Explicitly teaching skills in disciplinary inquiry

One of the topics that can fuel hours of teacher dialog is the difference between assigning tasks and teaching the process by which tasks can be pursued through inquiry. Assigning might consist of telling students to do a task. Teaching a process involves teaching approaches to learning, which might allow students to problem solve for the task.

It is one thing to talk about how scientists solve problems using scientific inquiry, and it is another thing altogether to experience using scientific inquiry to solve a problem. In every discipline or subject, there are patterns of thinking employed systematically by the people who work in that discipline, which are particularly developed by practitioners in that discipline.

Schooling as it exists has been structured for people to learn how to learn in disciplines. The ways of doing and learning in a discipline follow systematic approaches which help to inquire in the discipline, and these are the experiences we attempt to provide in school, so that our students understand the systems within a discipline, and how these systems help the practitioner to inquire, reflect and take action.

In sciences, the ways of doing research or inquiry have common threads. Research is a big part of each discipline. In studies of language and literature, for instance, experiences in organizing communication of ideas and experiences in the actual production of these ways of communication are predominant approaches for those who communicate through language and literature; authors write specific texts for specific purposes.

Part of our planning of learning in a subject involves planning for experiences wherein students learn and use skills and approaches particular to that subject. Some of the questions we might have in how to do this in a unit of inquiry may include:

  • How do we embed skills into a unit with context, content and concepts?
  • How do we plan for students to experience, as authentically as possible, the ways of doing what people do in a particular field?
  • How do we integrate skills and approaches to learning in a subject as effectively as possible?

These questions of instructional design might give us a hint of the complexity that an integrated and holistic planning approach requires. Design is a creative process, which involves evaluation at every step of the way, and demands of the designer an ability to iterate: to test and use a feedback loop to inform further revisions of the design until the desired outcome is achieved.

The approaches to learning in a subject

What do scientists do?

Science is a good example for a subject with a systematic way of approaching learning. Scientists have a specific way of arriving at understanding – the scientific method. Through research and investigations, scientists have arrived at the body of knowledge which exists because scientists perpetually investigate and demystify how the world works. Through the scientific method, students can also experience the ways that science arrives at understanding. Through research and experiments, students can arrive at understanding the principles that scientists have learnt and used to solve authentic problems and illuminated the thinking through science in our world.

Not only the natural sciences use specifically created methods to find solutions to questions about how the world works. Human sciences, the humanities, have also adopted systematic research and investigation to find solutions to problems in these fields. In psychology, geography, history, and other human sciences, research and investigation play a large role in demystifying the world.

The goal for doing in the social sciences, therefore, remains very close to doing in the natural sciences, in that students might experience problem solving through investigation and research. In this discussion of the integration of skills and practice in units, it is helpful to look at investigation as an experience for students of a subject, in which knowledge is used in processes, which help students to learn and do in a subject.

The process of investigation

Process learning is often more effective when the learner actually experiences the process. Designing ways for students to experience research as it is done in a subject is therefore a worthy pursuit in the unit plan. Repeated rehearsal in the problem-solving process that a practitioner uses in that subject is essential for students to truly understand what it is like to be a practitioner in that subject.

As students rehearse the process through repeated use, habituated thinking within those approaches are more likely to happen (Brown & Bennet, 2002). The implications are that as students learn the process, the teacher might:

  • Draw attention to the reasons why specific steps in a process are taken, to establish the significance of these in the process
  • Facilitate awareness of changes that might result in the students’ thinking as they use the process
  • Allow students to make connections between their own thinking and the effects a specific thinking pattern might have on the process
  • Embed opportunities for reflection and metacognition within the process
  • Find ways to highlight similarities between processes used to solve different problems in the same subject with different contexts, content and concepts, to facilitate understanding of the approach as part of the systematic pattern of thinking and learning in that subject
  • Provide ways for students to highlight transfer of the process in other situations, for example, in solving unfamiliar problems

The implications above also point out the importance of teaching the process rather than just assigning the process (Merzenich et al., 1996). Assuming that students naturally know how to use a process as they get older, for instance, is unwise because there might be no default setting for these processes, which have been constructed to support learning in a subject by those who have developed expertise in the subject’s approaches to learning.

How a teacher breaks down the processes and helps students to learn multiple pathways to understanding impact how effectively the student can use the processes to learn in that subject.

How do you break down the processes and approaches in your discipline? I invite you to share your ideas in a comment.

Further reading

Brown, S. W., & Bennet, E. (2002). The role of practice and automaticity in temporal and nontemporal dual-task performance. Psychological Research, 66(1), 80-9. doi: 101007/S004260100076

Merzenich, M. M., Jenkins, W.M, Johnston, P., Schreiner, C., Miller, S. L., & Tallal, P. (1996). Temporal processing deficits of language-learning impaired children ameliorated by training. Science, 271, 77-81. doi:10.2307/29890377


Orientation in time, place and space: inquiring into boundaries

Is schooling completely future-oriented?

What might be the boundaries presented to inquiring minds by orientation in time, place and space? The global context in the MYP “Orientation to time, place and space” presents the questions of “where” and “when,” as concepts organizing how individuals might think (IBO, 2015).

Consider a few of the recurring misunderstandings in schools:

  • Teachers emphasize engagement in learning for future benefits and students do not rehearse learning in the present (because some other activity is more tempting)
  • Schools emphasize future benefits of procedures such as school attendance and parents take their children away to a holiday, missing school days
  • Schools emphasize focused attention during class time by asking students to put away their social media devices during the school day and students and parents do not understand why
  • Parents ask their children to study and children prefer to surf Youtube or some other website during the time asked to study

What’s really at work here? In this inquiry we explore “peoples, boundaries, exchange and interaction” (from MYP: From Principles into Practice, 2015, p. 60). As we consider the misunderstandings in the bullet-pointed list above, a common conceptual thread that runs through the conflicting ideas might be orientation to time as a function of place and space.

“Orientation to time” presents multiple perspectives framing perceptions of time, and these perceptions impact how people create boundaries between present and past and future. In other words, the ways we think of time directly affect decision-making and consequent action.

The long-standing “Marshmallow Study” by Stanford professor Walter Mischel illustrates an aspect of time orientation through the action of delayed gratification. 40 years after the study, the longitudinal data suggests that children who were able to delay gratification at age 4 or 5– in effect being able to understand the long-term benefits of wait time at an early age— scored higher on achievement tests ten years later. These children also had “lower incidents of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures” (Clear, 2016).

In an interview with Atlantic magazine, Mischel clarified that the study was really about “achievement situations and what influences a child to reach his or her choice” (Mischel in Urist, 2014).

Ideas about time and achievement present this inquiry with the related concept of boundaries. We might ask the following questions (and other, similar ones):

Factual questions:

  • What boundaries might exist for different people, as contextual frameworks for time?
  • What are some cultural orientations to time?
  • What are some cultural orientations to achievement?

Conceptual questions:

  • What other factors might influence ideas of time and its relationship to achievement?
  • How do our ideas of time and achievement influence decision making?

Debatable question:

  • Are all impulsive decisions (without a delay of gratification) a function of orientation to time?

A useful resource in this inquiry is Wittman and Butler’s Felt Time; The psychology of how we perceive time (MIT Press, 2016). In the book, Wittman and Butler discuss what they term temporal shortsightedness, temporal myopia, and provide useful studies to consider and gain some insights into the nature of orientation in time, place and space and the uses and limitations of perceptions which impact how we think of time.

Temporal shortsightedness

The conflict between the present, past and future requires a metacognitive layer of thinking about the thinking we do in response to time boundaries. For example:

  • A student may find social media updates more tempting than the present lesson on chemical bonds
  • A parent may find that the class of 1986 Reunion dinner is more tempting than the back-to-school night
  • A teacher may find that a collaborative dialog on authentic assessment may be less compelling than using a ‘tried and true’ test filed in a binder
  • A school leader might find that waiting for teachers to learn through an implementation dip is taking too long and teachers need to just square their shoulders and make it happen

When the above ideas about time and task present themselves, and when individuals do not consider their own thinking about time, conflicts may arise.

Wittman and Butler suggest that in many cultures, delayed gratification is built in to facets of cultural decision making. For instance, retirement plans have worldwide use, wherein working adults defer monetary reward for use much later in life. The choice of long-term investments is another cross-cultural concept which uses delays in rewards for later times. Most countries’ educational systems have prolonged schooling with the idea of greater gains in knowledge and skills of future professionals and workers. In many cultures around the globe, the ability to delay reward for future benefit is a feature in social institutions.

Temporal myopia

In adults as in children, waiting for some future benefit can vary.

Wittman and Butler define temporal myopia as “stretches of time standing closer to us appear sharper than stretches of equal duration lying farther off. In this context, temporal myopia means, in essence, that we perceive the difference between today and tomorrow much more acutely than we perceive the difference between tomorrow and the day after” (Wittman and Butler, 2016, p. 7).

In studies cited, impulsive people tend to go for lesser sums of money or rewards so that they do not have to wait. This idea of impulsivity is similar to the behavior of children and adults with ADHD, which is expressed in the tendency not to recognize the value of deferred gratification, which is an orientation to the present.

