that skill family. Third is a math goal and the last is their weekly SDUoI goal.
By the end of the week, the expectation of my learners is that they have a face-to-face conference showing the documentation of their SDUoI, math and communications skills goals. To help with the transparency piece with parents, children post their set goals on Monday to their portfolios, then also reflect mid-week on the progress of their achievement.
In terms of the weekly timetable, we keep things open, save single subject pullouts. Each day revolves around the PYP's action cycle of "Choose-Act-Reflect" (commonly known as CAR time). The first and last block of each day, I have my specific learners that are under my pastoral care. However, during the middle blocks, these are the "ACT" blocks where our learners connect with peer and experts all around our community. Advisors are all diversified in their expertise and are working with a wide range of children, Studio wide, throughout these act times, not just the ones in their advisory. The only expectation is that their homeroom, or CAR time, advisor knows where they are and that an adult is in the area to supervise them wherever they are. Morning CAR blocks allow for check-in, choosing and planning their day and setting goals for the week (i.e. "CHOOSE" blocks). The last period of the day involves reflection, documentation and thinking about next steps (i.e. "REFLECT" blocks).
Here is an example of a day planner that our learners complete and conference with an advisor on before they "ACT":
Where do the math and communication skill goals come from?
Probably the question that we're asked most often.
Unlike any other school, we spend time to get to know our learners. We use diagnostic tools in order to garner that information through interviews like Probe, Gloss and looking at writing samples. That data gets analyzed, broken down into communicable and actionable next steps, then verbally communicated to the learner. This information also gets shared and put into their assessment folder, which is their "one-stop shop" hyperdoc platform that is shared with parents with commenting rights.
Aside from these diagnostics, we also get our students to notice, name and document next steps when they arise. This could be when they notice a pattern when reading through research and/or pleasure. Or it could be when they are writing their daily reflections, their own end of term evaluations for reporting, or in their documentation. Sometimes it may be through the feedback they get after taking it public, or something they noticed themselves. As an advisor, I'm always looking to assist my learners with the notice and naming of this real-time, authentic feedback in the context of whatever they may be doing. Through open-ended questions, it further develops my learner's metacognition to achieve that end goal -- to be the driver's of their own learning journey.
More specifically for maths, we also triangulate the data for next steps through the diagnostic grade-level assessments on Khan academy and get learners to save the results by concept area for actionable next steps. Another data point is through the notice and naming within the context of their self-directed units. It may be looking at symmetry through a photographic lens, measurement when building things up in our FabLab, and/or determining profits from entrepreneurial sales during market days and determining the percentage necessary to donate to a pre-determined charitable organization.
The documentation of goals
Mentioned above, learners set four goals weekly, three of which are documented and accessible via their assessment folder (their personal goal is reflected upon in their digital portfolio). All three goals (SDUoI, Communications Skill and Math) all follow a similar process: Stated goal, successes, challenges and next steps. The expectation is to be media rich in the documentation and the students are generally their best judges as to when they've achieved mastery, or persevered long enough, on a particular goal.
Below are examples of each of these three documentation goal areas:
A documented communication skill example.
A documented math example.
A documented SDUoI example.
What about summative assessment?
As for whole Studio summatives, all advisors do some variety of one at the end of each SDUoI cycle, but I'd argue that it's more formative if anything as it is used to inform the next self-directed unit. The kiddos self reflect on their motivation, use of experts, get feedback from advisors and parents, then use all of this to inform how they should continue to push themselves further on their next endeavor.
Because of the very nature of the personalized learning within the studio, children tend to summatively assess themselves actively and often, with advisor conferencing, when they feel they have persevered long enough on a goal. They have the documentation of their journey to prove it. Thus, there are summative assessments taking place, just on different timelines and in smaller doses.
Below is an example of a self-directed unit summative assessment...
How does all of the assessment mentioned above get communicated?
As mentioned above, the "one-stop-shop" hyperdoc assessment folder is shared with the parents at the beginning of the year. This keeps the transparency and communication window with parents entirely open from week one.
In addition, children reflect daily in their learning portfolio, which for most tends to be Seesaw.
Furthermore, several three-way conferences are held throughout the year. At each of these times, we tend to focus on different aspects of the AtLs. In our first conference, after term one, we looked solely at the self-management AtL family as it linked in nicely to our Who we are inquiry, specifically, who the children are as a learner (note that the enhanced AtLs were not yet released).
For our most recent three-way conference, we used the enhanced AtLs to reflect on our growth up until that point. Each stakeholder chose two sub-skill strengths and growth areas, respectively. Then we discussed actionable steps together that our learners can use when setting goals within the Studio as well as support on how these goals can be achieved at home.
