Personalized Units of Inquiry

Last year I shared my teams’ dissatisfaction with the typical PYP approach to planning Units of Inquiry for students – especially within a context aiming to respect and support student agency.

Last year, I also shared my team’s first attempt at Units of Inquiry planned by students, as well as an update later on in the year as the process evolved.

This year we continue to grow and refine the process… always reflecting… always iterating… never satisfied. Keeping the parts of the process that were successful last year, ditching things that weren’t and trying new things we hope can make the process even better.

Here is a synopsis of how we’ve changed and improved the process from last year:

Starting with motivation and purpose

Similar to last year, we spent the first week inquiring into motivation and supporting students to uncover what their purpose might be.

Here are some of slides that helped us in our own planning, as well as guiding the students’ planning.

Something new we tried this year was having students think of their own, “why, how and what” when they were committing to their purpose. This in-between step helped them begin the thought process of unit planning, but in a very simplified way.

This simple, first step was really effective at helping students to begin to think about their journey.

This year, we also joined the community of learners – following each and every part of the process alongside our students.

Here is a link to the slides we used to guide this process with students.

Finding Connections

Something new we tried this year, was helping students find connections – both among their peers and within the school community.

First we decided to post all the students’ purposes in a central location. We chose to organize them by TD themes to help with our own tracking and horizontal articulation over the year.

Once all 120 students’ purposes were posted, we realized that although they were organized by TD theme, it would be helpful to also organize them by category. So we decided to look for trends and colour-code them based on what we noticed.

Then we decided to invite anyone and everyone who worked at the school that might have something to offer our students – single-subject teachers, coaches, our CAS coordinator, our Head of School etc. We asked them to do two things:

1. Analyze the students’ purposes and do a “see, think, wonder” leaving post-it notes with advice, observations, suggestions and questions.

2. Fill in a poster about what you are willing to help with and how you prefer to be contacted by the students.

As soon as the first post-it note and “I Can Help With” poster went up, students were at the boards, taking notes, photos and videos of anything and anyone that might help them achieve their purpose.

Unit Planning

Similar to last year, we had students go through the unit planning process. We felt it really helped them take their vision, and break it down into more manageable bits and pieces.

To simplify the process, this year my team spent a lot of time debating the different unit planners we used last year and reached consensus (which is rare for us!) about a unit planner that was simple, effective and aligned with the PYP planning process.

Tracking

Something new we are also trying his year, is to do a better job tracking all the different UOIs to be able to document horizontal articulation. Although last year we knew there was breadth and depth of exploration across all six TD themes, because we were all new and figuring it out as we went, we didn’t have a process for keeping track of it all.

This year we’ve decided to create a database that will document each student’s personalized UOIs over the course of the year, creating somewhat of a personalized program of inquiry.

This will allow us to see which TD themes have been explored by which students and therefore which TD themes and students might need a nudged over the course of the year. It will also provide a record that we can share with IB visitors during evaluation visits to show that we are meeting the Standards and Practices of students engaging with all six TD themes in their final year of the PYP.

Self-Evaluations

Another element of the process we wanted to keep from last year, was having students evaluate their own learning (i.e. write their own reports). However, we felt that it wasn’t only important for students to evaluate their own learning upon the completion of their unit, but also the creation of their unit.

So after students created their own personalized UOI, they formally evaluated their understanding of their own motivation and indicators of success.

We provided them with the following guiding questions:

Then we responded to their self-evaluation based on our own observations and assessments of the unit creation process.

After six weeks we will follow the same procedure as last year, asking students to reflect on and evaluate their motivation and success in order to make an informed choice whether to “pivot or preserve”.

Parent Involvement

Something new we are going to try is involving parents more in supporting the students throughout their Units. Last year we had a few parents come in as experts, but we felt the process could be much more intentional and organized.

First we reached out to parents to see who might be interested in donating time and expertise to support our students’ Units.

From here, we are planning to look at the data and begin to create a sustainable structure of matching up parents who have something to offer, with students who are looking for help.

Something from last year that worked really well that we plan to do again this year, was inviting parents in for a UOI consultation. Parents came in and sat with their their child, looked at their unit plan, the documentation and evidence and both celebrated their progress as well as offered advice and suggestions about next steps.

We’re only a few weeks in… but it’s been a wonderful few weeks! It’s been great to see students start to explore their purpose, build connections, reach out to experts and take action! The buzz is real!

Photo credits: @puglifevn @juoulette @phuhua

Overall, the changes and improvements have had a positive impact on maintaining the integrity of student voice, choice and ownership in the process while balancing the expectations of the program.

