Tag Archives: inquiry-based learning

Reflecting to Discover

5 Jul

What we love about this type of student-driven learning is that often, students are making connections to their personal lives and creating meaning in a way that we would not be able to engineer. When we first created and began implementing the ILP, I’m not sure we foresaw how students would be moving beyond content to uncover bigger truths about life and themselves, but since then we’ve realized that creating an open atmosphere for learning allows students the space for these sort of discoveries.

For many students, it isn’t until they to think about the ideas revealed in their activities that they discovered a greater takeaway. By having multiple points of reflection, one student, Miles was able to synthesize multiple sources, develop respect for the sometimes arduous task of narrative writing, and eventually see how his learning during that particular unit taught him so much more than World War I or about Paul Baumer and his buddies in All Quiet on the Western Front. In his final reflection for the unit, Miles wrote that his work helped him to see the need for education reform.

Ref1Ref2Ref3
His final reflection, while not especially specific to his progress in answering his essential question or his progress with specific skills, does reveal his understanding of the creative process as well as the dispositions that helped him get to an obviously optimistic and satisfied place by the end of his inquiry. His takeaway of self-guided, “vertical growth” led him to a “So What?” proposal to change the way students are educated at his school, advocating for more of what he calls “free creation.” This call to action about education is not something we would have predicted from a unit about WWI and narrative writing; however, because the content combined with Miles’ unique view of the world, he was able to create something truly individual.

Embrace Differences as Opportunities

9 Jun

In many traditional classes, students explore topics that have commonly accepted answers – causes and effects of the Civil War or symbols in To Kill a Mockingbird, for example. Inquiry can fall into a similar pattern if students ask questions they already have an answer to. They use their time to find sources that simply support their ideas, and they may ignore sources that contradict their thinking. Rather than discover what a wide range of people think about a certain topic, they limit their learning by finding something they already know (or think they know). With the ILP, we ultimately want students to find information from a variety of perspectives and synthesize them in the reflections. That means students need to see differences as unique opportunities to expand their thinking because they’re learning something new. In many ways, this goes against human nature. It’s a tough job, but Smith, Appleman, and Wilhelm (2014) argue, “It’s on us as teachers to create classroom environments that honor diversity, that require students to work together in various configurations, that confront them with multiple perspectives on various issues, and that help students interrogate themselves and their own positions to develop new angles of vision” (14). Hearing differing opinions is one thing, but “interrogating” ourselves is extremely difficult. So, how can we teach students to use differences to form “new angles of vision”? Let’s start at the beginning of a course.

Although it’s the end of the school year, and we’re thinking more about final projects than we are about the start of a course, it is a great time to consider how we can better set our students up for success, and for that, we have to go back to the start. Over the first few days of every course, teachers often orchestrate ice breaker activities to help students get to know each other–a great exercise in learning a little something about people who will eventually become a community of learners. In order to make the most of these activities, however, some teachers who use the ILP require students to connect with people who have different interests or people who surprised them in some way. I use an icebreaker adapted from an exercise that Giselle Martin-Kniep uses with adult learners. Students write the following on individual post-it notes:

  • Three experiences they have had – one on each post-it
  • Three passions they have – one on each post-it
  • Three areas of expertise – one on each post-it

All in all, students create nine post-it notes. On the sticky sides, participants write their names and then they hang them in designated areas throughout the room. Everyone else is then asked to survey the post-it notes and find one at each station (experiences, passions, expertise) that seem interesting to them but not the same as something they wrote down. Below are some samples from a junior-level English class. 


They can then look on the back of the post-it to see who wrote it and find that person. Next, they need to introduce themselves and ask two questions about the person’s response. After everyone has met three people, they return to their seats and share what they learned about their peers. At the end of the exercise, students write a brief reflection: If they spoke with  someone they already knew, they are asked to consider how this new information shifts the way they see that person. If they spoke with someone they didn’t know well, they are asked to consider what impression this makes on them. By going through this exercise, students begin to think about how perception can change based on information they gather and even how perceptions can stick if someone is unwilling to consider new information.

