If you teach students a new idea and explain how it operates, they can generalize and apply the idea in a new context

At the time of writing, I had been working as an ESL teacher at the French International School in Vilnius, Lithuania. . In this supporting role, I have enjoyed many challenging pedagogical discussions, which have led me to a better understanding of how different pedagogic roads can lead to the same goal. I refer specifically to our aspiration to raise responsible young citizens who will adhere to the cherished credo of liberté, égalité et fraternité, thus ultimately striving towards freedom in the broadest sense. There are many contrasting teaching styles in the classroom and online, some of which resonate with my personal experiences as an international teacher in the primary years of the IB curriculum. Certain teaching  approaches are less to my liking. In this essay, I endeavour to reflect upon my varying experiences of the past years. 

How do we construct knowledge?  

Discussions about the theory of knowledge in relation to ancient Greek philosophy taught me that knowledge begins with a sensory experience, which later attains some level of abstraction and ultimately becomes a thought. In the teaching profession, we are confronted with this process every day: how do we impart knowledge to our students so that they can internalize perceptions and use them to find meaning  in the world around them? According to Piaget, knowledge is constructed through interaction with the physical world, humans, and objects. Thus, knowledge is constructed when there is a discord between observations and the current understanding of the world .

The student, wanting to re-establish a sense of order in the face of new concepts, designs a structure for modifying their world view accordingly. As educators, we can guide that reconstruction process. In the words of a French teacher with whom I have worked, “On ne peut poser le “comment” que si l’on a répondu au préalable au “pourquoi“. We can only proceed to teach once there is a purpose behind this endeavour, in other words, we can only ask the “how” if we have previously answered the “why.”.

However, knowledge construction is not a straightforward process, as it is inherently a social construct that is intrinsically linked to the  historical era as well as the cultural context of the child.  Newly acquired a priori knowledge systems pass through the filter defined by cultural context and thus acquire some of their flavour. What becomes integrated into our knowledge base is the crystallization of our ongoing quest for knowledge. What role do the classroom and the contemporary learning environment play in fostering this process? Does it really suffice to equip a student with a list of facts, or can we aspire as educators to convey the intellectual equipment so that students can come to understand who they are in relation to the world? How will this aspiration apply in an ever-changing world, one that is now undergoing a shift away from the traditional classroom to online teaching or some blended learning model with ever less interaction among peers? In this regard, I have made a video highlighting this point and showcasing a successful outdoor education model in Klaipeda, Lithuania.

How can children best understand who they are as people, and what kind of teaching model can best promote knowledge construction towards attaining this goal of self-awareness?

There are many different ways to work towards this goal of self-awareness. The simplest approach is through trial and error, with observations being followed by reflection upon the experience. Ideally, the goal of learning is to change oneself and thus move forward in one’s  discovery of the world. When this occurs, students are aware that they are making progress and accomplishing something. 

I know of two pathways for putting these variables into action in the context of primary school education. These two main approaches are articulated in Kate Murdoch’s inquiry cycle and the so-called spiral curriculum. Let us consider first Kate Murdoch’s inquiry cycle This is a pedagogical approach now enjoying wide popularity in which inquiry is defined as seeking for truth, information, or knowledge, which, once attained, then inform many facts of life. The inquiry cycle is another valuable heuristic model for teaching and learning.  It is a circular construct in that the student starts by attending, learning facts, and generalizing to a theme-based concept. The learner then goes further by making connections with their earlier experience and perhaps taking some consequent action. Theme-based concepts are as ancient as humankind and are paraphrased as a perception of who we are in place and time. and how the theme applies to understanding the world : Sharing the Planet, How We Organize Ourselves, and How We Express Ourselves are just a few of the themes for an inquiry-based implementation in the classroom. These themes remain relevant for any age and time; they are transcendent and ubiquitous. 

What makes the inquiry circle so attractive for me as a teacher lies is its applicability for trans disciplinary learning, where the learning is student-driven and not simply prescribed with finite learner outcomes. Inquiry-based learning is not confined to connections across learning areas but also involves transfer of ‘school’ learning to family, community, and international settings. This means that there is scope for interweaving learning into a deeper social context. The inquiry circle  works best through outreach programs whereby students get a chance to interact with the local community. Also, guest speakers are always welcome in the classroom, even in the Early Years. 

