Independent Inquiry: Book Tower

In its fifth year of iteration, Independent Inquiry continues to be a project that defies traditional logic and rewards all involved with inspiration and enjoyment of learning.

This afternoon, three students had arranged to stay after school with a simple inquiry goal: To build a tower out of books in our classroom library.

This was a follow up to a previous project of using books to make a giant domino chain.

Today was special because they utterly failed. Eventually, they did manage to build something, but not without overcoming a dozen obstacles along the way.

They were frustrated by the different sizes and stiffness of the books as building materials.

Working on different sides of the tower, after it collapsed, they lamented that they hadn’t been communicating or comparing each others’ techniques to ensure stability. The constant flow of analysis and synthesis that followed astounded me and distracted me from the after school program recommendations I was trying to complete before leaving for the evening.

When all of the classroom books were used, and the tower was significantly smaller than they had expected, an ethical debate ensued in which they determined that other students wouldn’t mind borrowing their books as long as they were properly returned.

I chuckled silently throughout the project and marveled at the vast breadth and depth of learning they achieved with only an idea, a pile of books, and each other.

Advertisements

Elements of the PYP Exhibition

This week, my class of fifth and sixth graders began the culmination of their IB Primary Years journey, the Exhibition. A self-directed and collaborative project, it is my favorite part of the year and a deeply enjoyable challenge to facilitate.

Before setting out, I organized a meeting with all Exhibition stakeholders including students, parents, teachers, and administrators. We discussed everyone’s ideas, questions, and concerns in order to draft our Essential Agreements.


Components


The Exhibition Guidelines provide clear expectations, which I have synthesized for the students to provide support for their projects. One helpful practice I have chosen is to clarify five required components of the project. Specifically, every student must choose a global issue, deliver a persuasive speech, write an expository essay, create a work of art, and engage in community action. Among our first activities was introducing the organizer below.

In this way, each student has a clear map of expectations, yet is empowered to pursue their project along their own path.

Documentation


The Exhibition as an assessment should provide each student with maximum flexibility to demonstrate their understandings. To this end, I have set up a simple wiki for each student within our class wiki to use to document and self assess their learning according to the elements of the PYP (skills, attitudes, concepts, knowledge, action).

Each student has a shared Evernote notebook which functions as a portfolio. Throughout the year, we gather photos, audio reflections, links to blog posts, scanned work, etc. During Exhibition, I am particularly active trying to catch them in the act of deep learning. These artifacts will be extremely useful for them as they curate their documentation wikis.

After the Exhibition concludes, students will self assess their documented learning on rubrics aligned to the elements of the PYP. Here is a link to a rubric from last year which is the model for this year’s rubrics.

Reflection


Students have been publishing their weekly learning journals on their blogs all year. During Exhibition, they are also expected to publish weekly posts reflecting on the progress of their exhibition inquiries and creations.

To scaffold these reflections, we conduct weekly interviews which are uploaded to YouTube. The students are encouraged to include them in their reflections, but it is not required. I have some preplanned questions and we also plan questions together at the beginning of the week. Knowing the questions in advance helps us to have a similar perspective on our activities and helps them to speak and reflect more fluently.


Early starters


I am very happy with the progress thus far. Empowering students to determine their own processes has yielded some interesting immediate results.

One student was inspired to create visual art by filling balloons with paint and air, taping them to paper, and then exploding them with darts.

The inquiry has also included researching the effects of music on brain development. After a brief coaching conversation, we agreed that the importance of Arts Education would be an ideal global issue around which her Exhibition can grow.


Another student began with a global issue: Animal Rights. She already has an excellent community action planned to volunteer at a local animal shelter.

She rushed to complete the poster. Her work led to a frank discussion about aesthetics and time management and she decided to start over, taking more time to create a more visually appealing product.


Call to action


In the first week of Exhibition, we also viewed PYP Exhibition: A Rite of Passage, an inspirational and motivational video I made last year. In most cases, the Exhibition is a student’s first opportunity for 100% self directed learning. Provided a minimum of guidance, I enjoy watching how each learner rises to the challenge.

How to eat sushi (like a snob)

A long time ago, I submitted my How to eat sushi (like a snob) ‘how to’ video to the Making Learning Connected Make Bank, a fantastic cooperative repository of accomplishment and inspiration. According to Terry Elliot’s post, the Make Bank is a Convivial Tool, and I agree whole-heartedly.

https://bartmiller.makes.org/popcorn/246k_

You may also find this article from The Creativity Post interesting: Seven Life Lessons From Making Sushi contains life and learning lessons from one of Japan’s most renowned sushi chefs, Jiro Ono.

If you’re hungry for more cat sushi pictures, please savor this post from Spoon & Tamago: Nekozushi | an absurd combination of cats and sushi.

Trust & Transparency

(from the K12 Online Conference)

I have been facilitating Independent Inquiry in my classroom for the past three years. It’s similar to Genius Hour and 20% Time in Education. Witnessing the enthusiasm and engagement with which learners pursue their interests and passions has motivated me to evaluate, redesign, share, and promote passion driven learning.


In these years, the single greatest challenge has been establishing trust that time students spend pursuing their interests and passions is well spent. As asked by The Tinkering Studio in Chapter 5 of Design, Make, Play:

‘It looks like fun, but are they learning?’

Cynicism about learner directed learning is understandable. We don’t have content. The students inquire into and create the content.

When I asked students their thoughts and feelings about Independent Inquiry in our classroom, they agreed that it’s fun. But they also said:

I can do anything I want.’
‘I like to make things.’
‘We can work together.’
‘We can challenge ourselves.’
‘When we make things, we improve ourselves and think a lot.’
‘We practice being reflective.’
‘In Independent Inquiry, you don’t feel bad about making mistakes.’
‘Sometimes you have to start over again.’

We have had a fascinating variety of inquiries over the last three years, from baking to basketball free throw practice, lego robotics to fashion design.

Teachers who try passion driven learning in their classrooms discover that the deep learning occurs around the processes of thinking, inquiry, and reflection. We all pursue our passions differently, and our best learning occurs from exploring different paths to understanding, making mistakes, persisting through frustration, and reflecting on the process.

Regretably, many teachers go to great lengths to design detailed project organizers to ensure that students cross all of the ‘t’s and dot all of the ‘i’s of their learning process. Understandably, they want to have artifacts of student learning to control the process just enough to be able to ‘justify’ the use of time.

But that’s not learner directed, is it? It’s a project in which students have some voice, but the direction is already determined.

One might object, claiming that ‘most students don’t know how to direct their own learning. They can’t do it.’

‘They can’t do it.’

I cringe visibly when educators say that.

People don’t learn by already being able to do things. They learn by trying new things.

The brilliance of passion driven learning, what makes it the vanguard of a meaningful revolution in education is that it’s based on the premise that ‘They can do it’.

Our responsibility is to empower them.

Trust the learner

The first and most important trust that passion driven learning requires is between students and their teachers. We must trust that each learner will pursue their interests and passions to the best of their ability and gain their trust that we will do anything possible to help.

An infant doesn’t begin to learn to walk by taking a first step. They begin in the cradle by wondering how it is that other people can move around so easily. Their first attempts at mobility are so pathetic, they are adorable, and that’s exactly what we expect.

Self directed learning is no different. Most learners fail miserably and that’s exactly what needs to happen. Failure should be encouraged and celebrated. This failure is the foundation of a growth mindset and an environment of trust empowers everyone to act with courage to grow.


I have observed a wide range of fascinating independent inquiries. Some are shining examples of committed and creative hard work, some are simply pathetic. But the best and the worst are of equal value as they represent different stages of learning how to learn. In many cases, the so called ‘worst’ inquiries are actually the best.

Learn; don’t be taught.

When students enter my upper elementary classroom for the first time, they know how to ‘be taught’. They are well accustomed to clever lessons, activities, worksheets, and quizzes.

My goal is for them to learn how to ‘learn’. Which begs the question: ‘If students aren’t in school to ‘be taught’, what’s the purpose of teachers?’

It’s a fair question! What we are essentially saying is, ‘send your kids to my classroom! I’m not really going to teach them anything.’ What is needed is trust among all stakeholders including students, parents, teachers, administrators, policy makers, etc.

I have been fortunate to teach in an environment that explicitly promotes inquiry learning, and given the current trends of deeper learning, design thinking, and maker education, I imagine most schools would be willing to allow an experiment in passion driven learning.

Even given the initial trust of stakeholders, it’s our responsibility to sustain that trust by clearly demonstrating the success of our programs. Fortunately, the inspired faces of students describing their learning speak volumes, but it’s not enough.

The key to sustaining trust is transparency.

Transparency

The first and indispensable tool I use is a Google Form for weekly reflection and self assessment. It’s the hub of our passion driven learning as we use it to reflect and discuss our learning.

The form we use in my class includes elements from the IB Primary Years Program, The 21st Century Fluency Project, the Connect Learning Core Values, and a writing prompt. These elements represent the essential goals for the school year. Of course, a form could include virtually anything, including Common Core learning objectives.

The transparency comes from the spreadsheet the form feeds. Every reflection is recorded with a timestamp and can be searched by any variable. The sheet itself is not sortable, but a straightforward script can import the contents to another sheet that is sortable. I have included all of these in a public Google Drive Folder for anyone to copy.

After several weeks of inquiry and reflection, it’s very revealing to give each student a printout of their own reflections to analyze. They are always impressed with the growth and maturity their inquiries and reflections show.

We also use the form during a weekly Independent Inquiry Meeting. My class has two consecutive hours scheduled for self directed learning, once per week, and each sessions begins with a meeting in which we discuss their previous reflections, new inquiry models, collaboration and service opportunities, and anything else pertaining to independent inquiry.

These meetings are also a great chance to explore our reflection ‘analytics’, a summary of the reflections in graphic form.

Coach, document, curate, share

Back to the question of ‘what does the teacher ‘teach’?’ in a self directed environment. One answer is that we become coaches. We must be intimately familiar with each student’s project, their strengths and areas of need as inquirers. Often, when I notice a student pursuing a particularly difficult line of inquiry, I independently perform my own research to help them find useful yet difficult to find resources. At other times, particularly when students work in a group on a highly creative inquiry goal, I just leave them alone to negotiate their own ways through the challenges.

The learning environment is incredibly dynamic, and opportunities to capture and document the best learning come and go in flashes. Another answer to what teachers do is that we become documentarians and curators.

My smartphone is always at hand to snap a picture and take a quick note. For curation, Evernote is extremely useful, as it allows me to tag photo notes with the student’s name and any other important information, including quotes from students about their learning.

Teachers know that well organized portfolios of student work including a range of assessment data are a good way to endear ourselves to administration.

Finally, all this learning needs to be shared, certainly with parents and ideally publicly. My preferred media are a class twitter account and blog. Twitter is perfect for live sharing of the learning in class and interacting with parents and other classes. In our class blog, I often reshare tweets and include more photos and explanation.

The best way to describe this sharing is ‘broadcasting’. If the passion driven classroom actively broadcasts its activities, the levels of engagement and depth of learning will be evident and celebrated.

Trust yourself

Trust yourself to learn from mistakes, reflect, adapt, try again, and above all, share your own process for passion driven learning, just as we wish for our students.

Trust yourself to persist through the mishaps and misadventures of learning innovation and openly model a mindset to inspire students to embrace and pursue their interests and passions.

Exhibition Week 0

School Community Meeting


On Thursday evening, we held a presentation and meeting for students, parents, and teachers to learn about and discuss our school’s inaugural PYP Exhibition to be held in about two months, on 26 April during our International Children’s Day event.

I began the meeting by reviewing the description of the Exhibition on the International Baccalaureate Primary-Years-Program website and the directing everyone to the Exhibition Guidelines for further details.

Next, I delivered a short presentation. Here are the slides and notes:






I was happy to field many questions, which made it more conversational than a typical presentation. It was also an indication that the ‘zen’ of my slides was effective at stimulating thinking rather than simply containing information, a goal I set in the post Exhibition pre-Zen-tation.

Exactly the kind of energy we’re looking for during this collaborative adventure.

After the presentation, we visited the JIES Grade 6 PYP Exhibition Wiki. All of the students’ preparations and presentations will be linked to that web page, so it is important that everyone know how to find and make sense of it.

I could see relief in the parents’ and administrators’ eyes when they saw an organized way to document specific learning during what is, by necessity, a very nebulous ‘assignment’.

Finally, we discussed and agreed to our PYP Exhibition Essential Agreements.



These were created collaboratively in class. Please note the inclusion of all of the PYP Attitudes. Everyone seemed satisfied with them as they are, so we agreed and adjourned the meeting. In the interest of transparency, all materials were posted on our class blog in a post similar to this one.

I’m most excited to see how the students react to having the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy. My hope is that being trusted to use their tablets and smartphones will inspire them to truly integrate the technology and connectivity into their learning, even if only after a bit of goofing around.

Very excited to get started on Monday and hope that my colleagues around the world will share and reflect online during this special time of the year for so many PYP students.

Fotomania

Playing at the window after a snowstorm
As part of my inquiry into Visual Literacy, I have taken up photography as a hobby. I think that hobbies don’t get enough credit as deep, informal learning experiences!
In this photo, my first of an artistic nature, I tried to capture the wonder my son expressed as he felt the sunshine and surveyed the snow-covered rooftops all around outside after Tokyo’s heaviest snowstorm in more than forty years.
If you are interested in following my new fotomania, please find my photo feed on Instagram.

Better visual design in the classroom

Last week, as part of my inquiry into visual literacy and design (My Greatest Weakness), I decided to redesign the display board outside my classroom door based on the principles I learned from Garr Reynolds’ From Golden Mean to ‘Rule of Thirds’.

These ideas are not new to me, at least conceptually. The Golden Mean is well known in music composition and fiction writing as a standard to keep in mind to maximize drama, suspense, conflict and resolution, and climax.

Applying it visually is a new exploration for me.

The Display

Here is a photo of the original display board for our unit of inquiry focused on changes in science and technology:

The text on the left is simply information about the unit. The photos are from students’ formative blog posts about 3D printing, and the small, diagonal texts, are quotes from their posts.
My design concept was to line up the large text on the left and then just fill in the rest in whatever way it would fit.

Not really ‘design’

‘Fit it all in’ is not really ‘design’. In order to truly begin to design the display, and to apply my constructionist philosophy, I printed out the photo of the display and cut out each element. With this hands-on model, I began rearranging the parts. By thinking of the ‘rule of thirds’ grid, and utilizing a design strategy beyond ‘just fit it all in’, I found that different arrangements led to different impressions and understanding.
I set up a center in the classroom and invited my students to help me. Here are a few of the iterations we documented:
My favorite came from a student, the one in the lower right. I like how the layout of the large text respects the ‘rule of thirds’ and draws the viewer from top left to bottom right. It also utilizes proximity to associate each quote with a particular image, rather than grouping them together. The effect is that attention is drawn toward the most ‘important’ information, and the viewer is free to explore the rest.

Questions lead to more questions

Shouldn’t the quotes should be bigger because they are actually the most important part of the display to which the viewer should be directed? How would that alter options for the layout? Should the other text be smaller? Should I choose different images? Is it possible to arrange everything in a way that tells a story? What is the story? Should this display do more than simply present information?

Reflection

Despite being a source of some anxiety for me, this activity was fun for two primary reasons:
1 It involved a model that could be manipulated, creating a sense of ‘play’ rather than ‘work’.
2 It was collaborative. Inviting others to help created an authentic feeling of shared purpose.
These are critical considerations for instructional design, and I’m happy to have had this authentic experience for myself.

Going further

I am excited to expand this inquiry. I applied these concepts to photography this weekend, the product of which you can view in the post, Plum Blossom.
There is also a Visual Literacy unit in the planning stages for my class, a topic I never had the courage to try to teach explicitly in the past. Wish me luck!