October 16, 2018

Data for an inquiring soul

The way the current model of school works, especially in the secondary school, is that learners travel through a day broken up into segments. A block of a subject, occasionally a double block, then they move on to another, and another, until the day is exhausted. The next day, they go through the same segmentation of disciplinary learning.

We may not have much choice in the way the timetable is broken up into these segments. It is a safe assumption that schools have so many things we want to provide for our students, and we are mindful of giving time to each one of those goals.

For a moment, let’s step into the shoes of a learner and try to empathize with his or her segmented, episodic experience of the school day with the objective of understanding how the segmentation impacts the learner’s ability to absorb, internalize, integrate and find meaning for all the different and discrete episodes of their school day.

In this TED talk, Brene Brown says, “Stories are just data with a soul.” So here is a story, and you are the protagonist in it.

Imagine you are this learner in MYP

So you are in MYP Year 3, and your day is broken up into 8 blocks, and each one of them is about 40 minutes long. Today you have the following scheduled:

Block 1: Mathematics
Block 2: Language and literature
Block 3: Individuals and Societies
Block 4: PHE
Block 5: Design
Block 6: Sciences
Block 7: Arts
Block 8: Language acquisition

And note that during lunch break, you have a meeting with your Service as Action group to discuss which community need you’re going to choose for your Project, which is a six-month experience.

Let’s suppose that in the course of your day, you experienced the following disciplinary episodes:

  • When you were in Mathematics class, you spent the time listening to the teacher solving equations and watched him or her writing on the whiteboard as the solution was worked through. You dutifully copied the equations as they were written down, while simultaneously listening to the teacher’s description of each step.
  • While in Language and literature class, the teacher brought up the concepts: imagery as an element in setting and how the author’s choices in imagery and setting influence the emerging theme of a novel. All of this was spoken. The class was so caught up in the illustration of how the relationships between these concepts occur in the current work being studied, that the bell rang before you could process the information. You leave the class with no notes.
  • In Individuals and Societies, your thinking was nudged by the opening material the teacher presented, which consisted of statistical information about the patterns of the rise and fall of empires. You had lots of questions, which you scribbled furiously into your note paper. And, after the material was presented, the teacher moved quickly into the lecture, which was about the similarities between the expansionist empires of the colonial era and some of the multinational technological expansions of the current world. You end the class with an aching hand from trying to take every single note you could in the fast and furious lecture.
  • In PHE, you get together with your badminton group and it’s your group mate’s turn to demonstrate the forehand. Your role is to learn from today’s student coach and you work hard to imitate the forehand demonstration. Then when it is time to rehearse the movement in face-to-face play situation, you realize that the speed at which you respond with a forehand has more variables than you had anticipated. You also find you have some questions about the way your feet are spaced, and the ideal spacing between them during the movement of the forehand, to maintain good balance. You make a note of this in your head, because maybe you can ask the teacher later, or look it up. But the bell rings and you’re meeting your good friend for a snack together in the cafeteria, and you promptly forget your question about balance.
  • In Design, you ended the last class in the middle of figuring out the best way to make a loaf of bread from the recipe for 20 loaves. Your group was pretty excited about the baking part, so you actually got online the night when the assignment was given, to finish your recipe. With your group of three students, you did the math and came up with a recipe for the one loaf and planning what equipment you need, ingredients, and who will do what. You start this class able to get what you need quickly and doing what you planned. By the end of class, you have a prototype loaf, but the problem is that it’s time to go to the next class. Your teacher says he will take the loaf out of the oven when it’s time. Your group can’t wait to come by during the end of lunch break, after the service meeting, to check on your product.
  • During the Service meeting at lunch break, you and your group talk about the information you learned about yourself during the previous meeting. You really care about the villages in which the residents are tenants of a landlord, and they have a small plot of land on which they grow vegetables. You’ve learned that they have to give all their harvest to the landlord and speak about the irony of being farmers and not having enough to eat. Your speech convinces your group to choose this as a need to address. You and your group mates quickly organize the research that you will each do, and you use the skills you had used to organize the bread-making process in Design, in your organization of your service project.
  • Toward the end of lunch break, you rush to the Design kitchen with your Design group and take your loaf, which has been resting on the countertop of your station. It’s a beautiful product, and you and your friends take it with you to the Service meeting. You can’t wait to do this at home!
  • Lunch is almost over, and you divide the loaf of bread you had made into three pieces. You and your group from Design have your product for lunch. It is the most delicious thing you’ve ever created in school.
  • In Science, your class listens to the teacher talk about the big questions that gave science its knowledge about genetics. You learn about Darwin and Mendel. You watch a video about fruitflies. You take notes. The bell rings and it’s time to go to the next class.
  • Your art this term that you’ve chosen is theatre. You are working on developing your understanding of the ensemble. In the middle of the group activity the teacher has asked your group to use to warm up, you realize that your PHE group is an ensemble and that your Design group is an ensemble and that your service project group is, too. This makes a warm and exciting feeling bloom in your mind. When the teacher asks you to write a reflection at the end of the class, you write about your insight. You can’t wait to share this with your parents, tonight at the dinner table. You can’t wait for the next theatre class.
  • You walk buoyantly into the last class of the day, your language acquisition class. The topic today is conjugating verbs. The teacher gives you the worksheets and you sit at your desk and complete it. As you write on the worksheet, you think about the last summer when you were in the country where this language is spoken. You’d gone to the market with your mom and listened to her conversations with the lady who sold the wooden spatulas your mom was fond of and wanted to buy. Your mom speaks this language, and you caught the gist of the story of how the lady makes the spatulas in the winter months, hundreds of them. Your mom told you the lady’s story of choosing the wood, of which wood is good for making the kitchen utensils, of how she learned it from her parents and how her parents learned the process of creating the wooden kitchen implements from their parents. The reverie is pleasant and you linger in those memories. You still have time to complete the worksheet before the bell rings.

