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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After a shocking experience last year, which I reflected upon in the post, Student Survey analysis 2016, I began this school year with a plan in place to foster kindness and respect in my class.
Despite being a generally well-behaved cohort, this class is extremely critical of themselves. Rather than treating it as a problem to solved, I prefer to approach it as an opportunity for growth.
Observing the language that my students use with each other, I believe that they are simply too… familiar with each other. Rather than seeing each other as peers, perhaps they feel like siblings and don’t have formal relationships. If they become more aware of each other as individuals, it should be possible to cultivate a more formal classroom culture without losing too much of their sense of intimacy with each other.
Self and peer assessment
Since September, I asked students to complete a daily online IB Learner Profile reflection. To view and complete a copy of the form, click this link: IB Learner Profile reflection 2017-18 copy. The primary purpose of the task is to encourage them to think about how their actions lead to growth and improve our community.
Another reflection form that we starting using later in the school year is a PYP Attitude Certificate nomination form. While the purpose of the Learner Profile reflection is introspective, the Attitude form allows students to nominate each other to receive certificates for demonstrating attitudes such as Commitment, Creativity, and Enthusiasm.
These, and other important forms and information, are organized and embedded on our classroom Moodle page. Many of the students have developed a daily habit of checking that page for their homework assignments, previewing announcements for the next day, and completing their reflections and attitude nominations.
In the Spring, after thousands of self-assessments and peer nominations, my class’ opinion of their behaviors have improved.
Strangely, these results reveal an unrelated problem. Only 44% of my students completed the first student survey, administered by the school technology department. That improved to 60% on the follow up survey. As the year has progressed, they have been challenged to consistently complete even the simplest online task. Roughly a third of the class has effective online work habits, a third is irregular, and a third need constant reminders and prodding. Early in the school year, I even needed to make part of our routine to call individual students to a computer to supervise them completing long overdue self assessments or essential surveys.
After last year’s disappointing result (56% usually, 36% sometimes) regarding students being allowed to demonstrate understanding in various ways, I started this year with a focus on improved planning of assessments. Expanded opportunities for choice, along with more explicit explanations of the range of choices available, has had the desired effect of increasing the students’ creativity and sense of ownership of their learning.
As a teacher who views unit and lesson planning as Learning Experience Design, student agency – voice and choice – are always at the center of planning. For that reason, this is a particularly satisfying student survey result.
At KIST, students complete two important diagnostic assessments at the beginning of the school year. One is academic from the United Kingdom Standards and Testing Agency. The other is a Student Survey which allows the learning community to evaluate our classroom environment.
On the academic tests, only 12% of my class achieved ‘just below expectations’ and only 8% were in reading and math. That result indicated to me that academics were an area of strength and that interventions would be needed on a limited and individual basis. With differentiation strategies in place, a classroom culture that would cultivate peer support and collaboration would be helpful to increase the depth and quality of learning.
Turning attention toward the student survey, I identified two major areas of concern that could potentially derail academic progress and achievement.
This post will focus on an action plan to improve classroom climate and morale with the goal of increasing academic achievement through increased enthusiasm and positive engagement.
As detailed in the post, Elementary mindfulness, daily meditation is one strategy that could contribute to a more reflective classroom climate. However, such negative survey results showed a need for a targeted intervention with the goal of helping students to be more Reflective.
Another important opportunity for reflection is our weekly Community Circle. To help my class understand the importance of reflecting together, we elevated Community Circle to a top priority. On top of never cancelling or shortening our sessions, I devised an evaluation system by which active participation results in a ‘meeting expectations’ grade in Listening and Speaking. Knowing that their contributions as members of a community was being monitored, students practiced more intent listening and thoughtful speaking.
I set a goal to award at least one IB Learner Profile Award or PYP Attitude Certificate to each student as quickly as their actions and choices would allow. The result was over 100 being awarded and received, and every student received at least one. To provoke parent encouragement, every award was accompanied by an email to the student’s parents with a photo of them receiving it and a description of how it was earned.
The importance of being reflective
The most precise tool in this plan was to create an opportunity for students to reflect on the way the listen and speak to each other. After collaborating with my grade level team about the questions, the result was a G4B Daily kindness and respect reflection form. Completing the form was assigned as home learning every school day for three months. My assumption was that over time, regular reflection would increase students’ mindfulness to help them to improve their communication and interpersonal interactions.
The form was submitted over 800 times and the results were a satisfactory upward trend. A short term intervention might produce more dramatic results, but would not necessarily produce a lasting outcome. These data demonstrate collective and gradual improvement. It also shows that students were generally more critical of themselves than the class as a whole, and that they each improved in relation to their peers.
The most encouraging results were in the domain of listening. The class showed greatest improvement in listening actively and intently, two skills with a clearly causal connection to academic achievement.
High risk cases
Using the academic diagnostic assessment results to identify ‘high risk’ students, I made a point of checking their reflections occasionally and conferencing with them to increase awareness of their own behavior.
The first case is a student who is well known for having attention challenges as well as socially awkward patterns of behavior, as well as ‘just below expectations’ results on at least one diagnostic assessment.
Interestingly, the results clearly converge, indicating that this student believes that their behavior has improved to more closely match their perception of the class. I have observed this to be true anecdotally, as well, as students in the class have taken responsibility for helping this student to interact more productively and follow directions more consistently.
Another ‘at risk’ student took a very different journey. This may be the only example of a student rating the class lower than themself at the beginning of the survey.
There are students who could reasonably evaluate their own behavior as being better than the class as a whole. Unfortunately, this student is not one of them. We discussed his reflections in detail and there were many instances when I pointed out when choices, ranging from playing with a pencil case to shouting over group members during discussions, were examples of poor listening. The result seems to be increased awareness of their own actions, resulting in a dramatic drop in scores, followed by improvements illustrated by increases in some areas.
Another student who is not achieving academically has also had several issues outside of class related to inappropriate use of language. This is another case in which these reflections may have served as a ‘reality check’.
What is most interesting about this case for me is in which areas this student felt they were doing well and comparing that to their evaluation of the class. At first, two speaking categories were higher than the class, yet the scores converge at the end while the remaining areas dropped.
Are results like these desirable? If the goal is increased awareness, and there is a clear problem, then reflections that become gradually more negative could show increased awareness or acceptance of the problem.
Some students were not ‘at risk’ based on their diagnostic assessments, but warrant special attention for other reasons. The next student is well known, if not notorious, for being at the center of most episodes of misbehavior and interpersonal drama in our class.
Interestingly, they seem to accurately assess that their behavior is less kind and respectful than the class as a group. Yet, I am struck by the ambiguity of the self reflections. There doesn’t appear to be any strong trend and the averages of the scores simply converge at 3.5 at the end. This is a case that raises more questions than answers, the most important being whether the student is very aware of their choices, but simply failed to make or observe any progress. It’s also possible that these results could indicate a deep lack of mindfulness about the student’s own actions and interactions with others.
It is possible that a differently designed reflection tool could reveal more insights into this case.
The following graphs are included simply because the look fascinating. The first shows a strange consistency, yet also a clear trend of improvement.
Next, here’s another example of consistency based on category and gradual progress.
At the end of the three months, I asked the students to answer the original questions of concern: ‘Students are respectful to each other in my class.’ and ‘Students’ behave appropriately in my class.’ This survey was random, like the initial one.
The results are improved, but much more dramatically than I expected.
There has been a fundamental shift in behavior and the perception of behavior in my class since the beginning of the school year. While it is impossible to attribute the change to any one variable, it is safe to say that all efforts to increase kindness and respect had a cumulative effect.
Action is the one component of the IB Primary Years Program that is expressly difficult to implement and document. When I started at KIST, there was an opening as the Elementary Student Representative Council facilitator. Although I was reluctant to take on extra roles in my first year at a new school, my background in service learning motivated me to volunteer.
Since then, I have slowly transformed the culture of the ESRC into an authentic service learning experience.
