The power of teacher neutrality

Taryn BondClegg

Taryn Bond Clegg is the PYP Coordinator at the American International School of Kuwait

What happens when teachers stay “neutral” during units of inquiry? 

Recently in our collaborative planning meetings, our teaching teams have been discussing different strategies for enhancing the amount of inquiry taking place in their classrooms. One of the strategies our KG 2 team became very interested in, was the suggestion of “maintaining neutrality”. Many of them decided to test out that strategy in their classrooms. We were all blown away by the results! Here are two epic battles that challenged our five-year-olds to think, explain, reason, inquire, defend and in the end, change their own thinking (and the thinking of the adults in their lives too!)

Battle #1 – Is a car a living thing?

Living Thing ThoughtsDuring the course of a unit on “How Living Things Depend on Resources to Survive” one KG 2 class had created a collective definition that a living thing “is something that eats, moves and produces waste”. One day the class was having a discussion and a student said that a car was a living thing.

Here is the crucial moment: the way a teacher responds to a statement like this can take the learning down two very different paths.

Path #1 – The teacher weighs in and gives the students the answer. “Actually, a car is not a living thing.” And that is the end of that road.

Path #2 – The teacher remains neutral and either asks more questions or turns it back to the students.  Thus embarking down an unchartered – but potentially amazing- road!

Our KG 2 teacher chose Path #2 (thankfully!). First she asked her student why he thought that. The student said: “because it can move forward and backwards and eats fuel and has waste come out of the pipe at the back”. The teacher then turned it back to the class to see who agreed and who had a different idea. Thus, sparking a passionate debate! Some students agreed. Some students disagreed. Some students compared it to other examples of living things to support their case. Some students suggested new criteria to define living things. Eventually – after a fascinating discussion among five-year-olds – the class arrived at the conclusion that, not only, is a car NOT a living thing, but that they needed to change their original definition of living things to include “something that grows”.

Battle #2 – How many sides does a circle have?

Circle Sides GraphA different KG 2 class had been inquiring into the properties of shapes. They discovered that a square has four sides, a triangle has three sides… and then they looked at a picture of a circle. One student asked: “How many sides does a circle have?”  The teacher was unsure about the answer, so she brought it up at a team meeting. We, as eight, grown-up, educated women with multiple degrees, could not agree on an answer. So we decided that, if it was worth it for us to discuss, it was worth it for the students to discuss as well. The teacher decided to stay neutral and see where her class would take her. Here are some quotes from her class debate:

“I think a circle has zero sides because a side has to be a straight line.”

“But it is a line, just a line that someone has bent to connect all the way around. If you made it straight there would be one side”

“I think it has zero sides because a side has to be between two vertices.”

“I think it has one side because a side is what keeps the insides from mixing with the outside.”

From here, the class elected to go out into the school community and gather some data from more “experienced” mathematicians (a.k.a. high school math students). They also asked their parents at home that evening. They decided as a class that since no one could agree on this matter, they would see which answer most people agreed with and they would use that as their answer.

How different this learning experience would have been if the teacher have provided an answer to the original question: “How many sides does a circle have?”

Our KG 2 team was loving the power of staying neutral! They were seeing their students engage in deep thinking, developing debating skills, collecting data, refining definitions, defending a stance – it was learning at its finest!

So what are the tricks for staying neutral? Here are some of their tips:

  1. Ask probing questions: When a student states their initial answer, it can sound way off the mark at first (e.g. that a car is a living thing). But if they are probed to explain their thinking, fascinating connections, ideas and misconceptions are often brought to light. Our three favorite probing questions are:

Why do you think that?

How do you know?

What makes you say that?

  1. Turn it back to the students: Once you have given the student a chance to explain their thinking, turn it back on the rest of the class. This is where you can often start a great debate. It can be as simple as “What do you guys think?” or as structured as “Does anyone agree/disagree/have a different idea”.
  2. Don’t be afraid of wrong answers: At first, some of our teachers were uncomfortable not correcting their students’ misconceptions right away. They soon learned that it was much more powerful to have the students realize their own misconceptions and change their own thinking than for the teacher to simply tell them the answer.
  3. Be neutral about the answer but still help to guide the learning: Being neutral does not mean doing nothing. The teacher has the very important role of figuring out how to help the students arrive at the answer. For younger students, that could mean planning an experiment, suggesting to go ask “experts” in the school or in the community, or finding a book or video to share with the class. For older students, that could mean turning it back to them. “How can we find out?” “Who can we ask?” “Where can we learn more about this?”
  4. De-value the answer & Re-value the learning: At the end of the day, would you rather have a five-year-old who can repeat that a circle has x number of sides because their teacher told them so… or a five-year-old who can reason, argue, collect and analyze data, make conclusions and reflect on their own thinking?

Easy answer.

The trickiest part of all is noticing these opportunities when they pop up. So the next time you have a student who shares a wrong answer or a misconception with you, resist the urge to correct them and give them the answer. Remain neutral and see where it takes you!

