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


Thank you for reading The Learner’s Toolbox. We are passionate about self-directed learning. Join us on Twitter for a chat on Self-Directed Learning on May 12 1600 UTC by following the hashtag #sdlchat. Co-hosted by @alohalavina and @EricDemore.SDL_graphic_small

An Inquiry into Time, Thought and Identity

Metacognition within perceptions of time and self mediates attention. As an approach to learning skill, metacognition involves knowledge of cognition, which allows a person to actively control thinking during the thinking process. Hence it is often defined as “thinking about thinking.” Approaches to learning such as ways to monitor understanding, evaluating process and progress of learning, and making decisions about use of time are metacognitive approaches (Livingston, 1997). When a learner is able to control thinking using different strategies or approaches, he or she is able to adjust, evaluate and readjust a myriad of factors surrounding the environment and process of learning he or she uses to improve learning. Metacognition supports self-regulation by allowing the learner to practice targeted attention (Goleman, 2013) to factors such as the learning environment, process, time, and personal investments in these.

Strategies allow for the abstraction of metacognition to become concrete, practical approaches. An example would be while reading actively, the reader uses questions as self-tests for comprehension and monitors the effectiveness of the strategy in terms of the learning objective (comprehension). The strategy of using questions is a cognitive move, while the strategy of monitoring its effectiveness is metacognitive (Livingston, 1997). Learners practicing metacognition while learning develop and use feedback systems to self-direct learning.

Cognitive Strategy Instruction (CSI) is a tool that is worth mentioning in instruction about thinking. A simple way of expressing this tool is to ask students to think of “How do I do this and why am I doing it this way?” The how is the cognitive move, while the why involves finding approaches to monitoring the thinking. CSI is based on the Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) model used in teaching writing. In the SRSD model, students who are producing text are asked to perform the following explicit cognitive and metacognitive moves (Council for Exceptional Children, 2009):

  • Self-monitoring as a goal is set and a process designed for students to make the process visible
  • Self-instruction as the students discuss the process and decisions made, use a checklist, use a visible guide for the writing process
  • Self-reinforcement can involve self-talk, use of additional reading or research to keep the flow of the process going
  • Metacognition through modeling think- or read-alouds
  • Self-assessment through a checklist or cue cards, or ways to use questions to evaluate own performance, such as developing a rationale for writer’s choices

An interesting idea in the inquiry towards nurturing agile thinkers is the effects on perceptions of time on how learners learn. Time to think is a requirement for effective self-directed learning.

Being busy without time for reflection creates a mental environment of ceaseless action without deep thought. With this condition, how might we allow for insight, solution design, and making connections?

Photo By Brocken Inaglory. The image was edited by user: Alvesgaspar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Photo By Brocken Inaglory. The image was edited by user: Alvesgaspar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

We know that engagement in immediate tasks at hand allow for the possibility of flow: concentration which stretches thinking and capacity. Time for self-reflection is crucial for tasks that ask students to find personal relevance through metacognition. When we think about our thinking, the expansion of our awareness involves knowing how much time to invest in a task and why. Because we become more aware of time constraints, we might also become more aware of changing craftsmanship –whether it is allowing more time or less time—as a function of what we know, understand and can do.

Time is a perception that can change the ways we know, understand and can do. It is a moment of optimistic intersections between all the things we are and the significance of our aspirations for what we must inquire into and rehearse. As time becomes less an external construct and more of an internal one for the learner, he or she allows for time to engage the self, binding identity to the task at hand.

Because the perception of time makes it relative to self, time can protract or extend as necessary within the perceptions of the learner. Challenges like open-ended tasks then allow us to perceive how we have significantly crafted use of time, and how we learn through strategies including metacognition.

Using Reflection

In lesson design involving approaches to learning like metacognitive strategies and use of time during tasks, it might be useful to use reflection as opportunities to develop both. When we stop to record a moment of learning, we step out of engagement in cognition to think about it and how it affects the time available.

This is the ‘trick’ of metacognition—to be able to step out of engagement to reflect on it, to integrate the moment itself and its experience with the reflective thinking as we take action and document its significance.

Council for Exceptional Children (2009). A focus on self-regulated strategy development for writing. Retrieved from on May 7, 2016.

Goleman, D. (2013). Focus; The hidden driver of excellence. NY: Harper Collins.

Livingston, J. A. (1997). “Metacognition; An overview.” Retrieved from on May 6, 2016.

Thank you for reading The Learner’s Toolbox. We are passionate about self-directed learning. Join us on Twitter for a chat on Self-Directed Learning on May 12 1600 UTC by following the hashtag #sdlchat. Co-hosted by @alohalavina and @EricDemore.SDL_graphic_small

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









Imagination and the interdisciplinary

Every day, we glimpse the future in the present.

In the IB Diploma, the world studies essay gives students opportunities to express their interdisciplinary understanding by conducting “an in-depth interdisciplinary investigation into an issue of contemporary global importance” (IBO, 2014, p. 10). The ways by which we approach interdisciplinary investigation in the MYP directly affect the ways by which students might approach interdisciplinary investigation in the Diploma. If Diploma students struggle with interdisciplinary investigations in the world studies essay, what are our hunches about what experiences we need to facilitate for these students in the MYP?

Like a full bucket requires each drop of water added in at a specific time and place, small actions can complete an intended result.

Gharajedaghi in his book Systems Thinking (2006) presents four ways that might sustain small actions toward an intended result: design, participation, iteration, and second order learning (in Garmston & Wellman, 2013). These ideas can apply to interdisciplinary experiences in the MYP, and here we look at the first two.

Design consists of choices made based on values and principles (Garmston & Wellman, 2013). In a classroom, this might be about how we arrange the physical environment, essential agreements for behavior, the flow of teaching and learning. If we have seats arranged in uniform rows, all facing one way, perhaps we convey the value of a sage in the front of the room, that learning is transmission, non-collaborative, an endeavor each learner must undertake alone and in passive ways. If we rearranged this classroom so that students can see each other’s faces while learning, what values might this communicate? If the classroom has flexible seating to suit learning engagements at a given time, what might the students learn from this element of design?

In traditional subject-driven models of schooling, rare are the opportunities to explore one discipline’s concepts in light of another’s. If part of our design in MYP is facilitating arrangements and opportunities for another subject’s concepts to blend in another subject’s learning, we convey the importance of interdisciplinary learning. By gathering two or more subjects under the same global context to explore authentic manifestations of concepts, we convey the interconnectedness in our world and the ways we might explore complexity through these connections.

Participation is a function of design; the ways we behave can arise from the ways our interactions and behavior are shaped by things and people (Garmston & Wellman, 2013). If we expect behaviors, such as fruitful collaboration for instance, yet we do not provide for the actors to learn the skills necessary to engage in the expected behaviors, what might result? In the MYP classroom, participation might include approximations of independent inquiry. This means students have to experience psychological safety to explore how independent investigations work for each of them. This means we have adopted a mindset that school is not about getting things right that have already been decided by the teacher or the exam, but that school is a series of opportunities to exercise craftsmanship and flexible thinking and many other dispositions of the Learner Profile. That ways to know and understand and do can be more than the teacher’s design based on his or her own experience, and that students can author approaches to learning as they learn, and share these with other learners.

Independent investigation requires the student to value ambiguity as an entry point to learning.

One might argue, But what do they know, these students? How might they approach independent investigation when they know not much?

Consider the poet who provokes thinking

Xu Lizhi is the poet who documented the lives of workers in China. His own life through his poetry captures the macro-concepts of fairness and development, globalization and sustainability. He illustrates the key concepts of change, perspective, adaptation, balance, aesthetics, among others.

His poetry resonates with the audience because they allow readers to imagine a life they might not otherwise know. But the poems also capture the lives of hopeful migrants to the Chinese manufacturing hubs, and allow humanity to emerge in the algorithm of a Chinese “American Dream” – hope, optimism, disappointment, anguish, pain, creativity and destruction. If I read about Xu Lizhi, if I read his poetry, it might provoke thinking about a global context, a key concept, and provide entry points to connections that link subjects.

Consider the algorithm of a blockbuster movie, and of love

The increasing use of algorithms as an entry point to knowing and understanding patterns has emerged. People now calculate what makes a movie successful, how people choose political parties, and even attempt to predict the calculus of love.

We also learn that algorithms have to be adaptive, to deal with human problems connected to change. Humanity is needed in problems that produce decisions – such as trust, meaning, and asking the right questions. In the end, the human is necessary to provide the decisions. The patterns are only what they are, information arranged in meaningful sequences of logic, used to predict. In the process, imagination is key to finding interpretations that might result in adaptive decisions. In other words, the numbers open portals to the calculus of what to do, but we have to imagine what it is that we might do.

W.E.B. DuBois “invented a way of being, a point of view, a style of work that quite naturally, dynamically and organically integrated science, art, history, and activism” (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Hoffman Davis, 1997, p. 7). In Rampersod’s portrait of DuBois, he “declined to see a separation between Science and Art, believing that such a distinction violated the integrity of intelligence, which could set no wall between one fundamental form of knowledge and another, since all belonged to the world of nature, of Truth…” (Rampersod in Lawrence-Lightfoot and Hoffman Davis, 1997, p.7).

We ask our students to view the world like DuBois, to imagine and pursue explorations of a world wherein there are no preset maps, only endless avenues.

The future is in the present: independent inquiry and the imagination to voyage into the interdisciplinary. Interdisciplinary learning is the explicit harnessing of the imagination, and the IDU is a formal invitation to form connections and explore these.

How will we teach our students to sail? How will we give them the courage and self-efficacy to journey independently?

The ways we make the future is by approximating it in the present.

And when the present resembles the future we intend, we are already transforming it.


International Baccalaureate Organization (2014). Fostering interdisciplinary teaching and learning in the MYP. Geneva: Author.

Garmston, R. J., & Wellman, B. M. (2013.) The adaptive school; A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups (2nd ed.). New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Gharajedaghi, J. (2006). Systems thinking; Managing chaos and complexity (2nd ed.). Burlington, MA: Elsevier.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S., & Hoffman Davis, J. (1997). The art and science of portraiture. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.

