Parallel inquiry spirals for learning and teaching

Last weekend I had a chance to work with a faculty on assessment as learning. In one session, subject groups created skills ladders to deconstruct how one skill might climb complexity through Bloom’s taxonomy.

Through this work, the group realized that there was more to Criterion A assessment than the go-to method of testing for content knowledge.

For example, the Arts group used the command terms in their Criterion A to sequence a process toward being able to transfer skills to a new setting.

Skills ladder, interpretation by Arts teachers.

The process of using a skills ladder metaphor to unpack a learning target gave us insight into the conceptual basis for both content and skills learning. Erikson’s (2007) and Lanning’s (2012) work on the structure of knowledge provide the scaffolding for us to understand that knowledge and understanding both are built on scaffolding, which include content and skills.

For students to manifest knowledge and conceptual understanding, content knowledge is essential because facts and topics allow us to illuminate and illustrate concepts.

For students to manifest skills proficiency and mastery, they must do as practitioners in the area of knowing. We might refer to this as the ‘methodology’ of a subject or discipline; such as how artists use specific receptive and productive skills to create.

The skills ladder tool provided a launch into a line of inquiry: How might we be more intentional in the design of experiences of assessment as learning?

As I thought about this line of inquiry, I unpacked one strand from Criterion A in Language and literature and came up with this skills ladder, below.

Unpacking a skill embedded in Criterion A through a skills ladder. See a closeup at this link.

From this process, other questions emerged. Is this process really a ladder? If our message is of learning as a recursive, agentic process, how might the medium create this understanding for us? And, thinking about how learning is not linear but a more cyclical process how might we think of the process as a spiral?

Using Criterion A, strand iii in Language and literature to think through a spiraling experience for students. Zoom in at this link.

For the Criterion A strand iii, which in Language and literature is exactly the same statement of quality for Years 1, 3, and 5, what jumped out clearly was the need to intentionally design complexity into the experiences as learners progressed through the programme.

We know that ATL skills remain the same in our curriculum framework, and these skills also combine in increasingly rigorous manifestations as tasks become more complex, demanding of the learner approaches, which are more strategic –combinations of skills in strategies to address multi-dimensional conceptual processes— rather than discrete performances of single skills. Plus, tasks at Year 5 approximate the independence and agency embodied by the personal project. Design an experiment. Plan and evaluate a performance or a process. Create an investigation, articulate the outcome, and decide how to evaluate the outcome through success criteria.

It struck me that there is a parallel inquiry teachers immerse themselves in while developing the spiraling experiences which take students to independent, complex performances of understanding in the continuum.

An inquiry spiral for teachers. Closeup at this link.

We, too have prior knowledge and understanding of how learning works and how to facilitate it. And, in the process of developing spiraling experiences, we might consider in what ways we allow for agency to emerge in our students.

We, too have an open-ended task: how to create a coherent experience for students, which can be described as this practice: “The school articulates its schedule and curriculum to make it possible for students to make connections across their learning. (Programme standards and practices, 2018 p. 18 retrieved from

As we consider our own spiral of inquiries into intentional practice, it seems clear that the task of providing a coherent experience for each learner through our continuum is a complex task. As a highly complex task, creating coherence for our learners may not be best done by isolated and confined problem-solving.

If we are planning, facilitating instruction and assessing learning with only our classrooms or subject areas in mind, how might we address conceptual spiral for the student through the programme? If our thinking is confined to a classroom and a subject area, how might we support transfer of the concepts and skills, which are shared across areas of knowing?

How will we gain understanding of how we might allow for cross-discipline rehearsal of skills and concepts for students to manifest transfer, if we do not know what learners experience in other classrooms or subject areas?

Suddenly the inquiry of how to spiral learning is not only a task for which teachers design for students. It is also a parallel design that we seek: the coherence of learning for our students, and the coherence of learning through collaboration for teachers.

Creating coherence for our learners is our work, together.


International Baccalaureate. (2018). Programme standards and practices. Retrieved from on 6 November 2018.

International Baccalaureate. (2014). Language and literature subject guide.

Featured photo: Spiral by Rosie Kerr on Unsplash.

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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