Friday, April 28, 2017

Balancing the POI by Key Concepts

The curriculum of the International Baccalaureate's Primary Years Program (PYP) is a concept-driven curriculum. This means that our main goal is getting students to understand significant ideas, as opposed to being focused on memorizing isolated facts and mastering skills out of context (p. 15 of Making the PYP Happen). In a PYP school, we focus on helping students collaboratively construct an understanding of eight key concepts: form, function, causation, change, connection, perspective, responsibility and reflection.


p. 18-20 of Making the PYP Happen
Our concept-driven curriculum is organized into six transdisciplinary units of inquiry and it is within these meaningful contexts that students construct an understanding of the eight key concepts. Generally two-to-three key concepts are explored during each unit of inquiry. These key concepts help shape each unit, giving the unit direction and purpose.

It is imperative that the school periodically look at the horizontal and vertical balance of their key concepts. The IB publication Developing a Transdisciplinary Program of Inquiry states that "all eight key concepts must be represented on the program of inquiry at each grade/year level" (horizontal balance) and that "there should be a balance of PYP key concepts used throughout each transdisciplinary theme," (vertical balance).


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https://thedapperist.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/striping.jpeg
The document goes on to explain that vertical balance, "does not mean that each key concept must be represented under each transdisciplinary theme but rather that schools are mindful of repetition or under-representation of concepts in order to ensure that there are appropriate opportunities for students to revisit and develop their understanding of all concepts,” (pages 5 & 6).
During our last evaluation in 2012, our school learned that our curriculum was too knowledge-based and that we needed to revise our planners to make them more concept-driven. Over the last five years, our teachers have worked hard to revise our units, focusing our curriculum on understanding meaningful ideas (THE CONCEPTS). As coordinator, I wanted teachers to authentically identify the key concepts that would best fit with their units and not to pay attention to horizontally or vertically balancing the key concepts as we revised the units.

That meant that our POI may not be horizontally or vertically balanced by key concept and that the work to bring it into balance may be tricky and messy. Change the concepts to horizontally balance a grade level, and the vertical balance might be off. Change a concept to bring about vertical balance and a grade-level might then get thrown out of wack.

During our last professional development day, our entire staff took on the challenge of balancing our POI by key concepts by gamifying the task. What ended up happening was wonderful!

First, we had to set up the game board. 

Step #1: We created a Key Concept POI; copying the key concepts that were in each of our planners onto the corresponding box on the grid.

Step #2: Teachers identified the key concepts that COULD NOT be changed by typing them in ALL CAPS. If we were going to balance the POI by key concept, most likely something was going to change, but we wanted teachers to let us know the ones that absolutely COULD NOT be changed. In essence, they were "locking them in". During this step, some grade levels made changes to their key concepts when they noticed they were not horizontally balanced. 


Step #3: Next, we wanted teams to identify the key concepts that COULD go into each of their units. Again, as we were balancing the POI by key concepts, it might be possible that a key concept needed to be added somewhere. However, we wanted those additions to be authentic, so teachers needed to tell us which key concepts could possibly go in their units. They recorded those possibilities in light gray on the Key Concept POI. During this step, some teams continued to make changes to their key concepts to bring balance to their grade level key concepts. 


LET THE GAMES BEGIN!

With the game board set, we then switched into five vertical teams and the rules of the game were shared:
  • Goal: balance the POI vertically and horizontally by key concept with as few moves as possible.
  • Parameters:
    • Horizontal balance means, "all eight key concepts must be represented (page 5 of Developing a Transdisciplinary Program of Inquiry.
    • Vertical balance means, "there should be a balance of PYP key concepts used throughout each transdisciplinary theme, but that does not mean that each key concept must be represented under each transdisciplinary theme," (page 6 of  Developing a Transdisciplinary Program of Inquiry.)
    • No concept in CAPS can be moved. It has been "locked in".
    • Only concepts in gray can be added. 
The team that would suggest the lease amount of moves while still creating a balanced POI would win a tub full of homemade cookies. Click here for the Bestever Cookie recipe.


Teams had 20 minutes to work. They were engaged and focused, working to see how they could vertically and horizontally balance their POI by key concepts.

At the end of 20 minutes, all five teams submitted their suggestions for changes to the key concepts. Teams suggested anywhere from 1 to 10 changes. The judges looked over the plan made by the team that had suggested one change and declared them the winner! They then had to explain their thinking to the group:

"First, we looked horizontally to make sure that every grade level had all eight key concepts. We found that all grade levels had all eight key concepts represented.

Then, we looked vertically to see if all eight key concepts were addressed under each transdisciplinary theme. We discovered:

  • Who we are: no connection 
  • How we express ourselves: no change or causation 
  • How the world works: no responsibility 
  • How we organize ourselves: no form, causation or reflection 

Next, we tabulated how many times each of the key concepts showed up across the whole POI:

  • Form - 13 
  • Function - 12 
  • Causation - 10 
  • Connection 14 
  • Change - 13 
  • Perspective - 12 
  • Reflection - 7 
  • Responsibility - 12 
Although some transdisciplinary themes didn't have some key concepts (as mentioned above), throughout the entire POI, all eight key concepts seem to be represented in a balanced way; all except reflection.

So, we made the suggestion to add reflection to the Kindergarten unit How we organize ourselves."
Throughout this entire process, teachers were engaged in digging into their units and thinking in an honest and meaningful way about how the key concepts are taught and learned in each of their units of inquiry. As they worked vertically, they were engaged in suggesting authentic changes that would help bring about a more balanced Program of Inquiry, "to ensure that there are appropriate opportunities for students to revisit and develop their understanding of all concepts."

Moving forward, we will look for opportunities to incorporate more reflection into our units of inquiry, which still is under-represented in our POI. Also, any time a key concept needs to change in the future, we will look to see how the horizontal and vertical balance will be affected by such a change.

Balancing our POI in this way proved to be engaging, meaningful and even fun! How have your schools balanced your POI by key concepts?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

What the heck is transdisciplinary learning?

As someone in charge of coordinating a program that is committed to a transdisciplinary approach, I shouldn't be asking this. I should know. But for too many years, I've relied too heavily on the shallow understanding that transdisciplinary learning simply is "learning that transcends the traditional subject areas".

But I'm not quite sure I deeply understand what that means, even after several years of workshops, reading, discussing and thinking about this question: What the heck is transdisciplinary learning? Which leads me to wonder, "Would I be able to recognize it, if I saw it?" Which most certainly means I can't help people adapt their written, taught and assessed curriculum to be more transdisciplinary, if it wasn't.

So, it was time to learn more about this concept (which is also unknown to both Microsoft & Google, as evidenced by that little squiggly red line that obnoxiously appears every time I type the word).

And, as someone who is committed to the social construction of understanding, I'm sharing my thinking with you all, that you might learn from and with me, and hopefully add to my understanding too.

My question: What can I listen and watch for so that I know a teacher/team/school is committed to and understands transdisciplinary learning?

To begin to answer my question, I pored over the IB document, The Primary Years Programme as a model of trandisciplinary learning


From that document, I synthesized that transdisciplinary learning is written, taught and assessed curriculum that:
  • is
    • engaging, relevant, challenging & significant
    • innovative
    • elusive
    • based in the exploration of real-life issues
    • authentic
    • a new vision & a new experience for learning
    • radically different from traditional education
    • universal (grounded in timeless, abstract, universal & transferable concepts)
    • embedded in the essential elements of the PYP, particularly transdisciplinary knowledge, key concepts & Approaches to Learning (this represents THE CORE of the PYP)
  • transcends
    • traditional subjects, but still has relevance across subject areas. Transdisciplinary learning isn't about getting rid of subject areas. Rather, it is complemented and supported by the subject areas.
  • connects
    • to what is real in the real world
  • may involve
    • what is commonly known as Problem-Based Learning
  • most definitely involves
    • collaboration (by teachers & by students)
    • problem-solving
  • allows
    • students to be autonomous
    • all students to contribute in a variety of ways
    • for spontaneous and easy connections across learning
    • students to acquire and sufficiently & competently apply Approaches to Learning, which are the tools of inquiry
    • students to explore our human commonality
  • promotes
    • lifelong learning, since it mimics learning we do in real life
    • an awareness of the commonality of the human experience
  • focuses on
    • issues
    • broad perspectives
    • deep understanding of timeless, abstract, universal and transferable concepts
    • a local issue or problem that also has global implications
  • demands
    • students work individually & in groups of different sizes and different make-ups for different reasons
    • students to be actively constructing meaning through inquiry
    • that the relationships between the teacher & student changes
    • higher-order thinking
    • participation/involvement/engagement
  • explores
    • the inter-relatedness of complex issues
  • shows
    • students the relevance of what they're learning. No student or teacher doubts the authentic reason for learning what we're learning
  • forces
    • teachers out of their comfort zones
  • relates to
    • students' lives
  • eliminates
    • redundancy
  • values & supports
    • all students, equally
Based on this synthesis, I wanted to develop a checklist that I could use to help me when observing in classrooms and perhaps teachers could use too as a self-assessment. (Disclaimer: I can imagine that some of my many astute colleagues in the PYP community will balk at the idea of reducing the very complex idea of Transdisciplinary Learning into a simple checklist; but I'm going to give it a go anyway).

When watching or reflecting on a collection of lessons or on a unit, ask:

Were students: 
  • involved, engaged, participating? (C3.5)
  • exploring a real-life, authentic issue? (C2.6a) Was the issue/problem a local one, with global connections? (C2.7)
  • focused on constructing an understanding of timeless, abstract, universal and transferable concepts? (C3.1a, C3.6)
  • collaborating in groups? Did they use different grouping methods throughout? (C3.10a, C3.14a)
  • having to collaborate? Did the teacher have to collaborate in preparation? (C1.2)
  • independent & autonomous? Did this take the teacher out of her/his comfort zone? Did s/he feel out of control at times? (C3.2, C3.5)
  • obviously studying one subject-area in particular? Were students able to make spontaneous connections to other learning? (C3.1b)
  • acquiring and applying the tools of inquiry (Approaches to Learning)? (C1.1c, C2.1d, C3.1a)
  • exploring multiple perspectives? (C2.8, C3.6)
  • understanding and thus able to articulate why they were learning what they were learning? (C3.13)
  • able to contribute? ALL students? (C3.7, C3.10)
Although I've taught in or coordinated a PYP for six years and I've visited with other PYP practitioners and visited other PYP schools, my experience is that Transdisciplinary Learning remains elusive. I look forward to continually deepening my understanding of this essential component of the IB Primary Years Programme.