Turning the Teaching Over to Students

Every quarter I lead 50 college undergraduates in an inquiry-based course called “Teaching as a Profession.” My students are not teachers. At least, not yet. They are majoring in everything from Chemistry to Computer Science. But they are curious about teaching and so they sign up for the class. That, and they later tell me it “sounds easy.”

Imagine the looks on their faces when I tell them that they will be leading the course and doing most of the talking and question-asking. They cannot saunter in with a Starbucks in one hand and drop into a chair thinking I’ll do most of the cognitive heavy lifting. They’ve complied their way through school the last thirteen plus years. They are pros. They know when to add a question or make a comment to ring that participation bell. I was the same way. But this is not that class.

I wait to register their reactions. I’ve got their attention, that’s for sure. Around 3-4 will drop out. Those that return to the next class are placed into small teams of three. These teams are then assigned a 90-minute class period to design, lead and assess based on the reading.

I’ll never forget the first team to step up to the challenge. We had just finished reading a chapter from bell hooks’ book: Teaching to Transgress. This chapter explores the role of institutionalized racism and the effects of poverty on education. I’ll admit, I panicked a little. This was a heavy topic. How would they approach it? I sent emails over the weekend offering my help.

But their response was clear: We got this.

At the beginning of class, I made a few remarks and then took a seat in the back row. I held my breath. What would happen? How should I react? “Welcome,” one of them said. “We now invite you to leave your things here and step outside with us for a few minutes.”

Fifty students now spill outside of Miller Hall and stand on a chalk line that extends behind the quad. They form a line of babies. I don’t mean this euphemistically. “This line represents birth,” the team explains. For a few precious seconds everyone is equal.

The team then hands each student a stack of 16 papers stapled together. It is at this precise moment that I snapped the photo you see below. Each paper in this stack represents a major event in their fictional life. For example, your family enrolls you in Head Start – move two paces forward. Or, your mother is arrested for drug possession – move two paces back.

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Significant life events and their research-based impacts are presented to students one at a time, year after year. “Your father loses his job.” Or “A teacher identifies you for the gifted program.” Each situation either moves them forward, backward, or keeps them rooted in place.

Towards the end of this simulation, I can see students visibly shaken. Many are so far behind they’ve literally hit the building’s brick wall. Some are so far ahead they cannot see their classmates anymore. The metaphor is beautiful, painful, powerful.

After they all turn 18, we slowly file back into the classroom and the team leads a discussion. Some feel angry. Others feel tremendous guilt. But it’s clear that everyone feels something. The ensuing discussion is deep and no one is ready to leave at the end of the class.

The pressure to lead a class or solve a simulated problem is far more motivating than the sort of pressure students usually face in classrooms. And they are allowed to play around with how they react and who they are.

As the quarter progresses, not one team defaults to a lengthy PPT-aided lecture. In fact, the simulations just continue and get more creative. My role shifts to meta-cognitive coach and resource. I rarely speak in class. And it’s the most fun I’ve had teaching in a long time.

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The Real Meaning of Inquiry: A parent’s story

Inquiry is always on my mind as I see its effectiveness again and again and again. Thanks Edna for your insightful, informative post recently about “10 Ways to Make Learning Meaningful.

It’s perfect, and perfect timing as I muse about this.

My daughter came home last night full of excitement about her Math class. She’s in 9th grade and taking extended Math this year. She’s not a huge fan of Math but we encouraged her to take extended Math to challenge herself, and for the beginning of this year, she’s been stressed. We almost thought we had made the wrong decision. She had missed out on a lot of concepts last year, and my husband (a Math teacher) played catch up with her at home at the beginning of the year.

She had a “test” yesterday about logarithms and patterns. She went into it thinking she would fail and came home last night beaming. I think I got it, she said. She then proceeded to tell us about the assessment which asked the students to find patterns to attempt to figure out a little bit about how logarithms worked. “Our teacher hadn’t told us anything about them,” my daughter said. “We had to figure it out ourselves.” She smiled and said, “I figured out the pattern. I’ll show you. I think I know what logarithms are now.”

She then went to her whiteboard and drew out her perfect understanding, chatting along the way about her thinking. Through this one exercise of inquiry, my daughter had gone through the different stages in the learning challenge and come out the other side. It was eye opening, jaw-dropping, all of those cliche phrases.

Her teacher is good, and it’s the first time my daughter is showing some Eureka moments in Math. Constructing meaning in her Math class has helped her grown as a learner. Kudos to a great Math teacher. Kudos to inquiry. I need to continue to bring inquiry into the classroom. It’s such a powerful tool.

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From James Nottingham’s Learning Pit

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Engaging all learners …

Posted on The Space of Jeans

Observing the world, reading and viewing gives one a great opportunities to ask questions; reflect on one’s own practice and try to make meaningful, practical suggestions.

   How do we get all learners to be engaged, feel involved and show them that their voice matters?

 How do we involve all children in discussion, learning and collaboration?

 Is whole class discussion the way to start lessons, to pull everyone in?

I’ve been watching some video clips that our literacy co-ordinator shared with me. My first observation is that the children look like they are half asleep. The same two children raise their hands and are called on constantly. The teacher talks and talks …

What strategies might we use to draw all of our learners in?

  • Stop asking for raised hands. Instead, ask everyone to think and place their thumb next to their chest when they feel they have a thought. Hands in the air hinder the thinking of the children who take time to think. They know that the “hand up child” will be called on , so there is no need to think.

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  • Access prior knowledge – use thinking routines (in parts and with purpose) eg I used to think and now I think (know)
  • Use Google Slides / Docs so that every child has a place to share their ideas and link to those of others.
  • Allow every child a point of entry by using big questions and deep provocations.
  • Less teacher talk – allow children to ask the questions and then find out what they are interested in and what they see the need to find out about.
  • Using thinking routines like Connect-Extend-Challenge, Think, Pair Share , Compass Points , See, Think, Wonder
  • Share ideas in small groups rather than whole class discussions all the time. Get group to come up with a headline / big idea / question / insight to share.
  • Use place mat thinking routines to come up with a definition.

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  • Use a chalk walk to collect thinking and extend ideas.vtr3

At the end of the lesson, check in  with children. Ask them to share a puzzle/ insight / something they learnt/ how they are feeling.  Is it possible to engage all learners, all of the time?

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Teaching or learning?

Posted on The Space of Jeans

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Image taken from All Things Learning

Here’s the question for today … What do we value more? Teaching or learning? 

This question could be debated from many perspectives, with a huge amount of evidence to justify view points.

So often, we consider “the lesson; the concept; the message”. Is there anything wrong with this? I don’t think so. How often do we consider these things:

  • What is the learner’s prior knowledge?
  • What  is the learner’s ‘care factor’ about this topic?
  • How is the learner going to use this beyond the classroom?
  • How does each learner learn best?
  • What will motivate the learner to extend their thinking?

Do we expect children to do things that we would hate to do? 

When we plan for learning, is the focus on teaching (how and what) or learning (why)?     In Making the PYP Happen, this question is  raised : “How should the teaching and learning process be modified as a result of the assessment?”

How are we using assessment to inform our teaching and  learning?                                     Is assessment for a grade? To monitor progress? To see how a school / teacher / child is traveling?                                                                            

What else helps us inform teaching and learning? 

What do we value more? Teaching or learning? 

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Assessment done with students, not to students

Posted on Risk and Reflect

I strongly believe that assessment is something that should be done with students, not something that is done to  students. So this year, being back in the classroom, I wanted to put that belief into practice. We have just finished our first Unit of Inquiry and here is how our summative assessment went.

  1. An open discussion about assessment

As a class we discussed the difficulty of trying to measure a human’s learning and I shared that there are many different approaches to trying to figure out what a student has learned in school.

2. Trying out multiple approaches

We discussed a handful of approaches for measuring learning and then we tried each of them out within the context of our unit.

Students showed how their thinking changed throughout the unit by completing “I used to think… Now I think…”

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Students synthesized their own big idea from the unit by completing the VTR “Headlines”

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Students added new knowledge to their transdisciplinary concept  time capsule

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Students applied the concepts learning in our unit to their own life

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3. Self-Assessment

I’m also a strong believer that the learner themself best understands what they know and don’t know, so it was important to me that they had the first opportunity to assess their own understanding. Students took the four different assessments they had completed and using those learning artifacts, marked on the rubric where they felt they were on our learning spectrum.


4. Teacher Assessment

The students then gave me their 4 summative activities and their self-assessed rubric and I looked through the same learning artifacts and I added my perspective to the rubric.


5. Summative conference

Then, I conferenced with each student individually…


and one of three things happened. Either we had the same perspective and that became their final mark for the unit.


Or if we had different perspective, we chatted to figure out if they new more than they were able to show on the activities, or if they thought they new more but after our chat discovered they actually had more to learn. And in some cases I needed more information because I felt I was unable to assess their understanding based on the activities they completed, so we we chatted about the concepts in the unit and the central idea to find out if they knew more than they showed.


For students who had a competent understanding, we talked about how to extend themselves next unit. For students who were still developing their understanding, we reflected on what blocked their learning this unit and set goals for next unit. For some students that meant changing some learning behaviours (where they sit, who they learn with), for other students it meant applying more effort, and for other students it meant organizing time in addition to class time, for extra learning support from me.


6. Share with parents

After the conferences were complete, I sent home to rubrics so the students could share them with their parents. I also included information about our summative process on our class blog. Parents were also invited to set-up a three-way meeting with me and their child if they wanted to discuss anything about this particular summative.

All in all, it was a great process! I think my students felt empowered to have a voice in their learning and in the measurement of their learning. I think students felt their perspectives were respected and valued. I think that going through this process after the first unit of inquiry will have positive impacts on the learning that happens in our second unit of inquiry.

And on a personal level, it felt much more humane and much more like a partnership in supporting their learning journey!

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Touching the Eternal

Is a class in argumentation—where we analyze complex issues like immigration, police policies and food stamps—necessarily a good educational experience? Yes, it seems in today’s world we need to be able to function with this capability—to take a stand, see the other side and be able to draw reasonable conclusions using evidence to support our judgments..

End of story?

No, not so fast. There’s more to this kind of analytic experience when presented during a several weeks’ course.

I had the pleasure of sitting in on Andy Snyder’s course at Harvest/Collegiate School here in New York City. Harvest/Collegiate is part of the the New York Performance Standards Consortium, where teachers create their own benchmark assessments—rigorous, authentic challenges—that can be used to monitor students’ intellectual growth over time.

At the end of the semester I asked Justin what he got out of the course. What was most important to him?

Justin reflected, “This class gave me the ability to consider things from the other side of the glass. . . caused me to care and understand others’ point of view. . . [It gave me] a new sense of empathy. . . Good not to take anything for granted, to understand how others felt.” (Barell, 2016)

He went on to tell me about living with his uncle who had very different ideas, for example, about who deserved to receive food stamps— “We shouldn’t give something for nothing.” Justin concluded with his own feelings of having to go to bed hungry on occasion, without sufficient nutrition.

Why are these reflective questions important?

I suggest that this reflective experience is one we often overlook. Students take the test, we enter grades and, often, press on to the next topic without pausing to ask what our students found important, what they learned from our instruction, what was most significant. These student reflections just might differ from our planned expectations.

Justin’s observations provide us with his own personal meanings and understandings about the importance of argumentation. “The goal of high school is not success,” Andy told me after our visits. “It should be about gaining deeper understanding of an issue, being able to ask good questions to refine or clarify [the complex situation]. What we need is an openness to inquiry throughout. That’s how we gain wisdom.”

What strikes me now about Justin’s comment is how he transcended making an argument. He has touched upon fundamental characteristics of the human condition, what it means to be a person living in our world. Part of the human experience for all of us is to encounter differences such as what Justin observed, but to be able to empathize with another person and his experience.

Such empathy provides us with a Mazlovian sense of Belonging to the human family, to that which is greater than ourselves.

This, I think, is what is implied in Reinhold Niebuhr’s claim about the nature of human beings:

“Each individual faces the eternal at every moment and in every action of his life.”

What is “the eternal”? Well, it will have different meanings for each of us. But, for me, “the eternal” here represents what it means to be an individual living in communities of others who have very different backgrounds, beliefs and aspirations all across the planet.

“The eternal” also refers to those fundamental principles, laws and universal truths about living within nature—on this planet, within our solar system, galaxy and entire cosmos.

Justin is here transcending argumentation to gain a sense of belonging to the nature of all humans across the planet, living within nature described by the laws of science.

When we teach, we have opportunities to extend students’ search for meaningfulness, as well as our own, by challenging them before, during and after instruction, to consider these extended meanings. We do so with such questions as:

“What is important to you here?
How does this apply to you? To all of us?
How does this relate to other subjects, to your experiences beyond school?
What are the general truths we are discovering about being human living in nature?”

In an exhibition for high school graduation I asked a physics student these questions about her research into the aerodynamics of lift-off runway lengths at LaGuardia airport for a 767.

“It tells me how the world works.” For example? “Well, how the subways I take everyday rely on the same basic principles of physics.”

There you have it. She has begun to see how physics helps explain everything around us. Helps her use these laws of physics for the betterment of all.

Why are these students’ understandings important?

They help them feel connected to the larger community of people who have similar experiences. We are not alone. We belong to the human race.

And we humans inhabit a physical world that we can know, understand and learn to explore for our own purposes, thereby achieving what one planetary scientist, Carolyn Porco (in charge of Saturn’s Cassini project) called

“. . .a deep spiritual quest—to grasp, to know, to feel connected through an understanding of the secrets of the natural world, to have a sense of one’s part in the greater whole.”

“To have a sense of one’s part in the greater whole” may bring to some of us the comfort of expanding our humanity, of knowing that we, like all our kin, are searching for meaning and understanding.

With such relationships to “the greater whole” also comes the ability to control nature to some degree.  Hence, we have landed three rovers on Mars, explore Saturn’s rings and mount ever more powerful telescopes to search the origins of our universe.

Education is a search for meaning for all of us, from infancy to more maturity, one that brings us into ever closer and closer union with the eternals of nature and our human condition.
Barell, J. 2016 Moving from WHAT to What if? Teaching Critical Thinking with Authentic Inquiry and Assessments. NY: Routledge.

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Who’s listening? Who’s talking?

Posted on  The Space of Jeans .

The much discussed concept of learners identifying problems – not only solutions is at the forefront of mind today. There is much talk around teachers who talk too much. We know this is real. We know we all do it. So why is it that teachers feel they should reword, finish sentences, provide their perspective  and step in so often? It puzzles me.

Today I sit with a Year 6 child who is on her PYP Expedition. Her teacher feels that she might be a bit lost. She starts off by reading “her questions” to me. They seem rather abstract and I dig a bit deeper. She tells me how someone helped her “make them up”. We chat a bit more. It seems like in forcing her to ask questions, rather than view her area of interest and analyse the parts (the thing routine Parts, Purposes and Complexities, shared by Project Zero’s  Agency by Design would have extended this thinking), has hindered her from exploring what she really wants to find out about.

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I listen while she talks and I create a mind map of her thoughts and suggestions. When she is finished talking, I ask her to think about the lenses that she will be using in her exploration and she immediately identifies the concepts that will scaffold her thinking.

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When our time is up she says,”This feels more like what I want to be doing”.

I am left pondering some of my own “big questions” …

Who’s  doing the listening when children are talking?

Who’s  doing the talking?

What message do children get when their voices are shut down?

What buy in is there from learners if there questions are forced; paraphrased and contained?

Do we all have an idea of why it’s important to know ,”Who’s listening and who’s talking”?

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