Sustainabilty and Inquiry: Asking Questions, Failing and Learning

My kids are failing and struggling and I’ve never been more proud of them. We are in the midst of a project and I don’t know if they are going to get done what I thought they were going to get done by the deadline. But I’m pretty sure they have never been more engaged in their learning. After this experience, I wish my kids could fail a little more often


Anyone who knows the history of Japan (including the triple disaster of March 11th) knows that the ability to power this massive industrial nation has always been a struggle. At YIS we have started to think about how to go “off-the-grid”, even in a small way. Teachers from all three divisions of the school and from a multitude of different departments have been brainstorming ways we can conserve and create energy for our school.* It was obvious from the start that we needed the kids. And so with Grade 10 Individuals and Societies, it was clear we could introduce the topic in out Sustainability unit.

My co-teacher, Ben McKewon, and I decided this would be an entirely inquiry based assessment. We gave them was the inquiry statement: “In order to create a more sustainable YIS community, we must be innovators.” They were told they would need to work as an entire class to come up with something to present to the Board of Directors and other bigwigs. And armed with an authentic audience and a statement of inquiry, they were set loose.

Questions, questions, and more questions.

The first step was to list questions. I asked them to write 20 questions they had about statement of inquiry. And then I asked them to write 10 more. Some questions included:

  • What are innovators?
  • Who is the YIS Community?
  • Do we have to make something?
  • Can we create a sustainable community?
  • Will is cost a lot of money?
  • Should we create a sustainable community?
  • How are we already sustainable?
  • How much energy do we already use?
  • What is sustainable?
  • What are we going to have to do?

“What are we going to have to do?” was just long list of questions that I did not have an answer to.

Students Take Control

My students did three things that set the tone for how they would run the project.

Notice they did not leave me a seat. So great not to be needed.

1) Every day they set the room up in a circle. They debrief each day at the start of class and one student has been designated note-taker. They also debrief at the end of the period and assign homework**. I try to stay silent. When I do talk it’s usually to say “I don’t know” or “What do you think?”. Occasionally I repeated the statement of inquiry: “In order to create a more sustainable YIS community, we must be innovators.

2) They set up a Trello Board.

Screen Shot 2013-02-03 at 4.52.19 PM

I had never seen this project management tool before my students introduced it. It’s worked incredibly well for this type of project. If I assigned it, I don’t know if they would have bought into it the way they have.

3) They love to do pitches. They have pitched ideas about solar panels, energy-generating bicycles, algae farming, and dozens of other things. Every single pitch has created more and more questions.

Wandering down the wrong path.

Ben’s class quickly decided to research the feasibility of installing solar panels on the school roof***. My group was far from decisive. After much, much discussion they decided to try to install Enefarm (a household fuel cells unit).
They quickly broke into the following groups:

  • Science behind Enafarm.****
  • Architecture of the school/feasibility.
  • Case Studies of Fuel Cells in Japan and/or schools
  • Cost and government subsidies for fuel cells
  • Communications Group
  • Aesthetics/Everything else

The kids started to work. They learned, when trying to get the blue prints of the school, you must be very nice to the school secretaries because they hold the real power. They found the month-to-month usage of energy at YIS from the physics teacher and how fuel cells worked from the chemistry teacher. They practiced their Japanese trying to find a school in Yokohama that uses this technology. The learned who could be a leader as different students stepped up and took on new responsibilities. And they kept asking more questions.

To get some answers they called the company selling Enefarm units in Tokyo and the answers they got were not the ones the wanted. Disaster.

First they did the math.

First they did the math.

Then they sent a flurry of Skype messages to the people talking to the fuel cell company.

Then the did the math again. And put their hands in their heads.

Then the did the math again. And put their hands in their heads.

They realized it would take our school 186 years to recoup the cost of the fuel cell unit. And the Enefarm would only last 10 years. And it would require an outside energy source (gas) to start the process and it didn’t meet the requirement of sustainability. And what power it does generate would probably power about 10 computers. We had failed. And they now have 10 days to come up with something.

What now?

In the real-world, when we have a deadline, we have to produce something. So in about 10 days my students will have to come up with a proposal that they could present to important school officials that addresses our statement of inquiry**** . I’m not sure what they will present. I am liking that in the last class they talked about what they can “create” and “make” instead of what they can buy. I’ll report back what they actually do. But despite (or because of) this major problem they are facing, I am loving watching them learn. Their feedback to me (which they are documenting on Gdocs) has been nothing but positive.  Different students (and not the obvious ones) are taking on leadership roles. Every student seems engaged and knowledgeable about the topic. No one asks me what they are being graded on. It’s fun, and it’s intense, and it’s stressful. And they are learning.

On the day after they realized Enefarms would not be a good option for the school, I was wondering how I would redirect their energy and make sure they didn’t get discouraged. Before the bell rang, one of my students walked to the front of the classroom and said he was going to address the class.

This is what he said:

To be honest, after talking to Mr. Duffield [their physics teacher], Enefarm isn’t going to work. All the time that we spent, looking this stuff up, it wasn’t a waste of time. We found a lot of stuff out….Riding on train yesterday, looking at the posters, I realized that…sustainability can be closer….Remember our statement was: In order to be a more sustainable YIS community, we must be innovators.  In order to be a more sustainable YIS community we must be innovators. (link for video)

At the end of his speech, the rest of the class (me included) did this:

And then we got back to work. We have a lot to do.


* A lot of people smarter than me have been leading this initiative. The science department in particular has been doing a lot of research that was incredibly helpful to this project.

** They seriously volunteer to do homework. I actually got in trouble because I didn’t upload my profile picture to trello when I was supposed to.

***This would be a very different post if written from Ben’s point of view. His group has invited people from solar companies to see the feasibility of our roof as a place for solar panels and they are creating a documentary. Our classes were given the option to work together, but they got a little competitive.

**** I had never heard of Enefarm before this project and I’m still not 100% sure how it works. But I’m pretty sure you could walk into my classroom and find out the answer.

*****They will present, but probably later in the spring. The unit is ending in 10 days and they do need an end-date.

About Rebekah Madrid

MYP Humanities Instructor. International School Teacher in Japan. Google Certified Teacher. Apple Distinguished Educator. National Board Certified Teacher. Traveler & TV Watcher. This is where I write my thoughts about all of the above.
This entry was posted in Humanities, MYP Humanities, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Sustainabilty and Inquiry: Asking Questions, Failing and Learning

  1. Chris Kozak says:

    What an amazing story with a still-unfinished ending.

    I have been researching Enefarm for the possibility of a home purchase in Tokyo. This is pretty good greenwashing. Passing off natural gas as eco-friendly is dishonest to say the least.

    When I start my Music and Sustainability Unit, I’ll let you know the game plan.
    All the best,

    • Thanks! Enefarm didn’t work for a school, but maybe for a house. The kids were incensed that the ads they saw for Enefarm didn’t reflect what they found out when they called. So another teachable moment:)
      Thanks for stopping by. Look forward to seeing your sustainability unit too!

  2. Andrew J says:

    Wow! Loved every word of your journey so far. Loved the whole concept, and especially how you can see the students take learning into their own hands and run with it. I read some of their reflections, before I read this post, and they are quite clearly learning to fail and learning to reassess – basically learning a lot. Wish I had done things like this at school.

    • Thanks for the comment. And major thanks for reading my kids’ blogs. It’s been a really great experience for all of in the classroom. I kind of wish I got to do this when I was in school too.

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  4. Vivian says:

    Sorry about the prior post…

    This was what I meant to say:

    Loved reading about this! The students are exactly like project-teams around the world in big name companies. This is how the real world works and it’s messy… but, it’s meaningful and meaningful makes for lasting learning.

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  8. Megan says:

    I’m dying to know how it panned out. Please share! What an amazing opportunity with lessons tucked in every corner of the project. I too would be standing and cheering on Ryo’s speech.

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