Assessing Worthiness

I make professional judgements regularly about what is worth learning, teaching and assessing. These judgements are based on prior experiences, the curriculum and my understanding of student needs. Whilst student questions and thoughts guide our inquiries and we adjust as we go, many of these initial decisions are made prior to the learning happening. I sit in planning meetings where we thoughtfully and strategically plan provocations and opportunities for inquiry based on what is worth understanding and knowing. The learning that arises from this is rich, meaningful and purposeful.  

But lately I’ve been thinking that maybe the worthiness of an inquiry can also be found almost entirely through the inquiry itself. Maybe something which we, as teachers, wouldn’t place much value on can progress into an inquiry that greatly develops student understandings, skills and dispositions. The worthiness could be found within the questions that arise, the way a student makes decisions about the next steps, the skills (which weren’t originally evident) that are needed, the dispositions that are nurtured and given opportunities to grow. A small seed of a question or a thought or a desire to make, design or build something can organically flourish into a deep, authentic inquiry.

And maybe I’ve been asking myself the wrong question. Instead of asking whether an inquiry is worthwhile, I should be asking: what would make this inquiry worthwhile?   

Beyond Studio Time

Starting studio time has been been like throwing a pebble in a pond. If the pebble is studio time, the ripples are what has happened outside studio time. It’s been the catalyst for starting to reflect in a different way about how I think of learning and about how the students think of themselves as learners. It’s just not possible to say to students that what they think and value is important, and what they want to learn and what they choose to investigate is worthwhile during studio time, and then put that aside and tell them exactly what to learn and how to learn at other times. It doesn’t sit well with me and they see straight through it. It’s fair to say that they are not content with the status quo when it comes to education – and who could blame them? I’m not happy with the status quo either.
Why can’t they design the classroom? Why can’t they have an equal say in how things work around here? If they don’t agree with something, why can’t they (respectfully) voice their opinions and make suggestions for improvements? Why can’t they self select individual skills to work on during learning time? Why can’t they identify a way of recording their thinking that works for them? Why can’t they make informed choices about what will help them with their learning? And won’t all of these things help them to understand themselves as learners and therefore help them develop into life long learners? Reflecting on my professional practice through the lens of learner agency has been somewhat confronting. Things that I’ve never considered to be an issue or ways that I’ve unintentionally taken unnecessary control have been become apparent. Why am I making decisions that students would be more than capable of making? Why am I making this choice when, with support and scaffolding and careful planning, they would be able to think independently and take informed action? Sure it’s ‘easier’ in the sense that I would be in control and know what is about to happen at all times, but to what end?
The ripples of studio time are expanding and the momentum is building. Something that happened fairly quickly was students self selecting workshops to attend, based on their learning needs. Developing an understanding of how to identify areas for improvement and things that are of interest to them has meant they are becoming more and more able to honestly and critically reflect on themselves as learners and their actions. Currently, the students have asked to organise and run their own workshops into reading and writing and we have two weeks worth of sessions lined up. They’re taking their own inquiries and questions, investigating them, synthesising the understandings and skills, developing an interactive workshop and rolling them out to their peers. They’re gathering mentor texts, asking for advice, summarising the main points and crafting examples. The thinking and learning that is happening through this is incredible and their questions are becoming deeper and deeper. They’re also asking for specific workshops and I’m reminding them to chat with me if something comes up that they think would make a purposeful and engaging workshop. From my perspective, I’ve become more conscious of consulting them in the process of developing inquiries. This week, instead of rolling out an idea I had for how we could tackle a maths unit of inquiry, I put it to them to see their thoughts and ideas, transparently sharing the understandings we would be investigating. Again, they blew me away with how they approached this and with the maturity they showed as they worked collaboratively with each other and me to plan the inquiry. I’ll be posing the same question about other inquiries. I’ve also began consulting them about what they think the split screen questions should be during different inquiries and sessions. They were immediately into this. Their suggestions showed recognition of their needs and the needs of the collective. More and more their conversations show increased metacognition and more awareness of who they are as learners, their strengths and their areas for improvement. All of this has lead to them being more collaborative and interested in their peers as human beings and learners. They’re much more inclined to call each other on inappropriate behaviour or learning choices, provide suggestions, give encouragement for others as they tackle things that are challenging and recognise achievements. It’s as if in getting to know themselves as learners, they are understanding how others work and what makes them tick. They are empowered and feel accountable and responsible for themselves but also to others in our community.
A definition I read recently, through Stephanie Thompson (@traintheteacher), explained learner agency as this: ‘Learners taking ownership, making decisions, driving their journey, to the degree that works best for them.’ It was a lightbulb moment for me as it put into words what I have been grappling with and trying to communicate. They need guidance. Of course. This should go without saying. I am there to guide, scaffold and support. I have expertise and knowledge to share. There are times when I know what they need to move their learning forward. In fact, there are a lot of those times. But their needs are consistently changing as they become more self aware, flexible, self motivated and independent learners who understand how to learn. Sometimes I am more direct, sometimes I am less direct and my actions and choices are dependent on the needs of the situation and the needs of the child. Always in the back of my mind is the belief and understanding that the journey and the process of inquiring and learning is just as important, if not more so, than the destination.

Curiouser and curiouser!

It’s been a few months since we first started Studio Time in my Year 3 class and we took some time this week to stop and reflect together. Consider this a summary of their thoughts and my thoughts, which happened to be pretty aligned. Here are some things we’ve noticed:

  • An increase in curiosity and students knowing what actually sparks their interest
  • More inquiries that don’t necessarily fall into the ‘normal’ categories of school subjects
  • Less one off inquiries into small ideas/concepts and more in depth inquiries
  • Improved self management skills, social skills and independence
  • Greater interest in other inquiries which has lead to more natural connections between students and their inquiries
  • More confidence to collaborate with different people (both within and outside of our class, and both within and outside of studio time)
  • More making and creating! Inquiry does not equal researching on an iPad!

We’re not claiming it’s perfect, it’s not. Not every single inquiry reaches the depth that I wish for as a teacher, but they are becoming more confident, capable, curious and metacognitive. Each inquiry goes a step further, a step deeper, as we reflect on what went well and what to work on next. Overall we’ve noticed the importance and the value of being curious and inquiring into something that makes you wonder and want to know more. As a class we’ve decided that it’s near on impossible to have a quality inquiry that means anything to you if you don’t care about it, if it doesn’t make you question anything, if it doesn’t spark your curiosity. We’re now becoming less focused on ‘what do I want to do in this time?’ and more focused on…..’how do I find things that really, actually, truly sparking my curiosity?’


Which ideas are worthwhile to continue exploring? Deciding where to go next.

Some things we’ve been trying in order to help spark our curiosity and move our inquiries forward:

  • Connecting with a Year 6 class and setting up ongoing mentorship where the students share their Studio Time experiences, answer questions, give advice and encourage each other. It will also hopefully lead to some authentic and meaningful connections between inquiries. This has been a game changer for us as it’s opened up so many possibilities in the minds of my students.
  • Thinking about our inquiries using the ideas of ‘persevere’ and ‘pivot’ (inspired by Tania Mansfield and Studio 5). We also added in a third: ‘put aside’. This has given us the shared language to discuss the inquiries and help to ensure that they are worthwhile and have the potential to go deeper, to check that we are interested in them…to actually stop and think. It’s led to questions such as: Is it ok to put lots of inquiries aside and is there value in finding things that don’t spark your interest? What do I do if I want to keep pivoting in my inquiry? Should I persevere with this inquiry? We’ve created space in our room to record our thinking around these and make them visible.
  • Finding unique ways to record our thinking that work for individuals. We’ve noticed there can be different starting points for different inquiries and that each inquiry looks different. One size definitely does not fit all. Some students are going to try sketchnoting to show their process and how their thinking changes throughout an investigation from the initial spark.
  • Asking experts to come in and share their passions and interests with us. Interacting with others who are passionate about a whole range of things has opened up doorways for students who hadn’t considered those areas before or who were stuck in the mindset that their inquiry needed to fall within a specific school subject.
  • Redesigning our learning space together to help it move from more of a functional space to an inspirational space which encourages curiosity, can be used flexibly and supports a culture of agency. Most importantly, they now have ownership of the space. (They’ve also got some great ideas for the future but I’m not sure we can get those banana hammocks attached to the roof….)
  • Sharing what sparks our interest and why with each other when things pop up. Some definitely know immediately what makes them curious and for some, it’s not quite so easy. As part of this, I modelled my own inquiry into designing and creating a baby blanket for a family member and, through this, discussing: what sparked my curiosity, the challenges, the learning involved and what it looked like when I persevered through the hard parts. This visual representation complete with failed attempts and mistakes has provided another way of thinking about the process.
  • Making more connections to others within our community. Who is an expert in this field? Who could we interview? Whose perspective would be helpful right now?

Some questions that I currently have:

  • How can we tap into more resources within our community and beyond to help us?
  • How do we become more aware of the skills and attitudes that we are developing and make them more visible?
  • What workshops could I or the students run to help others with their studio time inquiries?
  • Do we need more Studio Time in order to get into flow and to go deeper with inquiries?
  • How do we make the maths within inquiries more visible during Studio Time?

As always, there are many things to think about moving forwards. An idea that’s always in the back of my mind is how elements of Studio Time could/should/have been flowing through into the rest of the learning time. Some current examples of things happening include:

  • Students self selecting writing workshops based on their current needs and interests in writing
  • Students volunteering to plan, organise and run reading and writing workshops based on something they have been investigating
  • Developing their own strategies for solving problems in maths, justifying why they work and how efficient they are and teaching them to others

Side note: The students chose the original name ‘Personal Learning Time’ back at the beginning but have since decided to rename it Studio Time. Seems like semantics but they’ve decided that Studio Time more accurately represents how they work collaboratively, share their ideas and flexibly use the space to inquire and create. I think this is just another example of how, as a community of learners, we have evolved.

Differentiation and Agency

I’ve had a bit of a lightbulb moment over the past couple of days. In this process of handing ownership of learning over to the students, I think I might have accidentally overlooked the fact that not all students are going to be ready at the same time and in the same ways. With that in mind, how have I catered for this range throughout the process? Specifically, has my desire for us to move through this process together as we build momentum meant that I’ve been inadvertently holding some students back? Or expecting students to be ready in ways that they’re not? Sure, we’re all moving in the same direction but looking for, or prioritising, consistency doesn’t feel right.  

Inspired by Dean Kuran and his post on planning learning with his students in the same way that we plan as teachers, I asked my class this week: does anyone want to try planning an inquiry like the teachers do? It was a simple offer and one which a bunch on them immediately jumped on. We sat down as a group and chatted. We discussed the process of planning, and how we, as teachers, consider knowledge, skills, dispositions and concepts. Since they already had an idea for something they wanted to explore, an inquiry into storytelling, we got straight into it. They debated which dispositions were most relevant, decided on what concepts would drive their learning, considered the understandings they would build and identified focus skills. The conversation was rich and purposeful, and I realised they were completely ready to think about their learning in this way. Maybe they had been ready for a while?  

While this was happening, other students floated around the edge of the conversation. Some students watched and listened from across the room; intrigued and interested, just observing at this stage. Once we finished, the group shared a bit of the process with the class. Their ownership, enthusiasm and passion was clearly evident. I offered again: if anyone else wants to plan this way, let me know. More students expressed interest. 

All of this brings us to this week’s personal learning time tomorrow, which will again look different from previous weeks. Some students are now ready to use their new planning to guide their inquiries. Some are now ready to try planning this way after seeing it modelled for them by other students. Some are interested but have told me they need more thinking time because they want a good question or idea first. Some just aren’t ready right now. Maybe they’re not interested in planning this way and maybe they won’t ever be?   As I reflect on this, I realise the value in each of these stages because this whole thing is about so much more than whether students plan an inquiry or about how they spend their personal learning time each week. I’m keeping the bigger picture in mind and trusting the process and the learners.

Letting Go

I’ve been trying something with my class, trying to hand over more ownership and responsibility to them. It’s been thought provoking and challenging and humbling and rewarding. 

I started small. Students individually signing up to workshops. This moved into students having a literacy block to plan and run independently. The next step was students planning their own timetable for an afternoon based on one of our current inquiries. And finally last week, the students planned their own timetable for an afternoon based on something that sparks their interest. We spent the week using classroom learning to provoke thinking and create a list of potential questions to investigate, which helped to guide the sessions.

Each time I’ve seen an increase in purposeful engagement, critical thinking, extended focus and meaningful collaboration. Amongst other things they are creating podcasts, co authoring books, exploring fractions, analysing suffixes and investigating how languages evolve over time. They are coming to realise that it’s about the thinking and the learning, and not about looking busy and working. They can see how their learning is becoming deeper and more connected. They’re moving in and out of collaboration naturally, discussing ideas and sharing thoughts and suggestions. The buzz in the room has grown each week as the students begin to find their flow.

Each time there have also been challenges. A few students who, even with support, have been stuck. I haven’t been able to conference with as many students as I’d like. Some students have been ‘working’ rather than learning. Some inquiries have just simply been unsuccessful. There have even been a couple of heated arguments along the way. On the flip side, each of these situations paved the way for authentic learning opportunities. How do we decide what is worth investigating? What matters to you as a learner? What effective strategies could we use to resolve conflict? How can a guiding question help focus our inquiries? How will you know when you’ve learnt something? What do you do when you get stuck? What self management strategies will help us? There’s a lot still to explore. As a learning community we’re really just at the beginning of this journey. 

This week I’ve overheard multiple conversations about how personal learning time is the best part of every week. They are loving it, and I’ll continue to lean into the idea that my role is to foster curious learners and not produce compliant students.