Rather than following Kate Murdoch’s inquiry cycle, French schools tend to favor the use of a spiral curriculum. In this model, the curriculum returns repeatedly to the same topics throughout the school career, and course subjects are separated in a traditional disciplinary manner. Upon attaining mastery of the previous learning objects, the student re-encounters the topic presented with increasing complexity, which calls for recycling and reconfiguration of old building blocks to construct a broader understanding of the topic. Where is a connection with daily life and the social context to be found in the spiral curriculum? As one informant told me, “Les élèves sont dans des logiques sociales qui (ne sont pas cognitives et souvent ces deux logiques se confrontent”. [The pupils are (embedded) in non-cognitive social logic, and there is often confrontation between the social and cognitive logics]. This is a legitimate concern, especially when children are first confronted with this type of curriculum model. If it is understood that learning should bring about change, how can this occur when one must keep circling back to the same theme? 

As the reader can gather, I am not particularly a proponent of the spiral curriculum, which turns learning into an assembly line. However, the spiral approach is accepted at my current (French language) school. My colleagues advise me to tell the students, “Don’t worry that you don’t understand. We’ll get back to this later on”. On the other hand, another colleague with great experience in international settings expressed the qualification that later on the concepts and requisite skills are naturally more difficult as one spirals upward. This concern tends to remove the motivation the students might have had to solve the learning problem by deferring to a later date.  In summary, the spiral curriculum is better suited for skills development when the specific requirements continue to augment the original base part.

I started by posing a general question about how we construct knowledge. Now, having briefly discussed two common  frameworks, I come to ask which methodology serves best for enticing our students to learn inside and outside the classroom. 

Let us assume a student would like to toast a slice of bread. How many ways can he or she come to achieve that goal? Do students have to invent a toaster, or can they re purpose some mundane object to create the desired outcome? Teachers often present students with a problem and some notion of a desired outcome, without  showing them any models or instructional videos. The instructor assumes that viewing a video would promote passivity rather than critical thinking or stimulation of the student’s imagination. Teachers don’t want students simply to mimic an outcome, but rather to put some effort into reaching their goal. With an abstract idea or an example of a proven mechanism as point of departure, how do we entice the student’s brain to construct some solution to the problem of toasting bread? In other words, how does a student assimilate enough information to construct a useful model or schema? 

Before new content can be fully learned and deployed in a new context, we need first to get it into our episodic memory. This type of memory, also known as autobiographical memory, is tied to the place and time of learning.  If we create a routine for learning new content through repetition and through experiential cueing, the student can build some scaffolding for learning, in discussion with Justin Wright,  March 2020. The importance of visible thinking routines has been highlighted in Ron Ritchard’s part of Harvard Project Zero.. A learner who can think by visualization can also plan, create, and question. Increasing pedagogic research focuses on experiential cueing. The French philosopher Bachelard asserted that “l’enfant n’est pas vierge de connaissances, pas une table rase ou cire sans emprunt”. [The child already has empirical or prior knowledge of the world, and is no clean slate or wax tablet without imprint]. Thus, the ancient concept of tabula rasa may be slowly yielding to a new paradigm. Nonetheless, classroom education builds upon the substrate of prior experience, to promote the child’s moral development and social adaptation.  

Play-based learning is an approach in which the child is given some experiential cueing

and is encouraged to develop a sense of their own abilities and learning needs. La théorie aujourd’hui définit une pédagogie centrée sur l’apprenant [The theory of today defines a pedagogy centered on the learner], where the child is placed at the center of their own learning experience. Children can then explore, experiment, discover, and solve problems in imaginative and playful ways. To paraphrase Montessori, who says in her view on nature and education : “Play is a child’s work!”.   Play-based learning as understood by a contemporary advocate, Cheng Xueqin in Anji, China, means “mouth shut, hands down, ears, eyes and heart open to discover the child”.   Furthermore, “  Cheng Xueqin states in his introduction that “ what we describe as True Play—play that is self-determined in an environment of love—is actually the deepest and most natural form of learning. Nothing could be more important to the lives of children than the joy, freedom, and growth that characterizes this kind of play.” Do we take this approach in our daily teaching practice, or are we too busy trying to finish a fixed curriculum with preset outcomes? 

