Questions in inquiry learning

A welcome development this year in the Elementary School at KIST has been an emphasis on inquiry. It is more than likely due to feedback from our recent IB re-authorization visit and for me, an opportunity to grow in one of the most challenging aspects of teaching. I’ve blogged quite a bit about the theory and practices of inquiry learning, most recently in the post, CLMOOC Unmake: Unintroducing inquiry learning.

When it was announced that inquiry would be a focus, I sifted through articles I had read and collected over the years.

I also enjoyed gliding over memory lane and revisiting some saved tweets with choice perspectives on inquiry.

One article that grabbed my attention last autumn was Good research starts with good questions by David Farkas and Brad Nunnally. What I found most interesting was that many of the pitfalls of research questions are actually key techniques in developing questions for inquiry learning. For example, research should avoid ‘leading questions’ that may skew data in a particular direction. In teaching, we want the learners to find their ways to a common destination, either general or specific.

Erasing prior knowledge

In an occurrence I wish were more common, while reflecting on the experience, a colleague commented that one challenge inquiry teachers face is the desire of students to ‘get the right answers’, or even worse, to answer in the way they believe the teacher wants. This can lead to regurgitated prior knowledge answers rather than creative explorations of the concepts and contexts presented in the questions.

In Grant Wiggins’ article, 5 Tips To Help Students Arrive At Their Own Understandings, the distinction between Understanding and Knowledge is highlighted. It’s vital that learning in an inquiry setting begin with as close to a clean slate as possible. The more a class feels that their teacher is soliciting a ‘right’ answer, the less likely they are to develop deeper and personal understanding.

Student questions

One solution to the problem is to ask students to generate questions based on elements of the understandings we wish them to pursue. In an IB PYP unit of inquiry, the ‘lines of inquiry’ should help to define the scope of an intended inquiry, while the ‘key concepts’ provide a frame or lens through which to interpret one’s findings.

The photo above is a list of questions generated by a provocation in which students identified company logos, then considered them in reference to the line of inquiry, ‘How images, text, and music are used to influence people’s choices’.

Teacher questions

This year, we are collaborating with another grade level team to develop questions together to provoke inquiry into a new unit. The initial concept was to begin with carefully selected materials and a starting question intended to stimulate creativity and curiosity. Subsequent questions would climb the Bloom’s Taxonomy ladder to higher-order thinking skills, as well as ‘funnel’ students’ understandings in the general direction prescribed by the Central Idea and Key Concepts of the unit.

Our first meeting was to develop questions for the other grade’s lesson. Then, we observed them and followed up with a debriefing session, and to develop questions for our lesson. They attended our lesson and we concluded the collaboration with a final debriefing about the entire experience.

The process reinforced my belief in the importance of collaboration and design thinking in Learning Experience Design.

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Impact on learning: Kindness & Respect

At KIST, students complete two important diagnostic assessments at the beginning of the school year. One is academic from the United Kingdom Standards and Testing Agency. The other is a Student Survey which allows the learning community to evaluate our classroom environment.

On the academic tests, only 12% of my class achieved ‘just below expectations’ and only 8% were in reading and math. That result indicated to me that academics were an area of strength and that interventions would be needed on a limited and individual basis. With differentiation strategies in place, a classroom culture that would cultivate peer support and collaboration would be helpful to increase the depth and quality of learning.

Turning attention toward the student survey, I identified two major areas of concern that could potentially derail academic progress and achievement.

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For details on the survey, view my previous post, Student Survey Analysis 2016.

This post will focus on an action plan to improve classroom climate and morale with the goal of increasing academic achievement through increased enthusiasm and positive engagement.

Mindfulness

As detailed in the post, Elementary mindfulness, daily meditation is one strategy that could contribute to a more reflective classroom climate. However, such negative survey results showed a need for a targeted intervention with the goal of helping students to be more Reflective.

Community Circle

Another important opportunity for reflection is our weekly Community Circle. To help my class understand the importance of reflecting together, we elevated Community Circle to a top priority. On top of never cancelling or shortening our sessions, I devised an evaluation system by which active participation results in a ‘meeting expectations’ grade in Listening and Speaking. Knowing that their contributions as members of a community was being monitored, students practiced more intent listening and thoughtful speaking.

Positive reinforcement

I set a goal to award at least one IB Learner Profile Award or PYP Attitude Certificate to each student as quickly as their actions and choices would allow. The result was over 100 being awarded and received, and every student received at least one. To provoke parent encouragement, every award was accompanied by an email to the student’s parents with a photo of them receiving it and a description of how it was earned.

The importance of being reflective

The most precise tool in this plan was to create an opportunity for students to reflect on the way the listen and speak to each other. After collaborating with my grade level team about the questions, the result was a G4B Daily kindness and respect reflection form. Completing the form was assigned as home learning every school day for three months. My assumption was that over time, regular reflection would increase students’ mindfulness to help them to improve their communication and interpersonal interactions.

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Three months of kindness and respect reflection data

The form was submitted over 800 times and the results were a satisfactory upward trend. A short term intervention might produce more dramatic results, but would not necessarily produce a lasting outcome. These data demonstrate collective and gradual improvement. It also shows that students were generally more critical of themselves than the class as a whole, and that they each improved in relation to their peers.

Listening

The most encouraging results were in the domain of listening. The class showed greatest improvement in listening actively and intently, two skills with a clearly causal connection to academic achievement.

