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.

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.

Inquiry math: Estimation

One of my challenges as an IB PYP teacher is how to design authentic opportunities for inquiry using mathematics. I think it’s due partly to the fact that the outcomes tend to be predetermined but also because upper elementary mathematical skills aren’t often prominent in the students’ own inquiries.


My solution has generally been to provide an inquiry provocation to introduce a concept with related skills to be practiced in subsequent lessons.

Estimation

Recently, we completed a unit on estimation. The initial challenge was simply to estimate the number of various objects in various containers.

Invitation

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsAfter my students discussed different strategies and submitted their estimates, we engaged the school community by setting up the jars and forms in the corridor and inviting other classes to join in.



The added social element was invaluable. The observations my students made about the strategies employed by the younger students had particularly strong metacognitive value, as they stimulated us to reflect more deeply on our own approaches.

In reflection, this activity might have been better provoked by a question like ‘How do people estimate?’, providing students with more flexibility to inquire in different ways into the mathematical thinking of themselves and others.

Challenge

Finally, to bring the inquiry to our target of using very large numbers, I challenged my students to formulate an estimation question that would result in a very large number. I’ll share two of the standout projects:

How many ants weigh the same as a ten year old girl?


The student who created this poster struggled mightily with her inquiry. I appreciated her creativity in first making a moving seesaw, especially because it was likely inspired by her participation in our school’s Maker Club. Considering her first guess of 100 ants being equal in weight to a child, it took a significant cognitive effort, a fair amount of peer support, and some careful teacher coaching to arrive at a more realistic estimate.

How much more ingredients would you need to make a classroom sized cupcake?



The giant cupcake was beautifully presented, but illustrates the importance of action in inquiry. This student’s work was hypothetically interesting, yet I don’t believe that any of the questions or ideas were actually pursued. When the idea was introduced, I was hoping that an abnormally large cupcake would appear in the classroom one day!

Practice

After creating posters to share their estimation inquiry processes, students embarked on a traditional unit of estimation practice and application in different situations. Their learning was certainly enhanced after completing their individual projects, and resulted in a clear connection between the academic and practical aspects of mathematics.

Reflection

This was an interesting mini unit that resulted in meaningful learning, but I would like to explore ways to tie it to a greater and more general theme.

It also raises a question for me about the role of purposeful practice in inquiry learning. After all, learning outcomes are, by definition, predetermined. Is it enough to view them with suspicion when designing learning experiences, or should I actively try to eliminate them from my planning?

Making action visible in the PYP

Of the facets of the IB Primary Years Program, my Grade 5/6 class emphasizes Action by focusing on three elements from our school’s Mission Statement & Philosophy: ‘inspired’, ‘independent’, and ‘contribute to world peace’.

With this in mind, in the first week of school we discussed and agreed to a class identity: Uniters.

Rather than addressing my class as ‘Grade 5/6’ or ‘children’ or ‘hey you’, I say ‘Uniters’. Aesthetically, it’s a bit like being a team of superheroes. Compared to being called a number or being identified by one’s category, who wouldn’t prefer being called ‘Uniter’, ‘Peacemaker’, or ‘Humanitarian’?

The theme of ‘unity’ provides a rich context for inspiring, evoking, sharing, discussing, and reflecting on action. An emphasis on action will be particularly important in the spring when this class prepares their PYP Exhibition, a self-directed inquiry project with the ambitious goals of authentic action, community service, and engagement with globally significant issue.

Organizing

Along the LX Design line of inquiry, I realized that we need an interactive tool to document and share our ‘action’ in its various forms. At first I considered digital tools, but none seemed to provide the immediacy and high visibility required. Thinking of my wife, Yuka‘s ‘inspiration board’ at home, I wondered if a bulletin board would be best.

The following tweet from Craig Dwyer and the informative Action in the PYP document to which it links helped to stimulate my thinking further.

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The primary goal being to move students’ awareness from thinking about action to planning and doing, our classroom dry erase whiteboard would be ideal. It’s an easily accessible space, simple to edit, conspicuously located near the front door, and doesn’t get much use other than reminders and doodles otherwise. However, we also needed the capability of categorizing our actions and seeing them develop through different stages, sharing and discussing.


Although it would take a substantial amount of work, I set out to make a laminated paper graphic organizer. It was a bit of a tedious process, but therapeutic, and an opportunity to model independently and carefully completing a project for my students.


