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!

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.

Brainstorming Action Research

I’m down to the last 2 semesters of my Master’s Degree program through the University of Wisonsin-Oskosh. The primary focus of these last 2 semesters is action research. I am in the early stages of planning an intensive action research project and would love feedback on my ideas.

Here are a few of the questions I’m considering:

  • How can I increase student engagement during inquiry or self-directed tasks?
  • How do thinking routines, structures and protocols affect student engagement?
  • How can I best use goal setting, feedback and reflection to increase student engagement?
  • How do class meetings affect classroom climate and culture?
  • How can I integrate more inquiry into project based learning while meeting state standards?
  • How does school culture affect the culture of my classroom?
  • How can I improve work completion rates in my classroom?
  • How can I provide more consistent and useful feedback to my students about their effort and their learning?

As you can see, many of my ideas center around inquiry, democratic classroom and student engagement. These are obviously important topics that are very close to my heart.

Right now, I think I want student engagement to be a factor in my action research but I have yet to locate a good tool for measuring engagement. Any ideas would be much appreciated!

Making Learning Whole through PBL

Deep learning must be “whole” – and project-based learning is a great way to make it so!

Whole learning is about many things but the most important of these is exposing students to genuine learning experiences. Sometimes this is messy and sometimes the learning isn’t exactly what the teacher intended, but students OWN what they learn in this way. This idea is very eloquently presented in David N. Perkins” book, “Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education.” This is a great read and I highly recommend it!

Briefly, Perkins’ 7 principles are:

  1. Play the whole game (don’t dumb it down for the kids – expose them to authentic challenges and let them wrestle with them)
  2. Make the game worth playing (engagement)
  3. Work on the hard parts (pick out the challenging content and help students master it)
  4. Play out of town (connections to other content areas, transfer)
  5. Uncover the hidden game (thinking like an expert in the topic)
  6. Learn from the team…and the other teams (collaboration)
  7. Learn the game of learning (metacognition)

Authentic experiences are a core part of each project. This includes activities that teach students to think and perform as experts in a given area. One way of doing this is to introduce students to experts in fields related to our projects.

Our previous 9th grade project (which integrated biology, English and history) was a mock court case about the issue of salmon and dams. During this project, we took students to a local dam, gave them an opportunity to gather water quality data, and brought in an attorney with expertise in tribal treaty rights to speak with the students. They then engaged in a simulated trial in front of a jury of seniors. The students were phenomenal and their deep learning was clearly evident!

Our 9th grade students are currently engaging in a project about biodiversity and the impact of humans on our environment. To culminate this project, the students will write a book answering our driving question, “Why should we care about our environment?” This book will contain creative, persuasive and scientific writings about our local ecosystem, the shrub steppe. It will also include original art and photography from the students. In order to get them thinking as scientific experts in this project, we began by taking them on a field trip to a local land conservancy where several experts hosted stations. Now, I am taking my students out into a nearby pasture to have them gather biodiversity data. Our next step is for them to design a field study to answer a question they have about the shrub steppe ecosystem. Reports from these field studies will be featured in our book.

These are just a couple of examples of how we are striving to make our projects “whole games” for our students!

How can the culture of a school be changed?

I threw this question out on Twitter a week or so ago and got a fair number of responses.

One of the most reasoned responses came from Edna Sackson, an educator from Australia and the author of the blog What Ed Said. Edna shares many of my views on the importance of inquiry and we have collaborated from across the globe to create the blog Inquire Within.

Edna decided to open up the proverbial can of worms in a blog post and I will respond to it here.

Dear Edna,

Thanks for taking the time to respond to my question in such detail! I think the interest in this question likely stems from the fact that it is a question that we absolutely must answer in education. It relates to the current roiling debates about education reform in the U.S. and abroad.

A little background – I’ve taught for nearly 6 years at a small public high school on an American Indian reservation in Washington State. Our school enrollment consists of 90+% minorities, 90+% free and reduced lunch, and 20+% or our students have been officially classified as homeless. This is a difficult situation for anyone to teach in.

We’ve been in “school improvement” since before I arrived here due to scores on the state standardized assessments and our dropout/ graduation rates. In this time, I’ve experienced several reform efforts. I’ve had 3 superintendents and 4 principals.

Let that sink in for a second…

3 superintendents and 4 principals.

In 6 years.

No wonder we haven’t been able to establish a clear and consistent school culture!

My question stemmed from this experience but it also goes deeper. I really want to know what is working out there – without the media scrubbing or Gates Foundation brainwashing. I want to know the real details, without the slant that school administrators (their jobs are on the line, after all!) put on the progress of their school when faced with media interest.

When a “failing school” is truly turned around (not just test scores), what is the process?

What shifts take place that prepare kids for a life beyond high school while also keeping them in school?

How do we honor the uniqueness of every student while ensuring that each is developing a skill set and knowledge base that will prepare them for higher learning and responsible, informed citizenship?


I agree with you about establishing learning principles. I believe that this is critical. It creates common language for both teachers and students to use about the culture and focus of the school.

My school is headed in that direction, and yet, I have a fear nagging in the back of my mind – the group creating our learning principles does not include all teachers.

One thing I KNOW about teachers in our school is that we cannot agree about how students should be taught. Especially when it comes to inquiry and student-centered instruction!

Many of our teachers are very teacher/textbook-centric in their instructional methods. They look upon teachers like myself in one of two ways, either (1) I am too “loosey-goosey” and don’t teach the “fundamentals” properly, or (2) what I do is okay for me but too hard for them to replicate. Furthermore, our recent school reform efforts have caused many teachers to become more “traditional” and teach their classes in a more teacher centered, drill-and-kill style.

So, whenever we talk about instruction, we go in circles about how to do it.

This is not working for our students.


I think the real question here is how to go about creating learning principles that are the “right” principles while also getting all teachers to buy in? We know you can’t force people to buy in to anything. So, how do you get everyone on the same page?