Planning for inquiry…

Language is a vehicle for communication and self expression.

It’s a starting point for a central idea for a new inquiry unit in How We Express Ourselves and no-one in the room is excited. The draft central idea seems like a statement of the obvious and teachers are concerned that it might not have the potential to invite student inquiry. We can see opportunities for the development of skills and outcomes in our English scope and sequence, exposure to Aboriginal culture, obvious links with second language learning and wonderful ways to incorporate the arts. If we can come up with possible directions and some great provocations, we’ll be happy to let the learners lead the way…

… Inquiry teachers are not afraid to let go.

It’s the pre-thinking stage and we have yet to explore the potential by investing some time in our own inquiries. An interesting way to provoke initial thinking is via google images. A quick search for ‘language’ generates pictures of different kinds of scripts, people communicating, sign language charts, ancient writing, translations, symbols and signs. We’re off on our own tangents, considering different perspectives, exploring in different directions. My personal inquiry has already taken me to Steven Pinker, Mark Pagel and the National Geographic Enduring Voices project…

… Inquiry teachers are inquirers themselves.

The range of questions teachers generate themselves is an indication of what’s possible… What is language? How can we communicate without language? How do writers use language effectively? How is spoken language different from written language? How would the world be different if everyone spoke the same language? How has language evolved over time? How does slang develop and evolve? How does body language impact on communication? How do gestures communicate meaning in different cultures? Why do some languages not have words for concepts we have in English? How does language shape culture? How does culture shape language? Why are many languages becoming extinct?

… Inquiry teachers are more interested in questions than answers.

We consider the conceptual focus. We might explore language through the lenses of function, connection and change. The big ideas (related concepts) might include communication, expression, culture, systems, relationships, adaptation, literature…

A tentative articulation of the desired conceptual understandings looks like this:

  • We use language to communicate and express thoughts, ideas and feelings. (function)
  • Language is a dynamic system that evolves over time. (change)
  • Language and culture are interdependent. (connection)

… Inquiry teachers focus on conceptual understandings, not just facts.

A range of provocations that involve slang and text speak should pique students’ interest, before taking the learning further…

… Inquiry teachers help learners make personal connections, so that learning is relevant and engaging.

Not everyone is excited (yet). We’re on the lookout for some inspiration relating to the big ideas so let me know if you have anything to share!

32 thoughts on “Planning for inquiry…

  1. Hi Ed, There was this great Key Note speaker at the IB Asia Pacific Conf in 2011 in Melbourne. I can’t remember his name, but his job was to document an ancient language that is about to become extinct when the last of the tribe passes on. I’m sure you can find these past conference papers somewhere in IB land. What stuck in my memory was the concept of language- why don’t we just make the whole world speak English, wouldn’t this be easier! (of course, the answer was not so!) He gave many reasons why….


  2. I think what makes it so challenging is that this unit does not have a traditionally familiar learning path. It will require careful listening to the students thinking and much personal learning by the teachers. Yes that should be the default setting for all learning BUT this one might be new territory. I and many love the idea of new journeys and wonder how teachers might feel at the start and during the unit. Hmmm . Bring it on.


  3. This comment from Holli H came via the form on my about page… I’m looking forward to sharing the idea with the teachers!

    Edna, as to the beginning of the language inquiry. I’m wondering if the students cannot yet grasp its importance because language is nearly like breathing, so we may be unaware of it and take it for granted. What would it be like if you asked the students to go an hour, or even a half hour without language? No books, no talk, no technology, no art, no music…etc. I think they will be quite frustrated. Even their thoughts are language! But they may not understand that until there is a void of external language expressions. Once the experiment is done, before they speak, they could write about the experience. I envision a flood of writing as they finally can express some of the pent up thoughts to share. I’d love to hear what you finally choose to do.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. You might want to consider the confusion sometimes created by language. Body language and context can communicate different things. Maybe an approach is to look closely at how people in different cultures indicate approval, greetings, disapproval, love.

    It might be interesting to compare contrast the reactions to the many forms of English as spoken in the States, Australia, England, Jamaica, or in social media.


  5. Why not provoking students to have a Silent Day on the very first day of the inquiry? Record what they use to communicate and discuss the following day. That should spark some questions (including difficulties that arose).


  6. Hi my name is Brittany Haub and I am a student at the University of South Alabama and this is for my EDM 310 class. I like what Holli H said. An experiment like that would be awesome to do and to see the results would be very interesting. I think having a mini lesson on multi-cultures would be very beneficial for students to see how other people act around the world and to see how they communicate with their body and how they speak.


  7. Thx for reminding us what a Inquiry Teachers look like. It’s so easy to forget and I definitely will share this with my colleagues!


  8. I have done the silent day with my students this year, it was a powerful experience! I also like the comment about “the air we breath”. Language and culture are so closely linked that so embodied in our being that is like asking a fish to explain water.

    Lakoff and Johnson write about this subject in great deal, specifically how metaphors shape our reality and cognition.

    Click to access lakoff.pdf

    Very interesting inquiry! Could spark some very deep connections to different branches of philosophy.


  9. I just finished a grade 1 and 2 mini inquiry about energy. The kids had loads of questions which my teacher candidate and I sorted into groups such as genereal questions about what energy is, our bodies and energy, sun, wind, electricity. So we broke down our inquiry into each of these pieces. After we sourced out info on what energy is and what types there were (answering the children’s questions), we had a great discussion about how we might share our new learning and with whom. They decided they would like a kindergarten audience, socthey would be less nervous the first time. We then came up with a list of the big ideas that they now have intheir schema. Most interesting was the variety of ways they thought about to present their new info. We talked first about the kindergarten child, their interests and attention span and decided that a three to five minute presentation from a group would be long enough. The means for sharing were amazing….we had pairs of children re writing songs using energy big ideas, 2 puppet plays, a couple of my struggling students found pics on the internet and made labels for them, creating a booklet! Two groups created glogs on glogster, a pair did a demonstration, another group created an activity and another group made their own solar panel from cardboard and paper and created their own little video using my iPad. Things were definitely not polished, but they loved it…they were totally engaged and on task. The idea is that with each little inquiry on energy that we do, we will try different ways of communicating our new learning, maybe change up the audience…..who knows what the kids will think about and where they will take us. I think the keys are….teachers trusting that the kids have deep questions, knowing the curriculum well to infuse it into the children’s inquiries, having enough resources (levelled well) to source out their questions, and enough helping hands to help them with their presentations, especially 6 and 7 year olds.


      1. Great post, Edna and I love Joanne’s ideas. You’re absolutely right that teachers need to trust that the children have deep questions. This might mean lots of probing and prompting and reflecting on questions that come up to lead to deeper, more meaningful ones. And the teachers do have to know the curriculum well so that they can teach the relevant skills, content etc. at the point of need. It takes a long time to ensure that resources are levelled appropriately, and it’s reassuring to know that you can also use people in the school who have a lot more knowledge and experience about certain things – Middle and High School Science teachers are a great resource and the younger kids love working with them! High School students are also a great resource and a very receptive audience.
        For ‘How we express ourselves’ units we’ve often worked closely with local schools such as a school for the blind, and a centre which trains deaf people. This can lead to some student-initiated action and also develops attitudes such as empathy and tolerance.
        It’s our school’s PYP exhibition tomorrow which falls under the ‘How we express ourselves’ transdisciplinary theme. The big ideas have been freedom, creativity, beliefs and passion and the students have been investigating forms of expression as diverse as tattoos and ice-skating. They’ve been appalled at ways in which governments have tried to limit freedom of expression and have learnt about a range of beliefs and political systems as a result. Fascinating!


      2. Cristina’s experiment sounds great but, as a music teacher, of course, I will point out that music is independent of language; pitches, melody can be reproduced without words and heard mentally without words. Think of any of the melodies of Beethoven for example – 5th symphony, 6th symphony (“Pastorale”), his Violin Concerto in D, a scale, Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Rubenstein’s Melody in F. Well you get the picture. I shouldn’t put too fine a point on it. I just get excited about all the wonderful, beautiful music out there.

        However, that said, I do applaud your idea, Cristina. Silence is a rich experience.

        I experimented with silence in a different way by asking what is the sound of silence. One day, I just wanted to find another way to tell students to be quiet when I was starting the class – and this became a really interesting activity. The answers were so wonderful.

        I also made use of silence to calm the class and prepare them mentally for music. Also, if the class was too boisterous, or a bit fraught, we would take a moment of silence. Sometimes the children themselves suggested we needed to take a moment of silence. It was a very positive and beautiful experience. I was teaching grades one to four.

        In case anyone is interested to know how I did this, first, the instructions are given in a very calm voice, to sit still with closed eyes, straight spine and to be silent. You don’t have to do any of the activities I suggest but you do have to keep your body still and silent and keep your eyes closed. I invited the students to think of any place, anything or anyone that makes them happy or to think of someone they love the most or of an animal that they especially love, or to pray to Krishna or Christ or Moses or Mohammed or Buddha, Divine Mother or however they think of God, or to think of peace and send out thoughts of peace to all the world. I made it clear they didn’t have to do any of that but that they must be silent and still for one minute, which I timed. When I saw some of the younger/less mature ones wiggling or heard any giggling, I would quietly say, “Oh, Mehta is sitting so still and straight. Jun is really concentrating, etc.” After going through a few or many names this way, the ones doing the fidgeting and giggling eventually tried to emulate the ones I was praising and so I would praise them too, “Haruki is sitting so quietly and keeping his spine so straight.” And sometimes, the class was so deeply peaceful, I felt apologetic about interrupting them to get the music lesson started.

        Anyway, I was reading your blog for a short time last year Edna. I think it’s fantastic. I found it through an account of your meeting with Suguta Mishra , of Hole in the Wall Computer fame, whose TEDtalk I had watched. I like your tremendous enthusiasm and your great ideas.

        I would like to know more about units of inquiry – I’m not an IB teacher but last year after reading one of your blog entries and a post from one of your colleagues in Japan on planning units of inquiry, I decided to experiment with it a little, although it was too late into the school year to change the whole direction. We had a violinist coming to present a program and answer student questions, so I had the classes involved come up with questions they wanted answered and I used that to give them some background on the violin. ( I knew there wouldn’t be enough time at the presentation for all the questions.) Interestingly, after the presentation, they told me they mainly wanted to hear her play, not talk at all.

        Anyway, that little taste really excited me about it. I would like to know more about it.

        So, this is all by way of letting you know that your blog is instructive and inspiring. Thank you very much.


  10. Hi Mary
    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Love the idea of working with less advantaged schools for HWEO units. Would love to hear more about your exhibition unit. Is there a blog you can give me a link to?


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