Metateaching: Teachers as anthropologists and designers.

While reading Gerhard Fischer’s Understanding, Fostering, and Supporting Cultures of Participation, I was transported back in time to my semester abroad in Nepal in 1996 when I was immersed in a foreign culture for the first time and inundated with fifteen units of Anthropology and Cultural Geography classes. In the shadow of Mt Nilgiri, we often debated individualism versus collectivism or the importance of the self versus the importance of the group.

Every discussion reached a similar conclusion, surprisingly quickly considering the effects of altitude on alcohol tolerance: A person both supports and is supported by a community.

In fact, from an anthropologist’s perspective, that is how humans survived and thrived for hundreds of thousands of years. Knowledge was not a commodity, it was a right. Innovation was embraced and shared. The modern education system is not based on such concepts. It is generally authoritarian, bureaucratic, and militaristic. And it is obsolete. In it’s current state, it can only perpetuate problems. That’s why teachers must be anthropologists.

I mean it quite literally. Anthropology and elementary education share every characteristic except one. Anthropologists wish not to influence their ethnographic subjects; educators specifically do want to influence our students. In order to make good decisions about how to guide children’s learning, teachers need to objectively observe and assess society to filter ‘everything’ into comprehensible units for kids. It’s a daunting challenge, and I wonder if students wouldn’t be better off filtering for themselves anyway?!

At least I can say that learning to see your students through an ethnographic lens will certainly make you a better teacher.

Movements like Genius Hour, the Maker Movement, Social Creativity, and Open-Learning, and achievement badges are some of the first bells to toll for our stagnant system of so-called learning. They are wrestling control of learning away from schools to give it back to learners where it belongs, and they provide exactly the kinds of authentic content elementary teachers should curate for students.

In Fischer’s article, he describes metadesign. Metadesigners, in my interpretation, design systems which empower users to create their own designs. MIT Media Lab’s Scratch is a great example, as it visually represents elements of code, allowing the user virtually limitless possibilities for creation, while at the same time learning concepts coding. The same idea can be applied to any system, from YouTube to Wikipedia, provided it meets certain criteria for openness and adaptability. Metadesigners recognize that everyone has brilliance within them and help to unlock it.

Let’s become metateachers. Instead of imparting knowledge, let’s create and develop environments in which children can acquire it through inquiry. Let’s frame inquiries with concepts which can be interconnected and applied universally. Prioritize emotional and social understanding to nurture collaboration and empathy. Find resources and experts who would ignite our students’ passions. Let’s design systems of learning which empower learners to design their own learning.


Independent Inquiry: Brownies

Rethinking homework just became delicious!
One of my student’s goal was to learn to bake brownies. Actually, it was to bake bread but after a bit of inquiry, she decided it would take too long and switched to brownies. She brought some for everyone in class and they were delicious.

Standing at the crossroads of everything

There may not be many issues on which every rational person can agree, but one of those is certainly the importance of children and their learning.

Consequently, everyone seems to have an opinion about elementary education.

Bloggers agree that kids should blog. Nature lovers insist they should spend more time outside. Musicians are convinced every kid should play an instrument. Inquiry advocates want to see them wondering and wandering, while politicians seem to want to see them at rows of desks with their heads buried in a test. ‘Makers’ think children should tinker. Counselors think emotional and social health is paramount. Children should think globally, be involved in their communities, pursue their interests, try new things, etc, ad nauseum. They voice those opinions because they are speaking from their passions.

And they’re all right. Children should do all those things, and more, and great teachers know it.

Elementary educators stand at the crossroads of everything charged with the responsibility to nurture and protect the future’s most important asset.

In order to function as a curator of everything, I think the key is to balance breadth and depth of learning in my classroom.


By maintaining rigorous routines and keeping inquiries as well-organized and progressive as possible, I ensure that my students travel many paths, including teacher-, peer-, and self-initiated, and have a wide variety of opportunities to explore and discover. I find the IB Learner Profile to be quite useful as a reference. Utilizing a range of media is important to keep in mind, including technology from the stone age to the information age. It’s very easy for teachers to find “what works” and spend a career sticking to it. That’s bad for students, in my opinion. I challenge myself to expand my approaches to teaching constantly and enjoy it.


