Friday, June 2, 2023

Weekend Project: Using Poe to Create Your Own Chatbot

I've been using Poe for a few months now. It's basically an AI chatbot app that uses big data from ChatGPT and Claude, and allows you to create your own chatbot (for free!) by creating a filter for specific purposes. I've seen some fun ones like someone who created a "meow chatbot" that replies to prompts with all kinds of cat-like replies. Useless but fun. Other creative examples are the "Talk to a Pirate" chatbot, the Emoji translator app that translates messages into emojis 😏, or even the Japanese tutor that helps you learn Japanese.

Here are a few of the existing bots people created (which can be found and played with on the app itself):

So I decided to try it out on my own. My goal was to create a chatbot that would introduce users to beautiful poetry from around the world. The results- a fun informative chatbot that will share great poetry!

Here I'll walk you through the super simple process of creating your own chatbot:

  1. Download the app
  2. Log in
  3. Tap the "hamburger menu" (those three horizontal lines at the top left corner)
  4. Click "Create a bot"
  5. Give your bot a name (the URL will eventually be, "")
  6. Describe the bot (optional)- What is your bot "specializing in"? You can read description samples above. This was mine: "Find great poetry to fill up your time, space and mood."
  7. Choose a base bot (Claude-instant or ChatGPT)- Read for more information about each below
  8. Toggle to choose if you'd like your prompt (see next step) to be visible to viewers when they use your bot
  9. Create your prompt- This is where you make your bot focus on whatever you choose. See example below.
  10. Create an intro message- This is the initial greeting you will see when you open the chatbot. Depending on your purpose, it could be funny, explanatory, etc. You can also give users options to choose from. Again, see my choices below.
  11. Preview your bot
  12. Review and test
  13. Share with the world!
That's it. Here are some screenshots of my "Your Poetry Bot" chatbot creation:

The different bot bases you can choose from: After experimenting a bit, I chose ChatGPT as my base.

My intro message: "Hi there, I’m here to help you find wonderful poetry. Let’s get started. Would you like me to share a poem based on: 1. Topic/theme 2. Poet 3. Language 4. Other 5. A randomly great poem Please make your selection for the magic to begin."

My prompt: "You are a resource for those who seek to find great poetry from around the world. You like diversity so you offer a variety of poets. You will question users by asking them what type of poetry they would like to read, if they have any preferences (such as theme, poet, mood, region, time, etc). The poem you choose to share must be absolutely fantastic- deep meanings yet contain simple descriptions. Begin by briefly introducing the poet and share one fun fact about him/her."

Additional options (I'd just decide if you want the bot to suggest replies or not):

Finally, a note about choosing a bot:

Overall, according to my research and experience, ChatGPT (from OpenAI) seems to be better when it comes to coding problems, result explanations and general output formatting, while Claude (From Google's Anthropic) is better with creative tasks, following instructions, trivia questions and prompt injections. Also, it seems that Claude is "less likely to produce harmful outputs" and is “easier to converse with.” (from The Verge).

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Reflection: Best Practices in Education: Reading Instruction

Reading Instruction

In this blog entry, I am sharing the summary of a podcast series that examines some of the instructional strategies and tools many educators (including myself...) have been using to teach and assess reading and writing. I must say that listening to this podcast has both shocked and awed me, and I feel it is extremely important to share this with others. To be clear, my goal here is to reflect upon and refine my own practice to more powerfully impact my own students' growth by examining research-based strategies.

Enter Sold a Story...

I begin my dive into reading instruction with an American Public Media 6-episode podcast. It was created, researched, and narrated by Emily Hanford, and is called "Sold a Story". It is basically her research on how children learn to read, how reading is taught, and why some students struggle. To quickly get us on the same page, here are summaries of the six episodes (taken from the author's summaries on Spotify):

  • 1: The Problem: Corinne Adams watches her son's lessons during Zoom school and discovers a dismaying truth: He can't read. Little Charlie isn't the only one. Sixty-five percent of fourth graders in the United States are not proficient readers. Kids need to learn specific skills to become good readers, and in many schools, those skills are not being taught.
  • 2: The Idea: Sixty years ago, Marie Clay developed a way to teach reading she said would help kids who were falling behind. They’d catch up and never need help again. Today, her program remains popular and her theory about how people read is at the root of a lot of reading instruction in schools. But Marie Clay was wrong.
  • 3: The Battle: President George W. Bush made improving reading instruction a priority. He got Congress to provide money to schools that used reading programs supported by scientific research. But backers of Marie Clay’s cueing idea saw Bush’s Reading First initiative as a threat.
  • 4: The Superstar: Teachers sing songs about Teachers College Columbia professor Lucy Calkins. She’s one of the most influential people in American elementary education today. Her admirers call her books bibles. Why didn't she know that scientific research contradicted the reading strategies she promoted?
  • 5: The Company: Teachers call books published by Heinemann their "bibles." The company's products are in schools all over the country. Some of the products used to teach reading are rooted in a debunked idea about how children learn to read. But they've made the company and some of its authors millions.
  • 6: The Reckoning: Lucy Calkins says she has learned from the science of reading. She's revised her materials. Fountas and Pinnell have not revised theirs. Their publisher, Heinemann, is still selling some products to teach reading that contain debunked practices. Parents, teachers and lawmakers want answers. In our final episode, we try to get some answers.

*** Complement this reading with: Emily Hanford’s collected reporting on reading


“Sold a Story” podcast, Episode TK (TK, 2020).

Friday, March 10, 2023

Reflection: Best Practices in Education: Prologue: Why Bother?

Throughout my 20+ year career as an educator, I have had the privilege of working with inspiring educators and receiving professional development from thought leaders in education, psychology, social and cognitive science, technology, and more. However, I recently began questioning some of the "progressive" or "innovative" practices that I have learned, implemented and even taught others throughout my journey.

My reflections on the relationship between "best practices" and "innovation" were triggered by my experience at a forward-thinking educational institution where teacher freedom in teaching and learning was encouraged. Upon receiving my new class in August, I realized that my students were lacking basic skills, such as literacy, self-management, and understanding of processes, which were assumed in other schools I have worked at.

This made me realize that innovation must be defined, agreed upon, planned, and contained to create an institution that pushes boundaries while ensuring our students have the necessary skills to lead a successful life. Why contain innovation? Because the more we innovate, the less we teach what we know works well. Therefore, finding a balance between "Highly Effective" and "Learning Progressive" is essential to continue finding the best ways to serve our students (I wrote about this balance here)

although I am fascinated with the ways in which AI will affect humanity and the field of education in particular, I am going to work hard to go on a hunt for some educators and cognitive scientists who are making it a point to always look for instructional strategies that have demonstrated significant research-based evidence, examine their work, and reflect on my own practice.

I invite you to join me on this journey, and if you have any thoughts, ideas, comments, or suggestions, please share them with me.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Joining the ChatGPT Conversation: #1- Limitations***

As an educator, I have always been interested in the ways technology can enhance the classroom experience for students. In recent years, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been gaining more attention in the field of education and I have been keen to explore the potential of these tools to support student learning. As I researched more about AI tools, I realized that it is crucial to start by understanding the limitations of these tools before we can fully explore their potential. With this in mind, I decided to re-start my blog writing and share my insights on the topic.

ChatGPT is one such AI tool that has caught my attention. It is a large language model developed by OpenAI that can generate human-like text based on the patterns it learned from the data it was trained on. While it can be a powerful tool for students to generate text, it's important to be aware of its limitations and to use it in a way that is beneficial to student learning.

If you're not sure what ChatGPT is, here is a short introduction:

In this post, I'll be discussing some of the limitations of ChatGPT and how they can be addressed in the classroom.

Issue 1: Data Bias 

"The real risk with AI isn't malice but competence. A superintelligent AI will be extremely good at accomplishing its goals, and if those goals aren't aligned with ours, we're in trouble." - Nick Bostrom, philosopher, and scientist
One of the biggest limitations of ChatGPT is that it is only as good as the data it was trained on. If the training data contains biases, the model will likely reproduce those biases in its output. For example, if a student uses ChatGPT to generate a persuasive essay on a current event, and the model was trained on a dataset that contains a disproportionate number of perspectives from one political party, the essay may contain bias towards that party. To mitigate this, students should be made aware of the potential for bias in the model and encouraged to seek out multiple perspectives on a topic before using ChatGPT.

Issue 2: Lack of Context

"Context is the key to understanding" - Dr. Seuss
ChatGPT is a language model, not a context model. It lacks the ability to understand and interpret the context of a given input, which can lead to inaccuracies or misinterpretations. For example, when students use ChatGPT to summarize a historical event, they may receive a factually correct summary, but it may not be the most relevant or nuanced summary given the context of the event. To address this limitation, students can be taught to consider the context of the information they are using and to fact-check the information generated by ChatGPT.

