I recently had the pleasure of hosting a panel discussion entitled Making Choices, Shaping Voices, and Owning Learning, which was focused on learner agency. I was joined at the round table with 3 fellow PYP coordinators who are passionate about inquiry and fostering the skills, dispositions, and support needed for students to truly become responsible for their own learning.
Judy Imamudeen is a committed and passionate PYP curriculum coordinator at the American School of Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Cultivating communities, leveraging learning, and championing change are Judy's passion in her role. One question keeps her driven, purposeful, and passionate every day: How can we create a world that works for everyone?
Nancy Macharia is the incoming PYP coordinator at Chadwick International School. She is also an IB Educators' Network (IBEN) workshop leader who has led a variety of workshops, including 'Evidencing Learning.' She is highly collaborative, passionate, and knowledgeable about education so I feel lucky that she joined our panel.
Michael Lucchesi identifies himself as a third-culture adult. As an international educator and leader, he brings creative passions to the classroom and believes the curriculum should be as aspirational as the dreams of our students. As the PYP coordinator at Seoul Foreign School and a proud member of IBEN, he enjoys partnering with schools and educators to see how we can better serve our communities.
In this series of 3 posts, I will be reflecting on our conversation and sharing our thinking. Today, I will zoom into Making Choices, in which we were guided by the question 'How do we purposefully develop a student-teacher partnership in learning?'
The first choice we can make as educators is to be intentional with our focus on learner agency. We began by defining what learner agency means to us. While we all highlighted different aspects of learner agency, I really connected with Judy's thought that it is an understanding that students have an innate sense of curiosity about the world around us and that it is our job to develop the skills and dispositions that support that curiosity. Michael added to that, saying that in order to do so, we have to think about how we "measure" agency. How do we make this tangible? That made me think about how the PYP enhancements have a large focus on "voice, choice, and ownership," which actually is our end goal, our backwards by design. We all agreed that a major value in the PYP is the focus on process over product, so in order to reach "voice, choice, and ownership," there needed to be purposeful planning and implementation.
This process involves truly knowing our students, and this does not occur by happenstance. Rather, we must make the choice to be dedicate our time and attention on this. In order to understand the learner, Nancy noted, we have to learn their dispositions, their fears, their passions. Once we know the person rather than the student, then we can understand how to be equitable in their teaching and learning. When do we teach them from the front, leading and guiding them? When do we teach from the side, nudging them along? When we do teach from the back, supporting them if needed?
Learner agency often is thought about as learner independence. While we do build independence in our students, I think it is important to note that collaboration is an essential element in developing agency. Students must develop collaboration skills in order to best utilize their own strengths and knowledge in conjunction with others'. When they do so, they are truly seeing the bigger picture of how to take action with their learning. As educators, we support the students in this by deliberately providing opportunities to make decisions, resolve conflict, and problem-solve together.
Michael reflected as well that inquiry is a shared experience. In our role as educators, we support students by slow-releasing from guided inquiry to free inquiry. However, free inquiry can also be stressful if we do not make purposeful choices along the way. Judy referenced Trevor MacKenzie's pool metaphor of student inquiry, in which we move from structured to controlled to guided to free inquiry. That moment of free inquiry is when learner agency is at its highest. Students have the know-how and the confidence to succeed, but if you notice in the metaphor, the teacher is still present and there to give feedback and support.
So, how do we move from structured to free inquiry without overwhelming students and having them drown? We all agreed that this is where differentiation and truly personalizing learning comes in. All students must understand vocabulary, content, and concepts in order to develop, but no two students will have the exact same entry point. When we think about equality, all students should be given high expectations and criteria for success. What that success looks like, however, differs from student to student. This means equity is far more valuable than equality when moving towards free inquiry.
As a programme, each school must also make choices to support this development. As I have written about in previous posts, it is important for schools to develop an approaches to learning continuum that works for their community and culture. These approaches to learning allow for equity within the curriculum, because the same skill can be applied to different contexts in different ways. Then, all students can access the same skill in their own way.
When educators make choices that allow for authentic agency to develop, they are being purposeful about planning and implementing teaching practice. They also make intentional decisions about the learning environment, which I will focus on in part 2 of our discussion: Shaping Voices.
MacKenzie, T. (2018). Types of student inquiry. Tmac. https://www.trevormackenzie.com/elevate-resource
Our school was ready to adopt and implement the enhanced PYP Approaches to Learning, but I knew that this would come with some challenges:
How do we make this a truly collaborative process?
How do take something given to us by the IB and make it meet the needs of our own students?
