When teaching is like fishing

I have had a problem with the idea of “tuning-in” for some time, and even more of a problem with “front-loading”. This problem of mine came to a head about two years ago when planning a PYP Exhibition unit and having a bit of an argument with a colleague who kept using the two terms over and over again. For some reason, every time she said them it reminded me of fishing, and then started to make me think of “chumming”!

Sometimes I feel as through we treat our students like fish. We throw some things at them in the hope of capturing their interest, then we try and hook them and reel them them in until we’re good and ready to assess them and then, because our unit is usually “over”, we chuck ’em back in the sea and start the process all over again! I think we really end up with the following categories of students each time, the percentages of which change continuously:

  • Those who tend to take in interest in almost anything
  • Those who are genuinely interested in that particular context
  • Those who are great at pretending to be interested
  • Those who struggle to pretend to be interested
  • Those who are not interested and don’t pretend

To try and help myself get through the planning experience and remain sane, as well as to help my colleague see my point of view, I developed this graphic:

It did help. It helped me to to teach my students in a way that uncovered their real interests more effectively. It helped me to understand that “tuning-in” is not about tuning them in to “our topic” but is instead about us tuning in to who they are as people, as learners and what they are interested in or care about.

But, it hasn’t cured my blues completely. When I was first released into inquiry teaching, I was escaping from Year 6 in an English school. Each year was completely about preparing the students for the SATs. If students showed any worrying signs of having their own inquiries I was simply to remind them of the fact that “it wouldn’t be in the tests”. Wow… when I started to learn about inquiry and working within the PYP framework I was so excited!

However, I have kind of started to feel like that again. I feel as though many of my students real interests and inquiries are ignored or never even mentioned because they are not relevant to the unit we are “doing” at that particular time. I also feel that many topical issues remain unexplored because of the constraints of units and timing. A scary fact that, as far as I know, not a single class in my school has taken the opportunity to inquire about flooding (I work in Thailand). Will it be as powerful to do so in 4 months time when the class is “doing the how the world works unit”? And, of course, that depends on how locked in they are to a central idea that has nothing to do with flooding!

I feel like we’re still kind of kidding ourselves with all our talk of inquiries being “student-driven” or “student-initiated” when they are still really operating within contexts established by us, with the focus set by us and with the duration of the inquiry predetermined.

I have a crazy suggestion for us all to ponder. I wonder if we could experiment with letting students conduct inquiries into things they are genuinely interested in and then, as their teachers, help them to make the academic connections. In a PYP school, this could be as simple as teachers helping students to see which transdisciplinary theme their inquiries are relevant to. If they were looking at flooding right now, for example, their inquiries (depending on which direction they go in) could lead to a better understanding of how the world works, sharing the planet, where we are in place and time, how we express ourselves, who we are and how we organize ourselves. Whoops – that’s all six of them!

I have a student who is crazy about wakeboarding, and massively talented. Here’s a little video of him:

He annoys us all by trying to connect wakeboarding with everything we do in the classroom. “Uh… it’s like in wakeboarding” he says and we all groan!!! But maybe it’s him who has made me feel this way. He’s actually very interested in wakeboard design and has ambitions to open his own wakepark. Would an inquiry into those things cover many of the transdisciplinary themes? I think so.

It’s a bit like putting tags on blog postings isn’t it? When I create a blog posting for my class I often find that the content is relevant to many concepts, many aspects of the learner profile and usually more than one transdisciplinary theme. Imagine if we could teach by tagging too, allowing students to pursue inquiries that really are their own, and then tagging them and helping them (and us) to see that they really are learning stuff!

Apparently, this is one of the ways they do things in Reggio Emilia, and I’m sure it’s only done with younger children where the fear of content coverage is less palpable. But, I reckon it could be done with older kids too, and I reckon that fears about content coverage would turn out to be deeply misguided. It would take a brave leader, an innovative school and some talented teachers to make it work. I would love to give it try!

Sam Sherratt, New International School Thailand

Image from http://de.academic.ru/pictures/dewiki/67/Chuming_the_water.jpg

About sherrattsam

PYP Coordinator at International School Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Co-Founder and Co-Director of Time Space Education
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28 Responses to When teaching is like fishing

  1. Wow!

    Yes. it’s about people: individuals, community, relationships, dynamics. It’s simple but because people are far from simple, it becomes complex. And yes, context is so important.

    Awesome post.


    • Mr. Sam says:

      Thanks, Malyn.

      You’re right, it is the complexity of people, life and the world that makes learning rich. Any inquiries have the potential to be intellectually and academically valuable. Here’s an example. I allow my students to snack on “Brain Food” during lessons and we recently had a meeting about whether or not Wasabi Nuts should be banned from class as they seem to cause some distraction because the kids keep challenging each other to put more and more of them in their mouth! We decided that the best thing would be to do an inquiry into whether or not Wasabi Nuts are actually healthy, whether the coating of them contains ingredients that impact behaviour and whether or not there are brands available that are healthier than others. Five students jumped at it… but they had to do it for homework. Imagine if I could have justified allowing class time for that.