Issue 3: Lack of Domain Expertise 

"Expertise is the weightless, all-purpose panacea of the sentient" - Douglas Adams

While ChatGPT can generate text on a wide range of topics, it does not have the same level of expertise as a human in any specific domain. Therefore, students may not always receive accurate or detailed information when using ChatGPT for research. For example, when students use ChatGPT to generate a report on a scientific topic, they may receive information that is not entirely accurate or current. To address this limitation, students can be taught to verify the information generated by ChatGPT with multiple sources and to consult subject-matter experts when necessary.

 Issue 4: Creativity 

"The key to creativity is to begin with the end in mind and then never stop" - Dr. Edward de Bono

ChatGPT is based on patterns it learned from the data it was trained on, it can generate text that is similar to examples it has seen before, but it does not have the ability to create something truly new or original. For example, when students use ChatGPT to generate a poem, it might generate a poem that is similar to examples it has seen before, but it will not be something truly unique or creative. To address this limitation, students can be encouraged to use ChatGPT as a tool to generate ideas, but to also use their own creativity and originality to develop their work. 

 Issue 5: Common Sense

"Common sense is not so common" - Voltaire 

ChatGPT is not capable of understanding common sense, it can generate text based on the patterns it learned, but it may not be able to make sense of certain situations which involve common sense reasoning. For example, when students use ChatGPT to generate a story it may not understand the story's plot and might generate something that doesn't make sense. To address this limitation, students can be taught to review the output generated by ChatGPT for logical consistency and common sense reasoning before using it. 

Issue 6: Consistency

"Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative" - Oscar Wilde
ChatGPT is a statistical language model, it can generate responses based on the patterns it learned, but it might not always give the same answer to the same question. For example, when students use ChatGPT to generate a summary of a text, it might generate different summaries for the same text. To address this limitation, students can be taught to review the output generated by ChatGPT for consistency before using it. 

Friday, May 31, 2019

My R&D Journey: Planning the Personalized Learning Experience

In previous blog posts I wrote about the lessons I've learned from my school visits in China (Reflections On “The Best PD Ever!”- Design at ISB and Reflections on "The Best PD Ever!"- ISB's Futures Academy). These experiences marked the beginning of my Research and Development journey. My last blog post, Research and Development: Lessons from a School Visit, outlined the creation of the R&D team, our visits to schools in California, and the important takeaways from those experiences.

In this blog post, I share my perspective and experiences throughout the Research and Development journey- from its inception, through the planning, to pre-implementation phase at the Elementary School level.
The R&D Journey
Our journey began with our new Head of School’s vision for our school- to become a place where students get equipped with the necessary skills to live in and be our best “with Africa and our world”. Based on Dr. Stuart’s own research and experiences, that meant that pedagogically speaking, our school is to possess a balance between “Highly Effective” and “Learning Progressive” (see definitions and more in this blog post). To move in that direction, the R&D team was created, with two tasks:
  1. to design an experience, develop the plan, and train teachers for the implementation of the ICS personalized learning experience for May and June of 2019”; and,
  2. create a cohesive and aligned six-week personalized learning pathway experience for grades 1-11 ICS students
The ICS R7D Team's "WHY" Statement


The first part of our journey was composed of researching different schools, educational programs, philosophies and systems, and extracting important elements elements to include in our “recipe”. From going on school visits, to reviewing published literature, from participating in Twitter chats to stalking school websites and teacher blogs, the R&D members tirelessly shared, debated, and arrived at agreements as to what constitutes a balanced school and what we should include in our program (given the constraints of the PYP and IBDP programs).


Although initially we thought in terms of “blowing up the system” and re-creating an “ideal school” from scratch, we (at the Elementary School) quickly arrived at the conclusion that in order to create something that will be successfully implemented (in the short term) and will take our division forward (in the long term), we needed to go slowly. To make small changes and at the same time to focus on pedagogy: moving from a more traditional teacher-student relationship and teacher-directed content to more student-driven education- one that promotes student agency and allows for the students to develop the dispositions, knowledge and skills to become Master Learners (in the spirit of “learning how to learn”).

Here is what we, as the ES R&D team members (Eunice Yun and myself), together with our Co-Principals Mrs. Susan Ballantyne and Mr. David Callaway, decided to implement in our ES PLEx:

IBPYP Framework:

As a PYP school, honoring the requirements of the PYP was a non-negotiable. Believing that the existing inquiry-based and thematic framework of the PYP is an effective way to teach and learn, we decided to keep the framework, focus on improving the teaching, and adding important elements we believed were missing from the PYP.
Student Agency:

This was to be the guiding principle we were to maximize during PLEx. Everything we were to design would lead to students determining their desired outcomes (voice), would allow them a variety of pathways (choice), and would eventually lead to students taking responsibility and owning their learning (ownership). The entry point was for students to spend ample time discovering and discussing their interests and passions in a general way, and once teachers break down the Transdisciplinary Theme and the Central Idea, to hone in on those interests, and to embed them into the unit plans.
IBPYP: Agency

Emphasis Shift from Product to Process:

Instead of focusing on the end results, we decided to add value and emphasize the process. This was to manifest in different important ways:

  1. Teaching and Learning: We put structures in place (instructional time, modification or requirements, example documentation, and teacher/student training opportunities) to assist and remind teachers of the important of the process. We encouraged teachers to “go slow to go fast”- to spend time on systems, structures, and procedures in order to ensure students are equipped with the understanding and skills to ask meaningful questions, to thoroughly plan their inquiries, to research at their developmental levels, and to do their best to make an impact on their world. At the same time, teachers were to de-emphasize the importance of a “perfect” final product and instead, to encourage students to create prototypes and models to explain their thinking and learning process. 
  2. Documentation and Reflection: Students are to use Seesaw as the platform for ongoing documentation and reflection (3 times weekly). We built into the schedule about 40 minutes for daily planning each morning and 20 minutes for reflections each afternoon. 
  3. Reporting: We shifted the focus of reporting from the report card to ongoing Seesaw documents. We informed the parents from the get-go that at the end of the unit, students will have a generic report card comment (for unit #6) that refers them back to the ongoing Seesaw documentation and reflection. We hoped that parents would participate in the conversation through commenting on their child’s work in a timely and authentic manner. Since we left the reporting window open until the end of the year, teachers (if so they desire) would be able to add individualized comments on student performance during PLEx.

Learning and Processes:

Although our brains prefer to think of processes in a linear way, learning is nothing but linear. We decided to use our school’s new Learning Process (which our new Research Process also matches), add reversed arrows, and break down each stage into manageable steps. This, we believed, would provide teachers with sufficient structure to anchor the teaching and learning journey as they guide students from the Discovery stage to the final reflection and presentation pieces.

The PLEx Learning Process and Stages

ATLs (Approaches to Learning):

An emphasis on 21 Century Skills was a top candidate for inclusion. We ended up using the ATLs (formerly “Transdisciplinary Skills”) from the IBPYP and adapting/creating existing progressions from Singapore American School and the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (2016). After a long discussion and rigorous work, we decided to focus on 4 ATLs (Thinking, Research, Self-Management, and Communication skills), which we broke down into 11 sub-skills (the original Enhanced PYP ATLs have 39 sub-skills!) The reasoning behind narrowing down sub-skills was twofold:
  • Due to their importance, we wanted the ATLs to serve as a common thread throughout the school (ES, MS, and HS), and since the MS and HS created a more individualized journey, they insisted that Social Skills would be too difficult to assess.
  • We wanted students and teachers to dig deep into these important ATLs, as they will be taught explicitly and regularly, and students/teachers would discuss placement on each progression throughout the Personalized Learning Experience (“PLEx”).
    Sample ATL Progression: Research


We decided to use pathways as a tool for sorting students, staff, community members, and spaces to optimize learning. However, after agreeing to have four specific pathways for all three divisions, we (in the ES) realized that with the requirements of the PYP (to use the TD Theme and Central Idea), adding another specific way to sort students would create too many restrictions. After sharing and discussing this with teachers, we decided to keep four pathways, but let teaching teams decide what the four would be based on the nature of their student interests, projects, concepts, outcomes, or a combination of them. 
The original Pathways

Learner Readiness:

Noting the benefits of brain and body readiness, we decided to embed 20 minutes in the daily schedule for students to focus on exercise and mindfulness. Our fantastic PE teachers, Heather Kea and Michael Holton, led an engaging and persuasive teacher workshop that included the research behind the benefits of increased heart rate and mindfulness to student learning. Heather and Michael also created a Google Slide full of ideas and options for students and teachers to choose from.

Sample Learning Readiness Activities Slide 

Community involvement:

An important element we identified in both the school visits and our research, we looked for ways to include parents and the greater community in the teaching and learning. As a first step, we decided to use Seesaw as a communication platform between parents and their children. We also created “PLEx Volunteer Forms”, and together with our Office of Communication, shared it with teachers, parents, and the greater community. Our aim was to create a database of parents and the greater community, so that they can participate in PLEx, but also to use it in the long terms for other projects in the future.

Mathematics & Reading:

Finally, for various reasons, we decided to exclude Math from PLEx and to allot one hour daily for math instruction. Honoring the importance and benefits of daily reading, and allowing teachers to (1) connect with their students in topics other than PLEx, and (2) provide mini-lessons and other needed interventions to individual students, we decided to include about 30 minutes of reading to the daily schedule. 

Sample Suggested Daily Schedule

Teacher Training:

An essential element of PLEx was to ensure that all teachers understand the structures and expectations during PLEx. To do that, in the schedule, we had two half days and one full day dedicated to teacher training. On top of that, each division’s R&D members negotiated with our division’s administrators additional training times during our regular Wednesday Professional Learning Community (PLC) time.

To structure these trainings, we made sure to consider:
  • Looking at the big picture and overarching structures, such as “What is PLEx?”, the ICS Learning Process, the ATLs, etc.;
  • Narrowing into the finer details (i.e., how different stages are broken down);
  • Use of technology (Use of Google Classrooms for grades 3-5, use of Seesaw, online databases for research, etc.);
  • Progressing in more of a linear way (first “Inquiry, then “Action” and ending with “Reflection”);
  • Leading by example- Allowing for teacher agency in every workshop or training, by including a variety of resources, training breakout options, etc.
  • Sharing structures, examples and exemplars for teachers and students (we created a Google Site with lots of information- to explain stages, get students inspired, manage structures, example documents to share with students, and much much more!); and,
  • Most importantly,
    • get ongoing teacher feedback and, when possible, adjust plans and expectations, or focus future trainings on what is really needed;
    • ensure teachers have sufficient time to digest the information, ask questions, express their frustrations, and discuss how each element would work in different teams’ context; and, 
    • for each team to begin planning what PLEx is going to look like, what resources to use, personalize templates, etc.
A Suggestion for PLEx Schedule

What Was Left Out?

One of the most important guidelines we gave ourselves was to not overwhelm teachers. This year has been, and will continue to be busy, and there are many things happening at the end of the school year (Standardized testing, individual reading and writing assessments, step-up ceremonies, art showcases, heightened emotions due to students or teachers leaving, experience with and level of expertise as inquiry-based teachers, etc.). We were very conscious of which existing structures we keep, and what we add during this last part of the year. Here are a few elements we decided to leave out:
  • SEL (Social-Emotional Learning): During our school visits, we were energized by how much attention and emphasis some schools put on social/emotional learning. We looked into bringing in someone from the Nueva school’s SEL Program to share their ideas and plans with us, but unfortunately, we decided to not include SEL as a program for PLEx, and instead work on different related areas through the Learning Readiness program and the ATLs (which, we ended up removing the Social Skills from the list…)
  • Design Thinking Process: As a Design teacher, this was a big challenging for me to accept the exclusion of a structured Design Thinking process to complement all the projects and models students will be creating. Even after researching and creating this slideshow, the final verdict was that adding another unfamiliar structure would be asking too much from our teachers. :-(
  • Specialist Integration: In a highly functioning PYP school, you will see the Specialists’ unit plans that are naturally integrated into the homeroom units. As our school strives to continue to educate Specialist teachers on the “Why” and “How” of integration, and re-write unit plans in homerooms and for Specialists to become more inter- and multi-disciplinary, we had to accept that we are not there yet. Specialist teachers having to finish their “own curriculum” forced us to think creatively how we could divert their attention from their own plans to what allows students to see the transdisciplinary aspect of the PYP and their PLEx projects. We shared ideas in regards to altering schedules, grouping students in different ways, offering “PLEx route” and “Non-PLEx route”, and more. We’ll just have to wait and see what will happen when we begin this experience, and reflect and plan something better for the future.

At the beginning of May, we are to begin this exciting and scary journey. I have no doubt that there will be a vast array of experiences and beliefs, and we will reflect on each of those as we support teachers and students throughout this marvelous new journey!

If you have any questions or other inquiries, please feel free to share them. I look forward to engaging in the conversations!

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Passion Projects: Design Your Own Version (After-Thoughts)

I wrote two blog entries about passion projects and how to set it up with students. You can find the posts here (part one) and here (part two). Now it's time to reflect so that the next iteration of passion projects would be more successful.

There is no doubt that learning about, and walking with my students through their first experiences in a more personalized learning setting has been quite demanding but even more rewarding. In order for students to properly 'learn how to learn' and to become the drivers of their educational vehicle, many things must be planned and taught. Here are 4 lessons I've learned from my own experiences:

Go Slow to Go Fast

I can't emphasize enough the importance of properly planning the experience. In previous posts, I wrote with great detail what I did to prepare for this great personalized learning experience. Try to think of everything you can- from tuning into or uncovering students' passions, to guiding them through the research projects, through getting outside experts, to your role and assessments. The more ready you are, the more flexible you will be able to be!

Student Agency

It was quite incredible to see the kids tuning into themselves and taking ownership of their learning. When you let go of expecting one particular outcome, the learners fill in the "holes" with their own interests, and guiding their learning according to their interests, passions, abilities and personalities. Let them be the drivers and you take the role of a researcher- taking note of how each progresses in his/her own pace, how slowly they become better agents of their own learning.  

Fail Forward 

When learners don't get to have a say in their own learning journey, they become detached from their own selves, and this is what the school experience become for them. Once you transfer the steering wheel to them, encouraging them to have a voice and to exercise choice, they inevitably become better and better at identifying their passions and at achieving their goals. When students spend enough time researching something they are not passionate about, they become less and less engaged in it. Talk to them about it, make sure they themselves notice it and act upon it. Let them struggle a bit, and then let them move on to something they are (more) passionate about. Make sure to emphasize the benefits of this learning, and celebrate it! Reflection is extremely necessary and is an excellent tool that would allow them to move forward.

Notice the Learning

As teachers, we sometimes choose to focus on what did not go well. That's OK, as long as you also take the time to reflect on the great things that happen. Students learn so much more than mere facts about their chosen topic/issue. They improve their research skills, their knowledge of issues, make connections to other areas, learn from each other, take risks, and most importantly, they learn about who they are both as learners and humans. The learning experience is absolutely worth it!

Equipped with these new learning, I look forward to designing new experiences to take my students forward.

How about you? What have you learned from designing passion projects for your students? Please share your experiences or questions!

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Research and Development: Lessons from a School Visit

In earlier blog posts, I wrote about school visits I took part in for my new (part-time) position as an ES “Design, Creativity, Innovation” lead-facilitator. The other 50% of my role this year, as I also mentioned, was to be a part of my school’s Research and Development (R&D) team. In this blog post, I outline what I see as the purpose of this team and touch upon our first research assignment- a visit to several interesting schools/organizations in the Southwest of the United States. In this blog series, I reflect on the schools, the organization and the student management system we learned about, and what I found to be interesting and applicable to a school in search of a brighter future for tomorrow’s citizens and leaders. The choice to not identify the schools or individuals by their name is intentional.

In this post, I reflect on five areas I found compelling:
  • Balancing “Learning Progressive” and “Highly Effective”;
  • SEL (Social-Emotional Learning);
  • Design-Thinking Process;
  • PBL (Project-Based Learning) and Transdisciplinary “Teaching”; and,
  • Teacher Training
I hope you enjoy. If you're not interested in learning about the Research and Development team or the rationale for our visit, feel free to skip to "The Learning" section.

Background: The R&D Team’s Purpose

Our Research and Development team is composed of six educators in non-management positions as its core. Two educators from each division, we each applied for and/or were asked to join the team. As a task force, our goal is to propose a plan for a five-week “personalized learning experience” for all students from kindergarten to grade ten to take place at the conclusion of the current academic year. Our first task was to travel to California and find out about “innovative schools” which are “highly effective” and “learning progressive”.

