Teaching through Inquiry or Problem Based Learning

I have recently been in many discussions with colleagues on teaching through inquiry that I thought I would put my thoughts into this blog. For me inquiry is everything.  I know some feel a more balanced approach is needed but in my opinion it is the way to teach.  The reason why I think this is that the students are engaged, it is there learning and through proper and impactful questions the students get a rounded program.  

What does teaching through inquiry involve?
The first is that it takes planning. Educators cannot expect to have a good inquiry, one that has meaningful learning, to happen just like that.  I have been encouraged by Mary Stein’s five practise for planning a math inquiry (http://www.nctm.org/catalog/product.aspx?id=13953): anticipate, monitor, select, organize and debrief.  What these practise suggest is that we need to first anticipate students work, problems, strategies, and models.  This is where having a good understanding of curriculum, learning progressions and a trajectory of learning will assist in anticipation of student response. By anticipating, you can ask better questions, talk can be pushed and students will often move I learning because you can plan for it.  When educators are monitoring, they are constantly reflecting, thinking and questioning where students are, what they’re learning and where the learning is going.  By monitoring you are also looking for student work to create the most impactful debrief that can happen.
The second thing is that inquiry needs a good context.  Students need to be truely engaged in the learning that they actually forget they are learning and are just trying to solve a problem. It is only the debrief that the learning goals become evident and brought out through careful questions.
Third, students need time. They need to have the time to explore, stubble, be in disequilibrium.  This is the hardest part for educators because we want to jump in and help by providing ways out. However, for the learning to have impact students need to be in that disequilibrium and be brought back and forth with careful but purposeful questions.
Finally, inquiry needs a debrief. Students need to have the learning brought back. Yes students will learn on their own, we all do this, it will just take time. As a teacher, educator we need to question, talk and bring the math or learning forward for the students to focus on.
Why teach through inquiry?
First students are really impacted by it. It becomes not just book knowledge but real learning.  Students also feel incharge of their learning. They are learning not just because you told them but because they want to learn. You cover more expectations and learning then you think and often with less review because learning is real and deeper.
How do you assess?
This is a question I get asked all the time.  Report cards, test scores, etc. are always at the forefront of education.  I personally think this needs to change.  What do we value more, learning or scores? In my opinion it’s learning. For this to happen focus needs to be on descriptive feedback and formative assessment.  That being said I know we live in the real world and need marks. Through inquiry it is all there just in a different way.  Phasing a trajectory will help. It allows you to say to parents, administrator and colleagues, here is what research says, here is what we think, this is where they are and where they need to go. It is even more powerful then an a, b, or c. It gives students, parents and you the power to help and move students.
How do I get started?
Jump right in. Take so,e of your existing lessons and flip them. Instead of you guiding the learning or teaching the skills, have the students do it through a context rich problem.  There are also many resource: math: Cathy fosnot, Marilyn burns, john VanDeWalle, are just a few. Science: hands on science language: reading power series, rethinking schools, math that matters
Again these are just a few of my thoughts but there is a lot of research to back it up.  Inquiry is a lot of fun, it will surprise you. As I end this blog I would love to here what your experiences are? Have you tried inquiry? Problems? Questions? Thoughts?

Learning progressions or trajectories

Lately I have been reflecting on this word or really concept, learning trajectories or progressions. I first came upon the word when doing research for my thesis. We often have seen these before. Many teachers may be familiar with the ESL stages, first steps, Fosnot and Dolk’s landscapes of learning, but yet when I say this word many of my colleagues kind of stare at me blankly as if I had two heads. This got me thinking, maybe I should just blog about it.

What are learning trajectories?
A learning trajectory is just want is said, a trajectory or pathway that students take to learning.  This pathway can take many different pathways and is often not linear.
Why is this important?
I think that as educators we have to consider learning trajectories in our planning and in our assessment.  They help us create questions and next steps. They also can help you plan mind on activities, problems for students to work with and help you anticipate problems that may arise in the lesson.  If your into Covey, it’s really beginning with the end in mind.  It allows you as an educator to see the different pathways that students may take in reaching the end goal.

How do I use trajectories?

As I mentioned above, trajectories can be used for a variety of purposes.  I like to use them for three purposes:1) anticipation, 2) questioning, and 3) assessment, both for, as, and of learning.  

1) Anticipation: anticipation is an important part of planning and unit or lesson. It allows me to see where my students may have problems, which in turn lets me ask critical questions to move them along the trajectory. By understanding the stages of development I can see the possible potential learning for my students

2) questioning:  Questioning continues to be an important part of teaching. Often though, and I am guilty of this too, we find our selves asking questions just to reassure us that the learning is happening and not to promote further discussion or learning.  By having a trajectory we can ask critical questions in the moment. It allows us to see where a student is and where they possibly can go.  Without it we are more reactive to the students learning instead of being proactive. 

3) Assessment: by having a trajectory I have done my assessment. It is right in the trajectory. All of my learning goals laid out, all my next steps and big ideas. Everything is in a learning trajectory. Often I have one for each students and I make my notes right then and there, no need for rubrics, tests, checklists. A trajectory has all of this included.
How do we find them/ create them?
When I first started using trajectories for learning,me often used the ones that were already made, why reinvent the wheel if it’s already done. But the more that I observed student learning the more that I saw how stud penny’s developed learning.  To create it, just think about the most basic step or big idea that a student would use. Then think of the next step.  As you work through a problem make notes and the next time it will become easier.  If you really have time, read the research as it will help you.
As I mentioned above, there are many different learning trajectories out there. I know for math I often use the work of Fosnot and Dolk and their landscape of learning. John van de walle has many interesting trajectories in his book, elementary and middle school mathematics.
As I finish my thoughts here, just wonder how many of you use trajectories and if so for what purpose?

Genius hour reflection #2

So we have been doing genius hour for the past tho months now and though I had reservations about it, it truly has been an amazing experience for me and my students.  For this that do not know what genius hour is, it is basically a moment in our week where students can explore their passions. We do it every day 4, right after technology. My students have been in love with it. In fact many of them have been finishing projects at home.

Now when we first started it, it was a little tough for some of my lover students, they just didn’t know where to go or even how to start. Many of them haven’t even been encouraged to think or explore their own passions (which is unfortunate). It was also a struggle because many of my students didn’t have the research skills to get started.  This being said, with open learning goals, constructive feedback and ongoing discussion I would say all of my students have been working hard, learning and having fun.
Some things that I have learned implementing genius hour in the primary grades:
1) it is a slow process and may not look perfect 1 try, or two or three. Patients it eventually comes together
2) make your students reflect on what they learned and how it went. This was a big aha moment for me. Since making them reflect the students have begun to understand that it is about the learning and the journey not so much the final outcome.
3) genius hour helps with so many other strands and skills.  Part of our curriculum is do learn about celebrations around the world. This can be hard when the majority of the school is from one culture and not very wise about other cultures.  It is hard to be interested in other cultures or have inquiry when you don’t know where to start.  Because of genius hour, I have been able to introduce how to question, how to wonder and the RAN model for reading non fiction. It has help with this project and I think many more
4) Introduce a Wonder wall. This has been a. New learning for me but when kids can post wonders even if they aren’t answered by them they can see what else to explore and help others in the classroom. Many of my students have started other peoples wonders.
5) have technology ready for students to use.  In my classroom we have a set of net books and iPads. Students collaborate, talk and work together to get it done.
Anyways these are just some thoughts on implementing genius hour. If you want more help or just someone to talk to about it just email me or tweet.

Unusual Animals

Thought I would share a great science project that we just completed. In grade two the students learn all about life cycles of animals and differnent animal groups. As a team we decided to give the classes a culminating task where they had to make their own animal.  Students had to first decide on an animal name, the describe what group the animal was from using the characteristics that we had been working on, then tell us it’s habitat, and physical and behavioural adaptations.  Students then recorded their presentation using educreations and shared them with the world.  The kids were really engaged in this lesson and loved creating their own animal.  Here are some samples of the students work: