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.

4 thoughts on “The Power of Student Action in Inquiry-based Learning

  1. Great post Mark. It’s so true – when I first started with PYP I thought action had to involve organizing massive fund raising carnivals. But now in my classroom I’ve created an Action Wall (with cute cartoon “A’s”). I record anything — from bringing in a book, to sharing a website, to making a poster, to picking up garbage — on these “A’s”. Students love seeing them on the board, it inspires other students, and the “Action A’s” go in their portfolios.

    THANKS for some good reading.

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