Zig-Zagging Your Way to Student Success | Harbord & Khan | 4 Min Read

June 2, 2022

Tasks by definition are related to work and are often set, but opportunities have a sense of potential benefit and might present themselves or be discovered. Often students are set tasks that don’t inspire them. What happens if we flip our point of view and think about a task as an opportunity for success, gaining something that can help us?

“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude”

– Maya Angelou

It is telling that the word ‘gain’ means both to ‘obtain or secure (something wanted or desirable)’ and ‘an increase in wealth or resources’. Personal gain is an often vilified term; we tend to think about gaining something or helping ourselves at the expense of someone or something (a zero-sum game). However, do the subjects of gain have to be mutually exclusive? In helping ourselves, can we create opportunities to help others and what might this look like in our students’ experience? Can we develop strategies and understanding that help us, and by extension others, such as making us more collaborative? Within our competitive and grade-orientated scenarios, can identifying and understanding what we can gain beyond assessment make learning and living more purposeful? Doing so exposes ethical dilemmas about intention, means, and ends.

We know that our students can face a multitude of emotions, impacted by what’s going on at home, with family, friends, or even during their last conversation. Just getting through the day can be a challenge, let alone shifting their perspective about what they might get out of today’s lesson.

We developed the Zig-Zag Thinking Deviceⓒ to give students a different and hopefully easier way to think about their learning and relieve some of the pressure required in deep thinking and metacognition. It can offer a framework and be a starting point to create a new understanding. As all the points can be connected, students can address a question or a combination of questions in any order. Teachers can also use it as a pre and post-skills test: What can I/did I gain from…this activity to help me…?

 Harbord & Khan Zig-Zag Thinking Deviceⓒ to student success

Using the Zig-Zag Thinking Deviceⓒ in conjunction with KWL—What I Know, What I Want to Know, What I Learned—can enrich student self-understanding and knowledge through this more layered approach. Enhanced awareness can also transfer to other aspects of students’ lives and impact their personal, social and emotional well-being. We can use the Zig-Zag Thinking Deviceⓒ to consider what a student might gain from exploring irregular Spanish verbs with a consideration of how it can help them personally and with collaboration. For this Zig-Zag, we have used Personally? and Collaborate with others?. This tool is very versatile and you can use any combination that is relevant.


What I know about myself personally: 

I like structure and not having a regular pattern can make me frustrated.

What I want to know about myself personally: 

How can I manage my frustration? Can I find or come up with ways to help myself?

What I learned about myself personally: 

I can use strategies to come up with new patterns and manage my frustration (e.g. memory palace, mnemonics).

Collaborate with others:

What I know about working with others: 

When I am frustrated it’s harder to work with others.

What I want to know about working with others: 

How can I make sure my frustration about irregular verbs doesn’t affect others?

What I learned about working with others: 

We did a strategy swap that was useful.

Learning from other educators is a way we can broaden our own perspectives. In developing the Consider achievements and skills that are not being assessed? section of the Zig-Zag Thinking Deviceⓒ we were inspired by a breakout room conversation at the NEASC Annual Conference 2021. John Camp (New England Innovation Academy Founding Humanities Teacher), who was hosting the room, reflected on chatting with a student about what the student felt he had done well during a field trip. The student felt proud about something which he viewed as valuable but was not on the assessment rubric as an assessable task. This raises questions about what other skills students can discuss and if there are ways of integrating these into standards? Do we only assess what we think is valuable or meets standards? What do our students think of as valuable, and are there new criteria that should concern us? The Zig-Zag Thinking Deviceⓒ can support students in thinking about issues relating to a broader sense of self. Experimenting with different ways of seeing tasks as opportunities could be a starting point for them to reflect on the value of personal and social health and wellbeing.

Read other articles by Harbord & Khan on Intrepid Ed News.

Harbord and Khan

Meredith Harbord EdD and Sara Riaz Khan are global educators who use ethical dilemmas to enrich and transform curriculum. Their student centric approach is driven by an ethical model and innovative tools that support critical thinking and creativity. Meredith and Sara’s collaboration as Design teachers at ABA Oman International School in Muscat, focused on sustainability, ethical design and global mindedness and inspired them to establish Harbord & Khan Educational Consultants. They develop units of work based on real world issues to engage and challenge students for diverse curriculums (IB, PBL, Common Core and Australian) and are available for professional development and to create programs to meet the specific needs of your school. Meredith and Sara have authored two teacher curriculum books ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 1, 2 & 3’ and ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 4 & 5’ (2020). Website: https://bit.ly/3XopEzQ

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