Friday, June 28, 2013

Is This Really Inquiry? (Inquiring minds want to know.)

Last year I attended a one day workshop on creating inquiry labs. At the start of the workshop there was a disclaimer. The instructor had attended intense week long course to learn how do to inquiry lessons and there was much more to it that what we could cover in a day. She was a great instructor, the lessons were clear and examples were understandable. We created questions to answer, planned an experiment, and made observations. The instructor stayed back and did not interject unless invited by someone in the group. Occasionally, there was some gentle encouragement to let us know we were heading in the right direction.  Each group shared their observations and defended their conclusions. I left feeling that I was ready to try an inquiry lab.  

This summer I am taking a course on inquiry learning. My instructor last summer was correct, I did not have enough information to design and execute an inquiry lesson that could be a great learning experience. Inquiry learning is a flexible student-centered process that is facilitated by a teacher.  What I did not realize is there is a lot more planning than creating an open ended question and letting the students go learn some science.  Students need some knowledge and skills before attempting an inquiry lesson. The process should be ask a question, investigate and plan the experiment, make observations and gain knowledge, discuss the process and results with others, and finally analyze all of the information and make conclusions or create a new question.

SRD Students' Energy Experiment
One of the courses I teach is called Scientific Research and Design (SRD). This is the perfect place to try new methods. The SRD students are high school seniors who love science but did not want to take an advanced placement science. They have had a year of biology, chemistry and physics. They come to class with curiosity and knowledge and are often working before the tardy bell rings. SRD is a great course to attempt an inquiry lesson. So I gave them the following challenge: show mechanical energy is conserved in a system. They had five days to complete the task. After seven days of hard work most of the groups had proven energy was not conserved, some had even broken physics and created energy. Even so, this was not a bad lesson for either me or the students.

I refer to this experience as a personal example while learning more about inquiry lessons. I have asked myself is this a good inquiry lesson.  It was fun and I would like to do it again next year, but I do not feel the learning outcome would be similar in a different group of students. The starting question was fair, open and answerable. Students had already learned about energy in previous courses and I provided review materials for those that needed reminding. They had the skills required to collect data, until they decided to use a new application they found for their iPhones. Students designed their experiments. I did not limit their creativity so some of the experiments were elegantly simple others were doomed for frustration if not failure. I tried to encourage the students with over complicated procedures to simplify, but they chose not to change and I did not insist. The data was collected and students started having conversations about what they were seeing. Only one group had the expected data. The whole class had great discussions on why the data was different than expected and contradicted what they knew to be true. They understood that unexpected results were not wrong, just unexpected. We had already had lessons where real world applications did not meet theoretical expectations. They knew to analyze their procedure and determine where the issues may have arisen. All arrived at reasonable conclusions where ignoring or minimizing a real world issue the data would have shown conservation of energy. The real beauty was the different way each group experimented and the discussions that came out of the different methods. Over all it was a good energy lesson, but mostly because I was lucky and the SRD students are flexible and curious.

Based on what I am now learning about the process I would make some changes. The start of the lesson follows the inquiry process, but there are a number of places this can become a botched lesson. Next time I will have had them learn the new data collecting application and then collect the data separately. Doing both at once was a mistake. I will have to decide if I will allow more time or limit the complicated procedures. If possible, the additional time would allow some groups the opportunity to move forward with another or refined question while the others deal with their complicated but interesting methods. The product needs more definition, as in a video, demonstration or presentation of their experiment and findings. I would like to learn more ways to capitalize on the discussion portion of the lesson.

I am inquiring into inquiry learning and proving I need to learn more. I will plan more thoroughly, refine my question and procedure and try again. So, the process works for me. 

“Inquiry Process.” Inquiry Page. (1998). Retrieved June 27, 2013 from  
“Our definition of Inquiry.” Inquiry Page. (1998). Retrieved June 27, 2013 from 
“Key Components of the Inquiry Process.” Retrieved Jun 27, 2013 from

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Make Good Choices

Reflections on Flipcon13

At the end of the school year the phrase “make good choices” is shouted to all of the students heading out for their proms, graduation and summer vacation. As teachers leave for their vacations do they listen to the echoes of their own advice?  Teachers have the unique opportunity to create their own summer experience. For me, summer has evolved from a break from teaching to a combination of rejuvenation, learning, and work.  This summer the choices I am making include start a blog, plan for fall, attend conferences, pick great professional development, start a master’s degree, and float about in the pool.

For my first blog post I am choosing to reflect on my experience at the Flipped Learning Conference (Flipcon). Flipcon is an annual conference of innovative and amazing teachers. This is the second time I have attended the conference and the first time I have presented.  Being able to personally meet and talk with my virtual friends from my twitter PLN as well as get reacquainted with people from last year was one of the most fun aspects of the conference. There is something energizing about spending time with teachers who are generous, enthusiastic, and creative. Imagine the power of over 1000 professionals from all around the world gathered, in person and virtually, to share ideas on how to provide better learning experiences for students. 

The Keynote with Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams focused on their journey creating an environment that is best for the student. They presented options that would suit anyone, the bold or the cautious innovator. Going into my 3rd year of flipped learning I am ready to retry some of the techniques I found challenging such as peer instruction and inquiry learning. I chose to attend two sessions by teachers from Byron High School, Embracing Failure: Flipped Project Based Learning and So You Flipped Your Classroom…Now What…Peer Instruction.  Both of the sessions included great ideas on what to do with the time you gain for student interaction in a flipped class. The PBL session suggested that instead of finding a project that fit the curriculum reverse that and take a project and tie in the curriculum.  One of the bigger struggles I have had in my class has been how to discuss the video lesson without relecturing. The techniques and example questions shown in the Peer Instruction session have giving me a jumping off spot for the fall. The second Keynote was Ramsey Musallam’s Explore-Flip-Apply: Using Video to Empower the Learning Cycle. As with peer instruction I have struggled to include the technique of inquiry learning in my class. Keeping mystery and challenge in the lesson to spark creativity is important for deep learning and time should be made to include it in the lesson. I’m convinced of the importance and will keep trying.  I will have to wait for the archived sessions to see the ones that I missed. I am looking forward to revisiting the joy of Flipcon13, even if it is just a video.

The topics of the sessions covered everything from how to flip your class to tools to use to improve class time. In a large group of teachers you would expect testing and grades to be the focus. Amazingly those two topics seemed to take a back burner to building relationships with students, creating great learning environments for the students and collaborating with colleagues. Beyond the sessions there were some very important (and not so important) conversations occurring, tweets being posted and relationships being built and strengthened.  Not only did teachers leave with brains over loaded with great ideas and hearts full of new friendships, but the promise of support in the future as we all go out and make good choices for our students. 

Attending Flipcon 13 was a great choice for my summer! (I’m already planning to go to Flipcon 14 in Pittsburg.)  It remains to be seen how the other choices work out.