Whose education is it?

We often send kids mixed messages.  Many of these messages actually create barriers to student learning.

“I want you to think for yourself”‘ vs. “Follow my instructions (obey my orders)”

“No talking when I’m talking” vs. “I want you to participate in the discussion”

“You are here to learn” vs. “You got an F because you didn’t turn in any homework and you’re missing these worksheets”

It is really hard to develop a classroom centered around genuine inquiry if it’s not compatible with your discipline style.

Inquiry is messy.  If you exert external control on students’ actions and behaviors, you can’t expect them to think independently.  Creative thinking doesn’t happen in a teacher-dominated classroom.

There are days that the chaos in my room is too much for even me.  There are days when I snap at the students.  I’m human, after all.  When I do, they slide into passive compliance.  The quality and depth of learning suffers for it.

Whose education is it anyway?

How to do inquiry Project-Based Learning (PBL Series Part 6)

This is probably the hardest aspect of PBL to describe.  How to explain how to do something that is inquiry?  How to describe something that, by nature, requires student involvement.  The key is the structures.

Honestly, this is very much a work in progress for me.  I’m learning how to do this as I go.  Call me a mad scientist; call it action research; call it whatever you want.  I learn by [informed] trial, error and reflection.  I want my students to learn that way too.

What structures, then, can one establish to support inquiry within project-based learning?

The hook

hookThis is where you get them.  Without a good hook, students will not want to inquire within the realm of the project that you have planned for them.  Great hooks can come from a multitude of places.  Pictures, video clips, artifacts, primary source documents, discrepant event demonstrations, play with a purpose activities, and the like can all make great hooks.  Use the hook to get them asking questions early and often.  Honor their questions and compile them into a class anchor chart.  Keep it present constantly.  Most importantly – resist the urge to answer their questions.  Get off the stage!

The driving question

You have 2 basic options here – teacher created or student created.  Of course, there are infinite variations from this theme.  Your firstquestionmark project should probably have a teacher created driving question.  This question recieves its moniker from the concept that it drives the entire project.  Thus, the driving question must follow a few key rules:

  1. Must not be a yes/ no question
  2. Must be worth answering and engaging to students
  3. Should have broad relevance across field of study, content areas, and walks of life
  4. Should address a big idea in your content area

Building Background Knowledge

Give students enough knowledge to inquire productively.  Give them general topical information, main ideas, representative case studies, segments of text, and more in order to build up some basic understanding of the topic.  Many basic knowledge-type questions will be answered here.  Let them use their favorite search engine or Wikipedia to knock off a few more of the basic fact questions.  There should be enough common experiences here to create a solid foundational understanding of the general topic.

Nurture student questions

Give students ample opportunity to brainstorm questions, to share them, to hone them and to investigate them.  Help them to delineate rich, complex questions from simple “Google” questions.  Nurture curiosity by allowing bunny trails do blossom into full blown discussions.  Keep a running anchor chart of student questions and encourage them to select one (or more) that they will investigate as a guiding question under the driving question.

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Part 2 - Why my instructional approach didn’t work

Part 3 - What PBL is and what it isn’t

Part 4 - The teacher’s role in PBL

Part 5 - Why PBL is good for students

Question mark photo cc licensed courtesy of Alexander Drachmann‘s Flickr photostream
Fish hook photo cc licensed courtesy of Lenore Edman‘s Flickr photostream

The teacher’s role in PBL (PBL Series Part 4)

The teacher’s role in an Project Based Learning (PBL) classroom is unique.  I’m still figuring it out – and probably will be for years to come.  That being said, I’m confident about a few things the teacher must do to make PBL click on all cylinders.

the teacher has to juggle many hats in the PBL classroom

the teacher has to juggle many hats in the PBL classroom

Here are 10 things a teacher should do to facilitate PBL effectively:

  1. Find a hook and deliver it well.  Grab the students’ imaginations and leave them with lots of questions, wanting to learn more.
  2. Set an engaging, thought provoking driving question but leave plenty of room for inquiry.  If you set the driving question, let the students decide how they will answer it.  Better still, let the students generate the driving question.
  3. Gather materials that the students can’t get for themselves.  Nothing kills inquiry quicker than a curious kid not having any way to answer their questions.  This include resources
  4. Serve as a mentor for individual students and small groups.  Help them figure out how to complete their project.  Help them to see themselves.
  5. Facilitate whole class discussions.  When students are working in small groups or pairs for an extended period of time, there must be whole class activities as well.  This maintains the learning community of the group.  Use discussion protocols like socratic seminars, rotating fishbowls and the like to get eveyone involved.
  6. Provide sufficient structure and support so that students don’t get stuck.  Help them to plan, monitor progress, and assess their results.  Keep the students focused on the big picture.  Remind them often of the driving question and revisit milestone dates and final product dates daily.
  7. Help students to determine success criteria for each project.  Facilitate analysis of various models that will help them to see what an end product might look like.  If you feel a rubric is needed, have them create it.
  8. Provide descriptive feedback.  Don’t evaluate their work in progress but give them information to help them see how to move forward.  Don’t let them bog down for too long.
  9. Recruit an audience.  Students should be presenting their learning to an audience outside of the classroom.  Invite parents, community members, other staff members, district administrators, local university staff and students, local scientists, local business people  – anyone who may have an interest in what you are doing.
  10. Allow time for reflection, for students and for yourself.  Use that reflection to improve the next project for students and yourself.  Listen to the students very carefully and learn from them.
Photo of mathematician Ronald Graham juggling used under cc licence from the Wikimedia commons

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Part 2 - Why my instructional approach didn’t work

Part 3 - What PBL is and what it isn’t

What Project Based Learning is and what it isn’t (PBL Series Part 3)

Project based learning (PBL) is a unique instructional style that is not for everyone.  To do PBL justice, you have to focus your entire class around this model – and do repeated cycles of it.  One shot, or even once in a while, will probably not fit the culture of your classroom.  This will just make for an awkward experience for all.

So, what is PBL?

PBL is:

  • All learning in the class directed toward a rigorous project for an authentic audience (or at least for one outside the classroom)
  • Students working on the project throughout the project “unit” not just at the end
  • Learning centered around answering messy, complex questions without any one right answer (you can’t Google it)
  • An organic process wherein teachers and students work together towards a common goal
  • The teacher acting as a facilitator or mentor, not as the center of the universe
  • Focused on learning over doing

PBL isn’t:

  • Scripted lessons
  • Units with every day planned in detail from beginning to end
  • Assigning students projects the way you’ve always done
  • Research papers or PowerPoints (although they could be part of a PBL experience)
  • Teaching from a textbook and then assigning a project at the end of the unit or chapter
  • Doing “fun” projects that have little rigor to them
  • Extra projects that students do at home on their own time
  • Worksheets, textbooks, multiple choice tests, lectures

I hope you can see that to do Project Based Learning right, the teacher has to be willing to completely transform the classroom.

Next post in the PBL Series – The teacher’s role in the PBL classroom

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Part 2 - Why my instructional approach didn’t work

Why my instructional approach didn’t work (PBL Series Part 2)

You may remember, when we last left our hero, he’d enjoyed a subtle epiphany.  It went something like this, “I plan all this stuff and throw it at the kids.  They don’t think it’s as cool as I do.  Now what?”

kids need real choice, not just between the lesser of 2 evils

kids need real choice, not just between the lesser of 2 evils

There were 3 main problems with my old approach:

  1. Not enough room for student choice. I planned all of the lessons, labs and activities.  I directed the content, the process, and the product.  They were along for the ride.
  2. The connections that held the content together were all mine. It felt disjointed to them because I didn’t make the connections explicit, in hopes that they would discover them.  Too bad they couldn’t see into my scattered mind…
  3. Not enough room for inquiry. I was answering questions that they didn’t even ask.   I was answering my questions, not theirs.

So, having been properly epiphanized, I had to convert to a new pedagogical religion.  Enter project based learning (PBL).

This truly was less a sea change in my practice than a slight but critical shift.  All instruction must be about the end goal, aka “the project.”  The project, which is really about answering “the driving question.”  Duh duh DUH!

When it all boils down to it, I realized that I needed to plan less stuff for the kids to do and give them more time along the way to create a project.  I had to give them more choice about the project, the questions they were trying to answer and how they would answer them.

Next post – What PBL is and what it isn’t

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Photo cc license by degreeszero on Flickr

The teacher’s role in an inquiry-centered classroom

The teacher’s role in an inquiry-centered classroom is absolutely critical.  It takes practice.  It takes patience.  It requires a willingness to try new things, fail, reflect, revise, redeem and repeat.  In roughly chronological order (within an investigation), here are 10 things that will allow constructive inquiry to flourish.

