Monday, January 31, 2011

The most important transnational educational initiative of our time

The International Baccalaureate is the most important transnational educational initiative of our time.  - Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education
For me, one of the most important aspects of the IB PYP is the way curriculum is developed through inquiry, a collaborative process involving both teachers' and students' questions.  What teachers who use inquiry have come to discover is that combining the interests, knowledge and experiences of both teachers and students leads to rich and authentic inquiry.  As teachers our job is to create the right environment for learning, whereas for students their role is to pursue their personal inquiries and seek answers to their questions.  Learners will only engage in personal inquiries in an environment that values their ideas and where their voices are heard - where they participate meaningfully in the decisions that affect their lives - where they are not just given a choice among options determined by their teachers but where they have a role in coming up with the options in the first place.  It's what Kathy Short and Carolyn Burke have referred to as education for democracy.

The most powerful forms of inquiry I've experienced as a PYP teacher, are those where teachers have given up a broad coverage of topics, characterised by many different activities, and have encouraged deeper and more critical thought in their students with a much narrower focus.  Students need to move on from fact-finding and research that involves reading about and around topics, to more practical hands-on doing and they need to know that they are never "done" with a topic or unit of inqury - that there is always more room for learning and moving in different directions as new questions emerge.  In fact students should be encouraged to ask more questions and pose more problems, rather than just find answers and solve problems that teachers have set for them.  The significant questions, the ones that really encourage learning, are the ones the students have come up with themselves and that they feel ownership of.  Answers are static and "always right".  Understandings evolve and develop.  Experience is important - if all a student does is to fact find using the research of others, then that student is not fully engaging in the inquiry/discovery process him or herself.

This post was written as a response to my thinking about a question posed by one of our teachers last week:

Some years ago in another school the whole primary school did a workshop on inquiry.  There we were encouraged to "let go" - to not overly plan the direction we wanted the inquiry to take or the students to go.  We were told that we might not always know what the student would learn at the start of a unit of inquiry, because the questions had not yet been asked by the students.  For some of us - especially those who firmly believe we have to "start with the end in mind" - this is a hard idea for us to grapple with.  However it is the thinking, like that of the teacher who sent me the above message last week, that will move our students forward.

Photo Credit:  Sunlight by Rishi Bandopadhay


  1. As a teacher, I find it hard to let go of my own learning agenda. It has been so ingrained in us that we need to direct all learning that we think we are being innovative when we allow students to choose from a list of predetermined projects (all with the end goal we have determined in mind). The point that you make about learning being more deep and meaningful when students have ownership is important. Students may learn as a result of a teacher driven activity, but when students inquire, the owness for the learning is on them. It propells them forward into discovering the answer.

  2. Thanks Kelly - I agree that letting go is probably one of the hardest things. It only becomes easy to do once you have actually let go and seen the difference it makes.