Learning – Who gets to define success?

@sherrattsam threw some serious shade into the conversations around rubrics. I’ve got a fair number of criticisms of rubrics. 

  • Children who, despite their best efforts, were still at the lowest point of the rubric. Classroom culture can mitigate this.
  • Children who go beyond expanding that still need to be challenged.
  • Rubrics full of language that the children didn’t understand (and if I’m honest, at times, I didn’t really understand either)
  • Selective reading of rubrics. Small font sizes and large blocks of texts. Our rubrics are often not child-friendly. Why are we surprised that the children often end up looking at the top column and giving the rest of the rubric a cursory glance at best?

When I look at the underlying problem, it’s that the definition of success is owned by the teachers. We’re the ones writing the rubrics, often with very little input from our students. As a result, rubrics can be narrow paths for the learners to passively follow.

What about reconceptualising a rubric a compass?

A compass enables flexibility to wander down unexpected paths. An opportunity to embrace the unknown while still heading in the same direction.


But how will the children know what way is north?

Take time to co-construct the success criteria. 

What might success look like from your students perspective? Go beyond just pulling out old pieces of work and picking them apart.

Start with the end

Our current Unit of Inquiry involves the children setting up a business. Instead of the summative task being at the end of the unit, the children had a chance to create a business right at the start unit. Not everything went according to plan, budgets were blown, disagreements erupted and sales weren’t met. A lot of this action was caught on camera and became an object to reflect on later. When it came time to discuss success, the children were speaking from a place of concrete experience.

Bring in the outside experts – kids who have done the unit before!


As part of this unit, we set up a panel of successful Year 5 business people to talk to the current group of Year 4s. For 40 minutes the Year 5s answered student-generated questions from the Year 4s. They shared not only their own experiences of the unit but made connections to other children’s experiences in their cohort.

A true win-win.

The younger children heard in true child-speak, a definition of successful learning. The older children had an opportunity to reflect on learning from over 12 months ago, further deepening their learning from that unit. As a teacher, there is no great joy than hearing children from previous years articulating their learning.

Think beyond your own school 


Maybe you are starting a brand new unit. Chances are, there’s a school out there who has run a similar unit. Reach out to your own network. I knew from twitter, that the International School of Ho Chi Minh City runs a similar unit as part of their PYP exhibition.  @OrenjiButa was very kind and organised a Flipgrid where my students could use an asynchronous video chat to answer questions. Engaging with children from outside our learning context enables our unit at school to move beyond ‘we’ve always done it this way’ thinking. 

To make these exercises worthwhile, take time to notice and name those behaviours that you notice

Parents – don’t wait until the end of the unit

Dragon's Den

Rather than have the parents in at the end of the unit to passively listen to a finished report or business. The children pitched their ideas to their potential investors early in the process. This enabled the parents to give detailed feedback and the children gained another perspective on success.

This process took a lot of time, far more than a meeting trying to construct a rubric. Taking time to notice and name successful behaviour, from students both in your class and the invited guests. Taking on parent feedback to adapt criteria.

But the result was a shared understanding from teachers, parents and individual students of what the unit was about, where the children were heading and how they were going to get there.

With nothing but a compass to guide us along the way.


#internationalwomensday – instead of platitudes take action

A few weeks ago, I helped to prepare a document for my school. The document had lots of photos of children. As part of the final proof, the principal went back and counted up the children appearing to check for gender diversity. It was a small action but something that communicated a bigger idea – equality matters to me.

I have often wondered about the disconnect that happens in education. It’s a workforce dominated by women. Yet when I look at conference keynotes, heads of school, educational ‘thought leaders’ featured in the media and yes, even on twitter, there are a lot of men sharing their thoughts and, more importantly, having their thoughts shared.

Instead of appreciating women once a year on women’s day – why not take action for the rest of the year?

Follow female educators* on twitter, share blogs written women educators, particularly those from different backgrounds. If you notice a lack of diversity at a conference, let the organizers know that this a problem they need to fix. If you’ve got a lack of women in leadership positions, give time, space and encouragement to sharing their expertise.

