Teaching Everything Through Inquiry

Anything that jolts me out of the discomforts and monotony of flying is welcome to me these days; an extra bag of peanuts, an empty row, a surprise upgrade to first class (never happens). But nothing could have prepared me for this recent experience.

Seated right behind passengers in the exit rows, I could overhear the flight attendant’s instructions about their responsibilities in the unlikely event of an emergency landing. Upon listening to the flight attendant, each passenger usually affirms his or her understanding and commitment with a simple head nod. But this drill didn’t take place as I usually see it happen.

Instead, the flight attendant asked everyone to not just listen but follow along with the brochure (meaning, they were asked to hold one in their own hands). Then, they were asked to turn to the person sitting next to them and verbally share the plan. Finally, they were asked to shake hands on it. Wow! In the unlikely event of an emergency landing, I’d much rather have these folks springing into action.

Brain science is on this flight attendant’s side, too. Talking reinforces the learning. The cognitive demand of understanding the procedures were placed squarely on the shoulders of the passengers, not the flight attendant. The physical connection of a simple handshake fires up all sorts of neurons and establishes trust.

This flight attendant applied the most powerful teaching strategies in a non-classroom context. And it got me thinking:  If inquiry-based teaching is superior to traditional teaching, could or should it replace the way we teach everything to everyone? How would it change our communication style? Our hierarchies? Our relationships?

In inquiry teaching, the learner constructs meaning from new information (the brochure) and experiences (thinking through a scenario). This is not radical. This is actually how most people learn best. Traditional teaching, however, relies on the teacher constructing meaning and telling. Telling isn’t good teaching and yet it persists, like a stubborn habit. It is easy and efficient, but less effective.

Changing a habit requires baby steps and discipline. There are three simple steps any of us can implement right away, whether you teach physics, coach soccer, or instruct passengers in how to help out in the unlikely event of an emergency landing.

I.              Ask More; Talk Less

This is the golden rule of great teaching and Socrates was the master of this practice. At their best, great lectures capture the interest and imagination of the learners (usually in the form of stories). At their worst, they induce sleep or feel agonizing. Talking continuously without pausing for a reflection activity, to ask questions, or to solicit questions, misses important opportunities for the learner to integrate and deepen the learning. Ideally, the learners are the ones doing most of the talking, especially after absorbing new information through listening, reading, or experiencing something. By asking questions and periodically asking learners to turn and talk with a neighbor to answer these questions, we greatly increase the chances of the information sticking and being activated.

II.            Encourage Questions

We take much better care of our own cars than we do rentals. Why? Because they are ours, we own them. It’s the same with questions! When we are truly invested in something, we are more interested. What are the learners interested in? Ask and allow them to follow their interests. It’s important to give people a little information before asking for questions and some reflection time, however. A great way

III.          Connect the Learning

It’s not surprising that the mindfulness movement, standing consciously in the here and now, is a popular trend today. Our work in formal education settings is future-focused and imbalanced towards feeling like a chore rather than a pleasure. Learning is survival and joy! Mastering skills to enter the workforce is a survival skill. Translating letters to words and ideas on a page or coding something for the first time is joy. And often, they are one and the same. What is the purpose of the lesson or activity, besides a final grade or a test? How can we root our activities and learning in the present while connecting it also to the future? Every lesson provides ourselves with the opportunity to answer the big picture question: Why should we care and How does this connect with who and where I am right now?

Changing the way we instruct, whether it is in a formal setting like a classroom or an informal setting like the family dinner table, will take time before it takes hold. It will require a different set of skills on the part of the ‘teacher’ and a radical new set of expectations on the part of the learner. But it’s potential to improve teaching & learning, two sides of the same coin, is undeniable. 

Do I need to make friends to learn? By Guest Author: Amelia Hurd

On the first day of Kimberly’s class, Teaching as a Profession, I knew it was going to be good. I showed up five minutes early to a silent room of about thirty five students. Her Teaching Assistant, Kira, was also there early and broke the silence by making a joke about it, telling us that the class changed her life. I was excited to see what a ‘life-changing’ class would be like and quickly accepted the fact that I wasn’t going to relax in my chair this time while the teacher did all the intellectual work.

Kimberly sent a welcome message on Canvas the day before and there was a picture of her next to her name. I couldn’t really tell what she looked like, but for some reason, I didn’t picture her being that warm. She had a very straight back and looked very serious in the photo, standing behind a podium. But then she showed up, having been waiting outside with a bunch of other students, not aware that the last class had let out early. Her genuine kindness and energy radiated across the whole room. She seemed so happy to see us all. This kind of energy is not something a student forgets. She explained that everything she did as an instructor had a rationale behind it, pointing out techniques she employed that made it easier to form a classroom community that supports deep learning.  She let us know when she didn’t do anything to fill the silence when a question was asked to the class, and told us it was up to us to fill it. She stepped back often and put the leadership in our hands.  

This was a class full of interactions with other people. While I found that a little difficult, especially the task of finding my own partner or group, I really liked having that guidance and nudge. I took comfort in the expectation that we had to talk, because it wasn’t the talking I was uncomfortable with, but the initiating. Sometimes, I would show up to class feeling kind of down, not looking forward to the high energy discussions, but somehow I would always leave class in a good mood, feeling more connected to my classmates and validated by them, which was apparently what I needed to cure my bad mood.  

As much fun as I had in this class I avoided arriving at the classroom early, when it would have been more convenient, so I wouldn’t have to deal with the awkward silence of everyone being on their devices or just staring ahead. I also didn’t know how to talk to Kimberly, even though she was nicer than pretty much anyone I’d ever met. I didn’t realize before how much I planned every little part of my day to avoid awkwardness or any interaction that wasn’t being facilitated by someone else until I was in this situation where I had gotten to know my teacher and classmates quite well, liked them, and still avoided non-facilitated interaction with them.      

I knew I had some social anxiety problems before, but my experience in this class got me to see that it’s really not a preference of mine to be silent. Maybe it’s simply a discomfort or unwillingness to take on everything a new relationship entails; getting to know someone else, keeping up with said person, helping out when something comes up. Is this just a form of laziness disguised as social anxiety, or can it be both? 

Maybe it comes from a place of not knowing what the relationship is supposed to be, so avoidance is easier. I’m used to being separate from teachers; below them, the recipient of their knowledge, a spectator of their performance. My priority concerning teachers has always been get good grades from them, not to establish a relationship with them. I’m not remotely used to the idea of authority figures being anything like a friend to me, but I am realizing that I don’t need to see their role in grading as a form of control, but simply a measurement of my growth as a way to help me.  

In my College of Education courses, it’s been made clear to me that teacher/student relationships are one of the most important factors in successful learning. Relationships are important factors to success in life. The fact that I’ve kept my own head down in class, quietly ‘playing school’ by getting good grades is ironic. The habits that stem from this mindset are not easy to thwart. Learning and socializing have been taught as separate activities to me. I’m happy to finally found out that they’re not.  

Sadly, in all my undergrad experience, which involves two community colleges and two universities, Kimberly’s class has been the only one to feel like a community, so it has to be up to me to make my other classes feel that way, too. While I wish it could always be up to the teacher to make that happen, they more often prioritize content knowledge and lecture. Besides, I am an adult who is preparing to be a teacher, so making up for professors’ choices and cultivating my own community in each class will only benefit me. But just having that one dream, utopian class with Kimberly needed to happen. I needed to find out what being on the receiving end of good teaching felt like and it felt really good.

