Content & Inquiry in a Google World

Edit (March 2018): This is an old post (2014) now, but the meme below keeps running. A lot has been written about inquiry and technology in the last four years, so I’ll leave some notes in [green]. Some related posts, if you’re coming new to this blog. For context, I work in international education.  


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. 

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.


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 ;> 


tL;dr Version

I don’t know anyone who can successfully teach ‘content-free’ in middle-high school, even when students are in charge of the learning. 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, knowing our impact 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 crowd out the opportunities for creative, 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. 


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

This list represented my  mindset regarding content, curriculum and pedagogy in 2014. 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 MA International Education nerd. Some of this treads similar ground to my MA assignment on MYP: Mind the Gap, much has been covered by others.

1. Strong inquiry teachers DO teach content. All teachers teach content. When we teach a student a fact or a skill – whether it’s just in time or just in case – 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.

[2018: I think that teacher content mastery – which is not the same as “knowing everything” – is critically important in a student-driven inquiry curriculum.]

2. Strong inquiry 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 (or dangerously wrong) stuff – but they’ll know it really well.

[2018: This becomes ever more important in the move to greater student agency and control of the curriculum. How do we keep the productive struggle going, for each student (or team) as they navigate the many options open to them? A command of the “need to knows and where to go’s” moves curriculum from calendar to compass, which requires a teacher to have a lot at their fingertips.]

3. Strong inquiry 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. This doesn’t mean and exhausting list of facts, but a rock-solid foundation of knowledge and skills, based on solid formative assessment principles and vigilance for misconception. [2018: This may well prove to be harder in an student-owned classroom than a standardised one, as the differing paths reach different content checkpoints at different times as a result of different experiences. There may be an opportunity here for some worthwhile edtech development. I highly recommend “What does this look like in the classroom” for up-to-date research-to-practice for secure foundations.]

And so…

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

4. Strong inquiry 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, we have Transfer skills in the ATL Framework. See Ilja van Weringh’s recent posts on a PD weekend with Lynn Erickson for more useful quotes & tips.

5. Strong inquiry teaching activates inquiry as creative, 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.

[2018: Just take a look at the MYP descriptors for Levels 7-8 in the subjects or 6-7 for overall grades. They are very aspirational, impossible to achieve without age-appropriate subject-level (and ATL) mastery, and require sophisticated thinking.]

6. All strong teachers DO connect learning; content-focused and inquiry-focused teachers alike.  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?‘. [2018: In a modern, connected, inquiry-driven curriculum, does this make it more important for the teacher to be a connected learner in their own right?]

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. [2018: These foundational documents, can act as a guidebook in the quest for learning as learning becomes more student-owned. Could a diverse classroom of learners be creating their own units drawing from standards sets of their home countries?]

8. Strong inquiry 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?

Resources on i-Biology

[2018: I still think this, and since the original post we have seen a huge shift in the use (and misuse) of information for political means. Furthermore, we have even more powerful tools for inquiry at our command, from data searches and Wolfram|Alpha to fantastic media resources, Gapminder and the SDG’s. Tech stands in position to amplify and transform a robust curriculum into something very special.]

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.

[2018: This sings to the core of being a modern teacher. We all get into this job with ideals at heart, and the emerging role of the connected international educator as a learning designer leads to new challenges – and amazing opportunities.]

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


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?


Personal Reflection

[Updated March 2018]

I teach science in an international school and I’m IB to my core (MYP & DP, kids 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 various roles.

Around 2010-12ish, 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 overcome 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, feedback and creating new opportunities for real learning. Much of it now is in GoogleApps, with other tools, but when the best learning can happen without a screen, we put them away!

When I built online resources like 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 zone of proximal development (lots of conferencing). 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, but that this need is often unpredictable and dependent on a complex web of cause-effects. 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 thinking and of measured academic risk, but we also need to be there to protect students from going (too far) down dead-ends. Productive struggle and (worthwhile) failure are important to learning, but we need to spot when this is starting to replace opportunities for learning. 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 and a half 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 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 creative 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, exam success often means taking a Vygotskyian approach to inquiry when I’m more Dewey at heart. This is heightened by the dreaded GPA, backwashing pedagogical/assessment demands, and I continue to seek ways to focus on learning over grades. I’m very much looking forward to a future of learning that effectively crosses the traditional-progressive divide and empowers learners in all attributes of the learner profile – including knowledgeable.


I wonder how many points this post could have scored on an edu-jargon bingo-card. Also, see this 2019 piece on “how to think without Googling.”

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If you have comments, please leave them, here or find me on Twitter.




11 responses to “Content & Inquiry in a Google World”

  1. mskibbio Avatar

    Honest reflective engaging self assessing analysis. I think you hit a lot of the IB learner profile as well. Thanks for this post

    1. Stephen Avatar

      Thank-you! It’s never easy treading the line between what’s basically the traditional camp and the digital progressive.

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  4. Stephen Avatar

    Reblogged this on i-Biology.

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    […] SatNav, as wonderful as it can be, has two main flaws. First, it gives “the answer” quickly, even though it might not be the answer we need (and may sometimes lead down a dodgy path). Second, it can be annoyingly fiddly, dominating your thinking when you should be driving the car. As the teacher it can be hard to resist jumping in with the answer (or an assumption) that steals the opportunity for thought, like a satnav giving shortcuts that miss out on the best part of the journey. Similarly, edtech is not always the solution and even in the age of Google our students need to be masters of valuable knowledge. […]

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