Saturday, 30 November 2013

Teaching through Inquiry or Problem Based Learning

I have recently been in many discussions with colleagues on teaching through inquiry that I thought I would put my thoughts into this blog. For me inquiry is everything.  I know some feel a more balanced approach is needed but in my opinion it is the way to teach.  The reason why I think this is that the students are engaged, it is there learning and through proper and impactful questions the students get a rounded program.  

What does teaching through inquiry involve?

The first is that it takes planning. Educators cannot expect to have a good inquiry, one that has meaningful learning, to happen just like that.  I have been encouraged by Mary Stein's five practise for planning a math inquiry ( anticipate, monitor, select, organize and debrief.  What these practise suggest is that we need to first anticipate students work, problems, strategies, and models.  This is where having a good understanding of curriculum, learning progressions and a trajectory of learning will assist in anticipation of student response. By anticipating, you can ask better questions, talk can be pushed and students will often move I learning because you can plan for it.  When educators are monitoring, they are constantly reflecting, thinking and questioning where students are, what they're learning and where the learning is going.  By monitoring you are also looking for student work to create the most impactful debrief that can happen.

The second thing is that inquiry needs a good context.  Students need to be truely engaged in the learning that they actually forget they are learning and are just trying to solve a problem. It is only the debrief that the learning goals become evident and brought out through careful questions.

Third, students need time. They need to have the time to explore, stubble, be in disequilibrium.  This is the hardest part for educators because we want to jump in and help by providing ways out. However, for the learning to have impact students need to be in that disequilibrium and be brought back and forth with careful but purposeful questions.

Finally, inquiry needs a debrief. Students need to have the learning brought back. Yes students will learn on their own, we all do this, it will just take time. As a teacher, educator we need to question, talk and bring the math or learning forward for the students to focus on.

Why teach through inquiry?

First students are really impacted by it. It becomes not just book knowledge but real learning.  Students also feel incharge of their learning. They are learning not just because you told them but because they want to learn. You cover more expectations and learning then you think and often with less review because learning is real and deeper.

How do you assess?

This is a question I get asked all the time.  Report cards, test scores, etc. are always at the forefront of education.  I personally think this needs to change.  What do we value more, learning or scores? In my opinion it's learning. For this to happen focus needs to be on descriptive feedback and formative assessment.  That being said I know we live in the real world and need marks. Through inquiry it is all there just in a different way.  Phasing a trajectory will help. It allows you to say to parents, administrator and colleagues, here is what research says, here is what we think, this is where they are and where they need to go. It is even more powerful then an a, b, or c. It gives students, parents and you the power to help and move students.

How do I get started?

Jump right in. Take so,e of your existing lessons and flip them. Instead of you guiding the learning or teaching the skills, have the students do it through a context rich problem.  There are also many resource: math: Cathy fosnot, Marilyn burns, john VanDeWalle, are just a few. Science: hands on science language: reading power series, rethinking schools, math that matters

Again these are just a few of my thoughts but there is a lot of research to back it up.  Inquiry is a lot of fun, it will surprise you. As I end this blog I would love to here what your experiences are? Have you tried inquiry? Problems? Questions? Thoughts?


  1. Jonathan, I'm so glad to see you blogging about inquiry! You've helped me too many times to mention both through Twitter and through comments on my blog posts. It's great to hear how you set things up, why you do what you do, and how you assess the learning (something that I've blogged and tweeted about often :-)).

    Here are some of my big questions (and we've discussed some of them briefly before, but I'd love to know more):

    1) How would you get reluctant teachers started with inquiry?
    2) How would you bridge the gap between pencil/paper/blackline master tasks and inquiry (for those that want or need the bridging)?
    3) How do you modify for students with Special Needs? I know that inquiry tends to lead itself to multiple entry points, but not always. Group work can help, but I still want to make sure that all of my students have a meaningful part in the tasks, and this can sometimes be difficult. What do you suggest?
    4) What are your thoughts on tests? I'll admit that I VERY rarely have tests or quizzes, and tend to do more in-class assignments/projects instead. I still mark these, so that parents and students can see the evaluation, but sometimes I wonder if I should be doing more testing. Thoughts?

    Thanks, as always, for pushing my thinking!

  2. Aviva, as always love your thoughts and reflections. These are questions that I have been asking myself and am only now breaking through. Here are some of my thoughts, but they are just my thoughts.

    1) we will always have reluctant people. As my wife tells me all the time, not ever one is like you. I laugh at it but it's true. I hi k we need to realize this and move from it. Trust and relationships are what we need in order to move people forward. Many people don't want to have change because it's the fear of the unknown. What I have found helpful is to offer my assistance in co-planning lessons. Again you need trust for this and good relationships but it has seemed to work. Once we are I. Co-planning I try not to I force my thinking but offer help with what they already have. I guess this may also answer question two. I look at the big ideas that they are trying to work with and we make a problem to go with it. E,g: geometry is often one were we get a lot of black line masters. Ones that say find the properties and then there is a list for the kids to follow. What I asked them is can we say instead here are shapes, what properties can you find? We then talk about it and make sure it's okay for them. I also so Erika's just find problems for them to try and say hey I think this would work well with your unit.

