How I would organize a Primary-Years-Program of Inquiry

In What is a Coherent Curriculum? (1995), James Beane describes how “the self-contained classrooms in many elementary schools only thinly disguise a day divided into subject or skill time slots.” Many PYP schools divide the day into the same fragmented patchwork that plagues secondary schools “whose boundaries are virtually etched in stone by schedules, teacher loyalties, and organizational structures like departments.”

The schedule

From the early years, students at many PYP schools travel through the building according to a rigid timetable which often sees them tackle five different subjects in one day. It gets worse as they advance up the grades and academic demands grow. Homework demands increase to a critical mass to accommodate the vast amount of content mandated by administrators. Everything is boxes: The building is a box. The content standards are in boxes. The timetable is a box.

But why do we do it this way? Wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on one subject area at a time instead of trying to carry on several all at once? How can we make this happen for the children?

The specialists

As the complexity of age-appropriate content increases, it makes sense for teachers who specialize in each discipline to lead the learning in their area of expertise. I admit that I have struggled to curate content and respond to my upper elementary students’ inquiries to maximum effect given their impressive depth of understanding and my limited amount of time and knowledge, particularly in the sciences. If I didn’t have formal training, music would feel impossible to teach meaningfully.

Unfortunately, many PYP schools approach specialists as ‘extra’ instead of ‘essential’. To the students, specialist lessons must feel like a break from ‘regular’ class. This can be positive, but how deep is the learning occurring in those once or twice per week lessons?

When it comes to ‘integration’, the default at many PYP schools is for the specialist teachers to simply do something similar to what is happening in a homeroom unit of inquiry for a period of time, sometimes not even at the same time.

Homeroom perspective

Units of inquiry are highly integrated within my classroom. Often, a single task applies knowledge and practices skills across a range of disciplines including and mostly limited to language arts, mathematics, social studies, and sciences.

Yet at the same time they are being introduced to the foundations of astronomy, biology, geography, and a myriad of other rich disciplines by developing theories around their emerging understandings, they have ostensibly been pursuing similar inquiries with several other specialist teachers in PE, ICT, Japanese language, Visual Art, and Music.

Instead of the unit of inquiry being homeroom-led with enrichment content being sprinkled in here and there, the program of inquiry should be designed around specialist teachers leading entire units of inquiry around which homeroom teachers integrate ‘core’ content.

True depth

For a planned period of time, a class would engage in an in-depth inquiry with a specialist teacher every day for the duration of the unit. Rather than bouncing from class to class every day, they would focus as much as possible on that one inquiry. The role of the homeroom teacher would be to co-teach, coordinate, and supplement the unit with essential humanities and STEAM content.

The possibilities of service-learning and project- and problem-based learning, as well as open-ended inquiry-learning have been documented and proven in schools around the world, but haven’t found their way into many PYP schools.

Musical perspective

When I taught music to seven grades of elementary students, I saw each class twice a week for 45 minutes. From my point of view, it was convenient. Each lesson was quick, and progress occurred slowly over the course of an entire year. It was a challenge to plan so many different lessons each week, but I know the content well and never struggled to make lessons meaningful and engaging.

But when I imagine what we could achieve working with one class for 90 minutes a day, every day, for several weeks, there is no comparison. The depth of learning that could be achieved would vastly overshadow what we did in short weekly sessions during an entire school year. At the completion of each unit, classes would be able to deliver a product that reflects deep understanding.

In music, I imagine each unit concluding with a recital far beyond the typical one or two song “That’s my Barney!” performance featured in the assemblies of many PYP schools. The same thinking could apply to any discipline, and would be infinitely more useful toward developing the PYP Exhibition and MYP personal project.

Further considerations

As with any complete overhaul of a system, there are questions to ask and problems to solve. For example, with Physical Education: While studying art, music, or physics for only six weeks out of the school year might be acceptable or possibly preferable, this is not the case with PE. Children need daily exercise (which most timetables don’t adequately provide, anyway). To this end, my program would include daily 20- to 30-minute fitness periods organized by PE specialist teachers. Unlike lessons, they would be routines that the children quickly learn and practice, collecting data about their fitness and monitoring their progress. PE teachers would also lead units of inquiry, but perhaps 90 minutes per day, every day, would be too much. That goes exactly to the point:

The timetables and pastoral duties need to be flexible. First, this requires a creative and organized coordinator working with a collaborative team of teachers and support staff. Second, it requires the commitment and support of administration and management to begin working with teachers to plan the transformation years in advance. The result of providing a fundamentally coherent curriculum would be worth the time and effort.

