Category Archives: Critical Thinking

How Do We “Do” Inquiry?

Inquiry-based learning has been quite the buzzword in education for some time now, but what exactly does it mean? There seems to be a lot of confusion about what inquiry ought to look like. Harvey and Daniels outline four types of inquiry in their book Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action: Mini Inquiry, Curricular Inquiry, Lit Circles Inquiry, and Open Inquiry. There are many others out there who have also attempted to define inquiry in some sort of practical way. Regardless of the specific inquiry model or approach, there are a few key factors to consider when deciding on an inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning.

What are your students’ interests?

Engagement comes from being invested in the learning process, so students’ interests are key to developing engaging inquiries. However, it’s perfectly ok to start small and within a given curricular area. For example, if life cycles are in your primary Science curriculum and you’ve been learning about butterflies, why not start by simply asking students what they are wondering about the life of a butterfly? For older students, consider sharing a video, article, or photo to spark their curiosity about a topic and develop wonders from there. This could be anything from social justice to ocean life to story writing. Simple curiosity is the birthplace of inquiry. By asking students what they want to learn, even within a given content area, we provide them with voice and choice in their learning. Mini Inquiry – asking questions and finding answers – is a great introduction to the inquiry process for teachers and students, as it can be as structured and guided as you would like.

How flexible is your time?

I feel I am so lucky to work Grade 6/7 students in an elementary school context. We have a ton of freedom in how we organize our day, which allows for powerful cross-curricular connections to be made and sometimes, time to explore Open Inquiry. However, even within a block system in a middle or high school context, there is room for inquiry. Whether it is Lit Circles in Language Arts or Curricular Inquiry in a content area like Social Studies or Science, there is an approach that will work for you and your students. Contrary to popular belief, structure is not a bad thing when it comes to inquiry, and in fact, it is essential to developing key skills and competencies in our students. However, inquiry is ultimately a frame of mind; students simply need modeling and encouragement to develop such a mindset. I find Getting Started With Student Inquiry a good place to start understanding the role of the teacher and the student in the inquiry process.

How will you help students access resources?

This one comes up often and, unfortunately, it  can be the factor that scares teachers off of inquiry. If students are pursuing different questions, how am I supposed to support them in their learning? Where do I access resources? What if I don’t know anything about their topic? The answer to all of these questions is that you are not an expert, but you can figure it out. With amazing online resources like Discovery Education and access to experts all over the world through social media, the information students need and want is out there somewhere. For those who don’t have easy access to technology, there are still plenty of books, magazines, and guest speakers out there. Regardless of the medium used, teachers roles are shifting from being experts to curators, and this is a very exciting place to be! It’s also a great opportunity to model an inquiry mindset for your students, as you ask questions and learn alongside them.

Inquiry doesn’t have to be scary. It can start small and be designed by the teacher. It can also be entirely student-driven and open-ended. The possibilities are endless, but the competencies developed throughout the inquiry process are what make this approach so valuable.

How might you “do” inquiry in your classroom this week?

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Photo Credit: Milos Milosevic via Flickr

If you’re still not sure what inquiry might look like in a classroom setting, check out Galileo Educational Network for some examples. You can also read about some of the things my students are doing this year on our class blog.

 

Communicating Student Learning: My Personal Journey

Three years ago, I wrote a post entitled Why I Hate Letter Grades. I figure it’s about time I write an update on my adventures…

In the fall of 2013, one brave soul (@BronwenHowden) decided to join me in the ride that was our district’s Communicating Student Learning pilot. We were two teachers in one of five schools that term to design our own report card template. We jumped on board very quickly and fumbled our way through implementation in first term. It was a very sudden shift for the community and in hindsight, there are many ways we could have communicated more clearly. However, we learned a great deal, and by second term, we were using feedback from parent surveys and a focus group to make changes to our template. By third term, we were finally gaining confidence in our methods of communicating student learning. While we knew all along that we were working to design assessment that promoted growth and learning, it was finally becoming more widely accepted in our community and we had evidence from students to support the shift that had taken place.

