Thursday, April 24, 2014

Knowledge Building Circle

This is a quick overview of how a Knowledge Building Circle is used to build collective knowledge.

Grade 6 Geography Inquiry Begins:

Day 1: Provocation: Canada is removing the humpback whale from the threatened species list. One student is aware of the story and quickly brings the rest of the class up to date. There are 2 very different reactions. For some this is good news; the species must be safe now. For others this is terrible news; we're not protecting whales. We remind ourselves to climb down our ladders; this is something to be explored. I lead students into a discussion of Canada's role and responsibilities in a global community.

I then ask them to think about what a global community is and what they actually know about the world.

Schema/Prior Knowledge

Students discuss places, name a few environmental issues and one or two organizations including the UN. It is surprising how little they were able to put forward about the world. There are many things they have "kinda" heard of and many misconceptions.

As we talk, students map their current model of the world including places, events, issues, people and news stories. This is a map that they will continue to build as they learn about the world.

 The roll up map is a popular tool in our classroom. It comes down frequently for various reasons. Here students are confirming place names before they add them to their global knowledge maps.

In our discussion the United Nations is mentioned. A few students have a vague understanding that it is something that includes all nations and helps out in the world.  I ask the students where it is. No one knows but 2 theories emerge:

1. It must be in the middle of the ocean because that is a place that doesn't belong to one particular country.
2. It might be in Antarctica because that is also a place that doesn't belong to one country.

 Students decide to find out. They head to the lab and begin constructing knowledge on the United Nations.

 Both hypotheses are disconfirmed.

Day 2

We hold a knowledge building circle where each student shares what they discovered about the UN to help build the collective knowledge of the class. As information is shared students discuss and use words such as assumption, I'm on the Ladder, and the language of disagreement as they clarify their understanding. New knowledge is added to the chart above. As discussion unfolds, students become more careful about word choice. Conflicting information emerges; students grapple with the information until clarity is reached. For example, various dates are mentioned in relation to the start of the UN. Eventually the group distinguishes between the League of Nations and WWI, Franklin D Roosevelt and WWII, and the physical construction in Manhattan that sits on neutral territory.

We discuss the value of the Knowledge Building Circle. Students recognize a number of things:

1. This is an application of the most effective communication pattern for learning.
2.  It is interesting to find out what others have learned.

The idea that we are building a community of knowledge is beginning to take hold.

Day 3: During the discussion students find out that our Prime Minister is not supportive of the UN. There are several gasps so I draw their attention to the Ladder of Inference and ask, "Who has just jumped up the ladder and concluded this is a bad thing?" Several hands shot up (including mine) One student speaks up and says that we really don't have enough information to decide if it's good or bad. We climb down our ladders and decide we need to learn more.

Day 3

I direct the students to United Nations Development Program as a starting point. As they construct knowledge there are expectations. As they read/view about places and projects, they must use Google Maps to find where those places are and add them to their paper maps to show how their understanding of the world is increasing.  They must also bring something they've learned to tomorrow's Knowledge Building Circle.

As students work they converse with those nearby about their learning, help each other interpret charts and graphs,  call me over to share what they've found out and pose questions which are recorded on the Question Board.

 A remarkable moment of thinking happened during this process. James noticed that the 8 development goals are in a particular order and wondered if the goals are ranked by priority. He then worked out a more efficient order because he felt that if certain problems were solved first, other problems would automatically be addressed.  He independently created a causal model.

Several students added interesting information to their blogs.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Information Session on Integrative Thinking

There are many people outside the HWDSB Integrative Thinking Initiative who've expressed interest and curiosity about the project and about how they might use Integrative Thinking in their own classrooms. To that end, I will be hosting a 1 hour information/Q and A in my classroom at Dundas Central on Tuesday May 13 from 4 - 5.  The invitation is open to teachers, consultants and administrators in the HWDSB who would like to know more. You can register here.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Friday, April 18, 2014

HWDSB West Cluster Integrative Thinking Initiative

... is now visible. Yes, we've opened up the blog so you can see what we are up to.

