Ripples & Reflections

"Learning is about living, and as such is lifelong." Elkjaer.


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Are IB Schools Trivium21C Schools?

 

I was lucky enough to get this for a pound on Amazon, but it is worth more. Trivium 21C by Martin Robinson.

I recently finished Martin Robinson’s (@SurrealAnarchy) excellent Trivium 21C: Preparing young people for the future with lessons from the past, the author’s journey through the history of education to find the inspiration for the education he wants for his young daughter. As I read I became more and more convinced that he was essentially describing a high-performing International Baccalaureate education, combining a well-taught, high-quality curriculum (the Grammar), with the development of skills and wisdom to really inquire through critical reflective thought (the Dialectic). With the grammar aligning with a more traditionalist view of education and the dialectic with a more progressive set of methods, Robinson’s book hits very close to my own views and ideals on education and where I want it to go: a set of principles and practices that combine the best of both worlds. The third element of the Trivium, the Rhetoric, is the capacity and engagement of the student in performance, communication, discussion, presentation and participation in authentic and meaningful (global) communities.

Along the way, Robinson takes us through the history of education, from the ancient Greeks to now, at each step highlighting the competing paradigms of learning. It seems as though the progressive vs traditional debate mud-fight has been raging since long before the written word! He interviews leading educational thinkers on both sides of the progressive/traditional divide and my thoughts on Ken Robinson’s TED Talks agree with his entirely  – we do need content in our curriculum, but we need to ensure it is the right stuff, taught well. What is the culture we want to preserve into the future?

What does a Trivium 21C education look like?

Robinson describes the grammar and dialectic as cyclic in nature, the grammar (content) giving the raw materials for the dialectic (inquiry). The rhetoric is ongoing, connecting the student’s learning to the wider world through communication. The diagram below is my attempt to summarize Trivium 21C in one graphic.

My attempt to represent Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21C in a graphic. Can you see the connections here between the Trivium and a well-implemented IB continuum of programmes?

 

Is an IB Education a Trivium Education?

Robinson’s descriptions of his Trivium 21C align very closely with the principles and practices of a well-implemented continuum of an IB education. Although an IB education is inquiry-based, we need to be careful to define this inquiry as critical reflective thought; guided inquiry based on a strong curricular and pedagogical foundation. Inquiry in the PYP may well be open-ended and student-directed, but the rigorous planning and careful, responsive teaching that takes place are exemplary to all teachers. The assessment descriptors of the MYP, as well as the broad and balanced, concept-based approach to the student’s total curriculum give a rounded and challenging experience. Founded on strong unit planning and vertical and horizontal articulation of curriculum, there should be room for inquiry, as well as effective preparation for the higher-tension IB Diploma. In the Diploma itself we see the broad and balanced approach remain as students study not only six subjects, but really exercise their dialectic and rhetoric muscles through the Theory of Knowledge, 4,000-word Extended Essay and challenging learning outcomes of Service (MYP) and Creativity, Action and Service (IBDP).

IB Learner Profile

The IB Learner Profile – or the Philosopher Kid? Click through to read more.

IB Learner ProfileThe philosopher kid of Robinson’s Trivium21C is the embodiment of the IB’s Learner Profile. Towards the end of the book, Robinson makes mention of the IB’s programmes, referring to the dialectic and rhetorical nature of the Theory of Knowledge course in IBDP, the criterion-related assessment of the MYP and the rhetorical (participatory) elements of Creativity Action and Service.

The hierarchical nature of assessment descriptors in the MYP and DP highlights the content-first (Grammar) approach to teaching, learning and assessment. Students can experience success with a good level of content knowledge, but to really excel they must put it to action, with the higher-order command terms driving the higher achievement levels (explain, analyse, evaluate, design, for example).

On paper, an IB education would seem to have all that Robinson seeks in the Trivium 21C, but even within this globalized framework for an international education there is a high degree of variability. This is key – a well-implemented IB continuum of programmes has it all. A poorly-implemented programme may lack in one or more elements of the Trivium; however the frequent and constructive programme evaluation processes in place with the IB should help schools improve.

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Recommending the Book

I highly recommend reading this book, though it is not a quick read by any means; you may well need a note-pad. It has a cast of characters greater than Game of Thrones, yet you’ll feel less soiled once finishing (and none of the ideas are killed off in such gruesome ways as GRRM does his creations). It is quite high-altitude, and though I’d like to recommend it to new teachers, it might not be the practical volume they need to survive. It is an excellent provcation for school leaders and coordinators, as well as those studying curriculum development and educational policy at a more academic level. I would certainly recommend it to anyone who places themself on either side of the progressive/traditional education debate.