In order to make sure we are on the same page (that is, you, the reader, and myself…), it is necessary to begin with defining these loaded, and often misunderstood terms:

  • Personalized Learning- “…a diverse variety of educational programs, learning experiences, instructional approaches, and academic-support strategies that are intended to address the distinct learning needs, interests, aspirations, or cultural backgrounds of individual students.” (indentation is my own) (
  • Innovative schools- Simply stated, these are schools that approach education from a perspective that is different than the current one offers. According to, such schools share four characteristics:
    • Their view of the children: Students are seen as unique individuals rather than groups, and are educated accordingly
    • They are connected with the outside world: Schools that create relationships with local and global organizations and tap into local talent, and ones that create a connection between what students learn and the outside world of work
    • What students learn: The curriculum is delivered in a manner that encourages critical and creative thinking
    • The learning space: the design of the learning spaces is creative. It includes varied seating arrangements that are flexible- easily and quickly changed to include a variety of teaching and learning spaces, seating arrangements, etc. 
  • Highly effective- According to the book (and guide!) Personalized Learning in a PLC at Work (co-written by my current Head of School who initiates and is leading the change I am a part of), such schools “…are schools that receive accolades for their achievement under traditional measures of success”, and have “… a guaranteed and viable curriculum for core disciplinary knowledge, and their students consistently are able to master the curriculum” (p.14) (indentation is mine). In short, these are schools that have an organized curriculum that measures students progress and refers to common external means of assessment (such as MAP, SAT, IB exams, and other standardized assessments) to compare and consistently prove that their students are successful.
  • Learning progressive- In the same book, such schools are defined as, “… amazingly innovative, the student projects and products are workplace and future relevant. The focus of these schools is almost entirely based on learner interests and learner choice… These schools often work in nontraditional structures and outside the framework of traditional standards and assessment.” (p.15) (indentation is mine).
One can easily see the potential collision between the idea of being both “highly effective” and “learning progressive.” The question I immediately asked was, “Can schools abide by the pressure of implementing standards and consistently score high on external assessments, while at the same time allow for student voice, choice, and teach for deep learning (much more than is required on standardized assessments)?” The path to answering this question begins on our trip to California…

The Visits

We traveled to California to visit schools in the San Francisco and San Diego areas. We chose and requested to visit a mix of public and independent schools- from a school that picks and chooses its students based on IQ scores (and other criteria), to a school that until a few years seemed to have been a dumping ground for its district’s most struggling students (and teachers). In addition, we also made appointments with a representative from YouTube (AKA “The Second Most Common Search Engine [After Google]" and an incredible source of knowledge and a master of personalized content), a local College of Education professor, and a learning management system that tracks student progress and suggests paths for a variety of career options. Our plans were ambitious, but we enthusiastically planned our exciting professional learning journey, and joined administrators, teachers, and students for a short while to learn about their experiences and perspectives.

The Learning

Ambitious it was indeed… Puting in 100% effort and concentration at 11 schools/ organizations/ individuals over the course of five days was not easy. Together with the car ride and evening synthesis and reflection sessions, we were absolutely exhausted at the end of each day. I should definitely write something about the dos and don'ts of planning a school visit…
So… here are some of my own personal learning points and takeaways; ones that might be useful as we think about how we can thoughtfully begin an organized transformation in our school.

1. Balancing “Learning Progressive” and “Highly Effective”: 

Most of the schools we visited had come up with some wonderfully creative ways to approach instruction: from the use of PBLs, through using a Design-Thinking process as a pillar, to a wood workshop- type environment; from an impressive emphasis on relationships and community to creating and embracing strong and meaningful connections with outside organization. I was impressed! However, when we discussed these schools’ written and taught curriculum, vertical and horizontal alignment or their use of standards, we found that few of them used standards, had documented and articulated curriculum, etc.
In the context of balancing the two, one Head of School (public- where they had to use and follow standards), however, discussed the need to bend the rules a bit in order to be able to do “Great things.”
Takeaway: One cannot come at the expense of the other. In order to create an environment that is both learning progressive AND highly effective, it is important to not let standards dictate teaching and learning, and to think outside of the box and take risks in order to make progress in the learning progressive aspect. Also, a slow and well-thought-out change is the way to go.

2. SEL (Social-Emotional Learning):

The emphasis on creating strong relationships and building a tight community has been one of the most common elements we witnessed in the schools we visited. A variety of systems were put in place to create strong relationships between teachers, administrators, parents, the local community, and sometimes with like-minded schools around the world. One school created its own “SEL Institute” where new teachers are required to attend while another had teachers pay home visits to all new students. In these schools, we saw a very special relationship between all those involved- a sense of genuine care and interest, one that is relaxed and free-spirited. One of the schools’ directors sees such connections as the foundation upon which the school stands on. He emphasized the idea of “Go slow to go fast”- take your time to plan and create deep and meaningful connections. Once you established them, they will allow the rest to take place better and faster.

Takeaway: It is impossible to emphasize enough the importance of building and maintaining strong relationships throughout the school community. Whatever experience we decide to create, we will need to make sure we plan carefully and allow ample time for all members of the community to get to know, trust and appreciate one another.

3. Design-Thinking Process: 

One iteration of the Design-Thinking process or another was evident in every school we visited! Some schools chose to adopt an existing DT model (such as the d.School at Stanford) while others came up with their own version. Some included it as part of their project-based learning approach, another sees it as the school’s pedagogy, and yet another elevated the process into one of two of the school’s core beliefs (together with SEL). In whichever iteration we saw, the Empathy step received a lot of attention. It seems to serve as a natural bridge between the embrace of positive relationships within the schools and outside them.
We asked one of the teachers who joined us for lunch for some tips for personalizing learning. In order to get a better understanding of what we are interested in knowing, he went on a questioning spree until his supervisor jokingly apologized for his “Design-Thinking communication style”. The teacher seemed to understand the process so well and to practice it so naturally, that I have no doubt we would have received excellent answers from him (if we only had the time…)

Takeaway: The Design-Thinking process, and especially the emphasis on the Empathy step, has seen a serious comeback, this time into the K-12 educational world. Getting Smart explains, “The rationale behind design thinking centers on a pedagogy aimed at creating and facilitating future innovators and breakthrough thinkers. It is about creating creative and collaborative workflows engineered to tackle big projects and prototyping to discover new solutions.” I truly believe that solving problems through the lens of design thinking allows students to empathize with the “other”, and go through a clear process of problem-solving that capitalizes on important skills and dispositions such as thinking, self-management, collaboration, and more. Since I am already seeing the benefits of DT in my own practice, I will definitely push for an understanding and inclusion of the process in our personalized learning experience.

4. PBL (Project-Based Learning) and Transdisciplinary “Teaching”: 

The use of PBL as an instructional methodology was evident in many schools throughout our visit. Here again, there have been differences in the way it was viewed and implemented. Some schools used PBL sporadically throughout the curriculum, while others designed their entire curriculum around PBLs. What I also enjoyed seeing was the way projects naturally integrated concepts and skills from a variety of disciplines. One administrator shared that one of the ES design projects about mythological creatures included work about literature and English, history, biology, mathematics, 3D printing, and more. It also included many “soft skills,” such as imagination and creativity, or critical thinking and problem-solving. It seemed as if the authentic connections to different disciplines were limited to the teachers’ imagination.
Another interesting observation was the way teachers collaborated. In one school, teachers’ workspaces were situated in the hallway. That way, teachers from different departments could talk, socialize and collaborate. At the same time, students could come and talk to a teacher, while a colleague could be eavesdropping and offering curricular connections and clarifications.

Takeaway: I believe that PBL and Transdisciplinary teaching go hand-in-hand due to the multifaceted and open-ended nature of projects. In order to properly create meaningful and Transdisciplinary projects that become vertically- and horizontally- articulated, teachers much have a clear understanding of what PBLs are, how to create ones, etc., and be given sufficient time to collaborate on the creation of units that fit their particular setting. The personalized learning experience we will be designing is very likely to be project-based and Transdisciplinary. We will need to ensure teachers are on board (both in terms of understanding and collaboration), and that projects are varied, engaging, relevant and meaningful to both students and teachers.

5. Teacher Training: 

Most of the schools we visited had very creative ideas that required all members of the community to be on the same page in terms of understanding, accepting, and practicing the school’s philosophy. In order to do that, schools spent many hours to educate and train their staff and parent communities. One of the administrators explained that to properly expect new teachers to fully understand and be able to practice in the spirit of the school’s philosophy would take up to three years! Teacher retention of more than 3-5 years is something most international schools do not have the privilege of having…

Takeaway: There is no doubt we will need to ensure teachers get trained before they embark on a still-unknown adventure. This being said, we have to remember that the lessons learned from these schools’ experiences together with the “go slow to go fast” philosophy, will force us to start small- otherwise our team will be the only ones who have an idea of what’s happening and where it is that we may be going…

All of the points above had a very strong effect on my understanding of “learning progressive”: what it is, how it is implemented, and most important- how it relates to my first takeaway- finding the balance between “Learning Progressive” and “Highly Effective”. I hope these takeaways make sense, and that you can somehow reflect on (and act upon) your own personal and school’s practice.

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please do not hesitate to leave your thoughts in the comment section below.