#PYP: What is a Provocation?

#PYP: What is a Provocation?

I love the International Baccalaureate but the jargon really can get you jumbled up, especially when you are new to the program. In the PYP, we use a lot of terminologies that others would just call “best practice”.  However, there is a word that pops up quite a lot: provocation.

Now someone might call it the “hook”, something that draws student’s attention into a lesson. But when I say “hook”, I don’t mean an attention grabber like a joke or cute anecdote or a routine of some sort that gets students on task. No, that’s not a provocation!   A provocation is thoughtfully constructed activity to get students excited and engaged, but a really powerful provocation creates cognitive dissonance that throws kids into the Learning Pit (of inquiry).  Students should be examining their beliefs and ideas as a result of the provocation.

Here is a list of questions that were shared by our PYP coordinator Chad Walsh which can help filter activities and perhaps refine them in order to transform them into provocations:

  • Is the provocation likely to leave a lasting impression?
  • Is there a degree of complexity?
  • Might the provocation invite debate?
  • Might the provocation begin a conversation?
  • Might the provocation extend thinking?
  • Might the provocation reveal prior knowledge?
  • Is the provocation likely to uncover misconceptions?
  • Does the provocation transfer the ‘energy’ in the room from the teacher to the students?
  • Does the provocation have multiple entry points?
  • Can the provocation be revisited throughout the unit?
  • Might the provocation lead learners into a zone of confusion and discomfort?
  • Does the provocation relate to real life/their world?
  • Is the provocation inconspicuous and a little mysterious?
  • Might the provocation lead learners to broader concepts that tend to carry more relevance and universalitMight the provocation be best during the inquiry, rather than at the beginning?
  • Does this provocation elicit feelings?

That is a very extensive list, isn’t it?

Well, let me share a  few examples of provocations:

How We Organize Itself, The Central Idea: Governments make decisions that impact the broader community.

Students come to class that morning and are treated according to the government system that is being highlighted. (Example, Totalitarian) This goes on for a week and each day students have to reflect on what it was like to be a citizen of this type of government.

Where We Are In Place and Time, The Central Idea: Personal histories help us to reflect on who we are and where we’ve come from.

The “mystery box” (which I think originated from the work of Kath Murdoch): inside a box (or a suitcase, in this example) there is a bunch of seemingly unrelated items that students have to guess what the unit might be about. This is a “tuning in” activity. And since this is a central idea about personal histories, it might include a family photo, an old toy, some cultural artifacts or relics of things we enjoy doing, a clock, a map.

Math Stand Alone, The Central Idea: Mathematical problems can be solved in a variety of ways 

The  “sealed solution“: there are 5 envelopes that have the sum of two numbers “sealed” inside them. Students have to use the digits 0-9 only once to create those sums. What could be the sums inside?


Hopefully, this is helping you to discern what a provocation might be. Even if you are an experienced PYP teacher, reflecting and refining our provocations is something that is critical to developing our student’s learning and sparking curiosity.  A well-designed provocation will not only make it to the family dinner table conversation that night but will have a longer shelf life in a child’s mind and ultimately develops important conceptual understandings.

What have been some of your favorite provocations? What questions or engagements have led to deeper learning? Please share in the comments below so we can all benefit from your experience! (Thanks!)

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Judy Imamudeen

Judy Imamudeen

Developing learners as leaders is my joy! As a highly qualified International Baccaluearate (IB) teacher and educational leader, I am committed and passionate about executing its framework and empowering students in creating a future world that works for everyone.

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