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Here in Jasmin Ramzinsky’s   3rd  grade class at Parkside Elementary School in Austin is why education can be turned around on a time by simply challenging students to assume more control of their own learning.


How do they do this?  By being encouraged to ask good questions about the content they are studying and then pursuing what International Baccalaureate calls “purposeful investigations.”


And how do we encourage students to get interested and excited enough to pose questions about a subject we have to teach?


One successful way is to introduce what we call a provocation or a problematic scenario.


Jasmin had her students read a short book and within this story might have been the following challenge:


You are members of an expedition of scientists who must explore the distant planets for possible living environments.  Our planet earth is becoming overcrowded and resources are scarce.  Select your planet, identify what you know about it and what you need to know in order to prepare for such an expedition.  You will present your findings to a community group of concerned scientists and demonstrate your understanding of planetary rotations, orbits, atmospheres and opportunity for sustaining life.


Before Jasmin adopted this inquiry-based approach, she had assigned students’ questions; they then conducted the research and write a one or two page paper.


After completion of this solar system unit, Jasmin asked her students to comment on this new approach.  Here are some of their comments:


"Mrs. Ram, that doesn't make any sense. Why would you ask questions about my planet. You weren't doing the research, I was."      
 "Mrs. Ram, I bet your kids kinda got bored with finding the answers to your questions."      
 "Mrs. Ram, How did you know what your kids wanted to research? Did you ask each kid before you wrote the list of questions?"     


Indeed, why do we teachers assume we can dream up the kinds of questions our students would be intrigued by?  Why would we assume that the old approach would generate interest and engagement in the topic?


But we have made and continue to make these assumptions throughout our educational system.


Teachers who afford students an opportunity to pose their own questions related to the designated content report these advantages.  Students become:


1.   More engaged intellectually and emotionally

2.    More in control of their own learning and, thereby, more responsible for achievement


There are many, many Jasmins across this country who know the benefits and wisdom of challenging students to pose meaningful questions and conduct purposeful investigations.


Inquiry that leads problem solving and critical thinking are all so-called 21st century skills (as they were last century and the ones before that dating back to Socrates!)


One of the questions to pose and answer is How do we know they’re getting better at these 21st century skills?


We do have evidence.


More later.

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Comment by Tommy Wandrum on May 4, 2011 at 10:34pm
Erika, that is so funny to me what you mentioned about the Japanese.  I have a 5th grade girl that is enamored with everything from Japan.  She is always drawing Japanese cartoons and recently started telling everyone how to say their name in Japanese and how to say certain phrases.  Other kids have started getting interested in it too.  I wonder if she downloaded the same app.  I would also be interested  in learning more about your course.
Comment by John Barell on May 4, 2011 at 12:58pm


Yes, I would be interested in learning more about your inquiry-based economics course.  I once interviewed a prof from this university who was very much involved with 21st century skills development and students' taking the initiative.  His comments are in the Solution Tree book called 21st Century Skills.


And I'd love to know more about the third grade downloading apps to teach himself Japanese!  What a wonderful experience. This started with his own curiosity and he is in process of satisfying it.  Let's hear more: has he manifested this curiosity in other areas?



Comment by Erika Podlovics on May 1, 2011 at 11:28pm
My favorite course in university was a prof who was trying to bring PBL and Inquiry Based learning in to the economics department at U Waterloo, and the whole course was an inquiry based writing course. If you guys are interested I could go through my course package (I kept it because I loved the course so much), and give an outline of the whole term and how the teacher built up the course using very little preplanned content, a lot of assessment and feedback and many mini assignments.

If any one would be interested in it or would like to use it somehow I would be more than happy to put that together.
Comment by John Barell on May 1, 2011 at 7:40pm

Great to start an inquiry journal with what's in front of us, things that matter.  Asking a lot of "Why?" and "How come?" and "What will happen if this continues?" kinds of questions.  At some point you share what you're wondering about with your students. . .Then, you can do what one school, K-6, did have Wondering Wednesdays and one student asked, "Why don't we wear seat belts on the bus?"  That let to civic action.

Also like the idea of keeping a journal for what works/doesn't work with challenging students to ask their own good questions.


Eventually, we engage students with real artifacts in asking questions that relate to our fundamental concepts and ideas, organize them and help them find answers.


Keep on writing, reflecting!