    3) to be honest I find that with the accommodations that we already do, no other modification is needed. There is no rush on learning, which is why we can move at the pace of the students. I know this is harder as the kids get older because of the curriculum but it does work. I also found that if you build a community of learners then everyone helps out. Don't forget that you can still do small groups, math centers, small group discussions, etc. context plays such an important role. Good contexts allow students to not think about the numbers but the problem. This is my problem with small, she often will focus on numbers like a textbook. Nothing wrong with parallel tasks but what most students Need in exploring is a good context for learning. Most struggle because they have moved to fast from concrete to abstract at a young age and need that co create life example to move forward.

    4)I think tests have a place but a very far one. I prefer to use pre and post test only to record growth but they end up being more of a individual task then a test. Ask yourself, as you go through the process, do you know where your students are? Can you identify the next steps? What is a yes going to show you, that you already don't know? Is it because of parents? Of so I think you may need to reeducate parents. If you look at the skills of 21st century, is about process and thinking. A test is a snap shot in time but doesn't tell you the whole process. Videos, trajectories, talk will. Use the trajectory with parents and students. Have them explain were they are, and where they need to be. It really is amazing.

    Hope that helps. Thanks again for your thoughts they are worth while questions and ones that I am still working through.

    1. Thanks for all of this information, Jonathan! It really helps. After reading your responses, I have a few more questions for you:

      1) How do you go about offering your assistance? I never want to appear pushy, but I want people to know that I'm happy to learn together. A colleague and I share ideas often, but we're both very interested in inquiry. I'm looking at ways to connect with other people as well. What would you suggest? Do you try emails or face-to-face conversations? How do you start? (I'm still learning about inquiry, but I would love to learn with others. I think that the time to debrief together is so important! I tend to do this often with another teacher at the school, my principal, vice principal, and people online -- through the blog -- but the face-to-face connections are so important as well.)

      2) I absolutely agree with you about tests, and this is basically what I do. I've shared this information with parents as well, and it's a change to what many are used to, but they're embracing the change. I love your idea about discussing the trajectory with parents. How do you do this? Is it just through the once-a-year student-led conference, or do you do it more often than that? Could students bring something home to reflect on the weekend with their parents (kind of like a self-assessment of sorts)? What would you suggest?

      Thanks for the information as well for students with Special Needs! This is largely what I'm doing right now. It's always great to hear how others approach this! I love this conversation, and I'm glad that we can continue it on your blog as well!


    2. Aviva, there is so much more that can be said here then on twitter. Love this. So for the last seven years, I use to push and plot my way through having people do inquiry,especially in math. This I found worked for some but not all. It as you suggest makes you pushy. It has helped this year that I got the TLLP project so we can do a school wide learning but I find always that face to face is the way to go. I have personally gone to eachother Escher on my staff and asked them how it goes. I also made some handouts, you can see them on my other posts. I have thought of myself as a resource teacher and what would they do every time they go into different schools and classes. It is hard but worth the time.

      Reflection is still one of my journeys and I am working through this. I have the trajectories in their portfolios, it is on the class site and parents can talk about it any time. I think it would be a good Idea to have it go home and parents and students reflect on it. They can look at their work talk about what they are doing and see where hey are on Thorpe trajectory. I will say though that they are hard to harder stand if your not use to he research, you may have to makea. More parent friendly one for them to use.

      Keep up the questions it is good for reflection and keeps teaching moving.

    3. Thanks Jonathan! I love how the blog allows for this longer conversation! This really helps. With all of this questioning, I feel like I'm trying a little inquiry project of my own :), and I like it.

      You mentioned here that you went to every teacher on staff and talked to them face-to-face. Was this because of the TLLP Project? Would you suggest the same approach without this kind of project? How would you approach the teachers without appearing pushy, but with trying to be helpful? I know that I've approached a couple of teachers, but these teachers have also indicated an interest. I'm struggling with if/how to approach those teachers that haven't.

      Thanks for your information on the trajectories as well. I wonder if we could make a more parent-friendly one to send home. I've tried to share reflections with parents on a weekly (or close to weekly) basis since returning from the ECOO Conference and hearing more about how other teachers do this. I wonder if these reflections could be linked to trajectories or something similar. You have me thinking!

      Thanks again, Jonathan!

    4. I have to admit, I have an amazing staff. It is hard to do if you don't have something to bring you together. What has worked in the past is that I sent emails out with tips, summaries of my readings, blog posts. I then leave it up to teachers to come to me. If you have a good report with teacher approach them. Also this is were I think admin can help. They know what people need to work on and can suggest to have them see you. Has your school done instructional rounds? This has been the best PD. What we do is go around and visit classes. We watch lessons, and then discuss. It takes pd days but so worth it.

      It really comes down to observations. Remember you can't change anyone or make them do anything all you can do is lead by example and have people wonder why your so good. Lol. All joking aside student learning is forefront and the most important.

      As for the trajectories whatever you come up with let me know. Thanks again for the comments.

    5. Thanks Jonathan! I really appreciate your insight here. I've already shared your post with admin (I LOVE that they both tweet and my vice principal blogs as well), and I'm going to share your comments with them too. I've definitely tried the email approach, but I was very curious to hear more about your other approaches. I love the instructional rounds suggestion. I think that this debriefing afterwards would be so powerful!

      I also love your focus on the students. This is so important, and it's the reason why we all want to get better. Thanks again! I'll be sharing more for sure! :)


    6. I appreciate the discussion too. Great talks. Love how discussion happens across boards, cities and countries when online. Keep it coming.