Agency and Independent inquiry

When reports of the Enhanced PYP began surfacing on the International Baccalaureate Twitter feed, I was elated to see that Agency has been placed boldly at the center of the new model:
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To me, the philosophical implication for this change is that the primary function and goal of education is to build capacity for action. Within the context of the IB, the Learner Profile describes the attributes within which that capacity can increase. For example, a learner may increase agency in the context of historical understanding by becoming more Knowledgeable about history, or increase agency for conflict resolution by taking Principled and Courageous action.
This is more than transformational: It’s revolutionary.

Past & present

Anyone familiar with the industrial model of education (pretty much everyone) should be skeptical about our capacity for this reform. This 180° turn way from standards- and competency-based pedagogy has a few precedents, and I am curious to learn more about classrooms and schools where independence and agency have been assigned top priority.

One school system who fits this paradigm and whose progress I have enjoyed following is High Tech High. Most of what they have shared is related to older students, so I’m curious to see more about their elementary programs.

Agency as the aim of teaching has been gaining momentum since John Dewey at the latest, and can arguably be traced back at least as far as Socrates. Luckily, my teaching experiences have tended to be less traditional and more progressively minded, and the article, How a Focus on Independent Learning Transformed My Most At-Risk Students, certainly reflects my ideas about the importance of independence in learning.

Independent inquiry

One of my approaches to cultivating agency is Independent Inquiry. Since I started the project six years ago, the mission of this project has been to:

Unify learning at school, learning at home, and learning anywhere, anytime.
Empower learners to engage in and reflect on their own inquiry processes.
Encourage interest- and passion-driven learning.
Integrate peers, parents, communities, and global networks into the inquiry process.

While success has varied from year to year, cohort to cohort, I can comfortably claim that the process we use – an online reflection form and weekly meeting in class – helps agency to flourish.

Call to action

Once again, another gem appeared on the IB PYP Twitter feed. The quote below is a perfect call to action for teachers who are serious about promoting Agency – voice, choice, and ownership.

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Making physics physical

One of my favorite units of inquiry in Grade 4 at KIST, in the theme of ‘How the world works’, is titled Force & Motion, and focuses on Newton’s Laws of Motion. The unit resources when I arrived at the school included a few useful tools for demonstrations, but lacked class sets of items and structured experiences that students could use to explore and discuss.

Media

One resource we do have is access to excellent videos and online games. Some of our favorites are published by NASA and other space agencies, like Launchpad: Newton’s Laws On-Board the International Space Station (video), and the Physics Games website.

Twitter once again proved its worth as a tool for learning in the quoted tweet above, a live video of an astronaut playing with and observing a fidget spinner in microgravity. All of the media we have collected are engaging, but can’t compete with a fidget spinner for the attention of nine year olds.

Design & technology challenge

Each year, we have added materials and experiences to make the unit more visceral and fun. To kick off the unit, we introduced an initial provocation in the form of a G4 Water Balloon Drop Challenge. Using the rules outlined in the flyer, students research, design, and build their apparatuses independently outside of class. When we gather on the appointed day, I load each with a water balloon and drop them from the second floor balcony. Those that successfully protect the balloon are taken to the third floor and dropped again. The proud few that survive that are finally dropped from the fourth floor.

We often have visiting administrators and younger classes in the audience, so the event has become a well anticipated and exciting way to get our students thinking about forces and motion.

Get physical

Next, we collaborated with our Physical Education teacher to organize a tug-of-war tournament. Between each round of competition, each team reflected on one of Newton’s Laws of Motion to try to improve their performance.

My hope is that whenever these children think about physics or Newton, they will remember this event. Additionally, by systematically reviewing each of the laws during the tournament, there is definitely higher retention of the vocabulary of Newton’s Laws.

Hands-on exploration

This year, our new addition was a set of Newton’s Cradles. With enough for a pair of students to share one, I wrote a series of questions to add some guidance to their explorations, for example, ‘What happens when you raise and release one of the hanging balls?’.

