Approach to Learning

What a Teacher Leaves Behind

For Bill Powell, gone so soon

On the Adriatic Sea in the summertime the light on the water is like diamonds at midday. Without shadows the clean blue hues’ incessant sparkling hits the eye and may elicit tears.

We lost someone recently, someone who has worked with teachers and schools to support generations of self-directed learners, people who believe in others and believe in themselves. This writing will not capture all that he was; to know Bill Powell you have to know all the other people whom he has valued in his life as a teacher, administrator, mentor, and friend. I was fortunate to have known Bill. Conversations with Bill over the years have taught much long after I left the cognitive spaces we shared.

Lessons from conversations with Bill now eddy and flow within, this sea on which I float tinged with sadness , and the coordinates of my destinations made clear by the lessons’ resonance within. Fragments from T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets, Bill’s favorite poet, and one of his favorite poems, appear like driftwood. I pick them up and show them to you.

FullSizeRender copy

Help people learn, and not by evaluating them.

In their book Teacher self-supervision: Why teacher evaluation has failed and what we can do about it, Bill and Ochan Powell comment, The distressing truth is that no one can compel learning in another person.

We expound on the value of self-directedness, and we search for ways to create the environment and processes which allow our students to go after learning through inquiry; to self-monitor and self-modify as they self-assess through reflection. Yet in many of our schools, we still subscribe to teacher evaluation systems, giving teachers external judgments of practice and expecting that this external judgment will ignite the inspiration, motivation and empowerment necessary to transform the thinking that goes into creating environments and processes which will facilitate learning for both the teacher and his or her students.

In external, judgment-based feedback within teacher evaluation systems, there is

Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time

Learning comes from choice, a self-directed turning of mind toward something that inspires and presents an anticipation and pursuit of something meaningful. This turning of the mind is what we desire in our students as we provoke thinking in the classroom, as we give our students their heads, as we remove the reins and yokes of our own choices of canonical content, and allow our charges to chase after learning because it is meaningful to them.

Self-evaluation for adults is just as important as we deem it is for our students through reflection. The leap we make between the environments and processes we create that allow for self-directed learning is made with an assumption, a positive presupposition that people generally want to get better at what they do.

People want to learn to get better at what they do. This optimism is borne from a personal choice, a choice to honestly self-evaluate, to let go of the fixed mindsets perhaps learnt through experiences, and to become open to growth. It requires humility to reach this peak of wisdom, for

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility; humility is endless.

The optimism of wanting and going after growth is endless in its reach, for it creates a world of what is possible—what is possible after all in a classroom is gifted by the diversity of individuals with whom a teacher has the privilege to spend an entire school year. The optimism blooms in our practice as teachers when we embrace the wonderful diversity of people in our care. As many different learners as we have in our classrooms, we receive with each one the gift of becoming a better teacher of each, and

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive at where we started
And know the place for the first time.

In the ways we discover how each person learns, we grow as teachers. Beginning with this assumption that teachers want to get better at what they do, we are on our way to creating environments and processes, which allow for self-directed learning for adults and young learners alike.

We open the gates of consciousness to improve our craftsmanship and flexibility as teachers. Awareness is the mother of other states of mind.

To arrive at where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.

The birth of awareness began with excavation for me. I had always thought, for instance, that I was a good listener. Until I learned, that first Cognitive CoachingSM  seminar with Bill and Ochan, that I listened primarily so I could solve things for whomever was speaking with me.

Spending the last five years digging through the debris of old layers of self– those layers of being which in conversations did not help but rather hindered growth for the other and then discarding the layers of ineffective listening like so much sloughed off skin—has expanded consciousness and increased other resources of mind.

I learned that

In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

In a teacher, consciousness reaches realms of being that embrace balance. Looping through the infinite balancing of polarities between rigor and inclusiveness, for instance. The flexibility of thinking that allows for polarities to co-exist, simultaneously, helps the teacher to recognize and address the experiences and reality of each learner. Each one has a claim on rigor. Each one has a claim on being included as he or she is, and the trajectories that each might traverse is not the teacher’s experiences and reality. We learn that we cannot teach the way we learn; we humbly accept that we must listen more than we speak, and that each learner may instruct the instructor on how learning can happen.

And in another instance, holding on one palm the delicate, complex self of a person and in another, her goal orientation, listening only in order to value both, and in the discipline of complete attentiveness, convey the person to a state of resourcefulness. In this disciplined attentiveness, one is fully present but also absent. Attentive to the other and detached from self. In this I learned to be less so the other might be more.

As Bill used to say, “I have more friends now.”

Be deliberate.

To learn, to teach, to live with self-directedness, one needs to be deliberate. One can be deliberate with choice of words and choices of silence in a conversation for the purpose of conveying the other to a more desirable state of mind. Speech is more poetic than might be previously thought, when we consider that our pauses allow for deep thought to occur, and are meaningful parts of messages we send to others.

In the deliberate use of silence as of words, we command our attentiveness and perhaps sidestep the chasms of miscommunication that endanger our relationships, and we summon the thinking that allows bridges to build across minds. We may avoid

Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholy new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the one thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.