As usual, we will continue to reflect and refine as we go… and I’ll keep sharing our journey with you along the way!

How do you ensure Units of Inquiry are significant, relevant, engaging and challenging for each student?

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Assessment done with students, not to students

This year I have tried to approach assessment differently. I wanted my students to feel that assessment is something I do with them… not to them.

I have made many shifts in my assessment practices to try and accomplish this goal:

Discussions about assessment

As a class we discussed the difficulty of trying to measure a human’s learning and I shared that there are many different approaches to trying to figure out what a student has learned in school. We discussed a handful of approaches for measuring learning and then we tried each of them out within the context of our unit.

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Co-constructed success criteria

Instead of teachers sitting behind closed doors, deciding what ought to be learned by the end of a unit, I made those decisions collaborative with my students. I used the structure of growing definition where first students brainstorm on their own, then they combine ideas with a partner, then they merge thinking with another set of partners, then a foursome with a foursome and so on until the whole class builds a list together. Once their student list was created, I consulted our school curriculum documented and added any knowledge or concepts they might have left out. This list then became our success criteria that we used throughout the unit.

Student chosen summatives

Teachers and teaching teams spend hours, upon hours, discussing and trying to figure out how students can best show their learning at the end of a unit. This year, instead of choosing that choice for them, I handed that decision over to my students. When we approached the end of the unit, I would ask “How best can you share your learning from this unit?” Some students who felt most comfortable expressing themselves orally would submit a vlog or request a one-on-one conference, other students who felt they best expressed themselves in writing would submit a written text, and others who felt they could best express themselves visually would produce a mind map, or concept map or cartoon – some sort of visual to convey their new thinking and new knowledge.

Triangulation of perspectives

Oftentimes as teachers we are the only – and ultimate – voice of assessment. Sometimes we tokenistically invite self and peer assessment, but rarely are those assessments equally valued. So this year I wanted to take a flatter, more democratic approach to assessment. Whether it was diagnostic, formative or summative, we always followed the same three steps: first the student would assess themselves, next they would find a peer to offer their perspective, then purposefully last, I as the teacher would share my perspective. What they end up with, is three different perspectives… all equally valued.

  

Interchangeability of diagnostic, formatives and summatives

Instead of approaching diagnostic, formative and summative assessments as assessments that you do at the beginning, middle and end of a unit – I took a much more fluid approach. If a student did a diagnostic and demonstrated all the knowledge and skills that were expected they could decide to use that as their summative and then either choose to extend themselves in this area of continue with a personal inquiry of their choice – thus the diagnostic becomes the summative. If partway through the unit a student demonstrates the required knowledge and skills, then that formative can then become their summative and they would have the same choice of extending or free learning. And finally, on the “last day” of the unit if a student completed a summative and had not yet demonstrated the necessary knowledge and skills they could choose to continue to learn, and therefore turn that summative into a formative and re-take the summative at a later time when they felt ready.

Decision making conferences

When it came time to enter “final marks” into the report card, I would sit with each student individually and have a conversation about where they thought they were in their learning. They would look back at the assessment data and tools and share where they thought they were and then I would do the same. Together we would agree on a mark that we both felt comfortable putting on the report card.

Taking it to the next level…

All in all, it was a great change in practice! I think my students felt empowered to have a voice in their learning and in the measurement of their learning. I think students felt their perspectives were respected and valued. And on a personal level, it felt much more humane and much more like a partnership in supporting their learning journey!

Upon reflections from this year and visions for next year, here are a few ways that I would like to take the approach of ‘doing assessment with students’ even further:

Individualized success criteria 

I enjoyed the process of co-constructing success criteria with my students, but to take that further I would love to personalize that process even more and have students design their own individual success criteria. Flipping the question “What should we learn but the end of the unit?” more towards “What should I (or do I want to) learn by the end of the unit?” This would open up some great conversations with students about choosing how they might know they have been successful at learning something or acquiring new skills. Here is a blog post with an example of how one teacher approached this.

Beyond triangulation of perspectives

This year I think I did a pretty good job shifting the assessment power away from myself as a teacher, and equally distributing it between myself, the student and a peer. However, I would like to push that model further and perhaps figure out a way to include the perspective of parents, industry experts or community members. I don’t think it would have to be all 6 sources every time. I think there could be a lot of authentic learning in having students decide which assessment perspective is most helpful in a specific situation.

Student written report cards

The only part of the assessment process my students were kept out of this year was reporting. Moving forward I would love to see students take a more equal role in writing their own report cards. Here is a great blog post with some suggestions I hope to be able to follow in the future.

How do you ensure assessment is something done “with students” not “to students” in your classroom or school?