How I’ve constructed my instructional style

The foundation

These are the things that underly all that I do with students

Inquiry - obviously – as open as is reasonable, as often as possible.  Students need frequent and repeated iterations of the complete inquiry process to get it. You scaffold them where they need it but practicing an inquiry skill in isolation doesn’t work (ie writing hypotheses for hypotheses sake).  It is also crucial for the inquiry to center around relevant science content. Soft inquiry built around inane questions doesn’t help students to understand the nature of science

Perplexity – I wouldn’t have known exactly how to describe this until I read dy/dan.  I want my students to discover answers.  That often means encouraging them to work through frustration and uncertainty.  This means answering their questions with more questions.  I used to tell them that I wanted them to be confused but that term never felt quite right.  Confusion isn’t the right word.  Perplexity is.  Look it up.

Relevance - content in science must be relevant to students and to the “real world”.  Examine current events in science, the more local, the better.  Water quality testing and local habitat studies have led to really great student inquiries the past few years in my classes.

Thinking - I want to inspire my students to want to think and think deeply.  I want them to ponder big, important, deep questions.  I want them to consider a variety of ideas and choose which to keep and which to reject based on evidence.  I want them to understand their own thinking; to be metacognitive.  To that end, this year, I’m striving to work in Habits of Mind.


The Pillars

These are the practices that give structure and support to what goes on in the classroom

The court of 1000 pillars (thanks, Bill)

The court of 1000 pillars (thanks, Bill)

Modeling - I dabble in this one but I dabble often.  I’ve never been to a modeling training but I’ve read a lot of the material available from Arizona State University.  For me, it’s more of a mindset and a way to approach inquiry labs in chemistry and physics.  We use whiteboards a lot and have socratic discussions about the whiteboards.  Students use these whiteboards to show their thinking, with words, data and diagrams.  Whiteboards allow students to share thinking and to make the invisible visible.

Argument driven inquiry – this one, I got from the NSTA Science Teacher magazine last year.  I loved it and have adapted it to my purposes.  The basic idea is that kids are testing a question (like, Which antacid is the most effective?), using data to make an argument with whiteboards (there they are again), writing an argumentative lab report (way more interesting than the old standby), and peer revising the lab report.

Whole class inquiry – this one is even more new to me than the last but I just know it’s going to become a staple.  I’ve tried it once already this year in physics in an adapted form and the students and I all loved it.  There are some methods that, once you’ve tried them, you KNOW they fit you and your students.

Ungrading - my goal for this year is to give as much feedback as possible, as often as possible, while withholding evaluation.  My students will get lots of formative assessment and very few grades.  Those grades they do receive, they will assign themselves.  This will be done based on general criteria discussed and agreed upon in class, rather than a rigidly prescriptive rubric.

Technology integration – I like to weave lots of technology into what we do in the classroom while avoiding the trap of technology becoming the focus of what we do.  We use Vernier probeware and video analysis software for many experiments.  Each student has his or her own blog, which will also serve as their electronic portfolio.  I manage resources and communication with Edmodo.  Students also create a variety of multimedia products.  Another goal I have this year is to use more video (for me and for students) and to work in both screencasting and podcasting.

Project Based Learning – students are engaged in long-term, rigorous projects in my class most of the time.  I find that it gives a goal and purpose to every lesson, every activity, every text we read if they can see the connection to the larger goal.  The key is giving the students enough choice and control over the direction of the project to allow them to take ownership of it.  The Buck Institute for Education and Edutopia both have phenomenal resources for PBL.


The Roof over our heads

This is what makes it all work; what gives us shelter and comfort

Safety – Mental, physical and emotional safety are all crucial to make room for students to learn.  I think this is even more important in a classroom built around thinking, inquiry, and collaboration.  Feeling unsafe creates a barrier to all of those things.  I strive for this by demonstrating genuine respect and caring for my students, explaining decisions to them, nurturing a democratic classroom, and intervening when I need to in interpersonal dynamics.

5 thoughts on “How I’ve constructed my instructional style

  1. I love your interpretation of inquiry ( or enquiry in UK). This is exactly how students should experience science learning – they are lucky to have you as a teacher! I look forward to reading more, thank you.

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  3. An inspiring essay. I love the architectural metaphor, and am thrilled to discover Perplexity in a context like this–wonderful word, and I love your description of how you moved away from “confusion” since it didn’t really capture the notion properly. It’s a little too wordy for your elegantly structured schema, but “tolerance for ambiguity” is a phrase that for me captures even more precisely what you are looking to create in your students. I have an essay on this concept at

    Thanks again for the elegant reflection.

  4. Fred-

    Thanks for reading. I often find it intriguing that a post like this, wherein I basically lay bare my soul gets little attention. And yet, when I write a relatively vapid “10 things” post, it pinballs relentlessly about the internet.

    I wish I could take credit for this use of perplexity. That I got from dy/dan. If you’re not reading Dan Meyer’s blog yet, you should check it out (

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