Tag: Central Idea

Post Mortem Reflection: Autopsy of a Failed PYP Unit (Sharing the Planet)

Post Mortem Reflection: Autopsy of a Failed PYP Unit (Sharing the Planet)

It doesn’t matter if you have been teaching for 8 months or 18 years, you will experience a bombed lesson from time to time. But a bombed unit-well, that I have yet to experience until now. And it has been the most frustrating 6 weeks of my life, as I have worked relentlessly to cultivate their conceptual understanding. Most teachers don’t share their failures, they only blog or tweet about all the “cool learning” that’s going on but I think it’s equally important to reveal and reflect on our failings. So in an effort to be vulnerable, I humbly submit that this unit has yet to meet its central idea and only narrowly developed its lines of inquiry. And I can’t stop asking why.

Our actions can make a difference to the environment we share.

  • how we use resources (function)
  • the impact of people’s actions on the environment (causation)
  • choices we make to care for our environment (responsibility)

I hold some very strong beliefs when it comes to creating curriculum in the PYP, one of which is having a solid central idea that a teacher can anchor the learning in.  If you pulled out the keywords–what would they be? I chose to focus on “actions”, “environment” and “share”. Other key ideas were from the lines of inquiry: resources, impact, and choices. The assessment is really quite simple–we document student action that has occurred over the unit. And herein lies the problem: student action. Students are not taking action because they don’t have enough conceptual understanding to appreciate a need to act. They literally do not see pollution-even if a coke bottle flew out of the sky and bonked them on the head, they wouldn’t notice. Oh, and if that same coke bottle then got buried in the ground, one of the students said it would sprout a Coke Tree. No, I’m not lying–this was an actual prediction during one of our engagements.

At first, this put me in a panic and I went in the wrong direction. I thought, oh my gosh, this future generation, they are either absolutely oblivious or litter and pollution (particularly in Asia) are so endemic that it’s like wallpaper and thus hardly take notice. So we began inquiring into endangered animals and the impact on habitats. We worked through key vocabulary and food chains. The kids put together wonderful ChatterPix presentations which summarized their library research on the animals. But during another provocation when I showed a picture of a turtle that had been deformed due to garbage in the water, I had 3 kids tell me that it looked like that because it was farting, clearly articulating (with a straight face) that gas can make you bloated and you feel bubbles are in your belly. I could see his thinking but I felt deeply concerned and it was at this point that our unit started to take a turn for the worse.

One of the Segel pictures that the students examined. They thought they were just “having a picnic at the beach.”

So then, to make a stronger link about humans and how we use resources, we explored the work of Gregg Segal,  which started as a provocation but since the students made no connection between the garbage and the people who were lying in it, we examined our “home” garbage and collected our classroom garbage, including snacks, for a week to analyze. I had also gotten one of our Secondary Art and Design teachers who is an avid photographer on board to help us orchestrate an attempt to do a photoshoot with our students in this garbage. It was going to be awesome, right?! –They were finally going to “get it” so we can move into learning about the 3 R’s–Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Nope–the day before the photoshoot, our cleaners emptied our bins. Deflated, we decided that we would “follow the garbage”, trying to pull together this idea of how individual and collective choices can add up to make a difference in the burden that ecosystems might have to shoulder. So we went down to our school’s dump area and examined our rubbish. Next, we made a day of it and went down to the Vientiane Landfill.  Although they were absolutely disgusted by it, they had seemed unchanged.  This week we are going to meet people whose “choices” to care for our environment are having a  positive impact on our Vientiane community. We are still hopeful that a handful of them will be moved into action but I know now that it’s a foolhardy job to try to assess them on this central idea. We will have to create unit grades based on their academic skills in language and math that have been developed alongside these conceptual understandings.  

