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Empowering students and giving them ownership

Jane Alston

Jane Alston, Head of Primary at Shanghai United International School, China

Iain Riley is the Grade 5 Coordinator and Assistant Head at Shanghai United International School

Iain Riley, Assistant Head at Shanghai United International School, China

This article looks at students taking full ownership of the inquiry process from primary years all the way up to grade 5.

We should all ask ourselves, do we give students enough freedom and really allow them to take ownership for their own learning? It is very difficult to give full empowerment to students and allow them to take ownership for their own learning journey especially if you have to fulfil certain national or state standards. At Shanghai United International School, we are fortunate that we do not have to follow any such standards and this has given the teachers and administrators the freedom to really explore the PYP and empower students with ownership. This article outlines several ways that we empower student ownership.

The starting point for developing the curriculum is always the programme of inquiry review that takes place at the end of every year. This is when the whole staff spends time collaboratively evaluating each unit of inquiry for their year in their grade groups. This leads to the whole staff collaboratively looking at vertical and horizontal alliance to make sure that each of the 5 essential elements is fully covered through each grade. We have developed a document that allows each grade group to map the 5 essential elements and the groups come to the programme of inquiry review with this document already completed.

The grade group teachers brainstorm each unit of inquiry two weeks before the start of each unit. This is the time that the big idea is discussed by the teachers. If this is a unit that has been done before, then the previous planner will be visited to see how the unit could be changed or added to according to the skills and understandings of the students who will be doing the inquiry for that year. At the start of a unit the students are helped to understand the transdisciplinary theme through guided discussion and analysis and which part(s) of the transdisciplinary theme they will be inquiring into. The homeroom teachers then introduce the students to the big idea from which the central idea and its associate concepts will be developed. It is only for the grade 5 exhibition that the students identify a big question/big idea in which they are interested and think about which transdisciplinary theme will their questions/ideas most suit. We have then allowed these students to create their own central ideas and lines of inquiry that make sense to them.

Students, especially in grade 5 but starting in grade 3, are able and encouraged to create a class central idea, lines of inquiry and concepts suitable to that unit’s big idea. Students must justify why they chose the concepts and why they chose the central idea and lines of inquiry. They then brainstorm to see what ideas they have and where their thinking is likely to take the unit. At this stage they think about what they want to cover in the unit. Provocations, which can include guest speakers, books, articles, videos and other media and resources, can be used to stimulate thinking. During the start of the unit, the teachers need to check that the desired outcomes, understandings, skills and knowledge to be assessed during the summative assessment task are in line with the direction in which the unit is developing.

The lower primary students need support to understand the central idea created by the grade teachers because most of our students are second or third English language learners. It can be useful to create a visual central idea so students can understand the language. The visualisation allows students to fully understand the central idea and lines of inquiry. Sometimes teachers will use pictures, synonyms and stories to enable this understanding to develop. Mother tongue and written language is also used to help support learners.

Our Primary Reception class was able to unpack the central idea and lines of inquiry which produced a science fair that they were able to present with little support from the homeroom teachers. Some schools use the term ‘unpacking the central idea” which is when the students are guided by the teachers to understand the meaning of each word in the central idea and also the overall meaning and big question. This was the first time that our 5 and 6 year old students did anything like this. They created science boards in their groups and could explain their experiments using the scientific method although they might not yet know all the terminology. This was the summative assessment for their unit on materials and matter – How the world works. The outcome was remarkable and showed the understandings of children at the age of 5 and 6. The science fair was the first time that we gave such young students such a challenging assessment task. It will be interesting to see how the teachers take this further next year.

It is important that students take ownership of their own learning and we have seen that in many cases that the student-created central ideas, lines of inquiries and choice of concepts can sometimes be better than those created by the teachers. Students from grade 1 upwards, with plenty of support in the lower grades, should be allowed to have a go at creating their own central ideas and basic lines of inquiry. The depth of understanding is dependent on the age and experience of the students and by the time the students reach grade 5 and the exhibition, they should have no problem in creating their units and identifying the transdisciplinary theme their central idea falls under. Although this would appear to be a daunting task it actually allows for student and teacher ownership as they both develop as lifelong learners.

A particular point to note is that teachers themselves also need to fully understand the inquiry process. We use the Kath Murdoch cycle of inquiry model with the questions that accompany each stage of inquiry, beginning in grade 1. The teachers cut the model up into each stage of inquiry and display each stage on the process board. There is a process board in each classroom that shows the stages of inquiry and the development of the unit. This board is the main focal point of the unit and is a great tool used to develop student understanding of the inquiry process.

