approaches to learning

‘Thinking Things Anew’

The other day I had a badly-designed experience in a restaurant. The food came about 50 minutes after we ordered it, which was bad enough. But the real clunker was, they failed to serve the drinks, which was water for two and an orange fizz for the third. That we had to wait for 50 minutes for at least the water was unacceptable. Then when my friend complained after the food was served, the waiter said, “It’s your fault. We could not serve until your soup was ready.”


What I took away aside from the decision never to go back to that restaurant again was that a badly-designed experience could be made better by ‘thinking things anew(Wiggins and McTighe, 2007, p. 40).

Two things stand out. First is that an experience can be designed. Second is that fresh thinking about the design can improve experience.

When we think about the experiences students have as they go through school, it’s a worthy inquiry to explore how we might better design experiences and put some fresh thinking into what we do, how we do, and why we do what we do in the ways we do.

The big question is, How do we design school holistically?

Wiggins and McTighe suggest some facets for designing the experience of school (2007, p. 41):

  • “ The goal of curriculum is not to take a tour of the content but to learn to use and investigate the content, right from the start. Curriculum is thus inseparable from the design of valid, recurring performance tasks.

  • “If autonomous transfer and meaning making is the goal, then the curriculum must be designed from the start to give students practice in autonomous transfer and meaning making, and make clear via assessments that this is the goal

  • “An academic curriculum must be more like the curriculum in law, design, medicine, music, athletics and early literacy: focused from the start on masterful performance as the goal.”

The first implication is the centrality of the assessments we use to frame the experience. If assessments are the experiences of success for students, what considerations might we take in designing experiences students will have so they are able to use content, investigate content, rehearse knowledge, skills and understanding, until tasked with a performance of these in the assessment? And how do we align the plans and instruction to the assessments?

The second implication is that transfer and meaning making or understanding must be rehearsed deliberately. This means that the formative experiences we give our students must be intentionally crafted. Understanding is not gained by chance but by purposeful behaviors toward the goals of transfer and meaning making.

The authors also provide a set of learning principles, a few of which are quoted below.

Engaged and sustained learning, a prerequisite of understanding, requires that learners constantly see the value of their work and feel a growing sense of efficacy when facing worthy challenges” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007, p. 113).

This principle suggests that in planning learning experiences, we need to draw upon authentic connections to the students’ prior learning and to their lives and the world. Drawing upon these contexts helps the learning experiences to gain meaningful connections to the students’ own experiences and hastens the cementing of relationships between school and scholar and life.

An understanding is a learner realization about the power of an idea. Understandings cannot be given; they have to be engineered so that learners see for themselves the power of an idea for making sense of things” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007, p. 113).

An inquiry makes sense with authentic connections, and part of the design is the anchoring of learning experiences to large, significant ideas, such as our common humanity, what constitutes a personally-relevant and responsible action as a response to what is being learned. These connections provide opportunities to link classroom experiences to the world, breaking the boundaries between real-life and school in ways wherein students can realize the power of ideas at work in their lives and the world.

The capacity to deeply understand depends greatly on the capacity to think things anew (and other related habits of mind), because any insight typically requires the refining of earlier ideas. Becoming willing and able to rethink requires a safe and supportive environment for questioning assumptions and habits (of mind)” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007, p. 113).

The above principle is loaded with program implications.

First, the design of learning must provide experiences wherein students must draw upon habits of mind, those attitudes and approaches to learning, which must be rehearsed while rethinking ideas afresh.

Second, how a school or classroom provides a ‘safe and supporting environment’ asks of schools to design its culture – for example, how is risk-taking and failure viewed in the school? What are the attitudes toward failure? How does a school honor its students’ interests, strengths, prior learning? These are but a few considerations when we think of how safe and supportive a school might be.

Third, how students learn how to construct and use questions is a key part of design.

Fourth, how students are explicitly taught to use a repertoire of learning approaches is important in creating a culture of confident inquirers who feel safe to take intellectual risks and pursue personally- significant inquiries.

Some design considerations

To sum up the ideas above, we find that the design of learning experiences needs to consider:

  • How assessment aligns with instruction and instructional intentions.
  • How learning engagements provide authentic contexts for learning.
  • How students gain meaning from their learning experiences.
  • How to create learning experiences so that students arrive at large, powerful ideas (such as concepts and statements of inquiry).
  • How learning experiences are designed to draw out dispositions and approaches to learning and how these become visible to students in those experiences.
  • How to design a safe and supportive learning environment.
  • How to honor prior learning, interests, strengths of students.
  • How students learn how to use questions to pursue their own learning.
  • How to explicitly teach approaches to learning and build a confident self-directed learner.

If we take the patterns within these considerations, we find that these correspond to principles we must turn into practice so that our students experience a coherent, relevant, and challenging program in which each one grows and achieves.

We find that the systems of curriculum and instruction link to systems for assessment. We discover that social emotional learning is built in to the structures that support academic goals. We might also realize that collaboration and reflection are keys to this holistic implementation of a well-designed learning experience.

Making connections between systems

In their book about Coca ColaDesign to Grow: How Coca-Cola Learned to Combine Scale and Agility” (2015, p. 27), Butler and Tischler write, “Problems don’t exist in isolation. You can’t solve one without affecting another. This is where design creates value that’s hard to see or quantify, in that, by connecting things more smoothly, the entire experience improves.”

Essential takeaways seem to be that design is about making connections and that effective design makes for a coherent and meaningful experience.

From this we arrive at some essential questions in our program design. A few might be:

  • What connections can we make explicit between how we plan, how we learn and teach, and how we assess?
  • What connections can we make explicit between the soft skills and the academic ones?
  • What connections can we create between the resources in our environment and the perceptions of safety and support?
  • What connections can we facilitate between the students’ lives, the world and the classroom inquiries?

The fresh thinking that we need as we design learning experiences is mirrored by the fresh thinking we would like our students to do as they experience these.

What connections are you making between your learning and your students’? How might both these experiences gain meaning and transfer?

Just as a restaurant must make connections to make the dining experience a pleasant one, we are tasked with making connections between systems in our schools to make the experience one that our students will savor.



Butler, D. and Tischler, L. Design to Grow: How Coca-Cola learned to combine scale and agility; (And how you can too). USA: Penguin.

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2007). Schooling by Design; Mission, action and achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Photo by Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


The Learner in Charge

Learning is scalable.

The fractal of how we learn transfers into smaller versions of the full design—such as the specific process of learning how to write from personal significance, with a personalized process, seeking our own audiences and feedback to get better at writing. These patterns also transfer into larger-scale systems predicated on assumptions that people have the capacity for self-directedness. Approaches to learning, for example, could be a system-wide approach to using metacognitive strategies.

By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Romanesco broccoli fractals By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Because learning is scalable, we can infer patterns in the larger expression of a fractal, say a culture of self-directedness, from the iterations of behavior in smaller sections of the fractal, like individual self-directedness. In other words, individuals together behaving in certain ways make up the concerted behavior of a whole community.

So how do we enact a culture of self-directed learning?

We might begin with what’s happening with the individual learner.

In their collaborative work The Art and Science of Portraiture, Sara Lawrence- Lightfoot and Jessica Hoffman Davis (1997) engage in a dialog on the value of a self-portrait as a form of learning process and product.

They suggest that the creation of a self-portrait “is an intentionally generous and eclectic process that begins by searching for what is good and healthy and assumes that the expression of goodness will always be laced with imperfections.” If we ask ‘what is good?’ we are “likely to absorb a very different reality than one who is on a mission to discover the sources of failure” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 9).

The generosity of this developmental self-portrait hinges, it seems, upon the assumptions that people want to seek what is good and start this inquiry from a stance of positive intentions and aspirations. Considering assumptions about self-development consider that “Not only do portraits seek to capture the origins and expression of goodness, they are also concerned with documenting how the subjects or actors in the setting define goodness” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 9).

The process might be more concrete if we thought about the self-portrait as a portfolio.

In developing a documentation of learning and achievement, which is the basis for a portfolio, the learner becomes participant in this inquiry and dialog on What is good, how do we find it, and what expressions might be exemplars of this search and its discoveries?

The portfolio becomes an ever-transforming map of growth. As the learner curates his or her own documentation of growth, the reflective nature of constructing this self-portrait facilitates and sustains the inquiry. This is a pattern of the self-directness that we consider a significant cornerstone of transformational learning.

How does this individual pattern influence the larger patterns in the places where we facilitate learning?

Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis (1997) suggest that the self-portrait is a conversation. In this sense they are also “acts of intervention” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 11) in that within the process of creating self-portraits we engage others in conversations about what is good; we engage in acts of transformation; we provoke thinking and reflection. “This is provocative work that can disturb the natural rhythms of social reality and encounter” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 11).

In her book The Good High School; Portraits of Character and Culture Lawrence-Lightfoot (1983) suggests that the actors within a school context “create conversations and find shared meanings, the significance of the voice of teachers, and the crucial importance of local context as well as the commitment of a scholar to truth and solidarity” (in Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 11).

The conversations about what is good propels our inquiries into constructions of criteria for best practice within the contexts of our schools. In these co-constructions; we seek our mentors and teachers in our peers and in our networks; and we revisit again and again a common ownership of learning.

We influence the story of our school’s focus on learning.

From conversations and patterns of self-directedness emerges a narrative. The resulting narrative tells the story of the landscape of transformation for the individual as well as the group. Together, our portraits of growth collectively “document the human behavior and experience in context.” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 11).

So it may follow that culture is influenced by individuals creating portraits of best practice.

In the conversation between practitioners, we find a similar idea to Eudora Welty’s distinction between the storyteller and the one who listens to a story. Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis (1997, p. 12) suggest that “The latter is a much more active, engaged position in which one searches for the story, seeks it out, is central to its creation.”

In this inductive inquiry, we may recognize the “persistent irony” that “as one moves closer to the unique characteristic of a person or a place, one discovers the universal” (Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis, 1997, p. 14).

Discoveries of the universal within the personal suggest that learning is scalable. Individuals in self-directedness make up the human landscape of a self-directed organization. By putting the learner in charge of his or her learning, we cultivate resonance within our selves and our organizations.



Lawrence-Lightfoot S. & Hoffman Davis, J. (1997). The Art and Science of Portraiture. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (1983). The Good High School; Portraits of Character and Culture. NY: Basic Books.

Photo By Becks – Windvane, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Romanesco broccoli fractals By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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

Imagination and the interdisciplinary

Every day, we glimpse the future in the present.

In the IB Diploma, the world studies essay gives students opportunities to express their interdisciplinary understanding by conducting “an in-depth interdisciplinary investigation into an issue of contemporary global importance” (IBO, 2014, p. 10). The ways by which we approach interdisciplinary investigation in the MYP directly affect the ways by which students might approach interdisciplinary investigation in the Diploma. If Diploma students struggle with interdisciplinary investigations in the world studies essay, what are our hunches about what experiences we need to facilitate for these students in the MYP?

Like a full bucket requires each drop of water added in at a specific time and place, small actions can complete an intended result.

Gharajedaghi in his book Systems Thinking (2006) presents four ways that might sustain small actions toward an intended result: design, participation, iteration, and second order learning (in Garmston & Wellman, 2013). These ideas can apply to interdisciplinary experiences in the MYP, and here we look at the first two.

Design consists of choices made based on values and principles (Garmston & Wellman, 2013). In a classroom, this might be about how we arrange the physical environment, essential agreements for behavior, the flow of teaching and learning. If we have seats arranged in uniform rows, all facing one way, perhaps we convey the value of a sage in the front of the room, that learning is transmission, non-collaborative, an endeavor each learner must undertake alone and in passive ways. If we rearranged this classroom so that students can see each other’s faces while learning, what values might this communicate? If the classroom has flexible seating to suit learning engagements at a given time, what might the students learn from this element of design?

In traditional subject-driven models of schooling, rare are the opportunities to explore one discipline’s concepts in light of another’s. If part of our design in MYP is facilitating arrangements and opportunities for another subject’s concepts to blend in another subject’s learning, we convey the importance of interdisciplinary learning. By gathering two or more subjects under the same global context to explore authentic manifestations of concepts, we convey the interconnectedness in our world and the ways we might explore complexity through these connections.

Participation is a function of design; the ways we behave can arise from the ways our interactions and behavior are shaped by things and people (Garmston & Wellman, 2013). If we expect behaviors, such as fruitful collaboration for instance, yet we do not provide for the actors to learn the skills necessary to engage in the expected behaviors, what might result? In the MYP classroom, participation might include approximations of independent inquiry. This means students have to experience psychological safety to explore how independent investigations work for each of them. This means we have adopted a mindset that school is not about getting things right that have already been decided by the teacher or the exam, but that school is a series of opportunities to exercise craftsmanship and flexible thinking and many other dispositions of the Learner Profile. That ways to know and understand and do can be more than the teacher’s design based on his or her own experience, and that students can author approaches to learning as they learn, and share these with other learners.