The discipline of thought, that being deliberate requires, cradles the positive presuppositions that value another.

There is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

We are not the same people today as we were yesterday.

Every day is the day of a phoenix. Our interactions, our conversations change us as they change our thinking. If we are fortunate, we will meet someone who inspires trust, and we choose to learn from and with this person. We can become open-minded to the possibility that any other we meet and interact with is a teacher and a mentor outside of the choreography of a formal workshop or course; we sit at the table and dine with those who teach through conversation.

And this changes us. When we choose to learn, we transform. And if we choose this every day, we eschew a static self. We sleep and awaken new people.

You are not the same people that left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you;
Watching the furrow that widens behind you,
You shall not think “the past is finished”
Or “the future is before us.”

For most of us there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction of it, lost in a shaft of sunlight.

Every one has value.

I walk through places where systems have failed its citizens, and the faces floating past mine are sometimes so easily moved to contempt. It is not easy to be in places where many have been disillusioned by decades of communal, enculturated mistrust, and hence closed to learning from someone who might present novel ways of being.

Yet in the dim light I am reminded that context is a persistent and damning comfort; context holds people in its clutches and perhaps it is difficult to see how to let it let go when context has not presented any other possible existence than what is known.

I forgive context, and I dig deep within the discipline of attentiveness to find positive presuppositions: we protect what we know because it helps us to feel safe.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiousity
Or carry report.

The person, after all, is what matters. Deep within the layers of who we might be because of where we are, we are oceans of humanity, deep and layered with tempers, battered by storms, calmed by movements of moons and other, more intangible forces.

We cannot think of a time that is oceanless
Or of an ocean not littered with wastage
Or of a future that is not liable
Like the past, to have no destination.

We cannot think of “Not making a trip that will be unpayable/For a haul that will not bear examination.”

In the optimism and discipline of attentiveness to others, we listen for their footfalls across the tundra they might have to traverse to find the thought that renders them open to growth. We paraphrase their words to illuminate their own thinking; we pause and give them deliberate time to envision ways forward.

And we must do this because it is about learning. Life is about the shift from that undesirable state of walking the endless loop of suffering, to a state of being ingenious within ourselves, and that capacity is the ongoing conversation with self that we are all privileged to enter.

I must say goodbye to the man, but not to the mentor. His legacy continues in the work of so many colleagues all over the world, whom like I did, had productive conversations with Bill.

Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence. Out at sea the dawn wind
Wrinkles and slides. I am here
Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.



Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets. Retrieved from on July 11, 2016.

Powell, W. and Kusuma Powell, O. (2015.) Teacher self-supervision: Why teacher evaluation has failed and what we can do about it. Melton, Woodbridge: John Catt.


An Inquiry into Time, Thought and Identity

Metacognition within perceptions of time and self mediates attention. As an approach to learning skill, metacognition involves knowledge of cognition, which allows a person to actively control thinking during the thinking process. Hence it is often defined as “thinking about thinking.” Approaches to learning such as ways to monitor understanding, evaluating process and progress of learning, and making decisions about use of time are metacognitive approaches (Livingston, 1997). When a learner is able to control thinking using different strategies or approaches, he or she is able to adjust, evaluate and readjust a myriad of factors surrounding the environment and process of learning he or she uses to improve learning. Metacognition supports self-regulation by allowing the learner to practice targeted attention (Goleman, 2013) to factors such as the learning environment, process, time, and personal investments in these.

Strategies allow for the abstraction of metacognition to become concrete, practical approaches. An example would be while reading actively, the reader uses questions as self-tests for comprehension and monitors the effectiveness of the strategy in terms of the learning objective (comprehension). The strategy of using questions is a cognitive move, while the strategy of monitoring its effectiveness is metacognitive (Livingston, 1997). Learners practicing metacognition while learning develop and use feedback systems to self-direct learning.

Cognitive Strategy Instruction (CSI) is a tool that is worth mentioning in instruction about thinking. A simple way of expressing this tool is to ask students to think of “How do I do this and why am I doing it this way?” The how is the cognitive move, while the why involves finding approaches to monitoring the thinking. CSI is based on the Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) model used in teaching writing. In the SRSD model, students who are producing text are asked to perform the following explicit cognitive and metacognitive moves (Council for Exceptional Children, 2009):

  • Self-monitoring as a goal is set and a process designed for students to make the process visible
  • Self-instruction as the students discuss the process and decisions made, use a checklist, use a visible guide for the writing process
  • Self-reinforcement can involve self-talk, use of additional reading or research to keep the flow of the process going
  • Metacognition through modeling think- or read-alouds
  • Self-assessment through a checklist or cue cards, or ways to use questions to evaluate own performance, such as developing a rationale for writer’s choices

An interesting idea in the inquiry towards nurturing agile thinkers is the effects on perceptions of time on how learners learn. Time to think is a requirement for effective self-directed learning.

Being busy without time for reflection creates a mental environment of ceaseless action without deep thought. With this condition, how might we allow for insight, solution design, and making connections?

