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Posted by on in Inquiry-Based Learning

Marshmallow fluff

    When I taught fourth grade, I was initially met with skepticism from other teachers when I started to regularly engage my students in project based learning (PBL) and STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). I think much of this apprehension existed because some of my practices did in fact perpetuate the myth that PBL was fluff and that the “real” teaching and learning takes place through more direct instruction. However, as I continuously reflected upon and refined my craft, many of these doubters went from, “That wouldn’t work with my students!” to “How can that work with my students?”

    Looking back, I still think some of my original PBL practices were forgivable, simply because I had to begin somewhere (Don’t we all?). But, there are definitely some bits of advice I wish I had been given prior to getting started.

    That being said, here are five ways to avoid project based learning fluff.

    1. Focus on the Right Academic Standards: When planning a project it could be tempting to simply start with “cool” ideas, as opposed to first exploring what should be taught based on academic standards (or a standards-aligned curriculum). As a fourth grade teacher I participated in an elementary level STEM initiative. Following the initial professional development I went to plan my first STEM unit, only to realize my curriculum was a bit outdated. So, rather than wasting time designing learning experiences aligned to old standards, I first created an updated makeshift pacing guide to ensure any units I put together would be future proof (until a change in standards, which has still yet to happen).

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    Posted by on in Inquiry-Based Learning

    inquiry learning

    This post was written by Erin Murphy (@MurphysMusings5) and was originally published on her blog.

    The energy in Mrs. Bauer’s sixth grade science classroom is almost palpable. Groups of three to four students are out of their chairs leaning over their tables to get a closer look at a petri dish placed in the center. In the dish, two small insects scurry around. The students carefully move the dish and its inhabitants to get a closer look. Questions and proposals fly in the air and students rapidly jot notes in their science journals.

    Teachers like Mrs. Bauer make inquiry-based instruction seem second nature. However, over the last ten years, my work as a classroom teacher, coach, and now administrator has made clear there are some common myths circulating about inquiry in the classroom.

    Myth #1: Hands-On Experiences = Inquiry

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    Posted by on in Inquiry-Based Learning

    Last week I participated in the EdLeader21 conference in Denver, Colorado (highly recommended). Two of my highlights were Jay McTighe’s (@jaymctighe) two sessions – one on curriculum design and the other on project based learning – and a closing session on design thinking by two members of Stanford’s d.school.

    Throughout the conference (and also during much of this year’s in-district professional development), the primary theme that served as the basis for all of the work was the 4Cs: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. In fact, the EdLeader 21 website sells 4Cs rubrics (free for members), and Jay McTighe’s latest book (which I purchased after watching him present, but have yet to fully read) also contains rubrics for these skills.

    Should these skills be graded?

    First, let’s keep in mind there is a difference between assessment and grading. Whereas the goal of assessment is to improve student learning, grading (or a grade) is generally used to evaluate current level of performance. And, I don’t think anyone would necessarily argue against assessing these skills, at least within the context of learning experiences.

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    Posted by on in Inquiry-Based Learning

    Before I left the classroom a few years ago, there were a few items on my bucket list I never got to accomplish (and I would have accomplished them had I taught for just one more year)…One of these missed opportunities was a complete redesign of my classroom.

    You see, the final year I taught fourth grade, my students and I started our work in science by learning about the scientific method through the creation of original egg packagings with a process called design thinking. In short (ok, very short), students didn’t just engineer creative products, but they did so with empathy for the consumer in mind. And, they then assessed the effectiveness of their homemade creations based on what they determined to be the indispensible features of an exemplary product (while visualizing themselves in the shoes of the consumer).

    My students enjoyed our design thinking work so much, following the egg unit and throughout the year I consistently told them something to the effect of, “Once state testing is done in April, I’ll give you a budget of a few hundred dollars and you can use your experiences with design thinking to revamp our classroom.” Nevertheless, for one reason or another, the overhaul never happened.

    Designing Learning Spaces

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    Posted by on in Inquiry-Based Learning


    In a previous post we explored a potential problem with prepackaged STEM products (or STEM in a box). In short, the problem is when schools and districts invest more in them than they do in their teachers. Because, if the ultimate goal is to leverage these resources to promote inquiry-based learning (which it should be), some form of professional learning is most likely needed, as opposed to simply handing over the goods and believing their potential will be maximized.

    Now, let’s examine how teachers can take a product with step-by-step directions and transform/reconfigure it in such a way that inquiry-based learning is promoted…For the purpose of this post, we’ll look at how I previously accomplished this task with solar powered cars, but I believe these same ideas and steps can be applied across countless products/contexts.

    The Starting Point

    I originally purchased a classroom 10-pack of the car kits from this website (with the intention of having my students work in groups of 2-3), and the directions that came with them can be found here. As you can see, step-by-step errorless construction is endorsed. And, just in case, the website contains a video that demonstrates exactly how these directions should be followed.

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