Empower Instructors within GBL

 This post is the last in a five-part series from simCEO. It was originally entitled Empower instructors to guide meaningful learning experiences and reposted with permission.

One of the fastest-growing segments of the education industry is Games & Simulations  with a compounded annual growth rate of 37% predicted through to 2020.1 It has the potential to provide a faster and more engaging way to learn traditional content and skills. But we’re missing a huge opportunity if we are only using games and simulations as a faster way to run the wrong race (recall of content). Games and simulations have the power to transform the type of learning our students experience.

Advocates of Games-Based Learning (GBL) know this. And, we’re beginning to see an evolution. Instead of fun ways to practice multiplication tables, GBL developers are working with educators to create environments where students, design, create, analyze information, tinker, develop models, test hypotheses, and take action based on evidence.  Many GBL environments are integrating collaboration, competition, or a socially networked audience for student learning.

These different environments for learning lead to a deeper learning. These environments tap into constructivist models, allowing students to develop and test their own understanding. Many tap into social learning, allowing students to learn from and with one another.

Early forays into GBL created linear, progressional, engaging environments to learn, practice, and assess skills. These are still needed. However, the new GBL environments provide a context for learning that simply was not possible without their existence.  They are transformational.

The Challenge: Shifting the Role of the Instructor

How will teachers customize and interact within this GBL environment to target student interests and needs?

One of the major challenges in developing these new GBL environments is the evolution of empowering instructors. These environments are open-ended by their very nature. They allow a greater degree of customizing and decision-making by the instructor to identify and target the particular skills needed for this (group of) student(s).  If we want students to construct their own meaning in relevant environments, then instructors will have a greater role. They cannot simply “click play” and let the students do their thing.  Instructors need to play a larger role in shaping the environment and evaluating the students’ actions. Either directly or indirectly, instructors are interacting with their students within the GBL environment.

These environments operate with an important baseline assumption: Instructors (not game-designers) are the experts in knowing what their students need; they need to be able to shape the learning environment that is created.

We are two educators at the core. Empowering instructors is something we believe with all our heart, but it comes with it’s own challenges – ones that we haven’t fully solved.

We founded our company with the belief that learning in schools must to be naturally engaging and mirror the skills of the real-world to promote intrinsic student motivation. We believe learning experiences should have as many of the following unique elements to prepare our students for tomorrow.

  1. Students who move beyond recall and produce solutions with content.
  2. Social Learning: Learning from and with one another.
  3. Contextual Learning: Authentic roles & goals
  4.  Students as creators and dynamic evaluators.
  5. Empower instructors to guide meaningful learning experiences. (THIS ARTICLE)

At simCEO, we believe we have a model that addresses this challenge, and highlights how GBL can change learning by offering students engaging real-life experiences.

The simple premise allows students to create companies to form an online stock market. Within this environment, each student has two roles with a distinct goal.

  1. Create and manage a successful company by ending with a high share price.
  2. Maximizing an investment portfolio of $10,000 within this market by identifying how dynamic news will affect various companies.

As news is shared, the environment changes, and students have to analyze and potentially take action to apply their learning.  As a student takes actions (adjusting her company’s business plan or buying/selling shares), the simulation itself (company’s strategies and share prices) dynamically changes.  It’s an environment where the instructor has the option to customize in the following ways:

  • determining/specifying the elements needed for the student business plans
  • sharing news articles
  • adding announcements to alter the environment.
  • adjusting share prices

We believe simCEO is a good example of the new model of GBL that students need. But thus far, we have not been successful in helping all instructors see themselves within this role. These are challenges we have to overcome.

  1. We’ve seen our fair share of confused instructors who are expecting a “click and play” experience with little or no instructor interaction.  
  2. Once instructors understand their interactive role, how can we enable this interaction and customization in a time-efficient and effective way?
  3. How can we provide more options to instructors to choose? Can we use the cloud to leverage the expertise of our existing 1500 instructors? How can we structure a shared repository of instructor-created learning objects (assignments, environments, news articles, etc.) to help scaffold new instructors into this model of learning with more options?

We certainly do not have it figured out, but we’re working on it.

It will take creative solutions to leverage the real power of these open-ended GBL environments. It’s a journey – one that our students need us to take. We believe we’re at the beginning of something special, and we’re always on the lookout for partners who share our passion.

If you can help us solve this, reach out. We’d love to hear from you.

This article is our last in 5-part series.

Contextual Learning: Authentic Roles & Goals

This article originally appeared on the simCEO blog. It is article 3 in a series of 5.

At simCEO, we are educators at the core.

We founded our company with the belief that learning in schools must to be naturally engaging and mirror the skills of the real-world to promote intrinsic student motivation. That belief has guided us in creating a learning experience with five unique features. Learning – for tomorrow – must address these elements.

1) Students who move beyond recall and produce solutions with content.

2) Social Learning: Learning from and with one another.

3) Contextual Learning: Authentic roles & goals

4) Students as creators and dynamic evaluators

5) Empower instructors to guide meaningful learning experiences.

In this post, we explore part 3 of 5: the role of contextual learning. What does the research say? How have we attempted to contextualize learning? And, what problems still exist?

We know research validates the positive learning effects of constructivism. But let’s unpack constructivism using this helpful definition:

Constructivism as a paradigm or worldview posits that learning is an active, constructive process. The learner is an information constructor. People actively construct or create their own subjective representations of objective reality. New information is linked to prior knowledge.

The folks at TeachingHacks nicely break down constructivism into two main areas:

  • Cognitive constructivism …knowledge as being created through experience. Knowledge is not transferred from teacher to student in a ready-made format, but actively built by each learner. …
  • Social constructivism looks at learning from a social perspective… As students engage in discussion and social interaction they construct their knowledge by considering other peoples’ opinions and actions. Educators have the opportunity to eavesdrop on ideas that are going back and forth between students, give feedback and guide student understanding.


So, we know students need to construct their own knowledge. We know that activities such as spelling lists of 20 random words are ineffective. How do we provide experiences which contextualize the content? How can we provide environments which foster students constructing their own knowledge and understandings?

One of the more effective tools to help educators design these experiences – often known as Authentic Assessments – comes from Grant Wiggins’ GRASP model.

GRASPS is defined in more detail here, Wiggins himself provides many concrete examples of what these experiences look like at various subjects and grade levels. At simCEO, we focus on creating these experiences.

Constructivism and Games-Based Learning

These authentic learning experiences allow students to construct knowledge. Project-Based Learning (PBL) advocates have championed this model for years. It’s a model that has struggled to find it’s footing in Games-Based Learning (GBL).

Early games bring to mind flash cards. Later developments focus on quests that may or may not be authentically connected to the desired outcome (travel through space to return home by answering math questions not connected to the quest). The recent introduction of multi-player games -and the great success of games such as MineCraft – highlight the potential GBL has  in tapping into the social constructivism within open-ended environments where there are multiple pathways to the same goal. At the core of making the experience authentic and real world,  we need to give students an explicit role with a specific goal. But these roles need to allow for students to take their own direction and make their own choices. Students must be given the space to construct their own knowledge as they learn from – and with – others. That doesn’t happen often enough in classrooms, and it happens even less in GBL.  That’s both the beauty (and potential) of GBL, and highlights the main challenge that lies ahead.

Games like Minecraft are not directly related to most traditional school curriculum. They often require educator-customization to target traditional outcomes. (The importance of traditional outcomes such as math, history, etc. compared to 21st Century Skills is a separate question, worthy of separate exploration.)  If we are to assume that traditional school subjects will continue to be driving force in our learning, then open-ended GBL experiences which foster creativity and problem solving will need to balance, support, and align with traditional subject outcomes in order to facilitate adoption. It’s a challenge to develop these GBL experiences without making them sequential quests with right/wrong answers; To fully harness social constructivism, students need to  interact with the each other (not a computer program) to learn and problem solve.

We’re navigating the tip of the iceberg. We have lots to uncover.

At simCEO, we believe we have a model that addresses this challenge, and highlights how GBL can change learning.

Using the GRASP model, here’s where we believe we’ve succeeded… and where we still have work ahead of us.

Goal Two goals: 1) to end with the highest company share price, and 2) to end with the highest investment portfolio value
Role Students have 2 authentic roles within their classroom stock market: 1) as a CEO, to create and manage a company that ends with the highest share price, and 2) as an investor who can maximize a starting $10,000 investment portfolio.
Audience As students create and manage their company, their audience is their fellow students – who will play a role in evaluating them in their dual role as investors in the stock market. It a less-connected context, the “audience” for the students’ work can also be the parents and community, if the simulation is shared with others.
Situation Students each asked to create and manage a company within an instructor-defined context (eg. Boston 1776 or NYC, current day)  for a fictional 10-year period. These companies form an interactive classroom stock market. Additionally, students will review each other’s’ companies and are asked to maximize their initial $10,000 investment portfolio.wisely as they react and apply knowledge to news articles which are introduced.
Performance Students need to create and manage a viable business plan that will be successful over a fictional 10-year period in the setting chosen by the instructor. Students will also need to make wise investment decisions based on changing conditions during the simulation.
Standards In an pedagogical sense, simCEO is linked to standards in Economics, Business & Entrepreneurship, and Financial Literacy. These are included. Instructors can also customize elements of the simulation to target more traditional standards, as desired.
In a more practical sense, the standards by which student work will be judged by:

  • ending share price. This indicates that their answers have successfully influenced their peers (and teacher) by effectively communicating a quality solution (business plan).
  • ending investment portfolio value. This indicates that they were able to apply a solid understanding of the impact that various news articles would have on different companies throughout the simulation.

The Challenges Ahead

We continue to seek help from passionate people and organizations who are interested in partnering with us solve our two main challenges.

CHALLENGE #1: Teacher Customization: How much do we desire teachers to be involved in aligning their GBL experience to their curriculum and their students?

One of the unique elements we built into simCEO was teacher customization. Our foundational belief is that instructors know the needs of their students better than any instructional designers or programmers. For example:

  • Should student business plans be limited to one type of company or industry?
  • How complex should the business plan be? What topics should the plans cover?
  • Should simCEO have a specific time, place, and conditions to dictate the simulation?
  • What types of news articles should students encounter during the simulation to encourage them to adjust their business plan or investment strategy?


We’ve tried to balance the following aspects,  providing some default options while opening the door to teacher customization. But with each option we offer for teacher customization, we lose the ability to structure a sequential storyline. This increases the teacher’s responsibility as the experience becomes less of a ‘plug-n-play’ tool. It also makes assessment trickier.


CHALLENGE #2: How much, and what type of, assessment should be built into an open-ended simulation?

Plug-n-play games allow for easier built-in student assessment. Open-ended simulations like MineCraft and simCEO rely more on teachers. To some degree, this is simply a perception shift that needs to happen. Pre-programmed assessments, by their nature, are right/wrong. Once we place students in authentic contexts where they can create their own solutions, we limit the amount of pre-created assessments that are possible. When we allow teachers to customize – broadening the scope of what is possible to meet their learners’ needs – we limit the scope of pre-programmed assessments even further. But thankfully, these types of GBL experiences allow for true student reflection within an authentic context. We see how students apply their understanding in action. Their actions, and reflections on those actions, tell us so much more about their level of understanding than any multiple-choice test could.

The cultural shift comes in how we view these open-ended GBL resources. Instead of plug-n-play experiences, we believe these resources should be considered authentic contexts to apply content. Instructors are empowered to shape the specific content and assessment – and can even incorporate their traditional classroom assessments into a new environment.

Instructors who approach these environments as plug-n-play experiences, where students click “go” and are immersed in a simulated environment which measures their ability to choose the correct multiple choice options, will likely be confused by this new type of resource. But as this cultural shift takes hold, we can truly empower instructors to drive assessment.

We remain committed to bringing social constructivism to life in GBL.  These are the problems that need solutions in order to take the next step in games-based learning, integrating our GBL environments into open-ended PBL ones.

We are encouraged by the reality that these problems are best solved by educators themselves (instead of programmers). Our hope is to leverage the collective intelligence and experience of educators and innovators around the world to build these environments for our students.

It’s a journey. That’s our mission. If it’s one that moves you, join in and help us make it a reality.



Jetlag Learning creator and CEO, Derek Luebbe, is the current Head of School at the Shanghai Community International School (SCIS), Pudong Campus

At Jetlag Learning, we create online learning simulations where students compete and interact with one another – instead of a program –  to make the learning environment more dynamic and mirror real-world problem solving.

Our first simulation, simcEO,  product targets entrepreneurship and financial literacy as students create their own companies to form an interactive stock market,  and then buy/sell shares in each other’s company to influence the share prices as they react to news stories – real or fictional.

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Friday, April 28, 2017

Social Learning: Learning from and with one another.

At simCEO, we are educators at the core.

We founded our company with the core belief that learning in schools must to be naturally engaging and mirror the skills of the real-world to promote intrinsic student motivation. That belief has guided us in creating a learning experience with five unique features. Learning – for tomorrow – needs to have these elements.

1) Students who move beyond recall and produce solutions with content.

2) Social Learning: Learning from and with one another.

3) Contextual Learning: Authentic roles & goals

4) Students as creators and dynamic evaluators

5) Empowering instructors to customize learning experiences for their students.

Earlier, we shared the ideal elements needed to move from student recall to students who create solutions with content.  It takes an open-ended, real-world, engaging problem with critical thinking and decision-making at it’s core.  

Our post today focuses on social learning.

Those types of learning experiences can no longer exist only between teacher and student. Students need to see – and learn from – how other students try to navigate these experiences. In short, we need to move from the one-to-one teacher:student model to the many-to-many model.

Model Teacher Student
One to One Teacher tutors one. Provides task. Teacher provides feedback, evaluates, and returns work. Student turns in work. Student receives feedback.
One to Many Teacher gives lecture. Online tutorials. Student solves a problem on a blog. Students gives verbal presentation.
Many to Many Guided/Socratic  discussions. Online chat room. Team sports.

Help forums. Online mult-player games.

What defines quality experiences in the many to many model?  In it’s simplest form, it embodies the essence of Bandura’s social learning – allowing learners to learn in a specific context through imitation and modeling. In it’s best context, there is a blurred line between the expert and learner. Everyone accepts responsibility for both roles.

Our best learning environments allow students to learn from – and with – one another. The teacher’s role is transformed into a context maker who learns what students can do.

As Kathleen Norris from the Center for Digital Education shares in K-12 Classrooms Needs to be Hotbeds of Social Learning, “Social learning is the education strategy of the playground, of the workplace, of the dinner table, of the learning strategies of Plato, Dewey and, more recently, of serious thinkers such as Lev Vygotsky and Seymour Papert. The time has come to support educators in taking advantage of 1-to-1, Internet-connected, Web 3.0 technologies and make our children’s classrooms hotbeds of social learning.”

We created simCEO with this idea in mind. Give students an authentic goal with many possible solutions, and allow them to learn from the diversity of opinions they see. It’s both blessing and a curse.

  • Teachers love the creativity simCEO fosters. Students create their own business to thrive in a specific environment / context. And, they see (and learn) how each other approached those same problems and came up with different solutions. Students make adjustments to their own business which model best solutions for their own context/business.
  • Students see news articles and recognize that changes affect each company differently. They adjust their business plan and their investment philosophy to these changing conditions. Equally important, they see how other students react (differently) to these same news articles.

But we also see evidence of intelligent, committed educators who struggle finding the best way to “tie it all together.”  Open-ended learning can sometimes feel like trying to pin down a cloud. Perhaps this is compounded with online, open-ended learning.

  • How can I effectively assess micro vs. macro entrepreneurial student decisions, and evaluate each accurately? For example, Student A sets up the “right” business for a particular environment but cannot understand or apply supply and demand. Student B has a poor business idea but applies his knowledge of supply and demand beautifully.
  • How can I measure the quality of business plans – or adjustments to those plans – within a dynamic environment?
  • How can I separate (and evaluate) lucky actions and adjustments from competent applications of knowledge?

