Teaching is...

We did this activity through-out my M.Ed program. We did it recursively so we could see how our opinions and ideas were changing. It was a huge component of the course (in my opinion, the most important aspect). You might enjoy it. I do it several times a year. Keeps me grounded in my philosophical beliefs (which are evolving).

A little background...

Teaching is a hard thing to define. Get a 20 teachers in a room to define teaching and you will get 20 different definitions. That shows that teaching is highly personalized endeavour. The one thing that everybody will agree on is that teaching is about learning. Learning is another minefield to define. There is no consensus and shared idea of what it means. What we can agree on though, is that it has something to do with knowing. Knowing is one of the major battlegrounds (why all the war metaphors?) of philosophy, and has been debated from the time of Aristotle (and likely before). What does it mean to know something? How do you know you know (epistemology)?

So, teaching has something to do with learning, which has something to do with knownig.

The activity is this...

Define teaching, and let that definition define learning, and let that definition define knowing. Let your understanding of one transfer and reflect through the others. Or you can start with knowing and work up, but trust me, that is much harder! Knowing is the hardest one....

An example, overly simplistic for the sake of example (and a highly erroneous one), though I imagine you know some teachers who think this way:

Teaching is giving students information.

Learning is receiving information.

Knowing is giving the received information back.

If what we believe about teaching is more complex than this simplistic idea (and I hope we revel in the complexity and ambiguity of teaching, not shy away from it) then what does your definition of teaching say about learning and knowing?

I have my own definition which I won't share because it does not matter to you. It is personal to me, and in a language that I comprehend. I would never want to impose my definition onto others. That being said, it might be interesting to compare and see where the through lines are, the commonalities, and the differences. Once we understand those similarities and differences between how we philosophically define what we do, then we can start to work together to move forward and provoke the system of education we find ourselves in. Until we discover that space, we are just speaking to each other in different languages.

Teaching is....

Learning is....

Knowing is....

Let me know what you come up with. Would love to play.


Who is driving the inquiry?

Stay with me here. This is not just a story of what we did, but rather a look into how we inquire. I will need your feedback and ideas by the end of this!

What we did

We started out investigation of natural landforms and settlement in a fantasy world with the following provocation (story is a powerful tool, even more powerful when you find yourself in the middle of you taht you can influence and change):

This generated much discussion and debate over the best place to settle. Each kid had a different theory and a different idea. The information in the text was scarce, but important. The scarcity led them to struggle with the ideas. It was hard to bridge the gap between each students understanding, and obvious that a consensus would not be reached. We reflected about why that was, and we realized that we needed more information. But, what information?

Students then shifted their focus from solving the problem, to asking questions to help them solve the problem. What else do you need to know? What information will help you make the best decision? I ensured them that if they asked I would send their questions to Jhor (through a complex process of time travel, it's too complicated to go into here). This simple shift led to the following artefact:

Now that we have more information, we can start to use it to make a plan. The density of the information we possess is not deep enough to tell us a more complete story.

How we inquire

From the perspective of the facilitator of this inquiry, I can now use these questions to guide it in directions they are curious about, all the while staying in our fantasy world. Of course, we will need to zoom out of the fantasy world to get more details from the real world. The real world will inform our story and our decisions.

From looking at the questions, I can see the inquiry going in several different directions and hitting several different concepts, based on their questions (here is just a small sample, though we could take these questions and make an entire years worth of inquiries, or better yet, the kids could do it themselves):

What is your biggest fear? Perspective, stories form the past affect the future, a look into mythology and oral story-telling
How much land do you need? Function, the space around us determines how we build, an investigation into area and patterns
How fast can you travel in a day? Function, weight and terrain influences travel, an investigation into rates and measurement
What materials do you have/need? Causation, the local environment influences how we build and live, an investigation into how natural resources are used or influence life
Are you a man or a woman? Perspective, different people have different views of gender, a look into gender roles through history
What do you do for entertainment? Reflection, Art influences how we live and what we believe, an inquiry into the history of art on human civilization
Are there any other tribes? Connection, people live in peace and conflict with their neighbours, an investigation into trade and the reasons for conflicts among people

These are just a couple that I came up with. I could go on. Or, I could use the lens of the Key Concepts to change each inquiry into something completely new. We could take the first question about fear, and instead of using PERSPECTIVE, we could switch it over to FORM, and suddenly we are inquiring into the root and base of human fear. Or CHANGE, and we are  taking about how human fear has changed as our society changes.

The Big Idea - Curriculum is an emergent artefact that grows with the learners questions and understanding

Inquiry is not limited to what is on the planner at the beginning, but rather it is emerging with the students questions and understanding. The problem that lies before me know is that I already have a structure for this unit that was decided before the unit began. We have already chosen our key concepts and planned rubrics around them, assessments, etc.

So, who is driving the inquiry? The concepts, the student questions, the story, or the planner? What is the role of curriculum? Is it the ideas that they must understand that is decided beforehand by the learning facilitators(or adults)? Or, is it something that grows with their questions? Are their questions valued if we have already decided what the big ideas will be, and where the unit will go?

I have a thought experiment that I would like your feedback on. Instead of teachers and PYP coordinators sitting down before the unit begins and having discussions about the set-up (or planning for inquiry if you prefer) of the UOI, what would be the benefits and disadvantages of trying something like this:

1. Start with the TD theme (the language use in the TD markers leaves each one wide open for a variety of different interpretations, yet structured enough that they will focus us into a specific space)
2. Plan a very powerful, engaging, thought-provoking provocation (as learning facilitators)
3. Introduce the provocation to the students, have them think and ask questions and record it all
4. Use those thoughts and questions to develop the key concepts, Central Ideas, and Lines of Inquiry (preferably with the students, though can be done within a collaborative teachers team)
5. The Inquiry begins....

What do you think would be the advantages and disadvantages of something like this?

Would love to hear your ideas.


A Reading List, "Complexity and Education"

Life is not linear. Neither is teaching, learning or knowing.

Education is evolving out of the industrial age, and adopting a new set of metaphors.

We used to talk like this:
With its exclusive emphases on preset educational aims and objectives as markers, a dead map of curriculum is compelled by a strong need for closure and certainty in the institutionalized schooling. In the very dead map, the predetermined objective is not only the starting line but the finish line of the prepackaged race track of curriculum: while both teachers and students are motivated by the set objective at the beginning, the ultimate aim is to produce uniform-qualified-students-as-products to reach this same line in the end. Julie Yie
And now people are starting to talk like this:
In this constantly restructured living map of curriculum, both teachers and students do not haste to reach the predetermined destination along the marked path on the dead map but take their time walking ‘like an elephant’ to enjoy the scenery on the journey with their whole bodies, especially in non-marked strange places of interest. Julie Yie
It is exciting. Inspiring.

Yet, often frustrating, as the metaphors start to mix up and merge.

Life is fractal, chaotic, and emergent. Our metaphors in education are often linear, taken from an era obsessed with materials and costs that go into a final product. That is changing.

There are other metaphors out there, with strong scientific backing and research. Chaos theory, fractal mathematics, non-linear dynamics, and emergent behavior and properties afford a whole new way of looking at education, teaching, and learning.

Not all these books are related to education (most of them are not), but if read with an open heart, will be nonetheless inspiring.

A Reading List

Chaos (James Glieck)
The Fractal Geometry of Nature (Benoit Mandelbrot)
Sync (Steven Strogatz)
Where good ideas come from (Steven Johnson)
Mind and Nature (Gregory Bateson)
Complexity and Education (Sumara and Davis)
Thinking in Systems (Donella Meadows)
Tree of Knowledge (Maturana and Varela)
Seven Life Lessons of Chaos (Briggs and Peat)
Complexity, A Guided Tour (Melanie Mitchell)
Engaging Minds (Brent Davis)
Simply Complexity (Neil Johnson)
Turbulent Mirror (John Briggs)
The Web of Life (Fritjof Capra)


Assessing Understanding: Looking for feedback (Pt. III)

I have come a long way from the first post and the second. I see now how the conceptual understanding has evolved. I knew that the first unit was topical, but I was hoping to get to the concepts through the topic. Usually I do not do this, but since this topic is right outside our window, in our everyday life, I was hopeful (more on this later). Still, I find the latest incarnation to be the most effective and gives us the most room to play.

Pt 1

Pt 2

Pt 3 (latest)

The topical-ness of the unit is gone. We can still look at the Danube in regards to all these, but it also gives us room to branch out and look further. I like this, even though I am still partially in love with the idea of place based unit of inquiry. It gives them more room to navigate and leaves space for self-directed inquiry.

As for the rubric (which was the point of all this, and goes to show how the overarching structure is so important) is much more conceptual.

This time I focused on the verbs in each box. I am still thinking about a comment on the second post about how four boxes is better than three, as people will tend to be themselves in the middle one, and having a fourth requires a bit more thought. I agree with this, but for the time being I am following the schools assessment framework. I actually think that this would be a great activity to do with students, but for my first go, I wanted to hash it out myself. In the future, I may try to develop these with the kids.

Thanks to my wonderful PLN and sorry for those whose comments got lost. I still have no idea why that happens but am looking into it.

This wheel helped me to develop the markers in the rubric. I used this to focus on what the thinking skill behind the assessment will be. Using this language, the kids can now create and define their own assessments. This is exciting, as I am very curious about what they will come with, and how this artefact will help them (or not). The learning is just beginning.

Something I am still curious about...

As much as I love this, and I do, I am still curious about the difference between a unit such as this (one that is completely conceptually planned from the outset) and one that is topical (not in the dirty word sense, thematic units masquerading as inquiry, but more in relational to Place Based Learning). I think in both units, we have the potential to focus on concepts, but we are doing it from different directions.

Concept Driven - obviously the concepts are the ideas that drive the inquiries. I can use the Danube and our local environment as provocations to understand the given concepts. Start with the concepts, connect with the topic and beyond. This is the way most (if not all) PYP unit of inquiry are structured. It has worked, and continues to work. We start big, zoom in, then connect elsewhere, and zoom back out to focus again on the big ideas. It is fluid, yet guided and organized. The teacher is searching for data about how well the students understand the concepts.


Place Based Unit - What if we start with the place, and then zoom out, connect with the rest of the world, and discover what concepts we are really looking into. I don't think this is a terrible way to inquire, as often the things we are most curious and passionate about are the things that are around us. We can still focus on concepts, but rather than define the concepts at the beginning, we are mindful of what concepts are emerging and we focus on them as they come into the students questions and inquiries. This is more fluid, and more unknown. Sometimes you don't know the road to take until you step into it. Here the teacher is supporting students and drawing attention to the concepts that they find themselves in. Then, we assess and search for data.

Of course there are risks and benefits of either. It all depends on how in control of the inquiries the students are. I think in a structure like PYP, the first is obviously better, as that is the way it is designed! Yet, I wonder what it would look like if there was less structure and more freedom to let the ideas and concepts grow and expand with the students. Which is more real? Which allows students to better develop questions, follow their curiosity and passions, and focus on concepts and learning?

I have no idea.


Assessing Understanding: Looking for Feedback (Pt. II)

After the first blog post I received some critique from trusted voices (and a wonderful comment) I have gone back to the drawing board and gutted it again. I wonder if is now more conceptual. The last line of inquiry feels out there, but there is a curriculum need to have it in place. Interestingly though, the navigation bit is really interesting, as it is just outside our window down the street, and we can watch and inquire as the boats float by (literally).

It still feels kind of fragmented, but at the same time it feels whole. I like it and I don't like it. I like that it goes into history, geography, cultures, and science (possibly ecology as well, as when we take a walk along the river, they will certainly notice the giant machines dredging). It leaves the door open for some interesting questions. Interestingly, since this is the last unit of the year, I have a pretty good feeling and sense of what type of questions they will ask, and I can predict where they may take it. I wonder if this influences how I build these units? Most definitely.

I am still not sure about this rubric. Is it too driven by knowing things? How do I phrase it so that it is conceptual? I know how to do it when I am conferring with students, and I can spot it in their reflections, how well they understand the Key Concepts. But I am really struggling putting it into words. 

I want to get this right. This year I have been trying to make my assessment much more visible. I am a mental person, I keep everything up in my head, which works great for me, but it helps to get it out there for record keeping and parent conferences and report cards and ......

Please continue to be brutal. I will keep doing this until I get it right.