Inquiry using symbols

Every year when school starts, I have observed how quickly some classes put up the learner profile attributes, attitudes and concepts on the classroom walls.  Up they go, pat pat pat, on the wall followed by a relieved tick against their “things to do” list. Then the “real” learning begins.
As a tuning-in activity for our unit of inquiry on media, I thought of introducing Yang Liu’s representations of two cultures.  Liu’s use of media to stereotype cultures will naturally generate dichotomy of thought and emotions among many. I felt it was the perfect provocation which would pave the way for deeper, conceptual learning.  The use of symbols would create enough intrigue among the students in order to generate curiosity and hopefully, higher order thinking skills.
The students loved the lesson. Every slide of Yang Liu’s “East Meets West” stirred hearts. We spoke of perspective and bias, racism and the unfairness of over-simplifying communities. They realised the power of symbols, (in this case, dots, lines and simple geometric shapes) to convey messages so powerful as to entice exciting discussions about issues related to everyday life.
After immersing ourselves in Liu’s work, I wanted to see how far the students could use their learning to construct meaning and create learner profile representations using symbols and simple colours.
Introducing the work of Liu. Mystery element.
Take a look at what the students came up with.
As I walked around watching them brainstorm and draft their ideas,  it was encouraging to hear them use words such as “stereotype: and “bias” amongst themselves.





Path of person not clearly visible, but a powerful representation of Courage.


Draft visible in this shot


Snipping, measuring


Motivation, engagement
I was quite surprised with this one. Yang Liu’s representation of the “Boss” is so similar!!! I had not shown them this slide.


Absolutely great way to show this LP attribute!



The group changed their background after the mess “the black crayon” made. They resolved the problem on their own. A more presentable final work.
IMG_1787 Photo 21-08-14 1 57 06 pm
I thought the lesson was very transdisciplinary in nature. Students had to think about colour, patterns and symmetry. They used various skills which involved listening, speaking, sharing resources, editing, and collaborating. One of those exciting lessons which inspired me to blog.


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PROCESS POST: Curiosity is the tap root of innovation and deep learning.

So you never know where curiosity-based research will lead…. Robert Full: The secrets of nature’s grossest creatures channeled into robots.

Observe. Question. Experiment. Associate. Network. (from Innovator’s DNA)

Is your school interested, even peripherally, in nurturing innovators? If so, then have you studied and analyzed how exactly your programs and your people make space and opportunity for your learners to originate their studies and pursuits from their own curiosities?

On balance, are your student learners pursuing more questions posed and originated by the adults and the teachers, by way of the curriculum? What degree of a student’s time (day, week, month, year) is “arranged” by what that student finds curious — and from a point of origin of his or her own initiated observing and questioning? Do you actually examine such statistics about yourself?

Today, when I got home, my wife and partner Anne-Brown told me a story of our boys creating home-made pizzas this afternoon using tortillas, tomato sauce, and some cheese from the fridge. At first it did not taste so great to them, so they added some additional spices and stuff. JT declared, “This is the best pizza I’ve ever tasted.”

Then, the boys proceeded to create a restaurant and menu from their cooking and dining experience. A-B says Jackson wrote out menu items for over half an hour. The boys created a name and a motto and a basic visual feel for their eatery. As she retold the story, she noted, “If I had started by asking Jackson to write for 30 minutes, he would have likely wailed and gnashed teeth. But he wrote for a sold half hour on his menu ideas.”

And I said, “You just summarized in a couple of sentences what my career has been about for the last 10-15 years.” This anecdote showcases a fair amount of what I mean when I ponder school looking more like “real life.”

“You never know where curiosity-based research will lead.”

From observation and questioning, Robert Full’s robotics lab experimented with some pretty amazing robust systems turned mechanical. By associating insect movement specs with robotic possibilities, and by networking with other inquiring seekers, Full may just discover a major breakthrough that uncovers an insight that did not exist before and makes possible a significant impact in prosthetics, transportation, or some other field.

And it likely started with curiosity. Not necessarily an already neatened assignment in a single-domain subject area.

Hmmm. Gotta be a school lesson there, right?!


[Cross-posted on It's About Learning]

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I intend to…because…

As teachers we hear questions like this all day long… “Can I work on writing?” “Can I read a book?” “Can I sketch in my art journal?” “Can I use markers?” “Can I go to the library?” “Can I go get a set of headphones?” We, the teachers, are constantly evaluating and making decisions for the students. We are doing all of the work and answering the questions with only part of the information. What if, instead, we taught our students to use,  “I intend to…because…” What difference would it make? Keep reading. It is powerful. “I intend to work on writing because I am almost finished my book and I really want to get it done to show my mom. I’ve been telling her about it every day.” “I intend to read a book because I am really nervous about the swimming competition after school today and reading will calm me down.” “I intend to sketch in my art journal because I want to practice drawing a mouth before I draw the mouth on my portrait. Every time I draw mouths I don’t like them. I need to figure out how to draw them.” “I intend to use markers because the colours will stand out. The light in space is so bright, I think markers will  be better than pastels for this picture.” “I intend to go to the library to get the next book in the series because the librarian told me it just arrived and I am so excited! I’ve been waiting a month for it!” “I intend to get a set of headphones to listen to this video and I don’t want to disturb anyone else. Jack told me that this video had a lot of information about Kepler 186f, and I really want to know more about why it might be habitable.”   “I intend to…because…” is so powerful for many reasons. Here are a few:

  • The students are pro-active and take ownership of their learning, totally engaged
  • The students, not the teacher, think through and assess the reasons why they are choosing to do something
  • The teacher learns a lot about each student as they give their reasons for choosing a learning intention, their reasons are a segue into what they are thinking about and what is important to them
  • The students develop skills of self-management, critical thinking, evaluation, informed choices, and speaking with confidence

I intend to...  “I intend to…” does not give a free ticket to do whatever.  For example, here is a possible scenario: student: “I intend to play this Maths game because it is fun and I like it.” teacher: “Tell me about what you are learning in the game.” student: “I have to answer multiplication questions.” teacher: “Is this a skill that you need to work on some more?” student:”No, I know all the multiplication facts to 100 already! The game is easy! I always win!” teacher: “So tell me about what you are learning in the game.” student: “Hmm. I think I would learn more in the game about division. I still need practice with that.” teacher: “Okay.” If you, the teacher, are not convinced with the intention, probe (and guide) some more… “Tell me more about the learning you will be doing.” “Tell me about your plans to be safe.” “Tell me about your plans to finish the assignment by tomorrow.” “Tell me about your plans to…” “Did you know that you could find out more about X by asking/by reading/by looking at Y?” Asking the students to state their intentions sends the powerful message that we assume they are capable to make learning decisions. (see previous related post here) We can teach our students to take control, contribute their full intellectual capacity and become healthy and happy leaders. What do you intend to do? (This post was inspired by David Marquet in his book Turn the Ship Around!) (All examples of ‘intentions’ above were taken from the students in my Grade 4 class.)

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Who is driving the inquiry?

Stay with me here. This is not just a story of what we did, but rather a look into how we inquire. I will need your feedback and ideas by the end of this!

What we did

We started out investigation of natural landforms and settlement in a fantasy world with the following provocation (story is a powerful tool, even more powerful when you find yourself in the middle of you that you can influence and change):

This generated much discussion and debate over the best place to settle. Each kid had a different theory and a different idea. The information in the text was scarce, but important. The scarcity led them to struggle with the ideas. It was hard to bridge the gap between each students understanding, and obvious that a consensus would not be reached. We reflected about why that was, and we realized that we needed more information. But, what information?

Students then shifted their focus from solving the problem, to asking questions to help them solve the problem. What else do you need to know? What information will help you make the best decision? I ensured them that if they asked I would send their questions to Jhor (through a complex process of time travel, it’s too complicated to go into here). This simple shift led to the following artefact:

Now that we have more information, we can start to use it to make a plan. The density of the information we possess is not deep enough to tell us a more complete story.

How we inquire

From the perspective of the facilitator of this inquiry, I can now use these questions to guide it in directions they are curious about, all the while staying in our fantasy world. Of course, we will need to zoom out of the fantasy world to get more details from the real world. The real world will inform our story and our decisions.

From looking at the questions, I can see the inquiry going in several different directions and hitting several different concepts, based on their questions (here is just a small sample, though we could take these questions and make an entire years worth of inquiries, or better yet, the kids could do it themselves):

What is your biggest fear? Perspective, stories form the past affect the future, a look into mythology and oral story-telling
How much land do you need? Function, the space around us determines how we build, an investigation into area and patterns
How fast can you travel in a day? Function, weight and terrain influences travel, an investigation into rates and measurement
What materials do you have/need? Causation, the local environment influences how we build and live, an investigation into how natural resources are used or influence life
Are you a man or a woman? Perspective, different people have different views of gender, a look into gender roles through history
What do you do for entertainment? Reflection, Art influences how we live and what we believe, an inquiry into the history of art on human civilization
Are there any other tribes? Connection, people live in peace and conflict with their neighbours, an investigation into trade and the reasons for conflicts among people

These are just a couple that I came up with. I could go on. Or, I could use the lens of the Key Concepts to change each inquiry into something completely new. We could take the first question about fear, and instead of using PERSPECTIVE, we could switch it over to FORM, and suddenly we are inquiring into the root and base of human fear. Or CHANGE, and we are  taking about how human fear has changed as our society changes.

The Big Idea – Curriculum is an emergent artefact that grows with the learners questions and understanding

Inquiry is not limited to what is on the planner at the beginning, but rather it is emerging with the students questions and understanding. The problem that lies before me know is that I already have a structure for this unit that was decided before it began. We have already chosen our key concepts and planned rubrics around them, assessments, etc. 

So, who is driving the inquiry? The concepts, the student questions, the story, or the planner? What is the role of curriculum? Is it the ideas that they must understand that is decided beforehand by the learning facilitators(or adults)? Or, is it something that grows with their questions? Are their questions valued if we have already decided what the big ideas will be, and where the unit will go?

I have a thought experiment that I would like your feedback on. Instead of teachers and PYP coordinators sitting down before the unit begins and having discussions about the set-up (or planning for inquiry if you prefer) of the UOI, what would be the benefits and disadvantages of trying something like this:

1. Start with the TD theme (the language use in the TD markers leaves each one wide open for a variety of different interpretations, yet structured enough that they will focus us into a specific space)
2. Plan a very powerful, engaging, thought-provoking provocation (as learning facilitators)
3. Introduce the provocation to the students, have them think and ask questions and record it all
4. Use those thoughts and questions to develop the key concepts, Central Ideas, and Lines of Inquiry (preferably with the students, though can be done within a collaborative teachers team)
5. The Inquiry begins….

What do you think would be the advantages and disadvantages of something like this?

Would love to hear your ideas.

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More on concept driven inquiry…

In a concept driven, inquiry based learning environment, we do NOT plan a series of activities to ensure coverage of the requirements of our national curriculum.

Instead we spend our planning time reflecting collaboratively, exploring which conceptual lenses will produce the deepest learning and designing a few powerful provocations to generate student thinking and inquiry.

The Australian curriculum expects us to ‘cover’ a large amount of geographical knowledge in Year 6 including, among other things -

  • The location of the major countries of the Asia region in relation to Australia and the geographical diversity within the region.
  • Differences in the economic, demographic and social characteristics between countries across the world.
  • The various connections Australia has with other countries and how these connections change people and places.
  • The effects that people’s connections with, and proximity to, places throughout the world have on shaping their awareness and opinion of those places.

We start our planning session by revisiting the reflections at the end of last year’s planner. Some of the teachers who taught the unit last year share what went well and what can be improved. Joc is concerned by the lack of depth and we realise that we had too many different lines of inquiry. Michelle feels the students had many misconceptions and generalisations…

There’s no point in trying to include too many aspects of the Australian Curriculum if the learning is superficial as a result. As Cristina suggests in the previous post, we  need to ask ourselves ‘To what end?’

We revisit the big ideas and consider which conceptual lenses will help our learners break down misconceptions and result in deeper learning.

As we develop the rubric for conceptual understandings, we go back and forth, change our own and each others’ minds and realise that we need to change one of the concepts to better achieve the desired end. This part of the planning takes time, but it’s well worth the investment. Planning learning engagements will be simple once we know where we are heading and why.

Using ‘reflection‘ (How do we know?) as one of our conceptual lenses will provide opportunities for our learners to reflect on preconceived generalisations and stereotypes. At the start of the unit of inquiry they will be able to say what they THINK they know about different countries and HOW they know. By the end, we hope they can explain how some of their preconceptions have changed as a result of acquiring new knowledge and developing understanding.

Once we are satisfied with that, the central idea needs rewriting …

‘Deepening our knowledge about the world takes us beyond generalisations and stereotypes’

With this big idea as the through-line, learners will have a clear sense of purpose, as they interact with people in other countries, find out more about the factors that influence how they live (causation) and explore how countries are interconnected (connection).

They will have opportunities to focus on their own areas of interest, question and wonder, read, view and talk to primary sources… all the while increasing their knowledge, deepening their understandings and making sure they go beyond stereotypes and generalisations.

(At the time of facilitating the collaborative planning session, this seems like a good direction, but I’m never certain. Feedback, questions and challenges welcomed…)

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Inquiry: To What End?

This was originally supposed to be a simple reply to Aviva Dunsiger’s blog post. I soon realized it would have been too short and thus I could have been easily misunderstood.
It all started with my question: “How do these projects enable deeper thinking?”, question that I asked after seeing her students’ work. Briefly the sequence of activities was the following:
1. Students brainstormed questions to guide their research on natural phenomena.
2. In groups of 2-3 they would write a poem using onomatopoeia and personification in the context of their natural phenomenon.
3. Last, they would create artwork that showed the natural phenomenon they researched about.
At first glance, this is an interesting and engaging chain of activities. Yet, to me, the over-arching question was missing. To what end? What was the understanding the teacher wanted the students to have? How does each of the three activities help build a central powerful idea about natural phenomena?
I realized then that we adhere to different instruction theories: project-based vs. concept-driven learning. On the surface, many can mistake one for the other, especially since both use inquiry as a vehicle to construct understanding. It is, if you wish, the distinction that Carl Bereiter made when he talked about shallow vs. deep constructivism:
The shallowest forms engage students in tasks and activities in which ideas have no overt presence but are entirely implicit. Students describe the activities they are engaged in (e.g., planting seeds, measuring shadows) and show little awareness of theunderlying principles that these tasks are to convey.
Unfortunately, much of what is currently promoted and practiced under the label of “project-based learning” does not fit this definition but instead represents the traditional “project” or research report dressed up in modern technology.

When some project-based engagements *do* have a set of questions (formulated either by the teacher or by the students) another element undermines them – the insistent focus on the outcome:

The original question “drives” a process that is directed toward the production of a concrete artifact—a report, a performance, a model, a letter to the city council, or whatever. This provides closure for the project but, unfortunately, it also gives closure to the advancement of knowledge. In some instances, pursuit of the “driving question” gets completely derailed as students’ attention focuses on producing the “authentic artifact”.

Moreover, because the focus becomes on the artifact (i.e. building a tornado model), the time spent on tangential activities (cutting, gluing, coloring etc.) increases, leaving little room for thinking deeply about the topic.

As Grant Wiggins mentioned in his book Understanding by Design:
“In the absence of overarching questions, students are left with rhetorical questions in a march through coverage or activities.”

So what do I mean by “thinking deeply” about a topic? I mean engaging students in constructing big ideas from the facts they learn – research is critical but not enough. It is a means to a greater picture. Facts should provide the basis for even more interesting questions and provocations that would help not only solidify the knowledge gained, but also build a frame of understanding with tools that are relevant to the discipline.
Incidentally, my 2nd graders (and second-language learners) were engaged in a somewhat similar inquiry on natural phenomena. We did not spend time on hands-on activities except when they were important (i.e. measuring air pressure, temperature, conducting experiments etc.), but kept inquiring deeper into the topic. Question stems enabled them to add to their initial rather closed questions (i.e. How many countries experience drought?)

What would happen if…?
In what ways….?
Does….always happen when….?
If……then why….?
Is it possible to…?
Does it matter if….?
Why is that….?
Why is….important?
What effect does…..have on….?
How would….change if…..?
How important is….for…?
How different….would be if….?
Who can…?
What is the relationship between….and …?
When does….?
Should we….?
Could we…?

They soon realized that in order to understand weather phenomena they needed even more knowledge: about the Earth’s tilt, atmosphere, climate vs. weather etc. Throughout their inquiry I, too:

- kept posing questions to challenge their thinking (i.e.”Is it always true? How do you know?”) *Click to enlarge the pictures


- used anticipation guides (see example above) and diagnostic questions to check misconceptions (side note – if you didn’t know, even Harvard graduates when interviewed had no clue that it is the Earth’s tilt that influences season formation not its rotation around the Sun)


- conducted discipline-based experiments (see above- experiment for air currents)


- used experts to discuss extreme natural phenomena (above – Mr. David Karnoscak, tornado-chaser) etc.

All these bits and pieces led the students to deepen knowledge about natural phenomena, to ask increasingly refined questions, and build the “big picture”. You can see from the complexity of their concept map that they could deal with the main concepts I wanted to guide them to: Causation and Connection. They could notice cause-effect relationshipsbetween extreme natural phenomena and wider contexts – economy, transportation, health-and safety, communication and so forth. Moreover, they could understand the connections between say transportation (i.e. when a tornado damages roads) and health/safety (i.e. emergency vehicles do not reach the destination in time).


Even during the research phase they used concepts (i.e. Function) to guide their learning alongside questions.
Moreover, due to the idea of “pattern” that they noticed the students used mathematics during this inquiry. They were “weather reporters” and reported to class the daily weather – we graphed our observations, analyzed them and discussed any emergent patterns. This daily activity also enabled them to constantly use discipline-specific vocabulary (“humidity”, “temperature”, “air pressure” etc.), and this language component is critical to reinforce knowledge (I also took videos of the kids presenting and embedded them on the class blog – it is an assessment tool for oral language for me as a teacher, a way to show parents how their children are doing in oral communication, and a way for class community to share learning).


If you are against cumulative knowledge, we might need to argue over that.
To give a simple example from this inquiry into weather, I will quote two of my 2nd graders (I take anecdotal records many a time so the dialogue below is accurate). We were discussing about our concept map above. All of a sudden…

Kid 1:“Wait! When we inquired earlier into states of matter, I learned that the colder it is the closer the molecules are.”
Kid 2: “So what?”
Kid 1: “Well, I think the rail tracks can shrink when it is too cold. Like, you know, when you have really really low temperatures.” (he turns to me) “Am I right?”
As you can imagine I could only smile and nod.
Kid 1 (proudly): “That means the trains will go slower.”
Kid 2 (somewhat enlightened): “And how is that connected to our map?”
Kid 1: “Can’t you see? Transportation is affected. So people might get less food or fuel or whatever the train carries – that means their daily life is harder.”
This kind of conversations remind me how right I am for students to have knowledge. The more, the better connections they can make. The deeper the understanding. The bigger the picture.
And I keep being in awe at the knowledge they can manipualte at 7 – from how air pressure works to magnetism, lightning and whatnot.
DO NOT underestimate them.

As you can notice, the differences between these two types of constructivist approaches are minimal on the surface but large underneath. I prefer concept-driven learning because it allows for deep understanding and it minimizes the interference of low-level activities (as mentioned, gluing and all). There is always a trade-off – a loss and a gain- in any instructional approach, and that makes me think twice before I plan.

Remember: TO WHAT END?

*NOTE 2:

Every time I plan I have in mind 3 questions. What should students:

KNOW (facts, terminology etc.)

DO (take-notes, write a recipe, conduct an experiment etc.)

UNDERSTAND (I use different ways to assess understanding since learning and performance are not the same thing – learning journals, conceptual grids, reflection papers etc.)



Learning to Work Creatively With Knowledge, Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia

Knowledge Building,  Encyclopedia of Education,Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C., Second Edition, New York

Learning versus Performance, Nicholas C. Soderstrom and Robert A. Bjork

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We built more than a Structure, we built a Foundation

We’ve been doing a lot of challenges in Grade 1 – thanks ‏@bfinnimore . Our challenge, to build a structure that can hold as many dictionaries as possible.There have been a lot of tears in Grade 1. We’ve had conflict. Resolution. Design. Redesign. It’s been an interesting week. We’ve been involved in design thinking. We’ve been incorporating Math, Science, Social Studies, Art and Technology in design projects.P1060742


The kids like projects like these I think. Yes, theres turmoil and stress but in the end they are left with some sort of satisfaction of completion. Of teamwork. You cant get that feeling from a workbook or a worksheet. Most of our weekly challenges involve teamwork. Some kids ‘hate’  it. Others love it. Some kids assume role of leaders, others are given the role by peers. It depends. Its hard! We blog about it here too.

As a teacher I need to stop myself from jumping in and solving their problems, conflicts. Its hard to stand back but this is authentic learning. I provide guidance when needed, when asked, but I do not give them an answer.

P1060769These types of projects foster teamwork, collaboration, thinking skills. Real like situations here that will challenge these kids. We learned alot about math, max. weight capacity and bridge load. We used estimation and accurate measurement using standard measurement. In these challenges we have a our specs. For example make s structure X high or X long.. If kids want to innovate, awesome. Go for it. We often get other grades involved like the grade 4. They love to come in and test our hypotheses and give their expert feedback on how to better the design. How do they know? They had similar experiences years ago in grade 1. We learn that we can use other designs and make them better. We learn that we use other people for inspiration and for information. These are real life skills.

Afterwards we talk about what skills we used, why we even did this challenge and what weve learned. They get it. Its applied learning. In PYP speak kids are ‘Applying Meaning’ and using higher order thinking skills. I love the inquiry into maths here in these challenges. What I dont want to do is to plan everything the kids do. Plan each step. Thats not inquiry. Learning unfolds. If I did this next year it would be very different Im sure.

So what did I learn as a practitioner?
Kids need time
We make mistakes
We have different ideas
We use prior knowledge to make future decisions

Its great to learn from my kids. Building on my own foundation of learning.

Of course.. I could give a worksheet…


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