Sometimes teachers (especially in an inquiry-centered classroom) can get so caught up in running around the room helping students, that we miss the big picture.
What would happen if you just observed your students and took notes? No talking, no running around putting out fires, just watching and listening. What would you learn about your class – about the people who make up the class?
Key things to watch/ listen for:
- What do they do when they enter the room?
- How do they interact with each other?
- What are they talking about?
- Are they helping each other?
- If they are helping each other, are they collaborating and assisting or are they just giving answers?
- Does anyone step up and show leadership in the absence of your voice?
Sometimes you can learn a lot when you shut your mouth, slow down and pay attention to the details.
photo from the flickr stream of natashalcd
I teach at one of the poorest schools in the State of Washington. We are a small, rural public school on an Indian reservation. Increased state pressure and intervention has actually widened the achievement gap in our school and others like it.
Teaching to the test may work (on the short term) with predominantly White, middle-class students who are motivated by grades and the promise of college. These type of children tend to accept education as it was delivered to their parents and grandparents. Never mind the negative effect teaching to the test has on higher-order thinking skills and creativity.
No matter your criteria, teaching to the test does not work with poor, minority students. Show me successes at schools like KIPP and I’ll show you serious flaws in their data. If school does not engage them, they drop out. Is that what we want?
If good instruction doesn’t raise test scores, then the test is flawed, not the instruction. For those who are facing pressure to raise test scores, I have a few suggestions:
- Do your homework and be prepared to effectively defend your practice. Do lots of research on effective instructional practices. Read “How People Learn“, “Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards“, “Results Now“, everything by Alfie Kohn, and more.
- Become National Board Certified – this gains you a lot of credibility with administrators and your board of directors. Nobody wants to fire a National Board Certified Teacher. I do very open-ended inquiry-based instruction in my classroom. I achieved National Board Certification in 1 year and found the standards of that process to be 100% aligned with my instructional methods.
- Base your instruction around state standards. You are in a very defensible position if you can clearly demonstrate that you are aligning your instruction to the standards that are purportedly on the state assessment. You are required to teach to the standards; you are not required to teach to the test.
If none of this works, maybe you should find a different school to teach at. If my working conditions were unbearable and I was being asked to do things that I had strong moral objections to, I would go work somewhere else.
Am I pro-union? Not necessarily. Nor am I anti-union.
I am 100%, unequivocally pro-student.
Does that mean I don’t appreciate the purpose of value of a teacher’s union? No.
What it means is that a teacher’s union is an organization, not unlike “the State” or “the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.” An organization, while composed of people, is not human. I do not believe that I am accountable to any organization. I am accountable to each and every human being with a genuine stake in what happens in my classroom. That means my students and their families. No one else.
Was my post meant to be pro-union? Absolutely not.
I believe it is inaccurate to say that the purpose of the teacher’s union is to protect teachers who have their students’ best interests at heart. The sole purpose of the teacher’s union is to negotiate the best possible collective bargaining agreement for its membership and to steadfastly protect that agreement. As a democratic organization, no one of its members is more or less important or valuable than any other. Therefore, the “worst” teacher and the “best” teacher will be protected with equal vigor.
Maybe it’s time for the union members to start self evaluating members and supporting those who are struggling. Unions could begin culling out those who refuse that support (or make no progress). Rather than leaving that job to administrators and legislators, we could take control of the process, the procedure and the persons involved. The union could become a self-governing body, not unlike the American Medical Association.
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?
This 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 first 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:
- Must not be a yes/ no question
- Must be worth answering and engaging to students
- Should have broad relevance across field of study, content areas, and walks of life
- 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 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
I teach kids. That always comes first and foremost for me. I don’t teach a content area – a set of knowledge and skill that someone once arbitrarily divided into seperate disciplines (probably a textbook company).
That said, I do teach 3 high school classes with traditional labels: biology, chemistry, physics. I am blessed to work in a small high school (~250 students 9-12). This means that students can have me as many as 3 times in high school. I love that I get to know these kids over time. I like to believe that I have aided in their development from immature freshman (of whom I teach 100% in biology) to (relatively) mature 11 & 12 graders in physics.
I get to know students as individuals. I get to know parents and families. Younger siblings come through my room every year. There are families from whom I have taught 3 of their kids in my 5 years at this school.
This arrangement also affords me the unique opportunity of knowing EXACTLY what my chemistry and physics students were taught before. I can tailor instruction and lessons to what I know is in their prior knowledge base. I know the strengths and weaknesses of every kid in my chemistry and physics classes like the back of my hand.
“With great power comes great responsibility” ~Peter Parker, aka Spiderman
I don’t take this responsibility lightly. My impact on the science education of students, of entire families, in this small community is significant. My failures (there are many) often keep me up at night.
I keep coming back, though. I come back because I have unfinished business. I come back because I love the small school environment. I cherish the trust and resposibility that have been placed in me.
I love to teach kids and I think there is no better place to do that than in a small school.