Integrative Thinking, Mental Models and Improvable Ideas: A Meeting with Phil Frei

This week I spent a fascinating hour chatting with Phil Frei, one of the founders of Bridge International Academies. Phil has recently moved to Toronto and is  interested in learning about Ontario education. Bridge is a private sector business operating in the developing world. It's goal is to educate 10 million children whose families cannot currently afford quality basic education and provide that education at a cost of $5.00 per month. Bridge is opening a new school every 3 days and soon plans to be operating in four countries, opening one new school every day.

When I first looked at the Bridge model of education: kids in rows, scripted teacher-directed lessons and real time use of data to adjust curriculum, my reaction was negative - this is the antithesis of how I approach teaching and learning.  Integrative Thinking has taught me a great deal it seems. There are tensions here that need to be explored.

I remember Ellie Avishai describing her experience when first learning about Integrative Thinking. "I used to think all my friends were such open-minded people. Then I realized I was merely surrounding myself with people who agreed with me."  Integrative Thinking teaches us to look for tensions and conflict because that is where interesting new ideas emerge.   What Integrative Thinking has given me is a framework and a set of tools for effectively exploring and learning from that tension.  Where in the past I would have rejected this model of ed,  I can now use assertive inquiry to understand and find value in the Bridge model so that my own mental model improves. Integrative Thinking  provides tools for knowledge building and what Richard Messina from The Jackman Lab School  describes as "improvable ideas". I climbed back down my ladder of inference to the data pool .

My recent understanding of the role of constraints in creativity which began with Josie Fung from Rotman Ithink helped me quickly understand the nature of Phil's model of education. The constraints Bridge is placing on learning centre on mastery. The goal of Bridge education is to create basic math and literacy skills in a world where millions currently lack those skills and don't have access to quality education. Its goal is to move a population forward. Doing this through the private sector is interesting - while NGO's, for example, often  travel in chauffeured cars removing dollars from a development goal, Bridge must pay attention to the bottom line, its employees take the bus or train. Social enterprise is clearly creating interesting new models for development work.

Bridge, which includes the founder of ebay among its investors,  has spent a great deal of money on scaled curriculum. It has hired outstanding curriculum developers who can prototype, test and rapidly iterate curriculum - design thinking in action.  This is done using data. Bridge collects data in real time and can view the learning of the 85 000 students currently enrolled and immediately spot trends. If the data reveals that scores are low in only 1 class, energy can be focused on professional development for that teacher. If scores are low across a broad sector of students, energy can be focused on curriculum design. Bridge has leveraged technology for its entire management system so that time and dollars are not wasted reinventing the wheel. Bridge is in its early stage of development and has headaches and challenges like anyone else in education or business. It is not perfect, but it is growing.

Interestingly, parents in Bridge communities want students in rows and teacher-directed learning. They like the immediate results and ranking of students through tests and as soon as parents are unhappy, kids disappear from schools.  There are dozens of for profit small schools operating in developing countries and even public school systems.  The market is competitive. Parents are not stupid. They want quality. Their mental models include rows, tests and homework. They would not register their children in the activity-based kindergarten that Bridge had initially planned.  4 years old sit at desks.

As I drove home after our conversation many thoughts bounced around in my head.  I think we have a great deal to learn from Phil. There are things he understands about data and the use of aggregate data in education that could improve learning in Ontario. I don't think we currently do a very good job, for example,  of addressing the needs of low-scoring middle school students in the area of reading. Could aggregate real time data and responsive curriculum design be a solution to that problem? I don't know, but it is worth finding out.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Inner Sanctum: My Visit to the LNS

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat as part of a think tank on thinking. I have entered the inner sanctum of curriculum in Ontario.  :D  News alert to frightened teachers - there are no curriculum police ready to swoop in to see that every single expectation has been met.  I thought you should know that. The LNS really is filled with nice and knowledgeable people wanting to help teachers become better at what they do.

It was an odd place to find myself in given that I'm a classroom teacher with no formal position of leadership in my board - an awkward position that I'm finding myself in more and more frequently these days.   I felt incredibly privileged to be sitting at that table with 25 or so other people looking at where the province is going next with thinking and inquiry. I suppose that what I and the other classroom teacher present yesterday represent are those in the trenches. We have insights about practice and the shift to inquiry that are useful to the province as it works to provide tools to support teachers.  The LNS understands that teachers are struggling because they are being asked to work in ways that are often in conflict with how they see their roles and responsibilities. It is attempting to develop tools to help teachers better understand how they should be working in their classrooms. They are trying to make it simple. They also don't have all the answers.  Ontario is a leader in this shift to knowledge building classrooms. The LNS, just like the rest of us. is learning as it goes.