The first encounter with new learning material, which is often perceived by children as a kind of provocation, is termed as “front loading” in Murdoch’s inquiry cycle. This calls for engaging a new type of memory that lets us know that the concept has been audited. From that point, no further experiential cues are needed, since the learning content is established and enters long term retention. This is when the discord between observations and current understanding of the world has been resolved, which is a necessary condition for filling in the understanding gap with real conceptual learning or schematization.  

Does traditional or exploratory learning work better? 

We could have performed the same bread and toast experiment by handing out props to our students after providing them with some background information. Would the result then have been better, equally good, or worse due to the demotivating effects of taking a short-cut to problem solving? Is there too much comfort or self-satisfaction derived from re-applying a concept that has been delivered gratis, as a proven and successful model? 

Research into knowledge acquisition shows that working with a prior direct instructional model or prototype does not match well with the workings of the mind. The mind needs repetition of this concept, but in novel ways and with variations. The mind then grasps and retains important information, and can make new associations with the concept. The simple instance of making a single connection with one idea is good for mechanics, but not the developing human mind. Exploratory learning is, in terms of contemporary neuroscience, a matter of neuro plasticity and the creation of new and alternate neural pathways. There is more than one way to explain something. However, we want to impart the mastery of a concept, which is not rote learning, but the attainment of in-depth understanding that can be shared with others. A group of children coming up with a successful model of a toaster can then pair–share with a less successful group and give them feedback or advice on how best to proceed. Social learning then comes into play, which adds additional depth to the knowledge acquisition process. Only when children attain the capacity to transfer and apply their knowledge will their learning find solid anchoring. In the above-mentioned inquiry cycle, this attainment is often called enduring understanding, the learning that will stay with you.  “Enduring understandings summarize important ideas and core processes that are central to a discipline and have lasting value beyond the classroom. They synthesize what students should understand–not just know or do–as a result of studying a particular content area. Moreover, they articulate what students should “revisit’ over the course of their lifetimes in relationship to the content area See .

How much support or scaffolding do we need to provide? 

I follow the definition of scaffolding as presented by the cognitive and educational psychologist Jerome Bruner. He coined the term scaffolding as a description for the kind of assistance given by the teacher or more knowledgeable peer in providing comprehensible input and moving the learner into the zone of proximal development (ZPD) as used by Lev Vigotzky .  ZPD  refers to the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner. We find a similar claim from Stephen Krashen in the field of language acquisition. Krashen’s construct of i +1, meaning that giving the learner a comprehensible input which is slightly more advanced than their current level or “ is necessary in language acquisition.  

A spiral curriculum attempts to provide scaffolding but may inherently limit the depth of learning that is ultimately attained. Just as not all teachers are comfortable with an inquiry-based teaching method, so are some students uncomfortable being taught through inquiry. Such learners may need structure, guidance, and delivery of content in bite-sized pieces. I would not assert that any one teaching approach will fit the needs of all learners. This brings us to consider two teaching frameworks known as implicit and explicit teaching.   

In the context of language instruction, the concept of explicit versus implicit teaching is of central importance. While the implicit method focuses on helping the learner to develop unconscious routines to construct knowledge (eliciting words), explicit teaching calls on  the learner to engage their conscious attention. Both approaches have their own spheres of applicability. French pedagogues have carried out considerable amounts of research about what type of instruction model works best in the classroom. There are many publications on implicit versus explicit teaching, and the explicit model is currently favored, as expressed by Steve Bisonette. Is this the antithesis of inquiry-based learning? 

As we can infer from the term explicit, this model refers to a method whereby the teacher explicitly talks about lesson outcome and objectives. The teacher tries to avoid the implicit, with its vagaries, ambiguities. To fulfill the lesson or curriculum plan, the teacher needs to come up with a system or build a framework of varied content (words, visuals, explanations, actions, and exposure to material) to guide the student on the learning journey. Explicit teaching also engenders an open discussion about the causes of learning difficulties and can thus apply remedial teaching at an early stage of the process. 

The explicit/implicit dichotomy depends very much on the lesson  one is trying to teach and how much time is available. Here, for example, I have seen children complete a simple “subtraction-with-borrowing” question using more than half a page to describe their logic. When I come up with the idea to let them use QC Tiles to understand visually what they were  doing, they could  complete many more questions using much less time and much less paper.  As a former colleague said, “Modelling” smacks too much of “rote” learning, but there are certainly very valid uses for that, too. It should NEVER be a choice between THIS or THAT, but respectful of all the variables at play”. 

