Don’t rethink; rebrand!


Inquiry is one of those words everybody pays lip-service to. One international school I worked in had a characteristic way of dealing with new challenges in education. When asked to respond to new approaches – such as inquiry-based learning, differentiation, or concept-driven curriculum – what you do is this:

1 Look at what you already do, and

2 See what you could plausibly attach the new label to.

3 Then you update the paperwork with the new labels, and you’re covered.

Under this mindset, of course, you don’t do any of this unless officially told to do so. Unless explicit instructions come from above, you should studiously ignore new developments in educational theory. There’s no point in getting involved in any big-picture debate as you go along. It will only confuse everybody, and at some point you will be told by your superiors what to think in any case. Until then there is no point in doing anything, because you might then be contradicted by word coming down from on high. Meanwhile there’s all this paperwork to be done, so could we please skip the big questions and just get on with it?

So, inquiry-based learning, let’s see. Well, the students are sometimes asked to research something. OK, class, I want you to find out something about the author’s life. We could call that inquiry. Or we could say that when students explore their responses to a poem, they are inquiring… into what they think of the poem. That’ll do. Or when they make a map of the island in Lord of the Flies, that’s inquiry – we’re inquiring into the physical geography of an island which never existed. Let’s make a diorama of the inside of Macbeth’s head! That’s inquiry – we’re inquiring into what Macbeth’s psyche would look like if it were made out of cardboard from old cereal packets.

OK, I’m charicaturing, but I hope you recognize the kind of thing I’m talking about. There’s a reluctance to rethink when you can get away with rebranding. And I understand that teachers may be suffering from change-fatigue, rethink-weariness – and therefore adopt pragmatic time-saving shortcuts when they can.

But I also think that underneath the don’t rethink, rebrand attitude lies a lack of imagination, an unshakeable assumption that nothing ever really needs to change – apart from the labels, of course. The paperwork needs to be up-to-date, but the teaching doesn’t really. A bit more group work, that should do it. What you can’t get out of is that the paperwork has to be done, the unit-planners have to be updated according to the latest IB fad. Any time spent in discussing radical questions about what we’re actually doing is just taking us away from that. Meanwhile you can gamble that no administrator really knows, any better than you do yourself, what inquiry-based learning would really look like in your subject.

All that really matters is what things look like, not what they actually are.

So don’t rethink: rebrand!

KFC so good


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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