Author: alavina

Educator and professional development leader at large. Blogger at

Frame and Canvas for Student Designed Assessment

Self-directed change as performance of understanding

In every unit of inquiry there is potential for student-generated assessment. As learning is a response to deliberately designed experiences, learning is a change in the learner’s skills, knowledge, understanding as well as post-unit decisions or actions. Action as a result of learning can be owned and led by students. Teachers provide the frame for learning, but what’s on the canvas belongs to the student.

Contextual framework of a unit on Change and Relationships

The problem that prompted the interdisciplinary unit “Be the Change” was a set of behavioral habits of many members of a class. Many members of this (middle school) class for which the unit was designed had poor impulse control exhibited by behaviors like talking over each other because they did not practice wait time or did not subscribe to the classroom agreements for supporting own and others’ learning. As a result of these unproductive habits, learning was often interrupted in the class, and over the years the students had developed many conceptual gaps, which emerged in underachievement in a wide range of subjects.

Conceptual frame of the unit

The team of teachers approached the unit design with their own questions from the context in which they wanted to impact the students’ thinking, and these questions reflected how the students would learn in the unit. The teachers asked:

  • How might students learn through the concepts so that their own choices change their behavior?
  • How might students learn about how the brain and cognition command outwardly expressed behavior?
  • How might students apply their learning in authentic ways relevant to themselves?
  • What sort of summative task would sustain students-led action?

These questions became the teachers’ context for the overarching goals for student learning in the unit. The design considerations inherent in the teachers’ questions gave them the goal of helping students to learn that “Change in how a person feels, thinks and acts can change how they perceive, understand and form relationships.” This became the statement of understanding in the unit. Through the unit, students might attain the concept of change as it pertained to thinking and resultant behavior. Through the conceptual learning of concepts patterns and relationships, students might learn of the relationships between how their thinking affected how they perceived others and themselves. Through the content illustrating the concepts, students might learn specific ways by which cognition controlled behavior. Through the open-ended task of the unit, students might find ways to sustain a change in their behavior as a result of learning.

The teachers created a few guiding questions for the unit designed to guide the conceptual inquiry.

  • Factual question: How does the brain work that results in how people feel, think and act?
  • Conceptual questions: How do people learn? How do people change because of what they learn?
  • Debatable question: To what extent can we change ourselves and change our relationships?

Construct of the unit

Prior to beginning the unit, the teachers had facilitated essential agreements between teachers and the class. They had dialogued about the expectations of the school and asked the students to discuss with them the behaviors, which would allow the students to express the expectations in how they behaved. These agreements became the basis for classroom management protocols used in each class the students attended. The agreements were made the year prior to the unit itself; these agreements had been revisited in the year when the unit was conceived just before it was taught. The need for the inquiry stemmed from the persisting habits which hindered the students’ learning.

The teachers used the authentic context of the conflicts that resulted between students and other students, conflicts between students and teachers, as the basis for the unit of inquiry. This global context of Identities and relationships was real to the individuals who spent time learning together every day, and created a significant cognitive landscape for learning in the unit.

The content the teachers prepared consisted of knowledge about how people learn. How people learn was explored in depth through texts on how the brain learns and how habits form.

A menu of texts were prepared by the teachers, ranging from a popular science article on brain function and habits, a set of Youtube videos explaining aspects of how the brain learned, parts of the brain, how habits are formed, TED videos to provoke thinking and questioning by the students. Interacting with the materials, students began to form connections between the brain and how the brain learned, and how personal ways to learn become habits, for instance how patterns of thinking affect how people perceive tasks or challenges, which was a conclusion students arrived at as they exhausted their factual study. As students began to grow in their understanding of the connections between the brain and learning, students began to ask their own questions. A research frenzy ensued, driven by students’ curiosity about their own individual learning. Their questions stemmed from personal concerns, like “Will less sleep make me less smart?” and “Do video games really harm children?” and “Is personality permanent?”

The students’ own inquiries based on personally relevant learning questions were guided by the teachers toward the big idea of learning as a source of change, the main concept framing the unit. As students attained conceptual understanding by making connections between content and concepts, they arrived at their own conclusions about what people have to do to change as a result of what and how they learned. Students had authentic concerns for themselves and their learning, and these became the basis for the students’ design of their own tasks for the summative assessment of the unit.


