Over the last few years as a science teacher and coordinator I’ve been thinking a lot about how we might create a culture of thinking that balances vigorous and challenging outcomes with student co-creation (or navigation) of inquiry, particularly where there might be high-stakes terminal assessments looming. The “Curriculum as a compass, not a calendar” metaphor* helps me wrestle with these ideas.
This one has been brewing a while and is still pretty drafty, so I reserve the right to edit ;> With so much written about inquiry and edtech in recent years, there is likely little new in here, but writing helps clarify thinking. Also, my kids and I love Moana, hence the images and gifs.
*See the “Heritage of the Idea” at the bottom of the post.
Inquiry as a Quest (or Journey)
The Japanese term Tankyuu (探 究), meaning inquiry, journey, quest or investigation, is a nice fit for this idea. It aligns with a pragmatic definition of inquiry, suggesting that there is a journey worth taking, knowledge worth learning and many paths worth exploring.
It suggests depth and vigour, a level of sophistication that empowers learning, building on (and feeding back into) a solid foundation for the future.
This is no new idea, and has been written about in many different ways. Most recently, in Quest for Learning by Marie Alcock, Alison Zmuda and Michael Fisher, inquiry is presented as a part of a “quest” that is enhanced by effective networks and elements of “gaming” that drive learners. Hop on over here for a review of their book.
Curriculum as a Compass, not a Calendar
If we think of inquiry as a voyage, then we might think of curriculum as a compass – map and compass set. As a map the curriculum outlines the destinations and checkpoints, obstacles and viewpoints. The curriculum outlines the “need to knows” in context (national/international standards), but doesn’t dictate the route to take – or the schedule for the learning. There may be well-trodden paths to lead us to tourist hotspots but there might also be areas uncharted, adventures waiting to happen where the questing learner (co-)creates new knowledge, ideas or outcomes.
The compass holds “true north”, ensuring that whatever the path taken, learners can find themselves back on track, relatively unscathed. The compass can help the tempered self-regulating learner decide “If I’m here, and I want/need to get there, then I have to ______ .” In the PYP context, you might want to read the ever-great Edna Sackson’s post on “curriculum shouldn’t be linear“.
With curriculum as a map and compass, teachers and learners can navigate the “need to knows and where to go’s” with some confidence. They might even be ready to set sail into the blue yonder…
Just in case & just in time: the navigator’s toolkitWhat are the roles of knowledge and skills in an inquiry context? Under this metaphor, we might think of them as the “need to knows” to start the journey: the contents of the voyager’s backpack.
- What does the explorer need to know and be able to do to set the course? What experiences and provocations can inspire the journey and create the moving force to get going?
- What do they need to know and be able to do to get going? How will they know they’re making progress and how will they generate feedback to take action on the journey? What are the most effective ways to learn this foundational knowledge, misconception-free, so that they are prepared for the journey ahead?
- What are the “just in case” lessons or resources that the teacher might have to hand (or workshop with), in prediction for challenges ahead? “Ah, I can see you’re heading up the mountain…. do you have the right rope?“.
- What are the “just in time” lessons that the teacher might need to prepare, or have at their fingertips, as the journey progresses? How can we spot and take appropriate actions on the little nudges that get the lost wanderer out of the bog?
The Teacher and Learner as WayfindersThrough all these decisions the teacher makes (or helps the student make), we can hold the following in mind:
- What knowledge might help here, and are they on track?
- What disciplinary skills are useful here and do they know them well?
- What approaches to learning skills can drive this forwards?
- What tools – physical, digital and strategic – might be needed and how will they access them? How much of this is just in case or just in time?
- How can this connect to other learning, in this quest, other classes or outside?
- Who can help as journey-mates, experts or co-navigators?
- Are they holding “true north” and how far off course is OK until we need to step in?
So what is the role of the elder in the hero’s quest?
Inspiration? Co-creator? Director? The holder of cultural knowledge (curriculum)? Guide? Instructor? Coach? Confidante? Expert?
As the adults in the room, with a great weight of responsibility, it is likely to be all of the above. The challenge is knowing who needs what and when, helping our own learners find the joy in uncertainty and the fulfilment of doing the hard work of learning to find our way.
Technology can help bring the magic…
With potentially transformative technologies in our voyagers’ backpacks, our quests have the potential for charting new territories, creating new outcomes and connecting across the map.
From productivity to efficiency, creativity to critical thinking, wellbeing to connection, the potential for technologies to really elevate learning is endless, and can amplify (or transform) a knowledge-rich, student-owned learning adventure.
Reach out and connect: it’s a rich world of shared learning and collaboration that can give the voyagers access to learning that might not have been possible otherwise.
…but don’t let SatNav ruin the adventure
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.
I like to think about these “get out of the ways” (and I’m sure will add more):
- If surface-level enquiry (looking up simple stuff) is wasting mental energy that could be better put to work on true thinking (inquiry with an “I”), find a more efficient way to teach the basics and move on to better questions.
- If the adult is getting in the way of the real thinking, step back and listen.
- If the tech is just a “shiny” distraction, reconsider its worth. Do we really need this side-plot in our adventure?
- If the tech tool is creating an unproductive struggle (a “clicky-clicky timesuck”), ditch it for something more truly interactive and/or effective.
- If grades are getting in the way of learning, find ways to separate them from feedback (feedback first, feed-forwards and so on).
- If the navigators are lost (or antagonistic), teach the teamwork skills that are needed to move on.
- … (can you add more?)
“It’s not just sails and knots…”
“… it’s seeing where you’re going (in your mind). It’s knowing where you’re going by knowing where you’ve been.”
So there you go. My two cents on curriculum as a compass, inquiry as a quest and ATL skills, edtech and more as navigation tools, using Moana gifs. If you have any thoughts, please add them in the comments below or find me on Twitter.
*The Heritage of an Idea
When I heard the phrase “curriculum is a compass, not a calendar“, years ago, it resonated,
but I couldn’t remember where I heard it, Found it: it was Aaron Duff (in 2014) – and I’d even made (and forgotten about) a graphorism when this account was on my old handle (@iBiologyStephen), a symptom of years of output littered across the web.
In a Twitter exchange on #PubPDAsia I tracked down an even earlier use of it (2008), and found a quote in Research on Second Language Teacher Education: A Sociocultural Perspective, edited by Karen E. Johnson, Paula R. Golombek. It’s amazing what focused search strategies can turn up in the context of a rapidly-moving live twitter-chat!
Now, as I think more about curriculum development and future adventures in high-quality, learner-driven, vigorous (and knowledge-founded) inquiry, I think about the toolkits and strategies we might put in place. Connecting the pieces of the the programmes (MYP, DP, NGSS etc), along with big ideas and frameworks from Bold Moves, Quest for Learning, Cultures of Thinking, Making Thinking Visible, I move closer to the image of the learner (adult or student) as a Wayfinder.
Aue, aue, we are explorers reading every sign
We tell the stories of our elders
In the never ending chain