Approaches to Learning

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.













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




Changing where Learning Lives

A quote that caught my attention on Twitter the other day is “So much school reform, and so few results.” What are our hunches why?

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 19.03.24

Granted, there are a lot of moving parts to change leadership. Change is a layered, complex set of needs, thinking, action, assessment feedback, and iterations.

As we reflect on the shifts in the ways we think and work in schools, we might notice that there is a relationship between the complexity of the facets of changing schools and the ways educators need to respond. Our responses need to be framed within the complexity of the problems we face as we work toward coherent, aligned systems in which people –whether they are students, teachers, administrators, parents and the communities in which schools are situated—respond to the shifts we aim to enact.

At the Thinking Collaborative conference at Hong Kong Academy last month, a takeaway that resonates with me is that in the complex work of change management, there is a constant guiding principle of education that educators and school systems seem to seek: to be self-directed. To convey individuals and groups into becoming self-managing, self-monitoring, and self-modifying people.

If we aim to develop self-directed learners, how might the following support that aim:

  • If students are always told by adults what they have learned, how they have learned, and why they have learned and do not become invested in these facets of learning themselves through self-management, self-monitoring and self-modification, how will students learn how to be self-directed?
  • If teachers are always evaluated by someone else, in a process in which assessment of practice is something done to them instead of something they manage, monitor and modify, how will these teachers become self-directed?
  • If teachers and students both are assessed through mainly external processes on their learning and practice, how will they develop growth mindsets?
  • How might change leadership in schools allow for a change in the narratives of these schools, if the systems and processes in place do not allow for self-management, self-monitoring and self-modification?

Bob Garmston’s session on Adaptive Leadership mentioned the four facets of adaptive leaders: character, courage, compassion and capacity. Of these, we reflect on what might become an inception of systemic change so that schools can enact a culture of self-directedness. Courage stands out as a prime need.

Courage in change leadership might include some of these considerations:

  • How might we lead students to become self-managing, self-monitoring and self-modifying individuals through a stubborn and explicit embedding of approaches to learning skills in our programs?
  • How might we allow teachers to become self-directed learners through a practice driven self-assessment process in which teachers plan, monitor, and assess their own growth instead of relying on external evaluation?
  • How might we launch a culture of growth through structures and processes, which honor individual learning diversity, and how might this diversity in our communities fuel our own inclusive approaches to learning?
  • How can we align our school missions, in which “life-long learning,” “reflective,” “independent inquirers,” and other attributes populate our words, so that these words become the actions that populate our day to day results?

Alan Bowring [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Alan Bowring [CC via Wikimedia Commons]

It seems that when we change pedagogy or process, whether it is the approach to learning or the approach to teacher growth and other learning processes in schools, we change where authority or ownership lives.

By changing to more student-driven pedagogy, we transfer ownership of learning from teachers to the students.

By honoring teachers as developing learners themselves through a self-directed, self-monitored and self-modified process of assessment of practice, we transfer ownership of the art of facilitating learning into teachers’ hands.

By building an environment that values inquiry and intellectual risk-taking rather than just ‘the right answer,’ we transfer the improvement of a school into the hands of those who learn, and we bring to the forefront of our day to day actions the value of learning, which is a process enriched by mistakes and iterations.

Results are mere by-products of purposeful engagement and cyclical learning. In well-supported cycles of learning, we get better at what we know, understand and do. As we master the approaches to learning that we meet as cycles of learning increase knowledge, deepen understanding and strengthen skills, we gain the confidence to approach complexity –those open-ended, non-linear, dynamic problems that are usually unfamiliar.

By changing the conditions of places where learning lives for young and adult learners in our communities, we become self-directed organizations. And in these brave spaces, learning lives.





Crossing ‘the Great Divide’ through Inquiry

Shifting toward using inquiry-based approaches to teaching and learning can be a big challenge for a teacher.

The challenge seems to stem partly from the patterns of thinking that inquiry approaches require from the classroom. Deductive patterns of thinking most commonly used in traditional, test-driven systems are often barriers to being able to implement an inquiry approach to teaching and learning.

In deductive approaches, teaching and learning moves from large topics to smaller sets of facts. The movement of thinking in deductive patterns follows what has traditionally been the structure of a scope and sequence. For instance, in content-based curriculum, a syllabus might consist of large topics broken down into sub-topics, and finally unpacked in a series of facts. We see an example of this type of deductive pattern in the illustration below.

An extract from a deductive curriculum. Topics and facts are the most essential feature.

An extract from a deductive curriculum. Topics and facts are the most essential feature.

The pressure of coverage (usually to prepare for a high-stakes test) fuels the drive to teach deductively, usually through direct instruction strategies such as lecture, a strategy used to transmit a lot of information in as short a time as possible.

Deductive patterns of teaching and learning are useful in a few instances, but overused can lead to what Edna Sackson at whatedsaid calls “the great divide,” when all of a sudden, the volume of fact learning and drills, piles of worksheets become the norm as a child moves toward a high-stakes test-driven secondary school culture. If this situation is different from the inquiry based primary experience, the child experiences “the great divide.”

The pattern of teaching and learning in a deductive lesson.

The pattern of teaching and learning in a deductive lesson.

Let’s take a look at an example. Say the teacher aims for students to appreciate the craftsmanship of poetry. Some author’s decisions in writing poetry focus on language, imagery, beginnings and endings, structure. If a teacher thinks to teach these craft lessons deductively, the lessons might consist of the teacher demonstrating how different poems achieve beautiful language, imagery, etc.

The teacher might just tell the students about the craft of poetry.

If we turn deductive thinking on its head, we get inductive thinking – the movement of thinking from specific ideas to generalizations. It is similar to scientific research, in that scientists investigate sets of data and find patterns among these to arrive at generalizations, large ideas which organize the data and answer questions within the discipline.

If we give students a set of poems, and ask them to find patterns, students might just become more engaged in the study of poetry. They might read the poems closely. They might have dialogs with peers about how the poet achieves meaning through what they did as they crafted the poems. Students might discover that poets make very specific decisions about the language they use in such an economic genre. Students might find out devices common to some poetry, which allow the poet to conjure images in the reader’s mind, taking the reader on the author’s personal intention within a poem. Students might also notice and come to conclusions about structure and its significance in a poem.

The pattern of thinking in an inductive lesson has similar process to an inquiry cycle.

The pattern of thinking in an inductive lesson has similar process to an inquiry cycle.

Along the way, the teacher might teach students to form good questions and how to be precise in their language as they question and express what they learn. Along the way, students might learn to negotiate meaning through collaborative dialog with peers. They might learn specific skills such as annotating text, metacognitive thinking, and synthesizing what they learn into coherent and well-supported responses to literature.

Students just might learn to use skills necessary for them to perform well in say, a literature examination.

The challenge to teach using inquiry-based approaches is a tough shift, but the toughest shift is in the teacher’s mind.

If we want our students to be self-directed learners who can solve problems for which there are no readily apparent answers, why not give them these opportunities, every day, through our lesson design?








It’s About You…and it’s Not About You at All

In our classrooms, we know that not all students are at the same place in their learning. Some have more background knowledge than others, maybe because they read regularly and read a variety of material. Some have more developed skills than other students, and each student has had more or less rehearsal of one or more skills. The classroom is a matrix of different learning trajectories, and as skillful teachers we must recognize where each student is and address each one’s learning accordingly.

Supporting adult learners is not unlike supporting young learners. Adults in any MYP are at different stages of understanding of programme elements and implementation. They come from a variety of teaching backgrounds and frameworks, they have different learning preferences, and they each have a different context and conception of their identity, of who they are as professional learners.

Because each learner comes with different strengths and needs, coaching as a support function is a way to value each learner’s existing knowledge and help him or her to find resources to set goals, achieve them, reflect on implementation of intentions, and solve problems encountered along the way.

Coaching as a differentiated support function

Coaching is allowing each individual learner to form a self-portrait of the self as learner in his or her own words. The narrative he or she provides through the coaching process is a “process of authentic self-presence, thinking and choosing as a way of discovering and knowing the nature and meaning of significant experiences in identity formation and selfhood” (Moustakas, 1994, p. 63). The coach functions as a mediator of this learning.

Feuerstein and colleagues (2000) suggest that this type of mediative learning includes being able to “experience that thing at deeper levels of cognitive, emotional attitudinal, energetic, and affective impact through the interposition of the mediator between the learner and the experienced object or event” (p. 275).

