Student-Planned UOIs

Currently, our grade level has 84 different Units of Inquiry happening simultaneously – a different one for each student. All connecting to different transdisciplinary themes, exploring different key concepts, developing different ATL skills, strengthening different attitudes, developing different attributes of the Learner Profile and lasting for different lengths of time.

It is PYPx?

Nope… it’s just a “normal” week in Studio 5!

How did we get here? What was our “why”? Our “how? Our “what”? And where do we go from here? Stick with me for this lengthy blog post and I will try to capture and share our journey through supporting our students to plan, execute, and report on, their own Units of Inquiry.

Why?

So often as PYP educators, we start with the UOI and then work hard to figure out how to wrap each student around the unit we have planned. We use provocations, tuning in activities and student-generated questions to help students find “their connection” to the UOI. And although UOIs are broad and conceptual with lots of space for inquiry within, at the end of the day we are still trying to get students to find their connection to our units.

 

The more and more my team and I began to understand and value student agency, the more and more we began to wonder:

Why do all of our students need to be inquiring into the same UOI all at once, for the exact same length of time?

Aren’t all of these teacher-made decisions when planning a UOI pulling us away from our goal of respecting and supporting students’ agency as learners?

Do all of our students even need to be inquiring into the same TD theme at the same time?

Dissatisfied with our previous attempt to reconcile agency and teacher-planned Units of Inquiry, we decided to be risk-takers and take action. Instead of trying to wrap each student around a UOI, we decided to try and wrap a UOI around each student.

Our goal was to help students plan their own Units of Inquiry based around their own passions, interests and curiosities, while at the same time protecting and maintaining the role each of the 5 essential elements of the PYP played within a UOI.

How?

If we were going to expect our students to plan their own units based around things they were intrinsically motivated to learn about, we knew we had to empower students to understand motivation and more specifically, understand their own motivation. So with the help of Dan Pink’s research and resources we began an inquiry into motivation.

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Next, we wanted to help students be able to choose something they were truly motivated to learn. We knew that jumping straight into “What’s one thing you are intrinsically motivated to learn” was unlikely to get us where we wanted to be, so instead we crafted some questions to hopefully help students uncover things in their lives that already showed evidence of intrinsic motivation.

Students filled one in about themselves:

Their parents also filled one in about their child:

Then students used both “planners” to select one “purpose”. We chose the word “purpose”… well, purposefully! We knew that eventually we wanted to have students plan their unit using a modified PYP Bubble Planner, and we wanted to keep the essence of that planner as much as possible. And since box 1, question 1 on the Bubble Planner is “What is our purpose?” we knew that eventually the student Bubble Planner would ask “What is your purpose?” Another reason we chose purpose is because we wanted to steer clear of the word passion. Earlier on in the year, our Head of School provoked our thinking with the article “7 Habits Instead of Passion” which posits that ‘follow your passion’ can be dangerous advice. Ever since then we as a team have been very careful not to de-rail our student planned UOIs by focusing on “passion”.

We also discussed the concept of purpose with students –  with the help of this “continuum of purpose” compliments of @sylviaduckworth.

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Knowing that this was the first time many (if not all) students had planned their own UOI around their own purpose, we knew there would be a range of the types of “purposes” that fuelled these units – many which we guessed correctly would start in the “self-awareness” and “discovery” stages.

Once students had nailed down their first “purpose” they met with a learning advisor to plan their first personalized Unit of Inquiry. Since this approach was new for my team, we all decided to use a different planner –  but all of which were based off of the PYP Bubble Planner, and connected to Dan Pink’s 3 magic ingredients of motivation. As the experts on the PYP, we helped students to “wrap the PYP” around their purpose by identifying how their purpose connected to each of the 5 elements.

As can be seen from these examples, students selected their purpose, decided how long they would need to achieve their purpose, chose how best they would document their learning, what their evidence of mastery would be, and what specifically would need to be “learned about” and “developed” throughout their unit. Careful time and consideration was also given to supporting students to brainstorm resources for their learning, both within the school and beyond.

