Basic Inquiry Doesn’t Have to be Sexy

I am now embarking on my second year out of the classroom, and surprise-surprise, I miss it. I’m not ready to go back just yet, but there are a few things that I am particularly excited about trying and nothing but my own classroom will do.

One is 1:1 iPads. I spend just about every minute of every day supporting a 1:1 iPad program, and in every class I enter, I can’t help wonder what exciting things I could have done with students if I’d had them in my own class.

The second is my evolving view of inquiry and assessment. Like most educators my age and younger, inquiry is a concept we’ve been quite aware of since teachers’ college. As PYP teachers, inquiry has been at the heart of our program and something we discuss frequently with colleagues and students. We don’t take assessment lightly either. In fact we often design elaborate projects that span weeks in an effort to create a meaningful final assessment.

There’s a problem though and it lies in how we choose to define our terms in practice. I’ve become concerned that all too often, despite our best efforts to resist it, “meaningful” degrades into “sexy”. What activity will get the kids really excited? What product will wow parents and colleagues? Can I one-up my teaching partner with my pedagogical wizardry? We lie to ourselves when we say we are immune. When we walk into a room of students working collaboratively on an avant-garde project, our impulse is to label it good and it may well be, but it also may be “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

A little competition is healthy, and I’ll be the first to promote creative projects as a valid way for students to explore new ideas, but we must resist two assumptions if what we are trying to win is student understanding:

  1. Don’t automatically assume that teacher-directed discussion is antithetical to inquiry.
  2. Don’t assume that a lengthy project assesses understanding better just because it took longer.

I hate to say it, but after 10 years in the classroom, these are things I’m just coming to terms with. These ideas are not my own and they are not foreign to IB audiences. I’ll focus on the first question of inquiry and save the second for another post.

Collaboration and group projects are not synonyms for inquiry. They may be good strategies to facilitate student inquiry, but we should not mistake those activities as proof of meaningful inquiry.

Most of us have taken an “Inquiry in the PYP” course, and in them there is usually a little bit of everything approach. I agree that we need a mixture of structured learning, guided inquiry, and open inquiry.  In my opinion, however, we all too often focus our planning around open inquiry because it lends itself so well to designing activities and products of which we can be proud. But if student learning is to be the true object of our pride, then we must come back to guided inquiry as a central element of our teaching — even if we risk being labelled “traditional” — the ultimate put-down in a PYP school.

For those looking to really focus in on inquiry free from all the bells and whistles,  Kimberly Lasher Mitchell is a great place to start. She recommends the following teacher stances to promote inquiry. Note that these are norms of communication rather than clever frameworks to design engaging activities.

  1. Provoke discussion and challenge thinking
  2. Stay neutral and judgement free – don’t say “good, great response”
  3. Invite elaboration– let them think through their theories
  4. Honor student theories – even the wrong ones
  5. Teach students to listen to each other
  6. As students think out loud their opinions becomes clearer and teachers can assess student knowledge and understanding
  7. Ask students where they have got their information from
  8. Wait time –give time for students to think and to get the courage to express their thoughts
  9. Paraphrase or reiterate to guide discussions back to the central idea
  10. Use the IB Learner Profile to elicit responses

Most of it is basic stuff, but reading that list doesn’t do justice to Kimberly’s insights. Her DVD, however, brings each of these into full focus and there are several extended model lessons to watch. There’s nothing sexy about these lessons, but in them, you get to see her go into an unfamiliar classroom and lead students in a unplanned, guided inquiry that owes more to Socrates than to Maria Montessori. At first it is almost painful to watch as she patiently follows the students’ silly theories, but in time, it becomes clear that there is a purpose and this purpose is being pursued with some very specific teacher behaviors. If nothing else, it is good to be reminded that, like doctors, we practice our profession. There are specific methods that we can employ when working with students in order to promote their learning. Sometimes they aren’t natural or easy.

Here’s a snippet I’ve uploaded:

Here’s the problem though. If you, a parent or an administrator were to walk into that classroom and stay for just three or four minutes, you would leave thoroughly unimpressed. They are sitting at their desks facing a teacher at the front of the room for God’s sake!

What do you think? Is it possible for PYP teachers to resist the circus-act and strip inquiry down to its most basic form and purpose? Is this dialectical method really compatible with constructivist theory? If there’s room for both, how do we resist falling for the sexy one every time?