Because here’s the thing.

If you are the one worrying about equality, then you aren’t the one with the power. Having to monitor, agitate and aggravate just to get a seat at the table “counts” as having to do “extra” work just to get your voice heard.

But if we all do a little bit, well we might find things go ‘zoop’ in the other direction.

Here’s a list of awesome educators to get you going:



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Classroom eye candy – does it really help with learning?

A few weeks ago, my class made a large wave machine out of jelly babies and skewers as a provocation of a unit of inquiry into energy.


We did some maths figuring out how many skewers and jelly babies we would need and how much they cost. We made the Jellybaby machine. One of the kids made a bold prediction that if we removed the jelly babies the wave would move faster. What better way to model the scientific method and use tally charts by gradually eating the candy?  The kids decided they wanted to share their learning with the other Year 4 classes, so they created a book with instructions to make a wave machine.

70  kids and  12 bags of candy.

The chaos was unreal.

Nevertheless, one of the teachers salvaged a wave machine which has been dangling in the middle of a learning space for the last two months.


The crazy thing?

All the candy is still attached!

Once the novelty of the experiment wore off, the candy became just another classroom furniture.

This got me thinking about classroom wall displays.

Some teachers invest a lot of time and money into decorating their classrooms. Visible thinking routines are placed carefully around the boards. But just like this candy dangling in the middle of the room, it can easily be forgotten if it isn’t referred back to frequently.

Essential agreements are meaningful only if we give it meaning by talking about them.

Visible thinking routines are only useful if we use the data to inform next learning steps.

Our attitudes and learner profile are just words on the wall if teachers aren’t there to guide and model them.

A growth mindset isn’t the result of pretty borders and cute clip art. It happens when teachers showcase learning as a process rather than as a glossy product.

This isn’t an argument against spending time making learning spaces inviting nor preclude space being used to stimulate curiosity and wonder.

However, just like candy, classroom displays can be a quick sugar hit. Something to look at once and ignore or you can use the space to really develop a culture of thinking.

Viral handshakes and icebergs


The iceberg is a useful metaphor to explore complexity.

I often use it with my students as a way to help them develop a more nuanced understanding of a difficult concept.

For instance, spelling and handwriting are at the tip of a writing iceberg. Surface writing errors are easy for adults and children to spot and often simple to fix. With support, children learn to start thinking about their ideas, audience and structure. Features hidden below the surface but integral to good writing.

And also good learning.

Teaching is like an iceberg.

To the untrained eye, a room of quiet learners is a productive classroom. Good teachers know this is not always the case. If you dip below the surface, a classroom on the verge of chaos could be full of children deeply engaged in their learning. A well-designed learning engagement represents many hours of pinpointing key concepts, developing engaging contexts, and most importantly developing a classroom culture of inquiry in order to add intellectual depth to children’s learning. This world is largely hidden to most non-educators. Conversely, actions that non-teachers get excited about are often ones that have little impact on student learning.

Like viral handshakes.

If we look beyond the meme:

  • Is the handshake the start of a day where the children are active or will they be sitting in their pre-assigned seat until home time?
  • Are the children going to be collaborating with each other or are all interactions moderated by the teacher?
  • Are the children learning to identify their next steps or do they spend time waiting in line for the teacher to check their work? (HT @whatedsaid)
  • Do children get a chance to pursue their individual interests and inquiries or will they all be following a textbook for the rest of the day?
  • Is the learning engaging and meaningful for the children or is it content that is going to be quickly forgotten after the test?
  • Does the teacher talk more than he or she listens?
  • Do the children ask questions that develop their understanding or procedural questions at the tip of the learning iceberg?
  • Do we as teachers take time to look below the surface of ‘good news’ education stories and reflect on the deeper features before hitting share?


What is your new year question? #oneword2017

Over the last few years, I’ve committed myself to the same resolution when the calendar changes to January 1. I will go to bed before 11.This is a simple goal and has a noticeable impact on my well-being.

Yet here I am mid-January wide awake and typing away on the computer at 11.30 pm.

Holidays lull every teacher into thinking we have superhero stamina. The enforced downtime enables time for reflection and results in a desire to don a cape on return to the classroom.

The result?


  1. Do less talking and more listening to my students.
  2. Set a timer on my watch to make transitions smoother.
  3. Email class parents with positive anecdotes about their child at least once a week
  4. Set aside time each week to make awesome wall displays of student learning.
  5. Sort out that pile of papers sitting in my filing cabinet by Friday.
  6. Get back into the habit of blogging at least once a week.

The first week of teaching reminds teachers we are mortal. By Thursday I’d broken resolution 1 and 2. Those papers will be mocking me from filing cabinet at the end of the year. By the end of the next holiday, I’ll come up with a similar mental shopping list of SMART targets.

As an inquiry teacher, I wondered why do we routinely make resolutions we don’t keep?

  • Procrastination.  Why did I wait until the holidays to decide I needed to take action?
  • Direction. What might this action achieve? Is it really worth spending my precious time on?
  • Practicality. What’s stopped me from taking action in the past? How might I achieve this goal? What might I need to stop doing?

Then the answer came to me.

Cellar Door.

Drawing on Kath Murdoch’s one word intentionally and Amy Burvall’s visual metaphor, cellar door is a euphonious metaphor for my new year question.

How might I ask more beautiful questions?

What is inquiry, if not the art of creating a more beautiful question?




The language of inquiry

We’re taking time to read a poem. There’s some difficult language.

“I see ‘faux pas,’ I am curious what it means..” muses one boy.

Several classmates immediately pipe up.

“It’s French..”

“Pas means not, so it’s not something…”

“I wonder, what is ‘faux’?”

In the background I ponder the first student’s use of language. He didn’t say “I don’t know” he saw something and was curious. He invited a conversation not about the right answer, but on making connections to prior knowledge and opening up further questioning.

And now I had a question.

How often do teachers hear the phrase “I don’t know” each day?

  • “I don’t know how to spell …”
  • “I don’t know where my book is.”
  • “I don’t know how to put a title on my iMovie…”

Did you spot the pattern? It’s of dependence, not curiosity. It’s a child looking for a fix, usually from an adult. What has the child learned by asking that question? When they sound the “I don’t know” alarm all they need to do is wait for the firetruck to show up.

Today’s interaction made me wonder.

As a teacher am I both arsonist and the firefighter by quickly answering the “I don’t know..” alarm with a “how might we find out…?”

“I am curious” invites conversation and genuine collaboration. The phrase creates an environment for children to make connections to their ideas and those of their peers.  It enables children to be an active participant in constructing meaning rather than relying on the teacher for the answer.

As an inquiry teacher I used to think that inquiry meant harnessing the power of the “I don’t know.”

Now I think developing a culture where children take time to see and reflect on what they see before they think and wonder breathes life into that PYP attitude of curiosity hanging on the wall.


What does your blog really say about learning?

I need to blog.

After spending nearly 18 months forcing myself to update daily, I haven’t posted in 5 months.

Like Royan, I don’t quite feel right when I’m not blogging yet I also struggle with putting my thoughts out there for others to read.

I could blame being busy with teaching, masters study, lack of ideas etc. but the truth is I had a big case of writer’s stage fright.

The nature of the online edusphere has changed in the last few years. Less conversational and more personal branding.

  • Quotes in stock images.
  • Pinterest worthy infographics.
  • Auto-tweets of content.
  • 5 quick steps to classroom bliss.
  • Instagramworthy learning moments.

Sharing online feels more like it needs to be more polished. Conversational thoughts of ‘I tried something and this what I learned’  are often tempered with ‘if I’m asking someone to give me their attention, the content should be worth it…’

And even that word, content, sends shivers up my spine.

For me, teaching is a craft. A constant work in progress, not a series of beautiful updates. We should be telling our stories but also questioning our practice. Not just in our heads but also in the online sphere.

  • When was the last time you shared a #teacherfail and what you learned from it?
  • How do you document the shifts in your practice? Do you take the time to share the bumps or just the successes?
  • When did you question another person’s practice online?
  • What does your online presence really say about learning?