Photo By Brocken Inaglory. The image was edited by user: Alvesgaspar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Photo By Brocken Inaglory. The image was edited by user: Alvesgaspar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

We know that engagement in immediate tasks at hand allow for the possibility of flow: concentration which stretches thinking and capacity. Time for self-reflection is crucial for tasks that ask students to find personal relevance through metacognition. When we think about our thinking, the expansion of our awareness involves knowing how much time to invest in a task and why. Because we become more aware of time constraints, we might also become more aware of changing craftsmanship –whether it is allowing more time or less time—as a function of what we know, understand and can do.

Time is a perception that can change the ways we know, understand and can do. It is a moment of optimistic intersections between all the things we are and the significance of our aspirations for what we must inquire into and rehearse. As time becomes less an external construct and more of an internal one for the learner, he or she allows for time to engage the self, binding identity to the task at hand.

Because the perception of time makes it relative to self, time can protract or extend as necessary within the perceptions of the learner. Challenges like open-ended tasks then allow us to perceive how we have significantly crafted use of time, and how we learn through strategies including metacognition.

Using Reflection

In lesson design involving approaches to learning like metacognitive strategies and use of time during tasks, it might be useful to use reflection as opportunities to develop both. When we stop to record a moment of learning, we step out of engagement in cognition to think about it and how it affects the time available.

This is the ‘trick’ of metacognition—to be able to step out of engagement to reflect on it, to integrate the moment itself and its experience with the reflective thinking as we take action and document its significance.

Council for Exceptional Children (2009). A focus on self-regulated strategy development for writing. Retrieved from on May 7, 2016.

Goleman, D. (2013). Focus; The hidden driver of excellence. NY: Harper Collins.

Livingston, J. A. (1997). “Metacognition; An overview.” Retrieved from on May 6, 2016.

Thank you for reading The Learner’s Toolbox. We are passionate about self-directed learning. Join us on Twitter for a chat on Self-Directed Learning on May 12 1600 UTC by following the hashtag #sdlchat. Co-hosted by @alohalavina and @EricDemore.SDL_graphic_small

A Banned Books Week Manifesto

Starting tomorrow, libraries across America (and my library) will celebrate Banned Books Week.  It’s a celebration of the freedom to read, a celebration that people have the right to read what they like.

This year’s focus? Young Adult books, a commonly banned or challenged genre, mainly because the content includes violence, or sex, or drugs, (or sorcery, or religion, or profanity, or communism).

As an avid reader of YA lit, I can appreciate that there would be challenges to these texts.  I know that challenging books comes from good intentions, from the desire to protect a child.  I understand that reading about sex (or whatever objectionable content there may be) may be difficult for an adult to condone.

However, in my role as a youth librarian, I cannot allow a book with a serious theme to be removed from a library.  In fact, removing a book because someone finds it objectionable is the worst possible thing we can do to our students.

Now, I’ve found in my research about banned books that “objectionable” is a very broad word.

Take, for instance, the Captain Underpants series, one of the most banned children’s books.  There is no sex, no drugs, not much violence, but it was still challenged around the United States for being “unsuited to age group” and “encouraging disobedience.”  Harry Potter had a similar challenge, “a masterpiece of satanic deception” because the characters were liars, thieves and witches.  Harry Potter was so popular that this type of challenge resonated across the globe, being banned in other countries for violence, and even being called too complex for children.

Say what you will about Harry Potter, but those books got generations to enjoy reading again.  They were able to entice reluctant readers into books, and still have that ability.  John Green, he who has had almost ever books challenged somewhere, has a cult following of readers.  The Giver, Persepolis, Perks of Being a Wallflower… just a few more examples of immensely powerful and popular books trying to be kept from reach.

These books seek attention from us.  They have an intense power.  Maybe their objectionable content is part of that power, but it is hard to say.  People who try to ban books are forgetting that despite this content, this kiss or this swear word, the book is still teaching empathy and understanding.  At the end of a book, teens talk about their reactions to the characters and the emotions, not just the number of swear words and the sex scene.

Even books that seem to have no value, the ones that I call popcorn (a nice snack, but not really a meal), can still teach us about empathy and communication.

I say this from personal experience.

When I was a kid, I liked books.  After I read Goosebumps and Dear America, I moved on to romance novels.  First, I read romances for teens, and then I moved on to romance novels for adults.  As a teenager in high school, I read through the library’s entire romance section (in two different towns).  I remember that the librarian in one of these towns was not remarkably supportive of my reading choices, but my stubbornness overcame that.  I collected romance novels.  My bookshelves were right next to my bed, and included titles stacked in every available place.

I couldn’t even begin to count how many novels I’ve read, how much time I’ve spent lost in some formulaic story.  I know the ending to every story from the cover.  I can predict the majority of character traits within the first paragraph.  I am fully aware that these books are not mind-expanding fiction.

