On What If…

What if we acted out our belief that learning should be lifelong and that skills and concepts outlast knowledge?

The Backstory

My school uses a number of curriculum frameworks – the Middle Years Programme, the Diploma Programme, Advanced Placements and our own homegrown curriculum. One way of unifying the potentially disparate approaches is to focus on key attributes of curriculum that transcend them all. Our departmental team picked three:


Curriculum vision
Image of ‘Atlantis Shuttle Launchh 1988’ / NASA / Public Domain

Authentic stresses the relentless need to provide freshness and relevance. Essential captures the importance of meeting the needs of our students, whether those are the inevitable ‘exam ready’ skills, or crucial ‘future ready‘ skills. Learning to learn functions as a foundational concept, highlighting the need to develop lifelong skills in our students.

It’s this last aspect that my team has been playing with recently, re-envisioning the International Baccalaureate’s (IB) Approaches to Learning (ATL) skills as a hexagon of future ready skills, accompanied by guiding questions, and designed for specific courses. Though you should certainly build learning experiences to develop more than six ATL skills in a year, when confronted with the question, ‘Which are the most important skills for a student in my class?’ the most authentic and essential aspects of the vision emerge:

Example ATL Hexagon
Which are the most important ‘future ready’ skills for students in my class?

But, what if we went further?

What if…

Every student identified, and reflected, on the six ATL skills they felt they needed to develop that year?


Every teacher identified, and shared with students, the six ATLs with which they were engaging?


Every teacher posts the six ATLs on their classroom door, with this note: ‘Dear colleagues, if you can spare the time, please come in and help me with my journey


These six skills became the focus of teacher reflection in their professional discussions, both digital and analogue?

Would we then be closer to acting out our belief that learning should be lifelong – that learning to learn is the most future ready skill of all?

At the very least, we might be just that little bit closer to curricular lift off.

Teacher ATL Hexagon vPB (1)Thoughts?


On the Three and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Teachers

Habits can be a help and a hindrance. In the context of teaching, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ can be summarised as follows: Good habits make effective teaching and learning practice more effortless; bad habits are those effortless actions that are a drain on effective teaching and learning practice.

However, what are we doing to form good habits, and break bad ones, both in ourselves and the communities we build in our classrooms? This Forbes’ piece here and James Clear’s thoughts here and here neatly summarise popular theories on habit formation. But, I’m interested in the types of habits we should seek to form. Inspired by Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, here’s my slightly more mundane, anecdotal Three and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Teachers.

#1) Eat Lunch with Colleagues, Everyday. You need to eat. You also need to press pause, even if it’s only for ten minutes. More importantly, eating with your colleagues is a fundamental social ritual that unites and builds community. Read this Atlantic article for some more family-centric thoughts.

#2) Be Flexibly Inflexible. Rules are rules. Except when they’re a) not and b) they have nothing to do with student learning. A highly effective teacher knows that the most flexible part of the system controls that system (think “steering wheel” and “car”); you know when to bend and when to pushback.

#3) Think Lose-Win(ish). You will always lose. Always. You cannot win and the sooner you unburden yourself of the ceaseless pressure of striving to, then you can start winning-ish. As Dylan Wiliams said, “This job you are doing is so hard that one lifetime isn’t enough to master it.” What does he mean? Your job satisfaction derives from embracing continuous improvement, so, let imperfection be your catalyst for future success.

#3 ½ ): Never Stop (exception, see rule #1). This is the meta-rule, the one rule to rule them all. Highly effective teachers are much like (most) sharks: if you stop swimming, you’ll drown. You must always be updating your practice otherwise the knowledge, understanding and skills that you are uncovering for your students will become swiftly irrelevant before you even know it.

Need this visually? See here.The Three and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Teachers Slide 1 The Three and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Teachers Slide 2 The Three and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Teachers Slide 3 The Three and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Teachers Slide 4 The Three and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Teachers Slide 5

On the Blindingly Obvious

I’m all for conceptual learning, and understand its importance in enabling students to retain the knowledge, understanding or skills that we believe we are teaching them. Back in early 2012, I re-mixed a video that captures the essence of a keynote speech made by Lynn Erickson at the 2011 IB conference in the Hague on this topic.

The trick, however, with any educational theory is putting it into practice. Last year was the first that the new Middle Years Programme (MYP) Key and Related Concepts were making the rounds in my class. Dutifully, I covered my walls in them, plastered them over assessment documents and unit overviews, and… well, I don’t know, I’m not sure it really came to life.

However, at a meeting before the end of the last school year with my Language and Literature colleagues, it suddenly occurred to me that the MYP Related Concepts, in particular, could work as a great lens to unpack any text, regardless of context. It’s hardly an earth-shattering revelation, and one I’m sure many, many others have already had and acted upon before me, but it felt good to finally catch up with the blindingly obvious. So, for this year, I’ve created a Language and Literature Related Concepts inquiry grid, as you can see below. I’m also going to use it with my IB Diploma Language and Literature students too to act as a point of continuity across language and literature studies in the MYP and DP.

By Phil Bruce. Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA
By Phil Bruce. Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA

Creative Commons License
Language and Literature MYP Related Concepts Inquiry Grid by Philip Bruce is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

For some further blindingly obvious ideas with this resource, why not:

  • Divide up squares around the class, jigsawing responses by row, column or colour, as appropriate.
  • Cut up cards with the related concepts, distribute at random or differentiated for readiness (e.g. intertextuality might be trickier), and have students play just-a-minute or, more simply, think – pair – share.
  • Re-mix the inquiry grid to fit your own needs, e.g. to analyse a source in MYP Humanities or an artwork in MYP Visual Arts. Start by going here.

On Making It Stick

I’ve been reading Make It Stick:  The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger III and McDaniel. In previous years, I’d read and forgotten, or, worse, convinced myself I’d become unconsciously skilled, in whatever the particular contents of my summer professional reading. However, I am mindful of the Conscious Competence Ladder and its implications for keeping your understanding of pedagogy, and your awareness of your own mastery of it, as sharp as possible. Failure to do so means you face the ignominy of slipping from being unconsciously skilled (good!) to being unconsciously unskilled (bad!). So, consciously practicing a bit of elaboration as laid out in the book, find below an infographic summary of the book’s central ideas, and two takeaways for my classroom, one new, one an affirmation of an established practice.

Make It Stick pt1

My summary of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger III and McDaniel
My summary of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger III and McDaniel

NEW: As mentioned here in my previous post, the “Mix It Up” Kahoot idea was inspired by one of the key learnings from the book that spaced, varied retrieval significantly aids retention of learning.

OLD: I’ll make more use of an activity I came across with the PTC called the “Circle of Shared Enlightenment”. You have students form two circles, one inside the other, with the inside circle of students facing the outside. You then ask one circle of students to retrieve information, elaborate on material, reflect on learning, or summarise understandings to their partner in the other circle. Typically, I insist that while one student speaks, the other actively listens. I also provide varied time limits. You can rotate circles to mix up partners. Examples of some instructions:

“Speak for one minute about the most significant theme in Macbeth.”

“Summarise what you’ve just heard in 30 seconds.”

“Elaborate on the last person’s explanation.”

It’s a variation on any kind of think-pair-share routine, but it gets everyone on their feet and feels more dynamic. To pick up any misconceptions you might miss when wandering around the circle, be sure to debrief the students by asking for questions, or posing your own.

An example of the confused, effortful retrieval that leads to long-lasting learning... Thanks Jon Stewart
The confused, effortful retrieval that leads to long-lasting learning?

On the Merry-Go-Round

Friend: Your holidays started yet?

Teacher: Yes, a few weeks ago.

Friend: Lucky for some, huh.

Teacher: [Pause] I guess so.

Friend: So what is it that you do with all those weeks?

Teacher: Go on holiday for a bit, obviously.

Friend: You get paid for doing nothing?

Teacher: Not nothing. Just different things. I guess it’s a bit like working freelance?

Friend: In that you don’t work at all?

Teacher: Hmmm, well not in the traditional, Puritan, work-must-be-unpleasant sense. It’s a time for creative renewal, before the merry-go-round starts again.

Friend: Merry-go-round?

Teacher: Yep, it’s the curse of teaching, that Groundhog Day paradox of “getting to do it again” and “having to do it again”.

Friend: What?

Teacher: Well, presuming I’ve reacquired sufficient patience needed to see it through, and the law of unintended consequences doesn’t brutally intervene, there are five things I’m going to evolve this year.

Friend: Five?

Teacher: Yep.

Friend: Do you know what, I don’t care. I’ve had my holiday for this year, and it’s my Saturday. Want a drink?

Teacher: Sure.

Merry-go-'round by Greg Westfall licenced under CC by 2.0
“Merry-go-’round” by Greg Westfall licenced under CC by 2.0

My Merry-Go-Round Five

  1. Shared vision. Provide a year long map of the year for the students in a live Google Doc.
  2. Mix it up. Keep coming back to the essentials, using fortnightly quizzes with Kahoot. The rules? After I model the first one, students are placed on a yearlong rotation in pairs to create a five question quiz on content studied in the previous weeks. If the students want it, I’ll run a yearlong leaderboard in Google sheets.
  3. Read more. Students will sign up for a Goodreads account to record and share books. Alongside weekly DEAR (Drop Everything and Read), there will be fortnightly Hot Reads, when, on rotation, a student will make a three minute presentation about a great book they’ve recently read.
  4. Write more. Students will establish and experiment with blogging. This will include time, fortnightly, to blog and comment upon each other’s blogs.
  5. Do less, better. To read more and write more, some content will be removed from the year to enrich essential skills and understandings.

Do you have a Merry-Go-Round five?