The last post? Sound the trumpet? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t see this as the end of the beginning but rather as the end of an action/reflection process that is part of a much longer journey.

This image helps to remind me of something we talk about as we evolve our programs – each step we take represents a quarter turn of the screw. The current turn is related to and informed by the previous turns and will relate to and inform future turns. The Cohort 21 collaborative opportunity aimed at helping us to wrestle with a “How might we…?” question has been such a turn. My question – How might we… use a variety of strategies to engage all learners and to build creative confidence?” – grew out of a desire to add a new strategy – inquiry-based learning – to a collection of strategies we have studied and applied to help our students. The images below give a sense of it…


We started with the curriculum, then sought to tackle that through UBD-based planning. We used ideas from project-based learning theory, iTHINK training, thinking about differentiation, and our reading and research about STEM education to craft our iSTEAM program. We collaborated, reflected, talked, modified, took two steps forward and one step back, consolidated until we had a pretty tight program for our students in Grades 6-8. It featured a steady increase in expectations from year to year and within years. It featured a matrix of content and skills and experiences. It included a set of well-organized tasks. And yet, it seemed not quite enough. Students in younger grades were working at inquiry-based learning. A question was asked, not unkindly, at a meeting, “Is this task not simply generating umpteen versions of the same thing?” Queasiness ensued. There might be something to that… So, off we went to some great training on inquiry-based learning. Now the question was, how do we integrate that into our program. This is where the Cohort 21 opportunity came in. We would try to integrate inquiry-based learning opportunities into some of our work in order to engage more learners and to build their creative confidence.

What worked? Well, lots of things. A little survey told me that students were ready for more risk but still wanted some structure. That led me to suggest that we take a quarter turn approach and add more options to our work. Each project would be challenge by choice. For example, in Grade 6 science students were given the choice to build a simple electric car out of a set kit of materials or to use littleBits, Sphero, or Makey Makey kits to design a new electrical vehicle or device. We had a few perfectly nifty standard cars but a range of other products including a house that had a light and a cooling system, a dual purpose keyboard, and a Sphero-based vehicle that aimed to fetch a bowl of cereal. Many Grade 7 students built strong conventional bridges but some used their knowledge of structures and building to create prototypes of a biodome for settlers on Mars and a building meant to withstand the force of a tornado. Grade 8 students looked at the properties of standard and non-Newtonian fluids and were encouraged to test any property of either type of fluid in any way they chose, as long as we had or could fashion the proper equipment and testing environments. They designed collision barriers and protective sports gear, broke water into its constituent parts using hydrolysis, and looked into differences in density. Pictures? Reflections? Not this time around – it was a little exciting in the lab as we were sailing in uncharted waters in each class, urging students on, holding them back, turning a blind eye, avoiding blinding… It was seat of the pants flying at times, messy at times, exhilarating and inspiring all the time! Was it hard to do all at once? Yes – sober second thought might have led me to focus on one grade. Smarter people than me suggested it in their out loud voices. Well… go big or go home!

What didn’t work? A little foray in social studies was spectacularly unsuccessful. It was too open ended and the students did not have enough key information to “find their passion.” More teaching and discussions would have helped the students go madly off in all directions more successfully and confidently!

What didn’t surprise me? I was not surprised that lots of students really jumped at the chance to try something different. The fact that lots of students did not take this chance did not surprise me either. As with any learning community, our school has lots of different learners, many of whom still need lots of structure and coaching through their middle school years,. The challenge for teachers in this type of situation is to figure out how much of a nudge toward the risky options one should give.

If I had to do it all over again… I might like more time to plan things out. But maybe not, Maybe it was time to take off the training wheels and wobble into the future.. or a scraped knee and elbow.

What’s next? I’ve got to figure out the social studies flow and timing. Maybe I will borrow the science framework of offering up a straight ahead task along with the option to follow one’s nose into something more interesting… As for science, more of the same, but I will wait and see what the younger students coming in bring to the table as experienced veterans of inquiry-based learning. Overall, I need time to reflect, talk things over, and consolidate a few things.

Here is a link to my Action Plan Slide Deck – I know, I know, it is long and wordy. A colleague has suggested that I get paid by the word. To quote Popeye, “I yam what I yam!”

Thanks to colleagues and students, members of this learning community, and people at home for helping me along this stage of the journey.


8 thoughts on “Here is where I am

  1. @dbailey
    It sounds like you’ve accomplished a ton with regards to your action plan this year! I love your “go big or go home” attitude 🙂
    One thing that resonated with me was this: “What didn’t surprise me? I was not surprised that lots of students really jumped at the chance to try something different. The fact that lots of students did not take this chance did not surprise me either.” As I’ve been exploring inquiry-based learning as part of my action plan as well, I’ve found that there are some students for whom the freedom of exploring what they’d like is actually a bit unwelcome. I wonder sometimes whether it’s a case of being so used to being told what to do that they simply feel lost when the choice is up to them?
    One last thing – I think that your slide deck might not have the right sharing settings, as it prompted me to “request access” when I followed the link. 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Jen! Nice to know that I am not the only one bashing away at figuring out inquiry-based learning. I think you are on to something about the reluctance of some students to jump in. If they are not used to choice, it can be overwhelming!

      Thanks for the heads up about the slide deck – I thought it was working. I will check the instructions and try again!

  2. Hey Dan, thanks for this! Let’s hope it’s not your final blog – it’s yours for life and you’re in my RSS feed so I’ll look forward to reading your posts in the future!

    Your journey has been exciting to follow and and you’re critical reflection of learning and openness to take risks is a model for all of us! Thanks for your excellent contributions and engagement this year! Looking forward to learning with you in the future as well!

    1. Hi Derek!

      Thanks so much for your message. I have really appreciated the opportunity to work with you and all of the help and encouragement you have given to me. I also appreciated your work as the moderator on the fall Twitter gathering and the February Hangout. You are patient and encouraging – your students are so lucky!

      Take care,
      Dan B.

  3. Dan,

    I’m facing some of the same challenges as you when it comes to designing inquiry-based projects for my social sciences classroom. Your observation about the difficulties students face in “not hav[ing] enough key information to ‘find their passion'” speaks to some of the pitfalls I’ve encountered this year as well. Structure and concrete frameworks seems to be the key, as you pointed out, but it will be a process of revision and testing to see what works for my classes – at least putting the question in the context of a challenge or contest helps to motivate students in my experience so far.

    Thanks for your advice and support as the C21 partner this year!

    1. Hi Gordon,

      Thanks for your note and encouragement. I appreciated your description of the trial and error nature of this work. I think each group is going to need slightly different approaches – I hope that we can figure it out during the scaffolding stages!

      It has been great to get to know you and share ideas!

  4. I really appreciate your comments and those of @ggrise. I think that you’ve made great steps forward by using your survey: reflecting back to students what they’ve said is one way to push them further into their own reflection. For example, I used to provide 3-4 different options for an assessment of learning; usually it was a test, a presentation, a paper, or something of the students’ choosing. If students designed their own, then they had to ‘pitch’ their idea to me – and compete an annotated bibliography. Lots of work, right!? I remember one time when a few students chose the test, and ended up doing poorly. I reflected with them on why they chose the test, and they responded: “It seemed like less work”. Following this, we had a great conversation of what they felt was “work” and what was manageable for them. These are very generative conversations that can surface something deeper in the lives of the students. So, when grappling with @ggrise ‘s struggle we can do more ‘front-end loading’ to have the student generate the questions. One teacher that I worked with, in Science, used to bring in objects having to do with “energy”: oil mixed with water, a picture of Niagra Falls, a hz-mat suit, and much more. He prompted students with: “Our unit is on energy, these objects are all connected in different ways to this unit. What questions do you have?” The students would write out the questions, and then he would go back and map their questions to the essential questions that he had created. In this way, they saw their inquiry in his. I think it’s a brilliant technique!

    As I like to remind myself, “students don’t know what they don’t know…and neither do we!” So, the more we open up the channels of communication, the more we allow students to voice and choice, then the more we can uncover. That is great learning.

    Dan, you’ve accomplished so much – and I hope, as @ddoucet remarked, that this isn’t your last blog post 🙂

    See you soon,

    1. Hi Garth, @gnichols

      Thanks for your message. I always appreciate your ideas and suggestions about how to keep moving the work forward. I like the idea about generating questions in the energy unit by bringing in some interesting things. I am going to think about how to do that in upcoming units. The more curiosity there is, the more engagement can be hoped for.

      Take care,
      Dan B.

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