What is the best way to transition from something we are comfortable with to something new?
Our team started by reading the enhanced documentation from the PYP. We noticed connections between the old ATL and the new ones, but many people (including me!) wondered if it was possible to use the ATL in the same way that we have been. It seemed like much of what existed was woven into the new version, but we had questions about why certain skills were put together and why certain ones were left out.
The enhanced framework was much more extensive, with both sub-skills and their descriptors. So, we decided to research what other schools were doing in order to find out how others were attacking their process.
We noticed that some people were taking the sub-skills and breaking the descriptors down to make the outcomes clear for each phase or grade level. People particularly liked the clarity of Emma and Mark Wheatley's detailed breakdown. Other schools chose to keep one to two descriptors for each sub-skills, which would then be used throughout the PYP. Orenji Buta's ATL continuum has been widely shared and is a great example of this.
As a staff, we split into groups and focused on one ATL category. Each group read about the enhanced category and its sub-skills, found connections between old and new, and considered the following questions:
What do we like? What is missing?
What do WE want or need?
How do WE want to break down this category?
How might we develop these skills throughout PYP?
How might we assess these skills?
After collating these results, we then mapped out a draft of our own ATL continuum. We decided to focus on a whole-school approach rather than a grade-by-grade breakdown, as we felt that our learning outcomes and differentiation would support the scaffolding needed for each phase. We also determined that we could try using our school enhanced continuum for this year, and then reflect and revise as we go along, getting input from our students and our community.
Some of the outcomes that make our continuum unique to our school:
We added a sub-skill for Self Management in order to keep fine and gross motor skill development.
We worded descriptors in a way that made sense for our community.
We added in skills or descriptors that we felt were needed but had been changed in the enhanced version.
We created an Early Years continuum that connects and vertically aligns with the PYP continuum.
We added or modified sub-skills/descriptors if we felt the need.
This collaborative process was extremely important in ensuring that all voices were valued and that as a school, we agreed on how we would implement the enhanced Approaches to Learning. It also meant that as a team, we were able to discuss and overcome the challenges that presented themselves as we developed the continuum for OUR school and OUR students.
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
When I unlocked my understanding of Approaches to Learning, I feel like finally I understood what sets PYP apart from other frameworks. When we develop these transferrable skills in our students, we are teaching them HOW to think, not WHAT to think. In a more traditional approach, the focus tends to be on the standards and the knowledge which, when memorized, can be fleeting. In the PYP, however, we build skills that apply to all types of knowledge, so students are given the power to learn anything that they want or need.
These are lifelong skills; they do not end in primary programmes. In the enhanced PYP, the ATL had a major overhaul. This was a very large brain shift for me, as I was someone who is passionate about authentically developing these skills in my students and was very comfortable with the previous version. As the ATL Team Leader at my school a couple of years ago, I collaborated with the MYP Coordinator to see how we could best vertically align our skill development. I found it challenging to see how different our ATL were organized and used, despite the fact that both programmes come from the IB. Initially, I felt that the PYP was clearer and more specific than the MYP ATL.
So, when the enhanced PYP came out, I was pleased to see greater alignment with MYP and DP and could see how we more easily collaborate for a whole-school continuum. At the same time, I felt a struggle with change at my initial glance: Why did the PYP change to become more like MYP rather than the other way around? Why were some of these changes made when it worked well before? Where did some of the skills go? How do we use this when it seems both more and less clear than before?
I felt like I needed to be on board with these enhancements before our school tackled integrating them. So I went on a researching rampage. I read articles, I looked at other schools' continuums, I asked my other coordinator friends. And what do you know? Others had the same feelings, questions, and concerns that I did. In sharing resources and ideas, I developed an appreciation for the enhanced ATL and a greater vision of how to begin planning and integrating this collaboratively with teachers.
In my opinion, the best part of the enhanced ATL is that every school gets to tailor-make their own continuum in order to best meet the needs of their students. Each continuum isn't owned by the IB, it is owned by the people who craft it together. This allows for input from staff and students, as well as the greater school community. I realized that the clarity that I was missing at first comes from this process of collaborating, as we discuss our own goals and determine the skills that we need to get us there.
When constructing understanding, as I was with these enhancements, it is important to remember that a productive struggle is actually knowledge being gained through experience. These challenges push us to find ways to work through misconceptions and solve problems. Based on my new learning of the enhanced ATL, I was able to more clearly envision the path that our school needed to take to develop our own ALT continuum, as well as identify some of the challenges that our staff might encounter along the way.