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Inspiring critical thinking through essential questions is a key component of the IB PYP program. The Fourth-grade team at American International School in Abu Dhabi (AISA) has perfected the art of creating provocations that ignite curiosity, challenge perceptions, stir up emotions and push learners out of their comfort zones. A recent provocation introduced students to their Sustainability unit by plunging them deep into an unthinkable but very plausible future scenario.

Student swimming into a pool covered with floating plastic.

By AISA Grade 4 Team

Imagine this: You are a student. Your teacher tells you that you need to bring your swimming kit to school because the class will be going swimming together. You and your classmates are pumped! The entire week the anticipation builds as the special day draws near. Finally, the day arrives and you are bursting with excitement. The chatter in the changing rooms is at an all-time high as everyone dons their swim gear. When everyone is changed, your teacher leads you to the pool door - the final barricade between you and fun. Your teacher says some final words of “be safe, have fun” but you’re not really listening, you’re too excited! The pool door finally opens and you and your classmates push through and… everyone stops in their tracks and the smiles disappear. The pool is filled with plastic! Plastic of all shapes and sizes; some floating on top, some sunk to the bottom; plastic of all colors fills the pool. And still, your teacher expects you to get in.

This is exactly what Grade 4 students recently experienced at AISA. This activity was actually a unit provocation that was designed to introduce students to their new unit regarding Sustainability (Sharing the Planet). It is just one example of the powerful and memorable unit provocations that Grade 4 is known for, that are designed by a group of talented and dedicated educators: Mr. Karim Abdelsalam, Ms. Donna Maika, Ms. Beth Otto, Ms. Alaviya Shaikh and Ms. Lyss Verre.

The idea of a unit provocation is part of the IB program. Put simply, a ‘provocation’ is an activity that is meant to provoke. However, a good provocation is a carefully designed activity that forces students out of their comfort zone which, in turn, gets them to wonder and reflect and FEEL something. The best provocations not only leave a lasting impression, but also activate prior knowledge, inspire curiosity, and spark interest in a topic. Provocations can come at the start of a new unit - as an introduction to it - or at the beginning of one of several lines of inquiry throughout the unit. Provocations can also vary in length; some being just one class period, some a full day, or some can last a whole week! The teacher’s role in all of this is to record observations and student questions, so that they may be used to guide the learning later on. There are several sites online that offer tips and advice for creating a good provocation, but the key question we as a team ask ourselves is, “What impact will it have on the students?”

While they are educational, they are much more than that. Powerful provocations are never forgotten.”

By pushing students into uncomfortable scenarios, they more naturally come to ask questions and express their feelings. From this one plastic pool provocation, students began to explore other local and global issues revolving around sustainability. This was followed by a mini inquiry into Earth’s natural resources, which will lead to a larger inquiry into various sources of energy. Throughout the unit, students are asked to reflect on their own practices and what actions they can take in order to make a change for the better. In Arab Social Studies students learn about the UAE’s commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals while simultaneously learning about the country’s dependence on oil. In Design and Innovation class, the students are tasked with noticing issues around the school (and their own homes) that don’t align with the idea of sustainability, and create solutions to improve the situation. In the end, the Grade 4 team hopes that students will find it within themselves to act positively to make this world a healthier place to live in, because nobody wants to swim in an ocean full of plastic!

Powerful provocations such as these can have a lasting impact on the minds of students. While they are educational, they are much more than that. Powerful provocations are never forgotten. The long-standing members of the Fourth-Grade team have High School seniors approach them simply to mention the provocations they had experienced when they were fourth grade so many years ago!