The Role of Provocations

If you haven’t engaged in a #pypchat via twitter I strongly recommend it. Every two weeks a different topic is discussed on twitter for an hour with PYP educators around the world. This past week “powerful provocations” was the focus.

I love the idea of a great provocation to get children thinking about concepts and ideas. In fact, I felt as though this would actually be an area where I might feel confident sharing ideas and past experiences. Early on in the hour of chat I realized I’m just scratching the surface in terms of provocations and a mind shift occurred.

In the beginning of my career I truly had no grasp of provocations. It was one of those things that fell through the cracks in any PD I experienced and I was busy enough trying to stay afloat that my own independent inquiry into  the idea was the farthest thing from my mind. I remember it clearly years later, on every unit planner I considered the unit texts we had available as the provocation. Then one day a new colleague of mine took nearly everything out of his classroom one night, leaving the walls bare and shelves empty, and the next day had his students complete tasks with limited resources. It was then that I realized that the provocation should be powerful and leave an impression.

At my current school we try to engage the children in a provocation that connects to our related concepts but does not actually focus on the central idea. The idea being that we get students interested in the concepts and then connect that to the focus of the inquiry. In fact our newly developed inquiry model begins with “an invitation” to the unit, occurring through our provocation.

During the #pypchat I began to realize greater possibilities for the purpose and scope of provocations. @whatedsaid made me recognize that a provocation can be simple and yet still powerful, such as a question or statement on the board, a song played or a few images displayed. Provocations can connect to related concepts but also can be linked to creating new student questions, a new direction for the inquiry or action. The idea that provocations can happen throughout a unit was another point made and that had me instantly thinking of my current unit and ways in which I can continue to engage students in thinking and questioning right through to the summative assessment. Using provocations within emergent planning can help ensure student-led inquiry is truly happening.

The bottom line of it all was that the best provocations, no matter their form or level of sophistication, would leave a lasting impression on students, one which they would often think back on and connect to their learning.

Last year I used this provocation to get my students thinking about evidence. It truly was an experience that they would continue to talk about for the rest of the year and the concept of evidence was seemingly entrenched in their minds.

The #pypchat has become my provocation for teaching.

Checking-In

Having just completed a unit where I felt the students had a great understanding of the central idea, I was struck by a horrifying thought. I wasn’t entirely sure how that happened. How could I use this experience to help me in the future? In some ways, the reflection that takes place after a successful experience can be more important than the reflection that takes place after a disastrous experience. I’ve made pancakes for my daughter so many times and I can count on one finger the number of times I’ve done it well. In fact I can write a book about all the things not to do when making pancakes. Of course I wasn’t paying attention that one time the pancakes were actually edible so my poor daughter is destined to eat burnt and crispy pancakes for the rest of her childhood.

All the disastrous experiences don’t necessarily show you the right way to do something. So I went about searching for an answer.

When I analyzed everything our class had done I noticed that we had completed far more check-ins for understanding than usual throughout this unit. When I say “checking-in” I simply mean taking the time to talk to my students about how they’re going. Checking-in in our class can happen very informally. For instance, if we have a few extra minutes I might just ask the students to look at our lines of inquiry and central idea, and tell me what they’re still trying to figure out or ask what they want to spend more time looking into. Another idea the students really like came from my friend and fellow Inquiring Minds contributor, Adam McGuigan. It is simply a massive thermometer posted on the wall attached to a teacher question, concept or line of inquiry. The students post their answer to the question along the thermometer based on their own perceived level of understanding. The students can revisit this thermometer throughout the unit and adjust their level of understanding.

One of the most powerful moments in our recently completed unit focusing on beliefs and values was a simple task of analyzing student questions and having the children sort them into groups. We realized that a lot of children were still struggling to explain how they express their beliefs and values. It was at this point that one child raised their hand and explained that they were Muslim and they showed this by going to the mosque every Friday, praying at home every day and reading the Quran. All of a sudden children were raising their hand wanting to explain how they expressed their different beliefs and values. This went on for 15 minutes. The next day we followed up this conversation by trying to match beliefs and values with the ways in which we might express them. We used many of the examples from the day before. When we checked in again a few days later the children felt so much more confident in their understanding of the lines of inquiry and central idea.

In my mind checking-in is more than just formative assessment. The key component is actually listening to children. It’s not just about finding out what they know and what they don’t know. It can also lead you in new directions and it provides children with an opportunity to help each other in their journey towards understanding.

I would love to hear how others check-in.

It should be noted that my wife is a fine maker of pancakes.

Everything I Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten

The other evening, I was having over-drinks conversation amongst mixed professionals and it came out that I teach five year olds. “That’s cool, I mean, everything I ever needed to know, I learned in kindergarten” was immediately quipped back at me citing the 1988 essay by minister Robert Fulghum. My innards suddenly flip-flopped, and not because of the sensitivities of my stomach to the merlot, or my atheistic brain of the connection between my profession, nay- my calling, to the ancient musing of a minister but because of something else I couldn’t quite place my finger on.

Walking home later, I thought about it, did all I ever really need to know I learned as a five year old? Did the premise hold true 24 years after Fulghum’s essay was written? No, the answer is simply, no.

We live in a shifting paradigm in which we are teaching children who are learning for jobs that don’t even exist. We are teaching children who have connectivity with the entire world and who, by the time I had mastered tying my shoes and figured out to not lick light bulbs, will have learned to make their own apps and programs.

It has become our mandate to teach not just sharing and caring, but also coding. The onus is on teachers to develop the skills and aptitudes needed to integrate technology as an integral part of their teaching and learning cycle.

So teachers, get out of your comfort zone and into the place where the magic happens (yes, I said magic- but purely in a literary-parlancey kind of way).

There are many new and interesting ways that technology can be used for collaboration, communication and creation within the learning environment. Teachers are using Pinterest boards such as http://pinterest.com/edpublishing/ to post innovative tech for the classroom. Blogs such as, http://www.edutopia.org/blogs and http://www.teachthought.com/ as well as tech hubs such as, http://www.scoop.it/t/technology-in-education are dedicated to providing resources, inspirations and practical tips for use of technology integration.

My own learning environment is Reggio inspired and PYP driven, and the focus for technology is on playfulness and creativity. Children use the iPad to capture photos and create short films of learning adventures with http://animoto.com/, they make their own super heroes on http://cpbherofactory.com/ and then write and tell stories about their adventures through a puppet show app, http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/puppet-pals-hd/id342076546?mt=8. We enlist the older learners as teachers and invite them into our classroom every few weeks to showcase a new skill, app, or site that they have learned about. This benefits our older learners by synthesizing their understanding through teaching and the younger students by gaining valuable skills. More importantly, it teaches both groups that the use of technology does not have to be contained within a solitary bubble.

Perhaps it is not Fulghum’s essay that should be the go-to statement of early childhood education but rather, Jane Cowen-Fletcher’s children’s story, It Takes a Village. Now more then ever it takes a village to teach a class of children. No teacher has encyclopedic knowledge of the world, but the Internet does. The world is our village, the globe our community. We need to model for students that teachers are also life-long learners by embracing the skills and aptitudes we need to develop as we experience the shift in our profession. Technology gives us opportunities, outlooks and access that we simply did not have in our own kindergarten classrooms. It is a whole new world of learning.

So, what technology will you integrate into your teaching and learning cycle today?

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It seemed like a good idea at the time

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I had started reading education blogs as a tool for professional development. Not only was I learning from great blogs like this but also I was inspired. I wanted to start my own blog but I didn’t think I had the time to write enough posts to maintain an audience. I also questioned my knowledge. I am not a rookie at the inquiry game but I still have more questions than I do answers. Though I assume that’s how many of us feel.

So I thought back to my days at Bonn International School. I’m not sure I was aware at the time how lucky I was to be surrounded by so many brilliant, motivated and inspiring educators. They were dedicated and innovative, always seeking out the practice that was best. They also instilled in me a sense of collegial sharing. There was no competition, only support and encouragement. So I thought I would call upon all these people to once again inspire and educate me, and invite others to learn from them as well.

These brilliant people are curriculum coordinators, ICT coaches, deputy principals, early childhood educators, heads of student support services, ICT coordinators, team leaders, publishers, and elementary school teachers.

So once everyone was on board I went about trying to write my first post. It was at that point I realized what I was up against. Writing to an audience is daunting. I have three different posts started and all have been pushed aside because I either lost my momentum or forgot the thought I was trying to express.

So what seemed like a good idea at the time suddenly appears more intimidating. But that’s why I’ve brought my friends along for the ride.

Enjoy what’s to follow and be inspired.

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