Schulsport by Maximilian Schonherr. CC via Wikimedia Commons

Student-designed assessment tasks

The teachers designed an open-ended assessment. Students were asked to formulate a plan of change. In the plan, students had to:

  • demonstrate knowledge and understanding of learning as a source of change (unit concept) using what they understood about patterns (unit concept) of learning they had learned through the source materials
  • identify a context for their intended change based on how their current behavior affected their relationships (unit concept) in a specific situation
  • explain how their plan addressed a change that would improve the relationship in their context, and justify how the changes in their behavior were supported by what they had learned in the unit
  • articulate a plan to monitor their own behavior in the context they described, and what success of changing would look like and how it would affect the relationships in their context.

This open-ended assessment task allowed students to:

  • Use knowledge and conceptual understanding
  • Find personal significance for their action plan
  • Structure a process by which their learning in the unit transferred to a real-life situation
  • Structure into their implementation process personal ways to monitor and self-assess

The power of the personally significant, student-generated questions drove the learning in the unit. The potential for each student to discover his or her own empowerment served to propel the students forward in the unit, especially since this unit assessment was not awarded any grade. In the larger scheme of things, the unit was designed around advisory time, which was not graded.

The students remained engaged, and continued to remain engaged in enacting their personal change as a performance of understanding.

Sustainable learning resulting from a performance of understanding

The potential for transformational learning is evident in this unit. A student in this class devised a simple way for him to keep track of his behavioral goal, which was “to decrease the number of times I spoke without taking my turn and increase the number of times I raised my hand to volunteer.” His approach was to use an index card to tally the number of times he spoke out of turn without waiting, and to tally the number of times he raised his hand to volunteer and wait to be called. Every week, he monitored his tallies on the index card, and rewarded himself if he met the goal of decreasing impulsivity and increasing impulse control.

Units that intend for students to perform conceptual understanding require a complex set of design considerations, which allow students to deepen both how they learn and what they understand in the units of learning. The deliberate ways by which teachers can design the rehearsal of thinking skills into a unit of work lead to opportunities by which students are able to draw upon their understanding of concepts and skills to solve unfamiliar problems in assessments requiring the performance of understanding.

Photo credits

Cover Photo বাংলা: বাংলার By Md Raihan rana – Own work CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Schulsport By Maximilian Schönherr – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Reflections from the #IBChat 17 April


So a colleague and I kept chatting after the #IBChat on Twitter.

As we reflected on the experience, I asked what my colleague’s most important takeaways were from the hour-long Twitter conversation. It was her first chat on Twitter, and she said it was at times overwhelming with the speed of the conversation and that it gave her a sense of “Community as professional, local, human, with an empathetic circle [as the] environment of it.”


I was struck by her impressions, and wanting to help her clear her thinking about the learning experience, we began to debrief what the PLN had shared.

  • The role of research in service and service as action

Research is crucial

Primary research impt

  • Ideas for service as bridge within and across the continuum

Start within own community

  • The role of relationships for sustainable service learning

Sustainable Relationships


  • Embedding service learning in the curriculum

Embedded into curriculum

  • How is empathy learned?


  • The role of reflection and action

Central role of action

  • How service learning provides personalized, authentic experiences that stick


Our dialog deepened as we dove into the idea of how the #IBChat itself illustrated the concepts of community and empathy, which were demonstrated as the group chatted.


Somewhat surprised by this comment, I replied with a sudden insight: one of the reasons why I value conversations with the Twitter PLN is each one’s generosity of spirit.

The IB Educators Network PLN shares so unselfishly.

Sharing resources.png

Another quality of the community that my colleague met on Twitter yesterday was the intellectual humility of each person.

Each one of these individuals is accomplished and influential, many of them Workshop Leaders, Team Visit Members, and Consultants in the IB Educators Network. “When they speak,” I thumb-typed to my colleague, “you just have to stop and listen. And you learn.” Yet, they come together and they learn from each other. This intellectual humility is a big part of why I trust these educators, and why spending a mere hour in conversation with them often yields transformational learning.

I was very proud of my colleagues, a couple of whom participated by sharing Tweets, and others who listened in on the conversation. For many of them, it may have been their first Twitter chat, signifying both intellectual risk-taking and intellectual humility. Participating in the global #IBChat was a small, first step, but it was a giant step towards self-directed learning.

The colleague that I chatted with long after the #IBChat had concluded captured it well when she said, “I’m looking forward to reflecting with others outside of our circle.” She concluded our chat with, “Widening perspectives lead to the growth mindset.” A few seconds later, she typed, “And we are just starting!”

PD is just a bunch of ideas until we make it our own, finding its meaning for ourselves and our practice. And it was just like that.













Tiny Disturbances: 3 Areas of Support in Changing Learning Ecosystems

The bad news is that change is difficult. The good news is, we can scale it.

