Remix/Regroup: Active Structure in TOK

Image borrowed from Physical Magic Spectacles theatre group.

Theory of Knowledge is a unique feature of the IB Diploma, and was always conceived as the element which makes it different from any other. So of course it poses unique challenges to the teachers tasked with delivering it, as well as unique opportunities.

The most obvious challenge for TOK teachers lies in the interdisciplinary nature of the course. We have to address the full range of academic fields – the arts, natural and human sciences, mathematics, history, ethics, and now, ‘indigenous knowledge systems’ and ‘religious knowledge systems’. And all of this in only one TOK class per week? Continue reading “Remix/Regroup: Active Structure in TOK”

A little unlearning

A colleague of mine outlined the theory of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Climate Change to a Grade 9 class, and at the end she explained (as she should) that while there was widespread support for the theory, there was a substantial group of scientists, some of them highly prestigious, who didn’t accept a word of it.

Al Gore up a crane.

 One boy, on his way out of the class, said to her in a weary tone – ‘Can’t someone just prove it, one way or the other?’

The feeling we call ‘cognitive dissonance’ arises when we cannot reconcile contradictory information. It is an uncomfortable feeling, a tension, a state of not knowing. In fiction, we enjoy this feeling, and look forward to its resolution – preferably in a surprising way. But in life, the vast majority of us resort to a range of self-deceiving strategies to make it go away.

We reach for ‘probably’. We choose a side. We do whatever is required not to have to think critically about it. ‘Oh,’ we think, ‘the scientists who disagree must be getting paid by the oil companies.’ Or, ‘Obviously they don’t care about the environment. Nice, caring people all agree about this.’ Continue reading “A little unlearning”

The Destructivist Classroom – 1

Photograph by Sam Sherratt. The Roaches, Cheshire, England.

OK, SO THERE’S Instructivism, which is the teacher-centered classroom. Soooo twentieth century, but it still has a place in a mixed economy of good practice. Once in a while, the students want and need to hear an authoritative exposition, a great story, an impassioned rant or two.

Then there’s Constructivism, and that’s the student-centered classroom, and the 21st century way. It promises to be more than a passing educational fad, because this really is how we learn. We teach for understanding: and unlike information, understanding cannot be simply transferred from one mind to another. It has to be constructed afresh by every learner.

I would argue that Instructivism and Constructivism are not a binary opposition but a complementary pair, and that we need a balance of both. The relationship between these two styles is no doubt complex and worthy of further thought. But here I want to focus on a third -ism which has to enter the picture in certain phases of the process. We could call it ‘Destructivism’, because at certain points on the learning curve, some deconstruction needs to take place before the learner can move on to the next level. Continue reading “The Destructivist Classroom – 1”

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.

Teaching as Storytelling (5): What happens

So, if teaching is like storytelling, first you must commit passionately to the storyworthiness of the story, and thus arouse expectation, engagement, curiosity. These dynamic states must be resolved, to a degree, but it must not happen too quickly, or where’s the story?

Out of this tension emerges the second emotion – suspense. Suspense is an open state, and at the moment and degree of your choosing you must give (or allow) (at least partial) closure. But you must not do so in quite the way your reader expects, or ultimately you will disappoint. (A nice irony and a Wildean motto for living: to fulfill expectations exactly is indeed to disappoint).

As in narrative so in inquiry. First you must excite and engage, then make them wait. You must provoke questions and then not answer them. Or not all of them. Sometimes your answer might be ‘I don’t know’. And sometimes, ‘I’m not going to tell you.’

This of course only works if you have already established yourself as someone who does know and can tell – your ethos as a storyteller, in other words.

When I talk to Year 10 students about what’s coming up, I tell them that at such and such a point in the course – usually around the beginning of the second semester – there’s a gap in the curriculum, and I don’t know what we will be doing at that point. It all depends, I tell them, on what happens between now and then.

The use of the word ‘happens’ to describe the work of a class is a little surprising. What could ‘happen’ in a literature class? Why doesn’t the teacher know what’s going to happen?

I tell them that I don’t know what will fill the gap, and I don’t even know how long the gap will stay open. All of that depends. (Of course it depends on student engagement, student thinking, student questions, the quality of the work we are doing. It depends, possibly, on what happens in the world of popular narrative. And what fills the gap – I don’t need to tell you – is arising inquiry; mutual, open-ended inquiry.)

Last year the gap, once it opened, stayed open for the rest of the year. Within it, students compared stories from widely differing points in time and space, history and culture, looking for archetypal structures and variations within them. They chose their reading, and wrote on individually-originated questions – authentic questions arising out of their own identities and personal attractions.

One girl wrote about beautiful monsters – in Bram Stoker and Ann Rice. Another deconstructed Nabokov’s Lolita (and yes, she read every word), comparing it with Frankenstein and The Great Gatsby. Another wondered what happens when the antagonist is part of the same being as the protagonist, and this led to a penetrating analysis of doppelgänger stories by Edgar Allen Poe, R L Stevenson and Chuck Palahniuk. One boy wanted to compare the mental states of travelers returning from traumatic adventures in other worlds or realities, focusing on Gullivers’ Travels and Life of Pi. Another put The Hunger Games alongside the Ramayana, to find out what qualities identify the hero and allow him – or her – to succeed.

In previous years we have had group and/or whole class inquiries comparing structures in Beowulf and ALIEN, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Avatar.

Now this sounds all very well and good, jolly interesting, very impressive, etc. But the question is – Why? Is there some kind of theory behind all these bizarre combinations of texts (quite a few of which seem to be popular movies)? Is there some kind of coherent approach in evidence here, or is it ultimately just another (albeit quite elaborate and bright yellow) great big clay daffodil?

That’s what I want to get on to in my next post and new thread, about theory and inquiry in English (Language A) classrooms.


Teaching as Storytelling (2) Gap Theory


On the eve of publication of The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald removed more than thirty pages from the novel. This was at the ‘galley’ stage, when the author is sent proofs to check for errors before printing proceeds.

The pages Fitzgerald struck out consisted mainly of Gatsby talking to Nick about himself. By taking them out, the novelist created a gap in his narrative, posed the question implied in the title, and preserved the mystery surrounding his central character, the millionaire socialite who does not attend the parties he throws. It is this man-shaped gap which has driven the fame of his masterpiece in the 88 years since its publication.

As in narrative, so in inquiry – it is the gaps which drive engagement. The gaps are where the imagination plays. Reading is a creative activity; narrating a collaboration between storyteller and listener.

But you can’t have a gap by itself, of course. It has to be a gap in something. Through the outsider Nick Carraway, we observe Gatsby staring at the green light across the bay. We hear his party guests swapping wild rumours about him, we learn of their fascination with this gentleman thug, we wonder why he doesn’t attend his own parties…. a little later we hear his fantastical life-story from his own lips and don’t believe a word of it.

At the last moment, Fitzgerald decided to leave it like that. And so Jay Gatsby remained a living, breathing contradiction, and became immortal.

To create the space for inquiry, you need to plot your curriculum. The word ‘plot’, by the way, is not synonymous with ‘story’. It means the way the story is told – its narrative structure – what we learn in what order, and how – and when (if ever). A storyteller never tells the whole story. As a storyteller it’s good to leave out the boring bits – but leaving out the most interesting bits is sometimes a stroke of genius. 


Teaching as storytelling (3): Gap Theory originally appeared in Time Space Education