Finally, Studio 5 learners write their own evaluation of learning (EoL). Advisors support them through the writing process, and each term, they report on a different aspect of their growth as a learner. Sometimes it's math, other times it is their self-directed inquiries. All use the AtLs as a vehicle in which to benchmark their growth. Afterwards, advisors add a comment on the bottom, often just needing to show support for their honest, humble and very transparent reflections.
The students writing their own EoLs was and still is one of the many things that I love about my current place of employment under my current role. It's such a powerful and purposeful form of authentic writing.
On that note, I would love to encourage everyone reading this to do the same. Even just once. See what the parents think! Why not have a go?!
The letting go is never easy when you are trying to establish a culture of learner agency. However, remember that with the right scaffolding and support, any human can be an empowered and capable agent of their own learning! It's extremely energizing!
Here is an example of a more recent student written EoL ...
To wrap up ...
If you're new to agency and/or personalized learning, I'm sure there are still many questions that I have left unanswered. In addition, this is "our way", and much of the above is even more adapted to make work for my specific advisory. I'm not suggesting that it is "the" way. Always start, collaboratively, with your "why". Then determine what the "how" and "what" will look like in your context.
Agency, in an educational setting, after all is about valuing voice, choice and ownership in one's learning. A good start would be linking to the concept of this blog post -- that of celebrating process, rather than product.
Growth does not have to be measured in grades or letters. Things are changing (albeit at a snail-like pace). Heck, even Harvard is pondering the very notion.
If you've gotten this far, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to read this rather lengthy post!
I'll also leave you with John Spencer's amazing video about what happens when students own their own learning (this message and more is also evident in his and Julianni's astounding book, Empower).
In what ways do you celebrate the journey over the destination?
What other ways that you track the growth of your learners beyond grades and numbers?
What are some of the ways you've "let go" and have introduced learner agency this year?
Please add the answers to these, your feedback, comments, and/or suggestions below!
I do share ideas on this topic and more on Twitter (@juouelle)!
Agency in assemblies
Have you ever been an audience member at a school assembly/performance and either struggled to be entirely attentive or even worse, awake? I don't know about you, but I have struggled with both for the majority of school assemblies that I have attended both as a student and educator.
For me, this leads to an interesting inquiry...
Are whole school assemblies still needed in 21st century learning models?
Some things that come to mind to advocate for their relevance may be:
What can assemblies still offer students in the 21st century?
I think for the people performing, it is a worthwhile experience. Particularly for students developing their communication skills and other skills the performance may require. Stepping out of your comfort zone, after all, is where the magic happens! Moreover, if the performers have voice, choice and ownership in what they are presenting, assembly performances would help strengthen neural pathways in their development of these skills, since they are likely intrinsically motivated to be there.
However, as an audience member, how much agency is really offered in a typical school assembly?
Here's the gut check. It is highly likely that your school's assemblies consist of a regimen that is far from agentic. Masses march on down to a central meeting space and are forced into some presenter centered environment. The audience norms are to be still, quiet, and attentive (i.e. compliant) for often too lengthy a period of time, dealing with the uncomfortable seating arrangement that the setting has to offer. As a result of this, behavior outcomes aren't always ideal and some students and teachers leave frustrated or more.
Disclosure: I am not sitting on a pious perch. I, too, am guilty of engaging in this routine. Organizational compliance is a tough animal to beat sometimes. However, if we advocate for working alternatives, then why not be the voice of change?
Are all assemblies robbers of joy?
No. I'll argue that assemblies, in moderation, offer nice opportunities to show support for your fellow community members and the learning that is taking place. In addition, sometimes a whole school celebration (or unfortunate mourning) is necessary.
However, I've yet to encounter a school where a schedule of multiple grade level assemblies hasn't been the expected norm in the yearly planning.
So how could we move toward offering more agency in assemblies?
Instead of droning on with the same old, same old "compliance festival", how can we "flip" the model to offer more agency for both presenters and audience? How can we still honor opportunities for learners to display their skills to a wider audience, allow for the greater community to celebrate this learning as an audience, and try to resolve the boredom crisis of the assembly model?
One solution: The workshop approach
By no means am I proclaiming that this is the best, nor the only way to offer more agency in assemblies. However, I will describe what my team and I do, and the perceived benefits.
The context (i.e. Where the magic happens)
First, I'd like to mention how fortunate I am to work in an environment where "I wonder if..." or "What if..." ideas and innovations are celebrated. Generally speaking, if it's going to be good for the kids, then my organization encourages us to try it. In addition, this idea is not my innovation or brainchild; it is the result of collective values and ideas of my awesome team, which includes the administration staff that supports us. In fact, this idea doesn't rest solely within our grade level, as I've seen the grade threes run workshops for kids older and younger than them, too!
