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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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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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?