Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Loads of Content...What do I do?

Many countries have some form of government ministry or department of education that, among other things, designs and elaborates curriculum that schools are required to follow by law.

Chile has a recently developed national curriculum which is actually pretty good, especially in comparison to what we had before. You can check it out here, if you are interested.

A common concern is the excessive amount of content that teachers are required to teach and that students are required to learn. This issue has been thoroughly discussed by many authors, who have also tried to propose solutions, such as Grantt Wiggins and Jay McTighe.

I am especially worried about this now because I am currently making efforts to plan for a transdisciplinary unit of inquiry, in which students can practice important skills, develop attitudes, gain understanding of transferable concepts, and be aware of (and take action towards) issues of global importance, all of this through inquiry.

However, at the same time, I must comply with what the state mandates I should be teaching.

How can my students achieve all these great understandings, attitudes and skills, meaningfully through inquiry, and at the same time "learn" a long list of topics that they will later be evaluated on through a standardised test they are required to take?

I believe that if students are offered meaningful, real world experiences, where they can explore and experiment, practice skills by doing, inquire into their interests, and reflect on their prior knowledge and how their understandings are changing through time, they will learn much more than they could ever show us by answering multiple choice questions in a standardised test. This is, in summary, why I truly believe in the PYP and the IBO.

BUT... I have to make sure that I am "covering" the content... bummer...

So I have been trying to solve this issue and came up with an idea that I am currently trying out and wonder what the results will be.

I have begun by making a list of all the topics and content that I am required to cover (you wouldn't believe how much it is).

I have then identified the concepts that underly the topics and content.

Using both the concepts and the topics, I have created generalisations (big ideas, enduring understandings, "mini" central ideas).

The central idea of the unit of inquiry is actually a generalisation of these smaller generalisations, a meta-generalisation if you will.

Here is a snapshot of what I did:

So all these generalisations build up to the Unit Central Idea, which is:

Investigating the diversity of living things that inhabit the planet allows us to better understand them and how they interact, as well as find better ways to take care of them.  

Now, I hope to develop a unit of inquiry in which students can develop their understandings of this Central Idea by practicing tons of investigation skills, through which they can explore the generalisations mentioned above.

Do you have content based national requirements to follow? How do you get these to co-exist with your programme of inquiry? How are you achieving balance between a concept based programme and a concept/skill based programme?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Transdisciplinary Learning... Further Thoughts

I appreciate the feedback from some of you regarding the points I expressed in the first post about Transdiscipliary Learning, thanks , Nigel Jones@nainisingh and Robyn Hamilton!!!

Nigel commented that he thinks that Central Ideas should not necessarily be that broad in order for there to be transdisciplinary learning. I really liked what he commented about choosing key concepts in a thoughtful way, and that it is the "universal applicability of the concept" that makes the unit transdisciplinary, and not particularly the Central Idea. He also mentioned something I agree with: in choosing the concepts, we should make sure that these express the undertandings of the different disciplines that will be participating in the Unit of Inquiry.

Related concepts.... in the Programme of Inquiry samples shared by the IB, they list related concepts and make no reference to any discipline in particular. With this as an argument and my prior thoughts, I come to agree with Nigel in that related concepts are concepts related to the key concepts, but that help make connections to disciplines, as mentioned by Lynn Erickson in the document "Concept Based Teaching and Learning" (2012, IBO).

Basically, I come to the conclusion that a Central Idea should state the enduring understanding that we want students to develop, mentioning (explicitly or implicitly) the key and related concepts that will be explored. It is ok for the central idea to have content / concepts related to specific disciplines, because these are the disciplines that will be participating in the Unit of Inquiry.

Whether a discipline should "participate" or not in the Unit of Inquiry depends in the Transdisciplinry Theme. If the knowledge and understandings that students willl develop in that discipline will support the Transdisciplinary Theme, then that discipline should be considered as part of the Unit of Inquiry.

Thanks again to all of you who commented and helped me further understand these issues!

Using ICT to Learn About Parts of Speech

As an activity for the online course I am taking on ICT in primary education I was asked to brainstorm the ways I could use technology for students to learn something in particular, considering the "Learning Types" developed by Diana Laurillard in her book "Teaching as a Design Science: Building Pedagogical Patterns for Learning and Technology" (I just bought a sample of this book, looks interesting!)

I purposefully tried to choose a topic that would typically be taught in a very boring, classical, text-booky way, to see how easy it would be to change it.

The topic I chose was different parts of speech (for 11 year old english language  learners) (this topic is actually part of a Unit of Inquiry I am currently developing, where I want students to understand this central idea: Each part of speech has a function and they work together to create complete sentences of different types. "Different parts of speech" is actually the content from one of the lines of inquiry: an inquiry into what different parts of speech are like (Form). I will post about this unit later when I have worked on it more, but any suggestions are welcome!).

The course suggested us to use this template to think about how technology could help students understand any given topic, and here is my brainstorm:

Learning through:
Students learning about different parts of speech could....
Student’s could watch a video about an everyday conversation or about of topic of their liking.
Students could use Voicethread to attach their comments to the video they watched, mentioning the parts of speech they were able to identify.
In order to identify all the parts of speech in the video they watched, so that they can comment on them on Voicethread, students could research parts of speech definitions online.
Students could practice by recording their own discussions or conversations where they intentionally use and point out different parts of speech.
Students could share their Voicethreads with each other so that they can continue adding their comments to point out parts of speech that others may have missed in the video.
Students could choose their best recordings and edit these to create a short video that showcases their conversation while pointing out the parts of speech that were used.

What do you think about these ideas? Do you have experience using Voicethread or other similar apps with students? Do you have any suggestions?

ICT in Primary Education

I have just started taking an online course on ICT in primary education, "The ICT in Primary Education: Transforming children's learning across the curriculum", from the Institute of Education at the University of London

(I hope this course will help me not only in using technology with my students in school, but I am also interested in seeing how the course is facilitated, as I am also taking (for the second time!) an online course from the IBO to become an online facilitator.)

The school I used to work at had a strong technology integration programme that was just beginning to be implemented. We had 6 ipads that we could check out to work with the students, and a technology specialist that was available to help. We were all struggling on how to incorporate technology in a thoughtful way to develop higher order thinking skills. This was no easy, I think mainly because we did not have the training that we needed, despite the hard work from the technology department, who really tried very hard to get the programme going as expected!

I think I might be sharing some of the resources, content, ideas and suggestions from this course, as well as recommending it to my friends there!

So far, something important that I think needs to be shared with anyone using technology with students is the following:

Every resource we use is good for different types of learning. 

When we use a book and ask students to read from it to gather information, we are fostering a certain type of learning style. When we use a small group discussion for students to gather information from each other, we are fostering a different type of learning style. When we use a video, we are pointing towards yet another learning style. Well, when we use technology, we are also pointing towards a different learning style. And just as we would not have students ONLY use reading to learn, or ONLY use discussion to learn, we should not expect students to ONLY use technology to learn. As we differentiate the resources we offer to students, and the styles behind our lessons, we should consider technology as another resource, oriented towards another learning style. 

When planning a lesson, we are basically "solving a problem": This group of students has not understood the concept of addition. How can I help them understand it?  Planning has to do with solving this problem. If all we ask ourselves is "What can I use this technology for?", we are not addressing the problem. We are just trying to "fit" technology in. So instead, we should ask:

This group of students has not understood the concept of addition; Can technology help? How?

The goal of thinking in this way is to "challenge the technology to help with the really important learning needs".

How do students learn? How can technology help?

This is what we need to ask ourselves, and in this order, not the other way around!

I wonder what your experiences are in implementing ICT in education. I'd love to know your thoughts and experiences!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Our Programme of Inquiry ... Transdisciplinary?

Developing our Programme of Inquiry has not been an easy task. As it is a collaborative process, it is important for each member of the team to embody the Learner Profile and put social skills into practice, especially profile attributes such as being good communicators, open-minded, caring and reflective, and skills like respecting others, group decision-making and cooperating.

I have mixed feelings about how the Programme of Inquiry is turning out. Although we have some super exciting, challenging, interesting and relevant units of inquiry, we have others that, at least in the written curriculum seem ambiguous, confusing and just plainly wishy - washy.

The reason for this feeling is product of our teams discussions on how to plan for truly transdisciplinary units of inquiry, an issue that I have thoroughly discussed in the post "Achieving Transdisciplinary Learning". 

I have decided that to settle this subject I am going to follow my gut feeling, along with following the advice I have received from others, and the literature research I have don:

Central Ideas should reflect the enduring understanding you wish students to develop through the unit of inquiry; they can and should include both concepts and knowledge from the subject areas that will be participating in the unit, and the transdisciplinary nature of the learning will be produced due to the understanding of concepts that are timeless, universal, and applicable in a variety of contexts

So.... there is nothing wrong with a central idea that looks like this:

Our habits affect our bodies and well-being, and in turn, helps shape who we are. 