“Have you read this book?”

31 May

A couple weeks ago, I sat down with one of my seniors to conference with her about her reading activities. I started by asking, “What are you learning?” She dove right in, talking about how the author had introduced the main character and explaining what she thought the theme might be. The ideas spilled out quickly, until she started to question why he included certain details. She grew frustrated, saying, “Well, have you read this book?” I knew she wanted the answer to be “yes,” so that I could come to her rescue and guide her to some understanding about the author’s choices. But I hadn’t the read the book, so I couldn’t ask her the exact guiding question to get her there. I had to think broader, asking lots of “Why?” and “How do you know that?” questions. Eventually, our discussion led her to some resolution and she felt satisfied and prepared enough to move on to her next activity.

In reflecting on this experience, I’m so excited that my student even got to ask that question. When I first started the ILP and my students were venturing into independent reading, they had the expectation that I had somehow read every book; they were absolutely gobsmacked that I couldn’t tell them the answer. But now the culture at Hunterdon Central is shifting to the student as the expert on the text, not the teacher. This speaks to the comfort that my colleagues and our students are starting to feel about letting go of the traditional model that the teacher is all-knowing about the text. This shift started with student choice in terms of reading but is now a part of learning in general. My students are finding information about ideas I know nothing about— how cool is it that I get to learn as much as they do?

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Misconceptions About the ILP

25 May

Not long ago, my good friend, Sarah, came to visit me at school. She’s an English teacher, too, and she was curious about this crazy Inquiry Learning Plan thing she’s been hearing about for 5 years. She sat in on my conferences with students, she observed their work habits, and she asked them lots of questions about their processes. The classes were finishing up a unit, and so much of their work was independently driven. According to every teacher evaluation model out there, this setup looks phenomenal – student led learning, self-assessment, choice, and ample peer and teacher feedback. But, it does take a lot of prep work to get to that independent stage, which is something Sarah recognized when she observed. This also debunks a common misconception about the ILP–that students are completely on their own or that there’s no structure to the approach.  

Yes, students do take on the responsibility of learning, but that doesn’t mean that teachers are hands-off. Rather, at the beginning of every unit, we are leading students through mini-lessons for question development, close-reads of standards, rubric creation, synthesis, writing techniques, and reading strategies. Students are also engaging with reading at the beginning of every single class period. The ILP becomes a routine–build skills, reflect, repeat. Toward the end of the unit though, at the time when Sarah visited, the class looked very different from the time when students were going through their first few rounds of activities. Here’s what Sarah saw:

  • students finishing reading activities–one was coloring, many were typing, some were reading, others were graphing.
  • students starting or revising essays.
  • students conferencing with each other using their own peer review questions that focus on standard-based rubric criteria.
  • students conferencing with me–they signed up for a time slot and led the conference by presenting what they had already accomplished and what they were stuck on and by asking specific questions about their work and its connection to the standards-based criteria for evaluation.

 

That sounds great, right? But, students were also:

  • playing around on their computers or chatting with their neighbors while I was busy with a conference.
  • feverishly trying to catch up after falling behind.
  • staring off into space.

 

This is where the second misconception–that the ILP solves all classroom problems–is clearly shattered. I’d love to say that the ILP magically allows every student to be engaged 100% of the time, but that’s just not accurate. Like with any class, there are still students whose lives outside of school limit their ability to complete work. There are still those who are unmotivated. And, there are those who are easily distracted in class workshop time.

But, the difference between this classroom approach and others is that the students share equal responsibility when motivation drags or when it comes to using time wisely. As part of our regular conferences with kids, we hold them accountable for their daily habits, and those habits are cumulatively assessed at the end of the every unit for a summative grade. With regular check-ins, students are very aware of their work ethic and the value of the workshop time that they are given in class. That doesn’t mean that goofing off is eliminated; students are just more aware of the repercussions of those unproductive days, and, for the most part, they cut back on them.