One of the initial changes was to change members every quarter. This was done in order to provide opportunities for four times as many students per year to participate. I view each quarter as an iteration of the design thinking process, or more specifically, service design.
Service design process
1 Communicate with peers
2 Seek & identify service goal
3 Make action plan
4 Assign duties
5 Implement plan
6 Reflect on outcomes
The process begins by raising questions and surveying the elementary student population about their views on how the school might be improved. ESRC members speak with their own classes, and older representatives visit younger classes. Their suggestions and concerns are discussed in a subsequent meeting to identify a service goal.
In addition to speaking with their classes, each iteration of the ESRC conducts at least one meeting with the Elementary School Principal. The format and purpose of these meetings will continue to evolve, but their efficacy in promoting confidence and sense of purpose is invaluable.
Details of all meeting notes are kept in an Excel workbook with a new sheet added every quarter.
In the article Community Service Ideas for Youth: Why Giving Back Matters by Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, the focus for elementary students is on learning to be responsible. However, the ESRC at KIST is voluntary and the expectation of responsibility is made clear to prospective members before they join. Our focus is on growing as Communicators.
Members use a private email group to communicate with each other and a public (within the school) group to stay in touch online. I found that the emphasis on communication whether through meetings, speaking to large groups, and creating posters and other visual media, shifts the students’ attention from ‘learning to be responsible’ to needing to be responsible to take and illicit Action.
Our successes have included helping a Grade 2 student to persuade the school administration to install a Friendship Bench and sponsoring a Pink Shirt Day.
This year, my Student Survey results held few surprises (link to view last year’s Student survey analysis). Items directly related to me, such as ‘My teacher cares about me’, were positive. Generally, 70-80% of students answered ‘usually’ with very few, most often only one student, answering ‘no’.
Listening to students
One surprise was the response to the statement, ‘My teacher listens to me.’, to which 48% of my students think I only ‘sometimes’ listen to them. Slightly baffled, I reflected on my practice and identified a few of my behaviors that could lead to this result.
First, as a rule, I ignore students when they suddenly shout across the classroom, begin asking a question without saying ‘excuse me’ or otherwise catching my attention, and especially interrupt other students. I can easily understand how a child could perceive that I am not listening to them because in some cases, I intentionally don’t listen in order to cultivate a culture in the classroom of politeness.
Of students who responded ‘sometimes’ or ‘no’, their overall average response was only 69% positive, meaning that those who responded negatively to this item were also negative to most of the other items. Of those who don’t feel that I ‘usually’ listen to them, 69% also don’t feel free to ask and answer questions, a tenuous correlation.
As a simple action plan, I would follow the steps below.
1 Observe if and when I don’t listen to students.
2 Make more explicit that I sometimes ignore students speaking to me if they are acting disrespectfully or impolitely.
3 Reinforce our classroom essential agreement – which was composed, synthesized, and signed by all of the students – about being Open-minded Communicators.
We are Open-Minded Communicators.
We have a right to share our opinions and feelings.
We have a responsibility to show respect by listening and practicing empathy.
I would also note that of all of the classes I have taught in nine years, this is by far the most needy. During any written assessment, there is a constant queue at my desk and barrages of hands in the air asking for help. My email box is also consistently populated by emails from students asking to send PDFs of lost homework and other requests for favors which I politely decline. It is possible that their concept of the role of a teacher is significantly different than mine.
Choice and agency
A difference in expectations might illuminate another perplexing survey item result to the statement, ‘My teacher allows me to demonstrate my understanding in various ways.’
For their first unit Summative Assessment Task, students had the instruction to ‘Present your research findings in an appropriate medium of your choice (written report, video, poster, dance, cooking, etc).’
Almost everyone in the class chose to do an oral presentation with a poster or PowerPoint for visual support. The remaining two students submitted written reports. Although this may only be a case of carefully reading and following instructions, I feel justified in being somewhat annoyed.
Respect and classroom behavior
I was shocked to discover their responses to the statement, ‘Students are respectful to each other in my class.’
Only two students think that their peers ‘usually’ treat each other with respect, and almost a quarter feel that their class is always disrespectful. The same holds true for their perceptions of classroom behavior.
When I asked if anyone wanted to learn in a class like the one shown above, no one responded.
I have discussed these results with my grade level team, administration, and the precious grade teachers. All assured me that the students’ feelings about their community are absolutely about complex social dynamics. In brief, this class has too many ‘alphas’ and not enough empathy. This is a case study to test my ability to cultivate social and emotional intelligence. And a fair and timely challenge it is.
A future post will detail the reflection and data informed action plan I have set into motion to help this learning community to become more Caring.
I would certainly appreciate anecdotes and suggestions that might more brightly illuminate a path forward.
The challenge of teaching young writers without limiting or stifling their Voice and creative enthusiasm is a monumental task. Designing engaging writing activities which integrate multiple modes of learning is another. Fortunately, the two tasks are complementary and any effort spent solving one problem helps with the other.
As my fourth graders spent the first six weeks of the school year exploring the 6+1 Traits of Writing, one engagement worked particularly well for the students learning about Organization.
In collaboration with my grade 4 teaching partner, we selected a few texts organized in well structured paragraphs. Then, each text was separated so that the paragraphs could be rearranged. Students worked in small groups to organize the texts in the way the made sense to them. Then, groups were reorganized so that each could discuss their reasons for organizing the texts in the ways that they had.
The result was an authentic yet structured opportunity to practice text organization without criticizing student writing, which I am extremely reluctant to do with such young writers. Social and kinesthetic learning modalities made the experience engaging and fun. It was also an efficient use of time asthe design of the activity itself was quite self explanatory.
One admirable feature of professional development at KIST is the annual Impact on Learning study. Teachers design a data driven experiment based on a pedagogical approach or strategy and then analyze the data to reflect on the efficacy of that aspect of their teaching.
To start, I formulated a question and answer dialogue:
On which group of students do I want to have the greatest impact?
All of them. Inclusive practices and thoughtfully designed learning experiences which emphasize student choice and voice should provide opportunities for all students to excel.
Which group of students are most difficult to reach with inclusive practices and learning experiences that emphasize student choice and voice?
Students who are reluctant to share their ideas in class or participate actively in learning engagements are the most difficult to reach.
Why don’t those students participate?
The reasons they don’t participate are as diverse as the people themselves. However, if they don’t participate now, they likely didn’t before either. If not, then their opportunities for practice have been limited, possibly severely.
Often, students (and people in general) with little experience speaking in a group feel shamed by their lack of fluency. Lack of confidence leads them to withdraw more, causing them to practice even less.
Being fairly introverted myself, I sympathize with many people’s preference to remain in the shadows of a crowd, but nine year old introverts, preferences aside, need to practice public speaking in a safe environment.
Being introverted doesn’t make you averse to collaboration. Everyone should practice social skills. https://t.co/P87RzlBL68
What I needed was a strategy to encourage the students to grow as courageous Communicators by sharing their ideas with the whole class.
My methodology for gathering data is simple. At various times in class, I propose an open ended question. For example, I might ask for interpretations of an idiom, impressions of an image, or opinions about a famous quote. That there are no correct or incorrect answers is made clear to students, as is the fact that ‘I don’t know’ is an acceptable response. Students may also ‘pass’. Sometimes the provocations are directly connected to our unit of inquiry, sometimes not.
Using a deck of laminated cards with the students’ names written on them, I ensure that every student has an equal opportunity to speak. My response to every contribution is ‘thank you’, and I very rarely paraphrase or ask clarifying questions in this context. To students who ‘pass’, I simply respond with ‘OK’.
Cards are separated into two categories and then data entered into a spreadsheet about who contributed an answer and who did not.
The raw data is relatively easy to process to produce interesting graphs.
Some students always talk and some never talk by default. Filtering out those students makes the graph more readable, but still not very revealing.
Referring to diagnostic assessment data in Reading from the beginning of the school year, I included only students who score ‘just below expectations’ or ‘below expectations’.
Next, filtered for students who scored ‘Just below expectations’ or ‘Below expectations’ on Aug diagnostic assessment in Writing.
Again, this graph doesn’t instantly reveal anything other than a general upward trend in participation.
Next, I wanted to explore a possible correlation between this exercise and improvement. The next graph is students with more than 10% improvement on ongoing informal and formal assessments in Reading from Q1 to Q3.
Next, students with more than 10% improvement on ongoing assessments in Writing from Q1 to Q3.
This is the first graph which indicates a clear correlation. With only two exceptions, students whose writing has improved are also increasing their participation.
Since the objective is to improve language skills, I tried including only students who consistently achieve below 80% on ongoing assessment in English language.
Compare to consistently strong achievers in language.
Interesting that consistently higher performers seem to have random participation while consistently lower performers are participating progressively more and more.
If only for the purpose of having more data visualization, members of most advanced guided reading group.
And the least advanced guided reading group.
It’s exciting to see that this activity is impacting the exact group of students it was designed to benefit.
When the class completes its end of year diagnostic assessment in Language, I expect to see similar improvements among students who have gained confidence as communicators through this simple activity.
Finally, here is the whole class average.
Rather than analyzing individual students, this graph reveals something I hadn’t expected. If I compare the number of opportunities to speak with the average rate of participation, there is stark correlation.
Number of data points (% participation):
October 4 in one week (61%)
November 16 (61%)
December 3 (41%)
January 7 (60%)
February 7 (74%)
March 7 (71%)
It would seem that the more we do this activity, the more participation there is. Thinking of the student trying to build confidence, it makes perfect sense. If one hesitates, one loses an opportunity. However, missing a chance might be just the motivation one needs to seize the next one. If that next opportunity comes sooner than later, one is more likely to take it.
And so, the data comes full circle from thinking of individual students, back to individual students.
Peter Gow’s post, The Data Challenge for Schools – What Problem Are You Trying to Solve?, reminds me that the importance of data is not about averages, it’s about outliers. The greatest impact can often be made where there are cracks or gaps in the data. What is important is being intentional when gathering data so that when it is organized and interpreted, it answers the initial question.
It’s also important to remember that while ‘data’ and ‘gut’ are not the same, as Doug Johnson notes in his post, Data or gut?, through investment in time and training, it is possible to align the gut more precisely through data.
A child in my class forgot their pencil. I was informed of this only because of the nature of the solution to the problem: Fashion a makeshift fountain pen out of a disposable chopstick, tissue paper, and marker ink.
A written math assessment was perfectly legibly completed with this implement.
I’m sure many teachers would have simply demanded that it be cleaned up and provide the child with a pencil. It’s clearly a giant mess hanging from a wobbly precipice and not a remarkably responsible way to accept one’s mistake.
However, my respect for creativity, ingenuity, and other Maker values endowed me with the patience to request clean up after the quiz was finished. I think that the leeway the student was allowed not only helped them to feel empowered, but also encouraged voluntary cooperation with more orthodox classroom procedures.
In our first unit of the school year in Grade 4B at KIST, the Summative Assessment Task was to prepare a proposal for an exploratory expedition.
One of my favorite informal formative assessments is to empower students to collaborate to create the success criteria for each of the rubric categories. I simply distribute blank rubrics and provide time for them to discuss and fill in the charts to continue a practice that I introduced in the post Student-created rubrics and have found to be effective in many ways.
As they deliberate, I circulate throughout the room listening for opportunities to clarify or guide discussions to higher orders of thinking. By nature, this activity practices Evaluation, but students’ discussions do not always reach that goal without help.
By engaging with the language of the unit, especially the Key Concepts, the students complete a formative self assessment of their understanding, even if they are not fully aware of what they are doing.
Finally, on a version projected at the front of the room, we negotiate and build the final draft using the work students have already completed in their groups.
An added bonus is that my evaluations according to the rubric are, and more importantly are perceived to be exceptionally fair. Because they are intimately familiar with the language in the rubric, my feedback is understandable and meaningful.