Open-ended tasks are complex and more than a little messy. They are filled with what if? moments where students make choices and go down various pathways. That doesn’t always lend itself to easy assessments. But those are the real-world environments our students need navigate.

We continue to seek out feedback from educators who have ideas for how to best evaluate within these open-ended environments.

But let’s not forget. Learning experiences with discrete outcomes may be easier to evaluate, but those experiences offer little context for social learning. We can’t aim for “right” at the expense of “meaningful”.

Jetlag Learning creator and CEO, Derek Luebbe, is the current Head of School at the Shanghai Community International School (SCIS), Pudong Campus

At Jetlag Learning, we create online learning simulations where students compete and interact with one another – instead of a program –  to make the learning environment more dynamic and mirror real-world problem solving.

Our first simulation, simcEO,  product targets entrepreneurship and financial literacy as students create their own companies to form an interactive stock market,  and then buy/sell shares in each other’s company to influence the share prices as they react to news stories – real or fictional.

Students as Evaluators in the Inquiry Based Classroom

This post was originally written for (and first appeared in) an Education SmartBrief.

In the earlier post Who Do Our Students Consider The Audience For Their Work?  (originally posted in Smartblog for Education), I advocated that by providing rich, complex, authentic classroom tasks, we open the door to expanding the role of students. They move from producers to evaluators of their classmate’s solutions. I shared that we need more environments like this because they enable students to be engaged in creating with content and the resulting products are far more meaningful in fostering learning that will stick.

I’d like to add a Part 2: These environments are far more powerful and effective in fostering reflection and growth about each child’s learning process.

To be clear, students can and should be reflective learners in any environment. Many would agree that the most important skill we can teach is that of learning how to learn. But when we transform traditional units of study into truly rich, PBL, inquiry-based environments, we provide an environment where high-level cognitive activities have greater potential to surface.


Traditional environments ask students to turn in work to the teacher for evaluation; students are seldom placed in the role of evaluating quality of their own work let alone another classmate. Because traditional assessments rely heavily on the recall of knowledge or demonstrating longer forms of recall through the ‘synthesis’ of producing essay responses “The three main causes of World War II were…”, it is likely safe to say that there is actually minimal benefit from having students be evaluators in these types of tasks. It can be argued that students might learn how to write a better essay, but it’s highly doubtful they will learn much more about World War II by peer reading essays.

However, when we provide open-ended authentic tasks, students are placed in the role of evaluators, thus allowing them to see the many varied ways that these problems can be solved. What resources did this student consider? Which parts of her solution were effective? Which parts have not been addressed? Inevitably, students who are placed in this role are asking themselves , How is this student’s solution and rationale different than my own? Assessments – and the diversity of solutions that they bring about – enable students to learn as they evaluate. To be clear, I am not saying that the idea of students as evaluators has to play a role in the actual grading. It could. But if we are truly leveraging authentic learning tasks, then we need to recognize that empowering students as evaluators we create a powerful learning tool.


Again, within a traditional classroom, we can and should ask students to reflect on their process.

However, these reflections can lack depth because the student was seldom in control of the product itself. Asking students to reflect on their learning in a traditional assessment usually garners answers such as:

  • “I should have worked harder / started earlier.
  • “I should have focused more on Chapter 2.” (Usually, this is because the assessment had more Chapter 2 questions than the student envisioned.)
  • “I should have taken better notes along the way.”

None of these responses are bad. But they are limited because the tasks tend to be limited. Students are missing out on the chance to create a solution by using content. When these type of PBL tasks are used in the classroom, student reflections can include the statements above, but they will also open up deeper reflections including:

  • I should have considered more viewpoints before I came to my conclusion.
  • I knew my research / facts well, but I wasn’t very effective at communicating my plan to my audience. I forgot that my audience is more concerned about ____,  ____, and ____ .
  • I would have been more effective by acknowledging the weaker aspects of my plan in advance.
  • I had a strong, well-thought out message, but I chose the wrong medium for how to present it to my audience.


If our learning tasks are asking students to (hopefully) produce the same type of answers, there is little incentive for students to want to learn from each other than trying to ensure that each of them has the “right” answer. When we open up problems with multiple pathways toward different solutions, we not only can see the pathways they take; we provide an environment where they seek out and learn from one another along the way.

When student work has an authentic audience (and especially if that audience can be students themselves) within our inquiry based, PBL classrooms, we not only end up with student work at a higher quality. We open up avenues for learning and reflection that simply aren’t possible if the teacher monopolizes the role.

All of this is (slowly) coming together in my mind on the heels of reading Kath Murdoch’s The Power of Inquiry – highly recommended – and my attendance at a 3-day workshop on the International Bacculareate’s (IB) MYP & PYP Programs. I’m excited by the challenges and opportunties thus far as we  (the Shanghai Community International School)  transition to the PYP and MYP programs which advocate these authentic, complex, inquiry-based environments.

Who Do Our Students Consider the Audience For Their Work?

We all agree that creating social learning environments where students learn from one another is beneficial. Creative teachers plan for this, advocates of problem-based Learning — PBL — take advantage of this and new models in games-based learning — GBL — are building this into the learning process. And, we can all agree that technology can help facilitate these environments — students will peer edit each others’ literary analysis so that they can learn from observing the changes suggested as they compare solutions.

With or without technology, these environments stretch the learning relationships from “one-to-one” (teacher-to-student) to “one-to-many.” By expanding the number of potential “teachers” in the learning process, these environments strengthen the main component of social learning — that we learn through observation, modeling and making decisions about quality, not solely through reinforcements, such as grades.


We can also agree that providing a more real-world context strengthens the sense of purpose and provides for deeper motivation and engagement. One way to strengthen purpose is by giving students an authentic audience for their creation, for example:  Write a petition to your local chamber of commerce. This type of authentic audience is nothing new to PBL believers; it constitutes the “A” in the always helpful GRASPS acronym shared by Wiggins and McTighe regarding structuring authentic assessments. These are the situations where students strive to effectively apply their content understanding. We unleash their potential as we give them a heightened sense of purpose.

But we need to go one step further.

We need to develop more learning opportunities where students constitute the actual evaluators for the work itself. Imagine if students, teachers and others evaluate and provide feedback to determine the effectiveness of a student’s creation: Develop an 60-second speech to be shared with the student council and three advertising posters to be copied and placed around school to decrease bullying. Your work will be evaluated according to our rubric by the students in our class, outside professionals and me — as the teacher. These are the experiences that push learning beyond a one-way conversation between student and teacher. They demystify the assessment process and allow each student to be a creator and simultaneous evaluator, providing multiple experiences for students to recognize and apply the criteria for quality.


This challenge is important for all educators and resource developers. Thus far, we have plenty of examples where we facilitate collaboration. Technology — thankfully — makes these even more plentiful. But this collaboration is still aimed at producing pieces of higher quality which will eventually be turned into the teacher. They foster the “one-to-one” teacher/student relationship aimed at helping students get at the right answer. However, in the real world, if my message is poorly written, there is a more authentic consequence – confusion and the decreasing ability to move my audience to action. In this way, failure is the currency of growth; other students help peers to identify gaps and demonstrate higher levels of quality.


The “one-to-many” and “many-to-many” networks leverage social learning. These environments do not exclude that a one-to-one relationship can/should exist. Individualized feedback and diagnostic data can be shared on an individual basis as each student does her best to apply content. But the learning task itself needs to stretch beyond the “teacher as audience and sole evaluator.” We do this by initially creating a real-world task, without this task, it is difficult for students to experience authentic learning — where they present solutions, seek feedback, adjust and ultimately strive to produce work that others deem high quality; they are not solely focused on the teacher’s grade. And, while this post discusses the products of learning, imagine the rich feedback we could also share with students about their process in a learning task such as this.

How can you be part of this change in education?