The coach is someone who conveys another person through their thinking from one state to another, more desirable state. Costa and colleagues (2013) use the metaphor of a stagecoach to represent coaching—a vehicle for taking a person from one place to another.

Source: US National Archives & Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons.

Source: US National Archives & Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s about you…and it’s not about you at all

If you are the coach, the coaching is about you, but it is not about you at all. The role of the coach is to attend to the other’s thinking.

When I first trained to be a cognitive coach, I thought I was a good listener. As I learned about the quality of listening necessary to be other-centered as a coach, I realized I was wrong.

In fact, when I used to listen, I engaged in either one or more of these:

  • Autobiographical listening – listening so I can connect to or chime in with something from experience
  • Solution listening – listening so I could help the person solve the problem
  • Curiosity listening – listening because I was curious

It is about you, the coach. The biggest change for coaching to become a successful support function is for the coach to struggle through the challenge of having to stop listening from these positions. We have to give up our own thinking and context to truly attend to the other person’s thinking.

Ways to listen thoroughly 

The skills needed to adopt a coaching attitude necessitated a change in the coach’s own cognitive behavior. If a coach is to convey a person’s thinking from one state to another, the coach needs to listen so that he or she can do the following:

  • Paraphrase the thinking to clarify it to the other person
  • Pose questions to move thinking forward

We might notice that with these two behaviors, we do not need our own experience, we are not the problem solvers of the case, and we only need what we are listening to, nothing more. These behaviors eliminate the necessity for autobiographical listening, problem-solving listening, and curiosity.

To be effective coaches, we must let go of our own attitudinal predispositions and practice complete empathy.

The values of cognitive coaching

Teaching and learning occurs through three valuable stages: intention, action, and reflection. (These are familiar to us as the curriculum: plans, teaching, assessment. It is also a reflection of our inquiry cycle: inquire, take action, reflect.)

Coaching helps to clarify how action addresses intention, and supports reflection on how this relationship between intention and action might be strengthened (Costa and Garmston, 1994). This function of coaching helps people work toward their goals for teaching and learning.

It helps people solve their problems. Often when people are stressed by challenge, it means their skills and understanding necessitate a stretch toward crossing what Vygotsky calls the “zone of proximal development” or what we might recognize as an implementation dip. Coaching helps the person find cognitive resources to continue their work toward stretching, through learning, to meet the challenges they face. In a coaching conversation, the listening, paraphrasing helps to acknowledge the emotions, and posing mediative questions helps elevate the thinking to the cognitive level, where problem solving can occur.

Leading learning is ‘messy work’

Each learner is on a different trajectory toward understanding. As leaders of learning, we need to allow each learner to follow his or her own trajectory at his or her unique, optimum pace. We also have the privilege of helping them find their cognitive resources to support them along the way. If we continue to be the assessors of each one’s learning, how might we help learners become independent, self-directed learners?

Leading learning, whether in a classroom or in a programme, is messy work. If we are mindful of what each person needs to learn and help them help themselves through coaching, we can cultivate a culture of self-directed learning in our schools.



Costa, A. L., & Garmston, R. J. (1994). Cognitive coaching: A foundation for renaissance schools. Norwood, MA: Christopher Gordon.

Costa, A., Garmston, R., Ellison, J., & Hayes, C. (2013). Cognitive Coaching Seminars foundation training: Learning guide (9th ed.). Highlands Ranch, CO: Thinking Collaborative.

Feuerstein, R., Feuerstein, R. S., & Falik, L. H. (2010). Beyond smarter: Mediated learning and the brain’s capacity for change. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Moustakas, C. (1994). Phenomenological research methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.



Weaving threads of understanding into school culture

When faced with the challenge of implementing new practices, often organizations go through an implementation dip because previous expertise no longer suffices in the new programme.

The organization can support teachers through some processes, which when combined provide what Drago-Seversen (2009) calls “holding environments” for professional learning. Holding environments are specific structures and processes, which help practitioners feel safe as they experiment, innovate, and create to enact implementation goals.

Support functions for teachers in implementation

MYP schools are fortunate to have teachers remain. Having knowledge and understanding of the MYP remain within a school as schools grow is a benefit to the overall culture of a school. How might a pedagogical leadership team provide support functions for teachers, as they grow and develop their MYP practice?

