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”

TOK Inside Out

images-19I’m told the Theory of Knowledge course was not originally intended to be delivered by a separate TOK department in an IB school. It was intended to be delivered by everyone. (And still is).

Of course, no TOK department is separate – it consists of teachers most of whose time is spent delivering other Diploma courses. There are no specialist TOK teachers, because TOK is not a specialism. It doesn’t exist without (or outside) the Areas of Knowledge. It has a framework, but no content of its own. The course guide emphasizes that no TOK course can be comprehensive or should try to be, and teachers are encouraged to be selective and build their own distinctive courses.

When I started teaching TOK, the approach to the course in that particular school was rather compartmentalized, though probably pretty standard. Each TOK teacher was expected to spend several weeks dwelling on each Way of Knowing and then each Area of Knowledge in turn. While there is nothing wrong with a science teacher leading discussion on the arts, or a literature teacher sharing a perspective on science, constructing a whole course like that is pretty challenging. Every TOK teacher is going to be more confident working with some Areas of Knowledge than others.

You become a TOK teacher and you get some insight into what elementary teaching must be like – suddenly you’re the fount of all knowledge?

Continue reading “TOK Inside Out”

Very like a whale…


‘So what would that look like?’

You’re sitting in your principal’s or co-ordinator’s office describing a new idea you’ve had, a plan, a project you want to undertake. You want to try something new, something that rises to the challenge of new thinking in education. 

Or maybe you’re in an interview with a prospective employer, and describing your educational philosophy. 

 “So what would that look like? [in practice/in the classroom/ etc]”.

It sounds like a very practical and quite reasonable question. It sounds like – “OK, I understand what you’re saying in theory. Now, how would you put it into practice? How would it work?”

And that may be what the questioner means by the question. But it isn’t the question. The question is, what would it look like.

This buzz-phrase is a reveal. Like an unconscious mannerism or facial expression made by a poker-player when he bluffs, it’s a tell. It gives away true values. As a teacher, you’re interested in how it works and how it feels. As an administrator, he’s interested in how it looks. Continue reading “Very like a whale…”

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. 

Why telling them doesn’t work

Image Sam Sherratt is PYP Coordinator at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City. This article first appeared at Time Space

When I first got into teaching, about ten years ago, there was much talk about setting the learning “objective” or “intention”, writing it on the whiteboard, telling it to kids at the start of the lesson and then reviewing it at the end of the lesson. This all made perfect sense to me back then.

Back then, when I was teaching the National Curriculum in a small comprehensive school in England. Back then, when we were trying to get our students to pass some tests so we were not humiliated in the national press. Back then, when all the students had the same learning objective. Back then, when there were lessons that had beginnings and endings.

I believe learning has evolved since then.

These days, the idea that all of the students in the class have the same learning objective seems like a complete disregard for differentiation. When teaching dynamically and responding to both the needs and interests of the students, moments in which they are all doing the same thing in the same way are rare. I am not saying that they don’t happen – occasionally, and I mean really, really occasionally, a finite lesson in which they all focus on just one thing does happen. However, if you’re looking for that kind of thing on a regular basis in my teaching, it just ain’t going to happen.

These days, the idea that we should teach in little chunks of time and content seems to go against everything we have learned about learning itself. The  notion that you can draw a line under it and say “they’ve learned that” is as archaic as little kids sat in rows copying bits of text from a blackboard. Learning, like life, ebbs and flows. Lessons take days and the ends of “lessons” may only be enforced by the need for them to eat or run around, not by our own vanity in believing the learning is “complete”.

As far as I am concerned, telling or displaying the learning objective is ineffective… a bit like telling them or displaying “the rules”. It ticks our box, it satisfies our need to believe we have done our job. It does not improve learning. Instead, it is much more powerful to develop a culture of intentional learning, a culture in which students are constantly considering what they are doing and why they are doing it.

Culture doesn’t come from the mouth of an authority figure. Culture doesn’t come from lamination or words written on white boards before students come in the room. Culture comes from habits, from practice and from involvement. Culture comes from within.

So, next time an administrator wants to see the learning objective… tell them to watch the students. Tell them to put down their clipboard, notebook or iPad and watch what the students are doing or listen to how they are talking. Are the learning objectives evident in the room? Do the students know what they are doing and why they are doing it? Are they involved in the learning because they have been part of setting it up? Are they learning with intention, their own intention… not your intention? Do they have their own objectives?

That is when the magic happens.

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 ( 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.