As you design or deliver instruction:

Go beyond facilitating more efficient pathways which help students get to the right answer in order to share that answer with a teacher, provide interactive experiences where students must use content knowledge to solve problems and create solutions while evaluating each others’ solutions. Create learning experiences that open efficient pathways where students interact with content in an authentic way. Engage students in highly collaborative processes allowing students to learn not only from their own work, but from listening and comparing their work and thought processes to their peers.


As you evaluate student work:

Take a step back from your role as the sole evaluator. Look for opportunities to involve others, especially the students themselves, in the evaluation process.


As you consider what best prepares our students:

Go beyond asking students to complete work that “prepares them for the next level;” they need opportunities to use content to solve legitimate problems and create solutions through collaboration and critical thinking. Prepare students to succeed in the real world as effective social learners — as they collaboratively problem solve and simultaneously evaluate in a quest for quality.


This post was initially shared in the May 5, 2014 edition of  SmartBlog on Education by author Derek Luebbe. 


Complex, Authentic Assessments

With a simple combination of two great tools, we can craft some strong classroom assessments. Viewing traditional topics and assessment ideas through the lens of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge framework and the GRASP Authentic Assessment framework helps everyone go beyond recall and move into creative analysis and deep thinking with a relevant context.

A simple chart and sample assessment hopes to highlight how 15 minutes can move our practices forward and give our students tasks that mirror real-world problems.

Traditional Assessment:  Describe how carbon emissions are linked to climate change.

Webb’s: A proposed law will change the emissions regulations for businesses. Review the change and describe the impact (if any) this will have on the environment and employment.

A GRASP Authentic Performance Assessment

Goal: A  recommendation on impacts of a proposed law
Role: An advisor to the mayor
Audience: The mayor
Situation: The governor has asked you to review the proposed changes. Discuss the impact this will have (if any) on the environment and employment in your city.
Product: A report with recommendation and rationale
Standards:  S4a __________  and/or rubric criteria to determine quality

How would you describe inquiry-based learning?

As the Head of School at the Shanghai Community International School (SCIS), we are expanding our International Baccalaureate (IB) programs. This year we are adding the Middle Years (MYP) and Primary Years (PYP) programs to support our existing Diploma Program.

These programs focus heavily on conceptual learning through inquiry. That’s a change for our community. In the following post, I share an article that I shared with our parents to help them understand the key components of this shift.

Feedback welcome.

What is inquiry?  How is it different?

To borrow the words of Kate Murdoch, “to suggest that learning is not about inquiry is, in many ways, nonsense. The act of inquiry is critical to our learning and growth.” (Murdock, 11) Yet, often in schools, there is a tendency to push a learner’s natural curiosity to the background. In short, while many current teaching practices “present information (rules, laws, principles) together with examples, then ask students to replicate what they have been told.” (13)  Inquiry-based learning is based in inductive practices – wherein the learner is challenged to gather and analyze information, review it against existing knowledge, seek connections, notice patterns and gradually build an understanding of a concept.” (13)  It is grounded in a belief called constructivist-learning, where students need to build (or construct) their own knowledge by connecting it to previous knowledge instead of disconnected memorization and recall of information.

The IB itself makes this link clearly by stating that students “become enduringly skillful when learning is authentic and in context. The curriculum should emphasize the active construction of meaning so that students’ learning will be purposeful.” (Making the PYP Happen, IBO)


Allowing the space for students to question sounds great, but I wonder if they are learning any content. How does that work? And, how do teachers actually ‘teach’ with an inquiry mindset?

At SCIS, each subject’s curriculum is tied to national standards (example: the USA’s Common Core).  One of the great misconceptions of inquiry-based learning is that students may not learn facts and meet standards because they are asking and exploring questions. Inquiry is a philosophy and it is led by the teacher. In effective inquiry-based classrooms, you will still see drills, lectures, and didactic learning. But those methods are not the default. They are means to an end – developing students’ skills in order to give them the tools to effectively navigate the exploration.  Quality learning is always linked to standards. Inquiry classrooms believe that students will have a deeper understanding and longer retention of the standards when they build it themselves. Teachers strive to keep students focused on a relevant exploration.


