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.


Using visible thinking to inform reporting


Another round of reports over and done with.

One of the easiest parts of the reports to write this session was our unit of inquiry.

In the past I’d be pouring over rubrics, student work and tearing my brain for memories of classroom conversations.

This year I used the data the children had gathered through doodlecasting and they were the easiest comments to write.

No longer was I just using artefacts of what the kids have ‘done’ but what the kids think about what they’ve created. Hearing the children explain in their own words about the concepts gave me a really clear picture in my head of the child when writing their comments.

I wish I had a way to link the comments to the evidence of the children’s learning directly into the reports to add an extra dimension to my observations.

#raisingstandards – asking the wrong questions

IMG_2880.PNGA wise educator once told me that learning isn’t about knowing the answer. It’s about being able to ask really good questions.

So here’s a $250 million question.

How has the implementation of National Standards improved learning in New Zealand?

The short answer is not a lot.

The argument given at the time was that schools needed better tools to help them identify struggling students and parents needed greater clarity about their child’s progress.

Instead we’ve ended up with more confusion to the point where the Ministry of Education has had to issue a clarification to address misconceptions about the National standards.

  • Parents don’t actually understand the standards and mistake them for norm-referenced standardised tests.
  • The standards were drawn up with such speed that there wasn’t much time to ensure they were developmentally appropriate before they were rolled out.
  • Mid-year judgements about being ‘at standard’ are actually a projection on the child being at standard at the end of the year.
  • How the standardised assessments teachers routinely use align with National Standards.

The most infuriating part of watching the National Standards from afar is that the data that identifies areas for improvement within the New Zealand system was available. The time and money spent on getting schools to identify children in need of support – which is all National Standards do – could have been spent on improving classroom practice. Instead, the amount of time both in terms of classroom instructional time and teacher preparation time is being spent on assessment.

So instead of asking ‘how can we raise educational standards?’ here are some better questions.

How are teacher/parent concerns about children’s learning addressed? What supports do teachers and schools need to help individual children and groups of children they have identified as under-achieving?

What do schools and teachers need to be doing differently to address the learning needs of low-income students as well as Maori and Pasifika students? What support will they need to be successful?

What school systems have been successful in keeping children engaged in learning? How might we apply the features to the New Zealand context?

How might we get boys engaged in reading and writing for pleasure? What in school and out of school factors might we need to overcome?

What actions are we taking to retain and develop teachers over the course of their careers? How effectively does the school system develop and utilise teacher expertise?

What factors outside of school contribute to educational under-achievement? What actions could other government departments take to reduce barriers to learning?

A cursory glance at the educational headlines suggest the questions are being asked. But the answer can’t just be to raise standards.

Post Script – A quick word on reports 

For the amount of time and effort that goes into school reports, it is disheartening to see that how many parents don’t understand them. This isn’t a New Zealand problem. As an international school teacher I  read report comments from various jurisdictions. Even as a writer of my own school reports, I often struggle to really understand report comments until after the child has been in the class a few weeks.

Part of is the standardized nature of reports. By the time the data has been analysed, judgements moderated, comments written, proofread, approved and finally issued to parents there’s a 4-6 weeks lag time between the observation and the official report.

That’s half a term worth of learning.

Parent evenings are crucial as it’s a time to ask questions about progress and clarify concerns. Instead of teacher time being spent writing reports in isolation from the child and their parents, more face to fact contact and conversation should be happening more frequently.

Right back to report writing for me…

We value what we assess

We value what we assess.

Students are still sitting exit examinations through pencil and paper.

So we keep assessing kids through pencil and paper from a very young age.

Yet does this make a child a writer?

My students write digitally and on paper. Some have strong preferences while others migrate between the two.

A child might plan her ideas on paper and then draft a story on a computer.

Some might do all their planning, drafting and writing online while others might keep to paper.

The children who find writing with technology  turns a light on for them as a writer are just as fascinating to me as a teacher as the ones who don’t enjoy using technology to write.

One group will have their needs met at school, the other will likely not as the process of writing is boiled down to ‘how much information you can succinctly write in 3 hours.’

Yet if children are to be competent writers, they need to be able to write across a variety of mediums.

How might we better involve parents in inquiry? #pypinnovation

One of the challengeIMG_0036s in transforming learning in schools is taking our parental community with us on the journey. Parent experience of school  can be a strong influence on how they view learning.

In order to overcome this challenge, schools give information evenings, have student-led conferences and showcase learning at mini-exhibitions.

Traditionally we’ve waited until the end of the unit for children to showcase learning at mini-exbibtions. The children love the oppourtunity to share what they’ve been learing about in school with their parents and the parents love hearing about the children’s experiences and seeing learning artefacts. The problem with the showcase approach is parents are passive recpients of a child’s learning journey rather than taking an active role in the process.

How might we better involve parents in the process of inquiry?

This unit  my class are exploring ‘Markets connect people with products’ with a focus on students developing businesses.  Instead of waiting until the end of unit market day for the parents to come in, we invited parents in halfway through a unit of inquiry for the children to pitch a business idea to their parental investors.

There were several advantages to moving up the mini-exhibition to half way through the a unit of inquiry

  1. The children get a chance to tap into the expertise – there are many businesspeople in our parent community who offer that insight into how the real world of business works.
  2. Less pressure on the kids as there is no need for perfect artefacts of learning to showcase.
  3. The adults get an authentic oppourtunitiy to offer detailed, personalised feedback.
  4. The children get a chance to act on detailed, personalised feedback.
  5. Home learning is highly relevant as the parents work with the children to take action on their discussion.

The quality of the interactions with the children and parents was tremendous – with more of a focus on ‘where to from here?’ as families developed plans and offered recommendations to help the children to make their businesses a success. We also had several parents offer up their expertise over the comming few weeks as mentors as the children prepare for a market day.

If schools want parents to better understand inquiry learning, then we need to provide authentic opportunities for parents to be involved in the learning process.

Mind ‘the gap’

The children I teach have been in school a few years. Conventional wisdom dictates that there is a long list of milestones the children should hit over the course of this year.

Yet for some kids these milestones are absurd. The ones who long ago hit the learning targets are seen as doing more than ok. Then there’s another group of kids who may toil away all year and not get close to meeting them. These kids will be the subject of  numerous interventions  and extra time to get them back on target.

Yet when all is said and done, while academic progress is important a bigger gap must be closed. The perception gap. See even after just a few years at school some kids are figuring out those learning thing is not for them. What comes so easily for some, feels like an endurance event for others. Through the slog it can hard to point to progress.

If there’s one thing I want all the children to leave my class with, it is a belief that they can learn. They should all be able to point to victories over the year and know there is a gap between who they were at the start of the year and who they are now. That’s a gap worth minding…

What happens after the provocation?

Something I know I do well as a teacher is to provide a strong context for learning. There are thoughtful provocations to kids engaged and thinking however my big problem is follow through.

I’m wondering how do I sustain meaningful and personalised learning throughout the Unit of Inquiry?

During the provocation I collected a lot of data. I videoed the kids and edited that down into a movie. I also had the children record their own reflection of the day.

From there I moved into spreadsheet mode.Through giving group and individual feedback I identifiedL

Whole class teaching points –  placement, planning, connecting with buyers

Groups – developing products, teamwork, developing knowledge of unique products and services

Individuals – bouncing back from failure,  specific communication needs (listening, negotiating)

Over the course of this unit there will be opportunities for me to:

  • Plan mini-provocations to help children develop attitudes and skills, connect with experts, field trips
  • Group work – at different stages of company formation
  • Individual conferences around specific issues

Stay tuned…