Closed Questions in Inquiry

In the inquiry world closed questions have gotten a bad reputation.  This is for many reasons.  Whether it’s because they don’t lead to deep learning, they’re “googleable”, they tend to be content focused (and easily standardized when it comes to assessment), or they don’t drive powerful inquiry, closed questions have become synonymous with bad questions.

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Closed questions: are they bad?

And this shouldn’t be the case.

Closed questions are necessary in learning.  They provide a common understanding of subject matter or content that allows learners to collaborate and create new, and often personalized, meaning.  They provide the jargon of a discipline or focus area, language that allows users to speak intelligently, engagingly, persuasively, and confidently when it comes to communicating in and about the realm of said discipline.  And they are the first step in the research phase of inquiry.  These closed questions must be answered if deep learning and open questions are to be explored.

Let me provide some context.  English students cannot discuss the open question of how are stories important and powerful vehicles change? without understanding the tools within the English classroom, such tools as point of view, metaphor, symbolism, satire, and so on.  Likewise in the History classroom, learners cannot discuss the open question how can injustices in our history be justified depending on one’s perspective?  This question cannot be deeply explored without understanding, on the surface, the causes and key players in several historical turmoils.

What is the most powerful worksheet you can assign a student?

It is the one the student creates.

Try this on for yourself.  When an inquiry topic has been selected (whether it’s the teacher’s or the student’s) have students brainstorm in pairs as many closed questions as they can for 5 minutes.  Only provide 5 minutes – this is key as this will be extreme on-task time.  Challenge them to get as many questions written down together in the 5 minutes as they can.  Once they’re done have them prioritize this list in terms of the most critical must-know questions towards the less critical.  This list will be their first phase of research.  These closed questions will be the foundation of their inquiry, the jargon and common understanding that will enable them to dig deeper in to their inquiry.

Don’t overlook the importance of closed questions in learning.  Just don’t have these closed questions drive learning.  This is where open questions come in to play (and a future post at that).

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Don’t overlook closed questions

Please try this exercise on for yourself and leave a comment below sharing how it went in your classroom!

What You’ll Discover When You Read Dive into Inquiry

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Over my years as a teacher I’ve learned an incredible amount as I’ve taken on a more personalized approach to educating our youth. I’ve seen the enormous benefit of flipping control over learning in the classroom and fostering student agency in our curriculum. I’ve gained an appreciation for my colleagues and their specific teaching areas as I’ve collaborated with teachers to co-plan and co-teach in an inquiry model. And I’ve made mistakes, ones that have helped me reflect, revise, and refine what inquiry looks like my practice.

With Dive into Inquiry I’m excited to share more detail of what exactly this fantastic resource has to offer you and your learners. Dive into Inquiry provides a structure that prepares learners for the transition from traditional teaching models to the inquiry classroom, a structure that is built on building relationships with our students through a gradual release of control over learning. You’ll be given detailed lessons that will help you create the inquiry atmosphere your students need. You’ll read accounts of student learning that will deepen your understanding of inquiry and help clarify my proposed structure. You’ll have access to illustrations to use in your classroom to assist your learners in their own understanding of inquiry. And you’ll be inspired to make inquiry your own whether you are new to the inquiry pool or confident in all Types of Student Inquiry.

The book is jam-packed with passionate narrative, clear examples and lessons, inspiring student stories, and supportive processes. You’ll finish your reading feeling like you are well prepared to make inquiry work for your learners in a manner that is low risk and high reward.

Make Dive into Inquiry yours.

Stay up-to-date at trevormackenzie.com and the EdTech Team’s library.

Drop the Rubric & Set The Bar

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One question that I often receive about inquiry when sharing my passion for personalized learning is around assessment.  When adopting an inquiry model colleagues want to know more about assessing Free Inquiry.  Free Inquiry is when learners select an inquiry focus, construct an essential question, plan their entire inquiry unit, and design and construct an artifact of learning.  This is where educators have some hesitancies.  How can I assess so many unique performance tasks?  How can I measure learners in a standardized manner when they are all completing dissimilar artifacts?  How can I continue to empower learners when it comes to assessment?

These questions are completely valid.  At its core the inquiry model is about personalization and supporting learners in taking more agency over their education.  Yet traditional assessment practices do the opposite.  We assess every learner using the same rubric.  We strip learners of their voice when it comes to evaluating understanding and demonstrating what they set out to learn.  And we use data to create criteria that shape the future opportunities for our learners.

In Free Inquiry I challenge my learners to co-create an assessment standard that they can use to self-assess, reflect, revise, and grow.  This is a tremendously powerful process and one that, in my experience, has led to a deeper understanding of what defines excellent artifacts, how to help learners improve as they go, how to honour voice and choice in the inquiry classroom during assessment, and how to make sense of all of the unique inquiry artifacts we assess.

Co-creating an assessment standard calls for learners to research what excellence looks like with regards to their particular performance task.  Learners spend time looking at a body of examples, a breadth of work that offers them the opportunity to assess other people’s attempt at engaging with their audience.  Learners identify adjectives and characteristics that they deem to be of value and add them to what we coin The Bar.  The Bar is an assessment tool that we co-create to be used to assess the learner’s performance task.  To further aid in this process I challenge learners to seek out a professional in the field of their artifact.  If the artifact has a writing focus learners seek out a professional writer (or English teacher for that matter).  If the artifact has a focus in photography learners seek out a professional photographer.  If the artifact is in 2-D art, videography, drama, a performance, a trade or vocation, or any other field or means, learners seek out a mentor or guide that they can interview with the goal of understanding what excellence looks like in their particular field.  They record these rich and incredibly meaningful terms and add them to The Bar, their own personal tally of what an excellent artifact looks like for them.

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Once these two steps are completed we spend time together hashing out the rest of The Bar so each learner can begin to work towards this achievement.  This meeting allows me to ensure that their assessment meets the standards of our course and grade level, a critical piece in marrying inquiry and our traditional educational structures.  They use this document to self-assess as they go, make changes and revisions, and finally, complete a summative assessment when their inquiry unit is complete.  It should be noted that at times particular artifacts force me to reach out to the professionals or mentors my learners had initially contacted.  A great example comes in the form of a choreographed dance piece from  few years back that reflected symbolism across an anthology of poetry.  The learner’s performance was beautiful and I could easily sense and pinpoint where symbolism was evident.  However when trying to evaluate whether the performance included an arabesque, a pirouette, a plié, or a passé, I was stuck.  I needed to call on our school’s dance instructor to help assess this unique performance task.  Together (and with the learner) we were able to co-assess this extremely unique demonstration of understanding.

The Bar is an extremely powerful process for us all.  The ownership over their learning and the connectedness to their understanding of their own artifact is awesome to witness.  Further, there’s no settling for less than what they’ve set out to achieve.  If they don’t meet this expectation their assessment will reflect this.  There’s no fussing with a rubric that identifies less than excellence, a 6-point scale, or a letter grade structure.  Learners possess the vocabulary and skill-set to reflect, review, and assess their own understanding.

How do you see using The Bar in your own classroom?  Could you invite certain professionals into your classroom to aid in constructing The Bar as an exercise for your learners?  Please leave a comment below!

 

 

The Power of Essential Questions: How Do We Tell Stories & Why Are They Important?

When unpacking inquiry and helping colleagues create a deeper understanding of how we can move from a traditional teaching model to a learner centred classroom, one critical step is evident in the use of essential questions to guide learning.

Essential questions, open-ended in nature and not answered without research and action, are a key characteristic of the inquiry classroom.  I often advise teachers curious about adopting an inquiry model to begin their transition by selecting a unit of study they have seen great success in (success meaning engagement, interaction with rich material and information, and resulting in a deeper understanding for your learners).  I ask colleagues to restructure this identified unit so it begins with an essential question that guides their resources, activities, planning, and learning.

To help this planning I provide essential questions I have used in the past in the classrooms I have worked with.  Whether it be Science (what is the importance of the scientific method?), or Math (what time in the morning must a ship, anchored in a harbour, set sail to avoid being beached at low tide?), or History (how can the events of the past help us better understand the world of today?), providing examples of essential questions helps get the planning ball rolling.

One essential question I love exploring in the English classroom is: How do we tell stories and why are they important?

This essential questions provides a few powerful opportunities in the Structured Inquiry end of the inquiry pool.

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First, by beginning with this essential question (as opposed to a piece of writing) we can immediately dive into accessing prior knowledge, sharing perspective and point of view, and we can begin to discuss where our understandings, collectively, could take us.  Before we analyze text, video, visual, or auditory sources we share and create a broad understanding of the essential question.  This is extremely powerful.  It provides learners with confidence in learning as well as agency in the classroom.  It engages learners in the process of planning our learning pathway as many of them will identify a resource that will help in our exploration of the essential question.  And it begins with collaboration and sharing, as opposed to passively “participating” in a lecture.

Second, by beginning with this essential question we are able to bring in a wide array of resources and unpack meaning from them all.  Novels, poetry, stories, song, artwork, speakers, and experiential opportunities all guide our learning through this inquiry unit.  Too often in the traditional English classroom units of study are shaped and dictated by the resource the teacher selects.  Typically referred to as Novel Unit, Short Story Unit, Poetry Unit etc, the key defining characteristic of learning, according to this structural approach, is the resource.  By exploring many sources of information in the inquiry classroom and not limiting our learning to a single text, learners unpack a variety of voices and formats of communication all the while deepening their understanding of the continuous strand throughout the learning process, the essential question.

And third, as we are all exploring the same essential question together I, the facilitator of inquiry in our classroom, can successfully plan a strong inquiry unit.  By creating the essential question prior to the unit I have the time to explore, research, and identify strong sources that will help deepen our understanding of the essential question.  As we begin to unpack the essential question I feel more confident in providing learners with the agency, time, and space (at times a messy process) to seek out and locate resources on their own as I know we have a strong backbone of information (the sources I have gathered) that will undoubtedly support our inquiry.  This planning prior to the unit beginning also allows me to identify several learning objectives of our course, details that I term “must know” or “must do” in our curriculum.  Combined, this essential question and the structure we are operating in presents great opportunity at the onset of our school year.

Are you and English teacher?  If so, what resources would you bring into to the inquiry classroom to deepen our understanding of this essential question?  If not, how do you see beginning with essential questions impacting learning in your classroom?  Please leave a comment below!

The Four Pillars of Inquiry

The Four Pillars of Inquiry by Trevor MacKenzie and Rebecca Bathurst-Hunt

The Four Pillars of Inquiry by Trevor MacKenzie and Rebecca Bathurst-Hunt

I love shaping learning and how we spend time in school around things we’re passionate about.  Over my years as an educator I’ve witnessed many students who are incredibly talented and dedicated to their craft.  Whether it be a sport, an artistic endeavour, or a hobby or curiosity that has turned into something greater, passions provide some excitingly meaningful and powerful learning experiences.

But I have also discovered that solely structuring learning around passions can be a tricky thing.  For one, all educators operate under some sort of governing body that requires particular learning objectives be met.  A question I often here from colleagues wanting to adopt inquiry into their classroom is “how can passions and learning objectives be simultaneously honoured?”  This is a great question and one that I unpack in my book Dive into Inquiry and a point I’ll tackle in a future post.

And second, I have often heard from students when I attempt  to weave passions into the classroom that they are not passionate about anything, that they don’t have something that makes them feel fulfilled, that they’ve set their minds to, and that they’ve committed to over the course of some time.  I’m certain you’ve heard the same: “I’m not passionate about anything.”  How can we pull all of our learners in to the inquiry classroom if their connectedness is limited by this one particular hiccup?

In my classroom this is where The Four Pillars of Inquiry come into play.

The Four Pillars are inquiry avenues that provide all learners with the support and foundation to begin to formulate their inquiry topic and their essential question.  Let’s take a brief look at each pillar to help create some understanding of how these support the inquiry classroom.

Explore a Passion: beginning inquiry from a place of passion allows students to start from a place of high interest, commitment, and confidence.  Further to that, students are able to tap into a wealth of prior knowledge that will strengthen the initial steps of their inquiry.

Aim for a Goal: at times students enter my classroom with a vividly clear picture of where they will be in their future.  Whether it be an institute of higher ed, a particular program, or a career path, this pillar provides learners with the support and structure to work towards a goal they possess.

Delve into Your Curiosities: I believe interests and curiosities, things that students have always wondered about but never had the time, space, or support to explore, turn into passions after we’ve grappled with them for an extended period of time.  The third pillar provides students with the means to help identify these questions that have been left unanswered in their educational experience.

Take on a New Challenge: the fourth pillar is rooted in helping students rise to a particular challenge that they’ve identified as worthy of their time and energy.  I’ve supported learners in a myriad of challenges from identifying and attempting to solve social issues such as poverty to facing the challenge of learning something new like a musical instrument or a language.

Each of The Four Pillars of Inquiry is touched down on throughout our coursework.  We constantly weave them into our discussions, our sharing, and our writing so that when it comes time to formulate an inquiry topic learners have already unpacked there their inquiry could take them.

Chapter 7 of Dive into Inquiry is dedicated to The Four Pillars of Inquiry and outlines each pillar in detail, provides meaningful lessons and prompts to support inquiry, and gives student examples to bring the process to life.  Please consider looking further into the book for more information.

Do you incorporate passions in to your classroom?  Do you see The Four Pillars supporting inquiry?  Feel free to comment below!

Dive into Inquiry on Amazon.com!

Today marks the official launch of Dive into Inquiry!  Canadians can now purchase this amazing resource from Amazon.com.  All other countries can order from either Amazon.com or the EdTech Team.

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I am so humbled by the response to the book.  Inspiring educators from around the world have this to say:

“This book is important! MacKenzie has written a powerful argument for inquiry learning to form the basis for twenty-first-century education. He offers detailed explanation as to why this approach is crucial in the current world economic climate. His useful classroom examples from his own experience and around the world will help any teacher implement new student-driven learning. The empowerment of young people to be agents of their own learning is the most pressing issue in this rapidly changing world and MacKenzie has created a blue- print to ensure this happens.”

Richard Wells, author or A Learner’s Paradise, Deputy Principal, Orewa College, New Zealand


“Dive into Inquiry has quickly become my favorite how-to book on inquiry-based learning. Filled with practical examples and solid structures that I know I can implement immediately, it has left me convinced that I really can create the kind of learning space that my students deserve. It is an approachable read that will change both your thinking and your practice for the better.”

Bill Ferriter, teacher, author, education consultant, USA


“Trevor MacKenzie has written a heartfelt book on student inquiry where his passion for growing a culture of inquiry and students feeling a sense of trust and empowerment are front and center. His clarity of message and practical examples of how to co-create this experience in other classrooms is inspiring. He offers fabulous examples of student voice, social construction, and self-discovery.”

Allison Zmuda, author and education consultant, USA


“Trevor MacKenzie has written a fascinating book which takes the theory of inquiry-based learning and explores the practicalities needed to put the approach into successful operation. His passionate argument is underpinned by a deep understanding of the importance of feedback, pupils owning their own learning, and the need for clarity of outcome from the outset. I particularly like the graduated approach to developing inquiry learning. Too often this approach fails because pupils have not been taught nor mastered the skills necessary to successfully undertake such an approach. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the power of pupil-centred approaches to learning.”

Andy Buck, teacher, author, and founder of Leadership Matters and #honk, fellow of the RSA, England


“In Dive into Inquiry, Trevor Mackenzie tells the story of how he came to be an inquiry-based teacher and gives his readers tips on how to successfully move through the various types of inquiry-based learning. As teachers we know that scaffolding is key, and this approach can help any middle-school or secondary teacher who wants to learn more about how to integrate this type of teaching into their practice. I especially enjoyed all of the sample questions that Trevor shares in his book—I will definitely be using them to help students reflect!”

Gallit Zvi, teacher, co-author of The Genius Hour Guidebook, Canada


“Without action, the goals of ‘genuine student inquiry’ and ‘personalized learning’ will remain aspirational. Trevor MacKenzie’s book offers practical and proven advice for bringing these ideas to life in a classroom. Your students will thank you for following his advice.”

Jay McTighe, co-author of the Understanding by Design® series, USA


“As a promoter of Genius Hour, I was happy to read Dive Into Inquiry by Trevor MacKenzie. The book fleshes out how teachers can make, not just an hour a week, but an entire class/course driven by inquiry. With passion, experience, and insight MacKenzie explains what to do in the first days of school to change the landscape of learning for students transitioning from a teacher-centered classroom. He carefully covers everything a teacher and students will need, including how to co-create the course syllabus, types of inquiry, the four pillars of inquiry, essential questions, planning, research, authentic work and how to share it and more. You will read and be inspired by stories of Garrison and graffiti, Eli and emergency medical care, Zoe the flourishing figure skater, and a score of other students who will bring inquiry in the classroom to life. Dive Into Inquiry is a quick read, but it is meaty and worthwhile.”

Denise Krebs, teacher, co-author of The Genius Hour Guidebook, Bahrain


“This is a book brimming with energy and idealism, full of insights and practical wisdom from Trevor MacKenzie, a teacher who takes student agency seriously. He provides thought-provoking examples of teacher generated questions and the rich discussions that ensued. He is also keenly aware of the importance of moving beyond teacher questions to a higher level of inquiry in the classroom where students are formulating their own questions. Inquiry, MacKenzie demonstrates, needs to be fostered if students are to regain their natural curiosity.”

Dan Rothstein, author of Make Just One Change, USA

Get your copy today and begin to transform your classroom!

What You’ll Discover When You Read Dive into Inquiry

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Types of Student Inquiry: one of the helpful illustrations from the book that will strengthen your inquiry classroom.

Over my years as a teacher I’ve learned an incredible amount as I’ve taken on a more personalized approach to educating our youth. I’ve seen the enormous benefit of flipping control over learning in the classroom and fostering student agency in our curriculum. I’ve gained an appreciation for my colleagues and their specific teaching areas as I’ve collaborated with teachers to co-plan and co-teach in an inquiry model. And I’ve made mistakes, ones that have helped me reflect, revise, and refine what inquiry looks like my practice.

With Dive into Inquiry nearing its official release I’m excited to share more detail of what exactly this fantastic resource has to offer you and your learners. Dive into Inquiry provides a structure that prepares learners for the transition from traditional teaching models to the inquiry classroom, a structure that is built on building relationships with our students through a gradual release of control over learning. You’ll be given detailed lessons that will help you create the inquiry atmosphere your students need. You’ll read accounts of student learning that will deepen your understanding of inquiry and help clarify my proposed structure. You’ll have access to illustrations to use in your classroom to assist your learners in their own understanding of inquiry. And you’ll be inspired to make inquiry your own whether you are new to the inquiry pool or confident in all Types of Student Inquiry.

The book is jam-packed with passionate narrative, clear examples and lessons, inspiring student stories, and supportive processes. You’ll finish your reading feeling like you are well prepared to make inquiry work for your learners in a manner that is low risk and high reward.

Make Dive into Inquiry yours.

Stay up-to-date at trevormackenzie.com and the EdTech Team’s library.