The moral of the learning debacle boils down to these things:

  • Doing a bunch of “cool stuff” is not as important to properly pre-assessing basic knowledge and skills. Sometimes we get so preoccupied with launching a unit with instant student engagement, that we forgo necessary assessment which can be documented and examined. I think in heavy science-based units, it’s important to probe into common misconceptions and vocabulary that may be misunderstood. I did some of it, but I missed some big ideas–simple stuff like living vs. non-living because I had assumed it had been “covered” in previous years.
  • Furthermore, provocations that reveal severe inadequacies in student knowledge means that the unit probably needed to be scrubbed and rewritten immediately instead of trudging through the painful experience of trying to get students to arrive at mastery and develop knowledge that is beyond their experience or developmental appropriateness is asinine.
  • And the third thing is that the sequence of units matters A LOT. In our case, we were asking that students take their knowledge and apply it by taking action. We should have had a How The World Works Unit beforehand that developed the key information and scientific principles to really appreciate the need to act. Our unit implied that kids should “reduce, reuse, recycle” without understanding why it’s important to do so.
  • Also, a unit whose central idea demands that students assimilate knowledge and then adapt it to behaviors needs to reconcile with the developmental stage that they are at. Most of the students are at the cognitive stage in which they are transitioning from concrete to abstract thinking and operational thought. This unit would have been better served when most, if not all the kids, were 7 years old because cognitively they would have understood the concept of conservation. This was a second term unit. It was too early in the school year to introduce these ideas.
  • And of course, the old PYP coordinator in me wondered why I didn’t go back into last year’s POI to see what scientific ideas that they had been exploring when I first saw warning signs. Although I had interviewed past teachers who did the unit, I should have dug deeper into the curriculum that my current classes had been working on in the past years. I needed to research my learners more. I would have seen the gaps and been able to re-route the unit sooner instead of “following the garbage”.

So, I would suggest that educators ask themselves a couple of important questions before embarking on units of inquiry in which student action should be the hallmark of successful learning outcomes:

  1. What previous knowledge and skills should we look for? What was their most recent learning (last grade level’s POI)? What conceptual understandings will students need to understand in order to really apply knowledge? (Go deep on Box #3 on the PYP planner)
  2. What misconceptions do you predict students may come with? How will we know if they have them?
  3. What is the age of the majority of the students? Will they have access cognitively to the concepts and related concepts in the units?
  4. What action is already taking place? What can we expect young children to be doing, feeling and thinking?

 

I can see now that words like “action” and “choices” are too subjective to be put into a central idea for this Sharing the Planet Theme. They are great in the lines of inquiry, but if you take the stance that you assess the central idea in your summative and formative assessments, then you are setting students up for failure. Although student action is the proof that real learning has occurred, this unit would have been better served with related concepts in the central idea. (Here is a great blog that demonstrates how units can be analyzed in this way.) With that in mind, I would suggest rewriting the unit to look like this, with the related concepts in bold:

Human interaction with living things can have consequences on the environment.

 

Although this unit is going to be seared into my mind and will haunt me all year, I will remember the lessons learned here when it comes to analyzing my grade level’s units of inquiry. Perhaps this will also help you to reflect and consider how your units are structured and be more critical in your understanding of your learners.

So I ask you, dear reader, what other suggestions would you make regarding this failure? What takeaways did you get from this? Please comment below.

#IMMOOC Wondering about “Shock vs. Awe”

#IMMOOC Wondering about “Shock vs. Awe”

In our last planning retreat, we spent a lot of time discussing provocations so that students would develop a genuine appreciation and care for the blessed planet we live on instead of retreating indoors to their “screens” and engaging in a “virtual reality” that our digital lives seem to provide.  We pondered what was more important–to begin our Sharing the Planet unit enveloped in “shock” or in “awe” of different environments found on Earth. For example, do we show them all the ways in which human progress is devastating our ecosystems, destroying animal habitats and polluting our drinking water supplies-the shock? Or do we go out into nature, listen to birds and find “the cheap showiness of nature” that surrounds us every day?  Of course, it is debatable if just taking kids into nature will cultivate “awe”; is it a natural instinct or are this attitudes of wonderment and pleasant surprise something that we learn socially and is imbued by our cultures?  (Perhaps right now, you might be deliberating this idea as well. I know this idea will be a subtext in our reflections of this unit.)

Recently, in our Innovator’s Mindset’s Flipgrid, Becky McDowell related her experience with creating a culture of problem finders and problem solvers. A little light bulb went off in my head and made me consider this unit whose central idea is:

Our actions can make a difference to the environment we share.