Independent investigation requires the student to value ambiguity as an entry point to learning.

One might argue, But what do they know, these students? How might they approach independent investigation when they know not much?

Consider the poet who provokes thinking

Xu Lizhi is the poet who documented the lives of workers in China. His own life through his poetry captures the macro-concepts of fairness and development, globalization and sustainability. He illustrates the key concepts of change, perspective, adaptation, balance, aesthetics, among others.

His poetry resonates with the audience because they allow readers to imagine a life they might not otherwise know. But the poems also capture the lives of hopeful migrants to the Chinese manufacturing hubs, and allow humanity to emerge in the algorithm of a Chinese “American Dream” – hope, optimism, disappointment, anguish, pain, creativity and destruction. If I read about Xu Lizhi, if I read his poetry, it might provoke thinking about a global context, a key concept, and provide entry points to connections that link subjects.

Consider the algorithm of a blockbuster movie, and of love

The increasing use of algorithms as an entry point to knowing and understanding patterns has emerged. People now calculate what makes a movie successful, how people choose political parties, and even attempt to predict the calculus of love.

We also learn that algorithms have to be adaptive, to deal with human problems connected to change. Humanity is needed in problems that produce decisions – such as trust, meaning, and asking the right questions. In the end, the human is necessary to provide the decisions. The patterns are only what they are, information arranged in meaningful sequences of logic, used to predict. In the process, imagination is key to finding interpretations that might result in adaptive decisions. In other words, the numbers open portals to the calculus of what to do, but we have to imagine what it is that we might do.

W.E.B. DuBois “invented a way of being, a point of view, a style of work that quite naturally, dynamically and organically integrated science, art, history, and activism” (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Hoffman Davis, 1997, p. 7). In Rampersod’s portrait of DuBois, he “declined to see a separation between Science and Art, believing that such a distinction violated the integrity of intelligence, which could set no wall between one fundamental form of knowledge and another, since all belonged to the world of nature, of Truth…” (Rampersod in Lawrence-Lightfoot and Hoffman Davis, 1997, p.7).

We ask our students to view the world like DuBois, to imagine and pursue explorations of a world wherein there are no preset maps, only endless avenues.

The future is in the present: independent inquiry and the imagination to voyage into the interdisciplinary. Interdisciplinary learning is the explicit harnessing of the imagination, and the IDU is a formal invitation to form connections and explore these.

How will we teach our students to sail? How will we give them the courage and self-efficacy to journey independently?

The ways we make the future is by approximating it in the present.

And when the present resembles the future we intend, we are already transforming it.


International Baccalaureate Organization (2014). Fostering interdisciplinary teaching and learning in the MYP. Geneva: Author.

Garmston, R. J., & Wellman, B. M. (2013.) The adaptive school; A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups (2nd ed.). New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Gharajedaghi, J. (2006). Systems thinking; Managing chaos and complexity (2nd ed.). Burlington, MA: Elsevier.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S., & Hoffman Davis, J. (1997). The art and science of portraiture. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.

Rauhala, E. & Jieyang. The poet who dies for your phone. TIME magazine. Retrieved from on June 16, 2015.

Whipple, T. Slaves to the algorithm. The Economist Intelligent Life. Retrieved from on June 16, 2015.

Image used
“Boris Bernaskoni EM KA-01” By Bernaskoni Ltd. (Bernaskoni Ltd.) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.

Supporting journeys to understanding

“Insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over and expecting different results” is a quote often used in the press and by politicians. (It is misattributed to Einstein, but there is no proof he wrote or said it.) This witty and seemingly overused statement may be from a mysterious origin, but it strikes a deep chord as we consider its implications for teaching and learning.

Blaming external factors when students don’t seem to understand is an easy way to avoid change. If we seek craftsmanship and flexibility in our practice, we might increase the potential for our intentions in teaching to become the student outcomes in learning.

We can tell people something, or we can guide them to read and gain knowledge, but translating knowledge to actual practice requires understanding and the other more demanding cognitive processes in Bloom’s taxonomy of thinking.