What is this place you speak of?
I work in an awesome environment called Studio 5 at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City, or ISHCMC for short. Studio 5 is built upon personalized learning and putting the learner at the center. It is an environment that highly values student agency.
The workshop approach explained
Like all other schools I have worked for, the yearly calendar at ISHCMC includes multiple grade level assemblies. A select few of these assemblies still remain the same, however, the rest tend to lend themselves toward more innovative interpretation.
A non-negotiable is that we, as a grade level, are expected to offer several assemblies for grades 2-4. This translates to about 16 classrooms. Traditionally, that would mean all 16 classrooms would gather en masse in one location. Our grade level would have to collectively decide on a performance theme, then, possibly, the learners may have some voice, choice and ownership of what the presenting could look like within the context of that theme. At least in my 15 years of teaching at quite a few schools, that's the way that it has gone. It's also how I remember it as a learner myself.
Our alternative approach is that we gather as a studio (grade-level), and have a transparent discussion. We, both advisors and learners, discuss the non-negotiable timetable aspect of offering something to grades 2-4 and giving parents a chance to celebrate some of the amazing learning happening at ISHCMC. Then, like the majority of things that happen within Studio 5, we equally include the learners in planning of what it could look like. More often than not, students tend to gravitate to wanting to offer workshops over anything else.
What does it typically look like?
Students in Studio 5 are owners of their own learning and engage in self-directed units of inquiry, or as we call SDUoIs (think PYPx, but more frequently). They're all, to some degree, "experts", in a wide variety of topics that they're intrinsically motivated about. This "expertise" covers a diverse range from computational thinking, design, "Chefsperts", "Sportspertise", "Craftsperts" and more.
Given this experience, workshops tend to make sense. We give the kids opportunities to lead in mixed age groups, which, as Dr. Peter Gray posits, allows children to learn more efficiently within their Vygotskian Zone of Proximal Development (i.e. ZPD). For example, an 8 year old child has a much better chance of understanding how to dribble in basketball from a 10 year old, rather than an adult who may have had years of experience playing the sport.
In Studio 5, the expectation is that we have a shared common agreement and responsibility in taking our learning public beyond the PYPx at least once throughout the year. So, come assembly time, getting volunteers for workshops tends to be quite simple.
From there, we, as advisors, provide scaffolding and support in order for the children to be successful in their workshops. We hold workshop meetings, mini inquiries into what makes a good workshop, help them with choosing the right year level for them, contacting the right people, booking resources, providing opportunities for feedback and more. Come workshop day, they're more than prepared to lead.
Come workshop day, the proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the pictures...
Photo credit: Ha Thien, Kim Han, Thuy Pham and Stephen Flett
What's the big why for the students to run workshops over assemblies?
To them, it makes a lot of sense:
What are some of the advantages for the audience?
What could we do better?
A call to action!
If you resonated with any of the above, why not give the workshop approach a go? Start with a design thinker's approach - empathize with your stakeholders and come up with your collective why.
What are your thoughts?
Do you have any creative alternatives to adding more agency in assemblies? What are your thoughts as to whether or not assemblies still fit within 21st century learning?
The value in play
(this was posted to a parent section in October, 2018)
When you think about fond memories of your childhood, which do you value most? Was it the times you spent going to soccer matches on Saturday mornings? How about those after-school academy lessons? Monday morning swim meets? Probably not. Don't get me wrong, there's some enjoyment and skill development to be found in these. However, for me, it was those times upon dismissal of traditional schooling when the neighborhood turned into my playground.
We rode bikes. We played hockey in the streets. We rode skateboards and learned how to build stuff like ramps from scrap wood. We caught fish. And with these activities, we got dirty, cut and scraped-up in the process. I would spend hours, upon hours in play. Yes, playing without adult supervision. Playing with kids older and younger than me.
However, play, or the lack thereof, has become one of my greatest worries now as a parent. How often does my son get to, well, ... play? The older he gets, the less this becomes so, and yes, I'm guilty of not allowing for enough experiences where he can do just that.
In my 14+ years of teaching, one thing that has become particularly salient is, when given the time and freedom to engage in self-directed learning, kids will do AMAZING things! Yet, why do many schools around the globe continue to reduce play times, add more curricula, increase the amount of assessments, homework and more?
Is the picture all doom and gloom for our next generation?
Thankfully not. Well, at least if your son or daughter is in Studio 5. It's a place that strongly values student agency through self-directed learning.