While it is possible to demonstrate a Newton’s Cradle at the front of the classroom, and that would be better than watching a video, having one that every student could touch, see, and hear, up close, instantly transforms the lesson from passive to active.

Making catapults

Finally, as the culminating Summative Assessment Task for the unit, we ordered 1cm x 1cm x 90cm lengths of wood, nails, hammers, hacksaws, and safety goggles for the purpose of building catapults. The objectives were to expose the students to basic design and construction principles, explore Newton’s Laws of Motion in a practical way, then hold a grand catapult tournament on the main field in the center of the school.

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Having facilitated a Maker Club in the past, I was aware of the need to emphasize safety early on, but also to trust the students to look after their own well being. I find it’s best if my role is mainly to watch out for unsafe practices and intervene as quickly as possible. Fortunately, it happens rarely, leaving a high degree of autonomy for students and plenty of time for me to interact and promote collaboration among the groups.

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Children constantly impress me with their ability to creatively solve problems when they are trusted with the tools and freedom to do so.

There were many expected and unexpected benefits of this engagement. The expected ones were quite predictable, but unexpectedly, some of my less precocious students absolutely sprung to life. Some students who tend to be distracted in typical class activities, or struggle with academic work, were impressively inspired by the task of building a catapult. This phenomenon has caused me to think that the way we tend to use class time is unbalanced.

Reflection

Observing the excited energy and positive experiences of my students interacting with concepts and vocabulary of physics has pushed my pedagogical thinking even further in the direction of Constructionism. The idea that a learner figuratively builds understanding by literally building a physical – or virtual – object gains traction for me every time I see it in action.

In terms of assessment for the catapult challenge, I think it’s appropriate to use the method I employed for our Model UN scrimmage: Every student begins with a baseline ‘proficient’ score. In this case, we start with 90%. Then, as the activity progresses, teachers use structured observation to modify students’ scores on targeted skills. For this activity, we were looking for evidence of Spatial Awareness, Cooperation, and Independence.

And as always, the students complete a comprehensive self-assessment of all elements of task and unit.

Experiences like these remind me that school should be a lot more time spent doing tasks like these, and a lot less about rigid standards within a few disciplines.

Creative negotiated rubrics

The role of rubrics in teaching is not up for debate. Complex tasks need to be analyzed by categories and clear criteria. However, I have found that they sometimes become little more than checklist of instructions on how to complete a task rather than tools for understanding, reflection, and assessment.

My solution is to use blank rubrics. You might think that a blank rubric isn’t a rubric at all, and you would be correct if the purpose of the rubric were only to evaluate a learning artifact. If the rubric itself is a learning tool, then a blank rubric is a rich opportunity for discussion and critical evaluation.

Peer assessment with negotiated rubric criteria
Summative assessment tasks, in particular, benefit from this type of rubric. The categories have been in focus throughout the unit, and have usually been assessed in a more prescribed manner in a previous task. As a summative assessment task should be an opportunity for students to exercise choice and creativity in how they present their understanding, it would be impractical to create specific criteria that could apply to any artifact.

Assessment as learning

Students work in groups to experience a peer’s presentation of their learning and discuss the success of the artifact according to each category. They agree on a score and write in the appropriate boxes the specific elements that support their evaluation.
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The assessments are completed in groups of three or four, so every presenter receives at least six separate rubrics which have been completed in this manner. The results are always honest and accurate, especially when averaged and analyzed in detail.
When assessments seem mistaken or vary notably from the norm, a problem that often occurs when a group hasn’t focused or applied enough thought to their findings, a teachable moment to review the categories and criteria arises.
I have observed that students enhance their conceptual understandings of a unit immensely through this process of peer assessment with creative negotiated rubrics.

Expert in the classroom, virtually

By definition, a generalist teacher is not an expert in any particular discipline. Fortunately, most of us are, and enrich our classrooms with our interests and passions. Unfortunately, the scope of a school year of inquiry stretches far beyond any one teacher’s expertise.

Excursions and guest speakers can make up the difference, and video communications technology makes it possible to bring experts into the classroom from anywhere.

Near the conclusion of a recent unit which focused significantly on advertising, it occurred to me that one of my friends, Adam Lisagor, is the founder and owner of Sandwich Video, one of today’s premier creative advertising organizations. It only took a few text messages and time zone conversions to have him on the big screen in the classroom.

 

To prepare students for the interview, we first viewed several of Adam’s videos, then set a home learning task to explore more. Then, I asked them to submit questions via an online form so that I could sort and select in a way that promoted a conversational mood. As questions were chosen, students approached the camera one at a time to speak with Adam. Not surprisingly, their questions were insightful and elicited excellent comments on persuasion, honesty, and creativity.

In addition to an excursion, I would attempt to schedule a guest speaker, either in person or more likely via video, for every unit of inquiry.

Making the arts make a difference

In lieu of a faculty meeting today, my Principal has blessed us with a learning opportunity to read and reflect on The Arts Make A Difference by Nick Rabkin and Robin Redmond.

Being significantly behind on my professional blogging, this is also an ideal opportunity to reestablish that invaluable habit.

One observation that I have made about my students is that, like the students in Nick Jaffe’s music engineering classes, ‘“They have a shocking ability to work effectively and listen well amid the cacophony in this open room,”’. Perhaps one consideration we should have is that deep learning is messy and noisy. If we insist on neat, orderly, quiet classrooms, we will have neat, orderly, quiet learning.

I want learning to be loud.

The most important theme of this article is that arts integration shouldn’t necessarily mean the integration of Arts content into or connected to Language and Mathematics. They should be equally balanced, with emphasis being placed on the authentic arts processes and products, supported by language and math skills.

What is needed is for teachers to collaborate to understand the ‘parallel processes in an art form or arts-related activity and a more traditionally academic activity’.

In a truly Constructivist environment, the content is created by the learners with the teachers serving as facilitators, organizers, documentarians, and coaches. Learning expressed through art values the learners’ experiences, values, and emotions. But for curriculum to be arts driven, we must find ways to use content and skills instruction to support learning in a coherent manner. This provokes me to revisit my introduction to the IB Primary Years Program and the document, Toward a Coherent Curriculum by James Beane.

The transdisciplinary nature of the PYP and the ‘socially constructed and largely artificial’ boundaries of school are incompatible.

If we instead think of the learner at the center (rather than content), it is intuitive to imagine that each teacher can have a role, based on their expertise, to uniquely support and inform learning.

Coherence will come from those teachers acting as a collaborative team rather than a group of cooperating individuals isolated within their own disciplines. They should understand how each others’ approaches complement each other from the learners’ perspective and how they can improve their coordination through communication.

To quickly begin to address this need in our school, I recommend that each integrated unit of inquiry be planned on one document and that specialist teachers be responsible for ‘leading’ the planning to identify and define the language and mathematics content and skills that would best support the students’ learning processes and products.

Wonderful example of action: Band promotion

Returning from a staff meeting which included discussion of our upcoming Year End Show, I found this charming handmade envelope on my desk.


Who is ‘lucky 5’? My first guess was that it was a group of second graders who had invited me to listen to their band in the Performing Arts studio. I enjoyed their music and suggested that they might perform a number on stage at the show. As the school’s Performing Arts Coordinator and producer of shows, it would be easy for me to find a place for them in the program. All they needed was a name…


I’m looking!



And there it is: The power of asking. The power of action. On my class action board, this belong in the category of ‘Conversing’.

However, it got better. They also included a beautiful promotional poster! Well that sealed the deal.


One can only imagine the inspired and authentic collaboration that went into this. It is packed with language, visual arts, and design applications. It is also an ideal artifact of social and emotional learning.

Needless to say, Lucky 5 will perform their single, Bye Bye, at our Year End Show.

Creativity = Motivation + Discipline

All I need to write by Grant Snider


This post started as a quick reflection on my personal journal on Tumblr and why I haven’t felt like posting lately.


But the more thought and consideration I put into it, the more it seemed appropriate to write a more formal article to reflect on and share my creative process. I have always been frustrated with my creative output, and a self study was long overdue.

To begin my analysis, I reflected on my feelings. Sometimes I feel creative. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I feel motivated. Sometimes I don’t. I sketched a graph to represent these poles.



Next, I considered which activities seemed to align with different conditions. When I feel highly creative and highly motivated, it’s difficult to stop myself from creative work. However, when I feel neither creative nor motivated, even simple editing or organizing feels like a significant accomplishment.

But is my creativity at the mercy of my feelings? Do my moods really dictate my output?


That’s when I decided to get really geeky and gather some actual data by creating a Google Form for myself which I keep open in a tab on my smartphone web browser.




Over the past few weeks, I have diligently assessed my activities, resulting in some interesting data.


Mostly, I am curious to analyze these data to discover patterns. Do I follow my feelings logically? Do my activities influence my feelings? Am I wasting my most creative opportunities?

As this self assessment continues, I took some time to explore my creative history…


The muse is not a fairy

My first and most important lesson in creativity came from Jack Grapes, founder of the Los Angeles Poets & Writers Collective. In a writers’ workshop session, he described how it was a mistake to believe that creative inspiration is a phenomenon that ‘happens’ to us.

He instructed us to follow a creative routine: Write at a certain time each day. By doing this, we would train our minds to think during thinking time and write during writing time. Ignore spontaneous inspiration that leads to pulling over to the side of the road to jot down an idea you ‘don’t want to forget’. 


If the idea isn’t good enough to remember, it’s not good enough to drop everything to write down. Trust that the vast complexity of our brains will cooperate.


Connect socially

Jon Caliguiri, an old friend, also an alum of Jack’s writing courses, and long time creative collaborator responded to my post by sharing his Song of the Month Challenge:


‘I agree! Almost 3 years ago, a friend and I committed to writing and recording a song a month each.  We’ve been doing it consistently for that time and I haven’t missed a month aside from the “furlough” months we take off every year to reedit and tweak things.  It’s been the greatest experience and has helped my songwriting and recording immensely. It’s like a book club for rock and roll.’

Connecting with others in my creative work has always been a weak point for me. I don’t accept critique particularly well. I respond to critique terribly. I take great pride in my work, but ironically not enough to share with confidence. Often, my products are not shared until they are finished and my focus and energy have moved on to a new project. 

Perhaps the brilliance of Jon’s project is that it’s a concrete commitment, not a nebulous goal. What he’s making is not necessarily as important as his engagement in the process.


The product flows from the process, and the quality of the songs he has produced is clearly increasing as a result of his commitment.


Jon’s comments reminded me of a quote by Duke Ellington which I also referenced in the post, Exhibition: PBL To The Max!‘I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline.’


Discipline

Arguably, the most important element of creativity is discipline. While I was studying music at The New School, my piano teacher, LeeAnne Ledgerwood, shared an important video which I published and commented on in the post, Bill Evans – Creative Process and Self Teaching. In the video, Bill insists that honesty and commitment are crucial to building creative fluency. An analytical approach that systematically builds skills lays the foundation for creative expression.

The more I reflect, the more the solution is clear. I need to set aside a time to practice creativity. As a teacher, father, and husband, that time can only be five o’clock in the morning. This wouldn’t be the first time to follow such a masochistic schedule, as I described in the post No Sleep November, but the purpose is quite different, more personal, and permanent.

Can I drag myself out of bed that early every day? Or perhaps a better question is ‘how?’ Nobody else is going to do it for me. Optimistic, the short video by CHris Jimenez, provides a succinct guide that is helpful for me.

https://player.vimeo.com/video/80037988


Perhaps if I can focus on going to bed well, I’ll be on my way to meeting the first goal of waking up in a good mood.


There have been two great graphics on creative routines published recently: The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People and When Genius Slept, both based on Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. Another resource worth exploring further is This Emotional Life guide to Creativity by PBS.


These are all great for entertainment and even inspiration. They may even lead to increased motivation. But they won’t finish a novel or My String Quartet.


The only way to achieve those goals is through discipline to commit to a regular work time and to muster the courage to share my works in progress early and often.

It’s going to hurt, but it will be worth it. 
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