Teachers’ work and students’ work

“There’s no time for inquiry. I’ve got content to cover.”

“Look at this topic list. Where will we find the time to inquire?”

“These kids don’t know how to inquire.”

“There’s an exam at the end of this year.”

There are a lot of different reasons why many classrooms do not make time for student inquiry, and these statements are just a few of the most common.

If we take a look at the four statements above, we find that perhaps the most common excuse for not approaching learning through student inquiry is a lack of time, which seems to be occupied with topic lists and coverage in preparation for an exam. The other one is that students don’t know how to inquire.

What are the bases for these misconceptions about inquiry?

  • Is becoming curious something that cannot be facilitated?
  • Is covering content entirely separate from processes of asking questions and finding out, sorting information, evaluating it, thinking about its relevance, drawing conclusions?
  • If students become personally motivated to find answers to questions they ask about content and concepts, what might happen?
  • Do curiosity, processes of learning, and motivation take up so much time that they cannot be engaged in when content is being covered?
  • Are exam questions not able to be answered using process, skills, knowledge and understanding that might result from well-designed and facilitated inquiry?

By i_yudai (The fork in the road) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)] , via Wikimedia Commons

By i_yudai (The fork in the road) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D , via Wikimedia Commons

It seems that we might want learners who are:

  • Curious and motivated to find things out
  • Able to construct good questions
  • Able to learn processes and use these deliberately to find answers which are not readily apparent

Covering content is teacher’s work.

When the summative assessment is upon the learner, he or she must do some work.

If the teacher does all the work, what will the student do when the time comes for him or her to perform it?

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Just Make – Documenting Play and Exploration in Robotics

creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-ND ) flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs

I have been wondering for a while about all the hype around the Reggio Emila Approach, an early childhood program that focuses on relationships, documentation, project work, personal expression and active listening. Initially my attention was sparked by Dan Donahoo’s keynote for ICTEV13 Conference and the notion of the ‘digital village’. More recently, Cameron Paterson piqued my interest. Firstly, with a post about the links between Project Zero and Reggio Emilia through his discussion of the book Visable Learners. Then more recently in a post exploring the use of documentation in the Secondary classroom. I have been left thinking about what Reggio might offer my own teaching practises.

One of the things that stands out to me in regards to Reggio is the power of play and discovery. The idea of students driving their own projects and inquiry with the teacher providing a space and documenting the various experiences has a lot of potential. Although this could happen in any context, I saw a real opportunity through the teaching of robotics.

I felt particularly challenged by Steve Brophy in regards to letting go. In a post talking about developing a Makerspace, he explained that:

From a facilitator point of view, I purchased everything but opened nothing. I left the whole process to the kids and was constantly amazed by how much the kids would ask “are you sure we can do this?”

Although I had brought in inquiry in regards to wondering about robotics, I was still reluctant to let go of control of the building process. What I noticed in reflection was that for some students this was fine. They liked the structure that I provided. However, there were some that just wanted to explore and I was only inhibiting, rather than harnessing, this.

As I could not find anything in AUSVels that specifically said students must be able to build and program a NXT Mindstorm robot, I decided instead to provide them with the requirement to ‘make’. What unravelled when I handed out the Lego kits was amazing. Some started with instructions, others tested and tinkered. Some explored programming, others making. Some scrapped the instructions part way through, while others picked them up after some initial open explorations. Some walked around to check what other groups were doing, while others supported different groups with their questions and issues. Although I answered a few questions and found some missing parts, I just moved around and documented what the students were doing. All in all, most students demonstrated a depth of understanding and engagement at the end of the first session far beyond what I had ever seen before in a building session.

in a recent post about play, Tom Barrett suggested that:

It is not simply the timeless nature of immersive play but also the way that physical barriers, and even the rules of physics, become non-existent. They are changed, thwarted and ignored. Superpowers ON!

What was so exciting to observe in the lesson was seeing students enact the greatest superpower possible, the ability to not only learn together, but to in fact drive their own learning.

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Seeing is not believing

Possibility Over the past three days my school has hosted Mark Church, of Making Thinking Visible fame. He visited us to hold preliminary discussions about us developing a culture of thinking and hopefully the faculty will decide that this is something worthwhile continuing so we can begin to delve into some different perspectives on teaching and learning.

I was lucky enough to be involved with several of the breakout sessions and one idea that was raised was that the students we teach don’t necessarily believe what they see. Instead they see that which they already believe. This refers to the notion that a teacher could deliver a lesson in which they think that something has been taught, yet the student still harbours preconceived ideas. The example that we discussed regarding this was of the ideas of two students explaining that in a completely dark room your eyes would adjust to be able to see an object. Despite prolonged questioning and a carefully arranged experiment that allowed the teacher and student to sit in a room with absolutely no light, the student still maintained that her eyes would adjust to be able to see the object. Her original prediction was 2-3 minutes, then 5-6 minutes, then an hour or two and in the end she still maintained that her eyes would adjust – but it might take a year or two! This example showed that, even though the student was willing to shift her perspective slightly, she still did not believe or understand that the eye cannot see anything unless there is a light source. The lesson here for teachers is to recognise that its not necessarily the evidence that is presented that will cause a shift in conceptual understanding, but the ideas and opinions that students have around it that matters. The power is in the hands of the learner.

The acknowledgment that students have ideas and opinions has significant implications for teachers. Discovery learning, project learning, problem-based learning and the variety of other pedagogies fall short of the mark if they are enacted in a way that doesn’t listen to or value the voice of the student. They need to be embedded in inquiry. If the impetus for learning is coming solely from the teacher then they will only produce the same results as behaviourist approaches to teaching.

I’m currently reading a book by Marcia Behrenbruch called ‘Dancing in the Light‘. In this she identifies two approaches to planning in inquiry classrooms. The first she terms ‘planning for purpose‘. This refers to the teachers’ role in planning. It leaves less room for student-initiated inquiries but answers questions such as: ‘What are the significant, relevant, challenging and engaging conceptual ideas that should be addressed? What knowledge and skills could be developed through these ideas?’ This sort of planning in progressive curricula is based on the ‘Backwards by Design’ framework. The second approach to planning is referred to as ‘planning for possibilities‘ – a term that I was immediately drawn to. This process supports the development of student inquiries around the identified conceptual understandings. A variety of frameworks exist and all encourage student questioning at the classroom activity stage. When these two frameworks support each other, a teacher achieves what Behrenbruch refers to as an ‘integrative inquiry approach’. This is student-centered yet also allows for state, national or school requirements to be met within the curriculum. The craft of the teacher is dedicated to managing the interplay between the two frameworks, guiding the development of knowledge and skills identified in their ‘planning for purpose’, whilst also reflecting on the direction that student inquiries are taking. This is managed by formative assessment and focused through the conceptual lens(es) for understanding.

Mark also highlighted three types of data typically gathered by schools. That which we can count, that which we can see, and that which we can hear. He talked about filling up data buckets and that a great number of schools have a very large ‘counting data’ bucket, but much smaller ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ buckets. He referred to the analogy of a 4 year old visiting the doctor. If the doctor weighs the child, measures their height and takes their temperature then they may easily conclude that there is nothing wrong and they’re perfectly fine. However, a thorough doctor would also, for example,  listen to the child’s breathing and heartbeat, look for any abnormalities in or outside of the body. These may point to something else and give reason to further exploration. The point is that all three types of data tell a part of the story but none tell the full story alone. Schools must ask themselves how they are filling and scrutinising their three buckets of data. If we acknowledge that students come to our classrooms with ideas, opinions and preconceptions then we must ask ourselves how we are finding out about these? How are we getting our students’ thinking into our heads, instead of the other way around?

Photo Credit: built4love.hain via Compfight cc

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Reflections that Inspire Action


For the 3rd year in a row, we have worked on a unit on Sustainability with our 10th graders at Ecole Mondiale World School in the Language Acquisition Department; this is also the 3rd time we conduct a Skype conference to accompany and enrich the experience, and having witnessed how students engaged with the experience, we can fully celebrate by saying what we say in Mexico: la tercera es la vencida (the third time around is the winning one).

The first time we used the Skype Classroom experience to wrap up our unit; last year we used it as a key component in the learning experiences of the unit; and this year, not only did we want it to help students add perspective to the initiative they were about to launch, but also to generate an opportunity for them to discuss what they have been studying in their respective language class (French, Hindi and Spanish), and to have the opportunity to demonstrate their communication and critical thinking skills. This third time, students have fully demonstrated that, if given the chance, they are able to elevate the significance of learning to plateaus that cannot be constructed in learning scenarios where there is limited scope to visualize how their convictions and beliefs would take shape in the real world.

Snapshots from the blog

Snapshots from the blog

Prior to this conference, students had taken part in blog collaborations with people from different latitudes of the world, from India itself to Mexico, Costa Rica, Argentina, Spain, Malawi, USA and Panama; they had also held a meeting where they started to map the timeline they were to follow for the initiative they were targeting as a result of their involvement in the unit; they had divided their duties and commenced to explore the scenario to gain awareness of the current situation of our learning community, as the school will be the receptacle of this experience. For this reason, beyond providing them with the opportunity to learn how Emmanuel López Neri and his students at UVM started a movement towards developing an App for environmental sustainability and sustainable civility, this experience allowed them to evaluate the first steps of their initiative, to learn from the difficulties López Neri and his team have experienced, and to develop a new perspective that can help them prevent problems and devise possible solutions as they launch their initiative.

Students demonstrated that they are able to comprehend complex processes involved in planning, and designing innovations; that they are capable of understanding how data collection processes work; and that they can identify the gaps where problems may occur. Clearly, those teachers that witnessed how students engaged in the reflection process have witnessed yet another example of the power of inquiry and engagement. I, an individual that has ben lucky to witness this happenstance quite often, cannot help but feel lucky of seeing students shaping understandings and inspiring me to continue looking for new scenarios for all of us to learn.

On a personal level, what this experience has allowed me to see is the power of reflection when done at the right moment and at the right time; when we address it with an affective approach and link its substance to personal experience, to our local context; and when we use the energy it provides us to shape our learning journeys. Most importantly, this experience has confirmed my belief that reflection is meaningful and effective when teachers and students are part of the course, when this stage is not an isolated part of the inquiry process, and when we, the participants, acknowledge that the moment at which we reflect becomes a plateau that allows us to look learning before our reflection and after it.

What best system to document reflection than this: an occasion where everyone involved can savor the spices in the ideas we share; an instance where everyone is given to opportunity to create new affective and intellectual links with one another; an event where the knowledge being generated belongs to everyone present; and an experience that allows us to bathe our interactions in the science of thinking, as we navigate the waves of togetherness and truly feel part of the learning community we belong to.

Below is a video that captures some of the key moments in our reflection. López Neri said that we all make science when develop interest in transforming our reality; when we break our ideas and curiosities and put them together to discover that we are capable of creating impact. I also believe that we make science when generate spaces to discuss how we are experiencing our learning, for this is one of the most transparent ways in which we can continue designing the pathway that will take us to our idea of learning and happiness.

Originally posted on Ser y Estar.

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Going with the Flow

I was taking a yoga class the other night from a new teacher and so excited to be back after a yoga hiatus for several months. I wasn’t sure why I so needed to drop everything and go to yoga that night. I couldn’t put it into words.

When I finished the class, though, a bit unsatisfied, I realized why I so desperately love yoga and also why I wasn’t completely satisfied after the class. It came down to flow.

Yoga, for me, is all about “flow.” In fact, the class I take is called Vinyasa Flow. What happens when I do yoga is that I focus on the movements, the breathing, and everything else disappears for a while. I am fully there, engaged, in the moment, in the “flow.” In last week’s class with a new teacher, I didn’t feel that flow. Our movements were too disjointed, without a central purpose. I realized how amazing my previous teacher was in that she could create the right conditions so I felt the flow.

Originally developed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the word “flow” has to do with the times we are so engaged that everything else becomes secondary. In education, there has been a lot written on the subject. The Greater Good blog came out with 8 research-based tips on creating that flow in a classroom. Although a recent article that’s seen the rounds on Twitter about “7 Things Every Kid Should Master,” didn’t specifically mention “flow,” it mentioned how important engagement is for students:

The educational philosopher Harry Brighouse has suggested that the ability to think about something for 20 minutes at a time (sustained focus) may be one of the most powerful cognitive skills we acquire in school.

I would concur with Brighouse but also add that students should be able to not just think about, but collaborate, act, and engage for at least 20 minutes. I’ve seen it in my kids and lately I’ve resisted the urge to stop them and tell them we need to move on to something else.

IMG_6214In the classroom

Here are some examples from my classroom:

The students’ garden is one place where they can dig and plant and pull weeds and organize for a lot longer than 20 minutes.

Another time, my students started building creations out of popsicle sticks during a passion hour and were so excited creating and documenting their work, I didn’t have the heart to stop them.

Physical, kinesthetic activities are often where students reach their flow. However, I’ve seen it during our writers’ workshop where the room is silent, and they are writing or typing furiously to get out their ideas. We often write before lunch and there are usually groans when it’s time to stop. I’ve seen it in book groups where they are discussing ideas, off on “tangents” and it’s hard to tear students away from those discussions. I’ve seen students so engaged in action, so fired up over an injustice that they are planning their attack on it for much more than 20 minutes.

And it’s not just my upper elementary students I’ve seen going into “flow.” I’ve sat in on a 1st grade class this year, and there have been many times where the students start on a topic, like copyright of their books, for example, which led to an inquiry and discussion and…I think that conversation and action went on for days.

Stopping the Flow

What’s stopping the flow? Us, teachers, for one. We have our scheduled ideas and targets we need to hit. We need to find time to finish the projects, fit in some math, some reading, some writing throughout the day. Flow is also stopped by the need to schedule single subject teachers, who are completely essential in a balanced education. Yet, stopping and heading out to those subjects at assigned times does break the flow. Sometimes students themselves have trouble with the flow. I have one student who is a timekeeper. He checks the schedule on the board for the day and if we are running over schedule, he shoots up his hand to tell me. For him and a few others in my class with some learning challenges, routine is important. They don’t understand that we didn’t go according to plan because we just were too engaged. The world for some our kids is more black and white, and we need to respect that.

So, what to do? I think, coming out of yoga, I just needed a reminder that flow is important. I did ask my students once why they had such a hard time coming in from music into a silent time when they listen to a read aloud. It’s a good question to ask our students. They told me honestly that they had trouble transitioning from one class to another, one subject to another. Their brains were still running on the last class, and I was forcing them into another one.

When possible, I want to respect when my students are in their “flow.” I think being in that flow is good for their brains. It’s stretching them, allowing them to sustain activity, maybe to think a little bit more deeply.

What are your thoughts? Examples?

Originally published on the Solid Ground blog.

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What Really Matters

What Really Matters


Spring came early to Seattle this year and my daughter and I went out to play tennis this week. Our balls flew high in the air, hit the net and landed outside the court…a lot. We murmured ‘sorry’ to each other and players around us. We didn’t even attempt to keep score. Sure, it may have improved our skills to play a proper game, but keeping score would have ruined the experience. As we laughed and loped after our rolling balls, I remembered something a fellow funder said at the foundation where I used to work as a program officer. I cannot attribute it, nor write it verbatim, but it went something like this:

 If you’re not keeping score, you’re not playing the game.

The comment was made to stress the importance of evaluating impact. How do our investments and partnerships move the needle on eradicating malaria, improving maternal health and raising student test scores? If the influx of significant dollars does not change outcomes, and relatively quickly, it is cause for concern and possible grant termination. I remember vigorously agreeing to this statement at the time. After all, keeping score or ‘formative assessment,’ if we relate this to education, is a critical component of the academic learning and improvement cycle, for both students and teachers. This thesis is hard to argue with (Black & Williams’ The Black Box).

Standardized tests administered more infrequently by larger systems like districts, states, provinces and nations are a different animal altogether as they serve to hold investments and programs accountable, but also important. Governments have a responsibility to track the impact of taxpayer dollars and we have a moral obligation to ensure that all students, regardless of racial/ethnic background and social status, achieve. What bothers me with tests now is that they measure some but not all of the right things.

In other words, we’re not keeping score of the game we’re actually playing in a world that is much different today than even a decade ago.

The tennis game with my daughter wasn’t really a game of skill, strategy or endurance. It was more of a game of grit, patience and humility. Schools are still, and rightly, assessing core academic knowledge and skills (the new Common Core exams are a huge improvement over previous exams especially in measuring critical thinking skills; the OECD’s PISA exam is another admirable example of a 21st C measurement tool). Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself! Progress, perhaps…but are we really measuring what matters in the end?

Which begs the question: What really matters? 

As this is a blog post and not a scientific journal, I’m going to tell you what I think matters from the perspective of an educator and parent. As one of my favorite edu-blogger and inquiry kindred spirits writes, “I could write a formal post using fancy language, quoting research about coaching if I wanted to, but I choose not to! (There are plenty of those around, just Google.)” I feel the same.

The Coalition of Essential Schools and International Baccalaureate nurtured me as a young teacher and principal. They (and their associated common principles and learner profiles) are where I still go for inspiration and direction. My “what really matters” is much shorter, however:

What Really Matters What Students Would Be Doing What Teachers Would Be Doing




Speaking to one another throughout the class period on relevant work Talking less; asking more (we could create an voice-recognition app for this!)
Smiling and generally looking happy to be there Creating emotional bonds among students and the subject; students and the teacher; students and other students (eg. storytelling)
Showing excitement and passion for their work, sharing and talking about their work outside the classroom Designing work that is meaningful, integrates the environment/tech and offers creative choice (PBL)


Sticking with Difficult Problems

Everyone is participating and taking risks with ideas Celebrating “mistake-making” and staying neutral when students take risks with conjectures/thoughts
Collaborating with other students and utilizing resources (not just the teacher) Roaming around asking questions and helping students come to own solutions
Asking great questions Taking time to train students on how to ask good questions (Blooms, Webb, RQI, etc.)



Getting Along with Others (and Feeling Good about Oneself)

Building on and debunking others’ ideas in respectful ways Offering lots of instructional conversation and discussion time; and reflection on the discussions
Balancing and taking good care of mind, body, spirit through physical activity, art, music, relaxation and good food Creating a schedule and environment that intentionally nurtures what really matters
Noticing when someone is in need or hurting and taking action Noticing/acknowledging when sharing, helping and kindness are happening; modeling and talking about these behaviors in real contexts
Listening to others with full attention and respect; sharing the stage with other voices Setting up conversational norms and listening to students intently


Analyzing Knowledge Sources

Citing sources of information unprompted Frequently citing their own sources of information unprompted
Asking “How do you know that?” or “What is your source of information and do you trust it?” of one another regularly Asking “How do you know that?” or “What is your source of information and do you trust it?” of students regularly
Accessing and analyzing sources of information from a variety of places; online, in person, through experiences Providing opportunities to access devices and analyze sources of information

What if, upon being hired at a school, you were told that nurturing these four things with your students was your real job (the actual game you were playing)? The vehicle with which you teach these four things is the content; whether it was calculus, culinary arts or literature. Sharing the cannon of your subject area was actually secondary to teaching these four things.

It matters that children enjoy school, stay curious about the world around them and find learning stimulating and worth the effort. Children seems to be getting really good at complying with school. My own children have become dutiful little worksheet-fillers and holiday-celebrants (and they attend “great public schools”).

That’s not on them…it’s on us. We don’t regularly offer students the time or the experience of working on meaningful projects and problems together. Yes, the exceptions are there and they are wonderful. Thank you, wonderful, exceptions! One might argue that the curriculum is so tight that teachers cannot possibly deviate and provide the time needed for this type of instruction. That’s fair, but there are strategies one can overlay on top of even the dullest of lessons. A question like “What makes you think that?” or “What do the rest of you think about what Jake just said?” can be applied to any setting or curriculum and offer students the opportunity to communicate and think more deeply.

When one is 30, 60 and 90 years old, these are the things that will matter more than the periodic table. Keep the new tests, but let’s not forget to keep looking at the things that really matter. What do you think matters most? And how would you assess it?

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Student Voice and Learning

IMG_6125I can’t imagine a school without a discussion. I teach 4th grade, but I’ve had great discussions with my kids in 4th and when I taught 5th as well.

When I’ve visited a 1st grade classroom many times this year, they are always involved in some kind of discussion. How could a school function without it?

I’m afraid with the emphasis on standardized testing and the need for data, that we’re losing kids’ voices. Their voice, their choices.

Reading a recent article by Alfie Kohn, educator and researcher, he said;

…in the best student-centered, project-based education, kids spend much of their time learning with and from one another. Thus, while making sense of ideas is surely personal, it is not exclusively individual because it involves collaboration and takes place in a community…

Just recently, I facilitated a discussion with my students. We are looking at choices and rights, how they work and our responsibility in this world. Students were given 20 items to take with them to a new world, and they needed to narrow it down to 10, then 8. The things came from an idea published in this Unicef site. They were items like clean water, shelter, fast food, computers, fashionable clothes, no racism. They worked in this order:

  1. Individually…Silently, thinking on their own.
  2. With a partner, narrowing it down to 8.
  3. In a group of 4, narrowing it down to 8 between the 4 of them.
  4. As a whole class without any teacher intervention.

The project ended up as 1 hour of complete engagement from a class of very energetic students, many with learning challenges and some with limited English communication skills.

Before we began the discussion, we started by looking at social skills: collaboration, accepting responsibility, taking different group roles. We discussed how important these were in talking and listening to each other.

I frontloaded vocabulary, making sure everyone understood the items they needed to narrow down. We also added “love” and “no racism” to the list.

As you can see from the videos, the final group collaboration was animated and typical 4th graders, but it morphed into an organized vote. I sat back and observed the kids, their leadership skills, their participation skills. I let the ones go who seemed to drift out of the group, allowed them to shout and to step forward. Because I’ve observed my class enough, their roles in a group didn’t surprise me, but what did surprise me was how fast they arrived at a decision.

Our unit is around “How We Organize Ourselves,” and these kids have learned from other class discussions and from paying attention how to decide things fairly and how to come to a decision. It took them about 12 minutes to work out 8 items between all of them.

Reflecting later, they said they were all happy with the decisions. They re-thought their learning process and many had the same perception:  I think it was challenging with a larger group because lots of people have different ideas and it is not easy to choose what everybody likes.

Did my students learn during their exercise? Yes. Absolutely. They seemed to learn about organization, group collaboration and also about what’s important.

Did they learn from each other? Yes. They took charge of the discussion, listened, voted.

Did they learn something about themselves. Yes. Who are they in a group? Can they follow? Do they lead?

Did I learn something? Yes. I need to continue to let out their voices, give them choices. Allow them to learn in the best student-centered way possible because it works.

The Beginning of the Discussion Toward the End
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