Kids Together At Home

Now that my Grade 4 class and I have over a month of distance learning due to COVID-19 school closure under our belts, we’ve settled into a routine. What’s obviously missing is the socialization we normally enjoy.

At this moment, millions of students are at home. The youngest miss their friends and classrooms yet are comforted by the security of being at home. Teens are highly aware of the dire situation, but are likely already deeply connected through all kinds of social media.

The nine- and ten-year-olds in my class understand what’s happening, but don’t have a forum to share their experiences and hear from others. I am starting an initiative for them by setting up a Flipgrid and inviting teachers of similar age students to join.

In this space, they are free to record videos of their thoughts and feelings, view others’ videos, and reply to each other (all posts will be moderated by a teacher for appropriate content). Teachers of similar age students with Flipgrid experience are invited and encouraged to join.

To participate, follow the instructions below:

  • Contact me (@BarMillEDU) on Twitter.
  • Obtain parental consent for your students to participate.
  • I will send the ‘Grid’ information to you.
  • Invite participating students to join.
  • Moderate Grid and respond to videos.

Recruiting four or five other classes around the world would be fantastic. Early collaborating teachers would be great to help plan the prompt for students. If there’s enough interest, we could even have Grids for other different age groups. I hope you’ll join or share this post with teachers who may be interested!

Challenge accepted: PLC coordination & coaching

A few weeks ago, the PYP Coordinator at my school sent an invitation for teachers to join a committee whose mission would be to plan and organize professional development opportunities.

Like coaching, but different

This was remarkably similar to a proposal I had offered last spring to take on an additional role as an Innovation Coach. After submitting my proposal to encouraging feedback, I followed up about it every week with no definite answer until finally giving up. So when this committee idea sprung up, I jumped at it.

After exchanging ideas, it was decided that my task would be to introduce, organize, and coordinate our Professional Learning Community (PLC). I got right to work preparing a presentation to introduce the concept and purpose of the PLC to my fellow teachers: PLC Introduction slides. The presentation went smoothly, and while the reception was somewhat mixed, there were many enthusiastic teachers ready to help ‘professionalize’ our faculty.

One notable difference between my innovation coach proposal and this new PLC is that my participants would have been volunteers only. The school administrators decided that classroom and specialist teachers must participate in an action research project. In my opinion, this reduced the intrinsic benefits that affording teachers agency would have had. It also may possibly diminish my role as a coach, since some teachers may see me more as yet another ‘coordinator’ or big brother keeping everyone in line. Hopefully there will still be teachers eager to involve me in their projects, and I will certainly do what I can to be helpful to everyone.

One action that may lead in the direction of being helpful was that I downloaded copies of almost every journal article cited and recommended in our International Baccalaureate Organization Primary Years Programme essential literature. In total there are about 100 articles saved in a public folder in our Microsoft Teams collaboration space.

Nominating topics Edcamp style

After a week to ponder possible topics, we met again to write ideas on large sheets of paper stuck to the walls of our multi-purpose room, inspired by my experiences organizing and hosting Edcamp Tokyo. Teachers voted for their favorites and a list of topics was born:

  • Play-based learning
  • Parent involvement
  • Inspiring writers
  • Student motivation
  • Reading enjoyment
  • Library & inquiry resources
  • Vocabulary development

I created an online form which teachers used to sign-up for their topics over the next two weeks. This was intended to organically bring people together from different grade levels or areas of specialization and reminded me of a favorite quote from Creative Confidence about diverse teams:

With sign-ups about three quarters done, it’s exciting to see how the teams will finally coalesce. The largest will be Play-based Learning with approximately half of the staff. It will need to be split into smaller, more manageable teams, which should be a useful conversation by itself.

Why action research?

The ideal inquiry for these collaborative teams to pursue would be a complete action research project including a literature review, preliminary data collection, designing and conducting and experiment, and then publishing and sharing their results. However, it would also be acceptable to included any of these elements as we get used to the collaborative process.

The reason to frame the projects as ‘action research’ is to elevate the sense of purpose and professionalism within the school. The idea of being a scholar-practitioner would appeal to the more precocious and experienced teachers, providing an opportunity for them to elevate their practice as well as mentor younger teachers.

Hopefully, the benefits will radiate from the early adopters, ultimately benefiting the children under our care.

Off to the races

There is an orientation meeting scheduled for next week, in which we plan to ensure that everyone is on a team and understands how to use our digital collaboration space. After that, the teams will begin meeting by themselves and conducting their projects.

It’s an exciting moment and a bit of a turning point in my career, and I look forward to blogging about it further.

Agency and Independent inquiry

When reports of the Enhanced PYP began surfacing on the International Baccalaureate Twitter feed, I was elated to see that Agency has been placed boldly at the center of the new model:
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To me, the philosophical implication for this change is that the primary function and goal of education is to build capacity for action. Within the context of the IB, the Learner Profile describes the attributes within which that capacity can increase. For example, a learner may increase agency in the context of historical understanding by becoming more Knowledgeable about history, or increase agency for conflict resolution by taking Principled and Courageous action.
This is more than transformational: It’s revolutionary.

Past & present

Anyone familiar with the industrial model of education (pretty much everyone) should be skeptical about our capacity for this reform. This 180° turn way from standards- and competency-based pedagogy has a few precedents, and I am curious to learn more about classrooms and schools where independence and agency have been assigned top priority.

One school system who fits this paradigm and whose progress I have enjoyed following is High Tech High. Most of what they have shared is related to older students, so I’m curious to see more about their elementary programs.

Agency as the aim of teaching has been gaining momentum since John Dewey at the latest, and can arguably be traced back at least as far as Socrates. Luckily, my teaching experiences have tended to be less traditional and more progressively minded, and the article, How a Focus on Independent Learning Transformed My Most At-Risk Students, certainly reflects my ideas about the importance of independence in learning.

Independent inquiry

One of my approaches to cultivating agency is Independent Inquiry. Since I started the project six years ago, the mission of this project has been to:

Unify learning at school, learning at home, and learning anywhere, anytime.
Empower learners to engage in and reflect on their own inquiry processes.
Encourage interest- and passion-driven learning.
Integrate peers, parents, communities, and global networks into the inquiry process.

While success has varied from year to year, cohort to cohort, I can comfortably claim that the process we use – an online reflection form and weekly meeting in class – helps agency to flourish.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BeCcWALl4Zy

Call to action

Once again, another gem appeared on the IB PYP Twitter feed. The quote below is a perfect call to action for teachers who are serious about promoting Agency – voice, choice, and ownership.

Making physics physical

One of my favorite units of inquiry in Grade 4 at KIST, in the theme of ‘How the world works’, is titled Force & Motion, and focuses on Newton’s Laws of Motion. The unit resources when I arrived at the school included a few useful tools for demonstrations, but lacked class sets of items and structured experiences that students could use to explore and discuss.

Media

One resource we do have is access to excellent videos and online games. Some of our favorites are published by NASA and other space agencies, like Launchpad: Newton’s Laws On-Board the International Space Station (video), and the Physics Games website.

Twitter once again proved its worth as a tool for learning in the quoted tweet above, a live video of an astronaut playing with and observing a fidget spinner in microgravity. All of the media we have collected are engaging, but can’t compete with a fidget spinner for the attention of nine year olds.

Design & technology challenge

Each year, we have added materials and experiences to make the unit more visceral and fun. To kick off the unit, we introduced an initial provocation in the form of a G4 Water Balloon Drop Challenge. Using the rules outlined in the flyer, students research, design, and build their apparatuses independently outside of class. When we gather on the appointed day, I load each with a water balloon and drop them from the second floor balcony. Those that successfully protect the balloon are taken to the third floor and dropped again. The proud few that survive that are finally dropped from the fourth floor.

We often have visiting administrators and younger classes in the audience, so the event has become a well anticipated and exciting way to get our students thinking about forces and motion.

Get physical

Next, we collaborated with our Physical Education teacher to organize a tug-of-war tournament. Between each round of competition, each team reflected on one of Newton’s Laws of Motion to try to improve their performance.