However, there is the occasional new vocabulary word, the cadence in reading the dialogue, the clarification of an emotional reaction, and the practice for reading a more complex book.  There is a benefit there.  I was allowed to read and collect romance novels anywhere and everywhere.  My mother (still) disapproves, but that’s never banned a book from my hand.  That may be, in fact, why this issue is so crucial to me.  If I hadn’t been allowed to read romance novels, would I still be a librarian?

It’s an odd thing to say, really.  Perhaps I would have found another genre (mystery, perhaps, or horror, because gore is less a problem sometimes), or perhaps I would have stop caring about books.

Either way, the content rarely detracts from the value or reading.

Graphic novels have similar, if not worse challenges.  They’re banned even more often than YA books, and the most banned and challenged book of this year: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has graphics and images inside.  Captain Underpants, with its graphics of boys in underpants, scared the adults into action.

I, too, lacked appreciation of these books, and comics and manga, until quite recently.  I didn’t understand them, thought they were even less classy than my romance novels.  Fortunately, a YA literature class brought me stunning examples of graphic novels.  I took several books home with me for Christmas, with even more on CD for the 14 hour drive (not all graphic novels, obviously).  After finishing Maus I, I explained the premise to my mom, and she picked it up and read while I finished Maus II. This is amazing to me because I’ve never seen her read fiction.  The newspaper, sure, especially on the way to the crossword puzzle.  But a novel?  Only Maus.

She read both that day, and it opened up a conversation.  I also read books during that vacation about lesbians, high school secret societies, gossip, and vampires.  The reading brought questions that I wanted to ask my mother about, and I did.

I think about this when it comes to books, particularly YA books.  I’ve learned communication for books.  I’ve learned about emotions.  I’ve asked questions of myself and others, of the world around me.  I asked questions I didn’t know I would have.  With graphic novels, we’re able to consider the vision and the plot both.  We’re able to discuss serious issues in an even deeper way.

Look at the dramatic differences in artwork between these three stories: American Born Chinese, Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, and Smile.  These books invite this conversation, in a way that you can only experience if you allow yourself to read them.  And they enhance visual literacy in the very best way.  Banning these books that kids are reading is detracting from the core principals of the IB and the core principals of education.  This content is still very valuable, even if you don’t agree with everything that every character is doing.

A long as a child is reading, the content doesn’t really matter.

They can read manga, or romance, or fan fiction, or John Green, or anything.  Whatever they are reading helps them to get into a story, helps them see a new perspective.  It’s scary to allow that freedom for them, to allow them to find themselves, but reading can give them new solutions to problems.

If they read about drugs, maybe they see that it’s not worth it, or that they should exercise caution.  They may read a book that features a normal boy who happens to be attracted to another boy, and realize that they are also attracted to boys.  They may read Harry Potter, where the main character has some serious issues with authority (seriously, did he ever follow the rules?).  Despite this, they may see that some things are worth fighting for, and that protagonists are rarely (and shouldn’t be) perfect.  Characters have flaws, but books help you realize that you can make those mistakes and still develop integrity.

Most importantly, books give you the opportunity to ask questions you didn’t know you had.  Books make you ask questions of yourself, your people, and your world.

Recently, some adults have said the same things to me.

“Well, how do we know a book isn’t too advanced for a kid?”
“What if a kid checks out something that they won’t understand?”
“What happens if there’s violence in a book and they take it the wrong way?”

Kids get things.  Kids are sensitive little humans.  They know that violence isn’t the way.  They know when they can ask a difficult question.  The online media is rich, and they can find anything.  Banning one book with violence doesn’t change the fact that the news is violent, and just takes away another opportunity to process that.  Banning a book with curse words doesn’t mean you’ll prevent a kid from cursing.  Banning a book because of sex tells a kid that their sexuality doesn’t exist yet, or that their feelings are unnatural.  We cannot take away the books that are dealing with these issues.

If it is too advanced, the child will likely abandon it.  If it’s an issue that they are ignorant of, they’ll learn about it and deal with it, or talk with their friends about it, but they’ll find a way to understand if they’re intrigued.  Have some faith in the child, and let them surprise you with their sensitivity.  Give them a little credit, and let them read.

Happy Banned Books Week!

Originally from Blog

A Reflection from “Education for Life” IBMO 2015

The IBAP Conference last week provoked a lot of thinking. I was sitting at the Macau airport this morning, too early for my flight, still thinking about the conference ideas the day after the last breakout session.

What we take away from a conference is often several exciting ideas, and it is always up to us to put them together, to synthesize our learning into something significant for our contexts. Michael Anderson, keynote speaker on the second day, talked about the need for 21st century learners to make meaning; that it is one of three essential pursuits of problem solvers and innovators in our era.

As I try to weave the threads of the conference concepts into a meaningful whole, I find more questions than answers.

Day 1 for me was about relationships in systems. Julia Gillard, former Australian Prime Minister and the first keynote speaker told us “Machines will never be creators and innovators. People need to do that.” The survey of current world issues relevant to fairness and development, globalization and sustainability, identity and relationships, scientific and technical innovation, personal and cultural expression that Gillard drew from in her keynote expanded our thinking to the concept of interconnectedness.

Systems, and the problems within those systems, are linked through contexts and through relationships. Gillard showed that research reveals there is an “unconscious bias against female leaders,” (Gillard, 2015, keynote speech). This bias did not suddenly appear; this bias has been embedded in our behaviors through reinforcement within a system of behaviors. What might we have done, in our systems, which produced this bias? How might the bias and the resulting behaviors have taken root, been maintained, been sustained through so many contexts? And what are our hunches on how we might educate to eradicate or move this bias toward extinction within our systems?

The interconnectedness of systems helps us to see the parallel between how we want to educate and why. In a world in which complexity is the chief attribute of our problems, perhaps our students need to approach learning with the complexity the world demands of its problem solvers. Engaging in innovation that is highly conceptual, so that it is transferrable across contexts. Engaging in interdisciplinary thinking illuminates these connections, so that the relationships between systems is part of the creative engagement. And perhaps, teaching our learners and ourselves that solutions must necessarily be sustainable and so they need to be adaptive, solutions that endure across and within systems, not merely technical solutions, which have short-term impact because they reduce a problem to an algebraic equation. Machines can exercise algorithmic reasoning to arrive at multiple technical solutions. But it will be people who can create the solutions that weave adaptability, sustainability and humanity into the systemic solution. We just have to find and provide the time to do the thinking that results in these types of solutions.

Day 2 was also about relationships, but it was about relationships in organizations. Ted Cowan and Richard Nies presented an appraisal system which is not an evaluative system. What struck me about their school’s appraisal system is that it is based on relationships between the people within it. Because their school has norms of collaboration, the seventh norm, “Presume positive intentions” allows a climate of trust to pervade the environment in which they learn and teach.

By Ironman11 (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ironman11 (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

One thing can actually cause a massive change. If a butterfly flutters its wings in Macao, to what extent does it contribute to a storm in another city? Small things can cause large changes in systems. “Presume positive intentions” certainly has caused an organization to be more trusting so that they have done away with compliance in their system of teacher appraisal, and they have used the human capacity to build capacity and develop as the fulcrum of their system by which their community can leverage learning.

What might an organization have to be like, to be open-minded enough to embrace norms for collaboration? What might have to happen for people to pursue professional development in collaborative ways with colleagues, and not be threatened that colleagues have to observe their students learning or not be threatened by PD (because it might be a sign of teacher deficit)? What are our hunches about how the ways that Ted and Rich’s school built their systems and support the relationships in these systems has let emerged a culture of trust, or collaborative practice, of collegial learning that is focused on student learning? What might we need to move to a model of systemic relationships, which enact an organizational renaissance?

Day 3 was about person to person relationships. I enjoyed all the breakout sessions I attended over the three days, but the remarkable encounter that started the wonderful end of the week for me was with another participant at the session on inclusion by Jennifer Swinehart. As Jenn showed us some best practices of inclusive, personalized learning, she often gave us some processing time to turn to a neighbor and speak about ideas prompted by open-ended questions. When it was time to do that, the gentleman next to me listened attentively, paraphrased to show understanding, acknowledged my emotional markers, and used probing questions to clarify thinking. This happened several times during the session. Toward the end of the presentation, he turned to me again and asked me a probing question to continue our conversation, and I reached a cognitive shift.

A cognitive shift is when thinking moves from one place to a desired state. It’s illumination in that one becomes aware of inner resources to solve a problem or to move forward. The list of behaviors that the gentleman used to help another person arrive at a cognitive shift is from Cognitive Coaching SM an other-centered protocol of communication.

When someone truly pays attention to you, listens and shows their attentiveness to your thinking by paraphrasing; asks you probing questions to help you clarify your thinking or elevate it to a conceptual level so that you are thinking at the level of problem solving, it can facilitate a transformational moment. That gentleman at Jenn’s breakout session was busy filming the session for Jenn, but knew how to listen. He may not know that he caused a butterfly wing to flutter in Macao. Who knows what this small event might contribute to in the larger systems in which I participate and engage.

Earlier in the week I had told some workshop participants, “I am searching for butterflies, those beautiful transformative moments that facilitate learning.” Inspired by learning with IBEN colleagues, keynotes and breakout sessions by IB practitioners from around the Asia Pacific region, I left Macao this morning touched by butterflies.

How was your conference? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Supporting the Implementation Dip


“There’s a lot of assumed knowledge here.”

This statement by a teacher who was struggling to successfully transform his teaching in an MYP classroom was overheard almost a decade ago during a faculty meeting. It stuck with me because in transitioning to MYP: Next Chapter this year, I have heard similar sentiments as teachers make the shift from the previous MYP model to the current one.

The Implementation Dip

Fullan’s (2006) work on change management gives us some reassurance that learning is a way out of what he calls the “implementation dip,” that temporary slump in practice as practitioners struggle to learn new ways of practice and let go of the old ways, to enact a necessary change.



The “implementation dip” happens when we have to learn new ways of practice because old ways do not address necessary change.


The dip happens because old ways no longer suffice for implementation to occur. The way up and out of the dip is through learning the new ways of practice.

