Before we close the door…

This blog came to life, six years ago, with an invitation to inquiry teachers to ‘inquire within’ if they were interested in sharing their reflections on inquiry learning in this collaborative space.

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At first there was interest and growth, but then it began to slow down, as the contributors were busy with other blogs, with teaching and learning, with their families and with their lives.

A few years later, a new invitation was issued: I’d like to revive this blog before its complete demise. ‘Is it possible? If not, it’s time to close the door…’

Inquire Within took another breath and burst back to life with contributions from educators in more than a dozen countries on 6 continents, over a period of several years… and then began to languish…

Without the time to nudge, cajole and bully people into sharing their writing here, it seemed to be time to let the door slide quietly closed on its own.

But Dale has opened it again today with an exciting example of a writing inquiry! Before we give up and close the door completely on the life of Inquire Within, I am issuing a challenge to every single contributor (and any other inquirers!) to share another post at Inquire Within.

The usual terms apply.

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Because a School Said Yes to Writing

At 8 AM June 2, 2016, at Mott Hall Science and Technology Academy, a public middle school in the South Bronx, the students have gathered for their daily assembly to hear Dr. Patrick Awosogba, the principal and founder of this International Baccalaureate World School, conduct his usual morning address. When he announces it’s Writer’s Odyssey Day, a wild cheer erupts.

Within minutes students who have signed up to write mysteries are plunging their hands into black boxes to guess their gooey contents; those who have selected math how-to guides are combing their notebooks for topics to explain to next year’s students; those who have opted for advice columns are watching hilarious videos as models. They are in the flow and will continue so for hours as they pre-write, draft, exchange feedback, revise, edit, present, and celebrate their work.

I see no student disengaged as I visit workshops throughout the day. Students I know to be troubled– and in turn to cause their share of trouble – concentrate intensely. One has been allowed to listen to music on his ear buds as he writes his handbook on solving for X.

In my peregrinations I see science fiction writers hard at work on their stories under Mr. Davenport’s tutelage. Elizabeth and Jenefa share theirs with me and I notice elaborate plots, tense suspense, dramatic titles (My Parents are Aliens!) Their use of detailed and accurate science terminology is a pedagogical miracle, a meaningful resuscitation of content that would otherwise have been lost to time. I can easily see these young ladies’ names on the covers of best sellers in the not too distant future.

Students in Ms. Christian’s class have adopted the points of view of individuals from different castes and religions in India, to write richly evocative list poems. The atmosphere is monastic with concentration. During share time, Kareem reads the thoughts of his Dalit persona and it is emotionally forceful with the stems, “I will…I love…” A student offers a critique, “I think you should show, not tell…” and provides concrete examples. Kareem goes right back to work using the new ideas.

In another class, Genesia is working on a billboard to counter the racism that oppresses her generation. She is using an image from a recent news reports, found on the internet. Nearby, their teacher, Ms. Guido, is conferring with a student to make his political billboard more credible by finding a quote. “What words will grab people as they drive by? I think you need to do a little bit more research.”

Apprentice writers in Mr. Kantor’s info-graphics workshop are making graphs of the data from their student surveys of features of teen life: “How many sneakers do you own? How many animes have you seen?” A boy says, “This is actually interesting.” Mr. Kantor points to instructions and exemplars on a carefully prepared power point when the students hit roadblocks in their work.

Teacher preparation is evident everywhere: well-chosen exemplars, step-by-step instructions, stimulating resources. Each teacher has laid out a purposeful agenda for the day. For their breaks, other teachers have been not only been scheduled to cover them, but have been given plans to carry projects forward. It’s clear that the teachers are as enthusiastic as the students.

This is one well-oiled voice-producing, meaning-making, community-enriching machine, with a hefty byproduct of teacher satisfaction. It’s hard to avoid the impression that the best that public schools have to offer is being realized here.

How did it come to be? I give credit to the word yes.

In the fall of 2014, Principal Awosogba identified writing as a high-impact skill in need of development. In response I proposed a creative writing initiative that would involve every teacher as a master writer. After an assessment of the interest of the staff, Dr. A. (as he is known) said yes and the project was initiated.

I proposed that we develop capacity through a series of rigorous workshops that would take up hours of professional development time. Dr. A. said yes.
During the workshops, when teachers were asked to reflect on their experiences as writers and build new experiences, they embraced the challenge with an unhesitating yes.

When the teachers recommended that a design team for the initiative be assembled, Dr. A. said, once again, yes, even though this would pull teachers away from other “core teams” at the school.

When the design team, under stalwart guidance from the beginning by IB Coordinator Yoshie Otomo with Special Advisor Miriam Ruiz, proposed that teachers experiment with using genres as performance tasks to assess content learning and provide feedback for future PD sessions, the teachers, as was becoming their habit, said yes.

And so it went: Use genres twice a year in every classroom as a summative task? Yes. Have each teacher become master of a genre? Yes. Dedicate two entire days per year to the initiative, with all the planning entailed? Yes. Use valuable time at school retreats to learn new genres, share inspiring student work, and plan in teams? Yes. Create an anthology of teacher-written exemplars? Yes. Set aside days from Language and Literature units to polish writing? Yes. Devote energy to a continuous cycle of data collection, feedback and adjustment? Yes. Dedicate summer days and per session funds for the design team to create a handbook? Yes. Create a contest for the students to name the project? Yes. (And what a perfect name they crafted: “The Writers’ Odyssey!”) Set aside PD time for teachers to plan their Writers’ Odyssey workshops? No problem. Request that Writers’ Odyssey Day be extended by a half day to allow more time for revision and presentation? Go for it!

Educators from schools in other cities and even from abroad have come to witness The Writers’ Odyssey in action, and have begun to say yes as well. I am still working on the word why, as in, “Why does everyone, including the students, embrace this project, given the time and effort required?” But yes is a gratifying word to live with until I figure why out.

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My 5 classroom goals for next year


I plan to try and improve communication between our classroom, parents, and students. I’m not sure whether students or parents read my emails or get our classroom news. At times, they do not respond to the posts on Google Classroom. The silence from that side of the wall has been baffling, frustrating and a big challenge for me.
I just may have found the solution.
The App Remind is an excellent way to overcome this problem. It is a great tool which ensures everyone receives the message instantly on their phones, and it need not be an iPhone or an android!


Last year, being new to Japan, I was unable to take advantage of the resources around me.This country’s unique culture and history have much to offer. After reading Ron Berger’s “An Ethic of Excellence“, and seeing the powerful learning that can take place with the help of the community, I plan to actively learn more about and reach out in order to seek expert help from the community. For example,  the students do not have to just learn about famous people and write their biographies . They can seek out local citizens in their community, who have contributed to the society and make them the focus of their studies. Creating information booklets about these unsung heroes and inviting them to school in order to formally recognize them, is a far more powerful way of tackling the unit on role models.

Culture of Critique 

…Or assessment for learning. Of course, as a PYP educator, this is our primary focus; yet I realize the enormous scope for improvement. Setting high standards, and encouraging students to persevere and come up with multiple* drafts will require that I give them more time than I normally do. I will NOT rush to cover the curriculum. Being a teacher for prospective MYP students does put a bit of pressure on us.

* Berger refers to one of his students creating over 10 drafts to achieve the set standards. What I liked about his attitude towards  formative assessment  was the fact that student either achieved the standard or the work was considered NOT DONE.


My students have been keeping a record of their learning journey in portfolios. Next year, our school will encourage students to create E-portfolios; however, I still intend to keep a binder and will encourage the students to use it more often than once a week. Just like college graduates who create job portfolios, I am excited at the prospect of  reinventing, re-energizing this area of assessment. Our portfolios next year will be a living, breathing testimony to the hard work we put in as a community of learners.


Based on  how much my students relished and enjoyed meditating every morning, (even the reluctant, fidgety ones sought it out in the end), I intend to start our day by switching on the diffuser (I have a choice of bergamot, rosemary, and lemongrass and cinnamon aroma oils), draw the blinds, bathe the classroom in the mellow light of a few lampshades and meditate for 10 minutes… every single day for the rest of the year. If nothing achieved by this, we will have at least set a routine and created a signature classroom culture. Unless , of course ,anyone else wants to emulate!

These are my goals for next year.

What are yours?


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Curiosity and Teamwork

The following article was posted on the TeachOntario website, on April 4th, 2016. It shares the experience of two teachers collaborating and shows the steps they took toward implementing the inquiry approach to teaching. To view the full article of their inquiry journey, click here!

Teacher-with-students.pngIn this installment of TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating the work of teachers Louise Robitaille and Peter Douglas from Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board’s Monsignor Castex School in Midland and their work on inquiry learning.

What is the recipe for an effective and vibrant student-led inquiry classroom?

That’s what teachers Louise Robitaille and Peter Douglas aimed to find out when they embarked on their Teacher Learning and Leadership Program project entitled Uncovering Content: Integrating Critical Thinking into Social Studies for the 21st Century Learners in 2013.

The full article can be viewed here!

Note: We’ve transformed the classroom from a traditional approach to teaching; to a workshop, hands-on, student-centred way of teaching and learning. And, we love it!

Thanks for reading!


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Do My Students Really Suck at Inquiry?

“My Kids Suck at Inquiry.” Someone mentioned this and the other day, and I laughed, along with others, because it feels true so much of the time.

However, on reflection, is it the kids that suck at inquiry or should we be turning the lens back on ourselves?

We know that kids are natural born inquirers. Proven fact. They eat dirt. They ask a million questions. They stick their hands in light sockets. They take apart things. They make up imaginary trips to fairy land (all experienced first hand from my child and others).

However, as they get older and more “schooled,” they lose some of this curiosity.  I love the essence of the PYP where inquiry should be at the heart of the program. In practice, it’s often a different story.

If we think our students “suck” at inquiry, it’s because we, as teachers and as admin, are doing something wrong. Here are what I see as some of the driving forces that kill inquiry:

  • Same learning for everyone. That even means everyone doing the same math problem in exactly the same way. Everyone writing out a reading log. Everyone doing times tables fast facts. Worksheets.
  • “Unit” on inquiry. We have inquiry slotted into one part of our day as a “unit.” I know the PYP devised this term, but it allows us to separate out “inquiry” from the rest of the day. How can we truly make learning transdisciplinary and inquiry-based? Having a “unit” of inquiry allows us to be lazy.
  • Strict timetabling. Hard to get away with in most schools, but it stops flow and learning and …inquiry.
  • 6 units per year. In upper grades, we have to “cover” 6 units a year, which always feels rushed, and being rushed has not helped allow for inquiry.
  • Planners with a forced summative task assigned at the beginning. I know that backward’s planning makes sense. However, on the rigid PYP planner, and Managebac, which forces you through the steps of the planner, you need to come up with a summative assessment before you’ve even started the unit. This ends up often as a task, which the unit focuses on and doesn’t allow for more open inquiry.
  • Silence. My students are loud, and I get it. However, forced silence, hand raising and traditional classroom management practices leave the teacher front and center and not the students.
  • Planning done by the teachers and admin. Lack of student voice. When students aren’t driving curriculum, planning, school expectations, outside activities, etc…they don’t care as much. They aren’t as engaged, and they’re not going to be inquiring.

What else do you think? What kills inquiry? How can we improve ourselves and our schools so that students can continue with their natural born curiosity?

Originally published on Solid Ground:

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‘Making’ Does Not Equal ‘Constructionism’

Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 7.02.44 AM‘Making’ is about empowering students to ‘make up’ their own minds.

‘Making’ is about empowering students to ‘make up’ their own minds—quite literally—regardless of the artifacts being constructed. This is the view I prefer to take.

‘Making’ should focus on taking charge of, and constructing, your mind—your learning. Making objects and artifacts is a means to that end. ‘Making’ is a central tenet of constructionism, tinkering and inquiry—or ‘tinkquiry’ as my colleague Brenda Sherry and I like to say. But it is not the whole story.

Don’t equate ‘making’ with ‘constructionism’.  ‘Making’ ≠ ‘constructionism’— necessarily.  One cannot assume that because kids are ‘making’ that they are building new schema—that you are embedding them in a constructionist pedagogy.

Seymour Papert and Idit Harel in 1991 said,

“It is easy enough to formulate simple catchy versions of the idea of constructionism; for example, thinking of it as ‘learning-by-making’. One purpose of this introductory chapter is to orient the reader toward using the diversity in the volume to elaborate—to construct—a sense of constructionism much richer and more multifaceted, and very much deeper in its implications, than could be conveyed by any such formula.” In Constructionism (Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1991).

The ‘Maker Movement’ isn’t Just About Electronics and Coding!

carbon monoxide detectorKinetic SculptureThe maker movement has become extremely popular in the last few years and is usually associated with the ‘making’ of things with circuit boards, 3D printers, lego, found materials, wood shops, metal shops, coding/programming and other electronic gadgetry.  It’s similar to DIY (Do It Yourself) – and ‘craft nights’. There are countless Maker Faires and Maker studios all over the globe.

But, is it only about ‘making with electronics’ and ‘coding’? No. I don’t believe it should be.

‘Making’ isn’t only about electronics and coding.

Building poems, art, music, mathematical solutions and so on are all part of the ‘maker movement’ in my mind. I think Seymour Papert might agree with me as you will read later on.

Building poems, art, music, mathematical solutions and so on are all part of the ‘maker movement’…

The Critical Part is the ‘Making of One’s Own Mind’.

Indeed, the critical part is the ‘making of one’s own mind’—the constructionist piece—not the nature of the artifact being made. As I suggested, making artifacts is the means to an end, in my opinion. Constructing one’s schema and texture of mind is the end-goal.

Now, of course, here I am telling you what I think about ‘making’ and ‘constructionism’ but I cannot think that you will merely learn it by reading. It will take my provocations and your efforts for you to construct your own understandings of these ideas—these constructs. As Papert and Harel said,

“If one eschews pipeline models of transmitting knowledge in talking among ourselves as well as in theorizing about classrooms, then one must expect that I will not be able to tell you my idea of constructionism. Doing so is bound to trivialize it. Instead, I must confine myself to engage you in experiences (including verbal ones) liable to encourage your own personal construction of something in some sense like it. Only in this way will there be something rich enough in your mind to be worth talking about.”

A long time coming!

DeweyPiagetWell, this kind of thinking and practice has been a long time coming—well, this time around! Let’s face it. Dewey spoke of it early last century when he spoke of experiential learning.

This time, since information technology has been affordable and accessible, it was Seymour Papert and his colleagues who founded this notion of ‘children as makers’ – when he coined the term ‘constructionism’.  Seymour studied with, and subsequently worked with, Jean Piaget who was instrumental in the origins of the constructivist learning theory—along with Jerome Bruner, Lev Vygotsky and others.

What is constructivism?

BrunerVygotskyConstructivism is a theory which suggests that people actively construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world and are not merely passive recipients. These understandings arise through experiencing events and then reflecting on those experiences.  If we encounter something new, we either assimilate it into our previous ideas and knowledge—our schema—or we must accommodate it by changing what we believe, therefore modifying our schema.  Or maybe we just discard the new information as irrelevant.

Regardless, we are active creators of our own knowledge. This occurs through asking questions, exploring, and assessing what we know.  It happens through inquiry.

Does this mean the teacher’s role is diminished?

Not at all. A constructivist approach celebrates the active role of the teacher in helping students to construct knowledge rather than to merely regurgitate meaningless facts. In constructivist classrooms, you will see project-based learning, problem-generation and problem-solving approaches, and inquiry-based activities where students are generating driving questions, generating potential solution strategies and digging into investigations.

You will see students making their knowledge and processes visible to the other students where it is all available for discussion and collaboration. Meaningless facts aren’t memorized in a decontextualized fashion but rather a meaningful body of knowledge is constructed and becomes part of the student’s interrelated collections of memories. The teacher’s role is far from irrelevant. It is critical as a facilitator, educator, and co-investigator.

Constructivism leverages the student’s natural curiosity about the world and how things work. Their engagement is invoked through respect of their current knowledge and real-world experience. Their hypotheses and investigative methods are honoured and honed.

PapertConstruct ‘a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe‘.

So along comes Seymour Papert – and in the mid-sixties – begins to think very deeply about the role of kids making things——>publicly.

This is, as I said, when he coined the term ‘constructionism’.

“Constructionists believe that deep, substantive learning and ‘enduring understandings’ occur when people are actively creating artifacts in the real world.” Papert & Harel “

Constructionism holds that children learn best when they are in the active role of the designer and constructor. But the theory goes a step further.

Constructionism “is the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe.”

Constructionism Relies on Visible Thinking & Conversation. Making May Not.

But it is not merely the act of constructing that is essential. Powerful things happen when that act of constructing mediates deep conversation with others. The very act of articulating ideas, sharing thoughts, confusions, ahas, questions, potential solutions makes knowledge building explicit. Sometimes words are spoken. Oftentimes facial expressions and body language communicate. We might draw diagrams or build prototypes. All these serve to make the thinking visible and, therefore, discussable—not only with others but for oneself. We learn our subject matter well as we think hard about it and are very intentional about constructing not only the artifact at hand but also our knowledge and success.

…constructing, or making, is not enough…

Constructionist learning is very powerful due to the rich texture of this public creation of artifacts.

Let’s look at some of Papert’s work in action.

Alright. So it is clear that today’s ‘maker movement’ has strong roots in Papert’s ‘constructionism’, in Piaget’s constructivism, in Vygotsky’s social constructivism, in Dewey’s experientialism, and in Scardamalia & Bereiters’ theories of intentional learning and knowledge construction.

However, today’s maker movement is nearly always described in terms of ‘electronic’ making—or making with coding or robotics or lately 3d printing.

Making Up One’s Own Mind

But, I maintain that the real focus should be on helping students to ‘construct their own mind’—for to do so helps them to ‘take charge of their own learning’—which is not just a matter of student agency. It is also a matter of intentionality and skill in knowledge construction. The wraparound of a knowledge-building culture is essential in a ‘making’ environment to reach this goal.

So What Do You Make?

As Papert said, and I totally agree, it matters not whether one is making a sandcastle on the beach or a theory of the universe. I think what is important is that we understand the breadth and depth of constructionism and related theories and that we don’t merely equate making with constructionist learning.

So what do kids make? Have them make what moves them. Make something that matters. Make something hard. Have ‘hard fun’ as Seymour would say. But, above all, focus on crafting the surrounds—the culture—that encourages and supports kids in constructing new knowledge. Focus on the building of the mind as they are creating their public entities—be they poems, songs, multimedia presentations, other works of art or indeed more ‘maker faire’ robotics-based artifacts.

Make up your own mind on how to do this best.



Invent to LearnThere are now many books on the topic of ‘making’—but, these two are deeply rooted in a constructionist approach to ‘making’ because all of these authors have been central to building of this theory as colleagues of Seymour Papert.Guide to 3D printing

“Using technology to make, repair, or customize the things we need brings engineering, design, and computer science to the masses. Fortunately for educators, this maker movement overlaps with the natural inclinations of children and the power of learning by doing.”


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Idit Harel at ISTE

K-12 Learning Platform

GlobaloriaIdit Harel is the founder and CEO of this online platform for courses in STEM, computing, game design and coding.

Relevant Posts

First published on The Construction Zone

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Do our classrooms use all options to enable students to create meaning?


A version of this post originally appeared on my website:


Embodied Cognition would appear to to moving our understanding of cognition and the creation of meaning beyond purely what is happening in the mind. However in school’s we still emphasise that the way that meaning is created is through inner contemplation outwardly expressed and supported by language.
Whilst this outlook of teaching an learning is perfectly valid; we set students a problem, give them time to think about it (either individually or collaboratively) and then ask them to express their responses either verbally or in some written form, should it be the only way we are empowering our students to create meaning?
The image above is one I created for my recent webinar for the IB ‘Beyond passive consumption’ (the archive of which is still available for viewing). In a very simple form it reflects the elements that we all use to create deep enduring meaning these being:

  1. Language: By this I mean a broad range of literacies (see my previous blog post)
  2. Mind: By this I mean the internal thinking that is going on. (obviously what is meant by the term thinking is a huge area and one explored for educators via the Visible Thinking work of Project Zero)
  3. Tools: By this I refer to the important interplay between the tools used, be these digital or manual, and the meaning we create. A good example of this being the image at the top of the page itself which uses a Powerpoint template image thus making me synthesis my thinking into the available template.
  4. Body: By this I refer to both the use of our body to learn, e.g. using our hands to build but also the impact of our bodies reactions to our creation of meaning e.g. whether we are stressed, tired, relaxed etc.

As mentioned above School’s tend to do a good job at using points 1 and 2 to help students to create meaning however by under utilising, and in some cases under valuing, points 3 and 4 are only tapping into half the means at their disposal to empower are students to create deep meaning.

To place this in a context. How do we move our classrooms from being constructiovist  to being constructionist.

Here then are a few, hopefully useful and practical ideas as to how we can more fully exploit Tools and Body to ensure all students have a full range of ways to create meaning.

In a previous post  on my own website, I discussed why so many educational technologies have failed to live up to the expectations surrounding them. In this post I proposed 3 P’s to ensure that the tools used in a classroom have the maximum impact on learning:

1) What do I hope the tool will achieve in terms of my students learning?(PURPOSE)
2)How am I going to make critical pedagogical decisions about the use of the tool? (PEDAGOGY)
3)How will I ensure my own knowledge of tool,pedagogy and my curriculum enables me to choose the correct tool to achieve my aims? (PREPARATION)

Often one or more of these 3 is missing as we choose the tool through which we want the students to create meaning. Indeed it is often ignored that the tool itself is impacting the meaning that is being created.

Kath Murdoch in her excellent new book The Power of Inquiry makes the following  point:“(Inquiry teachers) see the learner as an active participant in the learning process. While the term ‘active’ relates to being physically active and having opportunities to engage in direct, hands on experiences it is vital that it is also understood in a cognitive sense”  This link between the body and cognition is a vital one to make if we are not to fall into the trap of lots of busy work justified on the grounds that students are using their hands or moving around. We need to be actively aware of how student cognition may be impacted by the ability to manipulate real world objects and set up out classrooms accordingly. Students need to have access to a range of manipulative what ever their age range and be encouraged to build and experiment as part of the learnign process.

The second element when thinking of body is student awareness of their own bodily state and its impact of their learning. Do we allow students the power to make meaningful decisions on when they need to move around, stand or sit to help with their learning whilst being considerate of the learning of others?
This is a complex area in terms of classroom management and layout but one that requires more careful consideration in many setting rather than an assumption that sitting is always the best position for learning.

I look forward to reader comments as to how we can ensure that all of our students are fully engaged in developing meaning using all 4 areas I’ve outlined. Or indeed if people feel there are other areas that need consideration.

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