Four children stand in a circle, one person is holding a map and pencil, two people point to the map, and one person looks at the map

Agency and Inquiry: How I Built a Unit on Exploration for My Students

Educator Edgar Filipe wrote this post.

As a designer by training, I like to give students tools they can use to answer questions and solve problems. One of the greatest tools all people have is our innate curiosity and creativity. So, when I had the opportunity to help develop a unit for third graders at the international school where I work in Switzerland, I knew I wanted the students to be able to guide their own learning.

I started thinking about focusing the unit more narrowly, but I wasn’t sure how. That’s when I came across the Modern Explorer video series. In the first episode, National Geographic Explorer Alizé Carrère notes that while exploration methods have changed, “there will always be room to observe and protect the wonder of our world.” From a drawerful of shells, she picks out a specimen, photographs it, and posts it with a caption to Instagram. I thought that moment gave a great insight into how exploration has evolved, and it helped me realize the modern explorer theme would be a good way to define this unit.

With a clearer direction in mind, I collaborated with my school’s third-grade classroom teacher, Miya, to plan a unit grounded in the idea that exploration leads to discovery, opportunity, and new connections and understanding. Our school follows the International Baccalaureate’s enhanced Primary Years Programme, a framework that emphasizes student agency. The National Geographic Learning Framework is also geared toward student agency. It therefore worked naturally for us to embed aspects of both frameworks into the unit.

On a walk around the neighborhood, a student noticed a splash of color. Photo courtesy of Edgar Filipe.

We started our first session by asking the students some broad questions: What is exploration? Do you know any famous explorers? We talked for a bit about polar navigators and mountain climbers and the notions of exploration that students held. I also tried to personalize the topic for the class. Many of our students’ families come from abroad, so I asked, Do you know any explorers from your own country? I also asked, Why might we see fewer women explorers historically?

Then we directed the conversation toward the students themselves. I asked, Do you see yourself as an explorer? Do you think there’s anything left to explore? They mentioned the ocean. They also mentioned space, which was a great connection, because our next unit is about space. One student answered relationships, or how people relate to one another. I thought, Wow! That’s good! That’s really, really good.

Some students did not identify as strongly with the idea that they could be explorers. Miya and I shared stories of exploring when we were kids, about playing with friends and going on bike-ride adventures. It was important to tell our students it is OK to be curious. Curiosity forms the basis of the Explorer Mindset and allows us to layer on other traits like integrity and open-mindedness.

Even as we centered curiosity, we needed to integrate essential language and math content into the unit. We created connections between these core skills and the idea of exploration by discussing how writing nonfiction and using maps can assist explorers in their work. We asked whether creating a timeline could be a storytelling tool, then directed students to create their own timelines to understand better their position in place and time. We tried to make the content more tangible by introducing students to these real-life applications. 

Then I asked the students to think of any burning questions they had about the world. I believe in giving students space to be themselves, and devising their own questions is one way they can be. Their burning questions, such as “How many types of butterflies are there?” and “How long is the universe?”,  generated a diversity of topics that led their explorations throughout the unit.

To add to the questions students thought of in school, we took a walk around the neighborhood. We split the students into teams and gave them a destination in the form of coordinates. As teams navigated to their destinations using a map, they stopped and photographed any natural or human sights that stoked their curiosity. These included tree bark, fungi, and the local train station. Overall, students preferred the forest to the rest of the neighborhood and spent more time there developing their exploration skills. It seems the natural world is still a place of wonder for human beings and a great setting to promote curiosity and the Explorer Mindset.

A student touches a stump in the forest. Photo courtesy of Edgar Filipe.

Back in the classroom, I had students each choose three topics that interested them from among the burning questions and photographs they had compiled. To deepen their inquiry, we gave students a sheet to get them asking “need-to-know” questions about their topics. In other words: what don’t they know about the topic, but think they should? The responses included “Why is sap sticky?” and “Why are alive plants green and dry ones brown?”

A student wrote these “need-to-know” questions about a mushroom spotted near the school. Photo courtesy of Edgar Filipe.

When I started thinking a few years ago about making creativity a bigger part of education, I realized it was a popular idea but that there was a lingering question about how to do it. The biggest challenge for a teacher is, How do you assess creativity? The answer, I think, lies in metacognition. We built “anchor points,” or ongoing self-assessments, into this unit. When students demonstrate what they are learning week over week, it shows self-growth.

Ultimately, I hope students embrace their curiosity and creativity, because these traits will help them be resilient. I run the maker space at my school, and I always tell students that design is a nonlinear process. It’s OK to hit a dead end and start over. I want to empower them to keep learning and not be disappointed by setbacks, so I say, “I’m expecting you to fail and try again.”

We are partway through this unit, and I’m excited for my students to continue answering their own questions about the world and forging new connections. As Alizé Carrère says, “Who we are as explorers hasn’t changed, but our methodology is still evolving.” Our nature as human beings is to be curious, and educators must encourage that curiosity in their students. 

The Modern Explorer label links this unit to contemporary technology, which I want my students to be comfortable using to decipher and understand the world around them. Technology is a tool, however, and the tools of exploration are ultimately just that: tools. They’ll change with time. This is why I focus on promoting my students’ curiosity and soft skills and the traits that make them human.

You can connect with Edgar on Twitter @edu_GetCreative, where he posts about topics including design thinking, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and coding.

Feature image courtesy of Edgar Filipe.

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