A teacher in an inquiry-centered classroom must:

  1. Introduce challenging, engaging ideas that inspire student questions. Honor those student questions and allow them to guide the path of the class.  Help them to identify the questions most worth pursuing and to hone them into strong investigative questions.
  2. Find a happy medium between giving your students too much direction and too little. This is a fine line.  If the students have freedom and choice and choose to do nothing, you need to diagnose that problem and work with them to fix it.
  3. Establish routines and structures in your classroom that support inquiry. Kids need to know when and how to have whole class discussions, small group discussions, team meetings, workshops, etc.  They need to know when, where and how to obtain materials.  They need to have a method for planning, monitoring and assessing the progress of their investigations.
  4. Engage in frequent conversations with your students to keep them moving forward with inquiry while assessing their current understanding.  Use open-ended, high-level questioning strategies that help students to come to conclusions on their own.  Challenge student misconceptions in a caring, respectful way.  Mentor them in a productive direction when they get stuck and can’t move forward on their own.
  5. Focus students on generating arguments based on evidence.  Don’t let them simply regurgitate information – challenge them to provide explanations.  On the flip side of that coin, don’t let them pose arguments based strictly upon opinion or unsupported inference.  Teach them to respectfully challenge each other’s assertions – and yours.
  6. Provide opportunities for students to choose how they will demonstrate their learning.  Inquiry doesn’t work when you put it in a box and tell students you are going to assess their knowledge with a teacher (or test generator) designed test at the end.  At least not one that is graded.
  7. Connect students with experts in fields relevant to their inquiry and facilitate their conversations.  Seek out local university resources – both professors and graduate students.  Seek out local experts working in fields relevant to the students’ investigations.  Find resources among local community members.  Connect the students to these people, in person or virtually (email, Skype, etc.).
  8. Teach skills and processes that students need to know in order to engage in effective inquiry.  Don’t put their inquiry in a box with a rigid set of steps or “scientific method.”  However, give them structures and tools to help them move forward.  More scaffolding will obviously be needed early on.  You may provide planning forms for students to complete prior to investigations, monitoring forms for them to use to track their progress, and peer/self assessment guides, among others.
  9. Provide time for reflection and metacognition within the structure of learning cycles.  Reflection is when students really make meaning of new information, assimilate it, and make it their own.  It’s when they learn from successes and failures and consider how to improve for future investigations.
  10. Have fun with your students! Demonstrate genuine love of inquiry, of learning, and of your content area (if applicable).  Inquiry should be fun – if it’s not, you’re doing it wrong.

What an inquiry-centered classroom looks like

Let me paint you picture of an inquiry-rich classroom:

This looks like an inquiry-based classroom to me!

This looks like an inquiry-based classroom to me!

Student work plasters the walls (if there are any), not the teacher’s favorite posters.  At the beginning of the year, the walls are mostly bare but that changes quickly.  The walls reflect the culture of the classroom.

Rules are minimal and focused on community building and learning – they are principles more than rules.  A teacher who dominates the culture of the classroom leaves little room for inquiry.  If a kid is afraid of angering the teacher, they may hesitate to try something with a potential for failure.

Discipline in an inquiry-rich classroom is low-key and subtle.  When a student acts up or is off task, the teacher has a quiet conversation with them and moves on.  When the entire class is struggling to focus, a class meeting is held to diagnose and treat the problem.  The teacher welcomes student questions and criticisms and makes a genuine effort to address them, when possible.

Students are allowed to move freely and communicate openly; they choose where to sit and with whom they will work most of the time (although it is important that they collaborate with different peers throughout the year).  The room often seems noisy and busy, with many students going in many different directions at once.  Students have access to the materials and information that they need, when they need it.  Desks/ tables are arranged in groups, not in rows.

Technology, though not a necessity for inquiry, has it’s place in an inquiry-based classroom.  What technology is present is used freely and frequently by students to gather data, conduct research, and create products.  Technology is seen as a means, not an end and is used as one of many available classroom tools.  The focus of any technology use stays on learning.

The teacher is rarely seen in front of the room talking to the whole class.  Often, when someone walks into the room to find the teacher, they can be seen standing by the door for a few moments, scanning the room, unable to locate the teacher because he or she is moving about the room to work with the students.

Students engage in rich conversations with peers and with their teacher on a regular basis.  These conversations center around content, process and product.  Ad hoc workshops (both teacher- and student-led) often develop around knowledge and skills students need to complete their inquiries.

Assessment is student centered and learning-focused.  When students are too focused on grades, they really struggle with inquiry.  They need to trust that their grade will not plummet if their experiment, design, or ambitious project crashes and burns.

The teacher and the students genuinely enjoy what they are doing.  The teacher loves teaching and loves students and it shows.  The students like to be in this class because it feels different than their other classes; they are stimulated intellectually but they also feel safe and comfortable.

What else would you add to this picture?

Image Copyright John Rostron and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence