Agency and Independent inquiry

When reports of the Enhanced PYP began surfacing on the International Baccalaureate Twitter feed, I was elated to see that Agency has been placed boldly at the center of the new model:
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To me, the philosophical implication for this change is that the primary function and goal of education is to build capacity for action. Within the context of the IB, the Learner Profile describes the attributes within which that capacity can increase. For example, a learner may increase agency in the context of historical understanding by becoming more Knowledgeable about history, or increase agency for conflict resolution by taking Principled and Courageous action.
This is more than transformational: It’s revolutionary.

Past & present

Anyone familiar with the industrial model of education (pretty much everyone) should be skeptical about our capacity for this reform. This 180° turn way from standards- and competency-based pedagogy has a few precedents, and I am curious to learn more about classrooms and schools where independence and agency have been assigned top priority.

One school system who fits this paradigm and whose progress I have enjoyed following is High Tech High. Most of what they have shared is related to older students, so I’m curious to see more about their elementary programs.

Agency as the aim of teaching has been gaining momentum since John Dewey at the latest, and can arguably be traced back at least as far as Socrates. Luckily, my teaching experiences have tended to be less traditional and more progressively minded, and the article, How a Focus on Independent Learning Transformed My Most At-Risk Students, certainly reflects my ideas about the importance of independence in learning.

Independent inquiry

One of my approaches to cultivating agency is Independent Inquiry. Since I started the project six years ago, the mission of this project has been to:

Unify learning at school, learning at home, and learning anywhere, anytime.
Empower learners to engage in and reflect on their own inquiry processes.
Encourage interest- and passion-driven learning.
Integrate peers, parents, communities, and global networks into the inquiry process.

While success has varied from year to year, cohort to cohort, I can comfortably claim that the process we use – an online reflection form and weekly meeting in class – helps agency to flourish.

Call to action

Once again, another gem appeared on the IB PYP Twitter feed. The quote below is a perfect call to action for teachers who are serious about promoting Agency – voice, choice, and ownership.

Making physics physical

One of my favorite units of inquiry in Grade 4 at KIST, in the theme of ‘How the world works’, is titled Force & Motion, and focuses on Newton’s Laws of Motion. The unit resources when I arrived at the school included a few useful tools for demonstrations, but lacked class sets of items and structured experiences that students could use to explore and discuss.

Media

One resource we do have is access to excellent videos and online games. Some of our favorites are published by NASA and other space agencies, like Launchpad: Newton’s Laws On-Board the International Space Station (video), and the Physics Games website.

Twitter once again proved its worth as a tool for learning in the quoted tweet above, a live video of an astronaut playing with and observing a fidget spinner in microgravity. All of the media we have collected are engaging, but can’t compete with a fidget spinner for the attention of nine year olds.

Design & technology challenge

Each year, we have added materials and experiences to make the unit more visceral and fun. To kick off the unit, we introduced an initial provocation in the form of a G4 Water Balloon Drop Challenge. Using the rules outlined in the flyer, students research, design, and build their apparatuses independently outside of class. When we gather on the appointed day, I load each with a water balloon and drop them from the second floor balcony. Those that successfully protect the balloon are taken to the third floor and dropped again. The proud few that survive that are finally dropped from the fourth floor.

We often have visiting administrators and younger classes in the audience, so the event has become a well anticipated and exciting way to get our students thinking about forces and motion.

Get physical

Next, we collaborated with our Physical Education teacher to organize a tug-of-war tournament. Between each round of competition, each team reflected on one of Newton’s Laws of Motion to try to improve their performance.

My hope is that whenever these children think about physics or Newton, they will remember this event. Additionally, by systematically reviewing each of the laws during the tournament, there is definitely higher retention of the vocabulary of Newton’s Laws.

Hands-on exploration

This year, our new addition was a set of Newton’s Cradles. With enough for a pair of students to share one, I wrote a series of questions to add some guidance to their explorations, for example, ‘What happens when you raise and release one of the hanging balls?’.

While it is possible to demonstrate a Newton’s Cradle at the front of the classroom, and that would be better than watching a video, having one that every student could touch, see, and hear, up close, instantly transforms the lesson from passive to active.

