Crafting an Inquiry Block and Helping Others “See”

The thing about inquiry…once it has you in it’s grasp, there will be no escaping it. It’s magic. You begin to realize that everything is connected and you’ll want to know more about all of it, and also change the world, because you’ll see things that you haven’t before.

It will be gloriously frustrating (time is still finite) and fun (because learning is breathtaking and wonderful!).

Inquiry is the way to indulge in all of the beauty and wonder in the world.

It unleashes the possible.

You’ll find yourself frustrated that you wasted so many minutes on “learning” that was less. That you spent so much time calling memorization and regurgitation learning. That you believed that learning happened as a result of what a teacher, or curriculum, or test told you was important. That as soon as the homework/project/test was over, that learning was over.

Inquiry is bigger.


With inquiry we aren’t just inviting collaboration between disciplines, but also exploring the space between and beyond the disciplines as well.  Inquiry ignites interest and passion.

“People who are curious inquirers have a learning advantage, they will always be able to teach themselves the things they need to know, long after their formal education ends.” (Whiplash, Jeff Howe and Joi Ito)

Every summer I design the framework for our inquiry blocks. I begin with the IB’s PYP questions (because they are brilliant and I have yet to find a topic that doesn’t fall within one of the six questions). With those in mind, I choose books to read, videos to watch, and generally just approach life with curiosity. The only rule: the books/videos/content has to be a little random. In other words, I choose things that I don’t know a lot about, without an agenda about why I chose them, and they can’t have too similar of a theme. For example, this summer I read “A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design” by Frank Wilczek, “Flow the Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csiksczentmihalyi, “Brand Thinking” by Debbie Millman, “Get Backed” by Baehr|Loomis, “Youthnation” by Matt Britton, “Innovation is a State of Mind” by Jame O’ Loghlin, “Intention” by Amy Burvall and Dan Ryder, “The Innovator’s Mindset” by George Couros, “For the Love” by Jen Hatmaker, “Ask the Dust” by John Fante, “What is the Bible” by Rob Bell, and “The Little Paris Bookshop” by Nina George, “Cooking for Picasso” by Camille Aubray. I also watch copious amounts of TED talk videos and spend an enormous amount of time following random web link bunny trails. Totally random. But when you read things with the 6 inquiry questions in mind, suddenly everything starts to connect and you see things you may not have before. As I read I take a MILLION notes…because I love notebooks and remember things when I write them down. Then when it comes time to actually design the inquiry block, I have this incredible common place book to pull from. Seriously, this is my most happy place of happy places!

Degas said: “Art is not what you see, it is what you help others see.”

I feel like this is the way I spend my summers, immersed in art that helps me see.

This is what I hope for our inquiry blocks, that it would help our students see. To make beautiful connections, and marvel in the wonder of learning.

We’re just getting started into one of my favorite inquiry blocks every year, “How We Express Ourselves.” This year our lens is: There are many different ways to tell a story (primary); Our imagination allows us to express ourselves creatively (Intermediate); Through the arts, people use different forms of expression to convey their uniqueness as humans (Jr. High)

When I read the books above every one of them seemed to seep into this inquiry block. They all had insight and new ways of “seeing.”

As questions come to me, I jot them down. These become our lines of inquiry.

  • Storytelling happens through different mediums including visual arts, words, poems, music, dance, drama, metaphor, photography, icons, math, science.
  • We express our own identity through the medium we choose to tell our stories through.
  • Cultures throughout time have expressed themselves through story.
  • Different types of literature tell different kinds of stories.
  • How are stories told? What is the structure of stories?
  • How do fossils tell a story of the past?
  • Why is sequence an important component of story?
  • What tools do historians use to help them tell a story?
  • How do we distinguish fact from fiction?
  • What are sources of inspiration?
  • What role does perspective play in expression?
  • How can limitations and constraints make us more creative?
  • Are there mathematical formulas that are “beautiful” to the human eye?
  • How do animals and humans receive different types of information through their senses, process the information in their brain, and respond in different ways?
  • How do we visualize sound? What is cymatics?
  • How do vibrating materials make sound?
  • Observe and create a model of waves to describe patterns in terms of amplitude and wavelength and demonstrate how waves cause objects to move.
  • Perspective and where we find beauty (including through math and science).
  • What cultural artifacts tell us about people who lived in a place and time.
  • In war, what is the significance of destroying art and culture?