Taryn Bond Clegg blogs at Making Good Humans which is her small attempt to continue to make sense of the PYP, of inquiry, and of how to make a real difference in the world through education. Taryn has always felt a calling to change the world – to somehow leave it in a better state than we found it. She saw teaching as a way to make this happen.

The original article can be found in Taryn’s blog here.

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16 Responses to The power of teacher neutrality

  1. Ferooz Bane 14 April 2015 at 1:07 pm #

    What an insightful post!
    I know that both myself and my colleagues often run into the “trap” of wanting to inform students instead of letting them make discoveries on their own. While this process can take longer than traditional methods, the conversations that come out of the students’ discussions (great examples above!) are infinitely important and thought-provoking than what they will gain from simple being given answers. These tips for remaining neutral are fantastic points of advice for novice and veteran teachers alike. Thanks!

  2. Aldo 14 April 2015 at 2:34 pm #

    Dear Taryn,

    This is a fascinating post, a clear example of how teachers’ interventions are one of the many influences in children’s inquiries. They can help to open doors and sometimes be fast tracks for deeper understandings. Thank you for these insights. Nonetheless I feel that there is a big discussion that we could open over here, and that is the one of neutrality, since the classroom is one of the best reproductions of power. In other words, there is always someone in power and the classroom is far from neutrality. For example, it was the teachers in these two battles the ones that decided to not intervene, at the end it was not driven by the students, but by the teachers.

    From my own point of view, I feel that this is a great example of some modes of intervention or teaching strategies, specially the final bullet points, however, I repeat, from my perspective, there is always a stance of power, and it can be dangerous to say that teachers do not have it, either in a PYP classroom or not. From my believe, the great aspect about the PYP is that there are no stances of neutrality, but stances where power is shared by all the members of the community, there is always an exchange of ideas, and negotiation of which knowledge is more valid for certain moments. I actually think you capture this idea when you say that “Being neutral does not mean doing nothing. The teacher has the very important role of figuring out how to help the students arrive at the answer.” Hence this term neutrality can become problematic. What do you think?

    For example, some critical questions about the following phrase:

    “So the next time you have a student who shares a wrong answer or a misconception with you, resist the urge to correct them and give them the answer. Remain neutral and see where it takes you!”

    Who decides what is wrong or what is a misconception? The teacher, the “curriculum”, the institution…
    Why do we need to stay neutral?
    Would it be better to phrase all these ideas as strategies to promote inquiry and not neutrality?

    Thanks a lot for sharing your ideas and for allowing me to wake me up with some interesting inquiries about teaching and power!

    Aldo

    • Vandana 14 April 2015 at 3:26 pm #

      Some very valid points raised, Aldo! It’s all about what to call it.. neutrality or presence of mind…
      The big idea would, however, still remain the same that the teacher needs to curb his/her innate tendency to answer/clarify the questions/doubts raised and lead the students to think, and stretch their brain muscles a bit more!.

      • Aldo 14 April 2015 at 3:33 pm #

        Totally agree Vandana! I like your idea of presence of mind, which definitely puts some agency and responsibility in the stakeholders, rather than neutrality which can carry the meaning of not responsibility nor agency. The act of doing nothing is doing something.

        As you well mentioned, we want to respect the big idea of agency, where the teacher curbs her/his innate tendencies to foster learning in our PYP and world communities. Neutrality can be deceiving concept. Maybe we should explore it with the children… Great idea for a UOI!

        Saludos to everyone,

        Aldo

  3. Taryn BondClegg 15 April 2015 at 12:13 pm #

    Thanks everyone for all the great comments so far! It is wonderful to be part of this online PYP community and to have the work we are doing at our school and thoughts we are having as educators supported and challenged by other educators! The collaboration helps us grow, and in turn serve our students better.

    I want to credit the blog post “If Inquiry is so great, why aren’t we doing more of it?” (which can be found at http://www.workonthework.org/wtowblog/2014/9/2/if-inquiry-is-so-great-why-arent-we-doing-more-of-it) for presenting us with the idea of “maintaining neutrality”. It was this article that inspired our teachers to make the choice not to support either side of a debate, but present their students with the chance to “think and stretch their brain muscles”, as Vandana stated.

    As a staff, we look forward to continuing to explore and be mindful of how our interventions as teachers can influence children’s inquiries and how we can continue to help develop our PYP learners!

  4. Lupita Antimo 15 April 2015 at 11:33 pm #

    Thanks to all of you for such deep ideas. Your reflections have made me be more aware of my reaction when guiding students or teachers inquiries.

  5. Sara 19 April 2015 at 2:07 am #

    I enjoyed reading about your K2 teachers’ experience, Taryn.

    From my perspective, there are two important points from this post I will continue to ponder:

    1. the role questioning plays in provoking student engagement and learning – if questioning and wondering drive inquiry, how much time and energy do teachers put into planning and reflecting on their questions? How many appraisal/teacher observation systems focus on questioning techniques as an effective pedagogical tool?

    2. the relationship between subject learning, e.g. science and mathematics, and the ATLs – in the two examples you shared, Taryn, it is clear to me that thinking skills and communication skills play a huge role in students’ understanding of subject-specific concepts (growth, locomotion, line)

    I have already shared your post with the Early Childhood teachers at my school and look forward to the conversations it will provoke!
    Thanks for sharing.
    Sara

    • Taryn BondClegg 29 May 2015 at 12:29 pm #

      Hi Sara,

      Thanks for your comments and your ponderings! I agree that questioning – by both teachers and students – should be an essential part of learning in any classrooms (and outside of classrooms) and it always shocks me to read research about the ratio of non-questions versus questions in classrooms. Even in my role as PYP Coordinator, I am trying to slow down and reflect on the percentage of my time spend working with staff where I am ‘telling’ something versus ‘asking’ something!

      I’d love to hear about the conversations and actions that arise from sharing this with your Early Childhood teachers! We’re still growing in our understanding of neutrality and inquiry and would love learn from other educators’ experiences and perspectives.

      Taryn

  6. Jesi 21 April 2015 at 5:19 pm #

    Dear Taryn,

    Thank you for posting this and I believe that this is how we must teach in today’s global society. Children in 2015 are being exposed to concepts we never imagined at their age. However, as international teachers, we must be mindful of the cultures of education surrounding us. I believe it’s important for Administration to foster the culture of inquiry at the school before the parents of students can truly embrace this kind of teaching. So often, the teacher is expected to have the answers and the judgment of ‘knowledge’ is displaced.

    Teachers of inquiry must be prepared to think ahead of what the student may need proving to be more demanding than simply giving the answer. I believe this is the easiest route for educators to take without evaluating their own practices but, unfortunately, valued by most societies. How do we create a ‘culture of learning’?

    Respectfully,
    Jesi

    • Taryn BondClegg 29 May 2015 at 12:38 pm #

      Hi Jesi,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I agree that there must be a pervasive culture of thinking, learning and inquiry throughout the school – both with regards to child-learners and adult-learners! But often those ideals are much simpler than the actual practice. Answering the question, “How do we create a culture of learning?” provides similar challenges to answering the question, “How do I teach in an inquiry-based way?”. Both questions are very complex, with many different perspectives and nuances. I think with regards to both questions our best bet is to be risk-takers and try to new things, be inquirers to see what other schools and education systems are doing, and be reflective to constantly assess what worked and what should be done differently next time.

      I think having the intention to either ‘create a culture of learning’ or ‘teach in an inquiry-based way’ is half the battle and the process of figuring out how to make that a reality is what’s truly important.

  7. Annobil R 28 April 2015 at 11:50 pm #

    I am sure Aldo is conscientiously drawing our attention to the fact that as educators we ought to guard against the danger of taking a laid back attitude in the inquiry process since there lies a very thin line between neutrality and indifference. I guess the burning question is how do we as teachers allow students to take charge of their own learning without wheeling the whole unit off the ultimate destination. In this regard, my advise will be what I choose to call ‘Refocusing’ the students interests and motivations so as to ensure that they remain within the ultimate purpose for the each investigative adventure. This refocusing process can be done through purposeful open-ended questions which must go in tandem with the lines of inquiry. I guess so long as we become active facilitators, students will definitely enjoy exploring what they are most passionate about while meeting the expected overall goals of a given unit. Children can really get excited when they are given the freedom to explore but that freedom must foster authentic learning experiences instead of allowing these inexperienced inquirers to embark on a wild goose chase. That, in fact, will be quite catastrophic! Yes, flexibility is important but neutrality could easily misconstrued.
    Wishing all my PYP colleagues the very best!

    • Taryn BondClegg 29 May 2015 at 12:41 pm #

      Hi Annobil,

      Thanks for bringing up that point! I often see that confusion with teachers who are new to inquiry. The have difficulty finding the balance between totally owning the learning, and being completely hands-off with their students. I love your suggestions of finding balance through ‘refocusing’. I will be sure to share this with my colleagues!

  8. Edna Marín 4 May 2015 at 4:32 pm #

    Taryn,

    I believe your post is a great description of a main aspect we need to keep in mind when getting into a PYP classroom. Besides it is a valuable reminder for all of us to prioritize learning and reasoning processes more than just having an answer, even if you just joined to the IB Community or if you´ve been here for a while.

    Thanks!!
    Edna Marin

    • Taryn BondClegg 29 May 2015 at 12:45 pm #

      Hi Edna!

      Thanks for your comments! The idea that we need to prioritize the learning over the answer is so important – and so difficult! Especially for those of us who were educated in systems that valued correct answers. But I think the moment when a student is able to discover an answer, or reconstruct a misconception, or grow their understanding is so powerful and rewarding that it provides great reassurance for inquiry-based learning and further motivation to keep taking risks in our teaching.

  9. IB Tutor 8 June 2015 at 6:00 am #

    I think your post is very valuable for PYP teachers as in younger age student should have more curiosity for asking the questions . teacher should always support them for asking questions in depth of knowledge and replying them to boost their confidence.

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  1. The Learner Within: Week of May 17, 2015 | Approaching Teaching @ AISK - 17 May 2015

    […] Taryn BondClegg, explains what can happen when teachers stay “neutral” during inquiry here. #risk-takers […]

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