My first iteration had a fatal flaw in that the categories (thought, emotion, planning, conversation, making, reflection) did not properly evoke action. An ‘action’ chart should be made of verbs.

After disposing of two thirds of it, and having the presence of mind to ask a passing student to take a ‘working in progress’ photograph, I created a second draft with categories in the more satisfying ‘-ing’ form.


When various forms of action occur to us, we write them in the appropriate boxes. Weekly, we visit the chart and discuss its contents. Often, students have taken action to pursue their inquiries. In those cases, they generally move down the chart from ‘thinking’ or ‘feeling’ to ‘planning’ or ‘making’. Sometimes, they need help to continue their inquiries which comes in the form of advice, assistance, or even just a friendly reminder. There have even been a few cases of students being inspired to take up other their peers’ lines of inquiry.

It has also been useful for me as an organizer for action within our guided and structured inquiries. It has been effective to model the process of taking considered action and integrating our class inquiries with students’ independent inquiries.

Sharing

A new application of the chart is to share on social media via our class Twitter account:
I look forward to exploring this more, perhaps by tweeting to other classes directly or joining in existing ‘chats’.

Reflecting

In retrospect, I wish I had included ‘researching’ and ‘playing’ as categories.

It is also critical to revisit the chart regularly, as it is too easy to fill it with a few questions and forget about it.

Perhaps a more dynamic design is in order. Considering the meager utility the remainder of the white board gets, I’m considering making a new organizer that fills the entire board, includes additional categories, and has more visual appeal. Any suggestions are welcome!

How do you document and engage with the process of taking action?

Student Empowerment | COETAIL final project

A keen observer will notice that I haven’t exactly followed the assignment here. Rather than revising a unit of instruction to attempt to redefine learning, my goal is to utilize educational technology to empower students to redefine their own learning. In a sense, I am reimagining every unit I teach. I started by trying to revise a single unit, but every change I made toward increasing student choice, voice, and agency, resulted in thinking less about deciding what I wanted students to do, and more about how I was going to document and curate what they would decide to do. A class wiki was needed first to act as a home base. In theory, it contains and organizes links to every online resource and tool we use in class. The link is jiesgradefiveandsix2014-15.wikispaces.com, and it’s the only link you will find in this post because it leads to a page containing links to everything my class does online, including our Inquiry Tasks Organizer.

The Inquiry Tasks Organizer is the hub of our inquiries and assessments. The public ‘class’ organizer feeds private organizers for each students, to which they add links to their learning artifacts and self assessment rubrics. Over the course of the school year, this document will be used to empower students to take more control of the direction of their learning by providing a flexible and agile model for documentation and reflection.

Currently, our inquiries and tasks are quite structured, but as the students become more fluent inquirers, more freedom will be transferred to them without changing any essential procedures. This ‘Project Management’ aspect of my COETAIL final project, creating an interface that can maximize agency and transparency in the classroom, is an inquiry I look forward to pursuing further along a design process in which all participants’ experiences are documented and utilized to inform ongoing iterations.

This ‘Design Thinking’ approach to classroom planning ensures that a unit is never ‘finished’, and that refinement and revision are designed in rather than being added or changed later.

The student experience thus far has been mixed. Some students enjoy the freedom that this approach affords, yet might be too easily distracted from relevant inquiries. Some are reluctant to let go of the traditional models of instruction, either our of confusion or lack of experience as independent learners.

Consequently, the full potential of this project has yet to be realized. That’s great, because it is evidence to me that the project is working. Surely if students could easily adapt and thrive, it would imply that the learning environment hadn’t changed much and certainly wasn’t redefined.

Learning won’t be redefined in one unit, but in the ongoing cycle of innovation and reflection that connected learning communities like COETAIL encourage and promote.

Maker Club year 1

One year ago, I started a Maker Club at my school as part of our after school program. While maker spaces for older learners generally focus on robotics and digital creation, I believe that an elementary maker experience should start from concrete, physical creation. Most of our materials were donated by families, but we also frequently raid the school art supplies.

Based on my participation in the Learning Creative Learning MOOC in 2013, the initial guiding principles for our Maker Club were Independence and Social Creativity.

Independence

It’s critical that Maker Club have no assignments. The only requirement is to always be ‘making’. Imagining, researching, designing, sharing, and reflecting are all parts of the making process.

Maker Faire often includes digital production, as well as arts and crafts, engineering and construction, cooking, scientific experiments and demonstrations, and the visual and performing arts. There are no artificial limits.

For the first few meetings, there was a refrain of ‘What should I make?’, ‘What do you want to make?’. This dialog is indicative of empowerment. As young makers realize that they are in control of their learning in their maker space, their creativity is ignited.

In a sense, this is what makes a maker space. Of course, maker tools and materials are important, but most important is fostering an environment in which everyone feels safe to experiment and create.

Every maker must be encouraged to try anything, and indeed, ‘makes’ that fail are not failures at all. Failures are courageous learning experiences and opportunities to safely practice a growth mindset.

Social Creativity

Social Creativity is the notion that creativity is a social activity. Innovation by adapting existing ideas, sharing, cooperating, and collaborating respects the idea that creation is an act of communication.

Every week, we update a Maker Club Projects spreadsheet that both serves to document our activities and as an archive to inspire innovation and collaboration.

The framework for assessment in our Maker Club is from The Tinkering Studio’s Design, Make, Play and consists of the the criteria of Engagement, Intentionality, Innovation, and Solidarity. This rubric emphasizes process over product and social interaction over individual achievement. These principles guide me in my role as facilitator in coaching young makers.


Play, passion, projects, peers

The most recent iteration of the Learning Creative Learning MOOC introduced the ‘4 Ps’ of play, passion, projects, and peers. Mitchell Resnick also introduced the Creative Learning Spiral, which became the inquiry model for our Maker Club.


This model is exceptionally effect for maintaining makers’ momentum.


Gallery

Please enjoy these photos of various works in progress. All photos by Bart Miller (CC BY 4.0).

One ambitious maker, inspired by a Maker Faire video, attempted to convert her bicycle into a cupcake. The project proved to be too complex for the scope of our once per week club, but she did manage to complete a ‘cherry on top’ helmet.


A pair of makers surprised me with an impromptu hand puppet show!


One of my favorite makes was this mixed media artwork. I noticed a maker with a large piece of cardboard and a pile of assorted materials.

I asked, ‘What are you making here?’
She replied, ‘I don’t know, I’m just making it.’

That’s precisely the spirit I love to see in a maker space, and is a glowing example of creative learning in action.


A student asked, ‘Is it ok if I practice piano during Maker Club?’

Yes, it is very ok to make music in Maker Club.


Often, younger makers start with a familiar project, like making a greeting card. The exciting thing is the freedom with which they innovate and iterate. Arts and crafts lessons tend to be more structured, which is of course very effective for developing a particular skill. In Maker Club, we emphasize creativity over specific skill development.


One of the older makers inspired some first graders to decorate plastic bottle caps. Learning from each other and innovating each others’ ideas is an element of social creativity that comes alive in a maker space.


The classroom computers have quick links to various digital maker sites such as Scratch, DIY, and The Hour of Code


Yet another exciting development is makers using our club time to create for projects in their ‘regular’ class. Blurring the boundaries between learning in different settings is one of my driving goals as an educator. In the photo above, a maker begins work on a robot ticket booth for a classroom carnival.

If they start building cardboard ‘robots’, it’s not a huge leap to consider adding mechanical joints, gears, or motors!


Our Maker Club achieved a new level of complexity when a new member resolved to build a guitar. I was hoping that they would inquire into how to make it playable, but they were satisfied with it as is.


Making is messy. That’s part of what makes it fun and what makes the learning that happens in a maker space so authentic and deep. I’ve learned the hard way how important it is to have rather strict clean up procedures.


One rather reluctant maker jumped at the chance to dissect a donated broken DVD player. I suggested to use our camera to take ‘macro’ photos of the innards, and the result was an interesting blend of art and technology.

Starting Year 2

Happily, by adhering to the principles of independence and social creativity, a tremendous amount of positive momentum has accumulated.

Some makers have come and gone, choosing other options for their after school program.

But some have caught maker fever. They need Maker Club.

To express the feeling of this new year of Maker Club, please enjoy this poem:

Maker Fever

Fidget through meetings
sneak to prepare materials
anxious to maximize time.

Don’t ask to ‘use this’ or ‘make that’.
Don’t need permission
in our maker space.

Make things at school,
share them at home.

Make things at home,
share them at school.

Make anywhere;
share everywhere.

Quality increases.

Confidence
Time management
Social interactions
Friendship

Constructed understanding reflected in classwork.

Attention to details
Planning
Resilience
Mindset

We are makers.

We can make anything.

All we need is space, time, and stuff.
(stuff is optional)

We are makers.




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.