Creativity, Inspiration, PYP

School…with a helping of learning on the side

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Learning “by accident”. Sounds weird but that is what we have seen going on at school for the last five weeks as we have been headfirst, up to our knees in Exhibition – the culminating event for students in the IB PYP program.

Every day it seems, we are seeing learning EVERYWHERE. And it’s not just us (the two fifth grade teachers who are biased toward the genius our kids possess). It’s the kids’ mentors, other members of faculty who are working with our kids, people from our school community, Boise locals and people scattered all over the world who are constantly saying things like, “You are really only a fifth grader?“, “I can’t believe you are only in fifth grade!” and “You are amazing!”

In terms of ‘things we never planned but learning has happened anyway’ here is a short list of things we have observed that our kids are doing:

  • organizing themselves digitally
  • writing sophisticated letters/emails requesting help
  • following up requests for help with equally sophisticated thank you emails/letters
  • organzing meetings and interviews
  • setting up job shadow days
  • organizing their own field trips
  • taking their own photographs to visually represent their learning
  • taking the initiative
  • making and keeping appointments
  • supporting each other with their inquiries
  • planning a live TED-style presentation to showcase their utter brilliance
  • making, creating and doing their ‘art’, their passion

They are passionate, engaged, independent, committed, inquiring learners – and did I mention they are fifth graders?

But the learning doesn’t stop with them. My teaching partner and I are exhausted. And we couldn’t be having a better time! The school day – the school week! – fly by in a flurry of activity. We meet in the morning, fueled by coffee and a collective, unspoken commitment to facilitating this process in order to best support our kids. We ask each other:

  • what do they need?
  • what else can we ‘put out there’?
  • who could support them?
  • is there any coffee? (this one VERY important)

And then we get to work.

Our 28 kids and us on this journey that none of us have been on before, to a place none of us really have ever seen and none of are sure what it looks like. But we have each others backs and we want everyone to succeed.

I have been thinking a lot about the type of planning that is needed for a true inquiry based program to flourish. In a recent Twitter based #pypchat (that is on, my time, at 4am so not sure how engaged I would be!) the topic of discussion turned to how much we plan ahead and how much unfolds naturally along the way. There is an excellent article summarizing the thoughts on this topic. The chat participants were varied in their approaches but seemed united in their belief that inquiry is best supported by teachers who are prepared to forgo their plans in order to be ready to support and facilitate their students inquisitive natures and passionate wonderings.

I know, first hand, that this is hard work!


It is also so inspiring, so rewarding and so much fun. And what I signed up for when I decided to become a teacher.  In addition,  as I reviewed this post, it made me reflect back on my reading of Tony Wagner’s new book “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World”. Instead of hoping kids will develop the type of skills listed above as an ‘aside’ to their school career, Tony believes we need to explicitly look for ways to equip students with skills needed for what he describes as “an increasingly flat world”.  He calls these the Seven Survival Skills:

  1. Critical thinking and problem solving
  2. Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  3. Agility and adaptability
  4. Initiative and entrepreneurship
  5. Accessing and analyzing information
  6. Effective oral and written communication
  7. Curiosity and imagination

He published this list of skills in his previous book, The Global Achievement Gap but has since conversed with people across different fields and discovered that there are other skills that needed to be added to this list of ‘essentials’.  These include:
  • perseverance
  • a willingness to experiment
  • taking calculated risks
  • tolerating failure
  • a capacity for “design thinking”
The last skill, ‘design thinking’, is a concept employed at IDEO . (If you don’t know a lot about this company, take a look here or go straight to this great Fast Company Design piece on what schools can learn from IDEO, Google and Pixar – brilliant!).  Wagner shares IDEO’s design thinking concept as an example of a way of viewing the world that is fundamental to any process of innovation. (Wagner, pp13).  The CEO of IDEO, Tim Brown, goes on to describe five characteristics of ‘design thinkers’:
  • empathetic – looking at the world from multiple perspectives and putting others first
  • integrative thinkers – being able to see all aspects of a problem and possible breakthrough solutions
  • optimistic – believing that no matter how challenging a problem, a solution can be found
  • experimental – being willing to use trial and error to explore possible solutions in creative ways
  • collaborative – this above all!

Wagner goes on to list further studies, more conversations and addition research that provide similar lists of requirements and criteria for innovative thinkers, ultimately summarizing them as follows:

    • curiosity – being in the habit of asking good questions with a desire to understand more deeply
    • collaboration – listening to and learning from others who have perspectives and expertise different to your own
    • associative or integrative thinking
    • a bias toward action and experimentation
What he then wrote should have us all leaping for joy:

As an educator and a parent, what I find most significant in this list is that they represent a set of skills and habits of mind that can be nurtured, taught and mentored!

What I have seen first-hand over the last five weeks is proof-positive of that. And it is a beautiful thing.
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