On the Grade 2-5 playground in March 2018, I asked a few students a question that was on my mind: ‘Would you like more Visual Art or more Music or more PE in your timetable?’
‘Yes!’ they said, each replying to the subject they wanted more of, depending on their strengths and interests. (I had also asked if they’d like more Drama, but, as we hadn’t yet started our Primary School Drama Programme at that time, it was not easy for them to answer – more on that later.)
Then I said, ‘If you have more Visual Art, you might not have any Music, for example – there are only so many lessons in a week.’
This stumped them.
I had hooked them with the idea of more choice and more of a subject they love, and they were struggling with the very same issue that we as leaders do when looking for just the right balance for our students when there are so many interesting and important things to learn. Believe it or not, this is what they concluded: ‘We want more Visual Art or more Music, say, but we don’t want to miss the other subjects completely. We should each have a little bit of everything and then be able to have more of what we love.’
As a principal and the person responsible for timetabling in our setting, I know how important it is to get the schedule for students and teachers right. I am also fully aware of the constraints on a school’s timetable, perhaps especially in a through-school with shared spaces. It was time to investigate this further.
Several issues I have recognised recently in our students is a lack of awareness of the overall purpose of school, students’ roles in the business of learning and general knowledge retention. My premise is that these are related.
Our students are eager to return to school after holidays and long weekends. Almost every single student reports that he/she prefers school to home. When pushed to say why, the answer is consistently the same: ‘My friends’. Of course, the social aspects of school are recognised to be extremely important in the normal development of our students (something which COVID-19 has acutely reminded us of). But, to be honest, when I pushed our students to say more about why they are glad to be back at school, they didn’t often naturally reply with anything specifically related to learning.
I began to stop students in the hallway in the morning on their way to class with this question: ‘What’s your first lesson today?’ They looked very surprised to be asked this question, as if it really had nothing to do with them. Answers regularly included: ‘I don’t know. Our teacher puts the schedule on the board.’ If they did know, the conversation went something like this: ‘German.’ ‘What are you doing in German?’ ‘We are making a slideshow.’ or ‘We are writing stories.’
I quickly realised that we needed to bring students more into the picture of what their days at school were like and why. I also realised that I needed to change my main question to: ‘What are you learning?’ rather than ‘What are you doing?’ This new question gave them more pause but did begin to elicit what I was hoping for. I started to receive replies such as: ‘We are learning vocabulary for food.’ and ‘We are learning to keep a rhythm with different instruments.’ and ‘We are learning to show our thinking in two ways when solving a maths problem.’ Purpose was becoming clearer over time, but I was still uneasy with seeing 22 students march to Music, then to PE, then to Visual Art, for example, each just following the student ahead, ambling through the hallway throughout the day – happy but not really engaged.
Ownership of Learning
Around this same time, the Enhanced PYP was released. As an author of the original ‘PYP Making it Happen in the Classroom’ document, I was especially interested to see the changes in their final form. I can’t begin to say how satisfied I was, especially with the Approaches to Learning and Teaching and the explicit focus on Agency – Voice, Choice and Ownership. My sense was (and still is) that many of us had been on a good path over time to help students develop voice and choice. It is the ownership of their learning that is our current focus, and well it should be. How can we get our students to feel ownership – to go beyond being engaged and motivated to having a sense of control and responsibility for their learning? Often, providing options for how and where students will learn is relatively easy and has become increasingly ingrained in our approaches. The more challenging question, I believe, is how will we provide options for what students are learning?
Building effective relationships and knowing our students well is something we all strive toward. We know the power that a strong connection among teachers and students can hold, even over the course of many years or even decades. What I’ve learned is that the point at which I learn things about my students is extremely important. I often think back to a Grade 3 student in my class several years ago. He was not very organised, generally less confident, reluctant to write and also struggled with developing new concepts in mathematics. It was tradition back then to create an art gallery at the end of the school year during our ‘How we express ourselves’ unit. In those last eight weeks of the year, I discovered that this student was an amazing artist. His drawing skills were phenomenal, and his work showed depth that I had not seen from him all year. How disappointed I was in myself that I did not know more about this student earlier. I was sure I could have tapped into his inherent skill and ability to concentrate when drawing in ways that would have supported his literacy and maths development. I relate this story because I am uncomfortable to this day to have held the year’s curriculum in my own hands, parcelled out week by week, unit by unit, without ever having provided my students with even an overview of what they would be learning that year. This step would have at least provided an outside chance of Julian having said to me that he was looking forward to the last unit as he loved to draw.
I do understand why teachers might struggle to provide an overview of what students will learn each year. Each of our curriculum areas has a separate scope and sequence with clearly outlined learning outcomes for each grade or phase, even though we plan through a trans- and interdisciplinary lens. Over time, we have added valuable new areas to our programmes to ensure that students are digitally able, understand the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and have healthy growth mindsets, for example. At the same time, we find it extremely difficult to remove anything from our programmes – and that’s where, in my opinion, the main issue lies: Content Overload.
Some high schools and, certainly, universities allow students to design individual learning paths with a common understanding that some courses are ‘required’. Even at the beginning stages in the development of the PYP, we asked ourselves which content was essential. Our aim was conceptual development, learned through transdisciplinary study, and we had many long debates on which content was essential. Understanding ‘cycles’ is a big idea, key to overall understanding of how the world works. We asked ourselves, though, if it was enough that a student knew how the water cycle worked, as a factual example of a cycle, or did he/she also need to know about the life cycle of a butterfly? How could you consider having educated your students well if they didn’t know that rain was evaporated water or that caterpillars form cocoons? Schools are still left to decide this, but, often, the task is so overwhelming that we carry on, use our Units of Inquiry to include what is meaningful from science, social studies, maths, literacy and more in an attempt to keep things at least authentic, knowing that there is no way we will even ‘cover’ all of the learning outcomes from each curricular area, leaving us hoping for the best that everything will be OK in the end (which it often seems to be, depending on how you measure this).
The implication of the stress on teachers as they attempt to ensure success for each of their students on all of the learning outcomes and the inability for our students to truly find meaning and retain even a fraction of the content we have determined appropriate for them each school year is not to be underestimated. As teachers, we are still of the mindset that, if we are efficient and effective enough, we should be able to manage our time well enough to ‘get the job done’ properly. Unfortunately, in an increasingly complex and faster-paced world, this is no longer the case. Things will fall off your plate. Guaranteed.
As leaders, we need to ensure that there is agreement as to what stays on everyone’s plates so that the student learning experience is coherent and manageable and that we can meet the mandate we set out to which is to put the learning in the students’ hands where it belongs.