  2. Stephanie says:

    It’s funny this post is mentioned as I just finished my Science/Social Studies/Technology exam which I ranted about at length about content integration risks in terms of invasion and also dilution of key conceptual understandings. From what I’ve seen so far it motivates students but how to implement is really, really hard. Still I figure if knew all the answers to that riddle right out of teachers’ college then something might me be wrong.


    • Mr. Sam says:

      Stephanie, I have some good news and some bad news for you.

      The bad news is that it is hard, and that it doesn’t get any easier! The good news is that it is the difficulty of teaching well that makes it such a rewarding job. I love the fact that I am not working inside a framework that is easy to implement – in fact, when it shows signs of becoming easy, or too prescribed, that’s when I start thinking about moving on to something different again.

      You may see the answers to some riddles because you don’t carry the baggage of experience yet. The secret is to always feel like you are still in teachers’ college!


  3. David says:

    Wonderful thoughts and you hit on something so many teachers are thinking about. Many are testing these waters and “letting go” of the control and command (fishing) aspect of being a teacher.

    Inquiry is key and QBC – question based curriculum is one answer. Others are really as you stated – about letting the students learn the skills of learning through subjects that interest them. Have you heard of Kiernan Egan’s work – especially his idea of “Learning in Depth”? It’s exactly what you are describing and he envisions a whole school based program.

    Let’s hope our school systems take off the one size straightjacket of “subjects” and really see learning as Dewey imagined it – about process and an active, engaged student.



    • Mr. Sam says:

      Thanks, David. It is good to know that others are thinking this way too. I haven’t heard of Egan and will fix that problem over the next couple of days! I’ll make a more informed reply once I have read his work.


    • Layla Sacker says:

      HI David,
      I was feeling a little glum while reading Sam’s post.. and then after reading your comment, I begn to explore Kiernan Egan. ( I had not heard of him)
      Yes he has it right. ….excite the imagination!
      The clip about the whales heart was brilliant.
      Thank you so much – Creativity and Imagination are the key.
      I dont know if you have read Rudyard Kiplings “the Elephants Child” but learning is about “satiable curiosity” .


      • Mr. Sam says:

        Agreed, Layla. I can’t believe I don’t know of this guy, although I recognise the covers and titles of some of the books. I will definitely be doing some more research into his work. I wonder if we could set up some kind of online collaborative inquiry into it?

        p.s. sorry to have made you feel glum, however, great things often come from glumness!


    • Wendy Robertson says:

      The difference with Kiernan Egan’s work is that the students are given their subject and they stick with it for years. I do agree, however, there are many similarities with Mr. Sam’s thiughts and those of Ehan. It’s exciting!


  4. Wow! This is an important post that I hope all PYP teachers / coordinators / administrators read and think about. I know that I’ve struggled with some of the same issues and it’s difficult to find a way to address them. I love the philosophy of the PYP, but I worry when the teaching and learning becomes all about the structure and documentation and we lose the ‘inquiry as a philosophical stance’. One of my goals this year is to provide more time for students to pursue personal inquiries – based on their passions or on situational events. I am hoping this will help to create a more dynamic environment that feels less rigid. One in which student driven investigations become equally important as the units planned as a part of the Programme of Inquiry.


    • Mr. Sam says:

      I love your idea, Jennifer. It would be great to see a model in which students’ own inquiries are given the same value as the “official” ones. I reckon the tagging system would help to make this happen and may – in the long run – show that a POI need not be rigid, set in chunks of time or totally teacher-planned.

      The big problem is the classic problem that nobody ever seems to do anything about… time. We keep our students busy because that is the outward sign of great school. There is great value in the saying “less is more”, but who will apply that to schools. If you know – let me know!


  5. whatedsaid says:

    Sam, you inspire me, as always. I would like to show your tuning in models to teachers at my school. Better still, have you share them yourself (have to see what to do about the time difference, as we discussed!) Are you familiar with the Kath Short inquiry cycle? The one you describe (tuning in, then front loading) sounds like Kath Murdoch’s model. Kath Short’s model starts with connection (to the child) and then invitation. I am not a fan of models at all and it’s problematic when teachers get stuck in one way of looking at things, but of the two, I definitely prefer the Short one.

    Hard to believe that no-one is inquiring into the flooding, when your country is living through it! I agree somewhat with Jennifer’s concern about structure and documentation sometimes overshadowing learning in PYP. It would be great to have fewer than 6 units in a year and more time for kids to explore their own inquiries.

    I like your idea immensely, Sam. Sounds like a dream learning environment. However, not only do we have IBO constraints, we also have a new Australian curriculum and a principal who is insistent that our students score highly on NAPLAN, the national standardised testing. So I think we will have to settle for that place in the middle and start saving…


    • Mr. Sam says:

      NAPLAN is a disaster waiting to happen. I can’t believe that Australia has copied what the British have been doing despite the fact that it is sucking the soul out of education. Usually it is best to look at others’ mistakes and not repeat them. Still… Australia’s full of retail parks too, so what can I say?

      I am over the moon that I stand corrected and – no big surprise – Teresa has got the students looking at flooding in Y7 at our school!!!

      Please do share my models. Yes, they are based on Kath Murdoch – but actually more based on the way many people interpret them than the way she probably intended them to be used. I can’t stand to see them used in a linear way – “now we’re tuning in kids… let’s all be interested in this!”.

      I think I’m going to have to come and spend some time at your school…


  6. Teresa Tung says:

    Don’t worry, we will squish the inquiry out of them into departments in secondary and fully ensure they only prep for content of courses that will get them into good universities by the last two years.

    I’m becoming disillusioned as our school success is bellowed in university acceptance banners and 7s earned.

    But at least we are dissecting the flood in y7!


  7. heathergoggins says:

    Thats a great post, Sam. I’ve just finished a two day PYP workshop about conceptual understandings and some of the same questions you were pondering came up. Our workshop leader shared this video of a young girl doing an inquiry into something she is really interested in.
    Have a look! http://tinyurl.com/3exhh93


    • Mr. Sam says:

      I love it! Of course, to understand why this video is so good you have to discard all your own baggage and accept this little girl’s starting point. There is a great quote by Harste about how teachers say their students can’t do or don’t know things and that it is simply the failure of the teacher to understand and value each student’s starting point.

      The technical, process language that this girl is using is amazing – the fact that the context is fairies is irrelevant to anyone but her. It would be interesting to get a transcript, paste it into Wordle and remove all the language about fairies. The language that would remain on the screen would be way beyond what most teachers would “expect” of a girl that age. Yet, if she were not talking about fairies, would her language be as rich?

      Thanks for sharing.


  8. monika hardy says:

    imagine…if we didn’t even back end with some publicly prescribed curriculum… imagine if the only common tagging was on a process of learning to learn… and then.. whatever topic a kid is interested in. we would be truly listening without an agenda. huge huge difference. we owe it to our kids.. and each other… to go there. and we can. we are. 🙂


    • Mr. Sam says:

      Yep, I like your words – “the only common tagging was on a process of learning to learn”. This is surely the essence of what many of us would like to achieve, to progress beyond trying to put prescribed pieces of information into children’s minds and instead teach them how to get at information, how to critique it and how to use it for their own purposes. And, more than that, teaching them that they can have their own purposes!!!


  9. Hey Sam, hehe, I have your little poster of ‘Tuning in Scenarios’ up on my wall. I teach the little ones as you know….. not all of them are interested in some of our units and we encourage them to go for what THEY are REALLY Interested in… not what WE WANT them to be interested in. Thanks for your post… and happy e.learning this week! Marianne x


  10. Mr. Sam says:

    I love the fact that you have openly said that “not all of them are interested in some of our units”. It is not often that teachers will admit that because it could come across as a failure on behalf of the teacher. To carry on with the fishing analogy, it seems as though the teacher is bad at fishing if not all the students are “caught”! This is, of course, complete nonsense. We’re just in denial, and our students are magnificent actors, apart from the ones that aren’t – and we have so many other excuses for them!!!

    It is only natural that some of our students will not be interested in some of the units. Despite my best efforts, there’s usually one or two that capture my imagination much less than the others every year. Teachers need to admit that and make allowances for those students by giving them other opportunities. Well done for being one of those teachers!


  11. nainisingh says:

    A powerful post Sam! I loved the visuals on the tuning-in scenarios. I agree with Edna too when she says we have to find a balance between exploring at leisure and attaining good scores in those standardized scores. As a result of this post, I’m reading Kiernan Egan’s web page right now.
    thanks for sharing.


  12. Mr. Sam says:

    Funny how life works. I shared this posting with my colleagues Chris and Glenn, then we went back to work and just happen to be starting the Sharing the Planet unit. We have ended up trying to run this unit exactly like the second diagram in the tuning-in models above!

    Here’s a basic outline of what we aim to do, incomplete as we’re planning as we go: http://www.scribd.com/doc/72138754

    Here is a video of my students doing the first phase today: http://6ssatnist.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/video-of-what-we-did-today/


  13. Victor I just saw your clip on wakeboarding! Totally awesome. Great to see a kid with passion and talent. I’m sure you are always trying to relate this talent to everything you do in and outside of the classroom.


  14. Jason says:

    Sam it is unfortunate that we work at the same school and yet I haven’t been able to come and have a conversation about this topic as a secondary teacher it is a strategy that I struggle with.
    I love the philosophy of the student guided project. I personally don’t mind being totally out of my depth when it comes to answering difficult questions in relation to a student inquiry. My only concern is that I want my students to know EVERYTHING. If they can’t “know it” then at least they have been exposed to it in some way shape or form. I get the feeling sometimes that we can underexpose them to many different facets, subjects and yes content areas that they don’t know exist. The balance of who decides what students should be exposed to is a question I am not nearly intelligent enough to answer. Building curiosity in the world around us and at least givng the oppurtunity to investigate many different aspects of life I believe is just as important as students finding their passion.


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  16. Hi Sam,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts about tuning in. Your illustration showing the students tuning in to the teachers topic versus tuning into the students is interesting. It invites teachers to think about whether the inquiry is significant, meaningful and relevant for the students. We have also been reflecting on approaching this by involving students in the planning as much as possible and inquiring into everyday opportunities for inquiry.


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