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The life-long habit of inquiry

Oona Piipponen reflects on how her time in the Primary Years Programme (PYP) and the Diploma Programme (DP) helped shape her life-long passion for learning as a student and PYP educator.

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By Oona Piipponen

In 2014, I had been a newly graduated primary school teacher for only three months before it began again: the craving to organise an investigation; the desire to bind practice and theory together into an essay. I had previous experience of classroom-based research from working on my master’s dissertation, but in truth the habit of inquiry goes back much further. As I peel back experiences and memories, the exhibition in the Primary Years Programme (PYP) and extended essay in the Diploma Programme (DP), stand out as landmarks, but they are only the tip of the iceberg of experiences that eventually led me to do educational research.

PYP: Crewing in an age of discovery

“Instead of being mere passengers on the learning journey, my classmates and I held the oars as our teachers directed us at the helm.”

I remember being maybe nine or ten years old in my class in St Dominic’s International School in Lisbon; I was starting a new unit of inquiry, and there was a pile of children’s non-fiction books on each table in the classroom. The books portrayed heroes, both living and dead, and I had not heard of one. Mother Theresa, Mahatma Ghandi, Anne Frank, Florence Nightingale and others. I read that Anne Frank was born and raised in Frankfurt. I quite enjoyed the word play between Frank and Frankfurt; enough to pique my curiosity and my choice was made.

I have vivid recollections of most, if not all, the units of inquiry that I did in school and I suspect it’s because choice and curiosity are central for deep learning. Instead of being mere passengers on the learning journey, my classmates and I held the oars as our teachers directed us at the helm. Along the way, I learned the skills needed for inquiry, such as finding and organising information from books and the internet, identifying reliable sources and sharing my findings in different formats. These skills made me powerful: I realised that I could learn anything I wanted. Learning became the reward for learning.

DP: Learning to learn better than before

“One of the biggest things the DP gave me was learning new ways to learn and think”

By the time I started the DP at SYK Upper Secondary School, Helsinki, I saw myself as a good learner. But it’s not called “surviving the IB” for nothing! I had gotten very good at reaping my crops by hand, until I realised that what I needed was a metaphorical combine harvester. The penny dropped after a particularly theoretical internal assessment in my higher level maths class. Our first assignment had us wracking our brains each night for ten nights straight, so my classmates and I decided we needed a better strategy.

When the second assignment came along, we got together in the school library and talked it over. Between someone having a breakthrough here and another person there, we were satisfied that we had mastered the problem and each of us went our separate ways to write up the report. It is needless to say that our scores improved significantly after realising the power of collaborative learning. In addition to mastering content knowledge and subject skills, one of the biggest things the DP gave me was learning new ways to learn and think—to recognize that one approach was inefficient compared to another, better alternative.

Teaching PYP: When all learning starts with a question

After university, I came full circle back to a PYP school but this time as a class teacher. The inquiry-based pedagogy felt deeply familiar and the children were used to me answering a question with a question. As I traversed our shared learning journey, I paused to make good learning habits visible or to investigate an intuition held by a student. Once we stopped a lesson to test a random generator, which the children felt was unfair because it generated the same student’s name over and over again. It was a great learning experience on the concept of simple probability but also voice and fairness: who gets to speak in the classroom? How does a random generator change that? In these kinds of moments, I try to nurture curiosity as well as self-belief in my students, hoping that they will discover a deep love of learning as I once did in their place.

Inquiring at the limit

“The same curiosity and love of learning that inspired me during the PYP still drives me”

Now in 2019, I continue to weave the thread of inquiry into my doctoral (i.e. PhD) research in the field of education. Although I am now helming my own ship, I am navigating in unknown waters more than ever. The further I have advanced on the path of inquiry, the more I have collided with our limits to know. And yet, perhaps today is the day that I come across new knowledge that will make education even better than before! The same curiosity and love of learning that inspired me during the PYP still drives me to question, explore and think critically about our world today.

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Oona Piipponen is currently working on her Doctorate in Education at the University of Eastern Finland. Her research interests are in intercultural education and child perspectives. She is also a primary school teacher who has worked in Scotland, Belgium and Finland. She hopes to continue her learning journey for the rest of her life.

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