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Improvements in listening

High risk cases

Using the academic diagnostic assessment results to identify ‘high risk’ students, I made a point of checking their reflections occasionally and conferencing with them to increase awareness of their own behavior.

Student A

The first case is a student who is well known for having attention challenges as well as socially  awkward patterns of behavior, as well as ‘just below expectations’ results on at least one diagnostic assessment.

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Interestingly, the results clearly converge, indicating that this student believes that their behavior has improved to more closely match their perception of the class. I have observed this to be true anecdotally, as well, as students in the class have taken responsibility for helping this student to interact more productively and follow directions more consistently.

Student B

Another ‘at risk’ student took a very different journey. This may be the only example of a student rating the class lower than themself at the beginning of the survey.

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There are students who could reasonably evaluate their own behavior as being better than the class as a whole. Unfortunately, this student is not one of them. We discussed his reflections in detail and there were many instances when I pointed out when choices, ranging from playing with a pencil case to shouting over group members during discussions, were examples of poor listening. The result seems to be increased awareness of their own actions, resulting in a dramatic drop in scores, followed by improvements illustrated by increases in some areas.

Student C

Another student who is not achieving academically has also had several issues outside of class related to inappropriate use of language. This is another case in which these reflections may have served as a ‘reality check’.

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What is most interesting about this case for me is in which areas this student felt they were doing well and comparing that to their evaluation of the class. At first, two speaking categories were higher than the class, yet the scores converge at the end while the remaining areas dropped.

Are results like these desirable? If the goal is increased awareness, and there is a clear problem, then reflections that become gradually more negative could show increased awareness or acceptance of the problem.

Student D

Some students were not ‘at risk’ based on their diagnostic assessments, but warrant special attention for other reasons. The next student is well known, if not notorious, for being at the center of most episodes of misbehavior and interpersonal drama in our class.

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Interestingly, they seem to accurately assess that their behavior is less kind and respectful than the class as a group. Yet, I am struck by the ambiguity of the self reflections. There doesn’t appear to be any strong trend and the averages of the scores simply converge at 3.5 at the end. This is a case that raises more questions than answers, the most important being whether the student is very aware of their choices, but simply failed to make or observe any progress. It’s also possible that these results could indicate a deep lack of mindfulness about the student’s own actions and interactions with others.

It is possible that a differently designed reflection tool could reveal more insights into this case.

The following graphs are included simply because the look fascinating. The first shows a strange consistency, yet also a clear trend of improvement.

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Next, here’s another example of consistency based on category and gradual progress.

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Result

At the end of the three months, I asked the students to answer the original questions of concern: ‘Students are respectful to each other in my class.’ and ‘Students’ behave appropriately in my class.’ This survey was random, like the initial one.

The results are improved, but much more dramatically than I expected.

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There has been a fundamental shift in behavior and the perception of behavior in my class since the beginning of the school year. While it is impossible to attribute the change to any one variable, it is safe to say that all efforts to increase kindness and respect had a cumulative effect.

Elementary mindfulness

There has been so much hype about mindfulness that it is easy to be skeptical about its efficacy in the classroom. However, my father, a biologist with a background in neurophysiology research, practiced Zen meditation for reasons not remotely related to the transcendental or supernatural. He did it because meditation is good for the brain.

He shared the practice with me as a teenager after observing that nervousness was preventing me from achieving my best performance as a pitcher in little league baseball.

His perspective is reflected in Carolyn Gregoire’s article, What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About Compassion, which explores the synergy of meditation, compassion, and understanding.

In teaching

Early in my career, I discovered that if I asked my second grade class to pause at the door to our classroom after recess for a deep breath, coaching them to expand their abdomen for the inhalation and exhale as slowly as possible, their engagement and ability to focus was uncannily enhanced.

Last year, I encouraged my fourth graders to practice mindfulness for a few minutes after eating their lunch. They were a generally calm and thoughtful cohort and the practice seemed to benefit their focus and general mood of the classroom.

A challenge

This year, I prepared for a class that already had a reputation for high energy, acting impulsively, and lacking attention skills. The plan was to practice mindfulness as a class for five minutes immediately after returning from morning recess. In the first week of school, we meditated for one minute. Then, for two minutes. I coached the students in various techniques such as breathing, counting exercises, and visualization. It also seemed to help convince them of the importance of meditation to describe how athletes, artists, and other professionals use mindfulness to improve their performance.

I was thrilled to receive an email from a grateful parent, who happens to be a physician, thanking me for introducing mindfulness to her child.

‘I think it is so important that children observe their feeling and that they themselves lead an answer for their next move from themselves and being mindful really helps them to do this.

I just want to thank you for thinking about the students’ future and offering this kind of tool that can really help them throughout their lives.’

The letter concluded by stating that they were happy to be in my class because I ‘can bring out the positive behavior and create special learning environment for everyone.’

Simple Habit

Finally, when we could consistently sit silently for five minutes, we began using Simple Habit recordings to guide and practice. I should point out that the rules for our meditations are not strict. The students are not required to close their eyes, nor do I question them about their level of participation. As long as they sit silently, including reading a book, it is fine.

It’s difficult to assess any effect our meditation is having, although for certain it helps to instill a sense of calm in the classroom after morning recess. It is also a discreet opportunity to practice being Reflective. For that alone, it is worth continuing. But considering the possible benefits meditation can have for individuals, this could be a simple initiative with profound and lasting impact.