Inquiry and Concepts in the Humanities

What follows is an illustration of my current understanding of concept and inquiry driven education. It has been constructed on the “shoulders of giants,” master educators whose ideas and resources I would be offensively dull without. The hope here is to add to our existing knowledge of a paradigm shift in education, to hasten it, while lessening the shock of the new. The audience is both you and I. You, as a critical listener, whose constructive feedback would be greatly appreciated. I, because these thoughts are new and cloudy, and articulation always seems to sift out the mud from the puddle. Thanks in advance for your attention.

October 17th is recognized by the U.N. as the “International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.” It seemed natural to begin another year of MYP Humanities with a unit that focused on ‘Development,’ and was supported by the related concepts ‘Poverty,’ and ‘Governance.’ The unit I’m speaking of has been designed for grade 9 / MYP 4, but it could be modified to suit kids of different levels.

To begin the discussion, the three concepts were written on the whiteboard, and the kids were asked to read my mind, “why is it that I would have chosen these three concepts for a unit plan? How do they fit together?” This leads to a definition of the various concepts, here I find concept maps are very useful. We begin with ‘Development,’ “What does this word mean to you? There are no wrong answers here so be bold and take a risk.” We do the same for ‘Poverty,’ and ‘Governance.’ This exercise first of all indicates the current understanding of these concepts. It also allows us to better understand how the concepts connect. By the thirty minute mark of lesson one, kids have grappled with the multiple definitions of the different concepts, and know that ‘governance,’ in its various levels and forms, will be the concept through which solutions to the problems already raised will be addressed. When the unit question is then presented: “What is poverty, whose problem is it, and what’s the most effective way of dealing with it?”, the kids have a pretty good idea of where we’re going. ( I know this unit question might not seem “open-ended” enough, but if you delve sufficiently deep into the multiple definitions of these concepts, and theories of good governance, all three sub-questions are hotly contestable.)

Next, divide the class into groups, three would be ideal. Have them imagine the world as a village of 100 people. You will be playing this video, which you will want to watch first alone, and based on the statistics provided, create ten questions. Examples include: “How many would be Asian? How many would live in sub-standard housing? How many would be malnourished? How many would have internet access? How many would have a college degree?

Have the kids come up with answers to these questions as a group, and write their responses on the white board. Leave one column for “actual answers.” Then play the video for the class and have a student or students write down the answers provided by the video. I find this is a great way for kids to discover how their perceptions of the world are typically way off the mark of what’s really going on. It also opens up a more in-depth discussion of what “development” means. You can ask kids why they think the world has developed in this manner, with extreme disparity in resource allocation. You may also want the kids to decide which statistic they find most troubling and why.

For Homework you can have the kids read these two stories, and be prepared to discuss the meaning of poverty in the next class:

“Poorer than Poor” by Stan and Mari Thekaekara, written for the Daily Telegraph (UK), March 10 1995.

“The inhabitants here have a better life than people there. The latter is a soulless place where people are demoralized and face a meaningless future. The penniless tribesman living in a mud hut here is better off. It was a shock to us to see that the unemployed people there had cars and televisions and refrigerators – incredible wealth to many people here – and yet they were apathetic and had no hope. Around them were visible signs of drug abuse, terrible vandalism, street gangs and daily violence. Despite their possessions, they are worse off than the poorest tribesman.

Here, the poor still have initiative. Every day, you see them scavenging in the garbage heaps for junk. If they find something of the slightest value, they will take it and sell it somewhere. They will do odd jobs whenever they’re available. They are doing something to keep body and soul together.

But there, there’s heaviness in the air which you don’t experience here. We were trying to work out why. Then it hit us. We had never met a man here who had been unemployed for 20 years as some of the residents there. Here, people experience seasonal unemployment but not 20 years of purposeless, meaningless existence. However, the women there are different. They are still resilient and put energy and enthusiasm into various voluntary projects. The depressing factor was the lack of involvement by the males”.

For an alternative perspective, the kids should also read this:

“This is a hard place to live, and a grotesquely easy place to die. Male life expectancy is 54, lower than The Gambia in West Africa, nearly a decade lower than Bangladesh, and about 24 years below the national average. Move just a few miles and you will live, on average, 30 years longer. Despite this, people here do not and cannot leave. For all Ms Livingston’s lament, her kids are stuck in a ghetto ringed by some of the saddest statistics in the country. The neighbourhood has the highest proportion of voters on incapacity benefit or disability allowance and the fewest qualifications in higher education; nearly half of homes are social housing; and, in parts, unemployment has reached 50 per cent”.

( Disclosure, I got the “World as a 100 people video idea, and these readings from various unit plans available on OCC. I would cite directly but unable to track the original sources.)

By the time the preliminary concept mapping, discussions, video, and readings are complete, the kids should be well-aware of the concepts they will be engaged with over the coming eight weeks. It’s time to give kids specific categories through which they can view and understand ‘Development.’ I assigned a short video that discusses the U.N. Millennium Goals for 2015. Also try this.

I live and teach in Hong Kong, so with a focus on the Asia region, the kids are now working in groups of three, co-creating a prezi that applies the U.N. Millennium goals to different countries in Asia. Each group has two countries that are economically underdeveloped, and one that is not. For example, a group might have Cambodia, Myanmar, and Japan. They will present this next time we meet, and we are then prepared to start discussing more in depth the explanations for the disparities between their selected countries. How should we understand these development gaps?

We are then ready to look more closely at the meaning of governance, and it’s international, national, local, and grass-roots manifestations. I find these resources from the IBO very useful: Teaching about Cooperation and Governance.  We will discuss, using examples from real-world situations, what is being done by different levels of governance to deal with development gaps, with a focus on poverty. For example, we will look at the effectiveness of efforts by the U.N. and the World Bank, National systems of welfare and government subsidies, N.G.O.’s such as Kiva, and what is being done locally.

We will now be ready for the “Inquiry” stage of the unit. ( I’m still a believer that “inquiry” is, or at least should be, the routine practice of every educator. In this sense, Socrates had it right 2,400 years ago. True education is about “drawing out” what is already there, of refining knowledge rather than “giving” it.)

To coincide with the U.N. eradication of poverty day, the students will host an assembly on “Development, Poverty, and Governance in Hong Kong.” Each student will be required to create and present (videos, power-point/prezi, and blogs / web pages are all acceptable) for 4-5 minutes on the development gap in Hong Kong. What makes this “inquiry” (I think) is that the requirement for the presentation is for the most part wide-open: ‘Raising Awareness on the Development Gap in Hong Kong.’

To a certain extent, “inquiry” is a relative concept, and can be carried out in a meaningful way within various levels of constraints. There will be opportunities as the year progresses for more wide- open, student initiated  explorations. For this particular assessment, however, a moderate level of restraint was necessary for the larger purpose, which is raising awareness of a pressing issue in Hong Kong. How this pressing issue “development” is defined, how it will be investigated, how it will be illustrated, and what solutions will be offered are all left to the students.

That said, there are certain requirements I need to see in order to do proper assessment, for example I need to see the students have a solid understanding of the key and related concepts. The project needs to be multi-modal: text, video, photographic, audio, to help me assess ‘communication.’ It needs to explain how development in Hong Kong is being dealt with on the international, national, and grass-roots levels, though these categories leave an abundance of room for interpretation. And it needs to end with a “plan for action,” which will be voted on and acted upon by the school at large. This plan of action is completely up to the students discretion. This will allow me to assess ‘investigating.’

Students will also need to provide an action plan for how they will be approaching the topic, the resources they will be using, and the technology they will be employing. They will also need to write a pre-assessment on the learning strategies they will be using ( time-management, realistic goal setting ), and post-presentation reflection on how these strategies were executed, and how they can be improved upon for next time. These requirements provide a form designed to enhance the inquiry, to make it a structured learning process rather than something so open-minded that brains will drop out.

At the end of this unit, I’m confident these kids will understand and be able to apply this understanding to the key and related concepts. They will be afforded the opportunity to illustrate this understanding in a real-world way, with a meaningful connection to our local community. They will also have been given the opportunity to develop their capacity as “inquirers,” by developing and implementing a research plan, deciding on an angle for the topic that interests them, discovering and sorting the relevant resources, and learning through practice how to effectively persuade an audience to join one’s cause.

Before I close, I again want to say thank you to all the silent authors whose ideas and resources have inspired my own practices. So many great minds out there! If one of you happens to be listening, a few words of constructive feedback would be awesome…  Thanks for the visit!

5 thoughts on “Inquiry and Concepts in the Humanities”

  1. Excellent ideas, JP. I hope the unit goes well and becomes a mainstay of your curriculum.

    Depending on time and school culture, the unit could be extended in a couple of different ways: Repurposing the environmental idea of “think globally, act locally,” you could introduce service learning opportunities in your area–thereby providing more answers to the inevitable “But what can *we* do about it?” question. If your school is amenable to cross-curricular projects, math and science could also play a role, deepening both the exploration of the issues from those perspectives and the development projects at the end.

    Another possible resource is the book *Hungry Planet: What the World Eats* by Menzel and D’Aluisio ( Several websites have selections of the photos and details available as well (e.g.,

    1. Thanks Charlotte!

      I’ll be checking out these resources momentarily.

      For the service aspect, each presenter will need to have a “plan for action,” a concrete plan for alleviating the development gap in Hong Kong. The students will vote on the one they believe is most creative / effective, and we will put it into practice.

      I agree with the multi-disciplinary aspect. This has been a goal of mine this year, though the planning time required to “do it right” is hard to find. This project in particular would have combined nicely with Science, Art, and English, but think it will sadly be a missed opportunity.

      Are you also a humanities teacher? Any units you’ve done that have been particularly popular with the kids?

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