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 http://timespaceeducation.wordpress.com

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 (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.

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 http://timespaceeducation.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/teaching-as-storytelling-3-gap-theory-2