Unit Plans as Emergence

This is an article I wrote a while back, in part for my course work, in part to get an idea organized in my head.  Planning is tough for teachers.  How much do we plan up front?  How much do we let the students drive the inquiry?  How student centered is our class?  What Ed Said has recently done a wonderful post with these questions and more.  Who controls the learning?  Great questions that require thoughtful responses.

Here are my thoughtful responses to those questions.

Thanks to those who took the time to proofread and give feedback.  It is nice to have a group to share ideas with.

Unit Planning as Emergence




Instruction versus Discovery

Yesterday evening we had a staff discussion about how to teach writing.  Since we have a high ESL population, we spoke about various aspects of writing; organization, mechanics, etc.  We also talked about whole-class instruction versus personalized instruction.  As for me, I have all the students in class writing about similar topics, but each of us are working on different skills that are necessary for our own personal growth.  One could say that writing instruction in my class is completely personalized, and continuously happening on a daily basis through every subject.  I make sure that every kid knows exactly what our focus will be when we talk about writing; whether it be voice, mechanics, organization.  This got me thinking about a girl in my class, lets call her Oprah.

Oprah is passionate about writing.  From the beginning of the year, I could tell she loved to write.  English is her second language, so she needed a lot of work on the structure and mechanics of her writing.  Her stories also tended to wander around and lacked a clear, organized plot.  At the beginning of the year, I decided I would focus on that.  Making her writing more appealing and organized.  We have spend a lot of time communicating on Googledocs and in class, with me giving feedback and her editing.  She is a crazy editor, she loves it.  Over and over, she reads and edits, reads and edits.  She absorbs feedback like a sponge and tries very hard to put it into her writing.  She also argues and defends the choices she makes.

Over the course of the year her writing has blossomed.  Her ideas are more unique and original, her structure is well organized, her characters deeper, and her plots are more complex.  The big picture writing stuff has improved so much.  I try and tell her this once a week.

My original plan was this; this year we work on big picture stuff (Oprah will be in my class for two years) and next year we can focus on the grammar and mechanics.  After our staff meeting, I went back and looked at her writing from the beginning of the year and compared to the writing she is currently doing.  And you know what I found; her grammar has improved even more than her elements of story!  I hadn't even noticed it because I wasn't paying attention to it, but her odd structures and weird verbs have disappeared.  I didn't do anything to fix those mistakes.  Not a single grammar activity.  No verb conjugation charts.  Nothing.  Her and I spend our time working 100% on the elements of a good story.  This left me shocked and I thought about why.  Finally, it hit me.


She has been writing her heart out all year, and that extra practice has allowed her to correct things that we weren't looking for.  She taught herself.

So, now I wonder, what does this mean for my future writing instruction?


What if... (pt. 1)

**This is part 1 of a series of weekly questions that are meant to act as conversation starters, or thought experiments.  Discussion and debate are encouraged**


Complexity Science and Education

I am currently do an M.Ed in Education with the University of Calgary.  The focus of our studies is Mathematics for Teaching (what math does a teacher need to know in order to be an effective teacher?).  An overriding theme within the course however, is taking the ideas and principles of Complexity Science, Chaos Theory, and Emergence to a classroom and to education as a system.  The paper below is a culminating work for our course on the Knowing, Learning and Teaching.

I would love feedback or to have a discussion via Skype is anybody is interested.  Please contact me.  And please note, that these are just my personal metaphors for education, and reflect how I view the world, teaching, and schooling.  I am not suggesting this is the right way, but rather it is one of a multitude of possible ways.  I celebrate and encourage all styles and sets of metaphors.

It Makes Complete Sense to Us


Schedules that emerge and evolve

ASIDE: In this post, I am trying to hash out an idea in my head, and explain something that I do that is not exactly very easy to explain.  The explanation is rough, and it is a work in progress.  Please critique and ask any questions is something is not clear.  Like everything that I write, it is my own interpretation.  I am not saying it is the right way, merely it is my way.  I celebrate all ways and all styles of teaching, learning, and knowing.  END ASIDE.

School is loaded with schedules.  Scheduled classes, meetings, toilet breaks, eating times, break times, exercise time, etc etc etc etc.  Everything is scheduled down to the last minute.  Some might say it is organized.  I call it oppressive.  For me.  We are all different, and those differences should be celebrated in a school.  But, how can we celebrate and allow freedom to someone who sees a schedule as a constraint?  In a school!

I hate school schedules.  As soon as you say when something has to happen, you miss other possibilities of what might have happened.  And to me, the might have and other possibilities are what make life so interesting.  The best moments in the class (and in my life) and things that I could have never planned or scheduled in a million years.  Kath Murdoch spoke about this on Inquire Within.  So, how do we take this idea and create an environment where these unplanned and unscheduled moments are allowed to arise (or not)?

This is how I occasion emergence in the classroom.  Firstly, there is a lot of history and thought behind the term occasion emergence, which I will elaborate on in a later post.  For now, lets just say that you can't control an emergent phenomonom, but you can provide an atmosphere where it may arise.

Occasioning Emergence

The first thing I have done is to take the schedule down in the classroom.  Well, not completely.  I keep it up, but the only thing I write on it are the specialist classes where the kids aren't with me.  The rest of the spaces are filled with Smily Faces :)

[caption id="attachment_1022" align="aligncenter" width="320" caption="Yes, I have a blackboard and chalk in my class!"][/caption]

At any given time, the kids have no idea what subject we are going to study, and hopefully during the class they don't make distinctions between subjects and are thinking trans-disciplinary.  But, the teacher needs to know what we are working on, right?  Yes.  Well, kind of.  Not always.

I create a little chart of the materials I have prepared and the projects or lessons we need to work on or get to.  It is hard to explain what it looks like, because it is an absolute mess and makes sense only to me.  So I  have simplified it below:

[caption id="attachment_1023" align="aligncenter" width="368" caption="Work on the go or in the hole"][/caption]

From this, I know that these are the things I need to get to in the coming days.  Also, based on the size, I give them a ranking of importance (usually based on time constrictions from 3rd party schedules!).  In this diagram, the cultural research project is the most important thing we need to get to, and our short stories would be the least important.  With this information, I have a multitude of plans ready to go.  I am ready to go with the flow and see what unfolds.

First thing in the morning, or after recess or lunch, I sit down on the carpet with my kids and we have two minutes of quiet time (clear your mind and see how many channels of sound you can hear).  After that, we chat.  I ask them about recess.  I ask them about last nights homework.  I ask them what they had for lunch.  I start a conversation and then I get them talking to each other about the a topic.  Sometimes the topics are irrelevant and odd (if you had to switch feet with an animal, what animal would you chose?).  The point is not the conversation.  The point is to judge their current frame of mind and their mood.  What is the basic feeling in the room?  What emotions are they experiencing?  Where are their minds at in this particular place, time, and moment?

With that information, after I have judged the mood of the group, I choose what subject we will study.  This morning, the class was chatting about a video they watched on Youtube.  They were in a goofy, funny mood.  So, I chose to do our skit about Hyperbole and let them channel that humor into their work.   If they were feeling tired and quiet, I would have given the private time to work on their short stories.  If they were in curious mood, I would have allowed them to jump into their research project and start writing.  The point is, I have the options in front of me, and the flexibility to go in many different directions.  I am still attached to a schedule, but I am trying to break free of it as much as I can.  When I sit down in front of a class of kids with no plan, it is not that I don't have a plan, but rather I have 5-6 plans.  I just haven't chosen which one I am going to do yet.  Also, if something interesting or different arises, well, we go in that direction and I add a new layer to my graph with a new idea and project.

Most importantly, it is guided not by my mood as the teacher, but by the students moods as learners.  Is is perfect?  No.  Do I misread the class?  Yes.  Is everybody always feeling the same way?  Of course not.

Those problems don't stop me from trying.  It forces me to pay attention to the dynamics of the learning system in front of me.  Most importantly, it is personal, and it is my style.  Some teachers need lots of structure and schedules, and that is fine with me.  Their are many ways to do it, and as soon as we start to standardize approaches to education, and take the power away from the teacher, we lose an important element of what makes learning so much fun.  My ultimate message is this; if students are free to learn and express themselves in their own way, shouldn't teachers be allowed to teach in their own way?

I am reminded of the greatest advice I ever received from one of the best teachers I have ever worked with, JoMcq.  She said to me, "You can't teach something you don't embody."

Words aren't enough

I have a boy in my class who hates to write.  He doesn't hate it because it is difficult for him, he is very adept writer, he just doesn't like it.  Over the course of the last few years, he has picked up english incredibly fast.  He is a voracious reader (in english, not so much in his mother tongue) and he will talk your ear off if you let him (I do).  Yet, when you ask him to write his thoughts down, he gives you this wonderful look that says, why?  He has developed these amazing strategies over the last couple of years to limit the amount of writing he does.  He takes the whole sentence and cuts out certain words that would enhance the meaning until he is left with a sentence that only makes sense to him (and increasingly, me).  The problem is this; he is deep, and when I read his work, I am left trying to guess and infer the meanings, and it is like a puzzle.  And you know what, I love it.  It is fun, it is engaging, and it makes you think deeply about not only the answer, but the question.  At the end of the day, isn't that a definition of great writing?

The other day, we started our week with our weekly task of defining culture and guessing the central idea.  He hit a new height, a level of vagueness, thoughtfulness and depth that I have never seen before.  His definition of culture was one word, written neatly in the middle of a piece of paper and stuck to the wall:


[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Basho"][/caption]

I love how we even included a full-stop!  He continually challenges my conception of what constitutes good writing in the elementary years.


The many ways to inquire

At the same time I have both a feeling of incredible freedom and creativity, and frustration with the structure of the units I teach.  On the one hand, the frustration comes from the focus of the units central idea, inquiry points, and teacher provocations.  At times, I feel they are too narrow and focused, and provide too many rules for inquiry.  On the other hand, I see how that structure can lead to new and creative ways of thinking about the topic, and can lead to an interesting new interpretation of the units main idea.  All complex systems require rules and structure, and as a result of those rules and structures, new forms may emerge.  A system with too many rules would be mechanical and predictable, while a system with too few rules would be too wide open and chaotic.  Harmony exists somewhere in between (not balance, as that suggests it is in the middle of the two, when in real life, I find it moves along the continuum, changing from one moment to the next).

I am going to ask a lot of questions in this post, and not answer too many of them.  I am still finding my feet within this system.  What I have realized over the course of two years of teaching is that there are many ways to inquire and there are many structures that we use within the course of our unit planning.  In my mind, all of them are valid, all of them are effective, and all of them should be celebrated.  Each teacher and collective of students has their/her/his own style and should be allowed to explore that style in a manner they regard as effective.  Within a typical unit of inquiry, the structure is in place from the beginning, and the teacher needs to make a decision about how their structure will be interpreted and presented (or should the kids do this?  Wouldn't that be student centered learning?).

Case Study: Human Body

This is a unit from the school I previously worked at:

Now, teachers are able to argue the fine points of a units structure for hours on end (I know I am guilty of that and I could go on about this particular overview), but for the time being, lets assume that this is a decent set-up for the unit.  Now that this is in place, how do we go about the inquiry?  How do we structure the learning from here out and over the next 6-8 weeks?  What is the organization?  How do we ensure that we will cover all the points in the unit planner? Or, do we need to have a structure in place?  Can the students direct the learning from here out?  If we allow the unit to emerge naturally out of the structure, will all of the points get covered?  Can we change them mid-unit to suit our immediate needs?

My previous coordinator, who was very supportive, suggested that we go through the investigation points one by one.  Each inquiry point was connected to a teacher provocation, so it would be structured like this;

We start at the beginning and work our way through the end, building on each point.  My co-worker went through this structure and had a great unit.  It worked for him and he did a wonderful job of tying it all together in the end.  However, I wanted to do it differently.  Being a holist, I don't see huge differences between all the points.  To me, they are all implicit in each other.  What a living system needs to survive is how it benefits me, and if I don't keep it healthy it won't survive.  I have difficulty separating ideas.  Here is the structure I suggested;

Instead of going through each point and its one question, we went through each point and analyzed it from the perspective of all three questions.  What I found happened during the course of this inquiry is that we were looking at all three Teacher Provocations and Investigation Points at the same time.  By the time we got to the third point; maintaining healthy body systems, they already knew about it because we had analyzed it from perspective of the first two.  This worked for me.

I am very curious about the different structures that teachers use to deliver units.  I have been experiemenitng with using narratives, shapes and metaphors.  This has also been successful.  I find that when the unit unfolds though a narrative, we are jumping around through all points and questions, sometimes individual points, but sometimes the point are combined.  There is no logical order to it, but the narrative ensures their is a logical understanding of it.  Although, I don't plan how we will specifically get to all the points from the outset of the unit, we invariably do reach them all.  The narrative allows the structure to emerge naturally through the students.  This would be another way to inquire.

I would love to hear about other teachers ways of planning inquiry units.  How do you use structure?  How do you use the inquiry points and questions to go from week 1 to week 6?

There are many ways to inquire.  None of them are wrong.

Or are they?


Who is swinging the pendulum?

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="368" caption="Pendulum Painting: Tom Shannon"][/caption]

I was recently listening to a Rex Murphy Cross Country Check-up podcast (Canadian show with Canadian content, but I am sure people from other countries are having this exact same conversation) about mathematics education.  The question was; Is there something wrong with the way math is being taught in Canadian Schools?  It was mostly about the old way of doing math (rote, memorization, drills, practice) and the new way of doing (conceptual, big idea, hands on).

I don't want to get into that argument.

At one point in the show, a caller made the following comment (which was echoed by subsequent callers); education is pushing the pendulum into this direction, and parents need to start pushing it back the other way.

I have no doubt that there is indeed a pendulum like feeling in education (not getting into this now, but I think the pendulum is a very poor metaphor that we have gotten stuck in; it is not a shape that is conducive to knowing, learning, and teaching), but my question is this;

Is education pushing the pendulum?  Or, is society pushing the pendulum and education is scrambling to keep up?  Does that scrambling cause this negative feedback loop of pendulum swings to persist?  Who is swinging the pendulum?


Guess the Central Idea


As I wrote about before, I have tried to hide the central idea to this unit and have the kids reflect on it as we go.  I have been using our 'tuning into the week ahead session' on Monday mornings to have them reflect on this and other aspects of the unit (we are also building our own definitions of poetry).

So far, it has been a very positive experience.  I can see how their thinking has changed over the course of two weeks, and how the most recent ideas are influencing their meta-view of culture.  I am pleased that they are using this activity to look at the topic from a higher plane of thinking.  Here are some of the ideas the kids have come up with;

  • Culture is something that people make

  • Culture makes humans 'human'

  • Culture is world

  • We can't live without culture

  • Culture means a lot to humans

  • Culture is peoples lives

  • Culture is made by humans, but culture also makes humans

  • Culture helps the world be like it is

Most of these are, by the way, way better than the actual central idea!  I am thinking of now even sharing it with them at the end, just letting their ideas stand as a testament to how much work they have done.


Buckminster Fuller and the Wright Brothers: Thinking out Loud

I am big fan of Buckminster Fuller.  He was an amazing reflector and an incredibly forward thinking individual.  I highly recommend this book to get inside his head and see the world through his eyes.  Toward the end of his life, he gave an extraordinary week long lecture series in which he called 'Everything I know'.  Buckminsters style of speaking was something that he practiced and fostered in his early life while he was still trying to find his way.  He called it thinking out loud, because he would literally just narrate the inside of his head and work out ideas right in front of you.

Many of his colleagues and friends found it annoying, but he did this for one simple reason; by saying his ideas out loud he was inviting a response from another person that may push him to a clearer understanding.  In essence, he was trying to make thinking a collective action.  At the moment I am reading a book about the Wright Brothers, and they would so the same thing with each other (albeit through argument).  Their discussions were heated, yet they always knew that the passion they brought to the discussions is what set them apart from others.  Often, they would walk away from each other in frustration, only to come back and be convinced of the others correctness.  They would resume the argument from the opposing position.  This is a process they acutely aware, and a style of argument that they practiced and fostered.  it helped push their thinking forward.

I recently tried to bring this style of thinking out loud to the math class.  I gave the students a math problem, send them into an empty classroom with my iPhone, and let asked them to record their thinking.  Don't delete anything, just try and work out the problem out loud.  If you make a mistake, figure out what you did wrong and keep working on it.  They found it was very helpful to listen to their recordings and others, to see where they were making their mistakes, and where their strengths lie.  This is an activity that I will have to evolve into something more.....

Here is an example of the one student who let me post it.  It seems that they are still quite shy about their own thinking.  I wonder how true that is for most people?  Why are we afraid to share the inner workings of our minds?  Isn't that essentially what blogging is?


Koichi Math Thinking

Teacher as co-inquirer

We are currently studying culture in G56, so as I always do, I am being an inquirer myself and re-reading an old book from my shelf.  I hope that this re-read will kick off into a new book that I have never read before.  And from there my personal interpretation of culture will grow richer.  I hope it grows richer every time I teach a unit on culture through my career.  I hope to never stop learning and the day that I lose that spark, is the day I should leave this job.

I was thinking about this the other day.  I am inquiring into culture on a completely different level from my students.  They are focused on the tangible aspects of culture and connecting dots into larger ideas, while I am looking at it from an evolutionary and psychological perspective.  We seem to inquiring into very different levels of culture.  Yet, as I blogged about earlier, these levels are nested and implicated in each other.  I continue to push my thinking on the origins of culture and the collective sensibilities that inhabit it, while the inquiries that I do with my students help to solidify my own grander theories.  And yet again, my historical learning finds its way into the classroom and helps them to understand the finer details.  The system feeds itself.  They are growing and co-evolving together.  They are part of the same whole.