Many topics were  explored and questions asked during the meeting that helped me better understand the big picture. For that I am so grateful!


What it means to move from Instructivism to Shallow Constructivism to Deep Constructivism to Connectivism.

How can we help educators make visible, deeply understand and assess student thinking as it is revealed through the inquiry process?

The standards of critical thinking.

The stance of a teacher in a knowledge building classroom.

The role of a teacher within inquiry.

The places of Integrative and Systems Thinking, Critical and Creative Thinking. (I have to say I was thrilled to see Integrative Thinking make its way into the plan for Ontario students).

What does assessment look like in inquiry? How do we get teachers to move beyond the idea that a test is necessary?

What barriers are teachers facing in this shift? What are educators struggling with?

It was a fascinating afternoon that left me with much to think about and realizing yet again that I have only scratched the surface of what it means to be a teacher.

Ideas for projects were explored and I am looking forward to working more closely with the LNS. Film crews will return to my classroom this spring.  One never knows what turns the path will take!

One final thought. I mentioned that one of the barriers to interdisciplinary inquiry is how our schools are structured and timetabled. Language is a separate discipline. Scienceis often taught in isolation. There is a rigidity to the structure of school that needs to be addressed.  The response I received was, "Yes, administrators are going to have to structure their schools differently." My eyebrows shot up!  Silos are not an expectation. It seems we've tied our own hands. That was interesting. So now I am wondering. Are there public schools in Ontario that have completely revamped their structure to meet the needs of learning today?  How is our teacher's union working to adapt to this new reality?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Thinking and Changing Career Paths

On April 16 I will be at the LNS for a Think Tank on thinking.  The LNS has developed a fantastic Co-Learning Thinking framework - I had a peek at the graphic this week- and is bringing together a number of people to discuss thinking and assessment of thinking in knowledge building classrooms.

As I was reading through the materials we've been provided with in preparation for the meeting, and saw how closely the vision aligns with the work being done in my classroom, it struck me that I have developed a body of knowledge and expertise that comes only from having been willing to question my deeply held assumptions about teaching and learning, to take risks, to connect through social media with those on a similar journeys and to seek learning outside of traditional forms of teacher education. Several years ago after realizing I could no longer teach in the system as it existed, I started working as if the one I wanted to work in already existed and started building it first in my classroom and then through my blog. Documenting my practice helped me process and learn, but sharing what I do and seeing that others could take those ideas, learn from them and make them better has been exceptionally rewarding.  Helping to organize events such as Edcamp Toronto and Edcamp Hamilton, the Inquiry Working Group, and the HWDSB West Cluster Integrative Thinking Initiative has allowed me to connect with remarkable people who've had a profound impact on my practice.   Seeking learning outside of traditional providers of teacher training has been key. Talk about a disruptor!  Eyebrows often shoot up when I mention Rotman IThink.  What is a business school doing messing about in elementary education?  Or the workshops and explorations of learning organized by Exhibit Change. Why is a social entrepreneur/architect/design thinker bothering with elementary education?  For those who've participated in their trainings, you know why I would seek learning there.

Sometimes people ask why I'm being so generous on my blog in giving away my discoveries about learning. They suggest I write a book. It is funny that other people are writing books with my work in it or travelling to other countries sharing what I do. After watching Clive Thompson's book writing process and all that's involved, I'm not sure that book writing is for me. I don't really feel ownership of my ideas. They come because of work other people do. They are causing others to create their own good ideas. I may change my mind. You never know.

One of the incredible luxuries I've had during this process is to not be constrained by a formal position of leadership. Being a consultant, principal or superintendent, particularly these days when decisions end up under the microscope or exploding in social media, is no easy task. Working in an innovative way somewhat outside of the traditional hierarchy has allowed me to accomplish things and even cause change within my board that I might not otherwise have been able to.  Not that I haven't sought positions of leadership. I've been turned down twice, which while disappointing, did allow me to stay in my classroom and continue refining my practice. This year I've made enormous leaps in my understanding of the assessment piece in inquiry, particularly how to structure self-assessment so that learners think deeply about their own learning and consider independently where to go next in a thoughtful way. I am a better teacher now than I was even one year ago.

I'm now at a point where I'm considering where to go next in my career, but wanting to do so in a way that allows me to continue developing my vision in a meaningful way.

Do I begin a masters?
Do I even need a masters to move my vision forward?

Do I stay in the classroom because there I have a lab that allows me to continue developing my understanding of inquiry and integrative thinking?

Do I move into teacher training? I now know so much that could really help my colleagues become better at what they do.

Do I move into policy making and curriculum design?

Do I call up the administrator from Sweden who handed me his card and said,"If you ever want to come work in Sweden, let me know."  An offer that was probably casually and politely made, but still, did make we wonder about possibilities.

Linkedin has certainly been an eye-opener. Although I have an account and occasionally remember to log in and accept connection requests, it is not a social media platform that I have explored or taken advantage of. I'm surprised at the number of opportunities and paths that are now laid before me. It is wonderful to see the many different directions that educators take their careers in. I can't believe what my colleagues around the world are up to.

Where might I go next?

It's time for thinking and decision-making. I am curious about directions others have chosen to go in and why they've made those choices.  What is an interesting place to go next?  If you have ideas or suggestions please let me know.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Gratitude and An Unusual Week

I received an invitation in my inbox a few weeks ago from The Canadian Education Association asking if I'd be interested in meeting, along with a few other Ontario teachers, a delegation from Sweden to discuss Ontario education. Of course I said yes. It was an honour to be asked and so, on Tuesday I found myself along with Aviva Dunsinger, Stephen Hurley and Brenda Sherry sitting at a table discussing education with politicians, bureaucrats, school administrators, a journalist and a Microsoft representative from Sweden. I hadn't met with my colleagues in a while and it was lovely to have the chance to hear as they shared their expertise and insights. Ontario teachers are exceptional and I was in awe listening as they shared their thoughts, practices and current projects with the guests from Sweden.

The Swedish education system is under the microscope at the moment as their PISA scores continue to fall. Part of the purpose of the visit was to explore how technology is being used to enhance learning in Ontario. We soon diverged from that topic and entered into a much deeper one on pedagogy, thinking, creativity, and of course .... standardized testing.  It was a singular opportunity and one that I am grateful to have had.

That delightful afternoon was followed by a scheduled meeting at Rotman IThink. RIT is in the process of developing Tier 2 Integrative Thinking training for educators and over the winter I along with a number of educators have been meeting with the IThink Team to assist in that process. This has been like no other planning method that I have ever experienced. I've tasted bits and pieces through the work we've been doing in integrative thinking but what I've been able to witness through this think tank is how those who are deeply immersed in the practices of integrative and design thinking, use them to generate innovative solutions. I've seen abductive reasoning at work!

On Tuesday evening the team revealed their key insights uncovered from all the 'thinking made visible' that we undertook. I have to say it wasn't what I expected. Their insight dealt with what would have to be addressed and what their training would have to be developed around for it to be truly meaningful. Their insight was so human-centered and simple that I wondered why I hadn't seen it myself previously.

It is not, however,  my place to reveal what the team has uncovered through their months of work. I will say this though:  when I was first introduced to solving problems through integrative thinking, I remember hearing that because we don't know how to frame complex problems, we often end up developing solutions for the wrong problems. We waste a great deal of money, time and resources doing so.  In education we spend billions of dollars trying to improve our systems. It struck me on Tuesday that there is an enormous gap in how we purpose those dollars and there is an area of teacher education that is not being addressed. Because of that we've been developing solutions to the wrong problem. We bring in new curriculum and methodologies but never fundamentally address what is at the heart of effective teacher training. If this aspect of teacher training was addressed systematically, I think we'd see the kind of transformation we've been looking for.

Design Overhaul

My blog is about to undergo a design overhaul. You may see things disappear for a bit as I consider where I want this blog to go next. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Mary Ann Reilly Responds

Mary Ann Reilly, an American/Irish educator whose work I deeply admire, has written a very thoughtful post about my work and in particular, my post Creative Solutions are No Accident . Words of praise are always lovely to hear and I thank Mary Ann for that. More significant is what she has to say about learning, teaching and the teaching of teachers. 


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