Making catapults

Finally, as the culminating Summative Assessment Task for the unit, we ordered 1cm x 1cm x 90cm lengths of wood, nails, hammers, hacksaws, and safety goggles for the purpose of building catapults. The objectives were to expose the students to basic design and construction principles, explore Newton’s Laws of Motion in a practical way, then hold a grand catapult tournament on the main field in the center of the school.

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Having facilitated a Maker Club in the past, I was aware of the need to emphasize safety early on, but also to trust the students to look after their own well being. I find it’s best if my role is mainly to watch out for unsafe practices and intervene as quickly as possible. Fortunately, it happens rarely, leaving a high degree of autonomy for students and plenty of time for me to interact and promote collaboration among the groups.

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Children constantly impress me with their ability to creatively solve problems when they are trusted with the tools and freedom to do so.

There were many expected and unexpected benefits of this engagement. The expected ones were quite predictable, but unexpectedly, some of my less precocious students absolutely sprung to life. Some students who tend to be distracted in typical class activities, or struggle with academic work, were impressively inspired by the task of building a catapult. This phenomenon has caused me to think that the way we tend to use class time is unbalanced.

Reflection

Observing the excited energy and positive experiences of my students interacting with concepts and vocabulary of physics has pushed my pedagogical thinking even further in the direction of Constructionism. The idea that a learner figuratively builds understanding by literally building a physical – or virtual – object gains traction for me every time I see it in action.

In terms of assessment for the catapult challenge, I think it’s appropriate to use the method I employed for our Model UN scrimmage: Every student begins with a baseline ‘proficient’ score. In this case, we start with 90%. Then, as the activity progresses, teachers use structured observation to modify students’ scores on targeted skills. For this activity, we were looking for evidence of Spatial Awareness, Cooperation, and Independence.

And as always, the students complete a comprehensive self-assessment of all elements of task and unit.

Experiences like these remind me that school should be a lot more time spent doing tasks like these, and a lot less about rigid standards within a few disciplines.

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.

Impact on learning: Author’s purpose

Inspired by a colleague’s presentation during the KIST ‘Teach together; learn together’ professional development event, I took a more formal approach to the impact cycle than I have in the past.

First, I copied the raw data from my students’ diagnostic assessments into an Excel spreadsheet. I added a row at the bottom to show the average result of each test item as a percentage, then used conditional formatting to create a visual perspective into the data.

Reading diagnostic data

This allowed me to identify a general area of need: Reading. Then I simply copied and pasted the test items with average results of less than 50% along with the corresponding learning outcome indicated in the test documentation.

Reading diagnostic data analysis

The common weak thread, in my analysis, can be expressed by the verbs ‘describe’ and ‘explain’. Surprisingly, in Bloom’s Taxonomy, these terms are associated with Knowledge and Comprehension, or ‘lower’ order thinking.

Glaring omission

One issue involves the outcomes related to author’s purpose. Put bluntly, there is no such learning outcome in the standards for Grade 4 at KIST. The students are being assessed in a high stakes manner on learning outcomes that the school doesn’t explicitly teach. I, of course, can add standards about author’s purpose to my working documents. Indeed, that is the purpose of this impact intervention. However, it’s clear that teachers’ voices are needed in the development of the school’s assessment and planning documents to ensure that they are relevant and in alignment with one another.

Intervention

My plan for having a measurable impact on student learning is to ensure that they are exposed to the idea of author’s purpose, and explore it in a variety of ways in our guided reading sessions. This can be done by direct mini lessons and reinforced by revisiting the concept whenever we encounter a novel or remarkable example in the texts we explore.

Another approach would be through precising and close reading of a master text. For this, the grade four team selected an abridged version of Swiss Family Robinson to be integrated with our unit of inquiry in April and May. This plan might be our students’ first opportunity to read a novel together. The text uses rich vocabulary and imagery, so I believe there will be many opportunities to analyze and summarize selections, and hypothesize about Mr Wyss’ purpose for various literary choices.

Measuring impact

To avoid over-assessing my students, I will plan to use the end-of-year English Diagnostic Assessment, of the same type as the one at the start of they year, to measure impact. Throughout the school year, I have assessed and gathered data on a wide variety of learning outcomes informally during guided reading sessions, but this will be the only formal assessment of the learning outcome of author’s purpose.

Student Survey analysis 2016

This year, my Student Survey results held few surprises (link to view last year’s Student survey analysis). Items directly related to me, such as ‘My teacher cares about me’, were positive. Generally, 70-80% of students answered ‘usually’ with very few, most often only one student, answering ‘no’.

Listening to students

One surprise was the response to the statement, ‘My teacher listens to me.’, to which 48% of my students think I only ‘sometimes’ listen to them. Slightly baffled, I reflected on my practice and identified a few of my behaviors that could lead to this result.

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First, as a rule, I ignore students when they suddenly shout across the classroom, begin asking a question without saying ‘excuse me’ or otherwise catching my attention, and especially interrupt other students. I can easily understand how a child could perceive that I am not listening to them because in some cases, I intentionally don’t listen in order to cultivate a culture in the classroom of politeness.

Of students who responded ‘sometimes’ or ‘no’, their overall average response was only 69% positive, meaning that those who responded negatively to this item were also negative to most of the other items. Of those who don’t feel that I ‘usually’ listen to them, 69% also don’t feel free to ask and answer questions, a tenuous correlation.

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As a simple action plan, I would follow the steps below.

1 Observe if and when I don’t listen to students.
2 Make more explicit that I sometimes ignore students speaking to me if they are acting disrespectfully or impolitely.
3 Reinforce our classroom essential agreement – which was composed, synthesized, and signed by all of the students – about being Open-minded Communicators.

We are Open-Minded Communicators.

We have a right to share our opinions and feelings.

We have a responsibility to show respect by listening and practicing empathy.

I would also note that of all of the classes I have taught in nine years, this is by far the most needy. During any written assessment, there is a constant queue at my desk and barrages of hands in the air asking for help. My email box is also consistently populated by emails from students asking to send PDFs of lost homework and other requests for favors which I politely decline. It is possible that their concept of the role of a teacher is significantly different than mine.

Choice and agency

A difference in expectations might illuminate another perplexing survey item result to the statement, ‘My teacher allows me to demonstrate my understanding in various ways.’

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For their first unit Summative Assessment Task, students had the instruction to ‘Present your research findings in an appropriate medium of your choice (written report, video, poster, dance, cooking, etc).’

Almost everyone in the class chose to do an oral presentation with a poster or PowerPoint for visual support. The remaining two students submitted written reports. Although this may only be a case of carefully reading and following instructions, I feel justified in being somewhat annoyed.

Respect and classroom behavior

I was shocked to discover their responses to the statement, ‘Students are respectful to each other in my class.’

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Only two students think that their peers ‘usually’ treat each other with respect, and almost a quarter feel that their class is always disrespectful. The same holds true for their perceptions of classroom behavior.

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When I asked if anyone wanted to learn in a class like the one shown above, no one responded.

I have discussed these results with my grade level team, administration, and the precious grade teachers. All assured me that the students’ feelings about their community are absolutely about complex social dynamics. In brief, this class has too many ‘alphas’ and not enough empathy. This is a case study to test my ability to cultivate social and emotional intelligence. And a fair and timely challenge it is.

A future post will detail the reflection and data informed action plan I have set into motion to help this learning community to become more Caring.

I would certainly appreciate anecdotes and suggestions that might more brightly illuminate a path forward.

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.

Engagement for organization in writing


The challenge of teaching young writers without limiting or stifling their Voice and creative enthusiasm is a monumental task. Designing engaging writing activities which integrate multiple modes of learning is another. Fortunately, the two tasks are complementary and any effort spent solving one problem helps with the other.


As my fourth graders spent the first six weeks of the school year exploring the 6+1 Traits of Writing, one engagement worked particularly well for the students learning about Organization.

In collaboration with my grade 4 teaching partner, we selected a few texts organized in well structured paragraphs. Then, each text was separated so that the paragraphs could be rearranged. Students worked in small groups to organize the texts in the way the made sense to them. Then, groups were reorganized so that each could discuss their reasons for organizing the texts in the ways that they had.
The result was an authentic yet structured opportunity to practice text organization without criticizing student writing, which I am extremely reluctant to do with such young writers. Social and kinesthetic learning modalities made the experience engaging and fun. It was also an efficient use of time as the design of the activity itself was quite self explanatory.