Looking at the episodic experiences in this hypothetical day in the life of an MYP 3 learner, we gain data on the student experience. We might notice that:

In Math, there was a multitasking demand on the learner’s working memory. The students listened and wrote notes at the same time. Working memory is limited; it’s been discovered that we are able to hold up to four things at a time in working memory. Check out Peter Doolittle’s TED talk about the limitations and potential of working memory.

In Language and literature class, the student experienced concepts by hearing about them and left the class without any visible product showing processing of those concepts.

In Individuals and societies, the topic was intriguing, and the learner was provoked into creating questions. There being no opportunity to ask the questions, the student chose to write them down. The lecture about the comparison of historical and current expressions of empire might have further allowed learners to engage a lot of critical thought students might do as they developed a comparison (as opposed to the teacher is doing in a lecture).

In PHE, the student had a question that the lesson provoked, and there was no time to ask the question or to write it down so the learner might do something with it later.

In Design, the student had done work collaboratively outside class and manifested skills of organization and collaboration.

During the lunch break service project meeting, the learner manifested the skill of transfer.

During Science class, the subject matter of how living organisms express traits through generations seems quite alien to the human child sitting in the class, as evidenced by the lack of engagement.

In Arts class, the student is engaged and has made connections between the concept and other experiences of collaboration. There is transfer of the concept, which surfaces and is processed during the time given for reflection writing.

In Language acquisition, the learner has a context for the language she is learning, but it is hidden in her mind because she spends the time completing a worksheet, which has not allowed her to make connections with the information or her previous experiences with it.

Asking questions of schooling

The argument about segmentation of the school day aside, there are a lot of things we can learn from the student experience of just one school day.

Is there enough time for processing in the day?

Processing is a key cognitive move to turn items stored in working memory that has a limited capacity to knowledge which has meaning, context, purpose and function for the learner.

Is there thinking time for reflection on learning?

In the story above, the learner had time to reflect on learning only once in the school day. When do students have time to think about their learning, to make connections and find its relevance to their lives?

Is the teacher speaking the best way to help students learn lots of information?

Only speaking something to someone and expecting them to retain the information is probably not a good idea for most of the school day. Speech fades into silence quickly.

Unlike vision, where we can often study an image as long as we need to, everything we hear occurs in time The speech signal moves very quickly: an average sentence is about 14 seconds long, an average single syllable word lasts only a quarter of a second, and the average consonant sound may last only 1/12 of a second.

– Martha Burns, Ph.D in this article about working memory (scilearn.com)

Can we use multi-modal information to our learners’ advantage?

Since images last longer than sound, using visual information might help students to move learning from working memory to long-term memory more effectively. Also, might we allow for more performance activities rather than the old listen-and-take-notes or other passive strategies?

Do learners have opportunities to pursue their curiosity, to approach learning through inquiry?

When the concepts and topics are interesting and provokes curiosity and questioning, what opportunities do students have to take their own learning forward?

Do we bring in students’ prior learning so they can find relevance and meaning, making connections with what they are being presented, doing, thinking about?

To what extent do we get to know our students as individuals, and how do we leverage this knowledge in the design of their experiences, so there are pathways to meaning making for each of them?

To what extent do we know the student’s experience as they travel through the school day? The school year?  

To what extent do we ask students how they learn best so we can teach our best and facilitate learning?

To what extent do all teachers have an overview of the student experience, to create interdisciplinary connections?

It seems we have a universe of opportunity to ask ourselves these questions, to reimagine what school might be. And, what might our responses be?


Brown, B. (2010). The power of vulnerability. Retrieved 15 October 2018 from https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en&utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare (TEDxHouston)

Burns, M. Keeping in Mind: The Task of Working Memory. (2014, July 17). Retrieved from https://www.scilearn.com/blog/the-task-of-working-memory

Doolittle, P. (2013). How your “working memory” makes sense of the world. Retrieved on 15 October 2018 from https://www.ted.com/talks/peter_doolittle_how_your_working_memory_makes_sense_of_the_world?language=en&utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare (TEDGlobal)

Featured photo “School of fish” by zhan zhang on Unsplash

Join the conversation! 5 Comments

  1. Moving description, Aloha. But your solution? 😟

    • Ellie Drago-Severson says “equal parts challenge and support” create a holding environment for learning into change. Sometimes, the optimal solution might be to just go ahead and do it rather than waiting for understanding on how to do it to emerge through coaching. So the solution is to redesign the entire timetable. It’s complex and multi-layered, but not impossible to design.

    • The redesign of the timetable is a technical response. Adults learning about knowing students; knowing the curriculum; knowing a range of responses; giving students opportunity to ask questions and pursue them; orchestrating the asynchronous process of learning is the adaptive, long-term solution.

  2. Loved this post Aloha.
    I spent a few days shadowing some students in middle school. The experience was exhausting, enlightening and sometimes bewildering. You have mentioned a few things the students need to be able to process and deal with through their day, we also need to add into the mix the expectations that for every class they work at 100% or more and to be engaged and absorbed in the lesson, even when they are trying to process what has been going on a few hours ago. They also need to adapt to different teaching styles and different class dynamics if the students change classes.

    As educators we need to be mindful of the emotional demands of the day in terms of variables in human interactions, what is happening at home or in their own social circles. And then we expect nothing short of excellence in their work. “They can do better if they applied themselves”.

    Are schools set up for adults or for students?? Our thinking around secondary schooling needs to shift dramatically as it is not a natural way of learning. Not sure of the solutions when there are so many stakeholders who know best.

    • Thanks, Dianne.
      It’s always been a concern that we seem to start with structure and ‘fit’ our students into that structure. It’s still very much an industrial model. Another concern is the isolation of areas of knowing, and how that structure of subject-separation creates artificial barriers between the disciplines. Your question, are schools set up for adults or students? resonates. It has been very convenient for schools to structure how education this way because of demands on the adults’ time and needs (the school year based on the agricultural calendar, the timetable based on adults’ working timetables, etc) rather than what’s optimal for learning. Certainly we all have much to reimagine.


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About alavina

Cognitive CoachSM and professional development leader at large. Blogger at http://myptoolbox.com.


Approaches to Teaching and Learning


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