Shifting mindsets in education requires action. It may be daunting to think of how to change an entire system at once. Moving to action from perception is a cultural challenge, especially when perception is mired in habits. This Mindshift article names some of these bad habits of schools: “siloed learning, homework just for the sake of it, spending time planning with no action, keeping the door closed and visitors out, poor communication between administrators and teachers, traditional professional development, fixing problems by mandate rather than by team problem solving and initiative overload.”

Change in schools is not a technical problem; simply purchasing a program for a school, for example, does not mean the principles and practices of that program take root and transform the system. Just like growing a plant, conditions have to be right for something to germinate, grow, and flourish. Taking the lead from the natural sciences, we know that tiny disturbances to an ecosystem can cause system-wide change. Introducing something into an ecosystem impacts the entire system (Garmston and Wellman, 2002).

We can scale change in a learning ecosystem. Here are some considerations for how we can make “tiny disturbances” that might impact our learning ecosystems in positive ways.

Create Time for Personal Inquiries

Time is a finite resource in schools. Remnants of the industrial model leave us with 180 days in the school year, and timetables have traditionally identified time allocation to separate subjects. Rather than run against these ancient barriers of pre-packaged time, we might ask how we might simply provide time for learners to pursue inquiry and then get out of their way. The small-scale change might be to provide time in the timetable for student-driven inquiry and similarly, to provide time in the meeting schedule for teacher inquiry in collaborative groups. Shifting the timetable to create pockets of time for personalized learning is something we can do now.

Create Structures for Collaboration

We learn from professional development research that it’s not the content of PD that impacts teacher agency most; it’s the social processes.

Darling Hammond and Laughlin (1996) strongly suggest implementing “structures that break down isolation, empower teachers with professional tasks, and provide areas for thinking through standards of practice” (in Hindin, et al., 2007, p. 350).

Shifting to a true collaborative culture is an evolutionary process, and takes time. Learning ecosystems might pay attention to the levels of collaborative structures:

Fragmented individualism is on the low end of the spectrum of collaboration. This is the condition in which classrooms are islands. The isolation of classrooms and teachers produces very little commonality in practice.

Balkanization is defined as the condition in which the ecosystem is divided into cliques or small groups, which have their own subcultures. In this type of environment, the learning is isolated in subcultures, and there is no common set of beliefs permeating the entire organization.

Contrived collegiality creates a condition in which there may be congeniality, the feeling that a group is harmonious and agreeable. At a recent PD event, the facilitator cautioned, “Watch the food. Congenial schools tend to feature the sharing of food.” While congeniality is a precursor to true collaboration, it isn’t quite the same as collaboration.

Professional collegiality in learning ecosystems is when teachers gather to engage in dialog and discussion around student learning. In these truly collaborative teams, teachers might:

  • Examine student work
  • Be critical friends to one another as they implement new practices in their classrooms
  • Provide support in peer observations during implementation of new practices, as an ‘extra pair of eyes and ears’ to gather data
  • Share expertise and personal research into best practice
  • Co-construct a common set of beliefs and cultural practices for facilitating learning

These actions in becoming a truly collaborative learning ecosystem present complex work and need adaptive problem-solving, and schools can provide tools to support it, such as engaging in the work of developing norms of collaboration (from Thinking Collaborative).

Give Ourselves Permission to Innovate through Iteration

Change in learning ecosystems often require an openness to purposeful exploration. This means adopting a growth mindset and shifting thinking to the value of process. Constructivist approaches are conducive to purposeful exploration, where the value is not in one-size-fits-all processes but in allowing iterations.

For professional learning groups, support may come in a framework, such as having an inquiry cycle where learners can start anywhere and use the cycle to enact change.


American International School of Zagreb Professional Learning Cycle

Inquiry cycles support the ecosystem in how change can be scaled to micro-environments such as classrooms. For example, if a group of teachers believe that implementing questioning strategies systematically in their classrooms might impact students’ skills in critical thinking, they might investigate ways of using questioning for at least one class.

This scalable inquiry approach allows for some risk-taking and alleviates anxiety on the challenge of change.

The challenge of educational reform is scalable, and when we pay attention to tiny shifts in our uses of time, opportunities and processes, we can remove some of the anxiety that accompanies ambiguity in times of change.

Suggested Further Reading

Garmston, R. J., & Wellman, B. M. (2002). The adaptive school: developing and facilitating collaborative groups. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon .

Hindin, A., Morocco-Cobb, C., Arwen-Mott, & Mata-Aguilar, C. (2007). More than just a group: Teacher collaboration and learning in the workplace. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and practice, 13(4), 349-376.

