The Nature of Inquiry: Reflection

THE NATURE OF INQUIRY Reflection

By Sara Krauskopf

A key component to any project is reflection.  Teaching students metacognitive skills so they become aware of their own learning process is where some of the most meaningful growth occurs during the course of a unit.  Reflection helps them become critical thinkers and problem  solvers–skills we all value for the long term and want to build in our students. There are a number of points during a project where it may be appropriate to ask students to stop and reflect.  Longer projects may require multiple reflections, whereas shorter projects just one. This blog entry will provide some examples of ways to have students reflect.

1:  Improve group work. Group dynamics are some of the biggest challenges to project completion.  This is an early intervention which asks students to pause and consider problems with their team.  What obstacles do we already see with our group dynamic and how can we overcome it?  I usually share these reflections with the class so students see multiple ways they can improve their process.

Group Question

2:  Daily check-ins.  Mentioned in my previous blog entry, this is a way for students to examine daily progress within their team.  They can celebrate success, think of what took their work off course that day (positive or negative developments), and decide what adjustments they should make as a result.


Sample Daily Check-in

  • Did we meet our responsibilities for today? Why or why not?
  • What do we need for tomorrow?
  • Do we have homework?

 

3:  Mid-project reflections.  This is a more formal way to consider progress towards the project goal and make mid-course modifications.  Again, this should provide an opportunity for positive reinforcement of current systems and behaviors; or time to make adjustments to get back on track.  This individual writing assignment is turned in, helping me understand where individual students may be having trouble so I can jump in to facilitate changes where they are most needed.  


Sample Mid-project Reflection

Students were challenged to design, build and test a solar box cooker to melt chocolate during a Wisconsin winter.  We stopped to reflect after students tested the first iteration of the cooker.

  • What went well with our design stage?
  • What went well with construction and testing?
  • How well did our team work together?
  • What specific improvements need to be made?

 

4:  Final project reflections.  Never skip this type of reflection.  It is the most important part of the project and helps students review what they learned: not only related to the content of their project, but also about how to plan and implement a complex activity.  This is a formal individual writing assignment given after all of the products are constructed and presentations are given.

If this were a straightforward science experiment I might ask students to reflect on experimental error and to suggest additional investigations they would try to further their understanding of the processes involved.  However, in project-based learning, I ask them to think beyond what they learned from the content.  They consider the impact of their work on others; and most importantly think back on what it took to complete this project and assess what they learned about navigating a complex process.


Sample Final Project Reflection.

For the waste management project discussed in my last blog, students were given this prompt along with a detailed outline of questions to consider.

You just finished an intensive group project to create a solution to the question, “How can we reduce the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill?”

  • What did you do?
  • Why was your project important?
  • How could this project be changed?

 

One of the reasons students at PBL schools get better and better at conducting projects is because of this reflective process.  They learn the importance of planning, the value of good partnerships, the need to stay organized and on task, and myriad other skills.  They are able to transfer those new skills to the next project and to their daily lives; and develop the ability to design more complex projects and solve more involved problems.  

As teachers, we always run out of time on units and need to cut out certain activities, but I strongly believe that you should leave time for reflection.  It is better to cut the project short and ask students, If you had more time what would you have done?  Without giving them time to reflect they will not develop critical thinking and other lifelong metacognitive skills that will help them successfully navigate the world as adults.

Sara Krauskopf is a secondary science and math teacher and educational consultant.  For questions or comments, contact her at sjkrauskopf@gmail.com

 

The Nature of Inquiry: Scaffolding Projects

By Sara Krauskopf

If you have never led an open-ended inquiry or project-based learning (PBL) unit before, it can be an intimidating experience. Diving into the unknown in terms of exactly what students will be working on and what they will produce creates a certain amount of anxiety and presents new challenges to the teacher as a facilitator of learning.  In my last blog entry, I described ways to get students to ask questions and narrow them down to that one “good question” that they will focus on for their project.  Now you are faced with helping a room full of students with different inquiries move through the process of answering their questions. This requires a series of steps and a certain shift in mindset as an instructor.  In this entry I will try to provide some tips and resources for working through facilitation of the planning and implementation of a set of projects.

It is important to model project design for students and build independence over time.  I often walk students through a behind-the-scenes look at how I planned a unit or set of experiences for them.  Who did I call?  What resources did I gather?  What did I have to test out in advance?  How long did it take me to do each of these steps?  Where did I run into stumbling blocks?  Did everything go smoothly or did I have to make adjustments?  This type of transparency in the teaching process not only helps students gain a great appreciation for the amount of work that goes into lesson planning , but more importantly demonstrates that they need to plan out their strategy and be prepared for it to change.  No projects ever go exactly as planned, and hurdles, failures and re-adjustments are par for the course.