If a learner knows a set of skills, for example, the student needs to rehearse those skills in different situations (Brown and Bennet, 2002), to gain an appreciation for evaluating situations and choosing skills that match the problem at hand. Evaluating situations and choosing the right problem-solving behaviors to approach these are valuable behaviors that require iterative rehearsal in many contexts so that the learner is able to solve problems in unfamiliar contexts as he or she gains facility in the complex process of evaluating situations, evaluating skills, and matching skills that are the best-fit approach to the unfamiliar problem (Brown & Bennet, 2002; Moors & De Houwer, 2006). Learners also need to be taught processes rather than just assigned processes to traverse (Merzenich et al., 1996).

What have we learned about facilitating learning? Here are some ideas to get us started.

Learning happens when learners feel psychologically safe.

When people feel unsafe, chemicals called cortisol and adrenaline are released into the body and the brain, and people react with the fight, flight or freeze response (Sylwester, 2004). The reaction inhibits the problem-solving part of the brain, the neocortex (Goldberg, 2009). Literally, feeling unsafe shuts down learning (Powell & Kusuma-Powell, 2010).

When we think about it, change is a threatening situation. When the ways that we must do things change, it causes us to deal with the implementation dip and presents challenges to our feelings of self-efficacy.

In these situations, and because change is an essential part of learning, we are mindful of how we might support the learners as they traverse the landscape of challenges. We might, for instance, get to know our learners so that we can provide different pathways to suit each one’s learning trajectory.

Learning requires design.

Learning is more likely to happen when structures are provided such that the learner doesn’t even have to think about these and can then focus on the task and the concepts at hand. Part of designing the environment is providing different ways and choices to access the concepts, not just one way, so each learner has his or her way to understanding, rehearsal, and performance.

Learning happens with purposeful and deliberately designed rehearsal – drills are useful in developing physical skills like dribbling a basketball, performing a karate kata, a routine for aesthetic movement. Rehearsal for cognitive ‘moves’ are also useful, when the designer/teacher specifically pays attention to the cognitive actions that the learner will be performing during the rehearsal activity (Brown & Bennet, 2002; Moors & De Houwer, 2006).

Learning is motivated by relevance to the learner. Providing authentic connections that allow learners to cross boundaries between school and life helps the neocortex to cast a wide net for connections, which lead to creative and critical thinking (Goldberg, 2009). When we create opportunities to activate prior knowledge, we are facilitating the learner’s choice of processes and approaches; when we facilitate open-ended, authentic problems in a range of contexts, we facilitate situations where the neocortex is able to find solutions to problems that might be unfamiliar.

Learning is facilitated by skillfully designed experiences, and the one facilitating learning needs to be deliberate. Deliberately designing flexible ways by which learners might approach learning supports personally relevant experiences for all learners.

By Camdiluv ♥ from Concepción, CHILE (Colours) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Camdiluv ♥ from Concepción, CHILE (Colours) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Csikszentmihalyi writes that “enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced within a person’s capacity to act” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 50). When learning is designed for deep understanding, the learner experiences something expressed simply in another overused statement, “Learning is fun.”


Becker. “Einstein on misattribution; I probably didn’t say that.” Becker’s Online Journal (November 13, 2012). Retrieved May 7, 2015 from

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

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper.

D’Addario, D. “The definition of insanity” is the most overused cliché of all time. Salon (Tuesday, August 6, 2013). Retrieved May 7, 2015 from

Goldberg, E. (2009). The new executive brain; Frontal lobes in a complex world. New York: Oxford.

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

Moors, A., & De Houwer, J. (2006). Automaticity: A theoretical and conceptual analysis. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 132(2), 297-326. http://dx.doi .org/10.1037/033-2909.132.2.297

Powell, W., & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2010). Becoming an emotionally intelligent teacher. New York: Skyhorse.

Sylwester, R. (2004). How to explain a brain; An educator’s handbook of brain terms and cognitive processes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Trialling an ‘e-Assessment’ and What We Learned

The MYP eAssessment is a logical next step for our school. We shifted to a conceptual curriculum three years ago, realizing that learning through a spiraling conceptual curriculum would allow our students to transfer knowledge, understanding, skills and attitudes more easily across a range of open-ended problems to solve. The eAssessment requires this sort of transfer and allows the knowledge, understanding, skills and attitudes to manifest in its process toward successful completion.