How might we support teacher thinking as teachers implement their plans in their classrooms?

The four support functions available to pedagogical leaders have inherently distinct purposes and ways of communication, and they each use assessment in very specific ways.

Evaluation as a support function

Evaluative Support is a more direct form of supervision. This is most familiar to us in many of the traditional appraisal systems, where the supervisor provides a formal process and criteria for teacher evaluation; there is a formal set of conversations that accompany the evaluation, and the teacher is bound to provide a formal, documented response to the evaluation. Evaluations are often useful when teachers are perceived to be not meeting expectations in a school, and the communication between the supervisor and the teacher consists of judgments of the teacher’s practice.

Evaluation as a support function usually comes from the supervisor. The assessment stance of evaluation comes from the formal appraisal system and its purpose seems to hinge upon a transactional contract, specifically the transactional contract between the teacher and the school as employer. The limitations of the evaluative support function lie in its inception; since the assessment is from a point of view outside of the teacher’s identity, the teacher’s default response to the evaluation is compliance. The response may take on more in-depth self-assessment, but this may not be an inherent element of the evaluative support function, unless it is specifically spelled out in the process itself.

 Consultation as a support function

Consultation as a support function is more two-directional in that its initiation can come from the supervisor or the teacher. Consultation means the direct instruction of aspects of practice, for which the consultant (often the supervisor) has expertise, which he or she transmits to the teacher. Either the supervisor can provide the consultation by directly arranging instructional meetings with the teacher, or the teacher can ask for consultation from the perceived expert. Whether the start of a consultation is from the consultant or the teacher, consultative conversations have a more flexible transactional contract than evaluation; if the teacher is the one asking for a consultation, there is an implication of prior self-assessment that has led the teacher to seek advice.

In both evaluation and consultation, the relationship between the two parties is not collegial, in that one party is providing the instruction for changes necessary to practice, and the other party receives or responds to this instruction.

Collaboration as a support function

Collaboration as a support function is collegial in nature. In a collaborative situation, colleagues gather to engage in dialog or discussion. Dialog has the purpose of reaching a shared understanding, while discussion has the purpose of reaching a decision together (Garmston and Wellman, 2013). Both of these conversations require that colleagues equally participate in meaning-making, and they use collaborative norms to contribute to the shared outcomes.

Because collaboration helps group members to contribute to shared outcomes, collaboration might be less stressful as a support function and more engaging. Each colleague contributes, each idea is honored and acknowledged, and all have ownership of the outcomes. Successful collaboration involves active listening, and norms, which when practiced make for effective, powerful work (Costa and Garmston, Ellis and Hayes, 2013).

Collaboration is multi-transactional, in that each person independently finds his or her contribution, but the group also finds its collective co-constructed contribution. This support function increases interdependence, or what Costa and Garmston (1994) term holonomy. Collaboration might also be transformational, in that the process and outcomes of collaboration increase a sense of agency and efficacy in individuals and groups (Brody & Hadar, 2010).

By Zarood (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Zarood (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Coaching as a support function

Finally, coaching as a support function shifts the focus of the relationship in the support structure. Whereas collaboration requires that “we pay attention to self and others” (Costa, Garmston, Ellis and Hayes, 2013), coaching is wholly other-centered. Coaching is being attentive to another person’s thinking, and helping the person’s thinking move from one state to another, desired state. A coach conveys the person, through reflective paraphrasing and mediative questions, from a state of pondering into a state of knowing and understanding.

These support functions help teachers in implementation, and the pedagogical leadership in a school can thoughtfully apply each of these support functions in a range of situations deliberately assessed and provided the support to help teachers develop and grow their MYP practice, and embed understanding of the MYP within the cultural fabric of the school.

The Power of a Smart Group

Last week I was able to see some smart groups at work.

In the MYP, collaboration is a large part of our work. It’s one of our set of standards, producing some of our best work as a programme.  Just to name some products of collaboration, we work together to create the subject overview, interdisciplinary learning, the Community Project, a cohesive service as action continuum, an important cluster of skills in the ATL skills framework. To work well in groups is a large part of MYP life for both students and teachers.