Next students were supported in creating their own timelines, tailored to the amount of time they estimated they needed to achieve their purpose.

Then students were off an running!

Along the way, students had regular check-ins with their learning advisors to discuss their progress, challenges, adjustments to timelines, needs for resources etc. We also organized an adult-database that collated teacher and parent professions, hobbies and interests and showed students how to make use of the database to contact experts connected to their purpose.

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We also put together a procedure for students to organize their own field trips out into the community.

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Students also received support, guidance and encouragement from their parents who were invited for “learning conversations”. Parents were brought into the fold about the “why, how and what” behind student-planned UOIs and were coached in how to stimulate conversation about their child’s learning, while showing respect for their child’s agency over their learning.

We even had students who had “virtual conversations” with their parents via Skype and FaceTime!

Most impressively though was the way students supported themselves and one another. It was not uncommon to see students curate their own learning resources and materials (microscopes, scales, glue, wood, cameras, safety glasses etc.)

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And reach out to one another for advice, expertise and support.

Students were also great at knowing when they needed an adult’s help and sought out assistance, supervision or feedback – regardless of whether it was “their teacher”.

It’s also been great to see that opportunities for sharing learning have been organic, authentic, purposeful and student-initiated. Most of the time it’s the simple “you gotta see this!” or “check this out!” moments.

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But occasionally there have been some bigger, more planned moments where students have “taken their learning public”.

Whether it’s asking to perform a song around the campfire during a school camping trip

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(photo cred @puglifevn)

Or signing up to sell a product at our school’s weekly market

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Or putting together a student-led workshop, to more formally teach other students what they have learned.

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(photo cred @puglifevn)

What?

So what exactly did these student-planned UOIs explore? Anything and everything under the sun!

Robot hands and flying shoes

Digital design

Special effects movie make-up

Entomology

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(photo cred @puglifevn)

Film production

Doll house construction

Mosquito repelant and anti-itch serum

Digital music mash-ups

Cooking

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Photography

basketball skills

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(photo cred @puglifevn)

font design

Miniature Models

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A scale replica of the KL race track

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Not to mention… taking care of young children, building mini arcade games, coaching swimming, writing poetry, shoe “flipping” (buying bulk at a low cost and selling individually at a profit), app development, singing covers of pop songs, shoe design, dress making, stand-up comedy and the list goes on…

Looking over this list, I can’t help but think of this quote from John Taylor Gatto:

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So, where do we go from here?

Currently students are at a fork in the road, where they have the option to “pivot or persevere”. Students who have achieved their purpose or have noticed their intrinsic motivation has dropped (or perhaps was never there to begin with) can choose to move on to a new purpose. Students who feel their intrinsic motivation is going strong and would like to continue to pursue their first purpose can choose to stick with it.

Either way, students will reflect on and report their learning at this check-point. “Pivot-ers” will write a summative evaluation of their learning that will be shared to parents and “Persevere-ers” will write an in-progress, update of their learning so far, which will also be shared with their parents. Both templates are built around the 5 essential elements of the PYP.

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Finalized comments, such as the one below, will be shared with parents as the official UOI Evaluation of Learning (report card) via Mangebac.

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Then the cycle starts again, and those wishing to explore a new purpose will be supported to develop a second Unit of Inquiry, while those continuing with their first purpose will be supported to continue to act on their plan. No need to limit learning to a pre-determined, 6 week block.

Another consideration at this stage in the game is documentation. If students plan their own UOIs, then what happens to the POI? I say….If a Unit of Inquiry can be personalized, why can’t a Program of Inquiry also be personalized!?

My vision would be a long-term tracking, ever growing and evolving document that captures students’ personalized learning throughout their PYP journey. If we as teachers, follow the process of “start with each child and wrap the PYP around them” then each year we could note what TD themes have been explored, which understanding of concepts of have been deepened, which skills developed, which attitudes strengthened and what action has been taken.

As a homeroom teacher, I am envisioning a type of Google Sheet, where each student in my class would have a tab and thought the year I would use their bubble planner and their EOL to retroactively document the 5 EEs of the PYP. This would allow me to help support and guide them to find balance as well as vertical and horizontal articulation within their own personalized POI over the course of the year.

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And what about the PYP Exhibition? Isn’t that supposed to be the one time when students have the chance to plan their own unit? And I guess our retort to that is – Why would we sacrifice our students’ agency across 5 other units, just to protect the  specialness of having students design their own unit once? We would much rather approach PYPX as an opportunity for students to reflect upon who they have become as learners and people, and what they have discovered about themselves – their motivation, their purpose, their success – a true culminating PYP experience.

If we refer back to the purpose of PYPX from the Exhibition Guidelines document, we feel confident that we are doing right by our students, not only having them experience these features once, for a pre-determined 6 week period, but at different times and in different ways all throughout their final year in the PYP.

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Final Thoughts…

Now my team and I are at a place where we feel much more comfortable about “Agency and the UOI”. It’s not perfect by any means – we are still learning, growing, failing, arguing, reflecting and tweaking. We know (and are glad) that there will be many iterations to our approach, our process and the templates that we use. But in the meantime we feel a much greater sense of ease that we have managed to respect and support our students’ agency, while still honouring the essence and expectations of the PYP.

I think that if we as a PYP community are going to talk the talk of agency, then we also need to be prepared to walk the walk of agency. And that is likely going to look and feel different from what we’ve always done and what we’re comfortable with… but isn’t stepping out of our comfort zone, where we keep telling our students that the magic happens?

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Old Habits Die Hard

I haven’t always been the type of teacher I am today. When I think back to my first few years in education, I can admit that I was a super ‘teachery teacher’. Behaviour charts, staying in at recess, rewards&punishments, worksheets, tests… you name it, I did. If you walked by my class you would have seen students silent and on-task – not because they were engaged, because I used me authority and control to illicit compliance.

Over the years I have learned, unlearned and re-learned and as a result transformed into a teacher who now values student agency above all else.

… but every now and then, the old me creeps back in.

Yeaterday was a perfect example:

We are smack dab in the middle of a Unit of Inquiry about how scientific thinking can help us understand humans. At this stage in the unit we were using an “unconference” model, where students are empowered to sign up for help and support when needed.

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Our deadline for literature reviews and completion of methods is Friday and although I have been supporting students all week to plan their days in hopes of meeting this deadline, there were 6 students who were nowhere close.

Feeling all the familiar feelings – the pressure to meet made-up timelines, the need to have all students at the same place at the same time, the need to “teach those kids a lesson” for procrastinating – I told those 6 that their day planning privileges were on pause until their method and lit review was done. I told them they would be sitting with me all day and could only leave my side when they showed me they were done.

Then I went home and all night had this nagging feeling of cognitive dissonance. I knew that what I had said and done was against our Studio 5 mission. I knew that I was infringing on their agency as learners. I knew I was being a hypocrite saying ‘it’s your learning, you own it, I trust you’ and then forcing them to sit with me until it’s finished. I knew that I was taking away their opportunity to fail and learn a lesson on their own. I knew I was using tactics of authority and compliance.

I knew I was back to my old ways of being a teachery-teacher…

So the next morning I shared all this with my students. I apologized. And I told them I was there for them if they needed help and support to meet the deadlines – but it was their choice, as it had been all along.

Their choice if they wanted my help.

Their choice when they wanted my help.

Their choice about how much help they wanted.

And guess what?

Each and everyone of them signed up for an unconference with me – most signed up for all my available unconferneces that day.

And guess what else?

Most of them asked if they could give up their recess to get caught up. Some even chose to take it home at the end of the day to make up for lost time.

I couldn’t have been happier with how things turned out! I spent my day supporting them to meet their deadline – not because they were being forced to, but because they chose to. And that felt completely different.

If I would have stuck with my initial plan, what would they have learned?

