Letter and PYP Article From Dr. Orsini

Dear Friends,

It has been fascinating over the past two weeks to delve into the recent history of TIS through talking with colleagues and reading a wide range of documents from school policies, to the PYP Program of Inquiry for the whole school, to minutes of board meetings, and on and on.

The results of last spring’s survey of parents is still being tabulated by a data company, but I have been reading your anonymous comments and learning a great deal about your points of view and the areas we need to work on. There are MANY very positive comments, most of them focused on the dedicated and very effective faculty, and there are comments regarding practices we need to work on. A couple of comments seemed to indicate we must have a lot of money that we are wasting. Learning now about the budget, which is managed to the penny with great skill and care by Rob Timmons and the Board’s Finance Committee, I found those to be sadly ironic. There were also the usual contradictions- we are too green and not green enough; we communicate not enough and communicate too much; we give too much homework and too little homework. As soon as tabulation is complete I’ll work with Ms. Bonder to provide you and the staff a detailed report. You can be sure that your feedback will inform our work. We will also be providing you a financial report.

Most resonant for me was the respondent who said that having met Dr. Orsini, he feels that Orsini does not have what it will take to take over the operation and bring it up to standard. I don’t take offense at that comment and I don’t take it as a challenge. I take it as a motivation. TIS is already up to standard by many accounts, including your statements and those of accreditation bodies and IB visitors. That is good, but that is not good enough for you or, more importantly, for our children. We won’t be settling for “standard.” I’ll hang that comment up in my office to keep me diligent and focused.

In other news, research into the acquisition and restoration of the Custom House is proceeding with an appropriate degree of vigilance. A committee has interviewed two excellent developers for feasibility studies and is seeking further information to supplement their presentations. Based on previous experience, admissions are proceeding as targeted. (However, I should stress that we don’t want to just grow blindly. We want to grow intelligently in the places where growth will be a benefit and provide an economy of scale with appropriately sized classrooms.) Construction is on schedule and the new classrooms in the upstairs of the Main building are looking great (do NOT walk in to have a look or I will be yelled at!)

Communication is a two way street. We’ll write to you, but we need you to read and sometimes, to respond. On the other hand we need to communicate more on what you want to know about, and I aim to figure that out. It already seems pretty clear that people most want to read about how their children are doing.

Below you will find a segment from one of my favorite articles of all time- a great myth buster and a great argument for inquiry based, constructivist education such as the PYP. As you know the PYP is concept driven. It focuses not on acquisition and retention of facts and rote processes, but rather on helping children to discover and understand concepts which they can keep in their pockets to apply to other problems later. You can read the whole article on our website (click here) or just enjoy this small piece.

Take care, and more soon


(American Educator, Spring 1991)

Although there is no overall difference in intelligence, the differences in mathematical achievement of American children and their Asian counterparts are staggering.

Let us look first at the results of a study we conducted in 120 classrooms in three cities: Taipei (Taiwan); Sendai (Japan); and the Minneapolis metropolitan area. First and fifth graders from representative schools in these cities were given a test of mathematics that required computation and problem solving. Among the one hundred first-graders in the three locations who received the lowest scores, fifty-eight were American children; among the one hundred lowest-scoring fifth graders, sixty-seven were American children. Among the top one hundred first graders in mathematics, there were only fifteen American children. And only one American child appeared among the top one hundred fifth graders. In whatever way we looked at the data, the poor performance of American children was evident.

The poor performance of American students compels us to try to understand the reasons why. For that we have to take a close look inside the classrooms of Japan, China, and the United States to see how mathematics is actually taught in the three cultures.

If we were asked briefly to characterize classes in Japan and China, we would say that they consist of coherent lessons that are presented in a thoughtful, relaxed. and non-authoritarian manner. Teachers frequently rely on students as sources of information. Lessons are oriented toward problem solving rather than rote mastery of facts and procedures and utilize many different types of representational materials. The role assumed by the teacher is that of knowledgeable guide, rather than that of prime dispenser of information and arbiter of what is correct. There is frequent verbal interaction in the classroom as the teacher attempts to stimulate students to produce, explain, and evaluate solutions to problems. These characteristics contradict stereotypes held by most Westerners about Asian teaching practices. Lessons are not rote; they are not filled with drill. Teachers do not spend large amounts of time lecturing but attempt to lead the children in productive interactions and discussions. And the children are not the passive automata depicted in Western descriptions but active participants in the learning process.

We begin by discussing what we mean by the coherence of a lesson. One way to think of a lesson is by using the analogy of a story. A good story is highly organized; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end; and it follows a protagonist who meets challenges and resolves problems that arise along the way. Above all, a good story engages the readers’ interest in a series of interconnected events, which are best understood in the context of the events that precede and follow it.

Such a concept of a lesson guides the organization of instruction in Asia. The curricula are defined in terms of coherent lessons, each carefully designed to fill a forty-to fifty-minute class period with sustained attention to the development of some concept or skill. Like a good story the lesson has an introduction, a conclusion, and a consistent theme.

We can illustrate what we are talking about with this account of a fifth-grade Japanese mathematics class:

The teacher walks in carrying a large paper bag full of clinking glass. Entering the classroom with a large paper bag is highly unusual, and by the time she has placed the bag on her desk the students are regarding her with rapt attention. What’s in the bag? She begins to pull items out of the bag, placing them, one-by-one, on her desk. She removes a pitcher and a vase. A beer bottle evokes laughter and surprise. She soon has six containers lined up on her desk. The children continue to watch intently, glancing back and forth at each other as they seek to understand the purpose of this display.

The teacher looking thoughtfully at the containers, poses a question: “I wonder which one would hold the most water?” Hands go up, and the teacher calls on different students to give their guesses: “the pitcher,” “the beer bottle,” “the teapot.” The teacher stands aside and ponders: “Some of you said one thing, others said something different. You don’t agree with each other. There must be some way we can find out who is correct. How can we know who is correct?” Interest is high, and the discussion continues.

The students soon agree that to find out how much each container holds they will need to fill the containers with something. How about water? The teacher finds some buckets and sends several children out to fill them with water. When they return, the teacher says: “Now what do we do?” Again there is a discussion, and after several minutes the children decide that they will need to use a smaller container to measure how much water fits into each of the larger containers. They decide on a drinking cup, and one of the students warns that they all have to fill each cup to the same level—otherwise the measure won’t be the same for all of the groups.

At this point the teacher divides the class into their groups and gives each group one of the containers and a drinking cup. Each group fills its container, counts how many cups of water it holds, and writes the result in a notebook When all of the groups have completed the task the teacher calls on the leader of each group to report on the group’s findings and notes the results on the blackboard. She has written the names of the containers in a column on the left and a scale from 1 to 6 along the bottom. Pitcher, 4.5 cups; vase, 3 cups; beer bottle, 15 cups; and so on. As each group makes its report, the teacher draws a bar representing the amount, in cups, the container holds.

Finally, the teacher returns to the question she posed at the beginning of the lesson: Which container holds the most water? She reviews how they were able to solve the problem and points out that the answer is now contained in the bar graph on the board. She then arranges the containers on the table in order according to how much they hold and writes a rank order on each container, from 1 to 6. She ends the class with a brief review of what they have done. No definitions of ordinate and abscissa, no discussion of how to make a graph preceded the example—these all became obvious in the course of the lesson, and only at the end did the teacher mention the terms that describe the horizontal and vertical axes of the graph they had made.

With one carefully crafted problem, this Japanese teacher has guided her students to discover—and most likely to remember—several important concepts. As this article unfolds, we hope to demonstrate that this example of how well-designed Asian class lessons are is not an isolated one; to the contrary, it is the norm. And as we hope to further demonstrate, excellent class lessons do not come effortlessly or magically Asian teachers are not born great teachers; they and the lessons they develop require careful nurturing and constant refinement.

Orsini note: in a pyp classroom, the teacher (rather than drawing the bar graph) might have asked students first if they know how to represent in pictures or objects, such as stackable blocks, the differences in how much liquid is held by each container and she might have engineered it to have to break each drinking cup down into sub components such as tenths of a cup and she might have……Then a tech lesson on graphs might have ensued….