Smart groups are not smart because they collectively have high IQs. What we mean by smart groups is “when we maximize the intelligence of the individual through the process of the group and achieve collectively what no one of us could have accomplished on our own” (Powell and Kusuma-Powell, 2013). The keys in this description of what makes a group ‘smart’ is in processes that are smart and in effective combination of skills, understanding and knowledge to create work that may not necessarily be possible when attempted individually.

Smart groups listen really well

Groups who work in smart ways have a high degree of active listening within their processes. They listen to each other and they clarify the process through paraphrasing and use probing questions to move thinking forward. One of the smart groups I observed last week was a group of Year 5s. They were doing an experiment in the lab, and this is what I overheard.


Smart collaboration hinges on effective communication.

Student 1: I’m going to label these (substances) on the lid so we know which ones they are.
Student 2: (starts to arrange the bottles labeled with the substance names in a row) I’ll put these in the same order.
Student 3: How do we fit the names on the space?
Student 1: Maybe we should write the chemical label.
Student 2: I’ll say them and you write.
Student 3: I can check the order in our chart.

Later when the results were in, this was what happened.

Student 3: What color is this? Orange or pink?
Student 1: I think it’s more orange. (Looks at Student 2 and 3)
Student 2: I think it’s more red, but it’s too light to be red. Is that pink?
Student 3: Pink would have less yellow. It’s orange.
Student 1: So orange has yellow so it’s orange.

The dialog may seem commonplace, but if we look at what they say as a sign of how they listened to each other, it tells a different story. It tells us that they actively listened to what the other group members are saying, and that they are understand that effective collaboration means being mindful of self and others. When they were starting out, they each found something that each one could do, and told the group what they were doing to contribute to the work. In the later part of their work together, they used questions and paraphrasing to reach shared understanding and consensus.

The skills in the above conversation are essential to effective collaborative work. How many times have we been in meetings, where people talked above each other? How many times have we been in meetings where people listened only so they could share an autobiographical anecdote? In these situations, how much listening and learning is really going on?

Costa and colleagues (2013) describe real listening as:

  • non-autobiographical (not listening just to be able to share something from the listener’s life)
  • non-inquisitive (not listening just because of curiosity)
  • not so to be able to offer a solution or solutions

Smart groups also have ways to move thinking forward, using paraphrasing to clarify meaning and share understanding, but also using probing questions to help propel their connected thoughts.


Understanding that dialog is a way for all to share understanding, and being OK with not having to come to a decision at the end of dialog.

Collaboration skills, like many ATL skills, do not have an ‘ON’ button that gets activated with age. They are skills that need to be learned. The group of students in the science lab were on to something, but their skills have a long way to go yet. Imagine if they learned how to listen actively, design a process that allows each group member to contribute, and use questioning in more sophisticated ways.

What might that look like?

Adult groups that worked well together last week spent some time looking at their subject overviews to see the spiral of concepts in their subjects.

Both groups used protocols, one group to identify the balance of related concepts and the other group to identify technology integration in each unit so that they could make recommendations for policy. Although their meeting goals were different, here are the similarities they shared.

  • Both groups realized that the meeting purpose was to learn and share what they understood, so they set out to have a dialog
  • Both groups used protocols based on the goal of their dialog
  • Both groups made their thinking visible through products that documented their shared understanding

Making collaborative thinking visible through meeting products.

In addition, these groups practiced some essential norms for collaboration (Garmston & Wellman, 2013):

  • Pausing and taking turns speaking
  • Taking turns speaking shows they were paying attention to self and others
  • Paraphrasing to clarify
  • Asking questions to probe for clarity
  • Putting ideas on the table
  • Using data to illustrate
  • Presuming positive intentions

Like all skills, collaboration skills get better with purposive rehearsal. The groups used here as examples did not get to be smart groups quickly; they had to practice effective skills of collaboration over and over, getting better each time they deliberately practised these skills.

Part of the elegance of the MYP framework is that its standards and practices, which adults enact, reflect the approaches it aims to teach its students. Our students inquire, and in programme implementation we also inquire into best practices. Our students co-construct understanding, and so do we as we collaboratively plan and reflect toward coherence in the programme. Mirrors of one another, we might strengthen our approaches to learning as our students do the same.