Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Giant of Jeju - an inquiry into patterns

I'd like to share another teaching engagement that my colleagues and I introduced yesterday. We called it the Giant of Jeju and it is adapted from a lesson that the Maths Coach at one of my previous schools introduced to us.

I love the premise of this task. Its shrouded in mystery from the beginning and that seems to hook the students in. It also give them very little concrete information to work with so there is a lot of scope for inquiry and divergent thinking. We begin by showing the students a picture of a hand, telling them that a group of archeologists discovered this fossil imprinted into the Jeju terrain. Their role, as genetic researchers, is to predict as accurately as possible how tall the Giant would have been when it was alive. We aligned the learning targets with our mathematics central idea and provided guidance through key questions that were related directly to the task. Here's the summary that we provided the students with:

The Giant of Jeju by Dave Secomb

In Making the PYP Happen, inquiry in practice is characterised by a series of actions that could include: exploring, wondering and questioning; experimenting and playing with possibilities; making connections between previous learning and current learning; making predictions and acting purposefully to see what happens; collecting data and reporting findings; clarifying existing ideas and reappraising perceptions of events; deepening understanding through application of a concept; making and testing theories; researching and seeking information; taking and defending a position; solving problems in a variety of ways. This task requires students to perform many of these roles in order to solve it.

One of the best things about this task is that there is no single accurate answer. So even if two groups arrived at a solution that was similar, they still had to defend their findings and explain why their predication was more accurate than another. Several groups worked off premises that were based on flawed logic or showed no pattern. They arrived at answers that were vastly different from the majority and were found out when they had to prove their accuracy with reason. Some of these students were able to recognise this as it became clear to them while they were trying to explain their answers to the rest of the class. Those that still managed to arrive at solutions that were similar to others had their theories tested by questions from their peers asking them how they knew that they were accurate. Two or three groups had very similar (and accurate) answers but were unable to prove why their solution was correct. Many times throughout the year we've talked about the importance of process over product and this is a difficult idea for a lot of our girls to grasp because they have come from systems of education that value the opposite approach. This task helped to clarify to them why the process is so important.

Some solutions and reasons:
  • 2.8m due to a ratio of 1:1.97. This is because we measured the length of our hand and our height from one of our group members. Then we applied that calculation to the Giant.
  • 3.02m due to a ratio of 1:2. This is because the Giant's hand is twice the size of one of our hands.
  • 2.66m because 9.5 of our hands make up our total height so we multiplied the length of the Giant's hand by 9.5.
  • Arm length = hand length x 7. Arm + head + legs = height. So the total height is 4.86m.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Our current UOI in Grade Five is using the central idea 'A balanced lifestyle contributes to well-being'. Although our hope is that they never truly end, we're coming towards the scheduled end of this inquiry. Over the past five weeks the students have explored the different body systems, how they function and interact; the different elements of lifestyle and how they influence each other; and the effect of reflection on achievement. Yesterday my teaching partner and I introduced a forum for discussion about some aspects of our learning. We presented the students with a series of statements and they were all required to take a stance in relation to their level of agreement. They could choose one of the following four options:
  • Completely 100% agree
  • More agree than disagree
  • More disagree than agree
  • Completely disagree
This was a great formative assessment opportunity for us as teachers because it required the students to make a decision and then justify it to everyone else. The strength of their justification provided an insight into their understandings about the UOI.

Philip Cam, in his book 20 Thinking Tools, states:

"In collaborative inquiry, agreement and disagreement represent patterns of convergence and divergence in thought that enable us to tack back and forth into the wind, and give our inquiry its forward movement"

We were lucky to have three teachers in the room during this task so while one of us was moderating the discussion, the other two could take notes on specific students and their responses. Later on we caught up to read over and discuss these. One example of a statement we posed to the students was this:

It is ok to spend a lot of time on your work if its something that you are passionate about.

This statement infers that if you are spending a lot of time working on something then your lifestyle is not balanced. It helped the students to test their understanding of balance, how lifestyle and elicited a variety of responses. One of our students said that she completely 100% agreed with this statement. When we asked her to explain why, she said that even though you're spending more time on your work, because its something that you're passionate about it means that your mental and emotional well-being will be strong. And you'll also be able to develop your social well-being because you'll be around people that are interested in the same thing as you. Wow. This showed us that she had a very strong understanding of the elements of well-being and how they can connect with our lifestyle choices.

This engagement also has benefits for other areas of the classroom community. First of all, it is inclusive. If someone doesn't have a solid understanding of the question or statement posed then they are able to discuss it with their peers while they arrive at a decision. They also have the ability to listen to other people's perspectives when they are giving reasons for their choices, and can change their position on something if their thinking shifts during the process. We have a lot of students with English language needs at our school and they were able to join in this activity without the fear of being put 'on the spot' in front of their peers. This activity also helps students to learn about and deal with instances where there are differences of opinion, clashing of ideas and debate over perceived truths. These are vitally important skills to develop and we were impressed to see the way that our girls handled themselves when challenged by their peers and teachers. 

Here are the statements that we used.

Lifestyle Agree:Disagree Statements by Dave Secomb

This video shows a discussion with Professor Cam and his views on teaching philosophy in schools.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Why inquiry?

Part of the learning process is something that is referred to as internalisation. This occurs when individual thinking transfers from an external social plane to become part of a person's mental function. Ratner states that these functions are formed as 'individuals engage in practical social activities and can then be applied in different contexts'. A simple example if this is addition. As someone internalises each of the different processes of addition then they can use these in a variety of contexts (e.g. adding decimals when using money, weight and length).

Simon Davidson says that in any high quality teaching approach students should leave with skills, knowledge and conceptual understandings. These can be achieved in most approaches to teaching. Students will be able to read, write and add. They will be able to use maps, glossaries, rulers. They will have a knowledge of social studies and science. To many people this is enough - 'as long as my child can do these things then I don't care how they learn it'. It is also what many people have experienced from their own education, which is why some people - most typically parents - question approaches such as inquiry learning. Its probably inaccurate to say that they don't support this approach or that they're anti-inquiry (well, maybe some are), more that they've got little experience with this way of teaching and are eager to make sure that they're children are taken care of. A lot of the time inquiry is a messy process and there aren't specific tests that can measure results and show parents how much their child has learned that day. This can worry parents and might lead them to request for a 'back-to-basics' approach (more about this later). Ultimately though, they are simply concerned for the well-being of their children.

The big differences between beliefs about learning reveal themselves when we compare models of teaching. Two of the most common found in schools around the world are the aforementioned inquiry and didactic. Inquiry is underpinned by a constructivist theory of learning, where understanding is crafted by each individual learner, usually in a social context. A didactic approach is typified by a stimulus-response way of learning that is initiated by the teacher (i.e. teacher says, student does). It is important to note that both have benefits.

When we focus on the initial topic of this post - internalisation - the importance of an inquiry approach is unveiled. As I mentioned before, if either of the two approaches - inquiry or didactic - are well executed then the results for the students can be positive. However, inquiry learning offers something to support internalisation that a didactic approach doesn't - a social plane. I'd like to try and use a sporting example as a metaphor here - team sports to be more specific.

A sportsman or woman trains hard to learn the skills of their game. They can become experts in kicking, passing, shooting, running, blocking, tackling, whatever is required of them to participate effectively. They can also learn the rules that define their sport plus the strategies that their team hopes will help them achieve their goal. However, none of these play out perfectly to plan once a competition starts and there is an element of social interaction. Social engagement brings new perspectives, different challenges and fresh ideas. Suddenly they cannot pass the ball to a specific position like they did in the training drill because there is a defender standing in their way. They have to re-evaluate and make a different decision. The effectiveness of their choice will be reflected in how much they have practiced the skills, how well they know the game and their level of understanding about how the strategy connects to the bigger picture. They can have a solid grasp of the skills, knowledge and understandings, but if they don't know how to apply these in a social setting then they're not of much use to anyone. The same applies to something concrete in schools around the world: reading. Through the internalisation of the processes involved with learning how to read, one not only acquires the skills of reading, they also become part of a community of readers & interact around books.

A more didactic approach to learning is sometimes requested by parents if they feel that inquiry isn't meeting the needs of their children. As Bambi Betts says, 'everyone is an expert in education because they had one once… unlike technology, or medicine, or telecommunications, parents have been to school.  They have been primary ‘users’ of the place called school and the thinking goes… ‘I turned out pretty much ok, didn’t I’ (they think) – so just keep doing what you did when I was in school.’   Familiarity as a design principle for schooling actually breeds complacency'.  The challenge when following a solely didactic approach is that if something is learned by rote, then there is no exploration of the association or relationships that is shares with other concepts. The result of this is a poor level of understanding and that it is difficult to remember. That's not to say that there are never any moments where direct instruction might be beneficial for a student. But educators should be mindful of how their beliefs about education are being put into practice.

Humans are not independent and autonomous. We do not live in separate spaces all of the time or experience the world in separate subjects. We live and work with each other & use our learning as part of a community. Didactic teaching separates social organisation and content. It diminishes context, which has implications for understanding. Inquiry learning creates a community of learners dedicated to understanding, not just following a curriculum. This is a vital part of learning for our students as they grow into the world.

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