About midway through each unit, I ask students to reflect on their work using the criteria established in the ILP Rubric and to set personal goals for improvement in the second half of the unit. This gives them a chance to see what their grades might be if they were to continue in the same fashion and to recalibrate their behavior and work if they don’t feel that they are meeting their potential. For example, a student might be aligning activities to standards, but isn’t pushing himself to improve with each attempt at a skill. Or, a student might need reminders to stay focused on coursework. Those can both be marked as areas for improvement, becoming discussion points during teacher conferences. Then it is the student’s responsibility to demonstrate growth in those areas or admit that he is content with his current performance.

An Essential Question to Ground Our Inquiry

16 Mar

These last few weeks have been a little tricky. We’ve had snow days, delayed openings, half days, and PARCC testing disrupt the usual continuity of the start of our Othello unit in my sophomore English classes. In the midst of the disruptions, the students were introduced to the Inquiry Learning Plan and developed their first essential questions. They have created questions for Socratic seminars with their first semester, substitute teacher, but for the first time, they were creating something that could help them examine multiple sources, that was philosophical in nature, and that was broad enough to garner unique responses. Before we got into PARCC testing and before they would need to read a chunk of the text on their own, I wanted them to have a grounding question that they could continually refer to as they read.

We started with a brief mini-lesson in types of questions. I borrowed definitions from Giselle Martin-Kniep for divergent, convergent, and fact-based.

Types of Questions

I asked the students, first, what they thought the words might mean. I reminded them that they could draw from understandings in science or math classes as well as from the popular book series, Divergent, to formulate potential definitions. Students differentiated between divergent and convergent by saying that the former leads to multiple end points whereas the latter might start from multiple places that “converge” or yield to one end point. I asked them to apply that to a question, and using the symbols next to the words above, we created the common understanding that a divergent question requires someone to examine multiple resources and could have multiple responses, depending on perspective, resources, and personal experiences. Convergent questions have a specific answer that might require some analysis of resources and some careful interpretation, but no matter the perspective of the person responding, the answer is the same. Fact-based questions also have one answer, but they are more simplistic. They don’t require interpretation. Instead, these are the kinds of questions that can be answered by simply turning to a specific page. For example, if I asked who wrote the play, all students could look at the cover of the book and respond, “William Shakespeare.”

After reading Act I, I grouped students and asked them to identify thematic concepts they had seen emerging in the text so far. They listed revenge, jealousy, bravery, confidence, justice, treachery, love, betrayal, loyalty, trust, and racism. Next, each group identified two concepts that they wanted to explore further, and they wrote divergent questions for each.

Group representatives wrote their questions on the board for class review.

They shared questions like these:

  • Is trust always blind?
  • Is betraying your family worth it to be with the person you love?
  • How do rumors affect thoughts and actions?
  • Can love overpower anything or can the world and its obstacles eventually come between two people?
  • Why are people susceptible to manipulation?
  • Is trust in others a strength?

We then eliminated or reworked questions that were too specific to the text or that weren’t divergent. For example, the students thought the following question was too leading: “How has the value of loyalty decreased since the time period described in Othello?” Some thought it left out the possibility that the value of loyalty hasn’t decreased. They swapped out the word, “decreased” for “changed;” however, some were still not satisfied. They thought it was too specific, and they didn’t think that they could walk away with varying responses if they stuck to a compare/contrast structure. The class decided to nix it altogether.

They voted on the remaining questions, first selecting two favorites within the group (no group was allowed to vote for both of their own questions) to narrow down the selections. Finally, the groups voted on their ultimate favorite, and the question with the most votes in the class won:

When is revenge justifiable?

After the decision was made, I asked students to write down the other questions on the board that might want to explore and that will help them to answer the class question. They’re keeping those in their ILPs throughout the unit.

The class question will serve as our grounding focus as the students take control of selecting supplementary sources, studying individual standards, and developing unique activities. That will allow the whole class to come together at reflection points. This is especially important as they learn how to go through the ILP and navigate the emotions of inquiry. I’ll report back on our progress as we go!  

