approaches to teaching and learning

Ways that Teachers Think about and Use Time in the Classroom

Teaching holds the tension between certainty and ambiguity. When teachers plan units and lessons, we draw upon our craft knowledge to design a series of experiences with logic, flow, coherence, and outcomes, to name a few aspects. And teaching is ambiguous at the same time because in the course of a lesson, students respond in individual ways. In the tension of both certainty and ambiguity, teachers are always considering time.

Costa and Garmston (2013) name a few ways that teachers think about time. We understand that these ways also represent how time dimensions impact the teacher’s thinking while teaching.


The authors define this time dimension as the order in which a teacher decides how instruction will proceed. When we plan lessons, we often deliberately question what should happen first, then next and next, in order to shape and direct what we intend students to know, understand and be able to do. We look at short-range planning such as within a unit of inquiry, and we also design the long-term planning such as in a yearlong overview, or an entire program of inquiry.

Because we think deeply about factors like student readiness and developmental progression of cognitive processes such as concept formation and ability to think abstractly, sequence is an important dimension of time for teachers.


The Twitterchat on Approaches to Teaching and Learning brought the idea that the multiple dimensions of a school program are braided. (During the chat, we discussed that ‘woven’ was not as precise a term for our program intentions as ‘braided.’ In braids, we can see the strands and interconnections more clearly, and each strand in the braid remains distinct; whereas in a weave, it is difficult to see individual strands and their distinct identities and forms.) In may ways, a lesson is braided in that we are constantly, at the same time, holding on to different layers of learning – the content, concepts, context(s) and construct as it applies to our plans and as it applies to each learner’s experience.

The dimension of simultaneity in the classroom is described by Costa and Garmston (2013) as the ability of the teacher to hold many layers of conscious intentions at the same time. For example, in any given unit of inquiry, a teacher might keep in mind the learning target for the particular lesson, while also being mindful of the conceptual framework; the content that best unpacks and illustrates the conceptual focus; the skills that are targeted for the unit; when to rehearse; the different entry points and pathways individual students might choose to take toward understanding; and a myriad of other, equally important learning events happening at the same time.

Dimensions of Metacognition

Metacognition is a person’s capacity to “stand outside themselves” (Costa and Garmston, 2013, p. 143) and hold at least two threads of thinking at the same time: the thinking that follows the logic and flow of the intended learning experience and all that the teacher does to make it happen, as well as the thinking about his or her words and actions and thinking as he or she facilitates the learning. Teachers who are metacognitive thinkers and emotionally intelligent, for instance, constantly read the learners in the room. They take in the nonverbal cues from students and adjust accordingly. They are always making careful and attentive observations and choose congruent behaviors to either slow down, speed up, pause for rehearsal, and other instructional decisions that arise form their own metacognition.

Metacognition is an additional source of time dimensions because of lesson factors such as pace, self-correction, pedagogical prioritizing, and reflection.


Pace is an important part of metacognition. Assessing the environment and the students’ responses in light of the learning targets and the process among other factors pose questions like whether the teacher should go faster or slow down, when to pause and reteach in different ways, and how to support students who have already learned the material, students who need more time or ways to access it, and all the conditions in between.


An effective teacher uses his or her metacognitive thinking to discern a complex set of influences on their instruction. For instance, she might ask questions like:

  • How does my own set of learning preferences and strengths hinder my understanding of how my students might experience the lesson?
  • Do I understand how they struggle with concepts I naturally grasped when I was their grade level?
  • What big ideas are we touching on? What universal, human contexts might they anchor this concept to?
  • How do I know each student grasps the concept?
  • Are my students gaining a better understanding of how context frames their learning? Can they shift perspective?

Teachers self-correct based on thousands of different data points they glean from the environment, including their reading of the learners in the room. This self-correction is a series of time decisions because what’s important to the learners does take more time, take less time, and/or repurposes the time allocated for lessons.

Pedagogical priorities

Teachers have a wide range of instructional strategies that they might call upon in planning and also implement during ‘teachable moments’ that emerge from classroom events. When teachers have to shift instruction suddenly due to cues from how the learners are responding and events in the classroom, the prioritizing that happens results in somewhat different uses of time than what might have been previously planned.

Flexible teachers recognize that learning is not one-size-fits-all, and the priorities he or she decided upon might change due to previous learning or levels of readiness in the students.

The craftsman-like teacher is continually learning to expand their quiver of instructional strategies to address the many ways students can meet learning targets.


Reflection is understood to be looking back at self. Teachers who use time to reflect on practice generally are self-directed learners. They self-monitor, self-modify and self-manage (Costa and Garmston, 2013).

When teachers reflect about a lesson or unit, they are essentially taking time to self-assess whether their intentions (learning targets or objectives) align with the outcomes (assessment of learning).

Often, reflection is done after an event, such as a lesson or after having taught a unit. Reflection is metacognitive thinking in that it can also happen at the moment of action. This type of reflection might be akin to mindfulness because using metacognitive thinking, a person can “know intentions and choose congruent behaviors” (Costa and Garmston).

Reflection can greatly impact the efficiency of instruction as it might yield a panoramic consciousness of all that schools do (Dufour and Dufour, 1998).

  • What will our students learn?
  • How do we know they are learning?
  • How will we respond when they are not learning?
  • How will we respond when they already know it?

The many ways that teachers have to consider time and its dimensions in the classroom is complex, adaptive work.



Photo Credit:
Monarch emerging from coccoon By Seney Natural History Association – A Monarch Emerging from Cocoon, CC BY-SA 2.0


Dufour, R. and Eaker, R. (1998). Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Costa A. and Garmston, R. (2013). Cognitive Coaching; Developing Self-Directed Leaders and Learners. NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

The Target Board Strategy

Action plans have numerous practices that need to be implemented. Here’s a useful collaborative strategy for prioritizing implementation.

I’ve used this with different schools including Canadian Academy in Kobe when I was working with Stephen Taylor and the CA faculty to implement creative inquiry.

The Purpose of this Strategy

The visualization of priorities using a Target Board helps group members to

  1. Understand how program facets are interrelated
  2. Dialog on the most needful to the least urgent goals
  3. Discuss and decide on the progression of implementation points

Hopefully as the group collaboratively create the target board, the conversations reveal the time continuum supporting the implementation action plan.

The Target Board CC @alohalavina

How to use the target board

The target board can be used on its own for a sorting activity. Simply, it can guide ways to use time and urgency to justify when to do certain things.

When used with an Adaptive Schools protocol such as “Here’s What, So What, Now What” the Target Board can be a tool for understanding the purposeful work that organizes both time and tasks for implementation.


Featured Photo credit: Target Board by MaxPixel CC Public Domain

I am grateful to Thinking Collaborative for their mission in creating capacity in individuals and organizations.

‘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.

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.

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.

What if learning isn’t linear?

When we develop curriculum in schools, we’re saying “scope and sequence,” to mean the progression of learning experiences we design for our students. The term “scope and sequence” suggests that learning is a linear progression from a beginning point, through a series of points, ending at a particular point.

This linear model might have evolved from the industrial model of education so well illustrated by Sir Ken Robinson’s TEDtalk, animated by RSA. Because students are processed in batches through schooling, it might have happened that educators developing programmes of learning sequenced learning in a linear manner associated with grade levels.

But what if learning were not linear? What if each student has different times of readiness for different skills regardless of when he or she was born, which Sir Ken Robinson calls their “date of manufacture”?

This was the problem with the previous misunderstanding that the Approaches to Learning document in schools had to follow the format of a complicated matrix, wherein skills were mapped out as introduced and various points of proficiency and mastery indicated throughout the chart. The question still remains, if approaches to learning skills are mapped out in a linear fashion much like many of our ATL SLE charts in the past did, how do we account for students’ different times of readiness for different skills? Do we build a three- or four-dimensional matrix?

Kath Murdoch, writing about the inquiry learning approach, suggests that when students learn through the recursive inquiry cycles, we take into account each student’s thinking and learning process as their pathways to understanding. Inquiry approaches allow each learner entry points to understanding, and the teacher is able to facilitate how each student can follow individual pathways to understanding and skill acquisition in the learning process. The inquiry approach allows us to orchestrate learning; everyone has their preferred instrument to play, and they all come in to the song at different times, but together they play towards a collaborative harmony.

The inquiry approach allows us to follow a recursive, rather than a linear model for learning. This pedagogical construct is an underpinning approach to teaching and learning in the IB.

If learning is constructed through recursive inquiries, how do we address this non-linear curriculum?

Consider our curriculum framework for the continuum. The continuum framework involves a spiraling through concepts, from large macro-concepts in the PYP, into more specific concepts in the MYP, involving both interdisciplinary key concepts and disciplinary related concepts. As students spiral through the conceptual curriculum, they gain depth through the threads of macro-concepts, and they gain breadth by exploring relationships between the interdisciplinary key concepts through the disciplinary related concepts. See the example in the illustration below.

The conceptual spiral in the IB continuum

The conceptual spiral in the IB continuum

Similarly, there is a recursive spiral of approaches to learning skills in the continuum. If we take just one skill: analyse, we are able to see the spiral of this skill in the continuum’s programme of inquiry.

Skills spiral in the continuum.

Skills spiral in the continuum.

The curriculum might not be linear after all. Learning in the continuum follows this recursive inquiry cycle.

IB learning cycle in MPYPH (2008) and FPIP (2014).

IB learning cycle in MPYPH (2008) and FPIP (2014).

The suggestion here is that there are mini-curriculum cycles in the units we teach, and we use the inquiry cycles to spiral through conceptual understanding and skill acquisition and rehearsal in the unit.

As we move into the subject overview, we might find that the units spiral learning through the conceptual and skills framework in tandem, through the use of a learning cycle in the subject.

If we connect all the subject overviews and tease out the conceptual threads and skills development threads out of these, we may find ourselves creating a spiraling curriculum, delivered through inquiry and constructivist approaches, inclusive of and providing multiple pathways to understanding and mastery for all learners.


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