Yet, modelling is, in a nutshell, nothing more than a learning sequence of I do, then we do, finally you do. Modelling, or directed practice with a learner working alongside the supportive teacher, is seen as the necessary first step before the child can perform autonomous work. This approach is commonly applied at the French school where I currently work in everyday classroom practice.  The child re-invests their  learning assets and transfers the learnt material into a personal landscape of independent imaginary and creative design, but this is only possible when building upon the substrate of explicit teaching. How then do we reformulate the experiment with the toaster if we follow these rules? 

Knowledge acquisition and memory – Is it important to retain what we have learnt? How does Bloom’s taxonomy guide us in answering this question? 

Traditional test-taking is a matter of tickling the experiential memory, perhaps when the concept has only been met once before within a learning framework, except when teaching in spiral form. The concept is recognized as being much the same as when first encountered. Our mind recognizes the recurring pattern and takes minimal  action.  We may say, “I know this and I don’t need to do any more along these lines”. We can get good test scores in measure of our familiarity with the topic, but the task of elaborating on the question might be hard if the connections to deeper understanding have not yet been constructed. Enduring understanding is only attainable when the familiar knowledge finds new utilization, which seems to be a matter of problem-based learning in complex real-life situations. Contemporary educators have advocated the need to move away from rote memorization of facts to the higher order task of connection-making.  

On these grounds, Bloom’s taxonomy is a good heuristic model for teachers in layering the Bloom talks about the cognitive, psychomotor, and affective skills that we need to assess if we are to avoid getting stuck with old fashioned test-taking and simple fact recall, as in former times when students followed assigned textbook readings. Just like in Maslow’s needs assessment pyramid, Bloom has proposed  a pyramid where thinking is layered. The pyramid has ranks from lower to higher order thinking, in a structure informed by considering thinking as a skill to be learned. To extend the metaphor, the pyramid can sometimes morph into a mandala, where levels of learning re-appear at different stages, like concentric circles contained within a square and organized around a central point.  

How does Bloom’s taxonomy help us to inform meaningful lesson design, measuring learning achievement and knowledge retention?  

Fellow teachers generally confirm that using Bloom’s taxonomy helps them to measure the depth of a student’s thinking, and furthers their capacity to analyse or frame a question and carry out an activity. It would certainly be interesting to deconstruct this taxonomy by proceeding from the unknown to the known in the reverse of the usual order. This would entail starting students with higher-level thinking tasks and letting them work their way down to the more banal fact-based level.  In practical terms, this means that students would engage in a dialogue about interesting facts and (as in our toaster experiment) start by producing new, original work leading to a better understanding of basic facts. In other words, this entails a deductive approach to learning. In fact, such an approach has been adopted into medical education in programs following module-based learning. Instead of spending the first few years in anatomy lectures, the students take on advanced clinical problems in groups or teams.  

I return to my point of departure, with another reflection on ancient Greek philosophy.  I aim to reveal the secret where by  knowledge begins with a sensory experience. So, the teacher in the allegory of the cave guided the prisoner from the darkness and into the light (light represents truth); education involves seeing the truth. Plato believed that you must desire to learn new things; if people do not desire to learn what is true, then you cannot force them to learn. Thus, they will always believe that the shackles of the shadows on the wall represent the real world. Indeed, curiosity and interest are fast tracks for knowledge acquisition. With curiosity we apply more concentration into what we learn, being motivated by a greater desire to learn.  Who or what inspires children, and sparks an interest derived from natural curiosity? Put another way, how can we best empower, support, and engage young people in the creation of themselves, their future, and their environment?  This was especially problematic at the  time of global lockdown, when it seemed safer to remain in the dark cave.


Anna Palmetshofer
PYP teacher

Currently teaching at the Lancer’s International School, Gurgaon, India

Thanks to all the people who were willing to have a discussion on these topics, particularly Christine Mann, French teacher at LIFV, whose input was most valuable to write this reflection.

References and Resources:

Kitchen conversation during lockdown with Justin Wright, Test Effect And Knowledge Retention, March 2020

Inquiry in the PYP, Source: From Principles Into Practiceibo.orgPYP Resources, https://www.pypresources.com/teachinglearning/inquiry

Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind: A Classic in Education and Child Development for Educators and Parents,  (1995), p 168, ff.

Knowing, Learning, and Instruction: Essays in Honor of Robert Glaser, 1989