Who controls the learning?

This post grew out of a conversation with my personal learning network the other night. I was chatting about inquiry learning with a group of educators  in Australia, Ghana, Chile, Japan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Canada and Bulgaria. Maggie was on her lunch break in Switzerland, Jen was on a ferry in Hong Kong, @Mallocup was at an automatic car-wash in Abu Dhabi  … Join us next time for #pypchat, wherever you are.

The conversation turned towards how much we plan ahead and how much unfolds naturally along the way. I’m wondering…

Do you prepare a range of teaching activities in advance?
Or do you plan a strong provocation  and then see how the learning unfolds naturally?

Is your plan a checklist, on which you cross off each activity you’ve ‘done’?
Or do you change your plan every day depending on the needs and interests of the students?

Do you know exactly what will happen in your classes?
Or do you really listen to students’ questions, answers and thoughts, allowing those to direct the learning?

Does every student do the same thing in your class?
Or do learners have choice where they take their learning and how they might share it?

Do you focus on covering the material and how best to teach it?
Or do you spark curiosity so that learners are inspired to question, explore and discover?

Is this you…?

Image: Eneko

Some thoughts from the chat participants:

  •  I have seen big differences among our teachers here, some plan in detail, others let unfold – but all plan summative first @tgalletti
  • We’re moving to planning much less. Well planned provocation essential. And ways to assess prior knowledge/current understanding. @gedmis
  • Tune in, have a few workshops and hand it all over to the kids and facilitate them in their myriad of directions @emmalinesports
  • That is where the battle is always. The balance between end in mind and mind the end. @wholeboxndice
  •  I’ve just crossed so many activities off my current planner so there is time 4 student inquiry – trying to step back @Saigon_Eldred
  • There is a difference between prescribing and planning. @wholeboxndice
  • Plan a framework with which the Ss can inquire within, needs some boundaries which are negotiable @jasongraham99
  • Try not to but PYP coord insists!! Pure based/problem based inquiry not much at all. @travisattis
  • @travisattis the planner should be a narrative of what happened, not a prescribed list of what will happen @DwyerTeacher
  • Record the route as it unfolds. One eye on map and compass to steer back towards destination when necessary @gedmis
  • We can’t learn anything about what children think if we signal to them what we hope they will say @cpaterso

The discussion continued later with Craig Dwyer in Japan. He shared an article he has written on this topic, in which he says:

I am never at ease with myself before I start a new unit. I worry
about how much I am projecting my view of a topic onto my students. I
worry about how their interpretations will be linked to my
interpretations. I want them to create their own meaning, but at the
same time, I want to tell them a story.

and later this…

As a general rule for myself, I never plan anything more than one
day in advance.  The story and the learning objectives are working in
tandem with the students curiosity, questions and understandings; and
together they are forming the shape of the unit.

Watch out for the  full article, published soon on Teaching Paradox.


Who controls the learning in your class?

12 thoughts on “Who controls the learning?

  1. Great questions as reflection! And, thank you Ed for highlighting some of the thoughts from the pypchat.

    We have been trying to plan engagements throughout units based on the stages of our adopted inquiry cycle that connect to the development of conceptual understanding. The engagements are based on Kath Murdoch’s “Classroom Connections” suggestions. The type of engagements are planned and the purpose of them (skill development, outcomes addressed) is clear (and connected to assessment) but the content/plan can be left open and driven by student questions, interests. I think its key to find a balance.

    In our current KG unit in “How the world works” with the central idea “Our world is made up of materials” and concepts “form” and “function”, students are in our “going further/making conclusions/taking action” stages and they have chosen a specific profession through which to explore materials for 2 weeks. We have builders, chefs, jewelers, scientists, artists and musicians all making developing their own questions, making plans, exploring, creating, experimenting and culminating in an “exhibition of learning” from each group. Its planned but open for students to own it and inquire in their own ways. We have parents/experts in supporting and even facilitating the different groups.

    Throughout a unit, based on student engagement, success, needs and interests, daily planning is flexible but the framework is in place to ensure students understand the central idea and concepts as well as develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes to which we are held accountable. Within the plan, we plan for student questions, exploration and action taking… I always make time for spontaneous questions, exploration and sharing if students have inquired in classtime or at home in through their “wonderbooks” or if as a class we are really interested in something.

    A few questions I often ask and wonder about are:
    Where on the continuum of inquiry do I practice?
    What is best for kids?
    What meets the requirements of my school and the programme?
    How does it all connect?


    1. Thanks for your detailed response, Miranda!

      I sometimes worry about inquiry models which are linear… or that teachers might interpret them in that way. Learning isn’t linear. Inquiry certainly isn’t. What do you think of the Kathy Short model, which moves back and forth through the cycle?
      http://bit.ly/KhAY9m (We like this one at the moment!) I’d add more arrows across the middle as well.


      1. Though we use Kath Murdoch, we try to keep in mind the “arrows” going in different directions. We also have Action and Reflection on the sides of the model…I like Kathy Short’s but our staff chose to adopt Murdochs (when given the choice between a few different models) as the model to use and explore at this point within the school. So far its been a great way to access common language and build understanding around inquiry. The recursiveness, cyclical and non-linearness may be the next stage of our inquiry into inquiry!


  2. Oooo, I’d love to say ‘yes’ to the second in each of the paired statements Edna, though at first I suspect if I’m honest, I’d be saying ‘yes’ to the first in each pair. As a logical, practical, individual who feels that being organised and prepared is important, coupled with teaching Science for which apparatus needs to be booked in advance, having a plan provides a scaffolded framework within which to work. That said, I’d also like to think I respond to the needs of the class and the learners within it … as they unfold.

    Perhaps it doesn’t have to be an either/or? A plan is more like a satellite image providing an overview of the landscape we wish to explore – where we go, how we travel, what we choose to see and experience can be down to the individual … or group. Sometimes we do all do the same thing, and yes sometimes that’s directed by the teacher, but whenever and wherever possible, enabling student choice should be the default.

    Having the luxury of being unfettered by a prescribed curriculum, I hope our Digital Explorers Club (http://ianinsheffield.wordpress.com/2012/04/28/digital-explorers-new-ground/) may tip the balance towards me being able to answer ‘yes’ to the second response more consistently though.


    1. Hi Ian

      Yes, it’s not an ‘either -or’ but sometimes that’s a provocative way to get people thinking 🙂

      I’m not suggesting we don’t plan, as you well realise. Just that our planning needs to be flexible if we care about the learning. I sat with some colleagues the other day and we looked carefully at some ‘exit statements’ kids had written at the end of a class discussion. Analysing what their thinking revealed helped us clarify where to go next. (Not the next ‘step’ on the planning doc!)


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