(*I am not saying this central idea is perfect, but I think it's OK.)

However.... (yes, there is a but... AAARRRRGGGGG)

... I cannot change the Programme of Inquiry which was a product of collaboration among some teachers, so...

I will continue revising the Programme of Inquiry, thinking on all the criteria explained in official IB documents, and posting my comments and reflections for future discussions with the staff.

As the school functions based on trimesters, and there are 2 units of inquiry per trimester, we have time to continue refining and embellishing our Programme of Inquiry.

After the first unit is over, I will ask teachers to intensively reflect on the following:

  • What did students learn throughout the unit of inquiry? In what ways is this learning connected to the central idea?
  • What are your assessment outcomes? In what measure did students understand the central ideas? In what measures did they comprehend the concepts and the knowledge of the unit?
  • How easy or hard was it for the different subject - areas to contribute to the understanding of the central idea?
I hope that through these reflections and discussions we can conclude on the impact of having broad, no-mention-to-subjects-whatsoever, ambiguous central ideas, where "almost anything in the world can fit".

Perhaps the impact will be positive and my gut feeling may not be right after all... I will try to be as open-minded as I can and will accept this, and in fact, it would be great if this were the case because our programme would not have to suffer so many changes!

But if my gut feeling is right after all, the learning that will be produced after having the first unit of inquiry and then reflecting about it, will cause us to be willing to (and needing to) make the necessary changes to the programme of inquiry.

I will be posting to record what happens with this!

The Question of Essential Questions

Essential questions are the tool we use in the inquiry process to ignite student's thinking, curiosity, prior knowledge, commitment and excitement for their own learning.

We should be using this the kick off a Unit of Inquiry to provoke student thinking and throughout the Unit to check on how their thinking changes, how their understandings transform and how they develop new knowledge and skills. We should use them also towards the end of the Unit of Inquiry, for students to reflect on how their learning has evolved and for teacher to identify students' new understandings.

I love using essential questions at the start of the Unit of Inquiry to reveal their prior knowledge. In this sense, I use them as one of  many strategies to identify what they already know, and I document this in the third step of the planning process ("How will we know what we have learned?").

I recently had a discussion with a colleague (experienced PYP teacher and workshop leader, of whom I've learned a lot!) about the use of essential questions as a way to identify student's prior knowledge. We discussed whether or not these questions should be used at this stage of the inquiry. Although we agreed that they must be used to ignite student curiosity at the beginning of the unit, we had our differences regarding their use as a "formal" tool to identify prior knowledge.

Should we use essential questions only as a way to promote curiosity and provoke interest in the Unit of Inquiry? Should we use these as a way to identify prior knowledge? Should we use them for both?

I believe that essential questions can tell you so much more about what students know, think, believe and are able to do than other more discipline directed methods to identify prior knowledge (such as a questionnaire with science concepts and content oriented questions that students answer to inform you of their pre-conceptions, or a drawing where students include "all they know about" a given topic). I like using strategies like these to specifically identify what students already know about math, science, reading.... I think we need these methods, but I think that student's answers to essential questions can give a teacher much more insight into what students truly know, feel, think... way beyond their subject specific knowledge.

I will be doing some research on what the literature about essential questions says regarding this issue, probably going to authors like Wggins and McTighe, and see if this information can further enlighten me. Check back in to see this later!

But for now, I would love to hear your opinions about the subject: how do you use essential questions? What do you think they are best for? what are the pros and cons on using essential questions as a way to check prior knowledge? What does your experience tell you?

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Achieving Transdisciplinary Learning

In the PYP, transdisciplinary learning is achieved through the use of the following aspects of the written curriculum:

  • Transdisciplinary themes
  • Key concepts and related concepts
  • Transdisciplinary skills
In school we are currently refining our PoI and updating most of the central ideas and therefore have also been looking into the key and related concepts for each unit. The Lines of Inquiry are also changing as a result of this. 

In order to plan for true transdisciplinary learning, we are following this process: 

  1. Group the national objectives under the Transdisciplinary Themes (the criteria for this grouping was basically to match the science and social studies content with the Transdisciplinary Themes, and then to find content and outcomes from the other disciplines that would support the learning going on in those future units, based on their experience of the past units).
  2. Find key concepts for the units, based on the science and social studies content/outcomes that were selected (and based on their past experience with the past units).
  3. Find related concepts, specific to each of the disciplines, for each of the content and outcomes. These related concepts need to relate somehow to the key concepts, and truly do not have much in common with the objectives/content/outcomes of the disciplines.
  4. Create a Central Idea that is broad enough so as to "fit in" learning outcomes from different disciplines (the more the better, which means that any word or related concept that is directly related to a specific discipline should not be included, ie. "economy" as a concept should not be included in the Central Idea because it is directly related to social studies and therefore could hinder the active participation of other disciplines. In talking about this with the coordinator, he responded that he felt this necessary basically because teachers from different subject areas would read the Central Idea and in finding word like "economy" would think well I teach physical education and therefore have nothing to contribute to this unit).
  5. Create 1 Line of Inquiry for each of the key concepts. These lines should also be as broad as possible so as to continue promoting the participation of different disciplines in the Unit of Inquiry. 
Here are examples of the work done for one of the units, following these steps:

Trans Theme: How we organise ourselves -- "...economic activities and their impact on humankind and the environment" (3rd grade)
  • Key Concepts: Function, Connection, Responsibility
  • Related Concepts:
    • Social studies: production, economy
    • Language: production (of texts, of writing, of oral speaking...)
    • Mathematics: measurement, money, organisation (of information)
    • Arts: production (artistic productions...)
  • Central Idea: Social organisation benefits from proper exchange of products and services. 
Trans Theme: Sharing the planet -- "...communities and the relationships within and between them..." (5th grade)
  • Key Concepts: Connection, Form, Responsibility
  • Related Concepts:
    • Science: life, ecosystem, habitat, interaction, cycle
    • Language: description
    • Civics: interaction
  • Central Idea: Human beings' actions and their adaptation to their environment conditions the relationship between them and with the multiple forms of life on the planet. 
Several aspects of this process produce tension in me...

Will transdisciplinary learning only occur with inquiries into extremely broad central ideas?
Do we need extremely broad and ambiguous central ideas in order for different disciplines to be able to participate in a unit of inquiry?
In what ways may the learning in the specific subjects be compromised by trying to get students to reach such broad generalisations? Is the integrity of the discipline at stake?
Can lines of inquiry specifically mention subject specific concepts? In what ways does this truly affect the transdisciplinary nature of the inquiry?
When and how should different disciplines participate in a unit of inquiry? a) when the learning in a specific discipline will be needed for students to understand the central idea or explore the key concepts or b) by intentionally selected related concepts for the disciplines that are related to the key concepts of the unit?
What should be done first? Group the content/outcomes in the Trans Theme and then find key concepts that underly all of these?
How should related concepts be selected? They are called "related", which makes me think they should be RELATED to the key concepts. Or should they be RELATED to the disciplines?
Here is some research on related concepts:

"The related concepts, however, ensure that instruction builds depth of understanding by attending to, and adding to, the language of each subject area—the discipline-specific concepts and their important relationships from year to year. In the PYP, these related concepts can be taught in the context of the transdisciplinary units of instruction developed for the programmes of inquiry. Identifying the related concepts in these units ensures that disciplinary depth is included in the inquiry. When I use the term “related concepts” in my work with concept-based curriculum design, I am referring to the concepts related to specific disciplines within the unit, rather than specific concepts related to various key concepts. The reason for this is I want to identify the more specific concepts to build disciplinary depth." 

Erickson, HL. (2012) "Concept Based Teaching And Learning". IBO.

So the goal of related concepts is to "build depth of understanding by attending to, and adding to, the language of each subject area" and doing so helps reach disciplinary depth in a transdisciplinary unit.

Related concepts are those "related to specific disciplines within the unit", they are not related to key concepts. Is this so?

"...the PYP and the MYP ask teachers to use a key concept and a more discipline-specific related concept to state a central idea and concept statement respectively. To reinforce idea-centred teaching and conceptual thinking I recommend consideration of additional conceptual understandings crafted with the more discipline-specific related concepts to be added to each unit. I will call these understandings “supporting ideas” for the purposes of this discussion. In the MYP and PYP if a year-long course of instruction was framed under five or six units of instruction, I would think five to eight supporting ideas per unit - in addition to the central idea/concept statement - would be reasonable to guide the formative work."

Erickson, HL. (2012) "Concept Based Teaching And Learning". IBO.