I love learning.


Spinning round and round...

I am swamped with work; I am starting a new unit, I have several things on the go in my class that demand a great deal of my time, I have a three-year old boy, I am finishing up a course for my M.Ed and have two papers due in the next two weeks, I am trying to plan my summer travels and vacation, etc.

Despite all this, I took an hour our of my schedule to join in the #PYPchat.  It was a wonderful experience and I am glad I did.  I am someone who prefers long conversations, but the quickness of the messages forced me to think much quicker.  It was surprisingly invigorating.  It was great to share ideas with so many other teachers from the comfort of my home and pyjamas.  It was interesting how I could maintain several side conversations while still participating in the whole.  As someone who is interested in and currently researching the role of Collectives in education, this was a powerful experience.

Back to work.......


Mem Fox and Writing

Our elementary school had a Skype with Mem Fox this morning.  She is amazing with kids and we had a great time.  They asked some great questions and she had some even better answers.  She even gave us a preview of her latest work, but swore us to secrecy!

A couple of things she said that I loved:

  • reading levels are ridiculous things.  You read because you love something and want to find out more about it, and write because you want to tell a story.  I couldn't agree more.  Read what you love, and love what you read

  • graphic organizers and plans stifle creativity.  It is like putting yourself into a prison.  Let go of them and let the story come out of you, let the ideas emerge from your soul, and get your ideas down on paper

  • writing is difficult, it is stressful, it is frustrating, and sometimes it is not very fun; you continue through it because you have a story you tell and you are passionate about the story

  • if you are not a reader, you cannot be a writer



Story and Shapes

I am obsessed with shapes, but not the shapes normally presented in traditional euclidian geometry. I am interested in the shapes of ideas, learning, teaching, creativity, stories, etc. It is this focus on narration and shape that has me reflecting on the stories we present in the shape of our units and learning experiences. Last unit, my shape was Kath Murdoch's inquiry cycle (science, forces and motions), and before that my central metaphor (story or shape) was a winding river (social studies, ancient civilizations).

Aside: I see very little distinction between the terms metaphor, story, narrative and shape, and use them interchangebly.  End Aside.

Recently, I started a new unit on culture.  I am never at ease with myself before I start a new unit.  I worry about how much I am projecting my view of a topic onto my students.  I worry about how their interpretations will be linked to my interpretations.  I want them to create their own meaning, but at the same time, I want to tell them a story.  Human beings have been creating narratives to learn and teach for tens of thousands of year.  The oral storytelling tradition was in essence a device for teaching future generations.  The caves painting at Lascaux were stories and lessons from voices in the past.  Now, we have oral and written story-tellers in our pockets.  I was reading Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind, and loved the chapter on stories and narratives used in companies and education institutes.  It is a refreshing thing to read that doctors are being trained to think of their patients in terms of the stories of their lives rather than as non-living entities that can be broken down to their parts and re-assembled.  Being able to see and craft stories and to explain your world is an increasingly important skill in the 21st century, one which requires creative thinking and big picture synthesis.  So, I am at odds with myself before I start a unit; do I craft the story and tell it to them, or do I let them make their own stories as we progress through the unit?  I never know and have had both sides succeed and fail.

For myself, as a planning tool and methodology, I like the shape to be settled before I begin to plan activities.  I need to see what the big picture looks like, and then I let that shape guide the direction we take.  The details of what we do on a day to day basis largely emerge out of the students inquiries and questions, but the overall flow of the unit is shaped by the initial shape.  One of the great things about non-linear shapes is that they can change and grow, just like a learning environment.  It is a flow, not a ruler and a pencil.

So, back to our unit on culture.

Culture is at the same time a very easy concept to get, and an incredibly difficult concept to understand.  It is hard for a fish to think about water since it spends all its time surrounded by it.  Same is true with humans and culture.  We are immersed in it, and we live in it like a fish in water.  There are many layers of culture that are at play, and these have different impacts and effects on who we are.  Yet, they can not be separated from one another, and there is no distinction between the different layers; they make us and we make them.

The shape of this unit will start large, on the level of the human and what our joint culture is.  What makes us human?  Over the course of the unit, we will zoom in our lens of culture and look at it from different perspectives; national, local (state/prefecture/province/district), community, classroom, and individual.   It will take a nested shape.


How exactly we will get there, I am at this moment not 100% sure, but we have a shape to follow, and a story to discover.