My goal for next quarter is to introduce myself to the professor at some point during the quarter. Usually, my obstacle is thinking that I don’t have any questions, so there’s no reason to talk to the professor. Now, I know to jot down questions in my notebook throughout class, so I have no excuse to back out when the time comes. Even just introducing myself for five seconds with nothing else planned is a heck of a start and a small, helpful goal that can help build the relationships I know are so crucial to learning.

 

 

 

A Student Reflects [inquiry in the university classroom] by: Cindy Mach

Cindy Mach and her facilitation team (Spring 2016) University of Washington

Cindy Mach and her facilitation team (Spring 2016) University of Washington

My name is Cindy Mach and I'm a Senior at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Throughout my school experience, I've sat in many classrooms and experienced a variety of classroom styles and techniques. None have come close to comparing with my experience with a recent class in curriculum and instruction, all conducted through a student-centered inquiry approach.

Upon first hearing about it, I was concerned because I never tend to work well with groups. I feel that oftentimes the assignments and projects gets dumped onto only one member (typically me) and the rest do little to nothing. This, however, was not the case.

Everyone in this class was asked to facilitate an entire class (start to finish) and we were all assigned to facilitation groups (no more than four people) throughout the quarter. In these small groups, we were expected to create a lesson plan based off of the previous night's homework (usually a text-based reading or video) and then execute it as a team, engaging our classmates in the process while the professor took notes on how we did. While we practiced a Socratic Seminar together as a class for the first couple of assignments, most groups designed other interactive ways to help deepen everyone's understanding and expansion of a topic or question.

I had never been given an opportunity like this before. Most classes are led by someone speaking and others listening. By being asked to facilitate, however, I was required to sharpen new skills and become more interactive. I quickly found that when trying to come up with a lesson plan it requires every group member's participation. Everyone has a part and if you do not work together it shows during the facilitation process. 

All of the sudden, we are the ones who had to keep track of our hour to teach a lesson or complete an activity. No longer could we rely on the teacher for answers. We had to be quickly thinking of things to say if the room fell silent or nobody knew the answer to a question. We had to be able to come up with responses and build off of what was said by others. We had to actually listen...carefully.

Finally, we had to think of ways to stretch the students' thinking and learning experiences through discussion and activities rather than telling everyone what we thought. The process was incredibly interactive and it was so much fun. I enjoyed working with my group members tremendously and what's amazing is that through these activities, the class grew more comfortable with each other and we became a small, close-knit community.

I have never experienced a university classroom where I actually remembered everyone's name and they remembered mine. Just knowing one another's names inspired us to challenge each other. We knew we had a community supporting us as well as your group members while we facilitated class discussions. I learned so much in this class and hope that I can teach my students in the same way when I become a teacher.

I encourage all teachers to be more of a facilitator than a lecturer. Through facilitation, conversations can grow in depth and can students stretch beyond typical ideas and develop their creativity. It challenges you way more then you'll ever realize and it's crazy fun too!

 

 

Are You Still Happy in the Classroom?

Julia and I grabbed coffee together last weekend. We used to teach together at the same large urban middle school. Effervescent, enthusiastic and dedicated, I was immediately drawn into Julia's orbit. Her duct-taped 80’s-era boom box was the heartbeat of our school; playing funk mix tapes while she posted student work all over her classroom walls before and after school. Standing outside, rain or shine, she would shake hands with every student before they entered her classroom. 

Julia and I met at coffee shops on weekends to grade papers elbow to elbow and watched our students' baseball games in the Spring. The union rep and their issues seemed crazy to us. We passed notes at staff meetings to get one another to laugh. We were there for our students and brushed off the other stuff without much care. We felt like we could change the world.

That was twenty years ago. We may have influenced the lives of many of our students over those years, but we certainly didn't change the world. And we certainly didn't change that school. It continues to graduate the same number and kinds of students as it did years ago.

Julia is still teaching there. Like the vast majority of schools in the U.S., very little has changed at this school save a physical upgrade and additional demands on her time. Students come from even more impoverished homes than before. Everyone moves complacently through six periods a day; teacher-directed learning and standardized tests. Some teachers excite and others disappoint; a mixed bag of experiences in a disjointed day.

What's really changed is Julia. She has her own family now, so she rushes out of the building after the last bell rings. Rather than gush about her amazing students, she complains about them. She's now the school's union rep and fumes about district incompetence. She seems tired, frustrated, bitter. What happened?

I ask her this and she pauses. "I got sucked in..." she begins. "I got sucked into a culture of complaint, victimization, mistrust...bit by bit. I grew tired of the unspoken lack of respect, the empty toilet paper rolls, the extra hours outside of school, the demanding parents."

"So, how do we change this pattern?" I ask sheepishly.

She pauses. "I'm almost done; I'm just hunkering down until I can retire." And then she smiles. "Pathetic, huh?" I smile back. Who am I to judge? I got out early.  

"The entire profession needs to change," she finally admits. 

Wanting to interrogate this further, I turn to my journal instead of Julia. "The entire profession" rings in my brain. What questions do you think we should pursue more aggressively to improve the teaching profession?

·      Who should we target and encourage to go into the profession?
·      What messages should we emphasize as they consider it?
·      Should we raise the bar for teacher candidates, as they do in Finland?
·      Do we need to check for specific human characteristics (as they do in the Foreign Service)?
·      Should we make sure that they know how to have a loving relationship with another human being (as the authors of “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” assert)?
·      What should teacher training programs look like?
·      Should they all resemble medical residencies?
·      How can we offer significantly more time for planning and assessment (like in Japan)?
·      Would teachers take on a few more students in exchange for more collaboration and non-teaching time?
·      Would year-round schools help relieve fatigue?
·      Who should evaluate teacher performance and with what sets of measures?
·      How often should teachers receive growth-focused feedback?
What are your questions? What would you promote to improve the teaching profession?

The Vital Importance of Storytelling

We’re social animals and the empathic tie that binds me to you and you to one another is storytelling. It’s like a gossamer thread that we fling and we catch one and another and another’s imagination.
— Carmen Agra Deedy, 2011 National Book Festival (paraphrased)

Telling a Story to Develop Relationships

Mr. Hollingshead (“Mr. H”) was my 6th grade teacher at Whitworth Elementary School in Seattle, Washington. Tall with a bushy beard and round John Denver glasses, Mr. H drove a cherry red VW van up and down the hills of our city. He was my first male teacher. A creased poster hung on his classroom door with old tape that said "Keep on truckin." What I remember most about Mr. H is how I felt being a student in his classroom that year: emotionally connected. As students, we were emotionally connected to him, to one another, and to what we explored together whether it was pronouns, long division, or science experiments. How did he pull this off? Through storytelling.

Mr. H’s great passion in life was opera and he was determined to share this passion with every group of students he taught. Once the Seattle Opera season was announced, he would decide which one we would attend together. Months before the field trip, Mr. H would escort all 30 of us into the stairwell a couple times a week for an hour. There we would sit elbow to elbow on rows of dirty stairs - an echo chamber - with absolute giddy delight. Assembled like an audience, with full view of the stage below, we'd prop our heads onto our palms and listen to Mr. H tell the story.

Thanks to masterful storytelling, sixth grade for me was about revenge, love, murder and rumor threaded through the complex stories Mr. H shared and reflected in real life on the playground and my long bus ride home. Opera stories helped me tell my own stories and make sense of the world around me.

More than anything else, stories built a strong relationship bridge from me to my teacher. Like listening to Eye of the Tiger, Rita Pierson’s TED Talk from 2013, regenerates my spirit and gets my adrenalin pumping. At one point she asserts that “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like." While I nod my head when she said this, I have to admit that I've learned plenty from people I don't like. It's just much more enjoyable learning from people I do like. And I really liked Mr. H.

Telling a Story to Root Specific Content

“How is it that students can relate the entire plot of Harry Potter, and forget everything I say?” - A teacher once said

Jeff Butler teaches high school math. He loves his subject but is often challenged by, well, getting his students appreciate it as much as he does. A black & white poster of the 1968 Olympics Black Panther salute hangs on a wall along with some of his biking memorabilia. Aside from these clues on the wall, students don’t really know much about Mr. Butler. Jeff readily admits to being an "introvert" and hesitates sharing too much of his life with his students. As he sees it, his primary job is to get his students through Algebra and the clock is ticking. An unconscious belief sits in the back of his mind, too: He never needed much cajoling to focus on math in high school, why should they? Working with Jeff as an instructional coach is a wonderful challenge. He is open to trying something new but needs guidance and some support.

We started with adding a story to just one lesson. “What is inductive reasoning, anyway?” I asked him. He answered me with numbers and a factual definition. I prodded him to tell me a story instead. After thinking for a couple minutes, he began: “It’s like you have a bag that you cannot see through and then you pick out a few objects and, well, maybe everything you pick out are green apples and so you assume or infer or induce that it’s a bag filled entirely of green apples.” This was it! After creating and practicing this story to make it relate to something honest and true in his own life , Jeff tries it out with his students the next day.

Jeff's large hands form around an invisible apple as he tells the story, growing from one small apple to a bushel of them, his arms opening wide. He adds some personal notes about walking his dog to the neighbor's apple tree. I watch as students sit up, smile, and wonder about his dog and where he lives and what he does with the apples he receives. You can practically hear the question bubbles popping above their heads.

Jeff pauses at the end of his story dramatically. He's enjoying this more than he anticipated, clearly. “Take out the apples and replace them with numbers…and there's the math!” His eyes pop open and the students giggle. They are enthralled. They haven’t seen their teacher so passionate ever. For the first time, his exit tickets demonstrate 100% comprehension.

Telling a Story to Survive

“Fairy tales are tales of survival, first and foremost.” Fairy Tale Review Kate Bernheimer

How did the entire Moken community survive the devastating 2004 tsunami, when over 230,000 others perished? This Thai community credits their oral traditions and the power of a story told and retold over generations embedding a directive guiding the people to safety: When you see the sea recede, run for the hillsStories save lives. 

The same could be said for the stories written in the late 18th C by the Grimm brothers in Germany; horrific tales of children getting lost or being guided to their deaths by well-meaning strangers. We share stories with each other today warning against taking a particular road during a particular time of day; avoiding a restaurant where someone’s cousin got sick, and signing up for a new form of exercise that is sure to transform our lives and improve our health. Big and small, life-saving or pleasure-seeking…these are all stories.

My 15-year old is particularly adept at sharing stories with her 10-year old brother. The consequences of certain actions (or inactions) usually end in a horrifying way ("If you don't take the right bus home, you will be kidnapped and tortured."). They are effective, too.

I've seen schools utilize survival stories with great impact in bonding upperclassmen with new students ("Surviving Freshman Year") and coaches sharing inspiring stories of pushing through challenge to survive a tournament. 

The best arguments for storytelling come from cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham who explains the importance of creating emotional bonds through storytelling. Still one of the most powerful vehicles for communicating information, storytelling is sadly not a skill intentionally taught in most teacher education programs. But it should be. Whether to build relationships, root challenging content, or to save lives (physically and metaphorically), the power of stories remains one of our best teaching tools.

What stories are you telling?

Lessons from a Kid Party by Guest Author: Lara Lyons

buzzers.png
How can our son and his friends “seek knowledge” and engage in questioning and experimenting if there is a set, pre-determined activity?
— Lara Lyons

Many of the child party places in the Netherlands have a pre-packaged plan. Whether it be indoor trampoline arenas, Lego building, baking themed places or, of course, Little Gym, (is it not everywhere in the world?), they usually have a set recipe for how the kid party will run. Kids come, they jump/build/bake/play, then the place provides some pannenkoeken (Dutch pancakes) with copious amounts of syrup, marshmallows or crisps as their snack, kids eat cake, then bounce home on their sugar high. Given our almost four years of birthday party experience here, we were not prepared for the intro to the new science-themed place we checked out when planning the celebration for our son’s seventh birthday.

Located in an old school where there are multiple businesses housed, finding the right buzzer to this place proved challenging (see photo).

But once we entered the room it was more like walking into Sci-Fi land, with odd and fascinating structures involving wires, pulleys, gears, light bulbs, and propellers…every gadget you can imagine to make something work. And they were all organized in a series of little drawers which reminded me of the nail and screw section at Home Depot. Inside what the place calls the ‘Inventor Workshop’ there were long wooden worktables lined up with all sorts of contraptions created from these assorted odds and ends. There were motorized cardboard structures, tiny flying contraptions that looked like early Wright Brothers inventions, and unbelievably functional folding draw-bridges created from cardboard, straws and brads, to name a few.

Going on past experience, I started by asking the owner what a typical birthday party would entail. She said, “I can’t answer that until we see what your son is interested in.”  

“Our son is turning seven, do you have some ideas of what type of activity six and seven year olds would find successful?” I persisted, while glancing at our son playing with a complicated-looking motorized wire vehicle and thinking that perhaps our son’s young age would determine the activity.

She looked at me over her glasses as if I didn’t hear her the first time. Then she repeated, “Let’s see what your son is interested in. Let him walk around and see what he’s drawn to.  We’ll make anything work but let’s learn about your child’s imagination first.”

Then I realized that this woman had nailed it. Although I’ve been an educator for over twenty years, have spent time in hundreds of classrooms as a teacher, principal and principal coach, and hold dearly an education ethos that centers on fostering student ownership of learning through inquiry, I had to sheepishly admit that I had not followed my own ideal. I had made an assumption that there would be a set “inquiry-based” activity that would allow the kids to leave with a fun completed project. Instead, the owner modeled just what inquiry is. As one definition states, inquiry is “a seeking or request for truth, information, or knowledge.” How can our son and his friends “seek knowledge” and engage in questioning and experimenting if there is a set, pre-determined activity?   

I listened to the owner ask our son questions while he perused all sorts of building materials housed in those fun little drawers. I noticed that she didn’t negate even one of his enthusiastic ideas (such as the “worm mobile” vehicle), but sometimes asked a question to have him think through the possibility of it, and I couldn’t help but think about the parallels to teaching. This is exactly what masterful teachers do so well. Although they have a destination in mind (learning objective) they let their students engage authentically in the learning process to get there. They do this through their facilitation of questions, the use of manipulatives, the opportunity for students to talk and think with one another, and the ability to know when to guide and when to let the students explore. It’s a sincere belief that students will gain knowledge and skills as a result of the process they’re engaged in to achieve the end goal. 

