Keeping the Concept Alive – Part IV: Creating a Purposeful Statement of Inquiry

This is the final instalment in our series on Keeping the Concept Alive. If you missed any of the previous articles, here are the links: 

Part I: Tuning in to Concepts
Part II: Planning with the Concept in Mind
Part II: A Real-Life Example

I have a confession – I struggle with statements of inquiry. Like many people working in the MYP, I have found the process of writing a statement of inquiry both frustrating and confusing. That has all changed.

Our staff recently had the privilege of working with Ali Ezzaddine as he guided them through a Lynn Erickson workshop regarding teaching and learning through concepts. We had many epiphanies, frustrations, confusions and triumphs over the course of the workshop. One of my biggest “ah-ha!” moments came as teams were constructing their statements of inquiry. It became so clear to all of us in attendance that by crafting a purposeful statement of inquiry, you can really keep the concepts (along with the content and skills) alive throughout your unit. The process of creating statements of inquiry has really been a challenge for our MYP team, but this workshop clearly demonstrated the value of diligence and collaboration throughout this process.

Here are a few strategies offered by Ali, along with some input from our staff and a helpful infographic to top it off:

  1. Start with a “Concept-Verb-Concept” model:

This initial phase of construction a statement of inquiry, what Lynn Erickson calls a “level one generalization” was a great entry point for many of our teachers. In a nutshell, take the Key/Related Concept for the unit you are planning, add a verb and then include the other Key or Related Concept that you did not use initially. For example, if you are teaching Language and Literature and your Key Concept is perspective and your Related Concept is theme, your initial statement could be something along the lines of, “Theme influences perspective”.

2. Make connections: 

Before expanding upon your statement of inquiry, you have to look at the connections that you want to make between the statement of inquiry and your subject’s content and objectives. Ask yourself, “Which curricular standards do I want to focus on in this unit?”, and, “Which of my objectives do I want to target in this unit?”. By focusing in on these two elements, you will be able to construct a statement of inquiry that allows the students to make meaningful connections between how they can utilize the subject’s objectives to connect the content of the unit to the concepts.

3.  Take it to the next level – The why or how:

The next step in constructing a purposeful statement of inquiry, is to take your initial concept-verb-concept statement and ask, “Why?” or “How?”. Then, using a resource like Lynn Erickson’s Scaffolding Verbs, you can create a richer statement. Our original statement – “Theme influences perspective” – could become, “Through the use of theme, authors can express perspective”. This statement of inquiry would probably target Language and Literature’s Objective A – Analysing. However, if we changed the statement of inquiry to, “Authors may use perspective in order to establish theme”, we might be targeting Objective C – Producing Text.

This is where the deep thinking took place amongst the groups at our workshop. Great arguments conversations were had regarding the different directions the unit could take, all based upon the statement of inquiry! Many teams noticed that by investing the time to create a purposeful statement of inquiry (one connected to concepts, content and objectives), the summative assessment task, learning experiences and ATL skills for the unit all naturally fell into place.

4. The cherry on top – The “so what”? 

The final piece of the puzzle is asking yourselves, “So what?”, “Why would students care about this?”. It is this final step that allows you to marry your SOI with the Global Context for your unit and really situate the learning in life outside the walls of the classroom. This is where we can arrive at something like, “By expressing their culture through stories, an author can an audience understand their perspective.” Here we have use “stories” to stand-in for the related concept of theme; perspective is still explicitly stated, but we’ve brought in the Global Context of “Personal and Cultural Expression”, with a focus on sharing our cultural perspective with others. 

When the statement of inquiry becomes a foundational piece to help you construct your unit, the remainder of the planning process becomes much more focused and the learning much more purposeful.

 

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Getting advice on how to reach our students…from our students

I had the amazing opportunity, through my University, to create a short documentary film regarding some of the oral literacy traditions present in the Arab world. I wanted this piece to reflect my learning in my course, but I also wanted it to be a tool that teachers at our school could use to get to know the culture of our students a little more intimately. I set about researching and booking appointments with “experts”, planning shot sequences and music – all the things I knew went into making a good documentary. Then I remembered the words of my favourite educational author and realized that I was missing the most crucial voice of them all. So I set aside the research and went straight to the source – our students. I wanted to know about their experiences as multi-literate human beings, about their experience negotiating the tensions that sometimes exist between Arab cultural norms and Western cultural norms and most importantly, to ask them the question, “What can we, as teachers, do to better reach you?”. 

The experience was profound (skip to 8:40 for the interesting parts). Our students were candid, insightful, honest and genuinally appreciative having been asked to  share their experiences. This gave me pause to think – all of the times we are puzzling over how to effectively reach our classes, or a particular student, all the times we are trying to figure our students out – could the answer lay in asking the students themselves? Of course there is balance to be struck in terms of effective strategies we might be aware of that our students are not, but why not start with the learner? After all, don’t our students know themselves better than we ever possibly could?  

After our interview, I felt, as an international educator, embarrassed that I hadn’t taken this opportunity to get to know my students on this level at an earlier time. However, as I reflect, I am sincerely grateful for the opportunity to know our students better and hopefully I will be able to reach them in a way that makes them feel more comfortable and at home in their school community. 

Do we need assessment to “drive learning”?

I came across a quote from John Cowan that read, “assessment is the engine which drives student learning”. I have heard iterations of this same idea many times before and they have always made me feel a little uneasy. To be honest, the idea that “assessment drives learning” seems a little coercive to me. Don’t get me wrong, the practice of helping a student improve in the areas in which they would like to improve by providing guidance and feedback is a valuable form of assessment. I just feel that, often, the form of assessment we are typically talking about in education is one designed to help us assign a grade to our students. What happens next is that “assessment” and “grading” become synonymous and this is where the problem lays. 

So, in a traditional school setting, when I hear “assessment drives student learning”, what this really sounds to me like is “assessment is a way for us to encourage young people to learn about things that they are not really interested in learning”. By holding grades over their heads and creating, what are essentially, systems of ranking students based on performance, we create the conditions for students to feel social pressure to “learn” what is going to be asssesed. 

In education we get caught up in this idea that we need assessment to measure learning, but in most cases what assessment does instead is measure the learning that we have planned to happen, making assessment the engine that drives students to learn what they are being told to learn. 

Real, authentic learning is not driven by assessment at all, but rather is driven by curiosity, by interest and by the need to solve a problem. 

Let’s expand on those three areas: 

Curiosity: 

As humans, we are naturally curious. Through the simple (and complex) act of experiencing life, our curiosity is provoked, which encourages us to inquire further into the object of our curiosity. With the immense reach that the internet has, curiosity can be provoked today in new and amazing ways. Whether via a sentence, quote, story, film, diagram, game, tweet or photograph, educators can provoke their students’ curiosity in order to stimulate authentic learning. 

Interest:

When our curiosities become more fully developed, we begin to command some level of expertise in a certain area. This becomes, for us, an interest. We are drawn to and are interested in the things that are connect to our interests. Whether it be music, sports, whales, skydiving or yoga, once our students have developed interests we can nurture their authentic learning by encouraging them to pursue new knowledge and skills that contribute to a deeper understanding of these interests. 

Problem Solving:

Sometimes related to our curiosities and interests and sometimes not, problems are the ultimate catalyst for learning. Have a flat tire? Better learn how to put on a spare. Lights not working? Better learn about how to repair a blown fuse. Feelings overly stressed? Time to inquire into mindfulness. By presenting our students with authentic problems and having the patience to allow them to work through the problem-solving process (which often is much messier and much more time consuming than traditional school encourages) we can engage their inner innovator and activate true, authentic and purposeful learning. Or, we can harness their interests and curiosity by asking them the question, “what are you going to do with all that you have learned?” then sit back and watch as their innate problem-solving brain goes to work figuring out ways to apply their learning in order to serve the world around them. 

Where does the role of assessment fit into all of this? I think what we, as educators, can do is continue to support our students along the path of developing their curiosities into interests and honing those interests to the point that they can use them to create solutions to real problems. Along this journey we can support our students by providing feedback, encouragement, modelling new skills, pointing them in the direction of new resources, helping them make social connections and empowing them to see themselves as competent, capable and contributing learners. 

In order to provoke curiosity, nurture interests and allow problem-solving to take place, we don’t need traditional assessment – let’s let the natural processes of being human be the engine that drives learning instead. 

MYP Learning Experiences Planner

One of our biggest areas of focus this year has been on creating exciting, challenging and authentic MYP units. Our entire staff have worked diligently to create and re-create units that we think will give students the opportunity to inquire into significant, relevant and engaging concepts, contexts and content; all the while allowing them to develop their ATL skills and the IB Learner Profile Traits. Trust me, you see some of these units on paper and think, “wow!” – this is where the “but” comes in…

The most frequent question I get asked, is along the lines of:

“The unit planner looks great – but what does this look like day to day?”

This, is a fantastic question. After all, the students aren’t typically involved in the unit planning process (although they should be), however they are all intimately involved with the day to day learning in the classroom.

Drawing inspiration from my lovely and brilliant wife, who wrote this fantastic post on her blog Making Good Humans, I have developed a draft of an MYP Learning Experience Planner. Why not lesson planner? Well, I think the word “lesson” implies that the intended learning is over with in one day. It also tends to imply a traditional direct-instruction approach by the teacher (“I’m going to teach you a lesson“). “Learning Experience” carries with it more potential for time, inquiry and excitement.

The planner is divided up into three sections:

1. Framing the Inquiry: 

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2. Approaches to Teaching: 

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3. Opportunities for Reflection: 

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Note that the Statement of Inquiry is a floating header to emphasize its role as the guiding force behind the unit.

So, what can I do better? What am I missing? What should I get rid of? I would love to hear your feedback!

If you’d like a copy for yourself to use, modify or revise, please let me know on Twitter @bondclegg

Thanks!

 

A Student Centred Approach to Homework

Homework.

Students hate dong it. Teachers hate managing it. It isn’t even really that effective. So why do we still assign it? Because we had to do homework when we were in school? Because it’s all part of “doing school“? Because our plans aren’t on schedule and we need to “save time” by assigning the leftovers as homework?

At this point in time, I can’t really see a good reason to assign homework. However, there are many (students included) who see value in homework and continue to assign it.

One teacher at our school was having some difficulties in managing a system of homework, so she did the most sensible thing any teacher can do when facing a conundrum in the classroom – she consulted her students.

Based on the feedback she received from her students (too much work is assigned, we need homework to help us practice, we need a longer amount of time to complete the work…) we devised a homework system that is based, not on work completion or meaningless busy work, but on student choice, feedback and long-term goal setting.

Here is a brief rundown of how it works (note this particular program is focused towards the MYP, but could be structured to fit most instructional models):

  • Students looked at the feedback from their summative assignments to this point in the year.
  • Based on that feedback, they self-selected an objective and a specific strand within that objective that they would like to improve upon.
  • Students were then provided with an extensive list of homework options (view Google Doc of how this has been set up) that they could choose to work on in order to improve towards their selected goal.
  • Once per eight-day cycle, each student will meet with the teacher and present a piece of work that they are particularly proud of, or would like to get specific feedback on.
  • Following this meeting, the student decides whether they have developed their efficacy within this strand to the point that they need to set  new goal, or if they will continue to focus on the original goal.

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The choice of what to do for homework is in the hands of those that it should be – the students. 

What happens if a student doesn’t bring any work to the conference for feedback? This is regarded as a missed opportunity for that student to receive feedback and improve – opening up the opportunity for a great relationship building conversation about the value of feedback and creating a learning opportunity for the student.

“Are all of our classes going to be doing this? Because they should,” said one student at the end of the class. 

Student choice? Check. Student autonomy? Check. Potential for effective feedback? Check. Simple to manage? Check. Opportunity for learners of all levels to improve? Check. Valuing learning and skill development over content? Check.

By putting the focus on feedback and improvement and allowing for student choice, this homework program was well met by the students. “Are all of our classes going to be doing this? Because they should,” said one student at the conclusion of the class.

While I am still skeptical of the benefits of homework, a student centred approach certainly is easier to digest than traditional homework – both as an educator and from the students’ perspective.

Do you assign homework? If so, what sort of system do you have in place to ensure it is student centred? 

The Power of Student Voice at the Planning Table

Climate change is a big deal.

This is an issue that the whole world should be talking about, thinking about and planning for. They are at the Paris Climate Change Conference, and they are in the classrooms at my school. Recently, Ministers from Kuwait committed to help in combating climate change – a pretty amazing step for a country whose economy is based primarily on fossil fuels. This action, like most significant actions have the tendency to do, has galvanized our students around what they can do to help the environment in our school community. Here is the story of how our MYP 1 teachers invited student voice to the planning table…

Students in an MYP 1 Science class reviewed the article about Kuwait’s commitment to battling climate change and brainstormed a list of over twenty possible actions they could take to have a more positive impact on the school environment. In fact, what they essentially created was a two year plan for the implementation of a recycling program, campaign against plastic water bottles and eventually the installation of solar panels. Further to this, they broke down what disciplines would be needed to help them in facilitating their goals – not bad for a group of ten year old students on an average school day in late November. Their Science teacher, sensing something awesome was in the works, contacted me with the plan that her students generated, excited to bring this to the rest of the MYP 1 team.

Now, the MYP 1 team was currently in the throes of developing a pretty awesome interdisciplinary unit, but when student voice is your priority, you can’t be shy about pressing the pause button on your “teacher business”. One of my favourite sayings is that students should be working on the same type of problems adults are working on and this fits that criteria perfectly!

I went to the class that generated the list, and we held a quick and impromptu election of student representatives who would be willing to speak on behalf of the entire MYP 1 year at an upcoming interdisciplinary unit planning meeting. While these students were excused from class in order to attend the meeting, I would argue that the skills and IB Learner Profile traits they are developing by representing their peers at the planning table is a unique opportunity that cannot be passed up.

Today the meeting was held and I was reminded how powerful student voice is and how inspiring it can be as an educator to plan alongside your students. Here are some of the moments that really stood out (remember all of these quotes are from our ten year old MYP 1 students):

“I think the work that we are doing will serve as an inspiration to other schools in the community and maybe even the government of Kuwait.”

“It’s not just about putting a recycling programme into place, it’s about brining awareness to environmental issues.”

And my favourite:

“For the Key Concept for this unit, I think we could go in three directions – we could explore Change because we are working to change peoples’ habits, it could be Systems because we are working to install a new system at the school, or it could be Communities, because this is a service that will benefit the whole school community.” 

At this point, the student looked at the group of nine teachers around the table and said, “What do you guys think?” – now that’s collaboration!

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Who better to plan the unit than the learners themselves? 

Our teachers were fantastic, involving the students in every facet of the conversation and really honouring their opinions. “How can Individuals and Societies help you learn more about this issue?”, one of our teachers asked. “Do you think you would be interested in…”, was a sentence-starter used by many of our teachers. Not once were the students talked down to, not once was a teacher afraid to disagree with a student and not once did the students feel intimated to share their opinion – even if that opinion was contrary to their teachers. How empowering must that feel to the learner? How inspiring must that be for the teacher?

Another benefit – the teacher engagement was off the chart. There was no idle chit-chat, no dwelling on classroom management issues, no getting distracted with lesson planning or grading, no talk of being busy or overwhelmed. When we invite the students to the planning table, we are reminded of why we do what we do. This is how we can make our work more significant, relevant and engaging.

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Student and teacher engagement was off the charts. 

I encourage and challenge you to plan your next unit in conjunction with your students. I have challenged our staff to do the same and will be sure to document their experiences in this space.

Do you have experience planning units with your students? How did go? 

Keeping the Concept Alive – Part II: Planning with the Concept in Mind

Last time we talked about the importance of tuning-in to the Key Concept and looked at the importance for all learners – students, teachers, administrators, coordinators, councillors, parents – to tune-in to the Key Concepts. 

Today, we will take a look at how to keep the Key Concept alive throughout the unit by planning with the concept in mind.

Step 1. Connect the content to the concepts: 

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Once teachers have tuned-in to their Subject’s Key Concepts, they need to opportunity to find out more about the Concept. For this, our teachers went straight to the source. Using MYP: From Principles into Practice our teachers were able to find out IB’s definition of their Key Concepts. This process however, is not as valuable without the step of sorting out this information. Once they had found out the definition of each of their subject’s Key Concepts, our teachers extracted some of the key words from the definition. Looking at these key words, they jotted down some ways in which that key piece of their concept could be brought to life via the content of their classrooms. This finding out/sorting out phase has provided our teachers with the beginning of planning tool that they can use continually connect their curricular content to their Key Concept and, hopefully, keep the concept alive throughout the course of their units.

Step 2. Devise a concept-driven summative: 

It is important not to lose sight of the concept when you are devising a summative assessment. For example, a math unit using the Key Concept of Relationships whose summative assessment is a multiple choice test about factoring binomials, will have a hard time in keeping the concept alive. In order for the students to get the most out of their journey with concepts, they need the opportunity to apply their newly refined conceptual understanding in a meaningful way. In my opinion, the best concept-driven assessments make explicit reference to the concepts itself. A good place to start is by using the following framework – “How does your understanding of [insert content area here] contribute to your understanding of [insert Key Concept here]”. How students demonstrate this understanding is up to you…or, to create a more meaningful experience, leave that up to the student. Explicitly connecting the concept to the summative assessment will help you avoid the concept getting lost during the course of the unit.

Step 3. Plot a road map to get there…but do it in pencil: 

Once you have connected your curricular content and the Key Concept and have planned an opportunity for the students to demonstrate their newly refined understanding of the concept, the final step is designing a loose plan of how you will guide your students towards greater conceptual understanding. At our school, we follow Kath Murdoch’s Inquiry Cycle as a means to provide a framework for our inquiries into the concepts. Be willing to provide your students with support and guidance, but also be willing to allow their questions to drive the unit – this questioning can only deepen their connection to and understanding of the concepts

Next step? Taking a look at how exactly one of our teachers is keeping the concept alive throughout a unit.