We have also experimented with allowing the grade 4 and 5 students to see the PYP planner. One year the completed planner was used for a reflection exercise at the end of the unit. The students were able to recognize the relationship between the Kath Murdoch cycle of inquiry and the planner. Grade 5, as a group, made very large copies of the main sections of the planner as a hallway display and the students added to those sections as the unit progressed. Their input was added to the final planner.

Another area we are exploring, to help students take ownership of their learning, is through formative assessment and how to embed it in all teaching and learning experiences. This year we started to assess students for each line of inquiry as they completed that line of inquiry rather than wait until the end of the unit. The lines of inquiry are developed so as to focus on one of the concepts that drive the unit along with the skills and knowledge. We have found it useful to have a mini summative assessment after each line of inquiry has been investigated to make sure all students are ready to move to the next one. This does not mean that the final summative assessment becomes redundant. Nor does it mean that the lines of inquiry are dealt with in a rigid sequence – as usual the lines of inquiry are revisited as the unit progresses. It means that the students are more confident when they come to the final summative assessment because they have had ongoing formative assessments throughout the unit. The result is that teachers and students develop a deeper understanding of each line of inquiry and this leads to a deeper understanding of the central idea. The final summative assessments are more in depth than previously which empowers student learning.

Teachers new to the PYP or still developing PYP understanding may find empowering students with ownership difficult, as it is perhaps the ultimate level of ‘letting go’. Schools need to ensure that they focus on teacher development, personal development and valuing and retaining experienced staff. The benefit to this will be that students will show a true understanding of the PYP while also gaining the lifelong skills of taking ownership and also empowering others.

Iain Riley has worked at the IB schools in Turkey and Egypt and has been in Shanghai since 2010. He has been a teacher for over 10 years and is currently the Assistant Head and Head of Pastoral and Academic Tracking, and was previously the Grade 5 Coordinator. He enjoys being a risk-taker and trying new things in the classroom. Iain is originally from Scotland and has found working around the world in different IB environments a challenge but rewarding.

Jane Alston has worked at the IB schools in Shanghai, China since 2005 as a teacher, PYP Coordinator, workshop leader and site visitor. She is currently Head of Primary and vice-principal at Shanghai United International School, HongQiao campus. She enjoys looking for creative ways to approach the PYP and encourages colleagues to take risks and try new approaches.  Originally from South Africa where she was an educator for over 20 years, Jane has found working in China a beneficial challenge.

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6 Responses to Empowering students and giving them ownership

  1. Sarah Pepper 22 September 2015 at 1:17 pm #

    I am constantly looking to improve the ways I empower my students. Having just moved schools and introduced the staff to the POI review I would be really interested if you could share the tool you use to map the 5 essential elements in your POI review.

    Many thanks

  2. Jason 22 September 2015 at 5:42 pm #

    I would also love to see the POI review tool.
    As well, I would really like to see the how the process board shows the development of the unit.


  3. Sakina gadiwala 23 September 2015 at 4:09 am #

    I would love to see the POI review tool and see how it can be implemented in our school too to help the teaches through this process. I would also love to see the how the process board shows the development of the unit.

    Thank you.

  4. Kylie Gardner 23 September 2015 at 5:53 am #

    I’m interested in the idea of using visual central ideas for younger students. I teach 5 and 6 years olds and one of my goals this year is to increase student ownership of inquiry. We have a planning session tomorrow for our next inquiry tomorrow, I’ll take these ideas with me, thank you.

  5. Abhimanyu Das Gupta 30 September 2015 at 4:19 am #

    Dear Ian,

    It was a pleasure reading through your post and having interacted closely with you in the past for the workshop on student well being, it fills me with great joy to see your commitment to student empowerment. As adults, we often tend to underestimate the full potential of our students, though we are happy to lip service the importance we pay it. It is delightful to see the way you are using the POI to make students develop a deep sense of ownership of their learning. I was especially enlightened to see you share the planners with the students of Grade 4 and 5. How has their response been? Did you do it before the unit commenced or during the course of the inquiry? What kind of student questions arose from the same? Curious to know more and learn from your experiences.

    Thanks again for sharing! All the best.

  6. DAVID JAMES 8 January 2016 at 2:23 pm #

    Really interesting article, thank you.A really good example of ‘Student Centrist Learning’ and application of Lave and Wenger’s (1996) approach.
    A few thoughts;
    -how do you evaluate/define success from the perspective of all the key stakeholders?
    -how have the different requirements/skills/competencies that are essential for the successful adoption of this methodology;
    (i)impacted on your recruitment processes?
    (ii)affecting your current Teaching Team?
    Thanks again, look forward to learning more.
    Best wishes,

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