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Personal Reflection

Both Robinson and I share very close values and ideas on the education we want for our children. I have the deep privilege of not only being able to choose it for my own kids, but of being in a position where I can help shape it through an IB education. Over the last couple of years, my thinking on education has matured, largely as a result of experience in teaching coordination and curriculum development, but also as a result of taking a more academic approach to learning through my MA studies.

The following selection of blog posts share significant ideas with Robinson’s Trvium21C: 

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Some alternative versions of the graphic

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Content & Inquiry in a Google World

If you’re an educator on Twitter, you have seen this graphorism doing the rounds, included in this post on Larry Ferlazzo’s blog, which in turn reproduces brain-based education guru Eric Jensen’s Education Week Teacher article Boosting Student Learning. 

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There’s nothing quite like a cute graphorism to get people chucking stones on Twitter. Click for Larry Ferlazzo’s post.

Sweet. We’ve got 1:1 and access to Google and a bunch of hyperlinks. Job done. Well, not quite. Within context I agree with the other four of Jensen’s responses, but this image has been bugging me a bit, being tweeted and retweeted without the full article or argument attached.

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Before going ahead*, I recommend reading Larry Ferlazzo’s (@LarryFerlazzoResponses series on the ‘five best practices’ that teachers can do to help their students become better learners’. There are some really useful quotes in there, representing a range of perspectives on what makes ‘effective’ student learning and what builds effective learners.

*As always on this blog, the links are way better than the post. I won’t be offended if you skip the lengthy witterings below. 

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tL;dr Version

I don’t know anyone who can successfully teach ‘content-free’ in middle-high school. We do need to ensure that we teach good content: relevant, current, useful, interesting. We need to teach that content well, using effective methods for our own students and ensuring as much as we can that we don’t reinforce misconception. Google is a tool, not a teacher, and a teacher who could be replaced by a search engine should be. At the same time, we can’t drown students in facts without leaving room for critical reflective thought (inquiry). We need to help students make connections and the selection (and teaching) of content is crucial in building conceptual and transferable understandings. We need to ensure that students know enough to be able to ask good questions. 

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 Content’s role in an inquiry-focused, connected education

This collection of ramblings, knocked into a list, represent my current mindset regarding content, curriculum and pedagogy. They are written from the perspective of an international IB practitioner in a secondary science classroom (MYP & DP), and as a programme coordinator (MYP) and general MA-studying curriculum nerd. Some of this treads similar ground to my MA assignment on MYP: Mind the Gap.

1. Strong teachers DO teach content. All teachers teach content. When we teach a student a fact or a skill and think it’s worth teaching to others, and then we make a note of it and save it for later… it’s content. Yet these same strong teachers recognise that not all content is equal, and that students come first -they’re the reason we’re employed

2. Strong teachers put curriculum before pedagogy, making sure that – to the best of their ability – the content, skills and concepts of the unit are worth learning in the first place. They then focus on how to best cause learning in their own students, in the ways that work best for them. It can be hard to let go of favourite content (or to adapt to new circumstances), but there is little point in honing excellent pedagogy founded on weak curriculum. Otherwise our students will know less valuable stuff – but they’ll know it really well.

3. Strong teachers check the understandings of their students with regard to conceptual and factual accuracy – and then take explicit action on this information. This aims to reduce the interference effect on future learning of misconceptions formed from poor prior learning. If it is content worth teaching it is content worth remembering – and using to build future schema. If we want students to grasp a concept, we will explicitly plan to teach it using factually accurate content.

And so…

Lynn Erickson’s 3D Model of Concept-based Learning – founded on facts and skills.

4. Strong teaching recognises that a concept-based curriculum is still a content-founded curriculum. The effective selection of skills and content (facts), combined with strong pedagogy and metacognition, allow students to build the over-arching ‘concepts’ that should be more transferable. Although transfer is hard – and that is perhaps why we have a set of ATL skills in MYP now to help teach it. See Ilja van Weringh’s recent posts on a PD weekend with Lynn Erickson for more useful quotes & tips.

5. Strong teaching activates inquiry as critical reflective thought – and this needs high-quality raw materials. A strong educational experience uses a foundation of good content knowledge and skills and doesn’t just allow students to develop their learning from there – it forces them to engage, think critically and evaluate their own learning. This is critical pedagogy, and it causes inquiry. Students need to know enough to be able to ask good questions, otherwise it is enquiry in the weak simple-questions sense, not inquiry in the critical and reflective sense.

6. Strong teachers DO connect learning, even the content-focused teachers.  Strong teachers know what the connections are between the content and emphasise these with students. Strong teachers love and recognise it when students make these – or entirely new – connections by themselves. See this post by Harry Webb on ‘who exactly is going around ‘disconnecting’ the facts?

7. Strong teaching takes place within your own academic, social, political or cultural context. Almost all middle and high-school teacher have an outside curriculum influence that guides or dictates contentthis is curriculum as the snapshot of our culture. With this set of standards, benchmarks or assessment statements, we have  content. A good teacher will be creative, differentiated and engaging in how it is taught, but it is still content.

8. Strong teachers recognise the role of content is changing due to technology, but not in the way that quote might suggest. Google is a tool that opens up a world of information, but information is not curriculum and not all information is born equal in terms of its value within curriculum. Not only must we now make sure that the content we are teaching students is correct and misconception-free, we need to also learn how to help students evaluate and appropriately apply the information they find in their own online inquiries. We need to learn to master a parallel curriculum – a set of content and skills of digital, media and information literacy. Good job we have some ATL clusters for those too, eh?

9. Strong educational design and teaching should inspire students to want to know more. Strong teaching might help them aspire to greatness. But a strong teacher will also try to help students recognise that learning is hard, that significant effort is rewarded with greater learning and that the privilege of education is worth the sometimes uninspiring work of practice. Strong teachers care about their students and their students know this.

10. I need a number 10. Maybe you can add one in the comments, or on Twitter.

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What is the effect of ‘Googling’ on memory and is it a bad thing?

This paper (pdf) (summarized in the video below), outlines some studies on the externalisation of stored memory.

If students develop a dependence on search engines for recall of simple facts (or computation of simple maths facts), are they at a disadvantage to students who are able to recall and apply already automatized learning? Kahnemann’s Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow idea might suggest so – as we learn for automaticity and store information in the fast-thinking System I memory, we so free ‘cognitive load‘ for higher-order System II thought: inquiry as critical reflective thought.

If we activate effective learning of critical content through effective pedagogy, do we then help ensure the automaticity of this foundational knowledge, leading to more effective inquiry? Are students less likely to waste time (and cognitive load) on simple searches or computations? What would you think of an adult who had to constantly search simple facts or turn to calculator to make change?

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Personal Reflection

I teach science in an international school and I’m IB to my core (MYP & DP, kid in PYP). I believe in school education for a better world, not just as a stepping-stone to university, but I’m a pragmatist at the same time. I have a job to do, and that’s to educate and to do so as well as I can. I want my students to be lifelong learners with useful skills, useful knowledge, empathy and global literacy. I also need to support this in my colleagues, in my role as coordinator.

A few years back, the pendulum of my beliefs on education swung more towards the quote than it does now. As the role of EdTech and 1:1 access to instant, broad, authentic and real-time information became more powerful as pedagogical tools opportunities the excitement of open inquiry threatened to overcame critical reflection on what would work. I was (and remain) a risk-taker in the classroom, but I never had the bravery to hand the subject guide to the students and tell them to ‘just Google it’ as a course plan. I’m glad now that I didn’t. I still do use a lot of tech in teaching, mainly for workflow and feedback – and most of it now is GoogleApps.

When I built online resources like i-Biology.net and various internal systems I was trying to put the content in place to make room for exploration and inquiry; by setting up a system of what I deemed reliable and useful content, I thought I could ‘derail’ the learning process and ’empower every learner’ to grow at their own pace, in their own style. I have experimented with various on and offline project-based methods, from the open to the teacher-directed, and have found through the experience (and student feedback), that there is a need and a demand for the teacher’s effective and explicit intervention. This has been confirmed through my MA and professional readings, most recently looking at the work of Hattie, Kahnemann, Willingham, Dewey, Vygotsky, Elkjaer and more.

We are employed as the expert in the room, the guiding hand that not only facilitates student learning but which activates it. We need to set up a culture of learning and of measured academic risk, but we also need to be there to protect students from going (too far) down dead-ends. This is especially true when there are high-stakes terminal assessments looming. The strongest students would likely have done just as well under any set of classroom practices – perhaps despite rather than because of my choices. Those students less ready to control their own learning struggled more, fell behind and needed much more direct intervention. The path through this first decade of my teaching career is littered with the fallen bodies (and vestigial webpages, documents and ideas) of schemes that didn’t make the grade.

So now, in time for MYP: Next Chapter and a new IB Biology guide, I think I’m starting to be happy with how I’m getting things set up. I’m comfortable with the importance of my role as a teacher to bring students to meaningful inquiry and the centrality of (the right) content in getting us there. The coming years are an opportunity to put this into practice, to test and refine inquiry as critical reflective thought based on curriculum as a careful curation of connected content taught carefully and purposefully with pedagogy as a on ongoing feedback loop.

Having said all this, taking a Vygotskyian approach to inquiry when I’m more Dewey at heart. There are often times when I worry about too much prescribed content and wish for a more permanent foot across the divide back into middle school teaching. I want less content, but to make it really good and to leave room for real inquiry as critical, reflective thought. There’s a certain energy in the middle school that I miss, where the curriculum can be freed up and learning can be pursued with less worry for the dreaded GPA…. but that’s a another post.

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I wonder how many points this post could have scored on an edu-jargon bingo-card.

If you have comments, please leave them, but be advised they need to be moderated and I’m in Japan, so might well be in bed. You can also find me on Twitter.

Inquiry_Elkjaer_iBiologyStephen


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MYP: Mind the Gap [MA Assignment]

The circle closes with this assignment, from IBAP conference in 2013 to the submission of the assignment in 2014. From here it’s onwards and updwards with the Research Methods unit and the dissertation, building (hopefully) on my Web Chart of the International Dimension

Building on ideas from my IBAP Regional Conference breakout session in 2013, this assignment focuses on different approaches to and interpretations of inquiry across the MYP-DP divide. It focuses first on how Dewey and Vygotsky saw learning an then brings the discussion more up to date with a little look at different learning theories, shoehorning in some modern approaches based on Hattie, Willingham, Kahnemann and the like.

Since coming up with the idea for conference presentation back in 2012-13, I have read so much on these various tensions that it became overwhelming to write and rewrite the assignment. Even up to the last day of writing I was turning up new papers, chapters and interpretations, and the conversations about similar ideas (progressivism vs direct instruction, essentially) continue to wage on through twitter and blogs. I’m not convinced we’ll even reach a happy medium or sense of overall agreement in how best to teach and learn, but it sure makes for interesting reading.

In summary: we’ll never agree on what makes learning effective, as there are too many contrasting ideologies. However, we can use the emphasis on inquiry in the IB programmes to carefully define what we want from our learners and what we want to achieve as educators. Using Bente Elkjaer’s definition of inquiry as “critical reflective thought” we can find commons ground across the gap, from the more open-ended Deweyesque approach to inquiry of the PYP and MYP to the more structured Vygotskyan DP-oriented model. Students need to be taught, and the role of the teacher is highly important; where content is needed, we must ensure that it is accurate, useful and – most importantly – free from misconception so that it can be built upon in later inquiries. We can equip students with a worthwhile foundation of knowledge and skills from which they can build inquiry, through future-oriented, critical and reflective thought.

There is a false dichotomy between progressivism and more didactic methods of learning; it is striking the right balance for learners at the right time that is key and the paper is bookended by Dewey’s quotes reflecting this.

What we want and need is education pure and simple, and we shall make surer and faster progress when we devote ourselves to finding out just what education is and what conditions have to be satisfied in order that education may be a reality and not a name or a slogan.”

 (Dewey, Experience and Education, 1938, p.91)

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Some related blog posts:

JohnDewey_isms_iBiologyStephen


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Is “every experience a moving force” in our curriculum?

As I struggle through writer’s block (after a very intense couple of months of work and more), trying to organise and finish off this ULL assignment, I find myself pulled back into the literature, thinking about the quotes of educationalists past and present. Recent reading about Dewey and Vygostky has been stimulating, as I realise that we, educationalists, have been having these same conversations for a hundred years or more*.

This is quote from Dewey (1938’s Experience and Education (pdf)) makes me think a lot about the essence of my argument about MYP: Mind the Gap. Are we creating learners for the future, giving them a “moving force” of an educational experience, or are we limiting education to preparation for external exams? I like to think we’re getting the best of both worlds.

JohnDewey_ExperienceMovingForce_iBiologyStephen

John Dewey on “Experience and Education.” Click through for a pdf.

*Actually thousands – I’m also reading Martin Robinson’s (@surrealanarchy) “Trivium 21C,” which traces the debates on how education ‘works’ back to Socrates and Aristotle.

JohnDewey_isms_iBiologyStephen

This quote is a good reminder to stop drawing lines in the sand. We don’t need more ‘isms, we need better education for a better world. I don’t know the source of the cartoon, but hopefully someone can find it. I did try a GoogleImages reverse-search.


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Defining Inquiry: “Critical Reflective Thinking”

I find this definition of educational inquiry useful enough to give it its own post (abridged from my An Inquiry Crossfader post). I would like all educators in an IB setting, especially with Next Chapter, to have a good understanding of inquiry as the process that allows students to learn and demonstrate their learning at a sophisticated level. 

The IB programmes emphasise inquiry, a word frequently used though perhaps oft-misunderstood. It does not mean a trivial and open-ended, free-for-all approach to learning (in this loose sense, “inquiry learning” ranks low on Hattie’s Visible Learning impacts [d=0.31]). The PYP describes its approach as “structured, purposeful inquiry” where students are invited to “investigate significant issues,” and in which the goal is “the active construction of meaning.”  (Making the PYP Happen, p29) This is no loose approach – despite the relative freedom of content and (hopefully) less rigid set of external pressures – and is wholly relevant in the MYP and DP.

My favourite educational definition of inquiry comes from Bente Elkjaer: “critical or reflective thinking.” In her chapter on pragmatism in Knud Illeris’ Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning theorists… in their own words she qualifies the definition further, describing how it connects to experience and the pragmatic approach to learning.

Inquiry is “critical or reflective thinking [that] concerns consequences,” future-oriented approach (‘what-if’ rather than ‘if-then’) in which meaning is “identified by anticipating ‘what-if’ consequences to potential actions and conduct.

Paraphrased from Bente Elkjaer

This is a definition I am comfortable to use with critical and reflective adults and will aim to do so when working with teachers in the MYP and DP settings.

After all, we all want to create critical and reflective thinkers, right?

BenteElkjaer_inquiry_@iBiologyStephen

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On inquiry vs enquiry

This might be splitting hairs, but my distinction has long been enquiry as asking a question, including the trivial, versus inquiry as the process of investigating more deeply (more in line with Elkjaer’s definition above). It turns out this might not be right:

From the Oxford English Dictionaries online:

“Inquiry

Noun (plural inquiries): another term for enquiry. Definition in the US English dictionary.”

Ey up, I must have been internationaliszed somewhere along the way.

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Related: An Inquiry Crossfader as part of thinking about MYP:Mind the Gap (tensions in transitions from MYP to DP), in which I think about how teachers can place themselves in ‘camps’ of either/or in terms of content/outcomes vs inquiry/concepts. We should aim for an appropriate and careful balance at all levels.

 

 


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Give a Student a Fish…

“Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he’ll feed his family for a lifetime.” Anne Ritchie, 1885 (maybe)

This short post, again related to Understanding Learners and Learning, Visible Learning and MYP: Mind the Gap, revolves around my (admittedly flawed) memory of an old aid advert, a bit like this:

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After defining learning and thinking critically and reflectively about the nature of inquiry and why there might be a tension across the MYP-DP transition, I want to think briefly about the learner that crosses that gap, using the obvious metaphor of the fisherman as the learner and the fish as the content, skills and conceptual understandings that the student brings up from MYP to DP.

What kind of student do you want to come up to your DP class from MYP? The kid with a boatload of fish or the thinker with the ability to catch more fish?

For authentic inquiry (critical, reflective, future-focused, consequence-oriented, ‘what-if’ thought (Elkjaer)) to be successful, students need some fish in their stomachs. We can’t ask good questions of nothing, nor can we evaluate the empty. So content and skills are needed by the student moving into the Diploma Programme. But is it the MYP teacher’s job to pre-teach everything to a DP student? What is important to know and be able to do? What conceptual understandings and approaches to learning are the most advantageous to develop, to ‘clear the path’ for effective learning and success in terminal assessments?

What happens if we ‘teach’ our students too much before they get to DP? Two things concern me here: interference and motivation, both of which I need to learn more about as I continue this assignment.

The first is the known negative impact of interference: the effect of incorrect or poorly-formed conceptual understandings on future learning. This is outline in Hattie’s Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, and is of particular relevance to the thoughtful science teacher; students come up to our classes with a multitude of prior learning (correct or otherwise) that can either help or hinder their learning. If they arrive with a solid understanding of the concepts of evolution (Biology) or energy (Physics), for example, they will be better able to make connections (transfer) this learning as they modify existing patterns or construct new schema. Conversely, if their existing understandings are misconceptions these need to be undone before effective learning can take place, and this is very difficult to do. These misconceptions may come from poor prior teaching, superficial learning (e.g. content cramming) or in the confusion between discipline-specific and everyday use (e.g. ‘power’). I would argue here for a very carefully-constructed conceptual curriculum in the MYP years, one that emphasises not a large body of content but a highly-effective approach to constructing correct conceptual understandings.

Parallel to this is the concept of cognitive load and ego-depletion: we need to maintain a careful balance between effective learning to the point of competence and over-exertion to the point of no learning. Knowing is pleasant, but learning is uncomfortable. The ideal student coming up from DP would be fluent in the basic skills, concepts and knowledge that they learned in MYP: the basics of this core curriculum having been automatized and committed to ‘System I’, the ‘fast-thinking’ part of the memory (Kahnemann), leaving cognitive load ready for the heavier lifting in higher-order thinking (‘System II’, slow-thinking’). This is all described with much greater competence in Hattie’s Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn.

This might be a challenge to teachers ‘across the gap’ as the urge to cover content can be a strong one, but perhaps we should rather think of it as developing students who can fish well over those who are paddling upstream with a boatload of rotten trout.

The second issue that concerns me is one of motivation. In a highly content-driven, test-focused, behavioural/empirical classroom we risk creating or reinforcing a culture of extrinsic motivation, in which grades are king and are used to positively or negatively reinforce learning behaviours (ego orientation). When everything is accounted for, where is the motivation to learn as a true learner, to be truly inspired to know more? In soe school cultures we might say that it doesn’t matter how the students learn, as long as the results are high, but in that case are we really educating them or are we just passing them on to the next set of accountants?

With an inquiry-led, cognitive/rationalist classroom can we develop a more intrinsic motivation to learn, to develop a greater self-efficacy as learners in order to be more critical and reflective in our thought: a mastery goal orientation? How can the MYP classroom develop students effectively through the Approaches to Learning so that they are ready to get fishing as soon as they start Diploma and are carrying with them a solid set of conceptual understandings that will help them transfer their learning and make new connections?

Finally, do we really need to pre-teach such a great deal of content in the MYP that there are no new discoveries in the Diploma Programme? How motivated are we to re-learn what we (think we) already know and what is the effect of boredom (coupled with potential interference of misconceptions) on the effectiveness and meaning-construction in what we are trying to learn?

Once again the tensions in the transition from MYP to DP represent a fine balancing act, one for which I need to do a lot more learning.

Sources

Greeno, Collins & Resnick. Cognition & Learning, chapter in Berliner, D. & Calfee, R. (eds.),Handbook of Educational Psychology, Macmillan, New York: 15-46

Illeris, Knud. Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning theorists… in their own wordsChapters by Knud Illeris, Bente Elkjaer.

Hattie & Yates. Visible Learning & The Science of How We Learn.

Kahnemann. Dual Process Theory.

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On a parallel aid-related note, here’s a quick video from the World Food Programme on that old saying:


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An Inquiry Crossfader: Authentic vs Effective Learning?

In reading more about Understanding Learners and Learning, learning theories and high-impact teaching and learning strategies I got thinking again about a conversation Jon Schatzky and I had a year and half ago about a continuum of inquiry. I’ll use this post to morph the idea into an Inquiry Crossfader, using it to acknowledge some of the (real or perceived) tensions in transition across the MYP-DP gap. This is by no means an exhaustive discussion on the topic, and there is a lot of thinking still to do (apologies for the rambling). Your thoughts are appreciated in the comments or on Twitter (@iBiologyStephen), especially if you have constructive criticism or pertinent journal articles to share. 

Inquiry: "critical reflective thought." As teachers we can set the balance between telling students what to know generating authentic inquiry. With careful design we can turn both effective and authentic learning up to 11.

Inquiry:critical reflective thought.” As teachers we can set the balance between telling students what to know generating authentic inquiry. With careful design we can turn both effective and authentic learning up to 11.

Defining Inquiry

Definitions of inquiry differ depending on who you talk to or who you are teaching. A PYP teacher might use a description of inquiry as largely student-driven questioning that drives the curriculum, is highly open-ended and can lead students in many directions in terms of curricular outcomes:

“[The PYP is committed to] structured, purposeful inquiry that engages students actively in their own learning. In the PYP it is believed that this is the way in which students learn best—that students should be invited to investigate significant issues by formulating their own questions, designing their own inquiries, assessing the various means available to support their inquiries, and proceeding with research, experimentation, observation and analysis that will help them in finding their own responses to the issues. The starting point is students’ current understanding, and the goal is the active construction of meaning by building connections between that understanding and new information and experience, derived from the inquiry into new content.” Making the PYP Happen, p29 (emphasis mine)

This is a fine approach to teaching and learning, especially in younger years where the backwash-effect of university entry is not a driving factor in school-wide or classroom-level decision-making with regards to teaching, learning and assessment. It is certainly the way I want my own young children to learn. However in my (anecdotal) experience the term inquiry meets resistance in the march on up to high school, as teachers feel the pressure of terminal assessment and more heavily prescribed syllabus outcomes or standards. It can be seen as too open-ended, or ‘loose’, perhaps sacrificing ‘standards’ for exploration. When we look at Hattie’s learning impacts, the open-ended inquiry-based learning that these teachers fear rates below average with an impact of just 0.31 (average d=0.4); entirely understandable when the tools for measuring learning in older students tend to be highly standardized and based on a pre-determined set of syllabus outcomes or core skills.

I’d prefer to use Bente Elkjaer’s definition of inquiry as “critical or reflective thinking [that] concerns consequences,” a future-oriented approach (‘what-if’ rather than ‘if-then’) in which meaning is “identified by anticipating ‘what-if’ consequences to potential actions and conduct.

As we think about the role of inquiry from this perspective, we can see myriad opportunities for authentic meaning-making in the experience of learning without sacrificing the pedagogies of ‘effective’ teaching and learning. It is a definition that agrees with the PYP approach to inquiry quoted above, as well as being an appropriate description of higher-order learning in a middle or high-school classroom. It does not discount the role of skills and content in the class; otherwise what is our core curriculum and upon what do we build conceptual understandings? It instead opens the door to more student-centred approaches to learning (such as modeling science), that require a student to think critically and reflectively, construct meaning in their learning and apply their factual and conceptual understandings to new situations through transfer.

I would be highly skeptical of any teacher who said they didn’t want to develop critical and reflective thinkers in their classes and instead preferred to keep the learning to only that which can be easily measured through simple testing.

Effective vs Authentic Learning? 

A deliberately provocative – and not necessarily true – dichotomy: are we teaching for a measurable impact, to get results (effective) or are we aiming to build meaning (authentic)? Where I observe conflict across the MYP-DP gap (again anecdotal) it tends to be as a result of a teacher determining their philosophy (and resultant practices) as either/or, when we should be concerned with both. 

In the most extreme of cases and most simplistic of distinctions between competing educational philosophies we might split the camps into ‘results-getters’ (objective-focused, effective learning) and ‘meaning-makers’ (inquiry-focused, authentic learning), the two approaches being exemplary of an behavioral/empirical perspective on learning and a cognitive/rationalist view respectively (see Cognition and Learning, in the references below). A results-getter would take pride in high student scores on standardised testing, where a meaning-maker values the impact (lifelong?) of the learning on the student in a more transformative sense. Of course, it is entirely possible to construct meaning in a highly content-driven high-school classroom, just as it is to fail to construct meaning in a low-functioning pseudo-inquiry environment: in a car recently, my 6yo daughter and I had a conversation on the difference between worthwhile ‘inquiry’ questions and superficiality such as ‘are we there yet?’ Nevertheless, the tensions into a high-stakes DP class from an inquiry-focused MYP class hinge around the (real or perceived) conflicts between a teacher-directed, outcome-driven pedagogy and a more open-ended inquiry-focused approach to learning in the classroom.

I would argue that the master teacher gets the balance right.

Depending on your subject it might be true that opportunities for open-ended inquiry become more limited in the vertical progression through the currciculum, yet the opportunities for engaging students in critical and reflective thought should remain and even strengthen as students develop a more solid conceptual foundation and set of discipline-related skills and content. The sciences, for example, fit into this category: we focus on building solid conceptual understandings through MYP yet experience a highly-prescriptive outcomes-based syllabus in Diploma Programme; as a result we risk losing the spirit of learner-led inquiry that characterizes true science as students get older and it is important in terms of both motivation and the aims of our programmes that we help students construct meaning and relevance in their studies.

The same content-loaded high-school course could be taught in different ways, and the learning experienced by students depends highly on the teacher’s philosophy of education. The focus on effective teaching and learning in these classrooms is relatively straightforward as the clearly-defined objectives of the syllabus make it easier for the teacher to employ high-impact practices such as formative assessment (d=0.9), feedback (d=0.73), spaced practice (d=0.71) and reciprocal teaching (d=0.74). The greater challenge might be to ‘make space’ for inquiry to apply student learning in order to make meaning through critical reflective thought, though it only takes a basic understanding of the higher-level assessment descriptors to see that transfer, critical inquiry and reflection play strongly into student achievement.

On the other hand subjects such as Design, with minimal prescribed content, should allow students to really spread their inquiry wings through their application of the design cycle to authentic problems and design challenges as they get older, building upon the skills, knowledge and concepts they have developed in earlier years. Making meaning should therefore be easy as student-interest drives the curriculum. In this case ‘effective teaching’ might present the more significant challenge: even an excellent teacher would need to think very carefully about how to deploy high-impact teaching practices and to know their impact as students follow diverse lines of inquiry.

So where does the Inquiry Crossfader come in? 

This is just a way to visualize the dichotomy outlined above, in order to emphasize that we can ‘set the slider’ for any of our classes and that we need to bear both effective and authentic teaching and learning in mind in our curriculum and instructional design. The table below the diagram highlights some of the characteristics of the philosophy and the classroom practices that characterize the opposite ends of the crossfader; I have attempted to draw some comparisons between practical conceptualizations of each approach, though this is open to editing and adjustment as I work on the assignment further. Below the table is an expanded outline of the relevance of the components of the DJ metaphor.

InquiryCrossfader_@iBiologyStephen

THE OUTCOMES-DRIVEN CLASSROOM [FOCUS ON EFFECTIVE LEARNING] THE INQUIRY-DRIVEN CLASSROOM [FOCUS ON AUTHENTIC LEARNING]
Aligns with behavioral/empirical perspectives on learning:

  • Knowledge is an accumulation of stimulus-response associations.
  • Transfer is a gradient of similarity between prior and current learning in terms of associations and stimulus/response. Motivation may well be more extrinsic, based on a desire to achieve grades over making meaning in learning.(Greeno, Collins & Resnick)
Aligns with cognitive/rational perspectives on learning:

  • Knowledge is concept-founded, where learning is a process of conceptual construction (constructivism).
  • Transfer is the application of generalities and problem-solving from conceptual understandings.
  • Motivation is more likely to be intrinsic, with a desire to learn and make meaning taking priority.(Greeno, Collins & Resnick)
Objectives are clearly-defined and generally pre-determined. Objectives might be be (partially) defined but student inquiry forms an important part of the curriculum outcomes.
Generally content-based curriculum. Generally concept-based curriculum.
Deployment of high-impact teaching practices might be more straightforward as progress towards defined, pre-determined outcomes can be easier to measure. Deployment of high-impact teaching practices might be more difficult as progress towards defined, pre-determined outcomes can be messier to measure.However, clearly-defined success criteria should still allow for a lot of formative feedback and improvement.
Teacher’s role as the expert of content and assessment. Teacher’s role as the coach or mentor of the learner.
Thinking may be more determined by ‘if-then’ scenarios, in terms of stimulus-response.(Elkjaer, in Illeris) Thinking may be more determined by ‘what-if’ scenarios (future-focused pragmatic approach).(Elkjaer, in Illeris)
Grading might suit a simple points/percentages system in which students ‘earn credit’ for completion and scores in controlled assessments. Assessment is more likely to be criterion-based (or standards-based), in which grades are linked to (and evidenced by) mastery of descriptors. There may be more diversity in assessment tools used, though these need to be very carefully designed*.

*See Grant Wiggins’ recent post on the false dichotomy between testing and projects as assessment tools. No matter the perspective on learning, we need to construct effect assessment tools… by design. 

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Labouring the Metaphor

As a bedroom DJ in a past life, I’l take the liberty of outlining the diagram with the relevance of each part.

Two turntables. The left represents the content-driven (behavioural/empirical) approach, where the right represents the inquiry/concept-driven (cognitive/rationalist) approach. As the DJ builds a set, the balance moves from left to right, as the DJ switches records, though many turntablists use both at the same time to build layers of complexity; this is analagous to the master teacher ensuring both effective and authentic learning are taking place.

Volume control. As well as controlling the balance between each track, the volume of each can be controlled. Consider a complex mix between a highly-effective and highly-authentic classroom: the crossfader is set near the middle, yet both tracks are ‘turned up to 11’.

Beat-matching. A difficult skill to master, where the DJ needs to keep the tracks in time in terms of tempo and alignment of bars: transitions between records should not be noticed by the audience or the botched mix leads to an uncomfortable dissonance. The analogy here is that students notice when a teacher ‘switched gear’ artificially, as the beats go out of step and cause confusion.

Building the set. DJ’s don’t make it up as they go along: they plan their set for peaks and lulls, for the big moments and the build-ups. They start with the end in mind and know what they want their audience to experience; they practice backwards design. With a solid foundation of content (the records in their box) and a knowledge of where they can be flexible (differentiation), they can adapt their set to suit the feedback of the audience and meet their needs. Building the set might also apply to vertical articulation of the curriculum, building a student’s cumulative experience of a discipline over the years, morphing inquiry as the years progress.

We might go a step further to over-egg the analogy and add a microphone, where the teacher makes the teaching visible to students, outlining the what, the why and the how of learning in the classroom, making learning intentions clear and acting as a credible coach. We might also add the headphones, where the teacher previews and fine-tunes the learning experience, predicting and preventing mishaps or a poor mix, and uses feedback to improve the performance. Finally we could add the recording equipment – the formative and summative assessment data – with which the teacher can gain feedback and make adjustments regarding teaching and learning for future lessons.

Conclusion

Where it is possible to recognise tensions in the transition from a open-ended inquiry in the MYP to a more content-driven assessment-led Diploma Programme, it is not helpful to do so with such broad and definitive strokes. Inquiry, if defined as “critical and reflective thinking” is not only possible but strengthened as students progress up through the school, even if the form of that inquiry looks radically different from the PYP and early MYP years. We need to recognise that all classes at all times sit somewhere on the crossfader between the two approaches, and are likely to demonstrate characteristics of each. A master teacher is striking the right balance in each moment between the two sides, making adjustments where needed so that learning can be both effective and authentic.

Crank it up to 11.

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Useful Sources: 

IBO. Making the PYP Happen: A curriculum framework for international primary education.

Greeno, Collins & Resnick. Cognition & Learning, chapter in Berliner, D. & Calfee, R. (eds.), Handbook of Educational Psychology, Macmillan, New York: 15-46

Illeris, Knud. Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning theorists… in their own wordsChapters by Knud Illeris, Bente Elkjaer.

Hattie & Yates. Visible Learning & The Science of How We Learn.