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.

About Craig

In Kyoto 京都
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12 Responses to Who is driving the inquiry?

  1. kdceci says:

    Sounds perfect. I often struggle with this. Great provocation, and then boom, we’re back to the original plan. We always need to have everything laid out weeks in advance, yet it’s supposed to be student-driven. We are always working toward the script, so in some ways, how different are we then schools forced into nationally-mandated curriculums? Such good points. I like your idea a lot. I don’t think our PYP coordinator would like it, though, because it would be hard to coordinate concepts then across the year. What if all of the inquiries ended up as “Form” or “Responsibility?” How could you ensure coverage? Of course, on the other hand, do you need to? We also try to hit all parts of the TD theme throughout all of the years, so this would call that into question as well. So, negatives about this approach…scary for coordinators who might feel compelled to cover all parts of TD and concepts. Positives…It’s student-centered! It’s real student-driven, yet guided, inquiry. Isn’t that what we want?

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    • @dwyerteacher says:

      Good points. I think we would eventually want the kids to be coordinating their own education. In an idealistic world, we would them making sure they are balancing themselves through the concepts and being aware. Too much? Maybe? I just feel that the units are too teacher centred, when we have these great little curious minds who ask such powerful questions, it is a resources that we can sometimes squander.

      I have no answers, just questions.

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  2. jamieraskin says:

    Ha! My immediate thought was pretty much the same as Kristen’s. Generally the thrust towards a predetermination of conceptual lenses comes from the pressure to have a wide distribution of these throughout the year, theme and division.

    However, I think there are ways that within that construct we could still push forward as your suggesting. One would be to take your theme/provocation/questions/concepts/central idea sequential approach for a number of really student-driven inquiries and then flexibly balance them with other more guided inquiries to round out the range of approaches, over the course of the curriculum. Still… It would require a really flexible approach to the whole program of inquiry.

    Also, I’m critical of the exact shape of a summative assessment being a necessary prerequisite for kicking off a unit of inquiry. Even when we’re very clear on what we want students to learn, I’m not sure that we need to be so prescriptive on how they show it. Maybe if we could try to broaden our rubric-writing to be more designed for ways of demonstrating understanding than accomplishing tasks it would allow for your students to pursue their own lines of questioning further.

    Another point might be to question whether all conceptual lenses deserve equal airtime. Most student questions seem to head first towards form and function… Does a conceptual balance really mean pushing for even distribution?

    Great process and post though. Thanks for sharing!

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    • @dwyerteacher says:

      I like the idea of having a couple of units that emerge like this “balanced” with more guided inquiry. Afterall, aside from Exhibition, when do the students get control over the CI and LOI and KC? Exhibition is 1 unit out of 30 the kids will go through in their PYP life from grade 1 – 5. 1/30 is a pretty small number. Having a “balance” might be a place to start, and having that flexibility would have to be designed into the POI. Hard to conceptualize, but not impossible.

      I also share you critical thoughts on summative assessment. I often change mine as the unit progresses based on what has happened and how they understand. If the rubrics are conceptual enough (see Edna’s post on those) then the final assessment should be an authentic artefact of the inquiry. Still, the summative is about the Key Concepts that the teacher has chosen. Those key concepts are driving the inquiry (which is great), but I am wondering how we can use more student directed wonderings to get to our key concepts in the first place.

      Also, your thoughts on “balance” resonate with me. I don’t like that word. It implies equal amounts of something on either side. “Harmony” is a much better word, as it allows for a more asymmetrical look at things. The world is not neat and symmetrical, bundled into equal packages on either side of a scale. Sometimes, some key concepts are just more relevant for certain kids. Takes us knowing our learners to determine that “harmony”.

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  3. Rubi says:

    The best part about this model is it is authentic and it is exciting. The difficult bit is to find a powerful provocation. A powerful provocation leads to thought provoking questions and the children are ready to fly with a bit of support from us/peer/experts. Sometimes I find that the provocations which we think is exciting /thought provoking from our perspective might be fun/ boring for the children. Our mind is structured with pre-conceived ideas and it is always fascinating to observe what the children can think about.

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    • @dwyerteacher says:

      I agree. I often feel that I have a powerful provocation and it falls flat, but then I think it is not that strong and it works. Thinking about and reflecting on those provocations, and what made them good or bad, is a key here. That is better done in larger groups, with the input of many voices.

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  4. fatima001 says:

    I appreciate your thoughts and the questions you pose around the tension between leading with the big ideas of the curriculum or letting student questions lead the learning. For me and my colleagues it is still very much about guided inquiry as we have a pre-mandated curriculum with specific reporting protocols. We are struggling with the hows of student led learning rather than teacher centred units.

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    • @dwyerteacher says:

      I think we can definitely do both, teacher guided and student guided, but we do need a “harmony” between the two, as too much of one can lead to something that is formulaic.

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  5. kathmurdoch says:

    Such a thoughtful and interesting post, Craig – as are the comments! Here’s my ‘2 bob’s worth’ as we say in Australia…One of the things I have come to understand more deeply over the last few years how very different ‘inquiries’ can be. Much of my work happens in schools that are not necessarily bound to a particular program or framework for planning so this can allow for journeys of inquiry to take shape up in very different ways. Some inquiries are VERY emergent (like the ‘set up’ you describe) – often sparked by an unexpected event/provocation/problem and almost naturally growing themselves from the ground up – they are often highly student driven. Other inquiries take a while to genuinely include student voice – more time may well be needed for collaborative investigation of complex ideas before the teacher steps back in releases more responsibility. Some ‘work’ because they are driven by a project or action…authenticity and purpose really drive the journey while others have more of a problem based genesis. Over a year, students may experience many different inquiry journeys – with varying structures, starting points and purposes. Regardless of the way in which they take shape, the best inquiries are supported by a ‘big picture’ of conceptual understanding, skill and disposition development – but even these may not be clear from the very beginning. In keeping with your lovely metaphor of ‘harmony’ – I also find that more ‘harmonious’ inquiry classrooms offer students regular opportunities to follow their passions and investigate their own interests. While not necessarily ‘balanced’ – routines that allow this certainly broaden the inquiry experience and truly allow students to drive their learning. Thanks for sharing your thinking…

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    • @dwyerteacher says:

      I love the way you write about the many different types of inquiries. I wonder how a framework like the PYP can be used to support “emergent” inquiries and how they can be used to support “teacher centred” inquiries, as both are important. I would like kids to see the difference between the two and begin to be able to analyse inquiries from a meta-level.

      As a teacher within the PYP framework, I often struggle with the situation when the students take the inquiry into a different direction beyond the key concepts and big understandings we (as teachers) have set up. Do I honour that direction, or bring it back and follow the original plan? Hard decision to make.

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