Ripples & Reflections

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

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The Buoyant Force of Continuum Learning

There are no new ideas in this post, yet as I work on curriculum development across the subjects, I reflect on how easy it is for us to fall into the trap of backward mapping without considering the buoyant force of learners as they move up the continuum. 


Starting with the end in mind – backward design (Wiggins & McTighe) – is critically important in making curriculum decisions. What are we aiming for at the end of this great journey? What do our learners need from us? This helps us design schemes, units, assessments and instructional resources that meet whatever standards or outcomes we need to address. A great backwards-designed curriculum is powerful and engaging. By knowing the desired outcomes we can see the pathways for differentiation, interest and flexibility; the learner’s journey is rich and varied and the learner becomes more than the sum of the (instructional) parts.

Rubrics@sjtlyrInterpreting backwards design too inflexibly, however, runs the risk of stripping out the soul of the subject through a laser-focused aim on a narrow selection of terminal performance tasks:  “we need to get them ready for (exam/essay/other) by doing lots of (exam/essay/other) at every stage.”  Well-intentioned, though potentially stifling, “get them ready for…” creates the spectre of a future to worry about. As large-scale terminal assessments necessitate reliable (standardised) operations, they measure what can be measured easily – but do they get to its true heart? If we strip a subject down to the items on a list, what happens to disciplinary authenticity and deep inquiry over time?

Whilst keeping the end in mind, how can we really harness the present enthusiasm and inquiry and build on past excitement and learning to create the moving force of experience that carries learners upwards?

The Buoyant Force

The learners that walk into our schools are not blank slates. When they step into MYP from PYP, they are energised by PYPx and their many exciting experiences. If they step up from a strong PYP, they are already knowledgeable, enthusiastic inquirers. Similarly in the transition from MYP to DP, the tempered learner enters DP with a toolkit of ATL skills, disciplinary and interdisciplinary foundations. None of this is frivolous or superficial and they are not fixed empty vessels, waiting to be filled with a set amount of content.

bubblesThey are more like air bubbles racing to the surface of the water, expanding and accelerating as they go. When they hit the surface, they transition into the next phase: we launch them from school to the world. Along the way, however, there is the buoyant force, an upwards push that we can harness in curriculum design. It might sound cheesy, but run with it.

What are the opportunities and experiences that nucleate those bubbles? How can we catch the bubbles and keep those moving forces pushing upwards? When I reflect on things happening in our own context I think of a few examples:

  • The rapid evolution of our Design classes in many ways. Introducing 3D printers and Tinkercad was great – but even greater is that once the PYP kids got a hold of it, those initial MYP lessons have become redundant already. Now the young MYP designers are doing amazing things, with purpose and audience. The buoyant force of the early experience allowed for even more awesome things to happen later.
  • The revolution of PHE in MYP and the obvious and exciting enthusiasm of the learners as they move up the course. I’m stoked to see how they introduce more authentic data analysis and as a department they have created fantastic learning opportunities.
  • The young PYP writers, coming out of a workshop model into MYP are already equipped for mini-lessons, conferencing and lots of active output in authentic genres. They are ready to write, read and produce work for real audiences.

In every discipline, in all sections of the continuum, I see examples like this, and it is amazing. The buoyant force creates pressure on a backward-mapped curriculum. There is no surer way to burst a kid’s bubble than to approach curriculum with the view that “I know you can do [amazing thing], but we need to do [less amazing, but seemingly more ‘valid’ thing].

So as we develop vertically articulated curriculum, are we spending the care to think about the very best of what these learners know and can do already, and about how a rapidly evolving curriculum in the years below might precipitate a need for (r)evolution and reinvention in the years above? Do we think about it as a spiral, so that even if they encounter similar topics or concepts, they are truly building a stronger understanding through inquiring more deeply and with greater sophistication? Are we looking left and right for connections and experiences that can enhance the experience?

In the younger years are we thinking about how these bubbles nucleate, and how they connect to (and inspire) experiences in later years? When we teach a topic, are we taking care not to inflate the learner with misconceptions that rise with them?

When we deal with transitions, do we focus on communicating the very best of the learners’ experiences? Do we ask the teachers before us “how do we keep them excited?” Are we creating exhilaration for what comes next, rather than anxiety?

What are the buoyant forces in your continuum? 




Defining Inquiry (again)

Since my (re)defining inquiry assignment for Bath and article in IS-Mag, the importance of careful definition and action on inquiry has been on my mind.

Education continues to be a battleground between polar views on “what is best for the kids” and I find myself frustrated by the consistently (false) dichotomous nature of the arguments: traditional vs progressive, schooling vs making, teacher-led vs student-driven. We can have the best of each world by creating it.