So, how might my child’s look different?

A typical unit is usually focused on a single topic (examples: The French Revolution or Persuasive Writing) with a goal of “What do I want students to know?” An IB Unit of Inquiry starts with the goal of “What do I want students to understand and be able to do?”

Initially, you can see that it is rooted in action, applying their learning to be transferred elsewhere. The term understanding is an important and complex term. What does it mean to understand? It is more than summarizing or recalling information about a topic. Understanding comes in layers as we make connections. We peel these layers back like an onion depending on the depth of our understanding.

With this we come to see the difference – and the power – in inquiry. IB units of study do look different than traditional units because they are focused on over-arching essential questions of inquiry – questions that are concept-driven (not topic-driven), are worth pursuing and whose understandings can be applied in other situations. An example, shared by SCIS Pudong Upper School Principal Dr. Frank Volpe, will clarify the difference.


Traditional Unit Problem-Based, Traditional Unit Question MYP Unit Inquiry Question
Migration Trends Why do rural residents of Anhui choose to migrate to Shanghai? Why do populations choose to migrate and how does this migration change the destination and the origin?

 Exploring the MYP question allows connections. It is easy to see that the example of Chinese migration can still be studied, but the goal is to apply those understandings to the broader world.

Two aspects of inquiry are worth noting.

  • Strong inquiry questions are concept driven, not topical. They can be used at a variety of age ranges and involve multiple disciplines (geography, economics, science, civics). Using our onion analogy, these questions provide the opportunity to allow different learners to peel back the “next” layer at the level of understanding, challenging each learner.
  • Inquiry learning requires more work than traditional learning. It is not linear. It is somewhat messy as learners inquire and continually shift their understanding. This type of learning more accurately reflects how we all learn in the real world; it is shown below.

By reviewing the models, we can infer that classroom practices within inquiry classrooms also differ compared to traditional classrooms. Instructional decisions are never an “all or nothing” choice, but it is fair to say that inquiry classrooms will have…

… more … less
Student explorations of a concept: discussions, debate, research, problem-solving lecture
Creating and making connections and patterns Worksheets on basic facts
Reflection as central part of learning Learning about discrete, unconnected topics. Moving on to the next topic.
Assessments of understanding, where concepts are applied to new situations Assessments of knowledge

The IB can be (more than) a little confusing. It brings with its own “educational vocabulary” that is needed to help understand the program. We’ve unpacked one concept – inquiry. It’s complex, but stick with it. And, just as we expect students to be inquirers, we ask the same of you throughout the year. Seek to understand. Ask questions. After all, we’re just peeling back the first layer of the onion.

What Teacher Survey Says About Our Tech Goals

A June survey of teachers by Education Week pointed to some disappointing results.

The title says it all:

Teachers Still Struggling to Use Tech to Transform Instruction, Survey Finds


What is encouraging is that the title acknowledges a worthwhile goal – going beyond technology integration and aims at transforming practice.

The survey found that the strongest area of integration occurred in drill, review, practice problems. While that area shows promise in using personalized learning data to customize student pathways (identifying strengths, weaknesses, and pacing), at it’s core it is usually serving a very traditional goal. It transforms instruction in helping students get to the traditional “goal” faster, but it does little to transform education.

This more lofty goal – using technology to transform education – is an area where we are just getting started. Are we utilizing technology to transform the type of learning that is possible? Are we moving beyond recall and asking students to…

… critically think?

… collaborate?

… communicate with clarity?

… create solutions while using content?

… play a part in evaluating the quality of the solutions?

This is a topic I’ve explored in more detail in an earlier post.

The other areas from the survey (games, collaboration, projects) represent integration goals which have greater potential to transform instruction and education to better target the skills we  need for students in the 21st Century. We should continue to explore, research, and create in these domains.

Unless we ask the larger question, we will be limited by focusing our technology goals on helping us meet yesterday’s education goals. Our students (and teachers!) need us to think bigger.

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