Luckily for you, our philosophies are not "pie-in-the-sky" ideals. Being educators, we value research, empirical evidence and trending data. This is where Peter Gray's work comes in, weighing in as an "expert" on the subject of self-directed learning.
Gray posits that there are six conditions that optimise children’s ability to educate themselves:
He sums these up visually here:
Being reflective on trying to establish a culture of self-directed learning, here's how I think we rate on Gray's six fundamentals. Yes, we try to put as much as possible to put the learners in the driver's seat, yet we could do much better at point two. Sure, we do quite well at point three, are mostly good at four (some days better than others), provide opportunities for five, and are excelling in point six.
Play, schmay ... What do the standardized test results say?!
In case you're not sold on the value in PLAY (well, at least yet), Gray's also led an excellent TED Talk on the very subject and the problems that have arisen over time since robbing children of this key aspect in human (mammal) development.
What are your thoughts on PLAY? Should it be valued in schools? Why/why not? Did you value it in your childhood? Feel free to post your thoughts below!
A special shout-out to my colleague, Taryn, for illuminating me on Peter Gray's work (and for being such an inspiring and eloquent advocate of the work we do).
Original post comments (before moving this post):
The creativity in sandboxes
When I was little, I remember fondly the times spent playing in my backyard sandbox. Moreover, whenever we went to the beach, nature's sandbox, my love for building castles, moats, fortresses and the like would sustain my enjoyment and engagement for hours on end. Whilst entertained, I can recall the sound of my mother's voice in the background, like many others on the continent, chiming in with the age old joke, "If you keep digging, you may end up in China!"
As I got older, I remember spending equal amounts of time building LEGO. Not the kind that came from kits, but just a mixed jumble stored in two, restaurant-sized, plastic butter containers. Like my sand play experiences, I'd spend countless hours constructing make-shift planes, castles, spacecraft, robots, dinosaurs, trucks and just about anything else that inspired me at the time.
Fast-forward to my teenage years and you would find me exploring the outdoor street canvases whilst skateboarding. When resting from my love of building ramps and trying new tricks when jumping staircases, I also enjoyed expressing my creativity in digital games. One of my favorites at the time was Sim City. I'd love building up a city from scratch to see if my ideas and/or iterations would turn out fruitful. The game even had elements of purposeful feedback by way of newspaper reports, which I would use to improve my city in hopes of it becoming a thriving metropolis.
So what do sandboxes, LEGO, skateboarding and Sim City have in common?
As educators and/or parents/guardians, one of our crucial goals is to try our best to prepare children to be successful for their future. A future that will be lived out in the era of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Without a doubt, a key skill that will continue to bring humans success and joy in the era of AI will be that of creativity.
Mitch Resnick, professor of Learning Research at MIT Media Lab, in his September 2018 Medium post, posits that creativity will be "forced" upon us in the AI era. However, he doesn't see this as a problem. "Creative activities bring joy, meaning and purpose to people's lives. Focusing on creativity is not just an economic imperative, it is also a path towards human fulfillment, an opportunity for humans to be more human."
How can we best foster this opportunity for humans to be more, well ... human?
Chances are, you're already fostering creativity by constructing experiences where children are engaging in projects of personal interest to them. Projects that they're intrinsically motivated to engage in. Maybe they're learning how to make their own slime, ideally remixing or creating their own recipe, rather than just making one verbatim from a procedure posted somewhere. A.J. Juliani, who has authored or co-authored The PBL Playbook, Empower and Launch, suggests that we should be fostering more chefs rather than just cooks.
Conversely, maybe your child is personifying their Beyblade to possess super-worldly powers and creating all types of iterations of how their Beyblade can battle and try to defeat the arch nemeses in the environments in which they have created. They may even go as far to write or illustrate stories based on their passions such as these.
In the learning spaces that I advise in, students engage in personal projects that are largely varied. Some are collaborative, others deeply personal and individualistic in nature. Some students are designing their own shoes, whilst others are creating their own music, drawing their own animations, publishing their own stories, or creating their own video games. All of these projects include passion and playing around with ideas through iterations and/or tinkering. These 4Ps (projects, passion, peers and play), are the key concoction to creating cultures of creativity, according to Resnick. He elucidates what successful implementation of the 4Ps could look like and more in chapter- by-chapter detail in his amazing book, Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers and Play (2017).
In my childhood examples above, some of my creative explorations included experiences both in real and digital worlds. Balance in these worlds, when exploring creativity, is a crucial point worth stressing here. Exploration that should be disproportionate in real world experiences, but not so extreme as to exclude digital spaces. As an educator and parent, it is disconcerting when you see children suffering from digital device addiction. Usually causes for this is the result of absent parenting, poor modelling, and/or no education towards media balance. When in doubt as to what constitutes a healthy media diet, Common Sense Media can be a great resource for education on the topic and much more.