Thinking about what Becky said, I felt it was important to evaluate whether or not students actually saw the problems with our actions and choices as humans. Through our pre-assessment and initial tuning in provocations, it became clear that students had a lot of “book knowledge” of the relationships that animals and plants have in the environment, but made little to no connection to how we contribute to the pollution that spoils life on earth. They literally did NOT see it. You can’t imagine the pangs in our chests when the students were indifferent. If they cannot FIND the problem, they cannot SOLVE the problem. This has become so problematic and disheartening, to say the least.

I always say that “if I do all the work, I do all the learning”. This is actually a reminder for me to stay aware that I need to make sure I don’t steal the children’s learning just by telling them information or how to do something. But there is something about the word “teacher” that implies a transfer of knowledge and skill, and the lack of student action has really made me question the very foundation of my “best practice”–how am I missing the mark with this unit,  a unit that seems more and more critical for our future generation to understand and act upon if there is to be any quality of life on our planet? We have applied every principle of SUCCESs to create “stickiness” of our central idea and yet, as we go into our final week, I keep wondering what we could have done differently.  We’ve done a wonderful job, I feel, of finding a balance between “shock” and “awe” in our unit, but the fruits of our effort have yet to be revealed. The jury is still out on this case.

As we go into the final week of our unit, I look forward to seeing how this unit might still come together. Children are always full of surprises, so I can’t do anything beyond anticipate that they will make connections, even if those connections might be different than I expected. I hope that, although I have been going through a bit of “shock” when it comes to their conceptual understandings, perhaps this unit will reveal the “awe” in how their thinking has changed and been developed.

 

Central Ideas: The Good, The Bad and The Messy. How the Primary Years Program Can Rethink and Define Them

Central Ideas: The Good, The Bad and The Messy. How the Primary Years Program Can Rethink and Define Them

The Primary Years Program is a challenging curriculum. As you work in this framework, it forces you to put all of your educational values under the microscope and really analyze what you truly believe about how children learn best.  Often the ideas sound good on paper but can really be a struggle in practice, especially depending upon the constraints their school puts upon them with math and literacy programs. As a coordinator who works with new-to-IB staff, getting them to “drink the Kool-Aid” isn’t always an easy sell, especially at first because all the jargon overwhelms them. But I think that the first step to convincing new PYP teachers that this is the best approach to learning out there is the central idea. Well written central capture students interest and make for powerful inquiries.

So how do you know if your central ideas are “bad”?  Here’s the main clue: Your teachers say “huh, what does this mean?” when they look at it.  I’ll share an example to clarify:

Natural materials are used to inspire and express ideas. (How We Express Ourselves)

This is bad for all sorts of reasons–it’s ambiguous yet narrow focus on “natural materials” and the words “inspire” and “express” seem to be subjective in this context. These are two things that jump out at you. But what did you say after reading this? Let me guess:  “huh, what does this mean?”    Yep, that’s the hallmark of a failed attempt at a central idea.

What about messy? Well, I love this handy-dandy guide to developing a central idea that I’m pretty sure ever PYP school references at some point in their review of their Programme of Inquiry (POI). It’s well-intentioned and tries to be thorough, but when you put pen to paper, you can really get some gobbly-gook.  This part, below, is what causes some major mumbo-jumbo in our fabrication of central ideas:

How do I know if I have written a good Central Idea?

 Did you include two or more concepts in your statement?

 Have you used an active, present-tense verb?

 Did you avoid using proper and personal nouns?

 Did you avoid the use of to be (is, are) and have verbs?

 Did you write a complete sentence

You couple this with the advice in the Developing a Transdisciplanary Programme of Inquiry, and you can really have some creative wordsmithing. I say this all respectfully, especially since the PYP is undergoing a big review at the moment, but put yourself in the shoes of a new IB educator.

developing a transdisciplanr
From the publication: Developing a Transdisciplanary Programme of Inquiry

It takes a sharp eye to see the delineation between the 2 versions and you got to remember that this is a central idea for a 1st grader/Primary 1 student–words like organization, endeavor, and enterprise take a week (at least) to unpack before you get to those 4 lines of inquiry. You can totally appreciate why new IB teachers are absolutely overwhelmed with the notion of writing or revising a central idea. Furthermore, you can understand why a candidate school would just copy a sample POI that is either posted on the Online Curriculum Centre or on another IB school’s website.  Just the other day I was having a coffee with a candidate’s school appointed PYP coordinator. At first, I didn’t quite understand her intention- her school’s POI looked fine, decent central ideas- but after an hour I came to understand that what she actually wanted me to help her with writing lesson plans for her teachers. Her teachers needed help with lesson planning because they personally hadn’t gone through the process, they had no skin in the game and definitely no understanding of what it means to do an “inquiry into…..