For the PYP, we should choose related concepts which are "discipline-specific". Both key concepts and related concepts should be used to state central ideas. These related concepts are more discipline-specific and they should be included in the units as "supporting ideas". If they are SUPPORTING IDEAS, then should these ideas be included only when they support the understanding of the Central Idea, or should the central idea be created by combining both these concepts and the key concepts?

We should be choosing 5 to 8 related, discipline-specific concepts for each unit (!!!).

Here is an interesting argument given by Erickson (2012) to support this previous suggestion:

"Another reason I suggest that the PYP and MYP use the more specific related concepts to write additional supporting ideas for their unit planners is to continually build disciplinary schemata in the 
brain, so students are prepared for the conceptual rigour of the DP, as well as for lifelong learning and work. It is through the conceptual structures of knowledge that the PYP, MYP and DP can be further 
aligned and articulated on the IB programme continuum."

Another point I think should be considered is what the IB states on the official documents:

  • "When planning a programme of inquiry, schools should be aware that all significant science and social studies teaching should take place within the programme of inquiry. Moreover, knowledge, concepts and skills from any of the other subject areas, ie language, mathematics, PSPE and arts, should be included in the programme of inquiry whenever there is an authentic connection to the students’ learning and understanding of the transdisciplinary theme." 

"Developing a Transdisciplinary Programme of Inquiry" (2012) IBO.

This means that we should, in fact, start developing the Programme of Inquiry by looking at the science and social studies goals/contents/outcomes we are required to reach, and organising these within the Trans Themes. 

Other subject areas should participate when there is an authentic connection to students' understanding of the Trans Theme (and therefore of the Central Idea). Now, should this authentic connection be conceptual, thematic, or both?

Finally, the document describes central ideas with the following criteria:
  • One sentence that expresses concisely an enduring understanding
  • Support students’ understanding of the particular transdisciplinary theme it is connected to
  • Should challenge and extend students’ prior knowledge. 
  • Is globally significant and have relevance to students in all cultures and contexts, offering students the opportunity to explore commonalities of human experience as framed by the description of the transdisciplinary theme.
  • Is written in a neutral voice that does not convey a specific or particular value of an individual or group, eg teachers.
  • Is written in such a way to invite student inquiry, so that a range of responses is possible. 
  • Its complexity can be uncovered (if necessary) to help students construct their own meaning and assign their own value to the ideas being explored.
  • Promotes conceptual development supported by the PYP key concepts identified 
  • There are clear links between the transdisciplinary theme, the central idea and the associated lines of inquiry need to be established and articulated.
  • There is an effective way in which students can demonstrate—or teachers assess—their understanding of the central idea
  • May need to be “unpacked” by the teachers or students and discussed in language that the students can understand. 
"Developing a Transdisciplinary Programme of Inquiry" (2012) IBO.

Although the document says nothing about how broad the central idea should be, it does say that it should express the enduring understanding, which should be transdisciplinary and therefore not subject specific. I could conclude, then, that a broad central idea would be best to promote transdisciplinary learning. However, I still think there is a limit as to how broad it is... 

And about the lines of inquiry, the document states that:
  • "The purpose of the lines of inquiry is to clarify and develop understanding of the central idea. Each unit of inquiry will contain three or four lines of inquiry and these should be written as statements or phrases, not as questions, topics or tasks. There should be evidence of a connection between the lines of inquiry and aspects of the designated transdisciplinary theme.
  • Lines of inquiry should be written in such a manner as to develop conceptual understanding supported by the identified PYP key concepts and related concepts. Lines of inquiry should be relevant to the experience of the students within a particular developmental range. The lines of inquiry, as a set, should define the scope of the inquiry and help to focus student research. However, they should be open enough to extend student inquiries, and deepen understanding of the central idea."
"Developing a Transdisciplinary Programme of Inquiry" (2012) IBO.

Considering this information, I can say that the lines of inquiry should be more specific, mentioning the key concepts and the related concepts from the subject specific areas already identified. Should they be broad or specific? I think there should be a balance between "broad enough so as to invite inquiry into the related concepts from the already identifies subject areas", but "specific enough so that the inquiry is structured around those concepts and that knowledge", because the PYP proposes structured, not open inquiry, and it's the lines of inquiry that make the difference!

What process do you follow to plan for transdisciplinary learning?
How do you make sure your central ideas reflect the participation of different disciplines, yet clearly identify the learning that will go on without being ambigious?