I argue for a disproportionate balance in real world experiences because one thing that is front and center on my mind as a parent and educator, is what little amount of time children get to engage in unstructured play. Ideally, the type of play that is outdoors and without digital devices. In my opinion, the reasons for this deficit are varied, but for many, it boils down to unsafe neighborhoods, too much rigor in after-school lessons, or not valuing the importance of play altogether.
There are digital sandboxes, too...
Not all digital spaces are evil. With media balance, these spaces can provide settings for humans to explore, engage and entertain their creativity. In addition, digital spaces can also foster some of the same skills we try to instill in the real world, such as collaboration, communication and critical thinking (i.e. The P21's 4Cs of 21st century learning).
Two digital spaces that serve as excellent examples fostering the 4Cs, as well as Resnick's 4Ps, are Minecraft and Scratch. In fact, Minecraft is often termed as a "sandbox" game, included in this genre for the limitless possibilities in which a user can engage with the environment.
In Minecraft, players collaborate and communicate with one another (if they so choose) to "mine" resources and "craft" items in order to build digital worlds in LEGO style fashion. The worlds are byproducts of the crafter's creativity, since worlds in Minecraft are typically, but not limited to, geographical blank slates such as grasslands or deserts. With a careful balance of structure and agency (i.e. voice, choice and ownership) the possibilities to use Minecraft as a tool to make thinking visual are endless.
Below are two Minecraft examples that my students have created to make their thinking visible. These projects were created through inquiries under the PYP transdisciplinary themes of "How we express ourselves" and "How the world works", respectively (click on images to play video):
Meanwhile, in Scratch, another digital space that cultures creativity, players can create their own stories, games and more by learning to code "sprites" using Blockly (a visual, "drag and drop", style of computer code making programming accessible to all). Users tend to independently make their own projects, yet collaboration is fostered through Scratch's supportive "remix" culture. Users in Scratch can decide to either make their own creations and post to the share space for others to remix, or they can decide to keep their creations private. Alternatively, users can choose to build upon or remix other people's creations. By doing so, they learn to expand on the ideas of others, but also learn the importance of crediting others for their work when they re-post to the community. The creative spiral, or design thinking approach, continues as Scratch projects have limitless potential to be remixed by the community.
Scratch, besides being an excellent platform for expressing creativity, teaches computational thinking (another important 21st century skill), along with the important lessons that "sharing is caring" (in this case through open-sourcing one's code) and that all creatures on this planet learn through copying or modelling from the more experienced.
A future in fostering creativity
In sum, creativity, is without a doubt, a timeless important skill to nurture. When creating experiences for those under our care, whether as educators or parents/guardians, consider whether or not the experience, as Resnick posits in Lifelong Kindergarten, is that of a playground (i.e. sandbox) or a playpen. As an analogy, playgrounds are to Juliani's metaphor of creative chefs as playpens are to cooks who merely follow the creative playbook of others.
Perhaps some guiding questions to ponder when trying to foster creativity in your context:
After a sandbox (or playground) for creativity is established, remember to carefully consider the balance of creative experiences between the real and digital world. In other words, be sure to not only educate, but model ourselves, as to what media balance looks like.
Yes, creativity is undoubtedly a skill that can bring us much joy. However, skills of equal, if not more importance, are the ability to empathize with others and build strong face-to-face social connections. According to this longest study on the subject, these are things that will equate to a good life full of happiness.
To end this post on creativity, I'll leave you with one of my favourite quotes from Resnick's Lifelong Kindergarten...
"Creative thinking has always been, and always will be, a central part of what makes life worth living. Life as a creative thinker can bring not only economic rewards, but also joy, fulfillment, purpose and meaning. Children deserve nothing less."
What are your thoughts on creativity? What skills do you feel are also important to nurture in the AI era? Do you have any thoughts towards media balance? I'd love to hear your perspective in the comments below!
Teach via a blended learning model? Do you have iPads and are looking for alternative ways to get your students to reflect beyond text, simple video or voice recording?
Fortunately, there are a plethora of free tools and applications out there to give students more choice in making their voices and ideas heard. To simplify, start with three options native to this device (and a win for frugality): #ClassroomClips, screen recording and the drawing feature in the Pages or Keynote.
Stay tuned for more in this series...
How about you? What are your favorite quick and easy tools and/or applications for students to document their learning? Share them below!
PYP educator | Father | Husband | Life-long learner | Nature lover | Technology enthusiast | Sports hobbyist