Powell, W., & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2013). The OIQ factor: raising your school’s organizational intelligence. Suffolk: John Catt Educational.

Schwartz, K. (n.d.). How Schools Can Face The ‘Bad Habits’ That Inhibit Meaningful Changes. Retrieved April 17, 2017, from

Featured Image:

Gamelan Orchestra on Bali, Jakarta or Solo (Indonesia). Painting by Isaac Israëls (1865-1934). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Explicitly teaching skills in disciplinary inquiry

One of the topics that can fuel hours of teacher dialog is the difference between assigning tasks and teaching the process by which tasks can be pursued through inquiry. Assigning might consist of telling students to do a task. Teaching a process involves teaching approaches to learning, which might allow students to problem solve for the task.

It is one thing to talk about how scientists solve problems using scientific inquiry, and it is another thing altogether to experience using scientific inquiry to solve a problem. In every discipline or subject, there are patterns of thinking employed systematically by the people who work in that discipline, which are particularly developed by practitioners in that discipline.

Schooling as it exists has been structured for people to learn how to learn in disciplines. The ways of doing and learning in a discipline follow systematic approaches which help to inquire in the discipline, and these are the experiences we attempt to provide in school, so that our students understand the systems within a discipline, and how these systems help the practitioner to inquire, reflect and take action.

In sciences, the ways of doing research or inquiry have common threads. Research is a big part of each discipline. In studies of language and literature, for instance, experiences in organizing communication of ideas and experiences in the actual production of these ways of communication are predominant approaches for those who communicate through language and literature; authors write specific texts for specific purposes.

Part of our planning of learning in a subject involves planning for experiences wherein students learn and use skills and approaches particular to that subject. Some of the questions we might have in how to do this in a unit of inquiry may include:

  • How do we embed skills into a unit with context, content and concepts?
  • How do we plan for students to experience, as authentically as possible, the ways of doing what people do in a particular field?
  • How do we integrate skills and approaches to learning in a subject as effectively as possible?

These questions of instructional design might give us a hint of the complexity that an integrated and holistic planning approach requires. Design is a creative process, which involves evaluation at every step of the way, and demands of the designer an ability to iterate: to test and use a feedback loop to inform further revisions of the design until the desired outcome is achieved.

The approaches to learning in a subject

What do scientists do?

Science is a good example for a subject with a systematic way of approaching learning. Scientists have a specific way of arriving at understanding – the scientific method. Through research and investigations, scientists have arrived at the body of knowledge which exists because scientists perpetually investigate and demystify how the world works. Through the scientific method, students can also experience the ways that science arrives at understanding. Through research and experiments, students can arrive at understanding the principles that scientists have learnt and used to solve authentic problems and illuminated the thinking through science in our world.

Not only the natural sciences use specifically created methods to find solutions to questions about how the world works. Human sciences, the humanities, have also adopted systematic research and investigation to find solutions to problems in these fields. In psychology, geography, history, and other human sciences, research and investigation play a large role in demystifying the world.

The goal for doing in the social sciences, therefore, remains very close to doing in the natural sciences, in that students might experience problem solving through investigation and research. In this discussion of the integration of skills and practice in units, it is helpful to look at investigation as an experience for students of a subject, in which knowledge is used in processes, which help students to learn and do in a subject.

The process of investigation

Process learning is often more effective when the learner actually experiences the process. Designing ways for students to experience research as it is done in a subject is therefore a worthy pursuit in the unit plan. Repeated rehearsal in the problem-solving process that a practitioner uses in that subject is essential for students to truly understand what it is like to be a practitioner in that subject.

As students rehearse the process through repeated use, habituated thinking within those approaches are more likely to happen (Brown & Bennet, 2002). The implications are that as students learn the process, the teacher might:

  • Draw attention to the reasons why specific steps in a process are taken, to establish the significance of these in the process
  • Facilitate awareness of changes that might result in the students’ thinking as they use the process
  • Allow students to make connections between their own thinking and the effects a specific thinking pattern might have on the process
  • Embed opportunities for reflection and metacognition within the process
  • Find ways to highlight similarities between processes used to solve different problems in the same subject with different contexts, content and concepts, to facilitate understanding of the approach as part of the systematic pattern of thinking and learning in that subject
  • Provide ways for students to highlight transfer of the process in other situations, for example, in solving unfamiliar problems

The implications above also point out the importance of teaching the process rather than just assigning the process (Merzenich et al., 1996). Assuming that students naturally know how to use a process as they get older, for instance, is unwise because there might be no default setting for these processes, which have been constructed to support learning in a subject by those who have developed expertise in the subject’s approaches to learning.