For those of us tasked with supporting teachers in enacting the MYP, we are mindful of the dip and each teacher’s approaches to learning and implementation. Perhaps, avoiding assumptions that teachers naturally learn to enact change, and providing support for these adult learners as each one struggles out of the implementation dip into approximations of mastery, help us to transition into new practices and transform our classrooms. Through supportive facilitation, pedagogical leadership helps teachers to transition and transform practice.

Unit planning as an approach to learning

From a teacher’s perspective, the daily teaching and learning is the priority. The way in to the professional knowledge necessary to transition to new practices might rest on careful and thoughtful planning for units of work.

By giving support in unit planning, we actually learn so much about MYP practice. What can we learn about the MYP through the practical planning we do for units of work?

Form and Function

Just in the first section of the unit planner, we uncover some pressure points for transition.

The first section of the unit planner asks for key concept, related concepts, global context, and these are synthesized into the statement of inquiry. The statement of inquiry is then unpacked through factual, conceptual, and debatable questions.

The structure of the Inquiry section of the planner assumes that teachers are familiar with key concepts, related concepts, global contexts and how each of these function. By asking teachers to synthesize these into a statement of inquiry requires understanding of the “structure of knowledge” (Erickson, 2008) which hold concepts as key to arriving at generalizations by seeing topics and facts become illuminated and organized through concepts. Breaking down the statement of inquiry into questions helps the teacher to grasp the interrelatedness of concepts to content in the unit.

Factual questions have content-based answers, so these questions show direction and scope of learning through content.

Conceptual questions engage students in analysis and synthesis. Conceptual questions ask for concept formation and attainment by students before application, analysis and synthesis. This helps a teacher understand the work that must be accomplished before asking students to express synthesis.

Debatable questions bring in the global context into the students’ engagement. Debatable questions necessarily call upon a choice of critical lens, or perspective, allowing students to draw upon authentic connections between the concepts and content learnt in a unit to the wider world beyond the classroom.

Pressure Points

A teacher’s pressure points in developing the conceptual framework of a unit might be implied in some of these.

  • How is concept formation and attainment facilitated?
  • How does an inquiry approach look like, sound like, feel like in my classroom?
  • How do I approach conceptual teaching and learning through inquiry?
  • How do I help my students learn to ask the questions?
  • What might it mean for me to allow students to ask the inquiry questions?
  • What might it mean for me to let go of some control and hand it over to the students?

Some of the above questions imply different levels of thinking that teachers engage to plan a MYP unit. All of the above are conceptual questions, in that they require teachers to examine concepts like form, function, structure, context, and even identity.The implications we might extrapolate from the questions above could be:

  • Knowing the Subject Guide and Principles into Practice documents thoroughly.
  • Understanding how concept based teaching and learning differs from content based teaching and learning.
  • Understanding inquiry approaches to teaching and learning.
  • Applying requirements in the Subject Guide and in Principles into Practice.
  • Analysing what is required in the subject criteria, what it looks like in student performance
  • Synthesizing knowledge and understanding
  • Evaluating what works
  • Creating new pedagogy that supports new learning objectives
  • Reforming professional identity as a teacher who uses a constructivist approach to teaching and learning

As we progress through a unit planner, we touch upon essential elements in the MYP framework. We learn that MYP teaching and learning is:

  • learning how to learn (ATL framework)
  • inclusive (differentiation)
  • constructivist (learning engagements and teaching strategies)
  • authentic (service as action)
  • reflective (reflection before, during, and after teaching)

At each step of the planning process, the teacher is challenged with new knowledge and understanding, new pedagogical opportunities, and even perhaps tensions within their professional identity. How these challenges are provided support directly impact the successful negotiation over the implementation dip.

How might we support learning toward successful implementation? Share your ideas in the comments.



Portrait of a self-directed learner

As we develop Approaches to Learning skills in our students, we are essentially presenting them with this question (rephrased from Costa & Kallick, 2014) to ask themselves:

When the solution to this unfamiliar problem is not readily apparent, what do I do to learn?

For MYP Year 5, we ask the question of our students through the Personal Project. Students respond ideally through deliberate use of ATL skills to construct a process by which they inquire, plan, take action and evaluate a self-conceptualized idea.

How do we take them there? This question is answered by how we scaffold the process by which students experience and repeatedly co-construct processes through which they learn, rehearse, and actualize the deliberate choice and use of ATL skills. As students progress through the MYP, explicit instruction in the choice and use of ATL skills facilitates internalization of these skills.

Costa and Kallick’s Dispositions: Reframing Teaching and Learning (2014) presents a model for the planning, teaching and assessment of ATL skills, termed dispositions in the book.

Costa and Kallick’s model (2014) transposed to the MYP gives us layers of ATL skills development.

Figure 1. Layers of ATL skills use

Figure 1. Layers of ATL skills use

The value of this model to MYP practitioners is the direct correspondence of the layers to our own process of planning learning. The MYP framework holds conceptual understanding as the core of planning; our key concepts and related concepts give us an interdisciplinary (key concepts) and disciplinary framework (related concepts) upon which to design learning experiences for students.

Through the conceptual framework, students construct understanding through subject specific cognitive processes, represented by the command terms in subject objectives and criteria. Implicit in these cognitive processes are discrete patterns of thinking demanded by subject disciplines, culminating in transfer, a cognitive skill students must necessarily engage when thinking in interdisciplinary contexts.

These skills manifest in the summative assessments, designed for students to deliberately choose and use ATL skills in increasing complexity as they progress through the MYP.

Finally, the outer layer of Costa and Kallick’s framework (2014) call upon the communication, affective and social skills, which students intentionally draw upon in performances of understanding.

How does this framework of ATL use relate to the ATL self-assessment model?

The Dreyfus Model of skill acquisition presents self-directedness as the ultimate achievement of skills. Self-assessment means that students internalize the ATL skills. Internalization of skills is indicated by eight dimensions (Costa & Kallick, 2014).

These dimensions are named using Costa and Kallick’s terms, and described below.

  1. Meaning – Students understand the skill, what it looks like/sounds like/feels like. They are able to explain examples of the skill as well as non-examples. Students might use similar categories or descriptions when describing the skill and how it might apply to different situations.
  2. Capacity – Students are able to deliberately perform the skill confidently. Students have a repertoire of strategies, tools and techniques to perform a skill cluster.
  3. Situational awareness – Students are able to draw upon different skill clusters in a variety of situations. Students recognize situational parameters, which indicate which skills to draw out in familiar and unfamiliar contexts.
  4. Spontaneity – Students do not need someone else to prompt them to use the skill. They are motivated internally to choose and use skills to take action or perform understanding.
  5. Benefits – Students recognize the value of a skill. They are able to predict outcomes of use or non-use of specific skills.
  6. Reflection – Students are aware of their own thinking, choices, and performances of skills. They might also convince others to use the skill in situations demanding this persuasion.
  7. Intentionality – Students do not perform skills without thought, but deliberately call upon skills when these best-fit a situation or problem.
  8. Action – Students manifest internal drive and self-direction in the performance of a skill. They might also advise others to act upon a task using a skill and are able to articulate why it suits a context.
Figure 2. Portrait of a self-directed learner

Figure 2. Portrait of a self-directed learner

Figure 2.  A synthesis of the indicators for internalization and the Dreyfus model.

You can access a PDF version of this portrait of a self-directed learner here.

What can we do to collaborate on our ATL skills development?

Costa and Kallick (2014) suggest some ways ATL skills development might achieve coherence in our MYP.

Use a common language for the ATL skills. This language is available to us and to our students through the documents guiding MYP implementation. How might we use command terms consistently? What words might we use to help our students conceptualize skills? Assess skills?

Repeat frequently. How might our students repeatedly hear about and focus on skills as they progress through the MYP?

Draw attention to skills in different contexts. How might we guide students to find the ATL skills in various problem settings? How might we help students to make connections between the problems they are learning to solve, and the language with which they can express understanding of their learning?

Discuss the meaning and relevance of skills. How might we help students to make connections between Learner Profile attributes and the ATL skills? How might we allow students to form concepts of what the skill looks like/sounds like/feels like?

Pose questions to engage cognition on skills choice and use. How might we ask students to think of performances of understanding through concrete processes embedded in the ATL skills clusters?

Reflect on the choice and use of skills. Might we ask our students, What is going on in your mind when you transfer a skill from a disciplinary context to an interdisciplinary problem?

Establish clear expectations. Expectations can be given prior to performance tasks, and they can also be implicit in the types of feedback we give to our students. Descriptive feedback, a type of feedback, which articulates a cognitive process, seems to nurture a growth mindset. When a student succeeds, and the feedback consists of a description of the skills chosen and used to create a successful outcome, the student learns the expectation inherent in the skill being described. This drives future choice and use of the skill in connection with context.

As we co-construct our MYP: Current Chapter, we see that there are many possible ways by which we can evolve a coherent framework of ATL skills development for our students.

What might be ways you can develop integration of skills choice and use by students and adults in your school? What might be some challenges? Share your thoughts in the comments.


Join our community on Twitter! We hold #MYPChat, an informal gathering of MYP educators on Twitter held fortnightly. Our next MYPChat is on October 30, when we will be dialoging on Standard C1 Collaboration and reflection, in action!

MYPChat on Oct 30: Standard C1 in action

MYPChat on Oct 30: Standard C1 in action

Making connections for ATL skills articulation, Part 1

Part 1, ATL development in the classroom and subject

The MYP faculty meeting yesterday yielded a lot of shared understanding about ATL skills implementation. Making connections was a big part of the engagements. As we made connections, we began to see how these connections made ATL skills the “bones of the MYP”–they may be invisible as they are, but they hold up the systems.

There are layers of implementation in MYP, illustrated by the diagram below.

Layers of MYP Implementation

This first year of transition into MYP: Next Chapter holds a lot of challenges, and in our efforts at alignment, we collaboratively decided in May 2014 to focus on classroom implementation first–planning learning and assessment, and using new criteria, fueling our developmental work with the collaborative time and structures with which we  inquire into points of practice and share understanding. Professional learning that is closest in proximity to the classroom, and to student learning, seems to drive our collaborative planning, as well as honing craftsmanship and efficacy of individual teachers in the context of a complex, messy process of implementing a shiny new MYP. For this meeting, we used these three tasks to help us make connections.

ATL in the classroom

Even with co-teachers planning together, a unit planner holds personal design choices implicit within the connections it makes. Choices we make in a unit plan of key concept, related concepts and global context present the overall frame of learning and teaching intention. As the unit plan progresses through the statement of inquiry, unpacked in inquiry questions and answered by the summative assessment design, the ATL skills immediately adjacent to the assessment presents the teacher with a rationale for choices made. When we choose ATL skills immediately connected to our big idea in the statement of inquiry and the assessment of learning, those ATL skills are chosen as skills essentially manifested in the summative assessment.

The task we used to make this connection was a simple template. Teachers picked a strand they were assessing in a summative task, and stated its connection to the skill students need to use and will be clearly manifested in the summative task product. An example is given below.

An Assessment-ATL connection for PHE

As teachers went through this simple task of connecting assessment to ATL skill, we understood why there is inherently a contextual requirement for ATL skills development in MYP. When we plan ATL articulation with our students in mind, our planning is relevant, meaningful, and has endless potential to manifest in how our students perform and achieve. For a teacher, this connection is a powerful source of efficacy and agency. When the choices a teacher makes holds authentic relevance visible in student learning, unit planning, teaching and assessment become mindful engagements, opportunities to be thoughtful and precise.

ATL in the Subject

Units planned, taught and assessed throughout a school year form the subject overview. Our second task in the meeting was to see connections throughout the subjects we teach. We focused on the command terms in this task, as the command terms in the criterion strands of our subjects progress through levels of complexity, which indicate skills that necessarily must become evident and manifest in assessments designed to reveal levels of learning and achievement described by the criterion strands. Below is an example from Sciences.

Command terms and complexity

When we examine one criterion closely, we begin to see the progression of complexity at which students must perform and achieve in an MYP subject. The command terms anchor us in a connection between ATL skills that manifest in a subject and the level of complexity at which these ATL skills must be used. As a student moves through the MYP years, he or she needs to call upon the ATL skills to engage in tasks of increasing complexity. In Sciences, for instance, the complexity can be identified when we juxtapose Bloom’s taxonomy with our command terms.

from Journal of Indian Law and Society.

from Journal of Indian Law and Society.

The juxtaposition of the command terms present in the Sciences criterion B strands shows an increasing level of complexity at which students must perform the ATL skills implicit in Inquiring and designing in Sciences.

Bloom's Taxonomy and Sciences Criterion B (Sciences Subject Guide, 2014)

Bloom’s Taxonomy and Sciences Criterion B (Sciences Subject Guide, 2014)

Where do we see this complexity? When we see the overview of a subject, the assessment design shows us the increasing complexity at which the MYP student needs to learn, perform and achieve as he or she progresses through the subject.

The value of the Overview

Side by side with the other MYP subjects, we can make connections throughout our MYP. Our third task was to examine three different sets of criteria strands. Below is our task 3 from the meeting.

Task 3. Take a look at the tasks described below.

Inquiry Questions:

Factual – What skills are implicit in these strands?

Conceptual – How does a student have to perform the same skill at different levels of complexity?

Debatable – How do our students reach independence in learning for year 5?

 Year 1: 

  • explains the choice of a research question
  • effectively follows an action plan to explore a research question
  • uses methods to collect and record consistently relevant information
  • thoroughly reflects on the research process and results

from Individuals and Societies Guide (2014), Criterion B

Year 3:

  • designs and explains a plan for improving physical performance and health
  • explains the effectiveness of a plan based on the outcome

 from Physical and Health Education Guide (2014), Criterion B 

Year 5:

  • develop rigorous criteria for the product/outcome
  • present a detailed and accurate plan and record of the development process of the project
  • demonstrate excellent self-management skills

from Projects Guide (2014), Criterion B for Personal Projects

The intention for using Criterion B was to draw out the understanding that MYP subjects’ Criterion B are process learning criteria, focusing on a subject’s methodology to teach students the purposes, values and limitations of a learning process. The inquiry process implicit within Criterion B in all subjects shows us a MYP-wide thread of using iterative, cyclical processes to approach learning.

As teachers examined the Criterion B from two different MYP subjects and the Personal Project, the understanding that emerged was how subjects had opportunities for allowing transfer, the ATL skill learners must draw upon to make connections between themselves and their learning, concepts and contexts across subjects, and among other relationships, understanding of different perspectives and that these perspectives, “with their differences, can also be right” (IB Mission Statement).


In Part 2, we will explore ATL skills from the programmatic level, looking at how policies and the MYP core may be systemically aligned with and through ATL articulation.

Please join our professional learning network! MYP educators connected on Twitter hold #MYPChat hosted by Stephen Taylor and other MYP educators.