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Authentic Inquiry: The PYP during a global pandemic

Shannon O’Dwyer is an IB educator who wrote this article together with a team of IB educators at an IB World School in Australia: William Sandwell, Jordy Wickham, David Guild and Karen Mackey.

This article shares one school’s endeavour to embrace responsive, relevant teaching during a time of uncertainty and crisis. As schools begin to reopen around the world, the events of 2020 present PYP students with opportunities for authentic, significant inquiry into a raft of real-world issues.

School was closed. We were teaching by distance. Our curriculum was in a state of flux. We saw an opportunity for rich learning. As a team, we began to plan a responsive, real-world inquiry.

With a team of educators, a community of experts, and one hundred motivated students, we inquired into life in 2020 during a global pandemic.

  1. Honour the child

It has never been more important to recognise that children are returning to school from distance and isolation with a range of experiences, emotions, fears and questions, along with a huge appetite for learning.

To launch this inquiry, we listened to students’ voices, by asking open questions such as:

  • What do you know about COVID-19?
  • How has it impacted you? Other people? (CONNECTION)
  • What questions do you have?

Working with approximately 100 students across several Padlets, the children recorded, analysed and viewed each other’s thoughts. As usual, their questions were far more profound and provocative than we anticipated. Here are a few examples:

  • How will this go down in history?
  • How will it affect the economy?
  • How will we rebound socially and emotionally?
  • Why are some people employed and others aren’t? Is that fair?
  • Did God want this to happen? Is it a blessing or a curse?
  • Will we run out of resources before a vaccine is found?
  • Will things go back to the way they were? Or will we change forever?

We used these questions as springboards for inquiry and we were determined to honour the students’ curiosity and empathy by designing relevant learning experiences.

2. Perspective matters

We knew it was important to help young children situate their learning, in time and place. We used primary source documents from 1919, in which students of a similar age described outdoor learning, cancelled classes, boring weekends without sport, and long periods of quarantine during the Spanish Flu pandemic. Gradually, the students began to see themselves as historians and primary sources for future generations. They recognised that their inquiries in 2020 might help others to understand what occurred in this moment in history.

3. Make it conceptual

It was also important to guide this inquiry to be age-appropriate, hopeful and helpful. We took great care not to exacerbate fear, nor diminish the gravity of current events. We did so by ensuring that this was not an inquiry into lives lost, nor into the microbiology of SARS CoV-2. Rather, this was a conceptual inquiry into broad, timeless ideas that are worthy of investigation at any time and place.

Together with the students, we mined their initial brainstorm for enduring ideas. We found the following key and related concepts:  change, impact, opportunity, and responsibility. In a shared session of drafting, refinement and selection, we settled on the following Central Idea: Times of crisis change lives and create new opportunities.

4. Choice & autonomy

From here, each student filled in a Google form (which served as a research proposal). They identified issues about which they were passionate and drew connections to their prior knowledge or personal experiences. The issues were varied, and included: economic downturn, social isolation, vulnerable populations, viral infections, racism…and more. We formed 22 inquiry groups of like-minded students with a shared motivation to grapple with a complex issue (under the transdisciplinary theme of Sharing the Planet).

5. Bring in the experts

In the PYP, “inquiry” is not synonymous with “research”. Authentic inquiry takes a circuitous path from questions, via confusion, to discovery (and back again). It may start with Google, but it will fizzle quickly if learning becomes a linear process of collecting facts.

One way to elevate learning and deepen questioning is to move aside, and let others do the teaching. The students reached out to parents, community members and specialists. They established connections via email, and continued conversations via Zoom. They asked questions that couldn’t be answered by their teachers or search engines, such as “What’s your opinion?”, “What’s your role?”, “What are you working on?”, and, “What can I do to help?”. The adults who joined this inquiry included doctors, psychologists, an aircraft engineer, an athlete, business owners, and a human rights lawyer.

6. Share the understanding

Over the course of a week, the students spent time writing and giving speeches about their newfound understandings. Removing the shackles of “text types” and, in some cases, abandoning their original lines of the inquiry, they wrote like experts presenting a white paper. Their writing showed a willingness to wrestle with complexity, as they outlined information, explained problems, drew conclusions, presented solutions, and acknowledged sources.

What did we overlook? Creativity. If we did this again, we would inject many more opportunities for creative expression. We would support our students to use varied artforms to process their findings and convey understandings. Next time!

7. Action emerges

One question remains…so what?

Action is the “so what?” of learning. It’s an indication that agency has been unleashed and transformation has occurred. In this case, action took many forms, including: students working with a chemist to develop their own hand sanitiser, infographics to educate peers about bias in the media, changes to family spending habits to support the local economy, and an individual who found the courage (and the words) to speak up against racism. And some students took no action (that we can list here or put on a poster). Some action begins now and takes years to ferment, silently and privately, in their hearts, beliefs and values.

This was not a perfect inquiry. But it was a brave one. It required changing the calendar, messing up the Programme of Inquiry, and sacrificing stand-alone lessons for in-depth, transdisciplinary learning. It took a team of dedicated educators, a community of invested experts, and a hundred motivated students.

We are now in a phase reflection, examining what we’ll do differently next time. Not the next time school closes – but the next time we see an opportunity for authentic learning and wish to teach responsively, within the conceptual framework of the PYP. We’ll repeat the successes and enhance the weaknesses, for ongoing improvement as a community of learning.

David Guild, Karen Mackey, Shannon O’Dwyer, William Sandwell & Jordy Wickham are a team of educators at an IB World School in Australia. They recognise that student learning is enhanced by the shared dedication, collective efficacy and complementary skillsets of many teachers, working collaboratively in a supportive school community.


One Response to Authentic Inquiry: The PYP during a global pandemic

  1. Jennifer E. Moore 18 August 2020 at 3:29 pm #

    This is incredible. Thank you so much for sharing this. May it be inspiration for us all!

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