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!