You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus

The title of this post is a quote from Mark Twain and truer words were never spoken.

Speaking scientifically, there is more truth to this statement than most of us realize or choose to believe. “Reality” as we experience it is as much a construct of our mind attempting to make sense of  vast amounts of stimuli as it is a shared experience. In other words, each of us experiences the visual world in different ways. From infancy, we learn to “calibrate” our understandings of common phenomena (colors, for example) by on sitting side by side with someone and having them pass their understanding of these phenomena onto us. Some experiences, especially those that happen very rapidly, defy our ability to calibrate – even when we experience them together. Two people will often vehemently disagree about what they have just seen (see instant replay in pro sports)… and they may both be “right.” This is why eyewitness accounts of an event can often vary dramatically.

Once upon a time, nearly all education was about creating or engaging in shared experiences and “calibrating” our understanding of that experience. As the sum of all human knowledge became too great to simply learn it all by shared experience, we created schooling. Still, many of the best learning experiences we have still revolve around making meaning from shared experience.

It’s time we moved away from standardizing what all students must be taught and how they must show their learning and, instead, moved toward a form of education that emphasizes making meaning from shared experiences.

Euglena inquiry reflection

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” ~ Paulo Freire

In my previous post, I described my effort to take a “cookie cutter” lab and make it more inquiry-based.

My students decided to test 7 variables about the Euglena setup that we were working with:

  • distance from the light
  • type of paper covering the Euglena container
  • size of holes in the paper
  • type of material covering the Euglena container (foil)
  • type of light (black light)
  • amount of liquid in the container
  • size of container

Each group planned and carried out their experiment with minimal input from me. Today they gathered their data and put together whiteboards to summarize their results. I asked them to divide their whiteboard up with the following sections:

  • hypothesis
  • claim
  • evidence
  • reasoning

Here is an example of one whiteboard:

We ran out of time to have our culminating discussion, so that will have to wait for tomorrow. From my conversations with the students while they were making their whiteboards today, this inquiry will help set them up well for learning more about the process of photosynthesis.

A few random reflections:

  • I believe the students were more engaged in gathering data than when they just “do a lab”
  • I felt that there was more curiosity and more interesting questions posed today than usual
  • My students are still struggling with reasoning, so I need to keep working on that skill
  • I need to introduce a small group whiteboarding protocol to keep all students involved actively in the creation of the whiteboard

Euglena inquiry

Euglena Vials

Euglena in vials

After complaining that I struggle with inquiry in biology, I was confronted with a great opportunity to take a non-inquiry lab and bend it to my inquiry will!

The lab involves students observing Euglena (a photosynthetic protist) and their response to limited light. The basic lab consists of placing the Euglena in a container wrapped with black paper and cutting a small hole with a chosen shape in the paper. The Euglena then move to the location of the hole to get the needed light. Rather than just having the students do the lab as is and move on, I am going to ask them to generate questions about the Euglena and design an experiment to test their questions. We will do this in a whole class inquiry style where each group will test a variable and report their findings back to the class.

The key will be making the photosynthetic properties of the Euglena the central feature of the inquiries. In other words, students won’t be adding chemicals to the medium or doing other tangential inquiries.

Our process:

  1. Brainstorm variables that may affect the photosynthesis of the Euglena
  2. Eliminate any that we can’t measure or are inappropriate
  3. Select our top 6 that we think are the most interesting or important
  4. Each group selects one variable to test and plans their experiment
  5. Once their plan is approved, each group carries out their experiment and gathers their data
  6. Each group uses a whiteboard to organize their findings and report back to the class
  7. We have a whole class discussion about our findings and connect our results to photosynthesis

Once we’re done – I’ll report the results!

I was spoiled

There is no other way to slice it.

For the last seven years, I taught in a school that gave me near-complete freedom to teach what and how I wanted to. With the National Science Education Standards and the Washington State Standards as rough guideposts, I focused on big ideas and my students investigated them deeply through prolonged project-based learning experiences. To ice the cake, I sported a 1:1 student:computer ratio in my classroom.

Inquiry was deeply ingrained in what we did but often on more of an academic, rather than scientific, level. Student curiousity and questions would absolutely drive the learning, much of which was accomplished via online resources. My students did some really amazing interdisciplinary technology-rich projects.

As proud as I was of these projects, I sometimes felt too little of the learning was rooted in scientific inquiry. This was especially true in biology. It is just plain hard to teach certain aspects of biology through scientific inquiry.

Physics and chemistry were always much easier to attack via rich scientific inquiry. I think this is mostly because the physical sciences are rooted in universal phenomena that we can often reproduce fairly easily (an inexpensively) in any classroom.

So, what’s so special about scientific inquiry?

When students actively engage in gathering data about the world around them and use this data to answer THEIR questions, they come to much deeper understanding of scientific principles than through “discovering” them on the Internet.

This brings us to my present context. Because I’m no longer spoiled with the freedom and technology riches that made my life easy before, I’m having to reinvent myself. So far, I’ve been surviving – sometimes using methods and materials that I would have shunned in the past few years. I’m increasingly finding my groove, though.

One thing is certain – it’s making me a better teacher.

Scientific inquiry is the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m identifying one or two key “labs” per content standard to serve as an anchor experience. From there, students will explore outward as their curiosity leads them. The key is helping them to come back together to share learning from their experimentation and to clearly connect their findings back to the standard. One way I’m doing this is with lots of whiteboarding and socratic discussion. Another way is with a strong emphasis on evidence and reasoning.

As I’ve started doing this, I’ve identified my students’ need for discourse skills. I’m thinking I need to develop protocols for small group and whole class discourse to scaffold them toward effective scientific discourse. Once I put these protocols together, I will share them here for feedback.

Where to begin the story?

eat it one bite at a time

When I have time to plan a lesson in detail, I often put a lot of thought into the “story arc” that I am trying to present.

What am I going to at the outset to suck the audience (aka students) into the plot enough that they are willing to work through some slower “character development?”

I often use imagery, video or mysteries to do this with kids – and it has been highly successful.

Now, I’m considering another story that I want to tell.

I’m not sure where the hook is for this story, though.

The story?


The audience?

My science PLC at my new school.

From my experience thus far this year, my colleagues are so far away from teaching through facilitating inquiry that I’m not even sure they have even considered it. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem to be on the radar of our administrators either. Obviously, they are all familiar with the term inquiry – in the sense that it is part of our state science standards. My feeling, though, is that the general perception among the group is that inquiry means doing labs and writing lab reports.

This is a big, complicated story with many twists and turns.

I have worked my way through a lot of learning, thinking, experimentation, failure, reflection and revision over the past 7+ years. How do I bring my colleagues up to speed without burying them?

I have to remember to eat the elephant one bite at a time… but which bite should I take first?

Image used under CC license from the Flickr photostream of schmish

Kicking off the Inquiry (QFT + CPS = crazy delicious)

This post is the final assignment for my spring class (Current Trends in Curriculum and Instruction: Inquiry and Problem Solving) through UW Oshkosh’s Teaching 2.0 program. We have been required to do 3 lesson trials where we implement a new strategy in the clasroom and track the results. In this trial, I combined the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) and Creative Problem Solving (CPS). The resulting mashup was nothing short of crazy delicious.

First, I kicked off the inquiry with a slideshow of images designed to inspire questions and curiosity:

The slideshow culminated with the Question Focus, “Clean Water.”

Students worked through the QFT process in small groups and then we compiled their priority questions into a master class list. Next, we worked through that list to select 2 driving questions for our new project:

How does dirty water affect the world?


What defines clean water?

This is where the QFT ended and the CPS began. I asked the students to begin brainstorming topics, questions, phrases, concepts, etc. related to our first driving question. We then used the SCAMPER protocol (CPS) to build their lists. This process was captured in web format on whiteboards:

While I wish we’d had more time for this step (we only had about 7 minutes), the brainstorming was mostly successful.

Finally, we compiled their brainstorming into a master class list and looked for “Hits and Hot Spots” (another CPS protocol). In this way, we were able to settle on key areas of inquiry for this project. The next step will be for each of my students to select their own guiding question that falls under one or both of our class driving questions. Finally, I will group them into small groups of 2-4 with shared or similar inquiries. This will provide social support as they work through this project.

Overall, QFT and CPS were a useful pairing that helped to get this inquiry project off and running with a bang! The questions were more varied and deep than my students sometimes generate and their topic brainstorming gave a solid structure for our project.



(2005). Chronicles of Narnia (Lazy Sunday) [Television series episode]. In Saturday Night Live. New York: NBC.

Rothstein, D., & Santana, L. (2011).Make just one change: teach students to ask their own questions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press.

Treffinger, D. J., Isaksen, S. G., & Dorval, K. B. (2006). Creative problem solving: an introduction (4th ed.). Waco, Tex.: Prufrock Press.

Lesson Trial – Question Formulation Technique

NOTE: This lesson trail is an assignment for the Teaching 2.0 Master of Science in Education program at University of Wisconsin – Oskosh. Specifically, this is an assignment for ED715: Current Trends in Curriculum and Instruction – Inquiry & Problem Solving taught by Eric Brunsell. This is the second in a series of 3 mandatory lesson trials for this course, in which we must apply learnings from our coursework to our classroom instruction and reflect on the results.


Narrator: “Cut to a windowless meeting room in a small office in an aging office park somewhere in the U.S.A. Our intrepid hero is engaged in his latest job interview. The office smells of old carpets, new plastic furniture, and middle management.”

Interviewer: “So, do you have any questions for us?”

Intrepid Hero: “Oh… ummm…well….uhhhh…. not right now, I guess…”

Interviewer: “Okay, thanks for coming in. We’ll be in touch.”

Narrator: “Later, our intrepid hero wakes in a cold sweat in the middle of the night…”

Intrepid Hero (crying out to noone in particular): “Why didn’t I ask about training and benefits and opportunities for advancement and other responsibilities and COMPENSATION?!&%$#!???”

Narrator: “We’ve all experienced the painful discomfort of question block. Don’t let this happen to you ever again. Use the QFT and be prepared for anything.”

Chimes ring; cue cheezy outro music.



We’ve all experienced situations like this. Little did I realize when I first began asking my students to generate questions to guide their inquiry that this was how many of them feel. I blamed laziness, sleepiness, disengagement, and lack or curiosity for the struggles that many students experienced when pressed to ask questions. In reality, many of my students have not developed this critical skill. Without the ability to ask really good questions, inquiry never gets off the ground!

This is where protocols like the Question Formulation Technique (Rothstein and Santana, 2011) can help to move students forward and get the inquiry going.

Make Just One Change (Rothstein and Santana, 2011) is the book that breaks down this technique in detail. Their process, the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) is essentially a structured brainstorming process that focuses on generating questions. Without delving into detail (or copyrighted material), I’ll just summarize the gist of the process thusly: 1) teacher shares the rules for the QFT with the students; 2) teacher introduces the question focus, a statement designed to inspire questions about a topic; 3) students generate, hone and prioritize their questions; 4) use questions as desired.

The questions that students were able to generate will serve as a question bank from which they may choose a driving question to guide their research for an inquiry-based project.

Lesson Trial

After introducing the QFT rules and facilitating a brief discussion of the rules, I introduced the question focus: “Evolution affects our daily lives.” Students immediately began generating questions, some more quickly than others. To those groups who were really struggling, I handed a small sheet with question starters to help them get the ball rolling.

After 8 minutes of question generation, students labeled the questions as closed- or open-ended (after a brief explanation of what those terms mean). Finally, the students selected their top 3 questions for research from their list and presented their priority questions to the class.


Groups generated an average of approximately 15 questions with a low of 8 and a high of approximately 30. Many of these were re-statements of the question focus or of each others’ questions.

My 3 biology classes generated a total of 45 priority questions (15 groups; 3 questions per group). Of these 45, 14 were duplicates of other questions already on the list. Thus, they generated a list of 31 unique questions to prompt their research.

My colleagues (Ken Olden and Tom Sheppard) and I separated these questions into 3 categories: unanswerable questions, low-depth questions, and high-depth questions. There were 8 unanswerable questions (example: what would happen if there was no evolution?), 5 low-depth questions (example: why are certain things colorful?), and 7 high-depth questions (example: how is evolution affecting animal diversity?).


The QFT helped my students to generate a significant list of questions to help guide their research for this project. While some of these are not usable as they are, we will give students the opportunity to modify any of the questions they generated to make them more suitable for research. They may also choose a question that is not on this list but we will encourage them to start with those, rather than starting from scratch. They will then create a project proposal to submit to their teachers for approval before beginning their project. The goal of this step is to prevent them from choosing unproductive questions that will leave them frustrated, not to control their learning.

Besides being a useful tool to teach students the skill of question generation and to kick off an inquiry project, the QFT served another crucial purpose: formative assessment. I was able to identify many student misconceptions during the GFT process that I have been addressing in my classroom since then. For example, there seemed to be a misconception in many students that there would be no evolution if Darwin had not “discovered evolution.”

I do question whether or not the Question Focus (“Evolution affects our daily lives”) was too broad or not provocative enough. In future attempts with the QFT I plan to experiment with more specific and/or provocative statements.


Rothstein, D., & Santana, L. (2011). Make just one change: teach students to ask their own questions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press.