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Stop, start, continue: Conceptual understanding meets applied problem solving

By David Hawley, originally published by Edutopia in November 2015.

I recently became the Chief Academic Officer for the IB after more than two decades of working in and leading IB schools. In IB World Schools, we endeavour to create internationally-minded young people who, recognizing our common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help make a better and more peaceful world.

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Just prior to taking this position, I led the intense experiential living and learning of a United World College (UWC). I was part of an intimate and remotely-located community of 160 students on the Vancouver Island, who lived in residence with faculty and their families, for two intensive pre-university years of transformational learning. Together, we pursued the UWC mission of making education a force to unite people, nations, and cultures for a sustainable future.

Every year we built a community that modeled what all of us wished for in the wider world. We created a working campus where everyone had a job. All of these jobs were non-trivial, adult roles. If any role were not fulfilled, the well-being of the campus and the community would suffer. On many days, when we concluded our activities and jobs, we met in a circle and asked ourselves:

  • What should we stop doing?
  • What should we start doing?
  • What should we continue doing?

As simple as these sound, they provided us a safe, predictable set of questions that became habits of mind, a way to pause and reflect before engaging in something else. Our aim was to get better at what we were doing.

Every student had a job at the College – here they are cleaning up after dinner

Humanity cannot wait for students to graduate—whether or not they are in IB schools—and get started on doing things that contribute to a better world. We need to give students in every school, at every age, real agency and authentic opportunities to make a difference in this volatile, unpredictable, complex, and ambiguous world. With this in mind, we cannot be satisfied only with students learning about the world and developing deep conceptual understanding of multiple disciplines. We need young people building an ever-expanding portfolio of skills and experiences of things that they have done, created, and contributed to – things that matter to them, to others, and to the world we share.

How might we help to make that happen? I propose three things that teachers need to stop doing, three things to start doing, and three things to continue doing. And I invite your ideas on expanding this list.

What Should We Stop Doing?

Stop teaching as if we have the answers.

Nothing could more powerfully demonstrate an inquiry-based approach to learning, becoming, and doing than to design ways of engaging students with questions to which we do not know the answers ourselves. In this way, students may contribute to both their own understanding and also to ours.

Stop rushing.

We need to slow down the race to cover content. We need to get more creative about ways to focus on key conceptual understandings, and about designing ways to demonstrate evidence of applying these conceptual understandings. Deep learning takes time.

Stop talking.

Even with the most experiential, project-based approach, it would be good to figure out how much time any one person spends talking compared to listening. Is there much silence after a question is posed by any member of a group of learners? In a classroom setting, what would happen if we reduced teacher talk by 50 percent and increased the pause time between question and response by 50 percent?

The TEDx – showing a student organised TEDx event on “dangerous ideas" in front of a real community audience

The TEDx – showing a student organised TEDx event on “dangerous ideas” in front of a real community audience

What Should We Start Doing?

Start looking for problems to solve, actions to take, and beauty to create.

If we were to do something that really mattered to ourselves, our classrooms, our schools, and our community, the potential for impact would be at once local and global. Start finding ways to engage students in understanding real-world problems, and then support them in solving those problems. Every student should experience the joy that comes with being a unique and positive force in the world.

Start teaching with new discoveries about the brain in mind.

There is emerging evidence that where there is no emotion, there is no learning. Let’s bring a full spectrum of positive emotions to teaching and learning. A good place to start is by sharing your passion, personal mission, and the questions and problems that are important to you. Bring all this to your students. And have them bring theirs to you.

Start seeking out authentic, high-stakes audiences for student work.

We often ask students to spend many hours solving problems or creating things that are never shared beyond the teacher or the classroom. Partner with businesses, organizations, and your larger community to showcase innovative work produced by your students.

What Should We Continue Doing?

Continue with your professional development, and model the growth mindset in action.

If we ourselves can’t develop and model the 21st-century skills of collaboration, communication, and critical and creative thinking, how can we prepare students to master them? Regularly try new things in the classroom, and ask students for their feedback. Demonstrate that education is a lifelong process.

Learning how to bake bread – students baked bread every weekend at the College

Continue to place our work with students in global contexts.

We share a common humanity, and that’s worth finding ways to be mindful of our interdependence. Foster the sense of connection that comes from seeing oneself as a part of a larger global community.

Continue believing in the potential of every student.

Each student can make a positive difference, and each should understand the importance of investing in his or her own well-being along with the well-being of others. We cannot develop ourselves or contribute to the development of others if we live stressed, unbalanced lives. Introducing and modeling habits of mindfulness and doing what it takes to maintain well-being are critical for our very survival.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on what we as educators should stop, start, and continue doing in the classroom. Please share in the comments section below.


David Hawley joined the IB as the Chief Academic Officer in January 2015. 

  • margareth

    Thank you David, I really enjoyed your article and read it first thing this morning, what a great way to start an IB day with so much food for thought.