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We continued revising and using our template the following year alongside digital portfolios with Fresh Grade and approximately 8 more teachers and tons more schools in the district. We felt our confidence grow as we were more able to articulate our rationale for the changes and more students and parents began to see the benefits of assessing in alternative ways. Parents having access to ongoing communication of learning via Fresh Grade was hugely beneficial, and we referenced these learning samples in our CSL anecdotal assessment. We decided to maintain this formal paper communication in addition to the portfolios throughout the year, as we had already changed a lot in a short period of time, and it put many parents at ease. However, we did make some significant changes to our template, such as removing formal reporting of individual subject areas (other than Literacy and Numeracy) in favour of more cross-curricular approaches to learning and including personalized learning plans for each student. We also focused on improving the quality of our ongoing communication with parents.

Bronwen and I came out of that second year feeling there was no way we could ever return to the “old ways” and confident we could now move away from report cards altogether. Although there were a million and one factors that influenced our decisions throughout those transitional years, there were five main principles consistently guiding our practice:

  1. Formative Assessment
  2. Competencies
  3. Student Conferencing
  4. Self-Assessment
  5. Ongoing Communication with Parents

Experiencing this transition as educators provided us with the time we needed to truly explore what quality assessment looked like in practice. Looking back, we can see that learning intentions and criteria guided all of our assessment, students were involved in the learning process through co-creation of criteria and regular self-assessment, and we were focused on developing competencies through content knowledge. We improved our communication with parents through the use of Fresh Grade, email updates, class blogs, social media, and conferences. One on one conferences with students lasting 15-20 minutes every term were invaluable. It was a lot of work – we had to completely rethink how we structured our days – but somehow it felt like less work than before, as it all became so much more meaningful. We knew our students’ strengths and challenges inside and out. Even more importantly, so did our students.

Now in a new school (and desperately missing my original partner in crime!), I have finally made the complete shift to communicating student learning through Fresh Grade. I don’t think anyone can argue that it is valuable to have regular updates about their child’s learning, but change will always be difficult. I remain focused on quality assessment in my use of Fresh Grade, as it is not really about the technology, but a shift in mindset.

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cc Photo Credit: SevenSeventyFive via Flickr

There are numerous Surrey Schools educators who have already put together guidelines about the what, why, and how of digital portfolios, so I will refer you to to their brilliant work. You can find links to many of them in Elisa Carlson’s blog post here. What I have done is put together a few key pieces of advice, educator to educator, for those who are moving toward ongoing communication of student learning for the first time:

  • Be transparent! Students and parents need to know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how they can be involved. Let them know you are learning alongside them but also share resources to help them understand the transition. Ask them what they want and highlight connections between their input and best practice.
  • It’s all about the learning! If you are doing significantly more work than your students, STOP. Portfolios are not about including as much as humanly possible, but providing quality assessment of key learning throughout the year. Students should absolutely be involved in the process, no matter their age, and assessment should be moving their learning forward.
  • Learn to embrace change! Change is not meant to be comfortable but it should be meaningful. Don’t try to do the same thing in a new way; if you’ve committed to using portfolios or other alternatives to grades, you’ve committed to being a part of the change. It’s ok for your communication to look different… it should.
  • Be prepared to listen! Not everyone is ready for change at the same time. Focus on strengthening relationships by finding common ground. Actively listen to those who disagree with you. Take feedback for what it is – a learning opportunity. Remember that parents, teachers, and administrators all want what’s best for kids.
  • Find a partner in crime (or several)! Together, we are better. Collaborate. Share. Question. Collaborate some more. Support each other along the way.

I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to explore multiple ways of communicating student learning in my district. It’s been an amazing journey that I would not trade for anything. What are you doing to ensure quality assessment and communication of student learning?

CSL, Fresh Grade, and the draft BC curriculum provide me with so much flexibility in designing meaningful learning opportunities for my students. You can check out my visual presentation entitled “Redesigned Curriculum in Action” here as a sample of some things we do in Division 3.

Open Questions in Math

With a background in high school Music and French, I was definitely terrified of teaching Math when I started teaching five years ago. I “succeeded” in Math in school, but I never enjoyed it or fully understood why I was doing what I was doing. However, as part of the Numeracy Project in our district, my school participated in a lot of professional development surrounding Numeracy and over the course of my first two years of teaching, I began to love the subject that I had hated growing up. By year three, I thought I had it figured out. I spent my time filling in students’ gaps, working with small groups, and offering choice in the problems students tackled. I was differentiating, for sure, and students were experiencing success in learning, but I don’t think I helped ignite a passion for Math in many students that year. The following year, I explored project-based learning in Math with some success although I didn’t feel I was addressing those knowledge gaps quite as effectively. I had completely shifted my teaching style, yet somehow, I lost my passion for teaching Math along the way. What was missing?

The problem isn’t that my students weren’t learning; it’s that I forgot about the big ideas. With so many learning outcomes in Math, it’s easy to become focussed on the minutiae of what students are supposed to learn and to forget about the big picture. However, it is the big ideas that should guide our instruction from K-12; by focussing on the big picture, we can encourage critical thinking and creativity in a domain traditionally seen as rigid and procedural.

I read Marian Small’s book “Good Questions: Great Ways to Differentiate Mathematics Instruction” about 3 years ago, but I don’t think I effectively put it into practice at that time. Now that my enthusiasm has been revived, I’ve been begun re-exploring how open questions impact student learning and student engagement.

Here are some examples of open questions we’ve tackled in our Math class over the past couple of weeks…

Using 12 base ten blocks, which decimal numbers can you represent?


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While some students came up with three possible answers for these questions, others came up with fifty. The point is that everyone could enter into the problem. Some students are just beginning to understand tents and hundredths, so they worked on using all of the same type of block. Others could easily see patterns in numbers and were challenged to find as many answers as possible and to represent them in different ways.

___ + ___ = 4.32 OR ___ – ___ = 4.32

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Again, this open question offered choice. Students could choose addition or subtraction. They could show their understanding with whatever tool they wanted. Some chose to work symbolically while others made visual patterns concretely with the base ten blocks. They were all on task, collaborating, and learning.

Sometimes teachers get bogged down with the PLOs and forget about the big ideas. Here, we are focused on representing numbers in different ways. Without explicitly talking about it yet, students are beginning to see how decimal numbers and fractions are connected through questions like “Represent one fraction and one decimal number in as many ways as you can. Which is bigger and how do you know?” They are already discovering that fractions and decimal numbers are closely connected, that there are ways we can represent both such as fraction circles and number lines, and that finding equivalent fractions is helpful when comparing and ordering. But most of all, I’m just excited to see kids engaged in Math, especially those who struggle. One simple change can sometimes make a bigger impact than trying to completely redesign the way we teach and learn.

How do you differentiate Math instruction for your students? What has worked well for you?

Possible: Kids Get It

My last post Possible: A Frame of Mind touched on how we as educators need to shift our mind sets to context in order to inspire change in the system. We must understand our “why” and encourage others to find theirs before we ask teachers to change their practice.

Last week, I had an awesome conversation with my students. I asked them what they liked about our class and what they would like to change about school. Here are some of their responses…

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I think teachers should be closer with their students. It makes it so much easier to learn when you are connected with your teacher.

I really like how we have a lot of freedom and choice in our class. I’ve never really had this much freedom in school before.

I really like how we learn in different ways like in Math we use manipulatives and whiteboards and iPads. Math is more fun and easy to understand with manipulatives and it’s so much easier to show my thinking on an iPad than on paper.

Sometimes I think teachers forget what it’s like to be a kid. School is so much more fun when your teacher gets to know you and understand you.

I think more teachers should think about the physical space in their classrooms. How a room is set up makes a big difference in how I feel at school and having different spaces to learn is really helpful.

Honestly, I wish I had recorded the conversation because my kids were SO insightful! Their ideas were extremely well articulated and more powerful than I expected. Everyone was engaged in the discussion and wanted to contribute. We talked about making a video this year to share our experiences and what changes we would like to see in education moving forward. It was a very exciting day for me as an educator and a very powerful group activity. They have since asked if we can have awesome conversations every Thursday.

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We can’t be afraid to have these conversations with our kids. There is so much we can learn from them.

Kids get it. As long as their voices are valued, they will always see what’s possible.

Reflections on Creativity

I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about creativity.

A month ago, I was asked to decide whether creativity and critical thinking were mutually exclusive, overlapping, or one subsuming the other. My instinct was to say that they overlap; however, I thought that creativity was somehow bigger than critical thinking. I also thought that a purely creative act could exist without critical thinking.

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The more I have read and discussed and reflected on the topic, the more clear and the more confused I’ve become. As it turns out, creativity is a very complex construction. It’s meaning is often influenced by historical, cultural, and social context. After looking at a lot of the research, it seems there is no ultimate definition of the word. So now I’m thinking… What does it mean to teach creativity? How do we inspire such an abstract concept in our students? Is it valuable, or even fair, to try and assess creativity? How do critical thinking and creativity interact or overlap?

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I have to say that I don’t think our current model of “school” encourages creativity. Things are changing for sure, but we are not there yet. I like to think there is a link between creativity and imagination and that play helps to foster a sense of creativity. The’s no way to know for sure, but in my own personal experience, I have found this to be the case. Below is a short video explaining the importance of encouraging messy play.

I think too often we get focused on what is “important” and forget to allow our students time to explore in a messy, imaginative way. If we don’t allow them this opportunity, can we expect them to be creative when we want them to be?

After a lot of reading (check out Sawyer’s Explaining Creativity if you want a dry but thorough overview of the research on creativity) I am coming to terms with the fact that creativity and critical thinking may be even more interconnected than I initially thought. Is there truly such thing as a purely creative act? Many people would argue that nothing is creative without intent. For example, many beautiful, original things are developed in the natural world, but we would not call nature creative. In order for something to be deemed creative, someone would have to intentionally try to create something new or original.

I’m also wondering about the creative process. I am thinking we could argue that there is nothing created without the process of critical thinking. Someone – whether it be us or another party – has to evaluate our work in order to decide whether it’s the one we’ll share with the world or whether it needs to be revised, reworked. If this is the case, then critical thinking is a necessary component of the creative process.

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So what does all of this mean for our students?

I honestly have no idea. I am being pushed in my M.Ed. course to reflect upon these conceptions but I can’t honestly say I am there yet in terms of my understanding. What I do know is that I am willing to change what I think along the way.

I also know that I want EVERY child to believe they are CAPABLE of creativity.

How do we accomplish this? Exploring assessment of creativity is next on my agenda!

C3 Inquiry and Assessment for Learning

I am embarking on a new learning journey. A few short weeks ago, I met my M.Ed. cohort for the first time. For the next two years, we will be learning together, exploring the concepts of creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration and how they relate to the inquiry process. I must say that my initial reaction was a positive one as everyone seems open to respectful dialogue and listening to new ideas. I was challenged and I felt excited! However, I was also overwhelmed on the first day with social anxiety, worries of inadequacy, and wonder about how this would relate to my professional practice. Before we left on Saturday, we were assigned learning tasks to complete in between sessions.

I left my first weekend of classes feeling totally energized and inspired because of my colleagues and our rich discussions. However, once I had time to sit down and review our learning tasks, I felt an overwhelming sense of disappointment that I was returning to my days as a university student with readings and assignments that were not relevant or meaningful to me. Although we had said that it is all about the learning process and not the product, it seemed like another case of talking the talk but not walking the walk.

Tonight we began our second session together, and I am so relieved to say that this is not the case! While we had each written a critique, the importance was not at all placed on what we had written, but rather on sharing, discussing our work with colleagues, and self-assessment. We spent several hours constructing meaning as a group about the many conceptions of creativity that exist and how our personal and social contexts influence our conceptions. We practiced how to offer a balanced critique of someone else’s thoughts while being fair and charitable. But most important of all, we were given time and space to reflect and self-assess our own thinking.

No assignments to be handed in or graded.

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It is such a relief to know that there are education programs out there that are actually using assessment for learning. This past week, I felt some of the anxiety about assignment criteria and expectations that many of our students experience when something is to be graded. While I thoroughly enjoyed thinking critically, reflecting on my own conceptions of creativity, and discussions with friends, the thoughts of submitting my ideas on paper to be assessed made me nervous. I was reminded that many students feel that way all the time and it saddened me to think that my learning might be limited because of assignment format or criteria. Tonight, it was freeing to hear that there will be no grades given until we have mastered concepts and can submit our best work. We will continue to share, discuss, and transform our thinking and when we are ready, share and submit our best. We will all be involved in each other’s learning to help provide guidance and feedback. We will all help each other make our learning relevant to our teaching context.

I am excited to experience assessment for learning firsthand and the power it can have to transform student learning. I know the experience will help me grow as an educator and I hope I will learn how to make formative assessment more impactful for my students.

As part of an ongoing learning diary, I will blog about creative, critical, and collaborative inquiry using the tag C3 Inquiry. I look forward to sharing my learning with you 🙂