Last December, half of our Year 4s piloted an eAssessment that we constructed in-house. We had viewed a video from the IB introducing the MYP eAssessments and observed how the platform might behave, how our students needed to behave, and thought about what it might take to successfully complete this innovative type of assessment. Then, we designed an approximation of an eAssessment, which would simulate the platform and require the sorts of behaviors needed for successful completion.

Observing the experience and obtaining feedback from students rounded out the pilot. Here is what we learned.

The eAssessment Platform

In considering the design of the platform for the assessment, we investigated a wiki, an HTML standalone site, or a Google Site. The wiki was crossed off immediately because it is linear to the user; the items inside it are added one after another, and a lot of scrolling would have to happen to move back and forth between stimulus materials and problems.

The Google Site would have been more preferable since it can be designed in frames; a frame could hold stimulus material, and we could add a window wherein students could write responses. In a Google-subscribed school, students can find their responses in a Google Doc if the Google Site is designed with a Google Form, and these are easily accessed through their Gmail accounts. The issues with the Google Site were that there were several steps to take to access each document and that it required an internet connection. First, when responses are written on the form, an extra click on Google Docs had to happen before the student could see what they had produced. The form responses and the site with the stimulus materials were also on different tabs, preventing real-time visual reference of both elements by the student. Second, the internet connection is not a facility in the MYP eAssessment since all stimulus materials are already in the platform; this was something we did not need to provide in the structure of the eAssessment.

The HTML site, although the best option, required the teacher designing the eAssessment to spend hours coding. At the time of our pilot, this was prohibitive.

So we designed a simple platform for the eAssessment using static, hyperlinked slides and Word documents. The slides held the instructions, embedded stimulus materials, and the open-ended problem. All materials were uploaded into the desktops in a single folder which included a folder for saving work. Students could then write responses on a Word document and save it directly into the eAssessment folder.

Stimulus materials and the student's responses could be simultaneously visible on screen.

Stimulus materials and the student’s responses could be simultaneously visible on screen.

It was important for students to be able to see stimulus materials and problem in the slides and their work in progress simultaneously, so we used 21″ iMacs for the eAssessment. The students could place the exam materials and their response document side by side on the large screen. We also froze the internet connection for the machines used as connectivity was not important. With individual headphones connected to each iMac, students could access material and record responses on an eAssessment that was as close we could get to the platform we had observed in the IB eAssessment introduction video.

Approaches to Learning

ATL skills students have internalized are key in any performance assessment, including an eAssessment. In a paper-based assessment, at least four categories of ATL skills are drawn from as the student progresses through their problem solving.

In an electronic format, students need to recognize the need for and use a wide range of ATL skills from the skills categories, including thinking critically about previously unseen stimulus materials, thinking creatively to form solutions to the open-ended problem; research skills from citing a video versus citing a print text from the materials to keeping organized notes on what they are learning from the materials to reference as they responded; self-management skills were in high demand during the two hour assessment, as students had to keep organized and manage time and tasks, as well as manage their affect, for instance, through practicing focus and concentration and avoiding distraction.

Students' range of ATL skills were essential to the tasks.

Students’ range of ATL skills were essential to the tasks.

Observations and Feedback

Most students were comfortable with the electronic platform. Most students concurred with a student’s opinion that “I’m used to typing and do that faster than writing with a pen.” (Only one student found “typing a challenge. I didn’t type a lot in my previous school, so I felt slow with my typing skills.”) Accessing information was “easier with the video and visuals,” and “the extracts were easy to read.” All students reported having their own headphone set was “good for focusing, I didn’t have to pay attention to anything else.”

The challenges expressed in the student interviews highlighted the ATL skills that students need to have internalized to use during this independent performance in a controlled environment. One student had difficulty following instructions in written format without teacher support. Two students found it challenging to keep track of their time and tasks independently.

It was clear to us how important an articulated focus on approaches to learning presented so that in Year 5 our students might easily evaluate the need for approaches to use and easily perform the skills necessary to persist through a problem-solving situation. In this trial, our essential understanding was that ATL skills needed to be internalized so that students could just get to the heart of problem-solving in their culminating assessment.

Evaluating sources

For Year 4 Individuals and Societies students

New Perspective 4 by jaasal

New Perspective 4 by jaasal

An important part of research is knowing which sources are credible. Credible sources are believable because their information is valid and reliable.

As you research the comparison between two instances of Communist rise, perform an evaluation of sources you use. Use this process for guidance.