You can see how one line of thought leads me down some bunny trails! Look at how many standards this block hits across ALL disciplines. If you, or a student, is particularly passionate about one of those lines of inquiry, it probably gives rise to all sorts of new questions…which is precisely how it works in the classroom.

When I work on the framework of an inquiry block, I’m really just setting the stage where our collective genius can collide over common problems. This is true of teachers and students at Anastasis. We all come with different backgrounds, and histories, and inspirations. The above list represents the connections I made BECAUSE of the different provocations and background that I have to draw on. But we all come with that, both teachers and students.

What results is beautiful and unique to this place and time with these people. We could look at these very same lines of inquiry every year until the end of time and gain new insight and make new connections every time as our experiences evolve and our community changes.

Of course, to help give some guidance, I offer provocations to my staff that will give us some common language and make sense of some of my more *seemingly* random connections.

The provocations for the How We Express Ourselves inquiry block above:

TED Talk: The Beautiful Dilemma of Our Separateness- Sally Taylor talks about finding her place in art.

CONSENSES– The most brilliant game of artistic telephone where each artist expresses the previous artist’s expression in their own favorite medium.

TED Talk: Embrace the Shake- Phil Hansen finds beauty in the limitations and constraints.

TED Talk: Making Sound Visible Through Cymatics– The science and art of cymatics, a process of making sound waves visible.


Can you see the depth of learning made possible? Rather than limiting learning with a specified goal, we’ve given students depth. We’ve shown them the beauty in learning.

da Vinci said it best, “Learn how to see, realize that everything connects to everything else.”

Asking the right questions

Today’s #edchat topic for discussion on Twitter was: In a time of cut backs in education for the sake of the economy, should sports and extra curricular clubs take a back seat?

Those “extras” we are referring to: the arts and physical activities (sports).  For me, this #edchat topic succinctly summarizes what is wrong in education today.

There is something wrong with a system that considers the arts and physical activities as expendable.  Being “educated” has come to mean one thing: having a critical mass of a certain kind of knowledge so that one can perform well on a test.  What type of knowledge have we deemed important?  Literacy, math, science (and in some cases engineering and tech to round out the STEM initiatives).  Aren’t we more than this?  I like to think that I am more complex and “whole” than the sum of these few subjects.  Isn’t there more complexity to life than just literacy and STEM?

Who has determined that these tests accurately measure all there is to know about being successful, being human?  I would like to meet those who create these tests. If what shows up on the tests is reflective of who they are as “whole” people, I think that they must be very one-dimensional and dull.

Want to know a secret? I don’t think I want my students to be “successful” if a test is the only measure of success.  I want my students to be thinkers and problem solvers, to discover their gifts and talents and use those to shape a better world. I want my students to be creative and innovative. I want my students to be whole.  If we truly believe that students are more than just the sum of the subjects taught in school, how can we think of cutting out the programs that make them more whole?

The problem with the conversation is that it has become an either/or scenario.  Either we cut the “extras” or we have massive debt. Either we cut the “extras” or we have to cut one of the “more important” subjects. This isn’t an either/or conversation.  Those “extras” are part of learning.  The “extras” are part of what makes us uniquely human.  Those “extras” are not special and separate, they are a part of that wonderful tapestry that makes us human.  To cut them out and treat them as expendable is to treat students as a machine whose sole purpose is to have a single outcome: perform well on a test.

I think the problem goes even deeper.  When you ask students, parents, or most teachers why we want them to do well in school, the focus is usually on graduation.  We want them to graduate…with honors.  Why?  Because, then they can go into debt to pay for college (of course!).  Is anyone else looking at this problem with jaw on the floor?  What happens after college? We search for a job where we can follow directions and earn a paycheck that we can use to pay off our college debt.

College used to make sense.  In a world that wasn’t well-connected, where you couldn’t flip on your computer and be connected to an expert for free, we relied on college to be a place to go and learn to think from the best.  Learning isn’t reliant on institutions any more.  Learning happens in-spite of the institutions.  I seriously struggle with the why of a university experience in the year 2011 (I struggle with the why of schools the way they look right now too).  When I think back to my university experience, what I remember is those few (3) professors that I had that made a difference in my life. I still have all of my lecture notes and correspondences from those professors. They were exceptional for what I needed.  Outside of those 3 professors the biggest impact was my life outside of academics. The rest of the experience: worked through so I could have the piece of paper that said I did it.

Back to the #edchat topic: should we cut the extras in light of a struggling economy?  This is the wrong question to ask. The question should be: In light of a struggling economy, how can we adjust our budgets and priorities (priorities being those things we spend money on) to include the “extras” as part of an education that meets the needs of the whole child?

We try to keep answering these questions with the same unimaginative thinking that dug us into this hole.

Just for a moment let’s stop and think about the arts and physical activities.  How many math and physics problems in textbooks use sports as a story problem?

Can you see where I am going with this?  Why are we teaching math and physics through artificial story problems out of an antiquated textbook?  Why aren’t we saying, “let’s go test this out with a game of baseball”?

We aren’t thinking creatively enough about how to solve these problems. We try to segment, and rank importance, and test. Instead we should be looking at how to solve the problem in new ways.  Life is complex.  When you look at nature it doesn’t segment itself off into subjects that are done separately.  Nature is art, science, math, language, engineering, physical all in one. It happens together seamlessly.

Watch a baby, or any young animal, as they figure out life. So much is happening simultaneously that involves language, math, science, physical activity, engineering, and art.  This is how we learn to walk, talk, engage others, and keep ourselves safe. This is the way that life happens and it is the way we learn.  The real problem is, as soon as we enter school, we stop life from happening and try to erect artificial boundaries and understandings to get a single outcome.  We strip away “extras” that teach life skills like pride, respect, collaboration, teamwork, and citizenship. We reduce students to the sum of 5 subjects.  Is it any wonder that depression levels are at an all time high? Is it any wonder that we have a population that is obese?  Is it any wonder that every advertisement we see promises us a better life?

We need to be more creative, we need a paradigm shift in the way that education is done. Our thinking has to shift away from one where certain subjects are more important than others. We have to reconsider priorities and how money is spent.

Think about how dollars are spent in your school-most likely a large amount is spent on:

  • Boxed curriculum (heavy emphasis on those 5 subjects, heavy emphasis on one result, heavy emphasis on meeting one type of students needs.) The boxed curriculum is purchased and taught so that students will do well on the standardized tests.
  • Standardized (or other forms) of testing
  • Copy budgets (anyone know someone who prints off EVERY email that lands in their inbox?)
  • Textbooks (out of date as soon as they are published)

In my mind this isn’t rocket science.  Adjust your priorities and the money will be there.  The real problem is that right now our priorities are all out of whack.

I propose a new question:

In light of a struggling economy, how can we adjust our budgets and priorities (priorities being those things we spend money on) to include the “extras” as part of an education that meets the needs of the whole child?

If we can think of new ways to answer that question, the original question will be a non-issue.

The ‘useless’ arts

“Amidst the attention given to the sciences as how they can lead to the cure of all diseases and daily problems of mankind, I believe that the biggest breakthrough will be the realization that the arts, which are conventionally considered ‘useless,’ will be recognized as the whole reason why we ever try to live longer or live more prosperously.”

– John Maeda

It is interesting to me that humans have ranked certain disciplines as more important than others.  We tend to do this a lot in school.  Mathematical linguistic is more important than art.  Science is more important than communication.  I think that we have forgotten that art, science, math, language…they are all of equal importance, they rely on each other. They are all inextricably woven together into a beautiful tapestry of this thing that we call life.  Schools should reflect this.