My hope is that whenever these children think about physics or Newton, they will remember this event. Additionally, by systematically reviewing each of the laws during the tournament, there is definitely higher retention of the vocabulary of Newton’s Laws.

Hands-on exploration

This year, our new addition was a set of Newton’s Cradles. With enough for a pair of students to share one, I wrote a series of questions to add some guidance to their explorations, for example, ‘What happens when you raise and release one of the hanging balls?’.

While it is possible to demonstrate a Newton’s Cradle at the front of the classroom, and that would be better than watching a video, having one that every student could touch, see, and hear, up close, instantly transforms the lesson from passive to active.

Making catapults

Finally, as the culminating Summative Assessment Task for the unit, we ordered 1cm x 1cm x 90cm lengths of wood, nails, hammers, hacksaws, and safety goggles for the purpose of building catapults. The objectives were to expose the students to basic design and construction principles, explore Newton’s Laws of Motion in a practical way, then hold a grand catapult tournament on the main field in the center of the school.

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Having facilitated a Maker Club in the past, I was aware of the need to emphasize safety early on, but also to trust the students to look after their own well being. I find it’s best if my role is mainly to watch out for unsafe practices and intervene as quickly as possible. Fortunately, it happens rarely, leaving a high degree of autonomy for students and plenty of time for me to interact and promote collaboration among the groups.

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Children constantly impress me with their ability to creatively solve problems when they are trusted with the tools and freedom to do so.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BhI8rf4ljni/ 

There were many expected and unexpected benefits of this engagement. The expected ones were quite predictable, but unexpectedly, some of my less precocious students absolutely sprung to life. Some students who tend to be distracted in typical class activities, or struggle with academic work, were impressively inspired by the task of building a catapult. This phenomenon has caused me to think that the way we tend to use class time is unbalanced.

Reflection

Observing the excited energy and positive experiences of my students interacting with concepts and vocabulary of physics has pushed my pedagogical thinking even further in the direction of Constructionism. The idea that a learner figuratively builds understanding by literally building a physical – or virtual – object gains traction for me every time I see it in action.

In terms of assessment for the catapult challenge, I think it’s appropriate to use the method I employed for our Model UN scrimmage: Every student begins with a baseline ‘proficient’ score. In this case, we start with 90%. Then, as the activity progresses, teachers use structured observation to modify students’ scores on targeted skills. For this activity, we were looking for evidence of Spatial Awareness, Cooperation, and Independence.

And as always, the students complete a comprehensive self-assessment of all elements of task and unit.

Experiences like these remind me that school should be a lot more time spent doing tasks like these, and a lot less about rigid standards within a few disciplines.

Student survey analysis 2017

After a shocking experience last year, which I reflected upon in the post, Student Survey analysis 2016, I began this school year with a plan in place to foster kindness and respect in my class.

behavior data

Despite being a generally well-behaved cohort, this class is extremely critical of themselves. Rather than treating it as a problem to solved, I prefer to approach it as an opportunity for growth.

respect data

Observing the language that my students use with each other, I believe that they are simply too… familiar with each other. Rather than seeing each other as peers, perhaps they feel like siblings and don’t have formal relationships. If they become more aware of each other as individuals, it should be possible to cultivate a more formal classroom culture without losing too much of their sense of intimacy with each other.

Self and peer assessment

Since September, I asked students to complete a daily online IB Learner Profile reflection. To view and complete a copy of the form, click this link: IB Learner Profile reflection 2017-18 copy. The primary purpose of the task is to encourage them to think about how their actions lead to growth and improve our community.

Another reflection form that we starting using later in the school year is a PYP Attitude Certificate nomination form. While the purpose of the Learner Profile reflection is introspective, the Attitude form allows students to nominate each other to receive certificates for demonstrating attitudes such as Commitment, Creativity, and Enthusiasm.

These, and other important forms and information, are organized and embedded on our classroom Moodle page. Many of the students have developed a daily habit of checking that page for their homework assignments, previewing announcements for the next day, and completing their reflections and attitude nominations.

In the Spring, after thousands of self-assessments and peer nominations, my class’ opinion of their behaviors have improved.

