Tag: failure

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.

The 14 Gifts of Design Thinking

The 14 Gifts of Design Thinking

Last month I finished up the MITX Design Thinking for Leading and Learning course, and I’m still assimilating the profundity of these ideas and the impact they can have in classrooms. It’s actually really hard for me to articulate since I’m in the midst of a paradigm shift as ideas are colliding between developing empathy, creativity, and critical thinking in students. It’s been a “perfect storm” in my mind and I’m still trying to erase my former notions about design as a cycle instead of it as a creative process–which was probably my key take away. When I learned about how schools of poverty and underachievement are transformed by using it, I was impressed, to say mildly.  And I have been chewing on how this is possible when it occurred to me that it wasn’t all the great knowledge that was gained, it was the mindset that was cultivated. In particular, it made me think about the work of Brene Brown and her research on shame and vulnerability.

The REVOLUTION will not be televised. It will be in your classroom! You are working on the hardest edges of love.

Do not ever question the power you have with the people you teach!

Learning is inherently vulnerable and it’s like you got a classroom full of turtles without shells.  The minute they put their shells back on, they are protected–from their peers, from their teachers, from whoever–no learning can come in…so we really have to develop ‘shame resilent’ classrooms.

-Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly

I agree with Brene Brown about developing “shame resilience” and have found the usual tug of war between with teaching and mistake making diminishes when we introduce students to a mindset in which they appreciate the importance of recognizing our errors and strive for constant improvement. When I think about design thinking, I believe it could beinnovation a powerful way for students to experience their vulnerability and develop perspective taking, all the while creating real cool stuff–whether it is a piece of writing, a t-shirt, a rollercoaster, an app or, in my Early Year’s classroom, a garden. They learn how to fail forward and create another prototype. This design sprint is not a destructive but constructive element because, although they spent a lot of time developing their idea, the focus shifts from the product itself to the user–who will reap the benefits of this redesign. It gets the kids to detach from what they are making to who they are making it for. This nuance has a relatively big impact on the process of improvement.

So, it’s been in the midst of implementing it at a deeper level, that I had a moment of clarity in which I connected Brown’s ideas to that of design-thinking. Design-based learning creates a space in your classroom in which different “gifts” from the students’ learning can emerge:

  1. Love Of Ideas
  2. Belonging (in their collaborative groups)
  3. The Joy of creating something and learning new ideas.
  4. Courage to try new things
  5. Problem-finding by thinking future forward and considering what the possible issues might be with their design.
  6. Innovation by using different strategies and materials to solve a challenge.
  7. Ethical decision making by considering the different perspectives and considering if their solutions will be harmful to the environment or hurtful to others.
  8. Trust in each other and themselves
  9. Empathy for the users.
  10. Accountability to finish the job
  11. Flexibility with our time table and dealing with challenges.
  12. Creativity in designing.
  13. Listening to Feedback from others
  14. Hard conversations with each other

As my class is still in the midst of this design-based unit, I continue to be fascinated by their growth as the process reveals another level of their thinking and feeling about issues and ideas related to our current unit. I’m enjoying observing this process and love how it fits so well with the inquiry-based learning model of the Primary Years Programme (PYP). I definitely look forward to implementing this approach in future.

I’m wondering if others who have more experience with design thinking would agree with the “gifts” and/or add different ones to the list. Please share. I’m genuinely interested in your perspective.

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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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