The Power of Student Action in Inquiry-based Learning

It all started with a little caterpillar

Picture this, we are 4 weeks into a unit on Life Cycles and ordered over 200 caterpillars for our grade level for students to observe as it goes through each stage of the life cycle. Sounds like a great idea right? Unfortunately, 199 of the caterpillars went through only 2 stages of the life cycle..caterpillar and death. The other one somehow managed to go through a Darwinian miracle and ate all the leaves so none of the other caterpillars survived. Ironically, he ate himself to death. Not exactly a great start to the unit.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending (or this wouldn’t exactly be an exciting blog post).Last week, one of my Grade 2 students came rushing into class, practically bouncing off the walls with sheer excitement. She had managed to find 2 huge caterpillars in her backyard that were sitting on a tree. She carefully placed them in a see-through container (that was much better than our class one) and diligently picked the right leaves from the same tree as she remembered from class that caterpillars are particular about the type of leaves they can eat. She came running to my desk and said, “Mr. Marshall, Mr. Marshall, I think they are molting and getting ready to pupate” All the other kids gathered around and agree. I told her that I thought it was a great idea and we should put them on the display table to observe. Every morning, her and a few others would come in with new leaves and methodically clean the container, put a little bit of water and put them back in the container as if she was taking care of a baby. A few days later, some students excitedly discovered that they were now in a chrysalis. Sure enough, as I looked at them and they had created silk buds on the leaves and were now in the pupa stage. I got out my video camera and used iStopMotion to take a time lapse photo of it every 30 seconds so we could observe any changes. The news spread like wildfire and soon, other students from other classes came to observe these two caterpillars. This revitalized and infused a sense of excitement and curiosity into a unit that was quickly fizzling out. In a sense, the small action taken by this one child had created a huge impact on the learning of the rest of the Grade 2 community.

3 of my students with the caterpillars they found

So what does this mean?

We as teachers sometimes dismiss, neglect or acknowledge one of the most fundamental parts of the learner inquiry cycle– action. This is evident in the Primary Year’s Programme (PYP) from the IBO in this learner profile.

Learner Profile

As you can see from this diagram, action is put on the same level as concepts, skills, and attitudes. In fact, the IBO states this in the PYP Handbook, Making it Happen:

The PYP believes that international education must extend beyond intellectual attainment to include not only responsible attitudes but also thoughtful and appropriate action. International schools can and should meet the challenge of offering all learners the opportunity and the power to choose their actions, to act and to reflect on these actions in order to make a difference in and to the world. The PYP believes that every student, every year, has the right and the duty to be involved in such action. In order to make the action component of the curriculum as powerful as possible in terms of student learning the PYP advocates a cycle of involvement which provides students with opportunities to engage in meaningful action.

Here is a diagram of the action cycle:

The action component of the PYP involves service in the widest sense of the word: service to
fellow-students, to the staff and to the community. Through such service, students are able to grow both socially and personally, developing skills such as cooperation, problem solving, conflict resolution and creative and critical thinking. These actions are, moreover, ways in which the students exhibit their commitment to the attitudes that we seek to engender within the PYP classroom.

I always thought action had to be big service run projects like building schools or raising money for orangutan sanctuaries. However, after attending a workshop on Action and the PYP, I learned that action starts with small, student-driven, spontaneous connections to learning that is happening in the classroom. In fact, the PYP planner even has a space to record student actions that took place in the unit during the reflection stage. While working at WAB, it was always exciting to hear from other teachers about some of the action that students engaged. It would also show the level of interest from a students’ point of view and how well we engaged them. Here are some examples of student action that we recorded in our planners:

  • Bringing in books related to the unit of inquiry
  • Creating a poster about an issue
  • Discovering a website
  • Sending an email to an author
  • Creating a science experiment at home
  • And of course, bringing in caterpillars from home 😉

Guidelines for implementation of effective action (taken from PYP Making it Happen handbook):

  • should be voluntary and involve students in exercising their own initiative and in taking
  • responsibility for their actions
  • should be based on balanced understandings and not biased stereotypical thinking
  • usually begins in a small way and arises from genuine concern and commitment
  • is usually, for younger children, grounded in their own concrete experience
  • demands appropriate adult support in order to facilitate students’ efforts and to provide them
  • with alternatives and choices
  • is not always concerned with raising funds.

I recently had a parent meeting and he was telling me a story in which his child once brought in a learning puzzle connected to an animal unit they were studying. The teacher actually punished this child for bringing in toys from home! He said this affected her for months after and she was unengaged, disliked school and scared to bring in anything from home to school again. He was so happy and relieved to hear that I was actually promoting students bringing in games, objects and books from home.

Just Pay it Forward

We sometimes forget that some of the biggest changes we can have as educators often goes unnoticed. One of my favorite movies of all time is Pay it Forward (I challenge you to get through it without shedding a tear)in which Kevin Spacey plays a teacher who at the beginning of the year introduces this bonus assignment to his middle school students to come up with one idea to help change the world. Anyway, one student in his class takes this to heart and comes up with the idea of “Paying it forward” and does one good deed for someone and in return, they must do 3 good deeds to others. This is an example of action at its best. Perhaps idealistic but shouldn’t we be at least striving to foster these kinds of things from our students?

Although I am not working at a PYP school currently, much of pedagogy remains the same. I suppose the old cliche, “you can take me out of a PYP school but you can’t take the PYP out of me” applies here.

It’s not about “the stuff”, it’s about the learning


This the venue of the summit-Canadian International School. And yes, that is canadian timber imported from BC on the roof. They even served Canadian back-bacon for breakfast. Made me feel like I was home..

What the Conference was really about:

It’s taken me a week to finally get my head around the learning from the Hong Kong Apple Leadership Summit. In a word, it was inspiring. Many people asked me afterwards, “Hey, how was the conference?” and for whatever reason, it was difficult to summarize. Others commented, “Wow, with all those technology gurus, you must have learned some really  apps.” Surprisingly, I couldn’t recall a single application that I learned about that hadn’t already used. Then again, it wasn’t so much about learning about new tools (although there were some hands-on workshops), it was the how to use these tools to improve learning for students. This is exactly how it should be with our students. I truely believe that technology has turned a corner in their evolutionary path in education. Technology conferences used to be about everyone opening the same computer program and a supposed “expert” stand in the front of the room teach us non-digital natives how to do all the ins and outs of the program. It was mind-numbing and overwhelming. There was usually no context for the learning and a week later, we would forget everything we learned. Nowadays, we have gotten a little smarter and we know there are better ways to use technology in the classroom. Best practices integrating technology show that we must be teaching skills “just in time” so that skills are meaningful, appropriate and relevant. Just-in-Time (JIT) learning challenges the traditional educational model that assumes the information is tied to one source (usually the teacher or textbook). JIT learning happens because the learner is motivated to learn and they need to learn something in order to accomplish the task. There were so many of these types of moments during the conference.

A Conference-Web 2.0 style

So back to the conference. I really knew that this was going to be a dynamic and engaging conference when many of the participants were twittering #hksummit (this was the tagline of the conference) while the conference was going on. There were over 50 pages of tweets and it was the one of the top 5 “trending topics” on Twitter. Very exciting stuff.  In addition, there was a backchat channel where some of the most exciting conversations were happening in response to the speakers. People where streaming the conference live on their iPhone and then broadcasting it via ustream. There is also a Facebook group page that was created during the session. Imagine if we had this level of engagment in our schools..

Keynote Speakers:

  • Tom Kelley, author of Ten Faces of Innovation spoke about innovation and how vital they are for organizations to develop.
  • Stephen Heppell, a professor, a wealth of information and recipient of the first-ever “Outstanding Lifetime Achievement in ICT Education” award
  • Vivien Stewart, VP for Education at Asia Society
  • Marco Torres, a high school teacher, media coach, and education technology director for San Fernando High School. He is a professional filmmaker and photographer who uses his digital storytelling skills in education

Here is a great summary video of the conference that could probably summarize it better than I could.

Following the keynote speakers, there were fantastic break-out sessions led by Apple Distinguished Educators and other leaders about these topics:

  • Technology and Pedagogy in International Schools-An Introduction to iWork
  • 1:1 @ The Canadian International School of Hong Kong
  • Connecting with your Community: Podcasting for leadership
  • Proof of Effective Learning: A Case Study of Concordia International School, Shanghai
  • Social Studies Integration
  • Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow-Today! and Challenge-based Learning
  • Supporting Technology Infusion using Laptop Carts-A Case Study by Shanghai American School
  • Future IT: Confronting your Inner Control Freak
  • Connecting Classrooms Across Continents: Planning and Implementing Globally Collaborative Projects
  • Designing Technology Infused Lessons
  • Lights! Camera! Learn!
  • Infusing Technology into Language Studies
  • Developing the Global Student: Practical ways to Infuse 21st Century Literacy into the Classroom
  • Moving to a 1:1-A Model for Professional Development from Nanjing International School
  • Community Advocacy with Web 2.0
  • Behind the Red Door (Research Education Development)
  • Multi-platform integration-A Case Study of Renaissance College Hong Kong
  • Framing Acceptable Technology Use in a 21st Century Learning Environment
  • Rock Out (and learn) in Your Class
  • IBO/DP Oral Assessment with GarageBand
  • Models for Teaching Teachers Technology at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong
  • Get Connected! Video Conferencing in the Classroom
  • Creating Student Film Festivals
  • Setting Leadership Examples with the use of ICT
  • Reinventing Western Academy of Beijing
  • Korean International School 1:1 Lesson Learned

Unfortunately, I was only able to attend 2 break-out sessions because they were being held simultaneously. There were so many interesting sessions as well and if anyone had further links to these sessions, I would love to see the notes.

Odds and Ends:

Overall, it was a fantastic conference and really well run by Apple and superb venue by the Canadian International School of Hong Kong For me, it’s about connecting, whether it be learning, people or ideas. I think all three of them happened at the conference. It was great to finally meet some people face-to-face after only knowing them through a digital environment @mscofino @RobinThailand @IPittman and see some familiar faces and friends @debbiediaz1 @annabelhoward @transpac_canuck @sbradshaw

One thing that was interesting was that the evaluation forms by Apple were all in given to us in paper form. Sigh..well I guess there is always something to improve upon for next conference 😉

So many great links and videos shared. Really enjoyed this one and feel like it encapsulated the essence of the conference.

My Favorite Quotes:

“We look at technology as a tool, students look at technology as an environment” Stephen Heppell

“Attendance is compulsory and learning is optional” vs “Learning is compulsory and attendance is optional”-Stephen Heppell

“Technology is only technology to those before that tech was invented. To children it is the world they live in.”

“You don’t develop water safety by waiting until kids are 16 and then throwing them off the pier.” Stephen Heppel in response to AUPs and online safety