 

student survey follow up

Surprise

Strangely, these results reveal an unrelated problem. Only 44% of my students completed the first student survey, administered by the school technology department. That improved to 60% on the follow up survey. As the year has progressed, they have been challenged to consistently complete even the simplest online task. Roughly a third of the class has effective online work habits, a third is irregular, and a third need constant reminders and prodding. Early in the school year, I even needed to make part of our routine to call individual students to a computer to supervise them completing long overdue self assessments or essential surveys.

Planning victory

After last year’s disappointing result (56% usually, 36% sometimes) regarding students being allowed to demonstrate understanding in various ways, I started this year with a focus on improved planning of assessments. Expanded opportunities for choice, along with more explicit explanations of the range of choices available, has had the desired effect of increasing the students’ creativity and sense of ownership of their learning.

various demo data

As a teacher who views unit and lesson planning as Learning Experience Design, student agency – voice and choice – are always at the center of planning. For that reason, this is a particularly satisfying student survey result.

Questions in inquiry learning

A welcome development this year in the Elementary School at KIST has been an emphasis on inquiry. It is more than likely due to feedback from our recent IB re-authorization visit and for me, an opportunity to grow in one of the most challenging aspects of teaching. I’ve blogged quite a bit about the theory and practices of inquiry learning, most recently in the post, CLMOOC Unmake: Unintroducing inquiry learning.

When it was announced that inquiry would be a focus, I sifted through articles I had read and collected over the years.

I also enjoyed gliding over memory lane and revisiting some saved tweets with choice perspectives on inquiry.

One article that grabbed my attention last autumn was Good research starts with good questions by David Farkas and Brad Nunnally. What I found most interesting was that many of the pitfalls of research questions are actually key techniques in developing questions for inquiry learning. For example, research should avoid ‘leading questions’ that may skew data in a particular direction. In teaching, we want the learners to find their ways to a common destination, either general or specific.

Erasing prior knowledge

In an occurrence I wish were more common, while reflecting on the experience, a colleague commented that one challenge inquiry teachers face is the desire of students to ‘get the right answers’, or even worse, to answer in the way they believe the teacher wants. This can lead to regurgitated prior knowledge answers rather than creative explorations of the concepts and contexts presented in the questions.

In Grant Wiggins’ article, 5 Tips To Help Students Arrive At Their Own Understandings, the distinction between Understanding and Knowledge is highlighted. It’s vital that learning in an inquiry setting begin with as close to a clean slate as possible. The more a class feels that their teacher is soliciting a ‘right’ answer, the less likely they are to develop deeper and personal understanding.

Student questions

One solution to the problem is to ask students to generate questions based on elements of the understandings we wish them to pursue. In an IB PYP unit of inquiry, the ‘lines of inquiry’ should help to define the scope of an intended inquiry, while the ‘key concepts’ provide a frame or lens through which to interpret one’s findings.

The photo above is a list of questions generated by a provocation in which students identified company logos, then considered them in reference to the line of inquiry, ‘How images, text, and music are used to influence people’s choices’.

Teacher questions

This year, we are collaborating with another grade level team to develop questions together to provoke inquiry into a new unit. The initial concept was to begin with carefully selected materials and a starting question intended to stimulate creativity and curiosity. Subsequent questions would climb the Bloom’s Taxonomy ladder to higher-order thinking skills, as well as ‘funnel’ students’ understandings in the general direction prescribed by the Central Idea and Key Concepts of the unit.

Our first meeting was to develop questions for the other grade’s lesson. Then, we observed them and followed up with a debriefing session, and to develop questions for our lesson. They attended our lesson and we concluded the collaboration with a final debriefing about the entire experience.

The process reinforced my belief in the importance of collaboration and design thinking in Learning Experience Design.

Elementary mindfulness

There has been so much hype about mindfulness that it is easy to be skeptical about its efficacy in the classroom. However, my father, a biologist with a background in neurophysiology research, practiced Zen meditation for reasons not remotely related to the transcendental or supernatural. He did it because meditation is good for the brain.

He shared the practice with me as a teenager after observing that nervousness was preventing me from achieving my best performance as a pitcher in little league baseball.

His perspective is reflected in Carolyn Gregoire’s article, What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About Compassion, which explores the synergy of meditation, compassion, and understanding.