How a teacher breaks down the processes and helps students to learn multiple pathways to understanding impact how effectively the student can use the processes to learn in that subject.

How do you break down the processes and approaches in your discipline? I invite you to share your ideas in a comment.

Further reading

Brown, S. W., & Bennet, E. (2002). The role of practice and automaticity in temporal and nontemporal dual-task performance. Psychological Research, 66(1), 80-9. doi: 101007/S004260100076

Merzenich, M. M., Jenkins, W.M, Johnston, P., Schreiner, C., Miller, S. L., & Tallal, P. (1996). Temporal processing deficits of language-learning impaired children ameliorated by training. Science, 271, 77-81. doi:10.2307/29890377


Waking into Light

I had to hug a teacher today.

She has taught for a decade, and this week has been delving into Marcia Behrenbruch’s Dancing in the Light, Marcia’s monograph on classroom inquiry. With tears in her eyes, the teacher told me how the stories in the book made her feel that she was awakening from a slumber, “emerging from a matrix where I had lain sleeping as a teacher.”

I hugged the teacher because for years, I’ve wrestled with the question of how a pedagogical leader can facilitate for teachers a glimpse into reality that they haven’t experienced in their own education. For most faculty in schools in 2017, how many of us were in schools which used systems to promote self-directed, conceptual, contextual, authentic learning? And how can these dreams we have for our students become reality when we struggle with what that looks like?

In my laptop bag is a set of questions from a workshop I led in November on using concepts to frame units of inquiry, and the sticky notes on which the questions are written are getting frayed at the edges. Teachers wrote the questions at the end of the workshop, as a wishlist for their own learning, for future collaborative inquiry.

  • How do we scaffold successful inquiry?
  • How do we inquire in lower phases of language learning?
  • How do we create performances of understanding?
  • How do we construct units of inquiry that integrate skills?
  • How to we learn concepts in depth?
  • How do we transfer understanding to practice?

That last question in the list, How do we transfer understanding to practice? seems to be the one that holds a possible universe of answers, a new matrix of professional inquiry our community can sustain. As I work on the professional learning community framework for the next school year, the teachers’ question suggests a readiness to deepen a culture of learning in the school.

Why this is The Question

The question above reminds me of an article in TeachThought and brings to mind a phrase overheard at our Dream Summit. Fran Prolman challenged our community to embrace intellectual humility as we began our Dreaming. The teachers’ question, How do we transfer understanding to practice? embodies intellectual humility, the openness to wonder and awe that most often sparks an authentic, personally meaningful inquiry. This is The Question we have to ask as a community of learners now, as we find ourselves in the thick of a future we don’t as yet have a fully formed picture.

Stepping out of the Comfort Zone

For 23 years I’d been in schools where the budget for professional development was ridiculously large. If we needed to implement something, we’d PD the heck out of it and didn’t think too much about the cost. Now, honestly, I’m a little more prudent when I think of what PD we might spend on. It has involved stepping out of my comfort zone, and rethinking high-impact (and not too costly) strategies to “transfer our understanding to practice.”

Like the teacher I hugged today, I am awakening from slumber and stepping into light. I can’t just throw money to address an issue of implementation, it’s just not an option. We needed to strengthen our Professional Learning Community (PLC), calling resources from within to launch our inquiry.

Embedding Professional Learning in the Day to Day Reality of School

Embedded, situational professional learning is not new. We know from research that separating professional learning from practice tends to hinder change in teacher practices. There’s a boundary, that education has seemingly encouraged, between what we do and what we are learning. The boxes that provide this boundary are packaged in weekend workshops, and the expectation might be that we find a deficit, unpack ‘the box’ of the workshop, and get what we need to be able to do. It’s expensive not only in terms of financial cost, but also in terms of sustainability: when the workshop leader leaves, what might guarantee that what we learned becomes reality? Another consideration is, How do we ensure that the one workshop addresses the diversity of adult learners in the school? Because of these concerns and more, professional development in schools has evolved to include many layers, including embedded, situated and differentiated professional learning through Professional Learning Communities (PLC) in the offerings.

Contextualized learning through the PLC is identified as one of the principles of effective professional development. This inherent strength of embedded professional learning may occur because of its proximity to practice, ensuring greater cognitive links between the teachers’ experience and visible impact they see as they apply their learning. Brody and Hadar (2011) for instance, found that teachers who persisted in their collaborative work reported changes in their practice as they internalized the learning and began to redesign classroom learning to reflect what they had learned. In addition, teachers documented changes in practice while working on both personal and professional goals, and reported a new sense of empowerment and agency as their practice evolved.

Peter Senge and colleagues (2000) discussed how learning groups promote new ideas in the workplace. To address change and build teacher capacity, teachers are more able to learn to address these needs by learning with each other in a collaborative context. Professional learning fosters reflection and making sense of problems that emerge in practice and provides a venue for problem-solving solutions relevant to the work context. In the design of a PLC, the collaborative professional learning structures would mirror the problem-solving process that teachers needed to experience the ambiguity of inquiry approaches that we need to internalize within its learning culture. If we want to facilitate the learning of transfer thinking skills for our students, we need to experience this skill ourselves.

At the same time, the PLC structure needs to address the need to build a sense of readiness to change. The design needed to include a process, which helps teachers to become more aware of their own practice and its impact on student learning. This is a key to building the school culture whose purpose is to deliberately impact change through learning.

The key to the PLC design is not in the procedural structure, those visible behaviors that emerge above the surface of the school culture iceberg. The key that we find is an invisible and organic structure, resting in the cognitive networks that the structure facilitated as the PLC functioned. The actual form of our PLC is in how minds, and the knowledge and understanding residing within, are deliberately networked so that teachers’ learning formed the fabric of the ways the school behaves.

Riveros and Vizco (2012) did a study on learning nestled within practice. Their study focused on the structures facilitating enactment of knowledge in practice, as opposed to within the content of the collaborative professional learning. They examined teachers’ conceptualizations of workplace policies in light of their involvement in co-constructing understanding of these policies while simultaneously working to enact them. The authors found that knowledge of practice is actively constructed in a social system through teachers’ connections within the PLC.

We learn that learning communities are not imposed but rather emerge from the work that communities engaged themselves in. As the teachers enact policies, the environmental and contextual factors of application and process provide parameters for enactment. In other words, how teachers apply their professional learning seems to depend on processes and social interactions rather than as a lock-step sequence of events that are predictable (Riveros and Vizco, 2012).

Conversations are easy to arrange, and they don’t cost a lot of money

What this means for our PLC design is that we might be mindful of a separation of professional development and practice, which could be a function of where knowledge of practice resides: in teachers’ minds. Since understanding of practice resides in individuals’ thoughts, the goal of embedded professional learning within PLCs is not to address the cognitive processes of the learners. What we learn is that the design of the PLC has to provide the social processes that allow communities to network knowledge and make useful the connections between what individuals understand through these social processes. We need more professional conversations, steeped in research and fueled by data from student work. We need conversations around learning, and we need time to have those conversations.

The ambiguity of what outcomes might emerge from the PLC leaves us breathless with energy that comes from possibility.

The light is beautiful here.


Further Reading:

Bahrenbruch, M. (2012). Dancing into Light; Essential Elements for an Inquiry Classroom. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Brody, D., & Hadar, L. (2011). “I speak prose and now I know it.” Personal development trajectories among teacher educators in a professional development community. Teaching and Teacher Education, 27, 1223-1234.

Riveros, A., Newton, P., & Burgess, D. (2012). A situated account of teacher agency and learning: Critical reflections on professional learning communities. Canadian Journal of Education, 35, 202-216.

Senge, P., Cambron-McCabe, N., Lucas, T., Smith, B., Dutton, J., & Kleiner, A. (2000). Schools that learn: A fifth discipline fieldbook for educators, parents and everyone who cares about education. New York, NY: Doubleday Dell.

The Future is Here

A few weeks ago, our school community participated in a Dream Summit, where we used appreciative inquiry to imagine our future.

After 51 years, it was time to dream into the school we are evolving into for the next 50 years. Students from grades 6 to 11, parents, teachers, Board members and leadership volunteered to be at the Dream Summit. Led by Fran Prolman of Learning Collaborative, we searched for the “positive change core” (Cooperrider, Whitney and Stavos, 2003) which would serve as the wellspring of our aspirational journey.


Appreciative Inquiry cycle adapted from Cooperrider, Whitney and Stavros (2003).


What we choose to study makes a difference.

Beginning with the idea that our perceptions shape our reality, our community started with the discovery of the best of the past and present, what works, and our images of the future.

Positive change occurs when the process of change models the future.

It was important for us to smash the box and to imagine a future school from the perspectives of the community. Without a box constraining our imaginations, each Dreamer dug deep to find what we valued as a community, some of which are:

  • Parents and community members learn with students.
  • Unique spaces for personalized learning.
  • Choice and voice.
  • Learning through doing and authentic experiences.
  • Self-directed learning.
  • Partnerships within and without.
  • Inclusive and innovative.

One group’s representation of AISZ Core Values.

The process of Dreaming mirrored what we wanted our future to be: an open-ended, self-directed learning process which had personal and authentic meaning.

Positive questions lead to positive change!

The AI literature suggests that positive questions lead to a release in positive energy. Like in many inquiry processes, the questions the learner asks have a significant role in the reality that emerges as the inquiry progresses. Continuing on the theme of our perceptions shape our reality, we found vibrant, inspirational energy permeate our dialog as we chose our Top Dreams for AISZ.


Top Eight Dreams from the AISZ Dream Summit 2017

Wholeness brings out the best. Gathering stakeholders builds collective capacity.

Since the Dream Summit, I’ve had the opportunity to gather in conversations with students, parents, and staff to reflect on our central inquiry, “If you could reinvent the school, what might it be?”

A few of the inspiring conversations with different groups revolved around their personal questions of change:

  • What would it take to improve our relationships?
  • How does language impact how we respect one another?
  • If I had an hour every week to pursue a personal project, what would I want to learn?
  • How do we embed student voice and choice in school life?
  • What if we smashed the box of the traditional timetable?
  • What if we co-constructed the curriculum with our students?
  • How does adult learning mirror student learning in our school?

The moment we ask a question, change begins.

John Schaar said, “The future is not a destination we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity changes both the maker and the destination.” As the students ponder and take action on personal interests; as teachers wonder how they can be more deliberate in their facilitation of learning; as parents pursue partnerships with teachers and their children, I look around me and the future is already here.

Orientation in time, place and space: inquiring into boundaries

Is schooling completely future-oriented?

What might be the boundaries presented to inquiring minds by orientation in time, place and space? The global context in the MYP “Orientation to time, place and space” presents the questions of “where” and “when,” as concepts organizing how individuals might think (IBO, 2015).

Consider a few of the recurring misunderstandings in schools:

  • Teachers emphasize engagement in learning for future benefits and students do not rehearse learning in the present (because some other activity is more tempting)
  • Schools emphasize future benefits of procedures such as school attendance and parents take their children away to a holiday, missing school days
  • Schools emphasize focused attention during class time by asking students to put away their social media devices during the school day and students and parents do not understand why
  • Parents ask their children to study and children prefer to surf Youtube or some other website during the time asked to study

What’s really at work here? In this inquiry we explore “peoples, boundaries, exchange and interaction” (from MYP: From Principles into Practice, 2015, p. 60). As we consider the misunderstandings in the bullet-pointed list above, a common conceptual thread that runs through the conflicting ideas might be orientation to time as a function of place and space.

“Orientation to time” presents multiple perspectives framing perceptions of time, and these perceptions impact how people create boundaries between present and past and future. In other words, the ways we think of time directly affect decision-making and consequent action.

The long-standing “Marshmallow Study” by Stanford professor Walter Mischel illustrates an aspect of time orientation through the action of delayed gratification. 40 years after the study, the longitudinal data suggests that children who were able to delay gratification at age 4 or 5– in effect being able to understand the long-term benefits of wait time at an early age— scored higher on achievement tests ten years later. These children also had “lower incidents of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures” (Clear, 2016).

In an interview with Atlantic magazine, Mischel clarified that the study was really about “achievement situations and what influences a child to reach his or her choice” (Mischel in Urist, 2014).

Ideas about time and achievement present this inquiry with the related concept of boundaries. We might ask the following questions (and other, similar ones):

Factual questions:

  • What boundaries might exist for different people, as contextual frameworks for time?
  • What are some cultural orientations to time?
  • What are some cultural orientations to achievement?

Conceptual questions:

  • What other factors might influence ideas of time and its relationship to achievement?
  • How do our ideas of time and achievement influence decision making?

Debatable question:

  • Are all impulsive decisions (without a delay of gratification) a function of orientation to time?

A useful resource in this inquiry is Wittman and Butler’s Felt Time; The psychology of how we perceive time (MIT Press, 2016). In the book, Wittman and Butler discuss what they term temporal shortsightedness, temporal myopia, and provide useful studies to consider and gain some insights into the nature of orientation in time, place and space and the uses and limitations of perceptions which impact how we think of time.

Temporal shortsightedness

The conflict between the present, past and future requires a metacognitive layer of thinking about the thinking we do in response to time boundaries. For example:

  • A student may find social media updates more tempting than the present lesson on chemical bonds
  • A parent may find that the class of 1986 Reunion dinner is more tempting than the back-to-school night
  • A teacher may find that a collaborative dialog on authentic assessment may be less compelling than using a ‘tried and true’ test filed in a binder
  • A school leader might find that waiting for teachers to learn through an implementation dip is taking too long and teachers need to just square their shoulders and make it happen

When the above ideas about time and task present themselves, and when individuals do not consider their own thinking about time, conflicts may arise.

Wittman and Butler suggest that in many cultures, delayed gratification is built in to facets of cultural decision making. For instance, retirement plans have worldwide use, wherein working adults defer monetary reward for use much later in life. The choice of long-term investments is another cross-cultural concept which uses delays in rewards for later times. Most countries’ educational systems have prolonged schooling with the idea of greater gains in knowledge and skills of future professionals and workers. In many cultures around the globe, the ability to delay reward for future benefit is a feature in social institutions.

Temporal myopia

In adults as in children, waiting for some future benefit can vary.

Wittman and Butler define temporal myopia as “stretches of time standing closer to us appear sharper than stretches of equal duration lying farther off. In this context, temporal myopia means, in essence, that we perceive the difference between today and tomorrow much more acutely than we perceive the difference between tomorrow and the day after” (Wittman and Butler, 2016, p. 7).

In studies cited, impulsive people tend to go for lesser sums of money or rewards so that they do not have to wait. This idea of impulsivity is similar to the behavior of children and adults with ADHD, which is expressed in the tendency not to recognize the value of deferred gratification, which is an orientation to the present.

When the orientation of tasks is future-oriented (do now and benefit later) as it is in school, a present orientation (do not do now and benefit now) presents a conflict.

Emotional intelligence as a factor in time orientation and waiting

Emotion plays a big role in human decisions. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo posits research on time orientation and how perceptions of time orientation influence individuals.

Zimbardo and Boyd (in Wittman and Butler, 2016) developed questionnaires, which revealed patterns in how people think about time as framework for perspectives. The researchers found that:

  • People who predominantly have a present-orientation tend to take more drugs, have unprotected sex, receive more speeding tickets, and engage in other, negative risk-taking behaviors
  • People who predominantly have a future-orientation tend to be averse to spontaneity and are risk-averse (for example, will not venture to try new cultural activities or sports)
  • Past oriented people often reject new ways of doing things and prefer to follow past ‘traditions’ to the neglect of innovations

In brain-based studies of reward-and-time orientation studies, researchers found that adults who chose more immediate but lesser rewards (present orientation) showed high activity in the brain region called the paralimbic system, which has a strong link to emotional decision making (Wittman and Butler, 2016). However, when study participants chose to delay gratification for greater future rewards showed higher activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is an area of the brain connected to planning, decision making, and controlling impulses.

When Mischel’s study subjects were tested again 40 years after the Marshmallow Test, what they found was that people who had not excelled at delayed gratification when they were 4 or 5 showed fMRI scans that showed lower activity in the frontal cortex.

Neurologist Antonio Damasio (in Wittman and Butler, 2016) points to the influence of emotional assessment, which we learned earlier is located in the paralimbic system, on decision making. Damasio found that decisions that go against immediate gratification find value in emotional contexts. This means that for instance, weighing the values of (Choice a) watching TV now and (Choice b) going to the gym to exercise now goes through an emotional assessment. Further, Damasio suggests that emotional responses such as comfort and convenience play a great part in decisions of what people do in the present.

In the beginning of this inquiry was the question, Is education really future oriented? The suggestion is not to advocate for a future-only orientation in schools. Far from it, the gentle suggestion in this inquiry is that we pay attention to the time orientation of others and the boundaries inherent in these, so that we can presume positive intentions in our interactions and exchanges. As Jelaludin Rumi once wrote, “Out beyond the ideas of wrong and right, there is a field. I will meet you there.”

What might we find?



Clear, J. (2016). “40 Years of Stanford Research Found That People With This One Quality Are More Likely to Succeed “| James Clear. Retrieved September 26, 2016, from
Hadad, C. (2015, July 10). “What ‘marshmallow test’ can teach you about your kids.” Retrieved September 26, 2016, from

International Baccalaureate Organization. (2015). MYP: From principles into practice. Geneva: Author.

The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. (2014). Sci Am Scientific American, 311(3), 92-92. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0914-92c

Wittman, M., & Butler, E. (2016). Felt time: The Psychology of How we Perceive Time (MIT Press) [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from

Photo credit: Eastman Johnson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons