Saturday, November 23, 2013

"I can't believe a kid did that": Powerful examples of student inquiry work

As outlined in my last post here, inquiry involves what David Perkins calls "playing the whole game" where students are given the opportunity to partake in developmentally appropriate versions of the ways professionals in a field engage, create knowledge, and communicate in their discipline. Educators advocating for this approach argue that each discipline (e.g., science, mathematics, history) has its own particular ways of generating knowledge, verifying what counts as quality work, and communicating to a public audience.  The job of educators thus becomes to apprentice young people into these practices. 

Helping teachers plan for this philosophy of education, the Galileo Educational Network has created a discipline-based inquiry rubric involving a number of core characteristics that should guide planning. We know a project is following this model when:

1. Authentic: The inquiry study is authentic in that it emanates from a question, problem, issue, or exploration that is significant to the disciplines and addresses a problem or issue that exists in society at this time providing students with an opportunity to connects to the world beyond the school.

2. Project based approach/ builds new knowledge/products: Students are given opportunities to create products or culminating work that contributes to the building of new knowledge.

3. Fosters deep understanding: Sub tasks and activities provoke thinking, deeper knowledge, and understanding and more sophisticated discipline-based skill development. Specifically, tasks generally include generating with students criteria for what makes a powerful work in a particular medium or discipline and evaluating good and bad examples of, where possible, real work by professionals in the field. 

4. Ongoing formative assessment loops are woven into the design of the inquiry study and involve detailed descriptive feedback.

5. Connect with experts and expertise: The study requires students to observe and interact with exemplars and expertise drawn from the discipline or medium under study, including, if possible, professionals in the field. 

6. Technology integration/elaborated communication: Students are given the opportunity to communicate their ideas and insights in powerful ways through particular mediums.

7. Public showcases: Students’ present final products to the greater community through public presentations, exhibitions, or showcases.

·         Here are a series of examples of student work facilitated by myself and colleagues at Calgary Science   School that reflect the axiom of Larry Rosenstock, principal of High Tech High, that you know when you are doing inquiry when someone from the outside says "I can't believe a kid did that." Indeed Larry; indeed. 

        For each example I have attached a link where you can find a description of the project, and in most cases, video footage of students in the classroom. 

1. As shown in this blog post, in this inquiry unit grade 8 students had the opportunity to become writers, designers, and publishers of their own magazine. Here are some examples of the incredible work they created, which was then published on the You Publish site Issue :

In this inquiry project, outlined in this blog post, I wanted my students to communicate their opinion on an a recent court case in which one of the principles of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was involved. They did this through a Rick Mercer Rant; examples of which can be found on the blog post.

MercerStyle Rant from Calgary Science School on Vimeo.

In this inquiry project, outlined in this blog post, using Comic Life and Pixton, students were asked to re-create a short story into graphic novel form. Here are some examples of the amazing work students produced:

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

10 elements to consider when planning in the social studies classroom

When planning for a social studies lesson, consider taking up the various curricular mandates in the Alberta Social Studies program as well as various principles of good planning:

1.         Connect history to issues in the present: Rather than studying history for its own sake as if that is going to help students in some way, as mandated in the Alberta program we want to engage history through helping students see how the past is connected to issues in the present.  

2.         Engage students in inquiry: In contrast to an approach to education where we tell students what we want them to know and expect them to passively take notes while we talk, we want to engage students in an inquiry process whereby we problematize the content by posing an inquiry question for them to consider that requires students to take a position and support it with evidence gained from their inquiry.

3.         Build in ‘enabling’ constraints structures: In posing well-crafted questions that require students to take a position on an issue, we provide students with ‘enabling constraints’ that allow them to focus their inquiry in a way that is manageable and purposeful. Further, we help students in their learning by adopting ‘enabling structures’ creating graphic organizers that will help them to focus their responses highlighting the areas that we need them to specifically consider in order to thoughtfully respond to the inquiry question.

4.         Provide rich resources and materials that will enable students to thoughtfully and meaningfully respond to the inquiry question: Adding a layer to the inquiry process, we want to incorporate rich resources like video and primary source documents that will help students to provide viable and thoughtful responses to the central inquiry question.

5.         Engage students in small group and larger class dialogue and deliberation: By opening up a space for dialogue and discussion where students share their thoughts and ideas with their peers, and in larger classroom group discussions, we give students an opportunity to make meaning of core concepts, propose tentative responses, and (ideally) mutually inform one another. Preparing students for democratic living must involve engaging them in current issues where they have the opportunity to deliberate and respectively discuss their thoughts within both small and larger group settings. 

6.         Adopt an seminar, deliberation, and perhaps action format: Once we pose an inquiry question for students, we can not simply stop there. We need to expose them to a range of resources, materials, and content that will help them more deeply respond to the central inquiry question.

7.         Connecting ideas to the world and teaching for understanding: It is not enough to give students the definition of key ideas and concepts like imperialism, they must be given opportunities to connect these concepts to how they currently live in their world. We can accomplish this by creating an inquiry question that asks them to determine if the concept under study is present in the world today. 

8.         Begin with the end in mind: Often we engage students in inquiry along with dialogue but then fail to build in an assessment plan that will help the teacher better appreciate the extent to which students understood key notions and ideas we are trying to engage them with. Consequently, we need to build in an assessment plan that is communicated to students right at the beginning so they are clear how they will be evaluated in this inquiry process. This kind of thinking draws on Wiggins and McTighe’s insights regarding thinking with the end in mind by having students show their understanding through one of six types of understanding: explain, interpret, apply, have perspective, empathize, have self-knowledge. For example, rather than having students simply defining imperialism, after studying primary sources we ask students if the original relationship among Aboriginal peoples and Europeans reflects an imperial relationship. In doing this they must apply what they know within a new situation, thus demonstrating knowledge of the concept. 

9.         Forefront the criteria for assessment and strategies to successfully respond to the assessment task: Here again, even when we have a clear assessment plan sometimes we as teachers fail to explain to students the criteria they will be assessed on. Further, we also often fail to provide guided instruction that includes various strategies that would help them create work that reflects these criteria. If we don't teach students how to successfully achieve particular tasks and what strong and poor work looks like, we aid the already strong and disadvantage those that may not have supports at home. 

10.       Engage students with Aboriginal perspectives: To do this we can take up Dwayne Donald’s central insight that we need to pay attention to the relationship between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginal peoples, and in particular the original relationship that existed before, as he states ‘things went wrong’ starting in the mid 1800’s with the annihilation of the Buffalo and the beginning of mass European settlement on the prairies.   

This is a lot to take in and may seem, for some, distanced from the lived world of the social studies classroom. However, all of these insights are extremely practical for creating meaningful social studies lessons and units. In what follows I have created a string of lessons that reflect how these various elements might live within a grade seven social studies class in Alberta. You can find this lesson here:

Friday, October 25, 2013

Final Project due November 8th

For class next Wednesday please have your two high inquiry tasks fully flushed out including at least four assessment criteria for each. The full specifics of what is required in this assignment is outlined in this blog postTry to be as specific as possible. For example, if it involves a script how many words do you want. If it is a digital narrative or mini-documentary how long will it be? When looking for assessment criteria for each inquiry task draw from research on the internet, assessment criteria you have seen in other projects, and the particulars of what you think constitutes powerful work in relation to this task. I have provided a fully articulated example in this Google doc

Remember we only have four more classes and next Friday class is cancelled. However, I will be in class and I encourage you to come and use this time as a work period where I will be available to help you and answer questions as they arise. In asking you to create an assessment plan for a unit is perhaps one of the more important competencies you can have as a teacher. It is what separates you from someone who walks off the street. It is quite challenging though, so working on this in stages is helpful. 

Assessment taks: 

Once you have done identified your two big inquiry tasks, you now want to work backwards to create an assessment plan that will help students create a powerful response to this task. These would be mini-activities you would take in a long the way that will prepare students for the final task. As part of this process, include two assessment criteria. See the ones I generated for my assessment tasks as an example. 


Some examples of assessment tasks for research would include creating a critical question requiring a reasoned judgment among options. For example: What were the three most important elements of traditional Inuit life? What are three most significant elements that need to be present for a country to be considered democratic? For assessment you could included identifies three areas, explains why these are important, and provides a specific supporting detail for each. 

Connecting with experts: 

An assessment task could involve developing questions to ask an expert coming in to visit or to interview a specialist classroom group. Here the assessment criteria would be open-ended, gets us information we need to know, unexpected. See my example. 

Evaluating good and bad examples:

So that students understand the main assessment criteria for the inquiry task, you could create an assessment task asking them to evaluate a bad exemplar based on the criteria you will be using to assess their final work. Again, the criteria would be related to identifying areas of weakness in relation to particular criteria and advice for improvement. 

Formative Feedback:

As you need to build in formative feedback loops within any inquiry project, you could give students a rubric and do the same as above but with their work. Alternatively, you could get them to show you four changes they made to their script based on the formative feedback you gave them. 

Remember that you need to include the following for your final unit plan:

  • Two big inquiry tasks that will guide this unit along with accompanying assessment criteria for each (min. 4) that you will use to evaluate your students. 
  • A series of at least five or six assessment tasks that will prepare students to powerfully respond to each inquiry task. Include how many one-hour classes you think each stage will take at the top. 
  • For each assessment task include 2-3 assessment criteria that you will use to evaluate student work. Make these tasks specific. See examples. 
  • For each assessment task and inquiry task include specific resources you would use to achieve these tasks including videos, articles, critical challenges from Learn Alberta, the Historical Thinking Website, or other sources, that you will closely follow or draw upon. 
  • Include the specific learning outcomes and competencies that you hope to address in this unit. Including a 200-250 words response to how this unit is an attempt to live out key elements articulated in the front matter of the Alberta Social Studies Program. 
  • Develop one lesson plan that could be used at one point in the inquiry. This assessment for this will follow the criteria used for your earlier lesson plan. This lesson plan should include a fully developed rubric of three criteria you will use to assess student work. However, you only need to include the upper end- well developed (4) and the lower end still developing (2).
  • Choosing two of the following areas to concentrate on in particular: Aboriginal and/or Francophone perspectives, infusion of technology, learner differentiation, and inter-disciplinary, write a short 300 word explanation as to how and when you would incorporate these elements.  
  • Include an APA reference list of all resources you draw on and plan to use. For example, if you borrow from a rubric or another lesson, please reference this.    

