Start with Why: The importance of choice


  • How is knowledge relevant to math or science constructed? How is it possibly generated in these networked communities? Provide examples to illustrate your points.


Intrigued by the article entitled “Mathematics in the streets and in schools” by Carraher, Carraher, & Schliemann this week, I couldn’t help but think about some of my previous math students and their infamous question, “Why do we need to know this?” Often the first question to come out of a burgeoning teenager is the inquiry into why a particular subject matter is relevant to their lives. This article revealed that students in Brazil were able to come up with their own strategies in computational thinking when they had no choice but to do so, in order to succeed in their family business.

According to Carraher, “Context-embedded problems were much more easily solved than ones without a context” (1985). When students learn a concept within the correct context, they become engaged and motivated to understand, construct knowledge, and are willing to extend problem solving strategies to tasks they are invested in. This was something I found to be true while leading students through the culminating project of the Exhibition in the PYP. Here students, working collaboratively together in small groups of 3 or 4, spend time exploring a particular subject area that they are personally interested and invested in. For example, one group of students looked into the effects of ocean acidification on marine life in the Pacific Ocean. This is often a topic geared toward senior high school students or university students, but for my Grade 5 students the why was already understood, it was exploring the causes and their role in making a difference that mattered most.

Exploratorium defines itself as “The Exploratorium isn’t just a museum; it’s an ongoing exploration of science, art and human perception—a vast collection of online experiences that feed your curiosity.” This exciting resource provides both teachers and students with the opportunity to access videos, information, and experts with the touch of a button. According to Yoon et al., AR is defined as “virtual objects in the real environment, alignment of real and virtual objects with each other, and their interaction in real time.” AR provides those interested with the access to information that may otherwise be limited due to cost or distance. Yoon et al, note that specific scaffolding helps to enhance learning such as collaboration, prompts, collective cognitive responsibility. Fascinating to me was the point in the article that the observed students failed to read the instructions on the task card, something I have noticed occur in my own classroom. This made me realize the importance of TELEs such as Jasper, where instructions are part of the video.

However, it wasn’t until Hsi’s article that I really began to change my thinking about the importance of information technologies for informal learning. Hsi describes the advantages of information technologies in museums and out-of-school settings by explaining that the learner holds the power in their quest to understand what is important to them. With RSS tools, for example, students can tweet or email interesting facts or ideas to shared communities to continue the conversation with peers. Even more exciting is that the learner can begin to collect data as part of a team, aiding researchers from universities. Hsi sums it up best by saying, “As more IT becomes widely available, research and development will need to view IT not only as a tool for productivity and training in formal settings, but also as a context for designing meaningful informal learning experiences: creating interactions, online social spaces, media-rich representations, interest-driven activities, and communities for learning as bridges to formal schooling and to personal interests and everyday hobbies.” With sites such as Exploratorium, students don’t whine about why they are learning a particular context because they are in the driver’s seat when it comes to learning. Students are constructing knowledge because they were given choice, which is just differentiated learning at its best!



Carraher, T. N., Carraher, D. W., & Schliemann, A. D. (1985). Mathematics in the streets and in schools. British journal of developmental psychology, 3(1), 21-29.

Hsi, S. (2008). Information technologies for informal learning in museums and out-of-school settings. International handbook of information technology in primary and secondary education, 20(9), 891-899.

Yoon, S. A., Elinich, K., Wang, J., Steinmeier, C., & Tucker, S. (2012). Using augmented reality and knowledge-building scaffolds to improve learning in a science museum. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 7(4), 519-541.


  1. Hello Cristina. I enjoyed reading your post and I totally agree with your assessment of the importance of addressing “why?” as crucial to the pursuit of best practice.

    In preparing the Framing Issues assignment, I came across a great paper about engagement by David Zyngier (2008) in which he takes a careful look at the assumptions we make about what motivates and doesn’t motivate students. In essence, non-engagement of students may have much more to do with a lack of sense of belonging in the educational ecosystem than anything else. So engagement is considered a feature of social educational design, not intrinsic or deficient student behaviour.

    This leaves me with two nagging questions when I am designing learning experiences. “Is this relevant?” and “How dependent are our educational goals on this curriculum?”


    Zyngier, D. (2008). (Re) conceptualising student engagement: Doing education not doing time. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24(7), 1765-1776.

    1. Hi Michael,

      These are great questions, and thank you for providing the link to the article you mentioned. In regards to your two questions, I find that when looking at the inquiry-based approach to education that BC has adopted many of the educational goals can be met due to the link to big ideas. At the beginning of a unit, children are asked to reflect upon what interests them based on their pre-knowledge to a unit. When students are interested then I believe the learning experience becomes relevant. This week, I reflected a lot about the desire to have one method to doing something, whether it is a product or method, but realized that the similar to math comprehension, there is no one right pathway. Arriving at the answer is great, but not always the point of a lesson, it is the ideas that spark interest and curiosity to extend and enhance learning that is vital for me, and I hope my students feel the same way. If the learning goal was to create life-long learners who are up to problem solve and think critically, then I think that is a win!

      Thanks for your thoughts,


  2. Hi Cristina,

    You wrote a great post! You discussed the importance of collaboration (which I also mentioned about in my post) but your discussion of student’s being in the driver seat is even more important. I think, for this reason, inquiry based learning is starting to really take off because students are loving being in control of their learning. When educators can design units that meet learning requirements but also are taught/explored in a free way where students have control, more learning occurs. Having students be hands-on in their learning helps to create deep, meaningful connections. As Hsi (2008) states, the “student-centered approach advocated by Jonassen is to let students develop or build new knowledge and he suggests putting the student into the role of designer” (p. 18). Having students maintain a lead role in their education is key but also must be merged with appropriate instruction and coordination from the educator. This is not a free pass for teachers to step back and see what happens. Especially pertaining to learners that need extra attention, or struggle with learning disabilities, educators must play an active role as the facilitator and ensure that these learners are not left in the dust.

    1. Hi Kristen,

      I completely agree with your point that when students aid in design in an inquiry based approach it does not mean teachers sit back. What I like about inquiry based learning is that it allows students to have more conversations with teachers and peers, and negotiate and discuss their learning etc. Similar to the WISE/SKI model when students are aided in a scaffolded approach to their learning, providing opportunities to discuss misconceptions. One thing I have attempted to do better on is providing students with meaningful opportunities and exposure to new material at the beginning of a unit so that when students are creating KWL activities they are writing deep-thinking quality questions as opposed to surface level questions. This is one of the most important learning engagements in a unit if implemented correctly, because this provides teachers with the road map of what activities to design/inquire into. Often however, I have seen teachers go through the motions but not reflect upon the ideas generated by their students.

      Thanks for your comments this week!


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