The Power of a Provocation

Sharing the Planet

One of the best things I love about teaching in our PYP school is the freedom to provoke and then the time to reflect and inquire.

We began our a unit this week on “Sharing the Planet,” where we dig into inequalities and conflict. We wanted to focus on injustice at the kids’ level for a start (I teach grade 5, 10 and 11-year olds).  Our provocation was to set up unfair situations for several days and in a way, beat down the kids. It sounds awful, but it worked. The kids were buzzing with questions and ideas by the end. I wanted to document our journey so far.

Our kids come from privileged backgrounds and live comfortable lives. This would all be different if working in a tougher school where unfairness and injustice already exist, but most of our kids have never experienced real injustice.

The beginning

We brought the students together and then had one teacher deliberately choose 1/3 of the students for a “fun” learning experience. His group, specially chosen (because he liked them, he said) had complete freedom to do whatever they wanted on the computers. They could play music, talk, watch videos. He encouraged them to be loud and to relax and have a good time.


Forced into meaningless work

My group and the other group were the leftovers. I took my group back and immediately began a spelling quiz on 15 of the most obscure countries in the world. Then, I asked students the capitals of those countries, and finally the presidents and religions of each of the countries. I didn’t know myself, but had looked it up on Wikipedia. The other group of  “leftovers” had to write without stopping a recount. Neither of our groups could talk. My students got in trouble for talking and had to work standing up.

How it continued:

We rotated after 20 minutes, and the students were hopeful they would end up in the “fun” group. We marched them back into the free classroom where they got a chance to see the kids having a good time. Then, we deliberately sent them back into our strict classrooms. Their faces, after realizing they weren’t going to get the fair end, were priceless. In their world (and as it should be), if things weren’t fair at the beginning, they would even out. So, when we took the same groups back and let the freedom group continue with their freedom, the students were devastated.

Their reactions:

The first day, in our class, the reactions were shocked, deadened, but diligent. These are good kids. They are responsible

The "fun, free" group

The “fun, free” group

and respectful and open to learning. They’re excited by learning. They tried to spell all of the countries. When I told them they had 10 seconds to get a paper and pencil and then began counting, they rushed and slammed into each other to make it back to their seats on time. I’m a very patient, gentle, nice teacher normally, but they took this change of behavior in stride and obeyed. I kept a straight face. I acted like a strict, traditionalist teacher who thought of her students as below her. I had the answers, and I made sure they knew they didn’t know any of them. It was horrible, yet in a strange sense, quite powerful. I had complete control.

We sent them off to music and then recess afterwards, and they were full of chatter about the provocation. They wanted to blame someone and started with the students. I heard there were some problems on the playground.

First day reflections

Visible Thinking

Visible Thinking

Using some visible thinking routines, I showed students pictures of themselves when they returned and we had a discussion. They all wanted to talk at once, and I could tell they had pent up energy, and they were nervous. I needed to bring them back, and it took some time. They had been bullied, and they had a lot to say. We did a continuum where they got to mark their feelings and explain “What made them say that.” When asked how they would deal with their feelings, they said they it would all be better if they got to switch to the fun group the next day.

The next day

The next day came and unfortunately, it was the same as the first. I had my same 2 groups, and this time, I stepped it up and put the pressure on kids to quickly complete math problems they didn’t know how to do and I dictated a Wikipedia article to them about Lithuania. I almost burst out laughing as I read the history, full of names I couldn’t pronounce, dates, countries, languages. I read quickly, and they scribbled. I made them write with a marker, and of course, there was no talking, no questions. I told them how important it was to do this and made them feel not so good when they couldn’t write quickly enough or understand what I was saying. Again, I was horrible. I had complete control over a class that was learning absolute rubbish disconnected from anything we were studying.


More meaningless work

Their response to me was similar to the first day–or at least the first group. They scribbled. They tried to quickly calculate. They stood up and worked. They ran to get their papers. When we rotated and I got the second group, they were less energetic. This was then their 4th time in a strict, seemingly unfair situation, and they looked exhausted. They wrote a few words. They walked more slowly. They looked beaten. I knew our provocation was on the way to success.


Again, the students went off to a specialist and then recess. I heard this time on the playground there was more anger, more bitterness toward the group who got to have fun again. When they came inside, they were boiling, so I sat them down and the first thing they wanted to know was if it was going to happen again. They were scared.

So, we relaxed and sat together and talked. I had them first do a Venn diagram with someone from the freedom group and someone from what they termed the “torture” group. They found a lot of differences, but came up with things about how both groups were learning, happened to be in the same place and both had teachers. They weren’t quite reaching for unfair.

So then I used another Visible Thinking routine called “Headlines.” Here were some of their headlines:IMG_3732

Their headlines led us to a discussion on unfairness and fairness, and their discussion was profound. They brought in prior learning about human rights. Fairness means everyone is treated equally and is content. Fairness is having choice. Unfairness is about not respecting someone else’s rights and background.

For example, one student said. It’s like someone coming from a different culture into a school that forces them to act a certain way. That would be unfair, he said. I was amazed at their thoughts.


I’m trying to get the kids to think about action. What can they do? So, to start I asked: What if this happened again tomorrow. Same situation. Same groups in the same situation. They immediately burst out in chatter. I heard the word torture many times. I got them into groups and gave them popsicle sticks so they could all have a say. Their goal was to come up with an action plan if this happened tomorrow. Everyone got a say, and they put in their popsicle stick and got to talk. The popsicle sticks worked, and I’m not sure why I haven’t used them before. It gave everyone a chance. My EAL learners could listen to one person at a time more slowly. Again, deliberately having them think and taking our time with it worked.

IMG_3731“This is like old bread and fresh bread,” I heard one student saying. “Some of us keep getting the old bread, and it’s not fair.” One group wanted to just do nothing if they got forced into the situation. Another group said they had a secret plan, and when I forced it out of them, they said it was to stand up to the teacher. As a group, they would refuse to do anything, and their power in numbers would overwhelm the teacher. I was impressed.

Another group said that since the “free” group could talk as much as they want, they would use their voice to make a change. They would address the teachers and tell them everything needed to go back to normal. Wow.

Pulling It All Together

In the end, we talked as a group and many of them agreed that the entire set-up was unfair–even though it felt good in one group. When the group suggested we just go back to normal, one student said that it wouldn’t ever be back to normal because two groups had gotten horrible treatment. How do you ever fix that, he said.

It happens all over the world, another student said.

That, I thought, is exactly it, isn’t it? Here’s where we start our inquiry. In their lives and in the lives of so many…It’s not fair. There is injustice. How can you ever make it right?

Moving forward

We’re going to go with that sentiment moving on. Can things ever be totally fair? And, if they can’t be, how do you deal with it. We plan to go with their thoughts of unfairness, identify situations of unfairness and do a study on personal power and keep coming back to the fact that unfairness exists, conflicts exist…how can you best deal with it?

From our provocations and pre-assessment, it seems like our students, who are just at the beginning of seeing the gray between the black and white, can start addressing the fact that sometimes things aren’t going to be fair, and they need to be able to move on.

About kdceci

I am a grade 5 teacher in a PYP school in Chicago, Illinois, USA. From the US originally, I worked in Asia the last 13 years. I am passionate about inquiry-driven education, collaboration, and ensuring kids get to continue to be kids that play, create and think as long as they can. Outside of school, l love to write, read, hike, run, meditate and travel.
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1 Response to The Power of a Provocation

  1. Jill Rimmer says:

    A powerful provocation that really hit the mark. Thanks for sharing and documenting the experience so well.


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