– that I say they own their learning, but when push comes to shove, actually I do

– that planning their day is only a privilege and I can take it away anytime I want

– that procrastinating is fine, because someone else will make sure they get things done

Throwing our that plan, and respecting their ownership over their learning, what might they have (hopefully) learned instead?

– that they actually do own their own learning

– that I am here to support them, not control or police them

– that in life when you procrastinate, sometimes you need to find extra time to get caught up

And what did I learn!?

– that those impulses towards control and compliance are deep rooted in my teacher DNA

– that I need to notice when my old habits creep back in

– that if I’m going to talk-the-talk of agency, I better be prepared to walk-the-walk of agency

– that if we always swoop in and pre-emptively save them, we’re stealing their opportunity to truly learn and grow

-that students truly are amazing … when we give them the space and room to be

Respecting and Responding to Student Voice

My students have been at school for two months now and it is really important to me that I understand how it has been going for them. Ensuring my students have opportunities to share their honest thoughts and feelings about school and me plays a huge part in respecting and supporting both their agency and their humanness for the time they spend in my care.

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This year I structured my questions around the qualities of establishing an inclusive classroom that I learned from an IB training.

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I also included questions to find out what I have been doing well and what I can do to improve.

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Here is a link to a copy of that form if you are interested in seeing it.

It’s always hard to put yourself out there and ask these types of questions. I get nervous every time I read their responses. But I also believe I get better every time I read their responses. So those temporary moments of a bruised ego are worth it because they lead to my growth both as a professional, and as a person.

So in the spirit of vulnerability and shared reflection, here is what I learned and the action I plan to take:

IMG_6459Looking at the quantitative data, I have built some professional goals that I will post in the classroom for students, parents and colleagues to see. I will invite constant feedback from my community to help me work towards these goals.

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Looking at the qualitative data, I will reach out to specific students to find out more. I will invite the 6 students who said they didn’t feel challenged to have a focus group with me so I can dig a little deeper to discover what they need. I will invite the student who didn’t feel listened to or understood to have a one-on-one conference with me to hopefully help us get to know each other better. I will ask the 3 students who do not feel safe what changes we could make to our classroom to help them feel more safe.

I also plan to share this data and my action plan with the parent community. I think they deserve to be included in this process, to know how students are feeling about school as well as the steps I plan to take to address some of their concerns.

How do you encourage and respond to student voice?

What do you ask your students to help you grow as a teacher?

Motivated Students

In education we often hear the question being asked, “How can I  motivate my students?” And though I am sure that question always comes from a genuine place of desire to help students learn and grow… I’m not sure it’s the question we need to be asking.

Recently I have begun a professional inquiry into motivation. I started by watching the very famous Ted Talk by the very famous Dan Pink about motivation:

Although his Ted Talk is specifically focused on motivation in the business world, there is much to learned – and much that has already been learned – about how this translates in the education world.

Many people are familiar with the new paradigm Pink offers regarding human motivation:

Autonomy. Mastery. Purpose. 

Autonomy – The desire to direct our own lives

Mastery – The desire to be better and develop ourselves

Purpose – The desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves

And many people can see how this paradigm fits into a system of education that supports agency and life long learners… but then comes the ever-present question on educators’ minds:

“But what does it look like in the classroom?”

So I have begun to brainstorm ways to turn this theory into practice. I’ve started to a list of  ideas – linked to resources where possible – that I believe can help teachers build learning communities that support students’ autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy – The desire to direct our own lives

Mastery – The desire to be better and develop ourselves

Purpose – The desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves

I think it’s time we switch the question away from “How can I motivate my students?” and more towards “What are we doing – or not doing – as educators that is getting in the way of students’ motivation?” and “What changes need to be made in both our classrooms and the education system that allow students more autonomy, mastery and purpose during their hours spent at school?”

What does autonomy, mastery and purpose look like in your classroom?

How you do translate Dan Pink’s theory of motivation into practice with your students?

How do you protect and foster your students’ intrinsic motivation?