“I wish school curriculums let students create more.”

12 Nov

Last month, I observed a few classes at Lakeside, an independent school in Seattle, WA. There, teachers are moving toward, what they call, a playground model in which students are encouraged to take risks and experiment. While they of course still have a curriculum that they follow, students do have freedom to do things like design, tweak, and retry their own lab experiments and to play with programming software to figure out how chaos and order are a part of an author’s writing. It sounds awesome, doesn’t it?

Of course these things are not total anomalies in public education, but with increasing demands to produce evidence of student achievement, time dedicated to trying new things and allowing students the freedom to make and learn from mistakes can sometimes take a back seat to things like test prep. What seems more amazing is that students recognize that trend as well. They’re not naive in that they know acing an AP exam will put them in good standings for college admissions, but they also seem to crave more choice and more time to play.

This week, I’m reading through student reflections, in which they discuss their greatest takeaways from working with the ILP and the work in subsequent classes that makes them feel most accomplished. Here is one that seems to encapsulate what many of his peers are also thinking:

“NO other class has let me create my own work from the ground up, and this vertical growth has been enjoyable in that I have learned how to independently pursue relevant knowledge and also how to put my independent creative vision into this discovery of knowledge. Especially in my narrative writing. I found this unit to be most enjoyable because of this promotion of free creation. I don’t imagine I’ll get to use this skill again because AP classes are intensely geared towards taking a test, not promoting the free ideas and creation that all student all really need. I wish more people realized that creation is more important than just doing activities, like during this English class and in other classes as well (world language, especially), and that’s my greatest takeaway. I wish school curriculums let students create more…. This unit has made me realize that the current system of education desperately needs to reform for more independent creation.” (10th grade Honors Student)

The student’s terms, “vertical growth” and “free creation” really strike me because I see them echoed in the pleas of many other students.

During our STEM class, my partner and I developed detailed instructions for our peers to build piece of a steam engine. We failed! All of those red marks are questions from our peers. We tried again after knowing more about our audience's needs. The blue marks indicate our 2nd attempt with a focus on spacial dimensions.

During our STEM class, my partner and I developed detailed instructions for our peers to build a piece of a steam engine. We failed! All of those red marks are questions from our peers. So, we tried again after learning more about our audience’s needs. The blue marks indicate our 2nd attempt with a focus on spacial dimensions and different perspectives.

Of course, there are many, many teachers who are doing amazing things with student creation, but it seems increasingly saved for elective classes in public education. When I took a professional development course on STEM across the curriculum at my school, I had the pleasure of experiencing what those students are yearning for. While setting us off on a project of our own creation, Design and Applied Technology teacher, Michael McFadden gave three pieces of wisdom that I couldn’t help but write down:

  • In the engineering process, students have to fail before they can start. It’s not until they fail and have to figure out why something didn’t work that they have a real problem to solve.
  • You’re never finished.
  • The two biggest requirements for any project–be engaged in the process and be as ambitious as you want.

This makes me wonder, especially in highly-tested subject areas or content-heavy courses, how can we do more to let our students explore, be ambitious, and engage in the process? How can we reconcile the need for grades on “finished” products if students are forever vertically growing? And how can we allow for students to learn from mistakes?

“Why can’t you just tell us what to do?!”

23 Mar

My 11th-12th grade American Lit class just finished up their first full unit with the Inquiry Learning Plan (ILP). As I assess their work, I have been thinking a lot about the ups and downs of their learning experience. As I expected, there were several points where students met challenges and where they felt uncomfortable. Looking ahead to the next unit, I thought it might be helpful for me to write a few posts about dealing with challenges of the inquiry process and share some of the strategies I’ve used to help students work through those moments of frustration and doubt.

The first of those moments came when they were developing activities on their own for the first time. They were really struggling with the idea that they have little direction about the final product–what they will ultimately work toward. So, in order to help ease their minds and give them a little insight into the philosophy behind what we were doing in this class, I decided to start one class period with a little troubleshooting session. It went something like this… Continue reading

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