When the orientation of tasks is future-oriented (do now and benefit later) as it is in school, a present orientation (do not do now and benefit now) presents a conflict.

Emotional intelligence as a factor in time orientation and waiting

Emotion plays a big role in human decisions. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo posits research on time orientation and how perceptions of time orientation influence individuals.

Zimbardo and Boyd (in Wittman and Butler, 2016) developed questionnaires, which revealed patterns in how people think about time as framework for perspectives. The researchers found that:

  • People who predominantly have a present-orientation tend to take more drugs, have unprotected sex, receive more speeding tickets, and engage in other, negative risk-taking behaviors
  • People who predominantly have a future-orientation tend to be averse to spontaneity and are risk-averse (for example, will not venture to try new cultural activities or sports)
  • Past oriented people often reject new ways of doing things and prefer to follow past ‘traditions’ to the neglect of innovations

In brain-based studies of reward-and-time orientation studies, researchers found that adults who chose more immediate but lesser rewards (present orientation) showed high activity in the brain region called the paralimbic system, which has a strong link to emotional decision making (Wittman and Butler, 2016). However, when study participants chose to delay gratification for greater future rewards showed higher activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is an area of the brain connected to planning, decision making, and controlling impulses.

When Mischel’s study subjects were tested again 40 years after the Marshmallow Test, what they found was that people who had not excelled at delayed gratification when they were 4 or 5 showed fMRI scans that showed lower activity in the frontal cortex.

Neurologist Antonio Damasio (in Wittman and Butler, 2016) points to the influence of emotional assessment, which we learned earlier is located in the paralimbic system, on decision making. Damasio found that decisions that go against immediate gratification find value in emotional contexts. This means that for instance, weighing the values of (Choice a) watching TV now and (Choice b) going to the gym to exercise now goes through an emotional assessment. Further, Damasio suggests that emotional responses such as comfort and convenience play a great part in decisions of what people do in the present.

In the beginning of this inquiry was the question, Is education really future oriented? The suggestion is not to advocate for a future-only orientation in schools. Far from it, the gentle suggestion in this inquiry is that we pay attention to the time orientation of others and the boundaries inherent in these, so that we can presume positive intentions in our interactions and exchanges. As Jelaludin Rumi once wrote, “Out beyond the ideas of wrong and right, there is a field. I will meet you there.”

What might we find?



Clear, J. (2016). “40 Years of Stanford Research Found That People With This One Quality Are More Likely to Succeed “| James Clear. Retrieved September 26, 2016, from
Hadad, C. (2015, July 10). “What ‘marshmallow test’ can teach you about your kids.” Retrieved September 26, 2016, from

International Baccalaureate Organization. (2015). MYP: From principles into practice. Geneva: Author.

The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. (2014). Sci Am Scientific American, 311(3), 92-92. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0914-92c

Wittman, M., & Butler, E. (2016). Felt time: The Psychology of How we Perceive Time (MIT Press) [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from

Photo credit: Eastman Johnson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons




Polarity: Rigor and Inclusion

There are some ‘problems’ that surface every year in schools. One of these is the tug-of-war between being rigorous and inclusive. Sometimes, we think that the solution to every issue is to become more rigorous: raise the standards and the engagement and achievement will follow. Other times, we think that the solution to every issue is to be inclusive; if we offer enough personalized learning, everyone is happy and the issues disappear.

But with many of these ‘problems,’ we realize that one-sided solutions do not work very well. If we are too inclusive in the sense that we offer personalized solutions for everyone, we begin to question whether our criteria for success are relative and hence not able to be guaranteed in a consistent way. If we are too rigorous, we could potentially alienate so many students that we end up with an unhappy school.

The problem is that we treat these ‘problems’ as problems even though they are not. Barry Johnson (1996) suggests that there are tensions in organizations, which are not actually problems, but polarities. Polarities are conditions that co-exist, which cannot be solved by focusing on one to the detriment of focusing on the other. Rigor and inclusion for instance, must co-exist in a school in order for the school to guarantee the leaving credential but also to allow each individual to have access to the learning and the capacity to successfully learn.

By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga Commons)(Lmbuga Galipedia) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsBy Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga Commons)(Lmbuga Galipedia) via Wikimedia Commons

Johnson suggests that polarities are unsolvable, and that they are better off managed in their co-existence. “Polarities to be managed are sets of opposites that can’t function well independently; they require both-and thinking. Because the two sides of a polarity are interdependent, you cannot choose one as a solution and neglect the other,” writes Carolyn McKanders (in Garmston and Wellman, 2013).

