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.

Tension: Freedom vs. support

How do you balance freedom with support?


My favorite restaurant in town closed a few years ago. It was a phenomenal Thai restaurant owned by an amazing woman who immigrated from Thailand. She did all of the cooking and ordering herself and love went into every bite. The menu was simple but every dish was done exquisitely.

When she sold the restaurant to focus more on her family, the new owners greatly expanded the menu. Patrons were suddenly overwhelmed by the number of choices. Overhead must have been a nightmare. They went out of business within a year.




There is a critical tension between freedom and support. Go to far in either direction and inquiry falters.

When I give my students too many choices (especially too soon), many flounder. Some can’t (won’t?) generate a question that they are interested in answering. We all get frustrated. Often this requires  a lengthy discussion to help identify a productive question. At this point, neither of us is sure whose question it really is.

The role of the teacher in inquiry is different from a traditional classroom, but no less critical.

If kids don’t get the coaching they need, when they need it, they often quit. When needed materials or methods are not delivered on time, students lose the spark of curiosity – sometimes for good. When promised learning experiences are delayed or cancelled, engagement and learning suffer.

Yet I am only one man. Sometimes the whirlwind of inquiry activities is overwhelming. I’m teaching my students to be more self sufficient and to lean on their peers for feedback but the road is bumpy.

Without sufficient leadership, teenagers resemble a football team with the ball and the lead at the end of a close game – they huddle up and start killing the clock; except that teenagers will do this when they don’t have the lead. Sometimes I intervene; sometimes I let them make the choice to go into “victory formation” and take a knee when they are clearly behind. Too much guidance and the joy of discovery and the creative process of problem solving are lost.

I default to the personal approach; I know my students and I know when they are struggling. When the kids are knee deep in inquiry, I spend most class periods hustling around interjecting support when they need it, providing materials, suggesting possible next steps. Sometimes I let them lean on me too much though. That’s when I feel like I’m spinning. The kids are clamoring for my attention and get angry when I don’t help them. This happens most when I’ve given too many choices and not enough support.

How do you balance freedom with support in your classroom?

Image used under cc license from the Flickr photostream of thelastminute

Make time for… FRUSTRATION!

My students were frustrated yesterday and today. I let them wallow in it.

This is a good thing.

Yesterday, I started the group on a whole class inquiry challenge with minimal direction from me. Students had to lead their planning discussion while I observed and took notes. This discussion didn’t go very well – especially from the perspective of the two class leaders.

In fact, they left my room a bit angry.

This is a good thing.


I think I saw this face in my classroom today...

I think I saw this face in my classroom today...

Because they were frustrated with their classmates. They were frustrated with those who were not engaging in the process – those who were not participating. They were frustrated with the complexity of the process and the lack of easy answers from the teacher.

Today, the students came in with a renewed sense of purpose and a desire to collaborate. The discussion was much more productive (even though there was one emotional outburst).

I love to cultivate an healthy level of frustration in my classes. I love to see my students struggle, fail, regroup, and try again. My students need this. So do yours.

Some of the most powerful learning I have seen has occurred when students were frustrated – angry even! – and were able to achieve a breakthrough on their own.

Do I need to step in sometimes? Of course. One of the best lessons that experience is teaching me is exactly when to intervene. Jump in to soon and the student never learns independence and the joy of the epiphany. Wait too long and many students will quit. Usually, though, a teacher’s instinct is to give the kids a boost way too soon.

We all need to learn how to deal with frustration, in school, in work, in life.

image used under cc license from the flickr photostream of MarkKelley

Diagnosing inquiry

trust me... I'm a doctor

trust me... I'm a doctor

When we first begin the journey of leading students into inquiry, we discover that it’s messy.  People are uncomfortable being taught this way.   They want easy answers and quick resolution to their questions.  Students want the teacher to gift wrap everything for them.

When you make the choice to go to inquiry instruction, it’s important to go in with your eyes wide open.  The road will be bumpy and there will be awkward moments.  Just know that failure is an option.  If we never fail in the classroom, then we probably aren’t trying anything truly innovative.

I recently received an email from Barbara Gajda (@MsGajda), who blogs at Large Q Quality. Barbara is a first year teacher (and light years ahead of where I was as a first year teacher). She recently tried my whole class inquiry whirligig lesson. Unfortunately, it didn’t go the way she had hoped it would. My goal was to help her see how much she could learn from this experience.

Here are a few excerpts from her email and my responses (posted with her permission, of course):

As you mentioned in your post, it became an exercise in trial and error. I reminded them a couple times of the need for recording data. Students would make a couple different whirligigs but it didn’t occur to them right away to use a stopwatch to time the length of the fall. (I would attribute that to the lack of any scientific inquiry in the first 8 years of their education.)

This tells me that she just found out something very important about her students; they have done very little inquiry in the past and need more scaffolding to get there!

One of my big concerns is that certain students are being left out, so I was focussing on including them. I also had lots of little questions from students needing affirmation, or confirmation, or even just where supplies are – these kids seem to be quite dependent on a teacher.

Her students have had little experience in the past of collaborating effectively.  They also have had little experience with student-centered instruction (especially in math and science).  These are skills they need to learn but also experiences that they will take time to adjust to!

When it came to give me one class design, they kinda looked at me blankly. When I said that the class would have to decide on one design, one class didn’t say a peep. One student in the other class half-heartedly tried to get everyone talking, but he got the silent treatment too.

Again, this speaks to a lack of collaboration skills. It also tells me that these students have little experience with using data to inform next steps in an experiment. This is a common struggle for people (not just kids) who have never done true scientific inquiry!

I think the inexperience on both my part (with facilitating WCI) and the students’ part (with any type of inquiry or scientific activity) contributed to the whole class aspect not working out.

The funny thing about Barbara’s experience is that she seems to have felt like it was a failure on her part. I disagree with that assessment completely. She just learned a tremendous amount about her students and their needs in one class period! I can think of few more efficient ways to assess the requisite skills for effective scientific inquiry.

Not only that, but Barbara is a first year teacher. We’ve all been there. One of the biggest differences between a first year teacher and an experienced teacher, when it comes to inquiry, is the ability to assess student needs from a “failed” lesson. Every experience in the classroom gives you information about your students.

I commend Barbara for being a reflective educator and for asking such good questions. Are there things that she could have done differently? I’m sure there are – we all can always do better. However, we also shouldn’t assume that a “failed” inquiry activity is our fault – or a problem. The key is to learn from the activity and use it to inform future instruction. I think Barbara is well on her way to doing that!

Why does my opinion about inquiry matter? Because I’ve been failing at it for 5 years! Every time I do an inquiry lesson/ activity/ project I agonize over all of the many things I could or should have done differently. Every time, I learn from those mistakes so that I can try again and make new mistakes the next time.  I also make sure to learn about the kids, though. What do they need? How can I help them get it?

In the end, the key is being a reflective educator without beating yourself up. It’s a fine line.

Image used under cc license from the Flickr stream of caricaturas

Big questions

cliche used? check!

cliche used? check!

Too often we treat our students with kid gloves.  We give them weak, watered down, sterile, sanitized, aseptic curriculum.  Curriculum that reminds you of grandmother’s powder room in which you were afraid to dirty the towels, so you dried you hands on your pants instead.

We don’t let students wrestle with the really big questions of life.  Instead, we try to give them “thinking skills” and teach them how to answer their own questions.  That is, as long as the questions are the “safe” ones.

I’ve been guilty of this at times myself.  This year I’m trying to force myself in the opposite direction.  It ain’t easy, for me or for the kids.

When it comes to evolution, students ask questions that many adults have yet to answer for themselves.  In many science classes, evolution is treated in a rigidly scientific manner.  This approach, while loyal to the content, allows students to compartmentalize.  They tell themselves that their teacher can only teach them what’s in “the standards” or “the book.”  The teacher uses this as an excuse to keep the carnage to a minimum.  Nobody wants the mess on their shoes.

Most science teachers take one of 3 approaches to controversial topics:

Option A – Ignore it; don’t cover it; avoid the controversy altogether.

Option B – Address it directly and scientifically.  Leave no room for debate, disagreement, or discomfort.  Heaven forbid you get a call from an angry parent (for what it’s worth, if you teach a topic they don’t like, they’ll call anyway…)

Option C – Preach the gospel of science, baby!  Convert your students to the church of Darwin & Dawkins.  Tell them what to believe and think and why.

Each of these approaches is wrong.

ostriches really do this???

ostriches really do this???

Option A is wrong because it sets students up for a life lived in denial and ignorance.

Option B is wrong because it ignores the nature of science.  Science is messy and constantly debated.  There is plenty of gray area in science.

Option C is wrong because it can offend people and drive them away from science forever.  People hold grudges against former teachers for the rest of their lives.

So what should we do?

mmm... truthiness

mmm... truthiness

I believe that we must allow students to wrestle with the really big questions of their world.  The very same questions that adults argue about endlessly.  The questions that have made CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News major players in the media market.  The same questions that have made The Daily Show and The Colbert Report so successful for their incisive spoofing of these “news” networks.

Does this mean we let them debate creationism vs. evolution in class.  Well, no.  However, I’m letting them examine such topics on their blogs as part of their current project.  Students have generated their own questions and are now diving in.  In about a week, the results of their research will be published on their blogs for all of the world to see.

At least it won’t be boring…

Self-lacing kid gloves from Wikimedia Commons
Ostrich picture from the flickr stream of Spartacus007
Stephen Colbert picture from the flickr stream of Mindsay Mohan

Never look a gift horse skeleton in the mouth

hit in the face with the inquiry stick

hit in the face with the inquiry stick

This post was inspired by the post Inquiry Stylee: Return of the “Horse” by  Shawn Cornally.  His blog, Think Thank Thunk, just plain rocks.

So often, the best inquiry smacks you right in the face and you don’t even see it coming.  When we do the “teacher thing” we often crush the inquiry before it even has time to take its first wobbly steps.  In fact, we probably do this several times a day:

Teacher: “Class, today we will be talking about BLAH!”

Student: “I have a question.”

Teacher: “Go ahead.”

Student: “Well I know we’re studying BLAH but my question is about…”

Teacher: “Let me stop you right there and destroy your curiosity.  If you aren’t going to ask me about BLAH then we don’t have time to talk about it.  Take your inquiry and your engagement somewhere else.”

Student:  “Oh, right.   This is school.  We don’t get to do anything cool here.”

And thus another student question dies a silent death.  The flickering flame of curiosity is snuffed out before it can become a wildfire of inquiry.  Bummer.

Once your inquiry radar becomes sufficiently calibrated, you’ll recognize this moment for what it really is; the possible jumping off point for some serious student learning.  I’m still working on the calibration, by the way.  I caught myself doing almost this exact thing just today!

This kind of inquiry is very, very difficult to prepare for.  It’s even more challenging to facilitate effectively.  It’s also the most fun you’ll ever have as a teacher.  By far.

Teach to the test?

This is a second follow-up to my guest post at Dangerously Irrelevant.  Thanks again to Scott McLeod for the opportunity to guest!

Twitter commentary on my guest post at Dangerously Irrelevant and a couple of the comments there, made me want to follow up.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.