In the end, our son thought it would be fun for the partygoers to make something motorized to take home. As he excitedly talked about the endless possibilities, the owner said to me, “By the way, I don’t provide snacks (marshmallows), and the kids won’t have much time for the cake (because they’re going to want to spend their time working 'In the ‘Inventor Workshop’, I thought, as I looked around at the worktables laden with assorted creations). In fact, maybe someone will make that worm automobile here after all.

Lara Lyons is a parent and educator with over 20 years of classroom and school leadership experience. Originally from the Pacific NW, she and her family currently live in The Hague, Netherlands.

Better Than Telling

Anything that jolts me out of the discomforts and monotony of flying is welcome to me these days; an extra bag of peanuts, an empty row, a surprise upgrade to first class (never happens). But nothing could have prepared me for this recent experience.

Seated right behind passengers in the exit rows, I could overhear the flight attendant’s instructions about their responsibilities in the unlikely event of an emergency landing. Upon listening to the flight attendant, each passenger affirms his or her understanding and commitment with a simple head nod. But this drill didn’t take place as I usually see it happen.

Instead, the flight attendant asked everyone to not just listen but follow along with the brochure (meaning, they were asked to hold one in their own hands). Then, they were asked to turn to the person sitting next to them and verbally share the plan. Finally, they were asked to shake hands on it. Wow! In the unlikely event of an emergency landing, I’d much rather have these folks springing into action.

Brain science is on this flight attendant’s side, too. Talking reinforces the learning. The cognitive demand of understanding the procedures were placed squarely on the shoulders of the passengers, not the flight attendant. The physical connection of a simple handshake fires up all sorts of neurons and establishes trust.

This flight attendant applied the most powerful teaching strategies in a non-classroom context. And it got me thinking:  If inquiry-based teaching is superior to traditional teaching, could or should it replace the way we teach everything to everyone? How would it change our communication style? Our hierarchies? Our relationships?

In inquiry teaching, the learner constructs meaning from new information (the brochure) and experiences (thinking through a scenario). This is not radical. This is actually how most people learn best. Traditional teaching, however, relies on the teacher constructing meaning and telling. Telling isn’t good teaching and yet it persists, like a stubborn habit. It is easy and efficient, but less effective.

Changing a habit requires baby steps and discipline. There are three simple steps any of us can implement right away, whether you teach physics, coach soccer, or instruct passengers in how to help out in the unlikely event of an emergency landing.

I.              Ask More; Talk Less

This is the golden rule of great teaching and Socrates was the master of this practice. At their best, great lectures capture the interest and imagination of the learners (usually in the form of stories). At their worst, they induce sleep or feel agonizing. Talking continuously without pausing for a reflection activity, to ask questions, or to solicit questions, misses important opportunities for the learner to integrate and deepen the learning. Ideally, the learners are the ones doing most of the talking, especially after absorbing new information through listening, reading, or experiencing something. By asking questions and periodically asking learners to turn and talk with a neighbor to answer these questions, we greatly increase the chances of the information sticking and being activated.

II.            Encourage Questions

We take much better care of our own cars than we do rentals. Why? Because they are ours, we own them. It’s the same with questions! When we are truly invested in something, we are more interested. What are the learners interested in? Ask and allow them to follow their interests. It’s important to give people a little information before asking for questions and some reflection time, however. A great way to exercise questioning skills is through the Question Formulation Technique (developed by the team at The Right Question Institute).

III.          Connect the Learning

It’s not surprising that the mindfulness movement, standing consciously in the here and now, is a popular trend today. Our work in formal education settings is future-focused and imbalanced towards feeling like a chore rather than a pleasure. Learning is survival and joy! Mastering skills to enter the workforce is a survival skill. Translating letters to words and ideas on a page or coding something for the first time is joy. And often, they are one and the same. What is the purpose of the lesson or activity, besides a final grade or a test? How can we root our activities and learning in the present while connecting it also to the future? Every lesson provides ourselves with the opportunity to answer the big picture question: Why should we care and How does this connect with who and where I am right now?

________________________________________________________________________________

Changing the way we instruct, whether it is in a formal setting like a classroom or an informal setting like the family dinner table, will take time before it takes hold. It will require a different set of skills on the part of the ‘teacher’ and a radical new set of expectations on the part of the learner. More than anything, it will require teachers to stop talking so much (there is a time and a place for a lecture, of course, but here we are woefully out of balance in most classrooms and certainly in higher ed). Changing up our teaching methods has the potential to radically improve learning. Are we willing to take some risks and try it out?

 

 

We are the "light guys"! Guest author Jen Breen

Two weeks ago I was in Mexico with a wonderful group of yogis and writers at the "Light in the Jungle" retreat (Mar de Jade) located at the end of a tiny smile shaped beach town called Chacala. Our time writing with Claire Dederer and practicing yoga in the El Templo yoga studio left me feeling nourished and connected by the time spent inside of my creative well and outside in the warm, salty air, bath water sea and around the table with friends leisurely eating breakfast, lunch and dinner. I came home feeling elevated, enlivened, relaxed and inspired.

After a few days back in the groove of my life as I know it, I observed how quickly I went from one activity to the next, how much of my down time is in front of lit screens and how meals are interrupted by the comings and goings of my kids and their activities that run late into the evening. My internal rhythm from a week in retreat and mostly unplugged was noticeably different; calm, contemplative, sensitive and dare I say - joyous.  But, it's funny how just a few days back at it-the groove and habit of my life-can feel the tinge of isolation and shallowness. 

I spent a few mornings sitting and watching the sunrise through the windows of my treehouse living room wondering and inquiring. How can I weave the necessity of soulful retreat into my life at home? How can I be that "light in the jungle" for my family and community? And, how can I draw better boundaries so that there is time daily looking into the eyes of my fellow human beings or walking in the fresh air with a friend or feeling my bare feet on the wood floor as I listen to my whole body breathe in and out. And, how about listening to those around me; their stories, their joys and fears? What is going on inside of them? How many of our unique, colorful stories are shared and known through our common laughter and tears? I wonder...

And, then ...POOF! Power out! Was it an answer to my questions from some higher source or mother nature's wisdom blowing in healing medicine? Or was it just a windstorm? A power outage. It doesn't matter...a retreat and wonder came through my home. My kids and their friends took shelter in our dark home lit from the outside by the bright full moon. We lit candles and a fire. We circled around the coffee table and played rounds and rounds of Old Maid. All of them, engaged, laughing, looking in to each other's eyes. Little fingers touching each card, bodies flailing around in hysterics when the old maid was passed around, body language spoken and heard. Then a massive feast for dinner-boxes of mac and cheese that I had stored up from a trip to Costco prepared on the propane stove. We talked about living in the dark and how candlelight makes our faces look funny. After dinner the kids created some version of tag/hide and go seek with flashlights. And, my teenager and her friend ended up in her room playing hours of Battleship by candlelight. As the friends went home we nestled together on the couch reading by flashlight and falling asleep before 9pm. As cold and dark as it was I felt like all of our lights were on. I was grateful for the warmth of togetherness and hours of human interaction and creativity.

As I kissed my youngest goodnight she said to me, "Mom when are the light guys coming?" 

I smiled and said to her..."WE are the light guys!"

Wishing you all-  Beings of light-  a joyous holiday season whatever jungle you find yourself in.

With gratitude

Jen

 

Are We All Seeing The Same Thing?

 

The room was packed. Twenty-five ninth graders and their teacher, a three-person camera crew, fifteen parents of incoming eighth graders and the principal stood flat-back against three of the four walls. For a while we all occupied the same space together. We observed the same lesson, listened to the same voices, and breathed the same air. But we all came away with very different conclusions about what we witnessed.

The principal guided parents of incoming ninth graders in and out of this classroom all day. It was one a few classrooms in her building that she could “bank on” to be a hit with visitors (and the one she suggested we film).

When the principal opened this classroom door she could depend on seeing engaged and well-disciplined students. The teacher was passionate about her subject (English literature) and it showed. She recited passages from the book they were all reading by heart and spoke with enthusiasm and authority. The curriculum was 100% aligned with standards, the learning objective written neatly on the white board.

My companions, film professionals, gave the class rave reviews. “She really knew what she was doing in there; the students were so well-behaved,” I heard them say.

What none of them knew, not even the camera operators, was that what we were actually filming was a prime (and common) example of student disengagement.

Our cameras were trained on a single, randomly selected student in the front row. We “dummy mic'd” several students giving students the impression that our objective was to film the teacher’s interaction with all the students. But in reality, only the teacher’s and this one student’s mic were operating. We trained a tight lens on this student for 90 minutes (it was a block period, ostensibly to allow for deeper work and project-based learning opportunities).

After filming, we calculated the amount of time this student was reading, writing, listening and speaking academically during this 90-minute period. The results are heart breaking and stunned the teacher.

During the 90-minute period this student sat and listened (mostly to the teacher) for 86 minutes. He participated once, to ask a clarifying question (taking less than 10 seconds) and read for a total of 3 minutes. He never wrote. According to the students we spoke with and the teacher herself, this was a typical class and this student is a good student.

The teacher spent the evening before re-reading the chapters and preparing for a discussion. But the discussion was really only between herself and 4-5 students. The remaining 20 students were passive listeners. Those who did participate were only marginally active and engaged. They responded to the teacher’s questions rather than asking their own. They were rarely pressed to back up their claims with evidence or take on a different perspective or explain in great detail. These were cognitive activities that were taken on by the teacher.

What happened in that classroom that people missed? Taken together, it looked lively and engaging. But a closer look, a tighter frame, revealed something very different. The students were compliant, not curious. They knew exactly how to “do school” but it was a classic example of how “learning gets lost.”

What does engagement look like then? If you were to witness true engagement in action, what specific things would you see, hear, or even feel?

Here’s my initial Take. What Might You Add?

• Students are doing most of the (academic) talking

• Students are asking the majority of the questions

• Teacher moving in and around students rather than rooted at the ‘front’

• Students physically leaning into their work

• Happy buzz of discussion/conversation distributed among all students

• Students groaning when it’s time to conclude

 

Want to keep talking? Join us! #GiGTeacher (Global Inquiry Group)

Every second Tuesday of the month at 3:00 PM Pacific Time

 

 

 

Measuring Student Engagement with the ABQ

The ABQ (Answering • Building Upon an Idea • Questioning) is one of the most powerful and simplest ways to better understand student engagement and analyze engagement patterns in a classroom.

Here's how it works:

Ask a colleague or administrator (your "data collector") to come in and record student voice data during a group-based discussion period (at least 20 minutes, so you get enough data to draw some conclusions). Before the class begins, simply sketch out the physical classroom layout on a blank piece of paper, writing student’s names inside each ‘desk’ or box in advance, if you have assigned seating.

The data collector listens to and notates everything students say during the period, categorizing them in the following way:

A (Answers given to direct questions from teacher or other students)

B (Building upon another’s idea or question with comments)

Q (Questions they ask) PS - It’s helpful also to note what kinds of questions students are asking if there is time (using Bloom’s revised Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, for example).

ABQ.png

The data alone will speak volumes on where to focus attention and will lead to further questions that you can reflect on alone or with a PLC/PLN. There is little need for the observer to do much more than the share the data with you after class. Some questions to guide your reflection might include:

What does participation look and sound like?

Who is doing most of the talking and questioning? Why?

How can you inspire more students/different students to question/participate?

How might you share this data with students?

Letterboxing: Outdoor Inquiry Perfected

It’s crisp fall day and I’ve dragged my reluctant 10-year old and his neighbor friend away from their computer screens. “What’s a Colorado Spruce?” is the first thing my son says after a prolonged silence in the car ride to Green Lake. He asks this to no one in particular, wondering aloud as he reads clues and we make our way through the parking lot and to the lake. A runner lacing up his shoes overhears us, moving his eyes up to join our search. "Well, I can always tell it’s a Colorado Spruce because they have beautiful symmetry and their needles are as sharp as little knives,” he instructs us. My son and his friend are intrigued. Their adventure is bringing them into contact with helpful strangers, as curious as they are.

We are on a letterboxing journey. Part-orienteering and treasure hunting, letterboxing is one of the best outdoor inquiry adventures around. Letterboxing’s primary tools are more literary than scientific, however. Our equipment requires clues (printed off from a website; often poetic), a pen, ink pad and rubber stamps (our stamps were purchased, but serious letterboxers hand-carve their own). I now keep these items in the car for spontaneous letterboxing adventures using my iPhone for the clues.

My son and our neighbor read the clue again:

At the Eastside of the parking lot is a paved path flanked by two large Colorado Spruce trees (your back will be to the tennis courts on the opposite side of the parking lot).”

I allow the two of them to bicker back and forth about the correct direction of “Eastside” and allow them to guess what “flanked” means. They read and re-read the clues, interpreting them differently each time; retracing steps and running to and from various spots. At this point, they are completely absorbed and determined to find this box. I try to disappear, but scared by the prospect of encountering a spider, they assign me the chore of unearthing the letterbox with a stick.

Inside is a notebook nesting the Letterbox’s own rubber stamp. We stamp our papers (serious letterboxers have their own notebooks) and place our personal stamps inside the letterbox notebook with brief explanations the terrain and how it's changed over time. The last visitor entered her stamp over two years ago, and this fact thrills these 10-year olds who realize it hasn’t been touched since they lost their last tooth.

To get involved in your own outdoor inquiry adventure (or to plant your own letterbox), check out this site: http://www.letterboxing.org.

 

 

Inquiry for Grown-Ups

Name tags, small talk, Chardonnay. The rituals of a VIP reception were in place last night, save one major item: the ritual program. Instead of a polite speech followed by cagey answers to leading questions, I witnessed a live inquiry lesson unfold. 

Let me set the scene: a swanky high-rise with big city views was the backdrop to introduce the new Dean at the College of Education of a major research university. The 30 or so attendees represented the city’s major philanthropists sprinkled with the requisite number of graduate students and alums. Valet, caterers and fine art. Got the picture?

After the requisite mingling time, wine glasses were refilled and everyone was seated on plush couches in a semi-circle; it was time for the “program.” And this is where the typical ritual ended and the inquiry music began.

Personalization

Dean: “Before I begin, I would like to get to know who you are. Let’s go around the room and please introduce yourself. Perhaps you could share your connection with the university.” While it did take about 15 minutes of our time, this essential activity brought us immediately together as a community for the next hour. Every last person in the room had a chance to be seen and heard. Connections were made. And we were now all a part of the conversation. 

Storytelling

Dean: “Welcome everyone and thank you for coming. I want to tell you a story about what led me here. This is a photo of me in elementary school. Do you notice anything?” The Dean was the only person of color in her class. People recognized this and drew an emotional connection to what the Dean may have experienced. She went on to tell a story about how that felt, how she dealt with it and why it led her to pursue advanced degrees in Sociology.

Asking More; Talking Less

After only about 10 minutes of sharing her background and process for starting her work at the college, the Dean stopped. “I’d like to ask you some questions now. What are your biggest concerns about the future of the college? What do you think I need to know, experience or understand to move the college forward?” The hands quickly went up.

Engaging the Group in Answering Questions

Attendee: “I’ve read that knowing subject-level content is really important to great teaching. How will an undergraduate major in education be able to offer much in the way of content expertise?”

Dean: “Tell me more.” At this point the attendee was asked to reflect on how she arrives at this conclusion (undergraduates in education majors have limited content knowledge). Others chimed in as well.

Dean: Pause. “That’s a really interesting question. I have some thoughts but first, what do the rest of you think?” Again, this elicited a lively conversation about content vs. pedagogical knowledge and skills building.  

Eliciting Deeper Thinking

Attendee: “Could you tell us how you would recruit more teachers of color into the programs you offer?” 

Dean: “Thank you for this question. I’m wondering…if you were me, how might you approach this challenge. Do you have any ideas?”

Of course she did! It’s why she asked the question. The attendee goes on to share a well-developed idea to the Dean who listened intently. The Dean continued to probe more by asking, “If I were to pursue that idea, how might I start?” Again, the attendee had an answer and you could see the beginning of a real plan in motion. 

Wait Time

The Dean allowed for several pregnant pauses throughout the presentation; not enough lapsed time for attendees to feel awkward, but enough to take a deep breath and refocus away from the rain and traffic and back to the topic at hand.

The presentation ended not with polite claps and 30-feet visions, but a real sense of movement, intellectual challenge and engagement. The new Dean was modeling great teaching right before our very eyes! Turns out alcohol and inquiry mix quite well when done right (NB: I'm not endorsing the alcohol part for classrooms). Perhaps this is the best way to introduce parents and the community at large to 21st classrooms and the intent behind the Common Core?

While I geeked out at the meta-cognitive level throughout the hour-long presentation watching this inquiry lesson/presentation, I wonder how it felt to the non-educators in the room. Did they also notice how different this felt? Did they reflect on how engaged they were? Did their lower backs hurt from leaning in so far? Did the questions and ideas from our conversation continue on their drives home? Were they uncomfortable? Were they invigorated and inspired to resume (or double-down on) funding the college? 

Stay tuned as I intend to ask them!

Why Beginning of School Year Staff Meetings Should End with a High Five and a Hug

If you believe that students pick up on and feel the emotional dynamics of adults working together in a school building – and that this feeling in turn impacts how students (and adults) ultimately perform – read on.

Every successful community of learners relies on the trust and respect built between people. We know this from experience and research. But, like many things in education, common sense is not often translated into common practice. Strengthening emotional bonds between students and teachers and students to one another is an essential component to a high functioning classroom. However, we often forget to apply this practice to the whole school level – with adults.

How do you strengthen emotional bonds among the adults in your school building? How do your teachers feel after the last orientation meeting before school begins? Are they stressed or pumped? Are they overwhelmed or joyful? Grousing or grinning? 

We tend to avoid team-building activities because ‘there are too many important things to cover’ or ‘it just feels too touchy-feely’. But when we deny adults the opportunity to connect and develop emotional bonds, we risk everything we ultimately want to accomplish.

Last week, I worked with several schools on implementing inquiry-based instruction in Houston, Texas. The staff spent much of the day working in their grade level teams on the ‘serious business’ of powerful instruction; but at the end of our day, we set aside an hour to do some emotional connecting. A simple but powerful team-building activity had them hugging and smiling as they walked out the door and into their classrooms to prepare for the year.

We started by reflecting in writing about “who we are” in terms of what makes us happy using this ‘handy’ template:

 


I then collected everyone’s responses (make sure everyone puts their name inside the palm of the hand so they can be identified), fold in half and shuffle them up and then ask everyone to chose ONE (like a tarot reading…the right card will choose them)! This will be their ‘buddy’; someone they look out for and support throughout the school year. They start by writing their buddy a letter (I give them about 15 minutes to do this right away). In these support letters, teachers can share what they hope to improve upon or reflect on how they plan to deepen their own practice. They can offer support, share what they have in common in terms of what makes them happy and send words of encouragement for the year ahead.

Then, when the letters have been written, the great reveal! This is my favorite part and it never ceases to amaze me how much adults really love doing this. Ask teachers to hand-deliver them to their ‘buddy’ and offer them with a hug or high five (that physical contact is key, so don’t skip this step). Teachers keep their ‘buddy’s’ hand so that throughout the school year they can refer back to what makes their buddy happy and surprise them with small gifts that relate to what makes that person happy, if they want.

At the end of the day, all of us remember the relationships and how we felt more than the content. Knowing this, let’s reserve even more staff time to deepen them. The payoff will be great; all of us will be more eager to stick with the challenging problems when we’re joyfully in it together.

Five KAPOWs in Inquiry-Based Classrooms

When tasked as a new principal to help implement inquiry-based instruction in every classroom, I was stumped. I knew that inquiry had something to do with asking a lot of questions, but beyond that, I really had no clue. I read several articles about inquiry and could imagine its natural fit in, say, a science classroom. I needed something more concrete. Was inquiry-based instruction obvious to everyone but me?! Did inquiry mean we would be doing project-based and hands-on everything? What happens to classroom management? Does it work for all students? What will test scores look like? Would teachers be able to get through their curriculum? What will the parents think?

Fifteen years and hundreds of hours observing and demonstrating inquiry lessons later, I can now identify inquiry when I see it. It takes on different forms depending upon the age level and subject, but there are core elements or teacher dispositions that are recognizable. 

So, what is inquiry-based instruction?

Inquiry is a way of teaching that allows students to build upon their prior understanding and encourages them to follow their curiosity. My favorite definitions come from the seminal writing of Postman & Weingartner and Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Socrates might well be our earliest and most recognizable inquiry teacher; turning lessons into conversations and feeding students with questions until they come to their own reasonable conclusions. The Socratic Seminar is a great model for inquiry. But inquiry isn’t an event; it’s an approach. Honestly, done right, it's KAPOW. Inquiry changes the 'game' completely and once you get a taste of it...there's no going back.

Whether you teach first grade or Calculus, here are five “common sense but not common practice” strategies or KAPOWs (what I'm calling them until I can come up with a better term) that are evident in every inquiry-based classroom:

1) Getting Personal

Inquiry teachers regularly create and maintain emotional bonds between the teacher and students (“Let me tell you a story about when I...”), the students and one another (“Turn and talk to a neighbor about...”) and between the students and the topic (“Reflect on your experiences with...”). Emotional bonds create the essential conditions necessary for students to explore their curiosity and take intellectual risks. The best way of quickly establishing lasting bonds? A terrific story. For inspiration, check out Carmen Agra Deedy.

2) Asking More: Talking Less

Inquiry teachers aren’t big lecturers. They provide access to information and create a range of questions to help students verify, debunk or build off what they already know. Students in inquiry classrooms ask a lot of the questions to themselves and one another, a skill nurtured by their teachers through activities like the Question Formulation Technique.

3) Encouraging Evidence

Students and teachers in inquiry classrooms regularly ask one another: “How do you know that?” With the volume of information available today, students do not necessarily need more information, they need to know how to better access, evaluate and use what’s available to them. By habitually referencing the author, publisher and copyright date, ruminating on the potential bias and the possible perspective from which the information comes, inquiry teachers can model this practice and expect students to do the same. Researcher and author Alan November has this strategy down cold. 

4) Staying Curious

Inquiry teachers are open to learning and approach their work with a beginners mind. They regularly share their own curiosity with students. When students are taking risks with their ideas and making conjectures, inquiry teachers encourage them by resisting the urge to narrate the conversation with too many judgments. Instead, you will hear teachers responding to students’ answers and comments with more questions. They also enlisting other students to respond (“What do the rest of you think about that?”) or simply saying “Thank you.”

5) Extending Thinking Time

Schools generally work within extreme time and space constraints. This can produce a suffocating and stressful environment; one in which it can be very hard to breathe, let alone learn. Inquiry teachers 1) pause frequently, 2) offer time for students to gather their thoughts or write and reflect before moving into groups or responding and 3) slow down their own movement and speech. Learning is a process that takes time and inquiry classrooms respect this. An easy way to start is to set aside time for meditation. Check out the Mind-Up curriculum for inspiration.

Inquiry classrooms integrate direct instruction, lectures and skill-based practice. The key, like most things in life, is balance. Ascribed standards, curriculum and assessments won’t dictate whether or not we ‘do inquiry.’ Individual teachers will decide. Teachers can create a professional culture where inquiry isn’t unique but the norm by applying these strategies, analyzing the results and getting regular support and feedback from colleagues and students. Inquiry’s great promise is to build classrooms truly worthy of our students’ and teachers’ time and talent. Inquiry’s amazing result is joyful learning. KAPOW!

The Inner Game of Learning

I recently read W. Timothy Gallwey’s “The Inner Game of Tennis”. Written to help tennis players understand the mental component of succeeding in tennis in 1974, this book has been widely recognized for its sagacity beyond the tennis court. I have been reflecting on the wisdom of this book as it applies to learning and school.

Start with the art of relaxed concentration. In my life, relaxed and concentration often exist in mutual exclusivity. I am relaxed at the end of the day plopped on the couch with a book or in front of the TV, and I concentrate while sitting in front of my computer in the office. In classrooms we want students to concentrate on the important learning tasks, but we are not always fostering an environment of relaxed concentration. I’ve seen teachers do a check-in with students and ask them to take a moment to become aware of how their minds and bodies are feeling at the outset of class. The mindset of the teacher often sets the tone for the students. There is so much pressure to cram so much into each school day. Yet teachers must maintain a mindset of relaxed concentration to create an optimal environment for learning.

Yesterday during a session about engaging students at the IB Conference in Chicago, educators from MacLachlan College in Ontario, Canada posed the question “What is the difference between a busy classroom and an active classroom?” I realize that I often create busy environments in which a great deal of activity occurs, but to create an active classroom mindfulness is required. Creating an environment in which relaxed concentration can occur takes time and planning.  The presenters from MacLachlan demonstrated how they involved fifth grade students in envisioning and designing the classroom layout to create a space for active learning. My first thought was “How could they afford to spend so much time on designing the classroom space when there is so much curriculum to cover?” and my second objection was “Won’t the students feel frustrated when they don’t actually get the pasta maker and beds suspended on ropes they asked for?”  

Yet, as teacher Ashleigh Woodward explained how she understood the motivations behind the students drawings—this one focused on being comfortable while learning; that one focused on collaborating to learn—it became evident that there are common needs when designing a space to promote learning and student buy-in empowers students to be mindful of themselves as learners. The real question is, Can we afford not to take time to prime students for learning each day at school?

Gallwey develops the metaphor of Self 1 and Self 2 in which Self 1 is constantly observing, reflecting and judging Self 2 during the learning process. By learning to distract Self 1 one can avoid judgment to enable Self 2 to learn and grow, a natural human process. An example of this is how babies learn a language. Parents don’t directly instruct their children to speak and understand English. Babies learn naturally. To tap into this innate ability to learn, Gallwey instructs us to simply observe, rather than judge, ourselves to allow learning to happen. When the mind “is still and acts like a mirror” we grow. Teachers can do this by staying curious in the classroom, and listening to student discussion without judgment. Rather than responding with “great!” or “not quite” teachers can thank students for their input and seek responses and reactions from other students. 

These tweaks to teaching—checking in with students, involving students in designing spaces for learning, staying curious and neutral, rather than judging—can have a large impact on the amount and quality of learning that can take place. I’m inspired to practice these ideas in my home and at school…and possibly to work on my serve this summer as well.

 

 

The Life-Changing Magic of Embracing the Chaos

I like order and I find comfort in routine. My house is fairly organized; every thing has its place. Right now we have five family members staying with us, including my 21-month-old nephew. Needless to say, everything is not in its place.

My nephew’s favorite game is open the drawer or cabinet, see what’s inside and empty the contents. My puppy is very much enjoying this game, as he now has access to dozens of kitchen utensils and other household objects which had been previously inaccessible to him.

When I scan my home I see a mess, and there is a part of me that feels unsettled. However, there is another part of me that can’t help but feel delighted to witness so much curiosity and learning. Right around the age of two there is this amazing stage of human development in which we can practically see the ‘wheels spinning’ inside a child’s mind. It’s as if with each drawer that is pulled open my nephew’s mind is also open to the possibilities. “Are the objects inside what I expected? What are these objects? What do they do? If I drop them on the floor what happens?” I even find myself anthropomorphizing my dog to imagine his thoughts as something like, “Wow! I finally get to feel and sniff and taste this plastic bowl. I wonder if the people will chase me to try and get it back?”

This image of my nephew rifling around, delighting in what he explores stands in sharp contrast to what I see when I peek into classrooms. Generally I observe classrooms with posters announcing class rules, with desks neatly arranged in rows and teachers regularly telling students to keep quiet and sit still. Where are the squeals of delight when discovering something new? Where is the exploration fueled by students’ curiosity? Somehow between the age of two and entering school children’s curiosity is tempered and the roles of order and obedience become elevated.

My nephew’s visit is a reminder to me of how messy it is to be curious, yet how beautiful.  For a while now I’ve been deliberating reading the international bestseller “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” Clearly, there is great demand for literature about organizing; the book currently has 4.5 stars and almost 4,000 reviews on Amazon. Still, I think I may pass. Despite my curiosity about the Japanese art of decluttering, I will follow the example of my nephew and embrace the chaos.

 

3 Questions to Spark Curiosity in the Last Month of School

I always found the last few weeks of school to be an incredibly liberating and creative time as a teacher. The tests are over. The weather is turning inside out. And celebrations are imminent. The stakes feel lower and teachers can take some risks with their teaching and curriculum.

As you set students loose on spectacular end-of-year projects and problems, try sprinkling these three beautiful questions on students throughout the day (try to ask at least one of every student every day) and watch what emerges!

1) “How do you know that?”

This is a simple but powerful question that is too rarely asked of students. This question prompts students to reflect on a meta-cognitive level about how they really know something. Is it a hunch; something verified; an experience they’ve had? The more you ask this question (and student ask it of one another), the more students will be ready to reflect and respond thoughtfully. If and when students answer with, “I read it online,” be sure to follow up with additional questions about the site, author and publisher to check for potential bias or misinformation.

Example:

Students are working in a small group to determine the considerations and calculations they need to make for building a fence around the playground at their school.

Student 1: “We don’t need the fence to be more than three feet high.”

Student 2: “Why not?”

Student 1: “Because that’s how high you need to make it so dogs cannot jump over.”

Teacher: “How do you know that?”

Student 2: “She has a dog?”

Student 1: “No, because I helped my dad build a fence for our neighbor last summer, and they had a dog they wanted to keep inside.”

Teacher: “Did it work?” [Is it true?]

2) “What would be the opposing perspective?”

Yogis around the world swear by the power of inversions. Standing on one’s head allows one to ‘see’ the other perspective and grow. This question, with creative tweaks, can be applied to all subjects and grade levels. You can practically see the students’ neurons firing in new and exciting directions with this question!        

Example:

After completing the original problem…

Teacher: “What if you weren’t trying to keep dogs out, but trying to get dogs in?

Student: [after thinking about it] “Well, I guess we would have some water & food bowls and maybe a dog run here so they could get in easily but not out easily…”

3)  “What questions does this raise for you?”

Teachers plan lessons around great questions…but how can we get our students to develop and ask their own questions? The best part of asking this question is that it can be asked at the beginning, middle or end of a problem or project. The more students engage in question development (and analysis), the better they will get at it!

Example:

Students assembled around a 3-D representation of a playground, negotiating the type of material they want to use for fencing.

Teacher: “It looks like you are all working well together here. Can I interrupt for a moment to ask you about the additional questions this conversation raises for you right now?”

Student 1: [after a moment] “Well, I’m not sure we know enough about the ages of the kids who will play here.”

Teacher: “How might you phrase this as a question?”

Student 2: “Who is the playground for?”

Student 1: “Yeah.”

Student 3: “And what color is the best for playgrounds?”

Student 2 “Yes! And does the color even matter? Like, does red cost more than blue?”

Student 1: “You guys…let’s make a list of our questions!”

Use these final days to ask new questions of students. Observe the impact and see which question help students stretch and grow. Share your findings with us at @inquiryfive.


Students Are Credible Observers of Instruction

We spent the last school year working with the same 25 students at a local high school to better understand how inquiry teaching strategies were impacting their learning. At the start of the year, we listened to their visions of great teaching and then helped them recognize research-based strategies in action through video samples and discussions. 

When asked to pick the things that have made the biggest impact in improving their classroom learning experience this year, here is what they noticed (assembled under five main strategies):

Strategy #1: Get Personal

• When teachers base lessons on personal experiences

• Teachers tell their own personal stories

• They are ‘real’ with us

• Connect what we are learning to modern day situations and everyday life

• I love when teachers make funny faces and they relate the lessons to students' experiences

• They tell jokes & stories, not just teach out of the textbook

• Word problems and stories

• Labs and experiments; we have to make up on our own and use our creativity to come to a solution

Strategy #2: Ask More; Talk Less

• Drawing names from a bag so we all participate

• When teachers respond with another question

• Open discussions with the whole class

• Student-led discussions; when students have more of the leadership in class

• Asking students to respond to another student question or answer

• Getting in groups and having conversations

• When they have us explain our thinking

• Voicing our opinions on interesting (relevant) topics 

Strategy #3: Encourage Evidence

• My teachers ask us to present credible sources

• When they ask us “How do you know?”

• Asking “How do you know?” and “Where did you get that?”

• Analyzing the credibility of a source

• Encouraging us to talk more

• They make us go back and rethink our thinking

Strategy #4: Maintain Neutrality

• Teachers use sticks to call on people so everyone has to talk

•  They say "Good answer, that could be right…what does [another student] think?”

• I like Socratic Seminars where we can build off others’ ideas

• In debates…students get the opportunity to share their own opinion

• They give you their honest, logical opinion

Strategy #5: Extend Thinking Time

• Teachers who give us like 10 minutes to think about something before discussing

• Playing nice music while we work independently

• Not calling on the first hand that goes up

• Five-minute breathing/silent time before class begins; love that!

What would your students say?

Summer Learning: Harmoniously Blending Digital with Natural

What’s wonderful about summer learning is that it doesn’t feel like learning; it just feels like fun. There is no classroom, no homework, no dress code. Children are free to be their true learning selves. They can chase their curiosity into tiny crevices, inspecting how ants carry food, or to vast horizons, daydreaming about alien planets far away.

Summertime is ripe for developing friendships and working on relationship building. It is also a time to have space and time to explore interests. For one person this may mean practicing the bass guitar for five hours and for another it may mean trying out a whole bunch of new activities. Summer allows us to step outside our routines and reflect on what inspires us and what we’d like to learn.

Ideally, we can do this and still minimize the effects of “summer slide”. Here, technology can play a useful role. As a parent I use the incentive of ‘screen time’ to encourage my children to make sure they continue to read and work on some math problems. I know I’m not the only parent who sounds the battle cry, “It’s beautiful outside! Turn the screens off, get outside and play!” I tell my kids if they want to use the “devices” they need to earn time by first using the computer to do a certain amount of math problems (or spend a certain amount of time working through problems), and spend an allocated amount of time reading.

If classroom teachers haven’t provided summer reading, there are great curated reading lists available online (Please post your favorites in the comments below!). And various websites such as Kahn Academy, ixl, and Mathletics pick up the slack if math packets are not provided for summer work.

Really, summer is all about balance. A healthy mix of reading and math, screens and outdoor time, pursuit of individual interests and family/friends together-time fosters growth while allowing for much needed R & R.

3 Ideas To Bring Joy To The Rest of This School Year

As spring moves towards summer, I recommend we make school more like summer camp. For me, eight weeks of camp every summer was something I looked forward to and cherished. It was a magical place where I learned new skills, grew as a person, and made strong friendships. Here are three ways teachers can draw upon some of what makes summer camp wonderful to bring into classrooms this spring.

1.    Empower kids to make choices.  My favorite time of the camp day was called “hobby hour”. After participating in scheduled activities we had an hour each day before dinner in which we could choose an interest to pursue for an hour. Why not incorporate this into the classroom? Set aside time, even if just a few minutes each day, once a week, or as homework, in which students designate something they want to learn more about.  

2.    Get outside. Take advantage of spring weather and find ways to incorporate the local environment into studies. 

3.    Encourage students to take risks. Camp was the place I tried sailing, water skiing and performing in a musical.  At school, encourage students to take risks with their ideas. Wait longer before calling on students, and maintain neutrality when students contribute. Rather than responding with “good” or “not quite” simply thank students for their contributions, and watch how that impacts students’ participation.