A faculty mapped the polarity between rigor and inclusion and learned the upsides and downsides of focusing on one to the neglect of the other.


Polarity Map® is © 2016 by Polarity Partnerships, LLC, All Rights Reserved.

Here is an application.

While reviewing the assessment policy this year, the group dialogued on the goal to be both inclusive and rigorous. The faculty wanted students to have multiple access points to learning and multiple ways to show they had learned. They also wanted students to engage in the rigorous program and to achieve at the highest levels for which they possessed the knowledge, understanding, skills and attitudes to do so. The school wanted to be both rigorous and inclusive.

One of the solutions to become more rigorous was to revise the policy so that students:
• Invested in their own learning every day
• Became conversant in the criteria for success
• Used approaches to learning they had learned to perform well on each summative assessment

In order to foster rigor, teachers decided that students had to:
• Show up every day ready to learn
• Learned and used self-management skills to keep track of their learning
• Reflected on approaches to learning—how ATL skills worked, how to get better at them, and how to evaluate them so they might decide which to use for what tasks

The faculty also had to provide action plans for how to become more inclusive. Being inclusive meant finding approaches for students to have personal entry points to learning. It also meant designing assessments, which had personal significance to the student; had multiple ways to express understanding; and called upon a repertoire of skill sets which may differ from student to student.

Solutions to become more rigorous and inclusive at the same time meant that teachers had to inquire into powerful questions such as:
• How do we motivate students to invest personally in the learning?
• How do we empower students to follow personal trajectories into units of inquiry?
• How do we inspire students to make connections?

Questions such as these fueled teachers’ reflective practices. They began to ask, what needs to happen, to inspire personal investment and self-directedness in the students? What needs to happen to provide an environment where risk-taking and inquiry are at the heart of learning? And what can we do to encourage students to unlearn unproductive habits like coming to school late and being absent, and to learn ways to become curious, inspired and motivated to be better at who they are? How do we create the belief that we are here for important reasons and that the learning we do is relevant?

The inquiry goes on. The value of the polarity mapping for this faculty was not in finding answers that stop inquiry, but in providing the spark that allowed the adults in the school to find relevance in the inquiry process itself. By deciding to map the polarity between rigor and inclusion, the teachers began an inquiry, which has launched a journey of school improvement with leadership from the classroom.

When polarities are present, as they are in every organization, they can become resources instead of problems. Harnessing the cognitive conflict, which resides in polarity management is an adaptive response to the recurrent issues that revisit a school unceasingly. Through inquiry and collaboration, these issues can become inquiries that can revitalize a community of learners.

To learn more about polarities and managing them, visit these resources:
Garmston, R. and Wellman, B. (2013). The Adaptive School; A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups, 2nd Ed. NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

Johnson, B. (1996). Polarity Management. Amherst, MA: HRD Press, Inc.

Polarity Map® is © 2016 by Polarity Partnerships, LLC, All Rights Reserved. For more information on resources, please see

Photo Credit: Photo of Child By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga Commons)(Lmbuga Galipedia) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


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On a More Beautiful Question

In rethinking the shift to constructivist approaches in the classroom, one guiding principle stands out as key in considerations around inquiry. Warren Berger, in his book A More Beautiful Question, captures the process of inquiry, “Ambitious, catalytic questioning tends to follow a progression, one that often starts with stepping back and seeing things differently and ends with taking action on a particular question” (Berger 7). Designing inquiry into classroom learning accepts that the learning trajectory of students:

  • Follow individualized, personal processes
  • May use investigation cycles for guidance
  • Can result in shifting perspectives
  • Can result in taking action based on learning

Inquiry is individualized and personal

Students may be curious about different aspects of the big idea presented in the statement of inquiry of a unit. Teachers need to consider the scope of the unit, the time it is allocated, and what could be personal trajectories and choices students can pursue. Design considerations about the scope of the unit depends upon the scope addressed in the statement of inquiry. One suggestion might be to discuss with students as the group deconstructs the big idea or statement of inquiry.

For example, if the statement of inquiry is something like, “Several forces act upon people as they migrate, creating challenges for both migrants and natives of a place and diffusing cultures in unexpected ways,” some of the sub-ideas might be:

  • There are personal reasons why people migrate
  • There may be social forces that compel groups of people to migrate
  • The experiences of migration are both individual and social in essence
  • Migration does not happen in a vacuum, so there will be forces acting upon the movement of people, and these forces are experienced in a variety of ways.
  • Migration of people can create challenges for migrants.
  • Migration can create challenges for natives of a place.
  • Culture is diffused when people migrate, as immigrants bring their culture to a different setting.
  • Migrants must necessarily encounter cultures in the place to which they migrate.
  • When ideas collide, new ideas might emerge.
  • Diffusion of cultures can happen in unexpected ways.

Students might choose to investigate different aspects as each seems significant to themselves.

When this happens, teachers need to allow for this scope and variation in the lines of inquiry.

Inquiry is cyclical and iterative

Firestein (Berger,16) suggests that “One good question can give rise to several layers of answers, can inspire decades-long searches for solutions, can generate whole new fields of inquiry, and can prompt changes in entrenched thinking,… but answers, on the other hand, often end the process.”

A linear approach to lines of inquiry means that as soon as students find the answers to a question, the inquiry ends.

We know that effective investigations give rise to additional questions. This is inherent in investigations because all knowledge and concepts are interlinked in any number of ways. When students are taught that asking questions means being open to an interdisciplinary universe, they might become more open to extending inquiry as they progress through their investigations.

The usefulness of Criterion B in any of the MYP subjects is perhaps to anchor inquiries to subject-specific processes. A process “may not provide any answers or solutions, but, as one design-thinker told me, having a process helps you to keep taking next steps—so that even when you don’t know what you’re doing, you still know what to do” (Berger 33).

Inquiry can result in shifting perspectives

In the unit exploring the big idea “Several forces act upon people as they migrate, creating challenges for both migrants and natives of a place and diffusing cultures in unexpected ways,” students might discover these ‘answers’ which might give rise to the follow up questions (in italics):

  • Students will know the subject content of migration cases, various reasons why people migrate, and the choices that are enabled or limited by standards and laws of migration in different countries. How do laws limit choices?
  • Students will understand the concepts of change, causality, choice, and perspective. How does perspective frame the freedoms of peoples?
  • Students will apply the skills of constructing a research question and explaining its relevance. Why might one research question be more effective than another?
  • Students will use both qualitative and quantitative data to answer a research question. To what extent are qualitative and quantitative data valid and reliable? How do I know?
  • Students will prepare a synthesis of the information they have gathered through qualitative and document research. How does my presentation influence how I communicate?
  • Students will think critically about the concepts, cases and data gathered in various text types, including both written and visual texts and through interviews. How do we know that a source is reliable? How do I evaluate sources?
  • Students will discover various perspectives about migration and explain these. To what extent does perspective influence people’s choices?

Inquiry can lead to action

We notice that questions deliberately unpacked from a generalization such as a big idea transcend the content of a subject area. As the questions take students to inquiries around big ideas, the questions (and answers) they find that their inquiries touch upon issues of our human commonality, issues that we grapple with in the real world in our attempts to find viable, sustainable and fair solutions.

As students consider these issues with some depth of understanding, they just might find shifting personal perspectives, and be moved to responsible action.

John Seeley Brown writes that “a questioner can thrive in these times of exponential change” (Berger 28). Brown suggests, “If you don’t have the disposition to question, you’re going to fear change. But if you’re comfortable questioning, experimenting, connecting things—then change is something that becomes an adventure. And if you can see it as an adventure, then you’re off and running.”


Berger, W. (2014). A More Beautiful Question. NY: Bloomsbury.
Lavina, A. (2015). Designing Understanding into Unit Plans. Amazon: Vitamorphosis.

Photo Credit: CC By Staff Sgt. Patricia McMurphy ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.





Message in a Bottle

A teacher asked me today, “Why is it that my students do not see the value of poetry?” She had followed the literature text’s suggestions, asking guided questions so students could access the meaning of the poems in the text.

We dialogued on the flow of the lessons in her unit, and found that the design was deductive. Starting with the big idea of what poetry is, the lessons followed a general to specific study of poems, how they were constructed, naming devices, and then analyzing the devices to get to the meaning of the poems.

The students disengaged at some point, and the outcomes they achieved in analysis were mechanical, lacking elaboration, and the students grew increasingly incurious as the unit progressed.

As our discussion deconstructed the lesson, we established that the points wherein the students did invest curiosity were the sessions when they had a personal interest in the meaning that the poems held in relation to their own lives and when there were connections to concepts that organized meaning in their thinking.

We decided to investigate what might happen if we flipped the unit on its head and began by provoking thinking about structure from meaning.

I told this story.

Several years ago, a teacher brought to class an apology letter. It was a letter that was written to someone that the author had offended very deeply, and realizing the offense and the effect it had on the friendship, the author wrote the letter and meant to read it or send it to the friend who had been offended. But the friend was gone, moved away, and the author never got to send the letter or say the apology to the friend.

So the author wrote the letter. The teacher read it out loud with emotion. Then she asked the class to think of a situation where each of them had offended someone, but upon realizing the offense, had not had a chance to apologize. She asked them to write that apology in class.

They did. When they finished the writing, the teacher asked them to take that letter home and rehearse reading it, so that all of these devices would express exactly how they felt:

  • Pauses
  • Tone
  • Pace
  • Volume
  • Stress on specific words

Students were to read the text with the choreographed use of their voices and silence, and then the class would discuss the meaning that they understood from the reading.

When the class met again, the students did read their letters out loud. The class deconstructed how the devices they worked on in the reading added to the meaning of the text.

Then the teacher presented a problem: What if the text was a message in a bottle? What if a stranger picked it up after it had washed up on some faraway shore, and you wanted that person to read it as you had felt it?

The students discussed this new problem. They said, it was impossible to truly understand from reading the text. “The stranger cannot understand the meaning without the voice. Without the gestures. Without the pauses, the speed, the pace of the reading. These things gave the words meaning.”

The teacher then asked, So how do we show those devices in the structure of a piece of writing?

The students discussed further and came up with the following: We know emotion in text through the pauses, the breathing, the pace, sound, tone.

The teacher then asked them to rearrange the lines of text in their letter, so that these elements were represented in its structure.

And the students came up with line breaks, stanzas, punctuation, use of lower case and upper case letters and words. The apology letters began to look like poems.

They read the text out loud using the devices as cues for how it needed to be read, and the author gave them feedback on whether their reading illustrated the text’s meaning.

Shortly after the class constructed the relationship between structure and meaning in language, they began to study a variety of poems and inquired into how the construction of the poem, how it was crafted, influenced its meaning.

In the discussion of this instructional story, we realized a few important considerations.

  • The beginning of the unit on poetry started with personal relevance: the relationship in which the offense was made, the personal writing that would address a rift, an old wound.
  • The students engaged because of the personal connections they made to the writing task.
  • The task allowed an investigation into structure using situated learning, what Papert suggests is the experience of context as the driver of learning.
  • The problem of the message in a bottle presented an intriguing situation where students would need to manifest knowledge and understanding of concepts like purpose, structure, audience imperatives, style, context.
  • Connections were facilitated between structure and meaning.
  • Students discovered the relationships between structure and meaning through the concepts and the examples illustrating the concepts.
  • Students were asked to transfer their learning from analysis of the structure of a personally-relevant text to the analysis of unfamiliar texts.

The value of the what-if question is its inherent demand to think divergently. Asking, What if someone had to read and know meaning without the author providing the voice as a tool to convey that meaning? presented the students with a situation that called for making connections between ideas that were not usually linked together. Minds were opened, and students were able to make the connections, which gave insight into the relationships between structure and meaning.

Photo Credit: By Šarūnas Burdulis from USA – Sea-mail. You’ve got mail! Uploaded by GiW, CC BY-SA 2.0









Getting out of the way

Have you ever asked yourself what might happen if you thought up a unit’s conceptual framework, and let the students use what they know and can do to design their own learning?

A unit taught recently began with explorations of the key concept and time spent formulating a definition of creativity by expanding the idea of the phenomenon. The goal was to see creativity as not just a manifestation of compulsion in visual and musical artists, which was a stereotype we wanted to break.

Students used video, photographs, memes, blog articles, social media articles and other cultural artifacts to provoke thinking about the definition of creativity. Together, the group refined their definition so that it no longer included only what visual artists or other traditional artists did, but also to encompass the greater uses of creativity in life –sports, problem solving at home in the DIY movement, reusing materials and reducing waste, cooking, making playlists—the list of what might become creative endeavors grew as the students explored portraits of creativity from different media. After they had defined creativity as “the ability to rearrange and reinterpret things to create solutions,” students wanted to know more background knowledge from creativity research.

The students engaged through questions. They created questions, which came from their personal interests. The variety of questions astounded. The students came up with questions that well illustrated the distinction between factual, conceptual and debatable questions. Also since the topic of creativity was new to many, students started with factual questions to learn what creativity was in different contexts, how it worked, and why some people were considered creative – questions which helped them to create further questions that gradually narrowed their research focus and further refined our definition of creativity.

  • What is the science behind creativity?
  • What is the Romantic idea of creativity?
  • What mental illnesses have been associated with creativity?
  • How is creativity used in architecture?
  • What are some ways creativity might be portrayed?

We see from the sample questions that the students were able to start with factual questions.

In a subsequent round of question-formulation, with many of their factual questions answered, students began to explore more conceptual questions.

  • Where does creativity come from?
  • How do you define a creative person?
  • Can wealth have an effect on creativity?
  • How does creativity impact lives and places?

After two weeks of answering and sharing what they had learned from factual and conceptual inquiry, students began to ask debatable questions.

  • Are some people more creative than others?
  • How is creativity helpful in everyday life?

The class discussed how we might expand our inquiry by addressing some of the debatable questions in a panel discussion with the community. Students and teachers were invited to a presentation and panel discussion.

At the panel discussion, each student spoke to his or her research questions and what was learned. The audience members were responsive, and asked questions of their own. Sometimes, the class would answer the audience’s questions; other times, the questions would be beyond the scope of the inquiries and remained questions to be explored further.

After the panel discussion, the students went after one more line of inquiry and then they began to prepare their summative tasks. The summative task was to capture what they had learned in a personal manifesto. All students opted to write a personal manifesto for creativity for life. They chose formats that they felt captured their creative identity.

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Getting out of the way was the best thing I did for my students.

The unit was completely student-generated. The decisions that the teacher made consisted of choosing the key concept, the related concepts and the approaches to learning to explicitly teach during the course of the unit.

These were the student decisions:

What materials might provoke thinking about creativity.
Students brought in different materials and used it to expand their thinking about what creativity is and where it is expressed.

What they wanted to learn

The questions that students created started with finding background information by asking focused factual questions.

The process of learning

Students expanded their questioning to include conceptual and debatable questions after they had found background knowledge about creativity. They chose their lines of inquiry and used a range of materials to explore and synthesize answers from the materials. Students also made unusual connections between ideas.

Often the worry about using open-ended inquiries is that students will go off on a tangent and never get the content, concepts and skills that we are supposed to guarantee they will learn.

It is not easy to let go of the control that teachers have over content covered through a highly structured scope and sequence. When we do, what might happen?

Students ask questions.

Students who ask questions that are relevant to them work harder than anyone else to find answers. They use a wide range of skills to find answers, too: research, self-management, organization, communication, collaboration, critical and creative thinking skills were evident in their inquiries.

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Students ask more questions. Their questions reach complexity as a matter of course as their knowledge increases.

Students like authentic audiences. They prepare with care when they know that others want to, and will, learn from them.

At high school level, students are approaching independence in the ways they access knowledge and conceptual understanding. They have more experiences than before so they are able to make connections to real-life situations and multiple, global perspectives. If they had been provided rehearsal in making connections between ideas, they will form new connections when given opportunities.

And when they are given structured autonomy, students are able to inquire independently.

The most satisfying feature of the unit was the students’ ownership of learning and self-directedness in their learning process.

When what we want is a self-directed learner, and we might create environments where that can happen, we might learn that effective teaching is creating situations where people can be effective learners. Then we just let them be.

A Research Focus in a Final Exam

Focusing on Research:

As a trained librarian, my primary focus is often research. I brought that perspective into my most recent challenge: teaching Individuals and Societies Year 3. Since November, I’ve been teaching two sections of the course, and I’ve learned more than I could ever put into words. The most recent success, though, was the final exam.

A few months ago, I participated in an MYP Chat about Assessment that expressed several questions about the Criterion B in I/S and how different teachers assess it. There were more questions than opinions, more uncertainty about this unfamiliar Criterion than ideas about it. With that in mind, I wanted to share my own recent success with an assessment about this Criterion.

When I gave the mid-term exam in December, I hadn’t been teaching long. My lack of familiarity with writing long exams for eighth graders led me to adapt a previously used exam, full of reading and writing tasks. While it covered the content of the course, it used only three of the four criteria, leaving out Criterion B completely, and focusing almost entirely on Criteria A and C. I noticed that many of the students became frustrated with this model, possibly because all of them are English as a Second Language learners. With almost 50 students, about half of them in Language Acquisition, I wasn’t certain that this was an accurate test of their abilities. They put in the effort, but the results weren’t favorable. I was determined to make an exam that tested the skills that we had covered, and one that would suit their language skills better.

The class focused on Migration and Human Rights in the spring, with an emphasis on interview skills, political cartoons/visual literacy, and research. During the human rights unit, students wrote their first academic research paper, presenting different arguments about a human rights topic of their choice. Many students chose women’s rights, or LGBT rights, or a historical look at the atomic bomb. It was a long process, focusing on several elements of the research cycle: writing a research question, citing, taking notes on sources, using library resources, and outlining their work. If I could do it again, I would also have focused more on evaluating sources, but we took time to focus on paraphrasing and plagiarism instead.

I worked with the Language Acquisition teacher, who was doing a similar unit, and we encouraged students to use the same topic (though rarely the same resources) in both classes to increase their comprehension and skills. This was extremely successful; the work that I received from the Language B students had more depth and critical thought than I had previously seen. With covering the material in more than one class, especially in a class that met twice as often as mine, they were able to dig deeper into the information and the concepts.

The final exam needed to be engaging, and needed to assess the different parts of the research process that we had covered. I didn’t want to rely completely on reading and writing, both for my students and for myself. I wanted to provide opportunities for them to utilize the skills they had practiced in class, using all four criteria. Plus, since the entire class never covered one topic, it couldn’t be based on content alone. We worked on inquiry projects throughout the semester, and while certain topics overlapped, there was never anything that we covered in depth as a class.

Here’s what I came up with:

The entire exam centered on protest. I chose the topic because it was an option for their human rights paper, which meant that many of them did preliminary research on it. The information I used was available equally to them all. Many of them knew about the Hong Kong protests because of our location, and our own country has had some recent turmoil that impacted their daily lives.

I created a packet of information about the topic for them to use throughout their exam. The information packet included two perspectives, a pro and con side to protest. I adapted the text from Issues and Controversies, a debate database that we subscribe to, using the ideas without the complex vocabulary and excess text. The teacher I worked with read it over as well, to ensure that there was nothing too challenging. There were descriptions of four protests: Women’s Suffrage, Vietnam Protests, Occupy Wall Street, and the Umbrella Revolution. The packet also included historical images and political cartoons about those same protests. I included the full list of Year 3 Criteria as well. The information packet was separate from the student answer sheet for ease.

The first part was comprehension from the text, marked on Criterion A: Knowledge and Understanding. There were six questions asking about what they read in the text. This is common in many tests, I find, and I asked them to add their own ideas throughout for comprehension.

The second part involved Research Questions, marked on Criterion B: Investigating. It followed a similar format to what we had done in class. They drafted a few research questions, then evaluated their best one with an explanation. They were also tasked with figuring out what criterion matched what they were doing, and how they could succeed, to allow the criteria to be part of their process.

The third part was a paraphrasing exercise, marked on Criterion A: Knowledge and Understanding. They chose two paragraphs (very short paragraphs) from the pro and con side to paraphrase in their own words. I marked this on Criterion A because paraphrasing, to me, means understanding and explaining in a new way, to demonstrate your awareness by adding different information to someone else’s ideas. This was similar to exercises done in both English and Humanities classes.

The fourth part was an analysis of political cartoons. They had to choose one of the political cartoons to describe and analyze using their knowledge and the information from the text. There were short answer questions about the cartoon that they had to answer with specific details, graded with Criterion C: Communication. I marked their other political cartoon assignment with communication, so I wanted to keep it consistent.

The fifth part was arguments and critical thinking. They were asked to create an outline that took information from the text and photos to plan out three arguments for an essay. This was graded with Criterion D: Critical Thinking.

The sixth and final part was a research reflection, graded with Criterion B: Investigating. They reflected on the process of research with guidance from the questions, for the entire semester. Every assignment I gave required research, so they looked at different assignments and how they compared to one another.

As I gave the exam, and then graded the exam, I was quite happy with the results. There were some questions the students didn’t expect, especially with the outline. The style didn’t quite match what I had given them in class, even if it was a similar concept. The questions for the political cartoons gave them some trouble as well, again, because they weren’t expecting the style of the question. Overall, though, most students were able to successfully answer the questions and demonstrate their skills.

Upon reflection, though, there are a few things that I would change.

  1. The exam was almost too long, leaving some students just short of finishing. I would streamline some of the questions and make sure that the majority of students could finish on time, perhaps by clarifying the instructions.
  1. The political cartoon questions were too similar to one another, which created confusion. The task they did in class was annotating the cartoon, and I would go back to that. The instructions also needed to be clarified for more understanding.
  1. I would have liked to add a planning or interview piece in some way. Since they were working on protest, what other sources could they try? What would they look for? Or, if they had the opportunity, what interview questions would they ask? That would add a richer research feel and be able to assess both Criterion B and Criterion C.
  1. I gave too many choices. With the four different protests, there was too much information for them to sift through. Even though that was partially my intention, given the amount of information one has to sift through in every Google search, the time frame was too short for so many options.

Overall, I was content with the exam, and proud of the work that my students accomplished. I’m grateful for the opportunity to try something new, learn from it, and share from it. Hopefully, my experience will lead others to interesting reflections.

Article by Kelsey Hedrick
Image by: Kelsey Hedrick