We occupy a position of extreme educational privilege in the international school sector: with strong, evidence-based frameworks and quite a lot of freedom to choose what we teach and how. As we make our choices, we need to be informed, critical, creative thinkers in our own right. Make space in the curriculum for play, creativity, curiosity and action, and make sure that the foundations are solid.

As teachers we should follow the research and we should create it. We should be coaches, mentors, guides and activators of learning (beyond facilitators). We should be inquirers, seeking to know our impact as we branch out into new territories.


Here’s my updated definition. It’s tidier than the last, less academic, and includes “creative”.

Inquiry is critical, creative, reflective thought built on a foundation of well-taught* knowledge, skills and concepts, that invites learners to take action on their learning and ask “what if…?” 

It’s important here to define creativity as more than the reserves of the arts and certainly more than a perception of something generally fun. It balances creative expression, teaching and learning with innovation and problem-solving. Creativity could be a catch-all term for the higher-order thinking skills, that in themselves require the foundational concepts, skills and knowledge to be worthwhile. In an MYP context, creative thinking is necessary to reach those top bands. What does creative thinking bring to all the disciplines?

After all, everything is a remix ;>.

  • Which elements of the “traditional” do you see here? How about the “progressive”?
  • How would this look in a (traditionally) high-content course? How about the early years?
  • How does the student’s average day, week, unit, year feel with this in mind?
  • How can we use this to excite genuine, meaningful learning and avoid the fuzzy-buzz of pseudolearning?
  • How does this look across the IB continuum? How about the Trivium schools?
Defining Inquiry

Inquiry is critical, creative, reflective thought, built on foundation of well-taught* knowledge, skills and concepts that invites learners to take action on their learning and ask “what if…?”


Update: Oct 2017

*I’m using well-taught here almost – but not quite – interchangeably with well-learned; to recognise the critical role of the expert teacher in an inquiry environment. As learning becomes more student-owned the student needs to become TEMPERed and learn how to learn more effectively, the expert teacher needs to have their disciplinary world at their fingertips.


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)


Some related blog posts:



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.


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.


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.


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?



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:


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

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


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:


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.


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.


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


“Learning is about living, and as such is lifelong.” Defining Learning


Quote from Elkjaer’s chapter on pragmatism in  “Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning theorists… in their own words.

Over the past couple of months (well, in those stolen moments), I have been reading up on Understanding Learners and Learning for my current Bath MA International Education unit. Where at first I was dubious about the value of going over ‘the old stuff from my PGCE year’, I have found it once again to be intellectually stimulating and challenging to my thoughts as an educator. In trying to prevent myself from being spread too thin (2014 is going to be a freight train), I am writing on what I know, taking a pragmatic look at my “MYP: Mind The Gap” work and presentation and connecting it to the Visible Learning impacts of John Hattie as well as digging deeper into key learning theories.

Somewhere in a coffee shop in Java…

In reading the assigned literature, following the breadcrumbs and accessing more and more literature on the topic of learning, it becomes ever more apparent that the more we learn about knowledge and how it is constructed in the mind of the learner, the more questions we have. Learning is complex, multi-faceted and highly context-specific, yet despite all our differences we may be more alike in our learning than we are different. As educational research builds a stronger database of evidence for an against methods, resources or ideas, careful thought and a dedication to “knowing our impact” may help us determine what is working best in our own classrooms.

So what is learning, really? This post presents some key definitions I’ve picked up on my reading so far.

Learning is the process by which knowledge is increased or modified. Transfer is the process of applying knowledge in new situations.“(‘Cognition and Learning’; Greeno, Collins & Resnick).

This broad definition is helpful as we discuss learning ‘across the gaps’ between MYP and DP, from more inquiry-focused teaching and learning (our ideals as IB educators) to the higher stakes of terminal assessment (and the need for effective and evidence-based methods that allow our students to be ‘successful’). This definition by itself does not do learning justice, however, and Greeno et al, have used their extensive literature review to outline three major perspectives on knowledge, learning, transfer and motivation.

The Behaviorist/Empiricist (B/E) perspective views knowledge as an “organized accumulation of associations and components of skills,” where learning is the “formation, strengthening and adjustment” of associations between stimulus and response and transfer is dependent on a gradient of similarity between the known and the unknown, or “how many and which kinds of associations needed in the new situation have already been acquired in the previous situation.”

The Cognitive/rationalist (C/R) perspective “emphasizes understanding of concepts and theories in different subject matter domains and general cognitive abilities, such as reasoning, planning, solving problems comprehending language.” Learning is understood as “a constructive process of conceptual growth,” and through this constructivist approach transfer is based on the assertion that “concepts and principles of a domain are designed to provide generality [… and is…] assumed to depend on an abstract mental representation in the form of a schema that designates relations that compose a structure that is invariant across situations.

In the Situitive/pragmatist-sociohistoric (S/P) views, knowledge is “distributed among people and their environment” and learning is situitive/interactive, taking place “by a group or individual (and) involves becoming attuned to constraints and affordances of material and social systems with which they interact.” Success is determined more by successful participation in the community, rather than through subsets of skills or tasks, and “the practices of a community provide facilitating and inhibiting patterns that organize the group’s activities and the participation of individuals who are attuned to those regularities.” Transfer “becomes a problematic issue,” does this refer to transfer to new tasks within the same community or to those beyond the community?

In the simple overviews above, we might consider that various elements of our programmes, teaching and learning can be seen to represent the different perspectives at different times. It is possible here to draw comparisons between the exam-focused IBDP class and the inquiry-driven MYP class, or between two teachers’ clashing philosophies on teaching the same course.  There appears to be a clear connection between the content/standards-driven curriculum and the B/E perspective, for instance, whereas a more concept-driven approach favours C/R thinking and the S/P views might better represent those classrooms that represent true ‘learning communities’ or those in cultures (such as in the East) that are less individualistic in their values.


In Knud Illeris’ excellent book Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning theorists… in their own words, Illeris writes:

“Learning can broadly be defined as any process that in living organisms leads to permanent capacity change and which is not solely due to biological maturation or aging.”

I like this one in its distinction of the natural biological growth of capacity from the environmental effects of causing learning. Illeris goes on to describe learning as the interactions between the environment and the individual with the content and incentive; he also describes four types of learning: mental schemes (brain-based organisation of learning outcomes), mental patterns (a more content-specific level of knowledge that allow for transfer), cumulative learning (the formation of new schemes and patterns), and assimilative learning (the addition to and modification of existing schemes and patterns).

In the same book, Bente Elkjaer discusses the pragmatism as a “learning theory for the future,” basing her discussion on John Dewey’s ideas of the role of experience in learning. She quotes David Kolb’s 1984 ‘working definition’ of learning below:

“Learning is  the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.”

Here the idea of ‘experience’ becomes important, as the transaction between the subject and the worlds they occupy and which “concerns the living, the continuous response to and feedback between subject and worlds, as well as the result of this process. It is within this experience that difficulties arise and are resolved by way of inquiry.” This introduction of the term ‘inquiry’ is crucial in my discussions with MYP: Mind the Gap (and to anyone in an IB setting), and I appreciate Elkjaer’s definition of inquiry as “critical or reflective thinking [that] concerns consequences.” It is future-oriented, not locked to the past, where “meaning is not ascribed in a priori terms (‘if-then’); rather it is identified by anticipating ‘what-if’ consequences to potential actions and conduct.” Elkjaer asserts that “a scientific mind is, and should be, part of people’s lives (…) demonstrated by exerting still more informed inquiry and critical and reflective thinking.

As we look through the MYP: Next Chapter guides (and the newly-published IBDP Sciences guides), we can see that there is an importance on creating the rounded learners, who at the lower-levels of achievement can recognize, recall and describe and who needs to ‘learn for automaticity’ (Hattie), yet at the the higher levels needs to have solid conceptual understandings and transfer. As teachers we need to ensure we meet these diverse needs and mind the gaps: not just between the demands of the MYP and DP but also between the B/E and C/R perspectives of learning, between the knowledge and the transfer of that knowledge and between where there learner is now and where he/she needs to be.


Learning is about living, and as such is lifelong.” Bente Elkjaer

Pragmatic thinking is, to me, an important approach to educational discussions. It does not, as Elkjaer recognises, mean that a pragmatist is focused only on results and solution-finding, even at the expense of ideals; pragmatists do consider the result, and do search for solutions to existing (and predicted) challenges but we do not roll over in our convictions for the sake of easy passage. It instead means that “pragmatism concerns the understanding of the meanings of phenomena in terms of their consequences,” and is why I would describe myself as a pragmatic idealist. Pragmatism is a learning theory that empowers educators and learners to develop a responsiveness to challenges through the method of inquiry: critical and reflective thought and an open-ended understanding of knowledge.

I continue to be convinced that those of us teachers who are privileged enough to be working in environments such as international schools, with the luxuries of good behaviour and a focus on curriculum and learning, should be feeding into the global learning community through educational reserach, sharing practices and collaborative, self-directed professional development.

If you have any favoured quotes that ‘define learning’, please share them with me in the comments, or on Twitter (@iBiologyStephen).


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 words. Chapters by Knud Illeris, Bente Elkjaer.

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