Why should we ask questions?

A couple weeks ago, the boys and I were driving in and around Brunswick, Maine trying to find someplace to stop for breakfast. We passed a church sign that asked “Does God have a big toe?” and both boys started laughing uncontrollably.

I asked Henry what the sign was asking. “It’s asking if God has a big toe.” I pressed Henry on what the sign was asking and after two or three back-and-forths, he figured out that I wasn’t asking him to tell me what the sign said but instead trying to get him to figure out what it meant. Now, we both missed parts one and two of this sermon and weren’t going to be stopping in on part three, but I shared my best guess with Henry, that the minister giving this sermon was trying to talk about God as both divine and human. The religion behind the question was really irrelevant here, but we were in agreement that the thought-provoking question had more “curb appeal” than any idea shared as a statement of fact.

We decided to drive to Portland to get donuts and continued to talk about questions and started talking about school while Will napped. I asked Henry if he remembered the inquiry-based units at his old school. As an IB school, Units of Inquiry were a staple of the Primary Years Program, the IB program for the youngest learners. Henry loved any time he worked with these inquiry units, and he said that it was because they were learning about important concepts while trying to answer a question, doing authentic research without textbooks and working together to [my words] create understanding. Then, as different groups would share their research, it would push the whole group’s understanding and continuing research further, culminating in a presentation of the knowledge the class had developed.

I loved teaching in the IB’s programs because, eventually, everything I taught was rooted in inquiry, even in the high school grades. My students and I learned together through questions, answers, solutions, and more questions.   And while I’m no longer at an IB school, the IB had a profound impact on the way I teach. I still do some work for the IB as a consultant and workshop leader and it is so energizing to watch a teacher – and even better a whole school district – get how shifting towards and inquiry-based model can have a profound impact on their students’ learning.

And we’ve all been told that Kindergarten is the high-water point of education, as kids start school knowing that the way to learn anything is to ask questions. Slowly, as years pass and grades progress, we teach the questions out of them unless whatever we’re talking about is going to be on the test. We should be doing better than that, and I’d argue that even a school that already values the importance of student inquiry could do an even better job at it.

So here we are at the start of a new school year, and I wonder how well I’ll do in the third year of the exciting adventure I’m on in helping a faculty let their students ask more questions and find their own answers.


On the evening before something new

I’ve been saving a post by Seth Godin in an open tab ever since first reading it, presumably for right now. It’s the night before I start a new job1. Nerves, butterflies, whatever you want to call it… it’s all for a reason.

The unknowable path
…might also be the right one.
The fact that your path is unknowable may be precisely why it’s the right path.
The alternative, which is following the well-lit path, offers little in the way of magic.
If you choose to make art, you are no longer following. You are making.

1As of tomorrow, I’ll be the founding director of the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning at Ridgefield Academy in Ridgefield, CT. It’s a great opportunity, a big move for the family, and it’s all terribly exciting.

Approaches to Teaching and Outcome-Based Plans… and STEM again



© International Baccalaureate Organization 2012


I’ve been trying to come up with talking points for expanding our lower school STEM initiative into a broader K-8 program, and, as my previous post gave away, hopefully re-framing it into more of a holistic approach to both technology integration and the intersection of those specific subjects into the rest of the curriculum. Moving this program into our middle school is going to be a challenge because we’re not only expanding past self-contained classrooms for a bell schedule and roving packs of students, but also because we’re now looking at eight separate disciplines of the IB Middle Years Program instead of cross-curricular Program of Inquiry in the Primary Years Program. Yesterday, I noticed that all four of the new program models released earlier this year have Approaches to Teaching in the concentric circle closer to the learner. This felt like opportunity to re-center the discussion around how we teach instead of what we teach, if only I could find more information about what the IB’s definition of Approaches to Teaching actually meant.

Unfortunately, I can’t find much.

From the announcement of the new program models, it seems that the definition shifts slightly from program to program.

  •  PYP: “The three components of the PYP curriculum cycle (written, taught and assessed) nowembodied in Approaches to Teaching, aligns with MYP, DP and IBCC programmes. It
    reinforces the PYP pedagogy of authentic learning that is inquiry-based and conceptually
  • MYP: “Approaches to teaching—this emphasizes the MYP pedagogy, including collaborative, authentic learning through inquiry.”
  • DP: “Approaches to teaching and learning are included in the inner circle of the model demonstrating the DP’s commitment to particular pedagogical approaches to teaching and to developing particular skills for learning.”
  • IBCC: There isn’t anything that specifically addresses Approaches to Teaching in that document.

At least in the PYP and MYP, which coincidentally happen to be the grades we’re looking to expand our STEM push throughout, there is a focus on inquiry and authentic learning being at the heart of teaching and learning (though I must admit to being a bit discouraged at not only the lack of information but also the lack of standardization of how Approaches to Teaching – or is that Approaches to teaching? – is treated as formal terminology, and how the Diploma Program seems to only give it a passing glance). It sure sounds as though if we keep doing what we’re already meant to be doing, we shouldn’t need to reinvent the wheel. This doesn’t have to become something where our lower school and middle school teams (and high school beyond them) need to fuss with criteria, transitions, and formalizing something new, and it instead can help us focus on the intersections of subjects and how we purposefully incorporate technology, not to serve any particular disciplines but instead because it’s how we want our students to learn.

If programmatic differences aren’t going to be a problem in widespread adoption of our STEM initiative (or any other initiative to come down the road), I think we’re going to need to redefine success. In broad strokes, we should be able to identify the outcomes that we expect our teaching and learning to conform to and define how a student at our school will learn on a daily basis and trust that we’re already doing a good enough job meeting our program criteria to remove that as our daily foci. “Students are encouraged to create something every day” or “Every classroom will be a safe space to learn from mistakes” or even “Each unit of study will sit at the intersection of at least three subjects” might be better ways to measure success on a school-wide level than referring to any bulleted list of standards to adhere to, especially when we’re supposed to be doing that anyway. How else can you make the transition from a school that meets requirements to a school that transforms what teaching and learning looks like?

So… any IB educators care of weigh in on the definition of Approaches to Teaching? Or is this simply too broad (and important) to be contained in just one part of a model of learning?