For your first open-ended inquiry, I would suggest restricting the range of projects students choose.  This will help you anticipate the types of resources students will need to complete projects, making it easier to provide a certain set of equipment, limited list of experts and vetted starter informational resources.  Allowing them to work in teams of 2-4 also provides students with built-in support and gives you fewer projects to facilitate as you navigate the changed work load with this type of learning.  With science experiments it is fairly straight-forward to guide students to a narrow, yet original set of project questions (eg.  How can we speed up rates of seed germination?).  As I mentioned in my first blog, my class investigated the question What type of waste does our community produce and where does it go?, and then students designed their own projects focused on the question How can we reduce the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill?  This was a broad inquiry, but narrow enough for me to anticipate a set of community education campaigns, composting experiments, and sewing projects to repurpose fabric.  I did have one group that chose to refurbish an old computer, which I had not anticipated, but they were so motivated that they got all of their own equipment and did not require my assistance very often.

I scaffold my planning process using the attached resource, based on one I received from Valley New School, which does all learning through a PBL model.  Students can complete this individually or in teams.  The planning stage will be the loudest, least organized, scariest part of the process.  Some students won’t know exactly what to do, will argue with one another and beg for your attention.  A few will plunge in, creating a product without planning anything and will need to be held back; others will struggle to come up with a viable idea; some will need help formulating the wording of their problem.  As a facilitator and not a lead teacher, you need to let students struggle.  Many times the groups that have the most trouble at the beginning have the best projects in the end.  They wind up taking more time in the planning phase and therefore everything else proceeds more smoothly.  Certain students also need reassurance that if their original plan does not work out, they will not be penalized.  A project that does not produce the desired results is not a failure, but rather a learning experience and an opportunity to try it another way.

I require students to get my approval of the planning document before they can proceed. Because of this, I expect to be pulled in ten different directions at once as everyone vies for my time and attention.  This is exhausting, but good!  I steel myself for these days and know things will settle down as projects are chosen and planned out.  Once students have created their plan and a tentative calendar, your days will run more smoothly.

Students learn time and task management through PBL.  Once we are in the actual research and action phases of the process, I ask students to do a self check-in and check-out process every day.  What are my responsibilities for the day?  What do we need?  And then, Did we meet those responsibilities? Why or why not?  What do we need for tomorrow?  Do we have homework?  The Buck Institute also provides an excellent set of student handouts to help teams set up their process and keep track of their work.

The hard work now falls to the students, and your job is to check in regularly to monitor progress and help facilitate overcoming challenges as they arise. You are now on your way to open-ended student inquiry!  Next topic, reflection.

Suggested Resources:

  • Short stories about real projects you could analyze with students from beginning to end as an example of PBL:  
    • (2007). Heroes of the Environment!. Harriet Rohmer.  
    • (2004) Voices of Hope (Heroes’ Stories for Challenging Times) (Readings from the Giraffe Heroes Project)

Sara Krauskopf is a secondary science and math teacher and educational consultant.  For questions or comments, contact her at sjkrauskopf@gmail.com

© Copyright Sara Krauskopf 2015

The Nature of Inquiry: Asking Good Questions

questions

by Sara Krauskopf

“There are no bad questions.”  I hear educators say this all the time, but do we really mean it?   What is the nature of a “good question?”  How do we lead students through quality inquiry?  As someone trained in science education, I spent a great deal of time helping students develop “good” scientific questions.  When I formally began teaching with project-based learning (PBL), similar challenges emerged.  How do we help students develop and recognize good questions for inquiry and how do we facilitate them as they investigate the answer to that question?

Designing an inquiry project varies surprisingly little from subject to subject when you consider the skills and scaffolding needed for all of the steps of the process.  Obviously, investigating an inquiry into comparisons of insect diversity in different local habitats may require a different set of equipment and data analysis in comparison with a PBL project to start an after school program to keep students out of trouble if noone is at home. But the guidance and skills we would lead students through to design, plan and complete a true inquiry project in either case is very similar.  In this entry I will focus more on developing good questions, in the next installment we will look more to the process of answering the questions.

In science, a “good” scientific question is one that has never been asked before.  It should not be one you can look up the answer to online (What is the melting point of silver?); it should not (generally) be one that someone else has already researched (Do Sandhill Cranes mate for life?).  The question should be creative, yet explorable with realistic constraints.  Ideally, it can be answered through a series of focused experiments or observations.  Of course, as instructors we may still present students with a question with a known response because we want them to figure out how to find the pattern, or we recognize that they will understand the concept better if they run an experiment themselves and analyze the results (How does adding salt to water change the freezing point of the solution?). This is still inquiry and a valuable question to investigate.  It leads the students to discover new knowledge (to them) to discuss the scientific principles behind why something occurs.

Students in the field

The goal, however, of this narrowly-guided inquiry with a known outcome should be to lead students to more open-ended, original inquiries.  For example, after learning that salt water reduces the freezing point of water my students walked to Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin for some water quality testing in winter when the air temperature was below freezing (yes, I’m a bit crazy).  We happened to pick a dock near the outlet where a creek empties into the lake.  Students who had wandered over to the creek noticed that while most of the lake was frozen, the creek was not.  They began to wonder why the creek stayed open and why certain parts of the lake were not solid at this time.  The observation, subsequent questions and possible explanations originated from the students.  They suggested many possible explanations for this:  the water was moving quickly and therefore the molecules could not attract one another, get close enough and solidify; perhaps there was warmer groundwater seeping into this site; or maybe there were contaminants dissolved in the water that were keeping it from freezing.  Testing the validity of any of these ideas is good scientific inquiry.  It is unlikely anyone had tested the chemical composition of the water at that location on that day and an investigation of the water might reveal contamination with road salt, phosphorus, soil or other substances that would prevent freezing.  Did I set students up to ask these specific questions?  Not exactly, but I provided them with enough background knowledge to inquire about what they were seeing and ask good questions to seek new knowledge and understanding.

In my experience, teachers need to ask good questions to get students to ask good questions.  Providing a set of experiences, asking students to make observations of a situation that is somehow out of balance, or the presentation of a troubling scenario via video, guest speaker, or newspaper article are some of my favorite ways to lead students to write good questions for PBL or scientific inquiry.  If students perceive an injustice to a group of people or to a habitat it is easier for them to get involved and ask more questions.  Our students watched “Frogs: The Thin Green Line” from Nature on PBS about research into declining frog populations around the globe.  After seeing in the video that Minnesota students found frogs in a pond with three legs due to pesticide pollution, they wanted to learn more about the situation in Wisconsin.  Groups of students chose to research the status of frog populations in our local area, contacted researchers at the University of Wisconsin and read up on the situation here.

As a teacher at Badger Rock Middle School, we used essential questions to guide students over the course of a quarter or semester.  For example:  What type of waste does our community produce and where does it go?  How can we reduce the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill?   Using that broad, overarching theme, we ran a series of guided field trips and investigations of recycling centers, landfills, compost methods, repurposing waste, e-waste and other topics.  At the end of the unit, students designed their own projects to reduce the amount of waste going to a landfill.  Because they were exposed to such a broad range of topics, they could develop many original ideas to address our unique situation.

Leading students through a “think, pair, share” brainstorming process brings out a plethora of ideas for student projects.  To accomplish this I will either present a scaffolded set of open-ended questions or create a Frayer model. This will help students summarize what they already know about a topic and sets them up to generate questions they still want answered or describe possible solutions to the problems they encountered during the first part of the unit.  The Frayer model divides the paper into four boxes with a central theme.  In one box I might ask them to list the locations we visited and activities we did in our waste unit, in another list all the types of waste generated in our community; in the third box, describe the weaknesses in the systems we investigated, and in the fourth, write down ideas they have to reduce waste going to a landfill in our community.   I always ask students to complete a Frayer model or answer brainstorm questions on their own first or in pairs rather than completing it as a group right away.  It takes more time to do a “think, pair, share”, but you get many more ideas and the activity becomes far more inclusive.   Students spend time writing on their own with no restrictions.  I assured them there were no wrong answers for final suggestion question, and for the most part, the ideas pour out without hesitation.

Frayer Model

Adapted from the Frayer Model of Concept Learning
Dr. Dorothy A. Frayer

The next hurdle was whittling down ideas.  Students shared ideas in a small group, round-robin style.  They were only allowed to listen or ask clarifying questions, not comment on the plausibility of any idea.  From there we asked them to choose an idea that they might want to tackle.  Each group chose their favorite two or three ideas and shared them with the larger group while I kept a running list on the board.  Again, no critiques were allowed during brainstorming, only clarifying questions.

At this point I asked the students to list and consider some constraints.  What is their time frame for conducting the project?  What types of resources will they have at their disposal (money, space, human capital, equipment, etc)?  Can they complete this activity at school?  If they want to leave campus, do they have an adult available who can help them?  This helps them decide if this is a “good question” to investigate.  They came to realize there are practical constraints that make for a good question.  Their job then was to frame the actual problem they wanted to solve.  A few sample questions our middle schoolers decided to investigate included:  How can we help students at our school put waste in the correct bins?,  What would it take to refurbish a computer to reduce e-waste?  How do we make new items with old clothes to repurpose the fabric?

As an educator, do you have to plan in advance to have good inquiry?  No! Be spontaneous.  Sometimes the best questions arise from the news, a student experience on the way to school or something discovered on the playground.  Are you abandoning your curriculum if you let students pursue this spur-of-the-moment question?  Perhaps.  But will students learn and retain more if you let them investigate what they find engaging? Yes. It’s important to find the right balance.  It is our job as educators to champion good questions, but also to help students focus on taking the time to uncover the answers to their inquiries.  We can let them investigate whatever they want, or we can narrow the focus and target their inquiries within topics of our choosing.  It depends on your comfort level as a facilitator how far “off the mark” you are willing to go.  Be honest with them about what makes a good question and what constraints guide your decisions, and that will help students guide their own.  Encourage curiosity and creativity and those “good questions” should start emerging in your classroom.

Suggested resources:

  • NSTA Statement on Scientific Inquiry  
  • Galileo network:  A good explanation of inquiry with classroom examples in many K-12 subjects
  • Unboxed” A journal containing reflections and project ideas primarily from teachers at High Tech High, the school featured in “Most Likely to Succeed.”

Sara Krauskopf is a secondary science and math teacher and educational consultant.  For questions or comments, contact her at sjkrauskopf@gmail.com

© Copyright Sara Krauskopf 2015