Ripples & Reflections

"Learning is about living, and as such is lifelong." Elkjaer.


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A pragmatic approach to inquiry: my article in IS magazine

Click to read.

Click to read.

This article, “(Re)defining inquiry for international education,” is based on a thread of thought started with my “MYP: Mind the Gapconference presentation and continued with an MA assignment. It was published in the most recent issue (Autumn | Spring 2014) of International School Magazine, edited by University of Bath tutors and international education gurus Mary Hayden and Jeff Thompson.

In the article “(re)defining” refers to clarifying the meaning of the term inquiry, so that we can give access to high-quality inquiry learning to students through the whole continuum. It builds on anecdotal experiences in discussions that ‘inquiry’ has been framed from one end as a weak, free-for-all alternative to teaching and critical reasoning. This is a misinterpretation, and the article advocates for a reminder of what inquiry is and a working definition of inquiry as critical reflective thought (after Elkjaer & Dewey) that is future-oriented, but based on strong foundation of effectively-taught skills and knowledge (after Vygotsky, Hattie…). From the other end, it is important to understand that inquiry looks and feels very different as disciplinary studies become deeper and more authentic.

This is of particular importance to IB schools. Stakeholders need to understand that an inquiry-based framework is not a knowledge-free curriculum, and that a high-stakes test-based assessment at one end is no excuse to crush the exploration out of the learning process.

In essence: we create an outstanding curriculum that gives students knowledge and skills to work with and has lots of room for them to put them to use in critical, creative and reflective problem-solving. Use high-impact strategies to teach those skills and that knowledge, to avoid misconception and to ensure that these critical thinkers have a solid foundation of raw materials for future learning.

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Read the full article on IS Magazine’s website here, or download the magazine (pdf) here (or just the article pdf here).

Click to read my article on Inquiry in the Autumn | Spring issue of International School magazine.

Click to read my article on Inquiry in the Autumn | Spring issue of International School magazine.


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Growth Mindsets in Differentiation & Feedback

Nothing suggests 'loser' quite like a table for one and a book with that cover blurb. ;)

Nothing suggests ‘loner’ quite like a table for one and a book with that cover blurb. 😉 #GrowthMindset

After reading/hearing so much about Carol Dweck’s Mindset over the last couple of years, I was finally able to read the book on the train from London to Bath. I’d become so familiar with the ideas that it felt like 200+ pages of déjà vu, although the main messages are perhaps worth reinforcing.

It’s an easy read, in a style similar to Pink, Goleman, Gladwell and co., though I did find myself skimming over yet another American sports example (Woods, Wooden, Jordan, Wie, Yankees, McEnroe). There were some interesting sections on leadership, parenting and relationships, though I was really looking for more practical advice on how to build growth mindsets in my students.

Some key messages for parents and educators

  • A fixed mindset is seen as a personal success or failure, a (permanent) label on a person of their worth.
  • Fixed-mindsets value ability over effort and when effort is put in it is in order to affirm one’s status at the top; they might be seen to ‘learn’ a lot as they perform highly in tests and assessments, but this may be due only to the effect of their achievement affirming their fixed mindset.
  • Fixed mindsets see difficulty as a weakness or threat and so may not put in the effort in case they fail.
  • Growth mindsets embrace the challenge of difficulty and see the value in learning as a journey.
  • Growth mindsets demonstrate resilience in failure and use difficulties to set workable plans for improvement
  • Growth mindset leaders and teachers embrace their own personal learning and seek to develop learning communities: it is OK to not know… yet.
  • Growth mindset leaders take time to listen, learn and evaluate fairly. They surround themselves with knowledgable inquirers and weed out the fixed mindset culture of fear and/or affirming status. They might be lower-key than the high-powered fixed-mindset hero-leaders, but they build a more sustainable and trusting culture.

Feedback and Mindsets

Samudra, determined to ride the space tower thing at LegoLand. Photo (c) Stephen Taylor.

Samudra, determined to ride the space tower thing at LegoLand. Photo (c) Stephen Taylor.

It is clear that our words and actions as parents and teachers reinforce kids’ views of themselves and their behaviour adjusts accordingly. By focusing on personal feedback (praise or criticism), we may affect the mindset of the child, either reinforcing the ego or damaging the student’s motivation to improve. By focusing on tasks and processes, looking at how we can improve, we might help students develop more growth mindsets. A good strategy for effective feedback that builds on the growth mindset might be Hattie’s Three Levels (Task, Process and Self-regulation).

Differentiation and Mindsets

When we focus on ability-related feedback, conversations or behaviours are we limiting the growth mindset? Dweck suggests that this is compounded when the curriculum is ‘dumbed-down’ and that having high expectations for all students, coupled with valuable feedback, will increase achievement. Sounds obvious, but may not always play out in class. Avoid the temptation to make the curriculum easier for the ‘less able’ students and instead Differentiate Up from a core. Challenge everyone, support everyone.

Approaches to Learning and Mindsets

We all want our students to do well, but more than that we should want them to love learning and become enthusiastic lifelong learners. Taking steps to weed out fixed-mindset behaviours and language from our classes and our cultures in order to develop strategies towards becoming more growth-oriented might bring us part of the way. This is where we can start to see the importance of the Affective skills clusters of the IB’s Approaches to Learning, and will likely be an area that requires significant teacher (and parent) professional development. Coupled with a strong curriculum and high-impact teaching and learning and we might just get there.

I used to think you were smart.” Calvin and Hobbes strip that neatly sums up fixed vs growth mindsets, used on p40 of Dweck’s Mindset.

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I’ll admit, the idea of Mindset seems a little too neat for me – we are more nuanced and complex than either-or (which she recognises in the book). Personally, for example, I would see myself as very growth-mindset in that I seek development, learn more and reflect on everything; however, I can take perceived failure or criticism very personally, which is a more fixed-mindset trait. I also recognise that the book is aimed at a mass-market audience, and so there is much reference to ‘our research’ without a lot of depth. I would prefer a more academic, education-focused edition of this, with fewer popular-culture, big-CEO or sports stories and more about how this has been investigated.

As a tool for teachers, the language of fixed vs growth mindset will make it easier to have conversations with students and parents, and we can develop or make use of strategies that reinforce the nature of learning as a growth process. I am looking forward to seeing how schools start to put some of these ideas to use in their development of the Approaches to Learning.

I have added this book to the MYP Coordinator’s Bookshelf , but would really recommend any of the other books as good reads before moving onto this one. 

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This is a total cheese-fest, but anyone who says they don’t like Dolly has a heart of stone. Her recent single, Try, does a pretty neat job of capturing the Growth Mindset and the role of effort in success – and it’s the theme song for her literacy charity, Imagination Library.


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Summertime Subsidence: Vacating the Mind of This Year’s Learning

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Nobody wants to be that teacher – the one who assigns a massive packet of busy work, due the first day back to school, but it is evident that extended vacations result in a reversal of some learning.  This loss of learning increases with grade level, so at the ages we are trying to maximise the use of high-impact teaching and learning strategies, we run the risk of much of that work being undone by Summertime Subsidence (d=-0.02).

Summertime. Perfect to recharge, but don't let the learning drip out. Photo by Stephen Taylor.

Summertime. Perfect to recharge, but don’t let the learning drip out. Photo by Stephen Taylor.

At the same time, it’s upsetting to hear of students who give up the bulk of their summer to crash-courses for SAT or various other exam preparations. They need to recharge, as do we all. With the emerging importance of the Affective cluster of the Approaches to Teaching and Learning, we need to recognise the importance of social, emotional and physical well-being in creating rounded, happy learners. Vacations give us this opportunity, improving happiness and even productivity upon our return, as well as helping to manage stress. A mindful vacation helps redress the balance that a high-intensity academic programme such as IB Diploma can upset.

So what is the balance?

What do you do to ensure your students make the most of their break – not only for preventing learning loss but for bringing them back happy, healthy and ready to go? Do you give summer reading or assignments? What do you do with the first days back; do you move on with the new stuff or review the old?

I’ve posted my guidelines for my IB Biology students on i-Biology.net here. I’m be interested to hear more!

Have a great summer.

And keep that brain Fresh…

 


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MYP: Mind the Gap [MA Assignment]

The circle closes with this assignment, from IBAP conference in 2013 to the submission of the assignment in 2014. From here it’s onwards and updwards with the Research Methods unit and the dissertation, building (hopefully) on my Web Chart of the International Dimension

Building on ideas from my IBAP Regional Conference breakout session in 2013, this assignment focuses on different approaches to and interpretations of inquiry across the MYP-DP divide. It focuses first on how Dewey and Vygotsky saw learning an then brings the discussion more up to date with a little look at different learning theories, shoehorning in some modern approaches based on Hattie, Willingham, Kahnemann and the like.

Since coming up with the idea for conference presentation back in 2012-13, I have read so much on these various tensions that it became overwhelming to write and rewrite the assignment. Even up to the last day of writing I was turning up new papers, chapters and interpretations, and the conversations about similar ideas (progressivism vs direct instruction, essentially) continue to wage on through twitter and blogs. I’m not convinced we’ll even reach a happy medium or sense of overall agreement in how best to teach and learn, but it sure makes for interesting reading.

In summary: we’ll never agree on what makes learning effective, as there are too many contrasting ideologies. However, we can use the emphasis on inquiry in the IB programmes to carefully define what we want from our learners and what we want to achieve as educators. Using Bente Elkjaer’s definition of inquiry as “critical reflective thought” we can find commons ground across the gap, from the more open-ended Deweyesque approach to inquiry of the PYP and MYP to the more structured Vygotskyan DP-oriented model. Students need to be taught, and the role of the teacher is highly important; where content is needed, we must ensure that it is accurate, useful and – most importantly – free from misconception so that it can be built upon in later inquiries. We can equip students with a worthwhile foundation of knowledge and skills from which they can build inquiry, through future-oriented, critical and reflective thought.

There is a false dichotomy between progressivism and more didactic methods of learning; it is striking the right balance for learners at the right time that is key and the paper is bookended by Dewey’s quotes reflecting this.

What we want and need is education pure and simple, and we shall make surer and faster progress when we devote ourselves to finding out just what education is and what conditions have to be satisfied in order that education may be a reality and not a name or a slogan.”

 (Dewey, Experience and Education, 1938, p.91)

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Some related blog posts:

JohnDewey_isms_iBiologyStephen


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The Swallow, The Flock and The Writer’s Block

As the jumble of words in my head steadfastly refuse to flock together into a narrative on an assignment, I am finding it helpful to get back to the books, to sort the quotes again and think about the story they are telling.

I enjoyed this excerpt, from O.E. Mandelstam’s The Swallow, used in Lev Vygotsky’s Thought and Word and quoted here from Harry Daniels’ Vygostky and Pedagogy.

MandelstamSwallow_Vygotsky_iBiologyStephen

Link to original image. Link to quote.

It also reminds me of the challenges our learners face when they can’t articulate their thoughts in our ‘target language’ and the importance of us providing support and opportunities for them to create conceptual understandings even in spite of linguistic limitations.

I forgot the word I wanted to say,

And thought, unembodied,

Returns to the hall of shadows.

This is printed and on my door now.

Hopefully soon enough the thoughts will flock, forming something coherent and perhaps as beautiful as this murmuration of starlings.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/31158841″>Murmuration</a&gt; from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/islandsandrivers”>Islands &amp; Rivers</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>


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Defining Inquiry: “Critical Reflective Thinking”

I find this definition of educational inquiry useful enough to give it its own post (abridged from my An Inquiry Crossfader post). I would like all educators in an IB setting, especially with Next Chapter, to have a good understanding of inquiry as the process that allows students to learn and demonstrate their learning at a sophisticated level. 

The IB programmes emphasise inquiry, a word frequently used though perhaps oft-misunderstood. It does not mean a trivial and open-ended, free-for-all approach to learning (in this loose sense, “inquiry learning” ranks low on Hattie’s Visible Learning impacts [d=0.31]). The PYP describes its approach as “structured, purposeful inquiry” where students are invited to “investigate significant issues,” and in which the goal is “the active construction of meaning.”  (Making the PYP Happen, p29) This is no loose approach – despite the relative freedom of content and (hopefully) less rigid set of external pressures – and is wholly relevant in the MYP and DP.

My favourite educational definition of inquiry comes from Bente Elkjaer: “critical or reflective thinking.” In her chapter on pragmatism in Knud Illeris’ Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning theorists… in their own words she qualifies the definition further, describing how it connects to experience and the pragmatic approach to learning.

Inquiry is “critical or reflective thinking [that] concerns consequences,” future-oriented approach (‘what-if’ rather than ‘if-then’) in which meaning is “identified by anticipating ‘what-if’ consequences to potential actions and conduct.

Paraphrased from Bente Elkjaer

This is a definition I am comfortable to use with critical and reflective adults and will aim to do so when working with teachers in the MYP and DP settings.

After all, we all want to create critical and reflective thinkers, right?

BenteElkjaer_inquiry_@iBiologyStephen

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On inquiry vs enquiry

This might be splitting hairs, but my distinction has long been enquiry as asking a question, including the trivial, versus inquiry as the process of investigating more deeply (more in line with Elkjaer’s definition above). It turns out this might not be right:

From the Oxford English Dictionaries online:

“Inquiry

Noun (plural inquiries): another term for enquiry. Definition in the US English dictionary.”

Ey up, I must have been internationaliszed somewhere along the way.

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Related: An Inquiry Crossfader as part of thinking about MYP:Mind the Gap (tensions in transitions from MYP to DP), in which I think about how teachers can place themselves in ‘camps’ of either/or in terms of content/outcomes vs inquiry/concepts. We should aim for an appropriate and careful balance at all levels.

 

 


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Give a Student a Fish…

“Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he’ll feed his family for a lifetime.” Anne Ritchie, 1885 (maybe)

This short post, again related to Understanding Learners and Learning, Visible Learning and MYP: Mind the Gap, revolves around my (admittedly flawed) memory of an old aid advert, a bit like this:

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After defining learning and thinking critically and reflectively about the nature of inquiry and why there might be a tension across the MYP-DP transition, I want to think briefly about the learner that crosses that gap, using the obvious metaphor of the fisherman as the learner and the fish as the content, skills and conceptual understandings that the student brings up from MYP to DP.

What kind of student do you want to come up to your DP class from MYP? The kid with a boatload of fish or the thinker with the ability to catch more fish?

For authentic inquiry (critical, reflective, future-focused, consequence-oriented, ‘what-if’ thought (Elkjaer)) to be successful, students need some fish in their stomachs. We can’t ask good questions of nothing, nor can we evaluate the empty. So content and skills are needed by the student moving into the Diploma Programme. But is it the MYP teacher’s job to pre-teach everything to a DP student? What is important to know and be able to do? What conceptual understandings and approaches to learning are the most advantageous to develop, to ‘clear the path’ for effective learning and success in terminal assessments?

What happens if we ‘teach’ our students too much before they get to DP? Two things concern me here: interference and motivation, both of which I need to learn more about as I continue this assignment.

The first is the known negative impact of interference: the effect of incorrect or poorly-formed conceptual understandings on future learning. This is outline in Hattie’s Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, and is of particular relevance to the thoughtful science teacher; students come up to our classes with a multitude of prior learning (correct or otherwise) that can either help or hinder their learning. If they arrive with a solid understanding of the concepts of evolution (Biology) or energy (Physics), for example, they will be better able to make connections (transfer) this learning as they modify existing patterns or construct new schema. Conversely, if their existing understandings are misconceptions these need to be undone before effective learning can take place, and this is very difficult to do. These misconceptions may come from poor prior teaching, superficial learning (e.g. content cramming) or in the confusion between discipline-specific and everyday use (e.g. ‘power’). I would argue here for a very carefully-constructed conceptual curriculum in the MYP years, one that emphasises not a large body of content but a highly-effective approach to constructing correct conceptual understandings.

Parallel to this is the concept of cognitive load and ego-depletion: we need to maintain a careful balance between effective learning to the point of competence and over-exertion to the point of no learning. Knowing is pleasant, but learning is uncomfortable. The ideal student coming up from DP would be fluent in the basic skills, concepts and knowledge that they learned in MYP: the basics of this core curriculum having been automatized and committed to ‘System I’, the ‘fast-thinking’ part of the memory (Kahnemann), leaving cognitive load ready for the heavier lifting in higher-order thinking (‘System II’, slow-thinking’). This is all described with much greater competence in Hattie’s Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn.

This might be a challenge to teachers ‘across the gap’ as the urge to cover content can be a strong one, but perhaps we should rather think of it as developing students who can fish well over those who are paddling upstream with a boatload of rotten trout.

The second issue that concerns me is one of motivation. In a highly content-driven, test-focused, behavioural/empirical classroom we risk creating or reinforcing a culture of extrinsic motivation, in which grades are king and are used to positively or negatively reinforce learning behaviours (ego orientation). When everything is accounted for, where is the motivation to learn as a true learner, to be truly inspired to know more? In soe school cultures we might say that it doesn’t matter how the students learn, as long as the results are high, but in that case are we really educating them or are we just passing them on to the next set of accountants?

With an inquiry-led, cognitive/rationalist classroom can we develop a more intrinsic motivation to learn, to develop a greater self-efficacy as learners in order to be more critical and reflective in our thought: a mastery goal orientation? How can the MYP classroom develop students effectively through the Approaches to Learning so that they are ready to get fishing as soon as they start Diploma and are carrying with them a solid set of conceptual understandings that will help them transfer their learning and make new connections?

Finally, do we really need to pre-teach such a great deal of content in the MYP that there are no new discoveries in the Diploma Programme? How motivated are we to re-learn what we (think we) already know and what is the effect of boredom (coupled with potential interference of misconceptions) on the effectiveness and meaning-construction in what we are trying to learn?

Once again the tensions in the transition from MYP to DP represent a fine balancing act, one for which I need to do a lot more learning.

Sources

Greeno, Collins & Resnick. Cognition & Learning, chapter in Berliner, D. & Calfee, R. (eds.),Handbook of Educational Psychology, Macmillan, New York: 15-46

Illeris, Knud. Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning theorists… in their own wordsChapters by Knud Illeris, Bente Elkjaer.

Hattie & Yates. Visible Learning & The Science of How We Learn.

Kahnemann. Dual Process Theory.

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On a parallel aid-related note, here’s a quick video from the World Food Programme on that old saying: