Taking the PYP Forward - Inquiry as a stance on curriculum

First off, I loved this article.  Short speaks to everything that I value in an inquiry approach; the focus on the process of learning, that it transcends content, and that it is so much more than just themed units. It is an approach to living within the world, a way of being more than a way of studying.  I see a lot of parelles between Ted Aoki and his sense of the lived curriculum.  She is bang on in her estimation of how inquiry can often become a teacher-centered method, rather than an over-arching philosophy.  The tension that is often ignored in favor of clear outcomes is the place where we begin to reformulate our view of the world, and where learning lives.  This is true of both teachers approaching inquiry in the class, and students living with inquiry as a way of seeing the world.

Wonderful stuff.

I am also struck with how much Short harmonizes with the complexity sciences view of learning and education.  There are so many similarities in thought and philosophy.

Inquiry is a collaborative process of connecting to and reaching beyond current understandings to explore tensions significant to learners (pg 12)

Some big take-aways here are the concepts of collaborative and tensions.  Brent Davis mentions that education should be about making the familiar strange.  This is done not individually, but collectively.  We are not the sum of our parts, but the collective is its own learning system.  Essentially, this is what my M.Ed project is about in the context of the mathematics classroom.  The collective cannot be taken out of the learning.  We do not learn in isolation.  Students are living, complex beings, not photons in a vacuum.  Short gives us a sense of this in her phrasing of off balance.  This tension, between what we think we know and what we don't know, drives the learning into new and uncharted waters.  I would replace her use of the word off balanced and instead use far from equilibrium.  All complex systems operate far from equilibrium, and if they get stuck in that balanced area, they freeze and die.  The tension acts as a driving point to evolution, growth, and learning.

Spider eating a grasshopper (by my son)
I would argue that three year olds epitomize inquiry (pg 13)

So comforting to see a professional recognize the importance of the three year old mind.  As a father of a three year old I watch in awe as he shifts from understanding to understanding.  As we learn, we make complex, not simplify.  It seems to me that Short is suggesting an awareness of this process, an inquiry into inquiry so to speak.  Being mindful of how we are learning.  Learning about learning.  This is not always easy.  I have started this year with my kids to help them understand how they learn, but I cannot say that it is always easy.  It is a difficult idea to grasp, and the meta-awareness comes in pieces, not like a surging flood.  It takes time.

Bateson says that learning.... (pg 13)

Quoting Gregory Bateson Mind and Nature?!  We need to have a beer Kathy Short... (or a tea or a coffee).  Love this book.  He is a seminal thinker in the complexity sciences.

From the information age to the conceptual age (pg 14)

I love Dan Pink's work as well.  He is talking complexity science, though he is doing it from a populist perpective (as is Malcolm Gladwell).  The focus on imagination and creativity are central to the environment I try to occasion in my class.

Connection to the conceptual frame (pg 15)

This is something I struggle with, though I agree 100% on the importance.  I have trouble bringing it back to the Central Idea, and we sometimes get lost in the content.  Perhaps this is because that each unit in the current curriculum I work in is thematic by nature (complete with catchy titles), but more so because of me.  I need to work on this identification of the key questions and issues, and not let the project or the product dicate what we do.  At times I am good, other times I am not.  Part of my own evolution is being aware of this...

It reminds me of Making the PYP Happen in Kobe, my first introduction to the PYP three years ago.  The workshop facilitator said that if we are doing a unit on oceans, we need to keep it in the ocean and we cannot have the kids exploring rain-forests   The participants challenged her on this, saying that the concept should dictate, not the content.  If the concept was the same in the rain-forest and the ocean, then why not let them go?  I agree with this, but it is not something that I always do very well (and then other times I do it really well).  During our unit on nutrition, we got stuck doing body systems (it was still a great learning experience), not because it was driven by the children, but because I set it up that way.  I need to bring it back to the central idea and let that guide.  Like I said, sometimes I do, other times I don't.

Inquiry is collaborative (pg 17)

Again, this is the focus of my research.  I would expand this to say that not only is inquiry collaborative, but so is learning, and knowing.  Our intelligence is not situated in us, but is distributed among all those around us.  Merlin Donald writes about this and how our view of consciousness has shifted as we have become more connected.  The most important part for me is the community aspect.  A classroom, and a school, needs to be a learning community, where we are all sharing and learning from each other.  Not a once a month assembly, but engaging with each other and creating new tensions that push us all further.  What would that kind of school look like?

Enacting inquiry in the classroom (pg 18)

I don't think I would use the word enacting here.  Maybe occasioning, of providing the conditions for.  Enacting sounds to purposeful, to close to making, and like Friere said a couple of pages back, the person who poses the problem (enacts) is the person who controls the learning. Still, I get the sense she is trying to create.  You can't plan this stuff.  A unit planner cannot be filled out at the beginning of the unit and followed like a list.  There is a sense of reaction and improv that needs to be part of the teaching process.  We need to go with the flow, not our own flow, but with the flow of the learners (collective).  As Einstein said, I never teach my students, I simply provide the environment for them to learn.

I feel a bit uncomfortable with the circleness of her model, but at the same time I sense that she is not suggesting it be followed around like the hours on a clock.  It is dynamic and flexible.  What I love about her model is that is starts with connection.  This is harder than it looks, but is you can get the students connected to it in a personal and meaningful way, then inquiry comes much more easily.  I am a fan of the Kath Murdoch model, as it tends to be more about flows that circles, but I seem a lot of harmony between the two.  I would love to map them on top of each other and see where the similarities and the differences are.  My gut says they are much more similar than they are different.

The focus in unpacking complexity (pg 22)

This is great.  I remember working with Kath Murdoch at a workshop in Tokyo, and she said that you have to be comfortable with fogginess.  That has stuck with me.  To me, a unit of inquiry is not about packaging up a neat little book of understandings and saying that now I understand this.  That is simplistic and reductionist.  Rather, Short says that the final representations support students is recognizing how much they have learned as well as what they still need to know (pg 24).  This is such a shift from how many view education.  Rather than teaching students to know something, the onus moves from teaching students to learn something.  The learning never stops.  In order to get to the next layer of the onion, you have to know what you don't know.  This is such a beautiful way to view this profession.  It turns so many institutionalized aspects of education on its head (grades, grade levels, subjects, assessments).  For a much more complex and deeper look at this tension between knowing, learning, and teaching, read Brent Davis Engaging Minds.


  1. Recommended via Twitter feed:

    @tomfullerton @jennysfen @DwyerTeacher A next step might be Inquiry as Stance, Cochran-Smith & Lytle http://www.amazon.ca/Inquiry-Stance-Practitioner-Generation-Practitioners/dp/0807749702 …

  2. love reading your thinking... thanks for sharing!
    I agree about planners... I wonder if at least one inquiry line in planners can be defined with/by help of students and/or during the process....


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