Rauhala, E. & Jieyang. The poet who dies for your phone. TIME magazine. Retrieved from on June 16, 2015.

Whipple, T. Slaves to the algorithm. The Economist Intelligent Life. Retrieved from on June 16, 2015.

Image used
“Boris Bernaskoni EM KA-01” By Bernaskoni Ltd. (Bernaskoni Ltd.) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.

Supporting journeys to understanding

“Insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over and expecting different results” is a quote often used in the press and by politicians. (It is misattributed to Einstein, but there is no proof he wrote or said it.) This witty and seemingly overused statement may be from a mysterious origin, but it strikes a deep chord as we consider its implications for teaching and learning.

Blaming external factors when students don’t seem to understand is an easy way to avoid change. If we seek craftsmanship and flexibility in our practice, we might increase the potential for our intentions in teaching to become the student outcomes in learning.

We can tell people something, or we can guide them to read and gain knowledge, but translating knowledge to actual practice requires understanding and the other more demanding cognitive processes in Bloom’s taxonomy of thinking.

If a learner knows a set of skills, for example, the student needs to rehearse those skills in different situations (Brown and Bennet, 2002), to gain an appreciation for evaluating situations and choosing skills that match the problem at hand. Evaluating situations and choosing the right problem-solving behaviors to approach these are valuable behaviors that require iterative rehearsal in many contexts so that the learner is able to solve problems in unfamiliar contexts as he or she gains facility in the complex process of evaluating situations, evaluating skills, and matching skills that are the best-fit approach to the unfamiliar problem (Brown & Bennet, 2002; Moors & De Houwer, 2006). Learners also need to be taught processes rather than just assigned processes to traverse (Merzenich et al., 1996).

What have we learned about facilitating learning? Here are some ideas to get us started.

Learning happens when learners feel psychologically safe.

When people feel unsafe, chemicals called cortisol and adrenaline are released into the body and the brain, and people react with the fight, flight or freeze response (Sylwester, 2004). The reaction inhibits the problem-solving part of the brain, the neocortex (Goldberg, 2009). Literally, feeling unsafe shuts down learning (Powell & Kusuma-Powell, 2010).

When we think about it, change is a threatening situation. When the ways that we must do things change, it causes us to deal with the implementation dip and presents challenges to our feelings of self-efficacy.

In these situations, and because change is an essential part of learning, we are mindful of how we might support the learners as they traverse the landscape of challenges. We might, for instance, get to know our learners so that we can provide different pathways to suit each one’s learning trajectory.

Learning requires design.

Learning is more likely to happen when structures are provided such that the learner doesn’t even have to think about these and can then focus on the task and the concepts at hand. Part of designing the environment is providing different ways and choices to access the concepts, not just one way, so each learner has his or her way to understanding, rehearsal, and performance.

Learning happens with purposeful and deliberately designed rehearsal – drills are useful in developing physical skills like dribbling a basketball, performing a karate kata, a routine for aesthetic movement. Rehearsal for cognitive ‘moves’ are also useful, when the designer/teacher specifically pays attention to the cognitive actions that the learner will be performing during the rehearsal activity (Brown & Bennet, 2002; Moors & De Houwer, 2006).

Learning is motivated by relevance to the learner. Providing authentic connections that allow learners to cross boundaries between school and life helps the neocortex to cast a wide net for connections, which lead to creative and critical thinking (Goldberg, 2009). When we create opportunities to activate prior knowledge, we are facilitating the learner’s choice of processes and approaches; when we facilitate open-ended, authentic problems in a range of contexts, we facilitate situations where the neocortex is able to find solutions to problems that might be unfamiliar.

Learning is facilitated by skillfully designed experiences, and the one facilitating learning needs to be deliberate. Deliberately designing flexible ways by which learners might approach learning supports personally relevant experiences for all learners.

By Camdiluv ♥ from Concepción, CHILE (Colours) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Camdiluv ♥ from Concepción, CHILE (Colours) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Csikszentmihalyi writes that “enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced within a person’s capacity to act” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 50). When learning is designed for deep understanding, the learner experiences something expressed simply in another overused statement, “Learning is fun.”


Becker. “Einstein on misattribution; I probably didn’t say that.” Becker’s Online Journal (November 13, 2012). Retrieved May 7, 2015 from

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

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper.

D’Addario, D. “The definition of insanity” is the most overused cliché of all time. Salon (Tuesday, August 6, 2013). Retrieved May 7, 2015 from

Goldberg, E. (2009). The new executive brain; Frontal lobes in a complex world. New York: Oxford.

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

Moors, A., & De Houwer, J. (2006). Automaticity: A theoretical and conceptual analysis. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 132(2), 297-326. http://dx.doi .org/10.1037/033-2909.132.2.297

Powell, W., & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2010). Becoming an emotionally intelligent teacher. New York: Skyhorse.

Sylwester, R. (2004). How to explain a brain; An educator’s handbook of brain terms and cognitive processes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.