The What

ImageWhen I left my job in Manchester and moved to Amsterdam, I was an IB novice. Over the next few years, ISA (the International School of Amsterdam) sent me on IB workshops in Vienna, Istanbul, Gothenburg, Barcelona, Geneva, and probably one or two other places I’ve forgotten about.

But it was on a week-long trip to Harvard to participate in Project Zero’s 2002 Summer Institute (http://www.pz.harvard.edu) that I started really getting my head around constructivist ideas about education, and realizing that my own approach needed to change – in ways for which there seemed to be no clear models, at least in my subject area.

My own English teachers in high school were interesting enough, with their literary passions, pet theories and intriguing (to us) private lives. They were OK. Pretty good in fact. When I taught in England for about twenty years, I was probably about as good as they were. I was OK too. 

But what I was being exposed to now made me think that wasn’t enough. Nobody was trying to pretend that they had all the answers. But I now had some at least some of the questions. I was being given all kinds of encouragement to think – and rethink – about exactly what I profess to do.

I found myself focusing not so much on how I teach, but on what. Or to be more precise, on what I teach as the essence of how I teach. I’d always put plenty of creativity into my teaching, though without, as I now realize, having any particularly coherent analysis of what I was doing. I thought my job was to inspire, to encourage, to correct. You know – to teach. To expand minds and tighten skills. To get kids reading, and writing better. All of that. And none of that is wrong, of course. But in pursuing these general aims, I have to admit I could be a bit instinctive in my reference points. I brought in texts I cared about, used the reading I’d done and the passions I’d developed.

I’d taught bright kids at top English independent schools – it was fairly easy to be OK in that context, generally a pleasure to share what you knew and cared about. But the constructivist model of learning I was introduced to through the IB and Project Zero constituted a powerful, relevant and grounded theory. It is how we learn. Knowledge cannot be transferred like a digital file; it has to be constructed afresh by every individual mind. In that sense we are all self-taught. To ‘teach’ anybody anything, I had to get involved on that level, and get much more into the perspective of my students. My job was not primarily to tell, or even to share, but to guide – to create compelling inquiries, to find or build spaces for the students to enter. These spaces have to be structured. They have to have foundations. The curriculum is the blueprint for building inquiry space, and in committing to an inquiry model of teaching we have to start with curriculum.

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Author: Paul Dunbar

I have worked in international schools for the past 15 years, teaching English Literature and Theory of Knowledge in Amsterdam, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. I'm also a musician, and a bit of a writer. Since 2001 I have come to question literally everything, the default position for an uncrippled epistemologist.

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