In this article you will find reflections on the connection between whole school professional development and the action cycle.
Transdisciplinary theme: How we organize ourselves – The learning environment and inquiry
Central idea: Our environment, the world in which we live and work, is a mirror of our attitudes and expectations.
Concepts: Connection, reflection, change
It is certainly true to say that schools around the world are different in so many ways, even though our aims are ultimately very similar. Like pebbles on a beach, each has its own history of the people, cultures and circumstances that have created a context which has shaped and formed its development and has bought it to the place it finds itself resting today. But, like the pebbles, schools never rest where they are for long. It is what, for many of us, makes teaching and learning such an exciting and dynamic profession. We may have a philosophy in the PYP that binds us, but the environments and spaces in which our learning takes place vary significantly.
So why do we organize ourselves in the way we do? What influences our teaching practices and the decisions we make about the ways in which children will be engaged with inquiring about and exploring new concepts? How much real control do we as teachers have over the spaces in which we are expected to teach? Or does it matter? Inquiry can happen anywhere, right?
In October 2014, teachers at the International School Stuttgart, Germany, took part in a category 3, 2 day in-school IB workshop entitled The learning environment and inquiry.
Our elementary school building is relatively new. Built around 14 years ago, it is a long, light and modern building that stretches across a plot of land sandwiched between two roads. Space for expansion and further development is limited. Classrooms for students in the PYP are arranged over 2 levels and connect either side of a long central corridor. They are relatively large, similar in size and are well resourced.
So you may be asking yourself, “well, why would you need or want to do this type of workshop?”
As a school, we are community of learners who are continually reflecting on our practices and the ways in which students can best learn through inquiry. Having been authorized by the IB to teach the PYP since February 2004, many of our teachers are very experienced PYP teachers. In August 2014 several teachers were required to move classrooms after the removal of some temporary buildings, which had previously housed the Early Years Discovery Centre. There was, therefore, a “reshuffle” of spaces within the main building. It was the aim of doing this workshop to use the opportunity to help ALL teachers to make the most of the chance to think about inquiry in a much wider sense, and for it to be a collaborative and shared professional learning experience which would provide a catalyst for further reflection about their new spaces and, if we felt necessary, change.
In the weeks leading up to the workshop itself I decided to use our weekly grade-level planning meetings to begin to focus on the main concepts of what would later be explored.
The first and possibly most valuable activity was for colleagues to take the time to give each other a “tour” of their classrooms and other learning spaces. All teachers, including specialists (language teachers, art, library, PE and music teachers) were included in this process in some way and it was a powerful “transdisciplinary” experience. So much of our time as teachers is spent focusing on our own working environment that we do not often take the time to stop and look around us. When we do, there is so much to see and to learn from.
I simply asked the teachers to describe how they had organized their spaces and how their classrooms are used to support the inquiries that take place within them. As they did this, I took pictures of the aspects of the rooms they were describing and stored these in an online portfolio (Evernote) which would later be accessed during the workshop as part of the learning experiences used by the workshop leaders. It was a fascinating reflection experience and immediately provoked awareness, discussion, and sharing of ideas, with some colleagues using the activity to make some immediate changes based on what they had learned from one another.
The workshop itself was powerfully thought provoking. We were given many opportunities to reflect on the ways that the learning environment is something which permeates into all aspects of what we do, and as such raises many tensions as well as opportunities for teachers. We spent time analyzing the design and feel of a building, the arrangement and the type of furniture we use, the amount of and type of information we display, the way we group and regroup children, the cultures, languages and materials we use, and our movements around a building. All these things, and much more, are a signal to others of what we value and our attitudes to teaching and learning. These are the things that make our schools what they are and tell the world “this is what we believe learning looks like”.
Since the workshop, it has been fascinating to observe how teachers have reflected on the provocations and examples provided and have begun to rethink ways in which they can use spaces to support inquiry. Some of these are individual, some collaborative, some seem obvious and straight-forward and some have raised tensions for teachers themselves or for us all collectively, but all have a place in an environment where we recognize we are learning together.
We have given some time in collaborative meetings to continue to reflect on the questions…..
- What changes have you made already as a result of the workshop?
- What plans do you have / what would you like to do in the short term?
- What plans do you have / what would you like to do in the long-term?
- What ideas do you have about our shared spaces? What changes can we make together? What should be our focus?
“An explicit expectation of the PYP is that successful inquiry will lead to responsible action, initiated by the student as a result of the learning process. This action will extend the student’s learning, or it may have a wider social impact, and will clearly look different within each age range. PYP schools can and should meet the challenge of offering all learners the opportunity and the power to choose to act; to decide on their actions; and to reflect on these actions in order to make a difference in and to the world.” (Making the PYP happen, p. 25)
Just over a year on from the workshop it has been interesting for me to recognize the connection between the way the teachers have learned from this experience and the way we guide students through the inquiry cycle within the units of inquiry. One of the most difficult aspects about reflecting on a unit can sometimes be noticing where and when children take action as a result of their learning. It does not always neatly happen when we might want it or expect it to, and this was certainly true of us adults too. Whilst some changes had been made the previous year, it was at the start of the following academic year that I saw teachers really applying what they had been thinking about since the workshop. It was a great reminder that we might not be around to see when our children take the action that we aim for, but apply their learning they will, if we have provided them with engaging, relevant and challenging learning experiences and the time and space in which to grow.
Alexander Whitaker is the PYP Coordinator at the International School Stuttgart, Germany. He is an IB workshop leader and is passionate about the power of collaboration, innovation and sharing of best practice in schools. Prior to working in International Schools, Alex worked with students with a wide range of special educational needs in the UK and was a Team Leader for a team of teachers working with students with visual impairments.