In teaching

Early in my career, I discovered that if I asked my second grade class to pause at the door to our classroom after recess for a deep breath, coaching them to expand their abdomen for the inhalation and exhale as slowly as possible, their engagement and ability to focus was uncannily enhanced.

Last year, I encouraged my fourth graders to practice mindfulness for a few minutes after eating their lunch. They were a generally calm and thoughtful cohort and the practice seemed to benefit their focus and general mood of the classroom.

A challenge

This year, I prepared for a class that already had a reputation for high energy, acting impulsively, and lacking attention skills. The plan was to practice mindfulness as a class for five minutes immediately after returning from morning recess. In the first week of school, we meditated for one minute. Then, for two minutes. I coached the students in various techniques such as breathing, counting exercises, and visualization. It also seemed to help convince them of the importance of meditation to describe how athletes, artists, and other professionals use mindfulness to improve their performance.

I was thrilled to receive an email from a grateful parent, who happens to be a physician, thanking me for introducing mindfulness to her child.

‘I think it is so important that children observe their feeling and that they themselves lead an answer for their next move from themselves and being mindful really helps them to do this.

I just want to thank you for thinking about the students’ future and offering this kind of tool that can really help them throughout their lives.’

The letter concluded by stating that they were happy to be in my class because I ‘can bring out the positive behavior and create special learning environment for everyone.’

Simple Habit

Finally, when we could consistently sit silently for five minutes, we began using Simple Habit recordings to guide and practice. I should point out that the rules for our meditations are not strict. The students are not required to close their eyes, nor do I question them about their level of participation. As long as they sit silently, including reading a book, it is fine.

It’s difficult to assess any effect our meditation is having, although for certain it helps to instill a sense of calm in the classroom after morning recess. It is also a discreet opportunity to practice being Reflective. For that alone, it is worth continuing. But considering the possible benefits meditation can have for individuals, this could be a simple initiative with profound and lasting impact.

World Cultures Day

At KIST we celebrate International Mother Language Day with an annual ‘World Cultures Day’ event which includes a traditional costume parade and PTA bake sale featuring delicious treats from around the world.This year, I challenged the Elementary Student Representative Council to host a ‘Mother language recordings’ booth. We wanted to provide an opportunity for students and parents to record brief video messages about peace in their mother languages.

Photo by Bart Miller via Instagram

The students made a poster and I created a form for participants to write their messages along with English translations. We collaborated with the Media Club to record the videos. In an hour, we recorded around twenty videos by community members in languages including Japanese, Russian, Turkish, English, Bengali, and three different languages from India: Tamil, Odiya, and Hindi.

We are currently in the process of deciding how to publish and share the videos, although I did make a point of obtaining permission from the adult participants to share their recordings on the school website.

The greatest takeaway for me was the encouragement we received to widen the scope of this project next year with more promotion and a larger window of time to record messages.

A few days later, the tweet above from IB World Magazine caused me to reflect on how International Mother Language Day is an essential opportunity for internationally minded people and organizations to celebrate and preserve language diversity. Hopefully, we will expand the ‘Mother language recordings’ project next year.

Expert in the classroom, virtually

By definition, a generalist teacher is not an expert in any particular discipline. Fortunately, most of us are, and enrich our classrooms with our interests and passions. Unfortunately, the scope of a school year of inquiry stretches far beyond any one teacher’s expertise.

Excursions and guest speakers can make up the difference, and video communications technology makes it possible to bring experts into the classroom from anywhere.

Near the conclusion of a recent unit which focused significantly on advertising, it occurred to me that one of my friends, Adam Lisagor, is the founder and owner of Sandwich Video, one of today’s premier creative advertising organizations. It only took a few text messages and time zone conversions to have him on the big screen in the classroom.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BP63oPKDwAH/

 

To prepare students for the interview, we first viewed several of Adam’s videos, then set a home learning task to explore more. Then, I asked them to submit questions via an online form so that I could sort and select in a way that promoted a conversational mood. As questions were chosen, students approached the camera one at a time to speak with Adam. Not surprisingly, their questions were insightful and elicited excellent comments on persuasion, honesty, and creativity.

In addition to an excursion, I would attempt to schedule a guest speaker, either in person or more likely via video, for every unit of inquiry.