But this goes back to the point I was making–a good central idea should generate more possibilities. If a teacher can’t look at a central idea and come up with a place to start, then the inquiry is going to get messy.  Just look at that central idea above: People create organizations that solve problems and support human endeavor. They will probably just fumble around for at least a week instead of hitting the ground running doing a bonafide inquiry because they can’t get past those words. The words–the ones that the summative task is supposed to be built around–is a major stumbling block, especially for a 1st-grade teacher. Let’s be honest, right?If the central idea is messy than it typically demands that we put a stake in the ground at some point and say, “ok kids, this is where you need to go with your inquiry–it’s nearly summative time!” I know IB understands these challenges, which is why it is painfully taking a knife to the PYP and rethinking how we can approach central ideas.

Let me give you another example from a 2nd-grade unit at our school:

The population of a community can determine the structure of its organizations within it.

When we wrote that central idea under How We Organize Ourselves theme, we followed the handy-dandy aforementioned guide. I’ve highlighted the concepts that we pulled out the IB Social Studies Scope and Sequence. The purpose of this unit was to help students start gaining an understanding of government and economics that was lacking in some of the future P4 and P5 units. The summative task is to have the students form a “city council” and create a community with a given population, using a budget to provide for its goods and services. So that was the intention of this wordy central idea. This year, when a new 2nd-grade teacher came in and looked and looked at this unit, her response to the central idea indicated that it was messy. In our last meeting, we discussed how well the kids, who LOVED this unit, understood the central idea. She said that she spent more time focusing on the lines of inquiry because of the wording of the central idea, but that ultimately yes they understood the relationship between population and community design. The fact that she circumvented the Central Idea is definitely a symptom of a messy central idea. So we thought about ditching all those big words and simplifying the central idea to reflect a more kid-accessible central idea:

People design communities to fit the needs of its population.  

(I think we have transformed it into a “good” central idea–or at least a better iteration.)

So, a perfect central idea isn’t so wordy and nebulous that you can’t find a place to start, nor creates an exhausting level of teacher content delivery or misguided student research. What do I mean about this? Look at this:

Signs and Symbols can be used to communicate messages through different media.

Screams transdisciplinary right?–Instantly specialists want to jump in and connect with the ideas of signs and symbols, and it’s an easy link with literacy, social studies, technology, and math. Not to mention that it’s got friendlier language so we can dive right into the inquiry. And assessment organically emerges, with the kids being able to contribute to what a summative task might look like. It’s interesting, it’s engaging and student action is prominent.

So let me summarize my definition of a “good” central idea:

  • Transdisciplinarity ( I don’t know if that’s a word, but it is now!) can happen organically.
  • It is easily understood by the teacher so they know how to start the inquiry.
  • The students can access its language.
  • A clear summative task naturally arises and students can provide input into how it can be assessed.
  • It connects students to concepts that will be needed in future units of inquiry.

Now, perhaps you share my opinion about central ideas or you may want to lambaste me. This is a hotly contested area between educators. Fair enough. But as a coordinator, I make a good stab at being knowledgeable and reflective, however, the only thing that I am certain of is my experience as an educator with this framework.  Perhaps your experience matches mine or maybe you think I’m speaking blasphemy–fantastic! Let’s debate! I’d love to hear your definitions–what are the attributes of a “good” central idea?

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Judy Imamudeen

Judy Imamudeen

Developing learners as leaders is my joy! As a highly qualified International Baccaluearate (IB) teacher and educational leader, I am committed and passionate about executing its framework and empowering students in creating a future world that works for everyone.

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