Thursday, October 24, 2013

What is inquiry-based learning and how can use this philosophy to guide our practice

There are two educational thinkers that I think are particularly helpful in understanding the nature of inquiry and the corresponding shift that occurs when you do 'authentic' work with young people. The first of these is David Perkins who wrote a book named Making Learning Whole (2009). In this book Perkins argues that most traditional approaches to teaching any complex idea or skill, from historical inquiry to mathematical thinking, meant that most students have experienced learning in one of two ways:

1. Elements first. Ramp into complexity gradually by learning elements now and putting them together later.
2. Learning about. Learn about something to start with, rather than learning to do it. (pp. 3-4)
Perkins uses the metaphor of baseball to argue that the experience of most students in school is one where they either learn isolated skills like throwing the ball or they learn about baseball by studying statistics or the history of the game.
In what Perkins called elementis, students learn the elements of a discipline in isolation, usually in the form of a prescribed set of rules and operations. For example, in math students learn addition, then subtraction, followed by multiplication and division. Although students are promised that eventually they will be able to put these operations together to solve meaningful problems, often they are never given this opportunity. Similarly, students study grammar with the “idea that the knowledge will later coalesce into comprehensive, compelling, and of course correct written and oral communications” (p. 4). However, students are not given the opportunity to produce powerful pieces of writing intended for a real audience. Divorced from the context in which a subject like math or writing lives in the world, students gain an incomplete and fragmented understanding of these disciplines. Students often leave school unable to perform tasks representative of the work undertaken by professionals in the field.

History and science are most often taught using what Perkins (2009) termed aboutis, where students learn about a topic or concept rather than learning how to take part in the process of creating that knowledge. For example, in history students are generally presented with an authoritative authorless series of facts about an era in the form of a long list of names, dates, and developments. Students rarely have an opportunity to take part in actual historical inquiry to learn how historians construct knowledge about the past. This also occurs in science where students learn about, for example, Newton’s laws or the steps involved in mitosis. However, Perkins notes, “a huge body of research on science understanding demonstrates that learners show very limited understanding, bedevilled by a range of misconceptions about what the ideas really mean” (p. 6).
In the past it was thought that students could not work within a living discipline until they had learned all the facts, definitions, and procedures about the field. Only once they reached the university level might they have opportunities to engage in historical inquiry, mathematical thinking, or genuine scientific exploration. Today, learning the way around a discipline is no longer for the few who move on in their studies; it is also open to the young. For example, educators traditionally believed that students needed to have a basic foundation of historical knowledge before they could take part in genuine historical inquiry. Because of this belief, studying history for most students involved passively and uncritically absorbing other people’s facts about the past. In the present, students can work within the discipline of history from an early age where they are given developmentally appropriate opportunities to understand how historians make sense of the past. This includes working with primary sources, and using methods of historical analysis and argumentation (The Historical Thinking Society). Rather than learning about history, students are actually given the opportunity to do history. Perkins (2008) calls this approach to education “playing the whole game” (p. 25) where students are apprenticed into developmentally appropriate junior versions of the ways professionals in a field engage, create knowledge, and communicate in their discipline.

Another educator who well articulates this philosophy is Larry Rosenstock from a school called High Tech High in San Diego devoted to doing 'authentic' work with young people.

Larry Rosenstock - High Tech High from James Cross on Vimeo.

After 12:18 in the video above, Larry Rosenstock articulates a key shift in thinking about the nature and purpose of education. Specifically, he calls for a redefinition of commonly used terms in educational discourse. For instance, rigour is most often understood as imparting more sophisticated information to students. However, for Rosenstock (2011), principal of High Tech High, a school devoted to authentic discipline-based inquiry, rigour involves “being in the company of a passionate adult who is rigorously pursing inquiry in the area of their subject matter and is inviting students along as peers in that discourse” (2011). The key distinction is between learning about a field of inquiry and taking on the ways of knowing of the field of inquiry. Rosenstock wants kids “behaving like an actress, scientist, documentary filmmaker, like a journalist. Not just studying it but being like it” (2011).


Perkins, D. (2009). Making learning whole: How seven principles of teaching can transform education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rosenstock, L. (2011). High Tech High. Retrieved from: