Creating a Culture that Cares – a response

Tiffany Eaton articulates a strong personal statement of support for  new educational thinking in her post Creating a Culture that Cares at TimeSpaceEducation.

Her starting point is the stark contrast between two different types of experiences we have from one day to another as teachers. One is the moment when you look at a bunch of slack-jawed, apathetic kids and think, “What’s wrong with them? Why aren’t they interested in learning?’ And come on, we’ve all been there. Don’t lie. At these times you might sympathize or feel frustrated – probably a mixture of both. As Eaton puts it,

Surely kids are not innately programmed to sit on a dirty patch of carpet, cold flooring or at rigid desks and listen to us lecture about stuff that, quite frankly, they’re not interested in learning.

You get that – they’re children, not robots. But part of you still thinks, “Why not? Why hasn’t someone programmed these kids to sit on a patch of dirty carpet and be interested??’

And then there are those other times – perhaps rare, perhaps not, when it just takes off, and you can’t believe how independent the students are being, how passionate they are, how they’re organizing themselves and actually thinking… how at this moment you could just saunter along to the lounge, get a coffee, have a chat with a colleague, and they wouldn’t even notice you’d gone.

Hopefully we’ve all been there as well. If only, we think, it could always be like this. Or we think,

That’s it! I’ve made a breakthrough with these kids. From now on it’s going to be like this EVERY DAY!

And the next morning you’re back to the whole slack-jawed dirty-carpet scenario. Continue reading “Creating a Culture that Cares – a response”


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

Ways of Knowing

ImageMy response to Project Zero and other vectors of constructivist-influenced, inquiry-based, student-centered thinking in education was to start thinking much harder about curriculum.

To become more student-centered in my practice, I felt I needed to address the what as well as the how of my teaching. In order to create inquiry space for students, I had to build structure. It wasn’t enough, I felt, to identify through-lines and bolt concepts onto what was already there. I wanted to create something simple – something both basic and profound – within which students could create their own (authentic) complexities.

The how is important too – the ideals of differentiation, empowerment, and inquiry can hardly be realized without committed and empathetic classroom practice – but it seemed to me that greater coherence in curriculum would pay off in all areas.

I’ve written previously about the paradigmatic uncertainties which cloud direction in my subject – the lack of agreement on the theoretical basis on which we work as literature teachers. These uncertainties do not, it must be said, prevent a lot of great work being done by individual teachers, and I don’t want to belittle the work of colleagues or indeed my own work in the past. So many English teachers succeed in making their classes distinctive and exciting for many students. But none of this would be lost, and its force could be multiplied if the curriculum were more coherent, if the big picture weren’t so fuzzy. I envisaged a course in which nothing would be left behind or finished with, where the texts and questions discussed at the beginning of the year would still be part of the discussion at the end. In particular, I wanted to create inquiry space. But how can you have real inquiry without an epistemological basis?

By ‘epistemological basis’ I mean a theory of knowledge. At Diploma level all students take this course in basic epistemology. Whereas the fundamental question of the Middle Years Programme is ‘How do I learn?’ at DP level this becomes ‘How do I know?’ The TOK department’s job in a school is to keep this question at the front of everyone’s mind. At Diploma level, students must understand they are not just being asked to learn but also to question the basis of what they learn. What constitutes knowledge in a particular discipline, and how is it arrived at? What kind of knowledge community exists around it, and how does it function? They need to understand that a certain proportion of what they are learning will inevitably be superseded, and that knowledge is an ongoing project without any end. I would assert that one of the most important functions of inquiry-based learning in the MYP is to make TOK and the Diploma possible, by introducing students experientially to methods and ways of knowing in the various disciplines.

This means that in science classes the first and most important job of the teacher is to introduce students to the scientific method, along with some of its nuances and ramifications. It’s easy to re-imagine science subjects in a powerful inquiry-driven form (if the curricula weren’t so overloaded), because the method and the paradigm are clear. The scientific method would be both the means and the subject of the ongoing inquiry through the MYP, and all topics could be approached through that inquiry. Thinking routines could be applied and grow consistently throughout the Programme, opportunities for authentic inquiry would form the spine of the course, and while some students would become increasingly sophisticated in creating falsifiable hypotheses and critiquing experiments, the baseline would be a conceptual understanding of the method itself, a goal achievable by all students. 

My science curriculum, in short, would start with the big picture and everything would be framed within that. That’s one of the most central principles of constructivism – you should proceed from the whole to the part, not the other way round. So as a science teacher you have to remember that what you’re studying is not bulb germination or wave refraction per se. What you’re studying is science. What is science? How does it work? Does it always work? What is its unique power? Where are its limitations?

Likewise in a literature class, we’re not studying this poem or that novel or play. We’re studying the discipline of poetry, the inexhaustible possibilities of the novel, the polyphony of drama. But how do we organize this study to make it progressive – how do we scaffold it? What’s our method? What is knowledge in our subject? Could we ever achieve an accumulative power in curriculum and a basis for real inquiry?

Time for a rethink.