In every school year, at any grade level, my class will have a unit on jazz music. It’s what I know and love and can teach more fluently and passionately than anything else, and that’s what my students deserve. In the legendary photo below, many of New York City’s most revered jazz musicians gathered (with a dozen or so neighborhood kids) for a group photo. If a typical picture is worth a thousand words, this one is worth at least one-hundred thousand. It’s important to empower children to follow their inquiries as deeply as they wish and to provide excellent examples of how it can be done.

A Great Day in Harlem 1958 photo by Art Kane

In his 2013 TED Prize winning talk, Sugata Mitra posits that in the future, knowing will be obsolete. I don’t agree, but that doesn’t matter because it’s not my future he’s predicting, it’s that of the children in my class. It’s not for me to decide what their future should be, but to provide them with opportunities to prepare for and participate in it.

Inquiry should be action-oriented.

I’m new to the PYP, but not inquiry-based learning. I have always shepherded my students along winding paths of inquiry, in and out of concepts, practicing skills and picking up facts and information along the way. However, my approach to action and attitudes is rather different than what I’ve seen and heard from PYP teachers thus far.

Many of my inquiry plans begin with action. Provocation is done in the form of a challenge to help solve a problem of global and social significance. To do this, we firstly analyze the problem and the attitudes which can be used to set and achieve a service action goal. From there, an inquiry cycle like any other develops naturally and organically while the action plan is being constantly reiterated.

Rather than being “what we want the children to do”, action is a clear goal.

Rather than being “how we want the children to behave”, attitudes are interwoven into the inquiry.

The general inquiry goal is to integrate and utilize knowledge, skills, concepts, attitudes, and action to contribute to a better world. Rich, discipline-specific content is always critical to our service goals as well as a host of authentic skills and a genuine sense of participation and unity.

Here’s an example from my Grade 2 class at Full-Circle Learning Academy: We were assigned a global learning partner school in Lesotho, Africa. We learned that the parents of our learning partners were very upset that their children didn’t seem to care about school or helping with chores around the home. My class hypothesized that the children were deficient in the attitude of appreciation and devised a plan to help. They made “Appreciation Bracelets”, loads of them, and sent them to Lesotho with instructions. My students sent them because they appreciated having learning partners in another country. It was the recipients’ challenge to give them away to show their appreciation to their parents, teachers, and each other. Did they do it? I have no idea. Did my students become masters of appreciation and feel empowered to solve problems? You bet, unbelievably so. Those kids made me well up with tears of joy on a regular basis. Along the way, they practiced writing friendly letters, inquired into geographic themes, practiced some mathematical calculations, and even sprouted a healthy curiosity for African history.

The photo we received back from the class in Lesotho:

Seeing my class react with unbridled enthusiasm to this photo was all the convincing I needed to pursue this model further.

I don’t always organize inquiries in this way, but I try to inject it whenever it fits. I think this is an unmatchable way to help young learners prepare for their PYP Exhibition and, more importantly, a life of conscientious service.

Blogging with elementary students – a formative reflection

What’s working:
+Child-specific platform
+Specific assignments to learn and explore features of blogging, all documented within the blog.
+Utilizing blog for a variety of tasks, assessments, inquiry organization, interest-based explorations.
+Dedicated class time for blogging.
+Students writing with purpose.
+Seamless integration of technology, skills, and fun.

This year, I started my fourth grade class using Kidblog. What I liked about it when compared with the other very excellent platforms was the simplicity and control, which became an essential aspect of using it to teach and learn. As the students become familiar with the concepts and functionality, I slowly released the reins so that everyone was aware of, comfortable with, and hopefully confident about the experience as it expanded.

We began with a private blog and provided a password for parents to view and comment. The students each made an alias in order to reinforce the importance of privacy online. They created their own passwords which I organized in a simple spreadsheet for easy retrieval. Naturally, I had to approve all content before it was published. Every few weeks, I sent the parents a detailed email of changes and future plans. We had a small amount of parent participation in the form of comments!

Step by step, we explored the features of the blog. We started with posts, then comments. At each step, I made an effort to link our blog activities to content from our lessons and inquiries. I posted a chart in the classroom with each student’s name and tasks to complete on the blog such as read a post to click a link to an interesting website and then leaving a comment about it. I think they liked being able to leave comments like ‘it was boring’ and ‘yay’. Eloquence was not the objective of those lessons.

Soon, I encouraged them to start posting whatever they wanted. They posted videos. Countless videos. Silly videos. I endured because this was their opportunity to experience the intrinsic value of the blog and also get the initial novelty out of their systems. Their writing also started to expand as they saw the need to express themselves clearly, if not briefly.

Early on and very often, they had technical problems. Those problems became perfect teachable moments. Rather than following a unit plan like Blogging is Elementary from Kim Cofino, our inquiry into blogging developed organically. For example, when a youtube video wouldn’t embed into a post, we learned that some youtubers don’t allow it, and we must respect their right to control their content. By treating digital citizenship as an inquiry and using a child-oriented platform with absolute teacher control, I think we’re achieving a balance between skills-development and interest-based motivation.

Once we had established basic skills and our code of ethics, as it were, we started reaching out to other blogs. This was one element of Kidblog I enjoyed. I could contact other classes and share our posts and allow them to leave comments without making the blog public. At that point, we had talked enough about privacy and Digital Citizenship to start using our first names.

Admittedly, my students are still very shy about interacting with other classes, but they are opening up slowly. I assume that other classes are the same. I thought that if our blog received attention in the form of visits and comments from other classes or (gasp) strangers, they would be encouraged. For this to happen, we have to go public, although I still maintain totalitarian control.

At this time, anyone can view our posts and try to leave comments. I am the gatekeeper, and have to approve all content before it is published. This is still an experiment, of course, and one that I am genuinely enjoying. Click here to pay us a visit!

Independent Inquiry – Better than homework

During the past few weeks, I’ve been participating online in the MIT Medialab Learning Creative Learning course. Last week, the topic was interest-based learning. All of the media for the course can be found on the syllabus page and I recommend it as an invaluable resource to every teacher. What I took from the session sealed the proverbial deal for my personal debate over homework.

I think homework is almost always a waste of time. It can be helpful to develop study habits, and I do assign a weekly spelling packet for that purpose. Spelling is a topic on which I dislike using much time in class, and it’s a topic with which parents can easily help. Mathematics homework, I’ve found, is generally either busywork (the student understands already) or a frustrating nightmare (the student doesn’t understand). I prefer not to assign math homework.

My solution is to let the students set their own learning goals and use the inquiry process to pursue them independently at home or elsewhere. My role is that of consultant and organizer. It’s critical that they reflect on their work, so I’m developing a Google Form which the students fill in each week on our class blog. Please feel free to participate and fill in the form, as well. We’ve had a few guest participants and it’s been exciting to compare their results with our own!

The results thus far have been excellent. To make it even better, all of their self-assessment data is being organized in spreadsheets for future analysis.

As a next step, I’m considering turning them on to this DIY badge website. That way, they could have an awesome resource to inspire and assist with their learning which is independent from school, if they wish to use it.

2013.06.05 EDIT: Set up Independent Inquiry Wiki

2014.01.27 EDIT: The Evolution of Independent Inquiry

The Art Exhibit

I work at a very unique school. It’s an international school, although very small. We are an IBO PYP Candidate school. What makes us unique is that we are the international division, so to speak, of a Japanese public school. I see it as an experiment, really, to see what benefits will arise from the arrangement.

Day to day, all of the students play together during breaks in the yard. We have English classes after school and fair use of many of the facilities like the music and art rooms, gym, pool, etc. We have ‘exchange activities’ in which the international students join groups and participate as thought they were part of the class.

Altogether, I’d say it’s an ideal arrangement for foster international mindedness.

Recently, we participated in the school Art Exhibition:

It was an epic event, organized by the Art teacher. Art, Music, and PE teachers in this Japanese public elementary school are not part-time, budget-permitting employees. They are respected faculty and are responsible for coordinating major projects. I approve whole-heartedly.

Our contribution was received very well.

My class made the rainbow in front. It featured a sign which read ‘You can go under the rainbow’ in several different languages and decorated black and white photographs of the students ‘swinging’ from the rainbow.

My role, as conductor, was to moderate discussions and appropriate materials, although most key decisions were made by the student project leader. I think it’s great to watch kids in action when they have time and resources to make something.

I was stunned by many of the works, and also by the thoroughness of the media represented!

This piece clearly expressed the concept of change to me.

The saddest kid in the gallery.

The happiest kid in the gallery.

The importance of friendship and belonging.

I’d put this in my home.

Simply magnificent.

My reflective insight is that we need to give children time to express themselves. Not just teachers, but parents and society, too. Our kids will be overwhelmed, just like us, later. Now is their chance to wonder and wander, so let’s let them!