Comment by Tommy Wandrum on May 1, 2011 at 1:29pm
I also loved the idea about keeping a journal.  Yesterday after I read the post, I really paid more attention to what was going on around me and what questions I had about it.  I think keeping a journal of this will be a great teaching tool.  Would anyone be surprised that most of my inquiry questions from yesterday were formed while pumping gas?  Why are the prices so high?  Why do we depend on gas so much?  What could we use instead?  How could we have an effect on forcing prices down.  It was painful to pay that much for a tank of gas and it really got me thinking.  I'm going to start keeping a personal inquiry journal.
Comment by Erika Podlovics on May 1, 2011 at 11:00am
I think this is great - and at a grade 3 level! There is research to support starting inquiry based or problem/project based learning from an early age as its benefits are clear to see to anyone who uses it.

These days I feel like a lot of youth are doing their own inquiry learning on a daily basis. One of my younger students uncovered an interest in Japanese pop culture and decided to download an app and participate in some online communities to teach himself Japanese. This kind of interest needs to be encouraged in the classroom too - although it's increasingly difficult as class sizes get bigger.

John makes some really really great points below :) I love the idea of keeping a personal inquiry journal. Expanding on that, maybe keeping a journal of what worked and didn't with each of your inquiry classes. Reflecting on the actions of the teacher (me, you), the students, and the lesson design. I think that the progression and feedback from that journal would be extremely powerful to share.

I'm exploring what a school designed for the 21st century might look like, and inquiry/problem based learning would have a huge roll - I think. I would love to hear your comments as I journey through this.
Comment by John Barell on April 30, 2011 at 6:21am

I admire all the different ways you are providing students with choice.  This is one of the foundational elements of good inquiry investigations, students' generating their own questions, organizing themselves into topic groups, conducting purposeful investigations, thinking about data critically and drawing reasonable conclusions.  We are all rookies at this to one degree or another.  Inquiry is an amazing adventure and you're in store for an enriching journey.

You might begin, if you're not ready for the problematic scenario you suggested, with 1. Keeping your own Inquiry Journal, noting your own curiosities about the world, current events, your own interests.  When you feel comfortable, you can begin sharing these wonderings with kids.  2.  Bring in artifacts related to topics you are studying for Observe (What do we see/feel/hear with all our senses?); Think (relate to prior knowledge); and Question--What do we now wonder/want to know about this artifact?  If you've chosen the artifact well, it will, like the problematic scenario, reflect key ideas/concepts/principles within the unit.  For example, for a Civil War unit what might you bring in to share (and then have kids bring in their objects) in the way of images, real artifacts or models?  An article can serve the same purpose.

As you get more practiced, you jot down kids' questions and begin to help them analyze using a frame work like Bloom or the 3 Story Intellect.  Then, gradually, their questions can be incorporated into your units.

But it's really important that you begin to become more aware of your own curiosities: What do you wonder about?  What don't you seem to notice or ask about?  For example, after years of this kind of reflection, I notice I'm more and more asking questions about causes, Why is this so? How did we get into this situation?


And you can provide students with their own inquiry journals for a unit or two of instruction.  


For more, you might consult Why Are School Buses Always Yellow?  Teaching Inquiry Pre K-5 (Corwin Press). See contents, reviews and sample chapter at


Hope you were spared the terrible weather!



Comment by Tommy Wandrum on April 29, 2011 at 9:45pm
This is for a 5th grade class.  I teach in a program called CSI "Creative School of Inquiry".  However, I'm not so sure that were using an inquiry based model.  I know that what I've been doing really engages the kids and they do learn the standards but it's not so driven by their questions as it is by the standards.  I started the unit this year by handing out a copy of the standards to the kids.  They then chose groups.  They read the standards and came up with ways they would like to learn them.  Some said they wanted to make videos.  Some wanted to make Podcasts.  Others wanted to make scrapbooks.  I let them choose how they wanted to learn it and display their learning.  It was more about creativity and choice than about inquiry. I also asked them what questions they had about the Civil War that weren't found in the standards.  They researched that topic of their choice and created a presentation for the class.  We involved a lot of technology including a green screen,video editing software, GarageBand, IMovie etc.  The technology, creativity and research side of it were good but like I said, I know it wasn't very inquiry based.  I'd really like to be able to make the learning into more depth like you are suggesting.  I feel like a rookie to all of this but I really want to learn.
Comment by John Barell on April 29, 2011 at 10:23am

The Civil War should be a great topic for inquiry.

Your proposed scenario would seem to have authenticity because we still do re-enact the horrors of that war. It also need high intellectual challenge so students are solving problems, making critical decisions along the way."You are called upon the re-enact [a battle; one side or the other] of this conflict.  For your role you will need to know the historical causes of the conflict, the major personalities who fought with and led you; why they succeeded and/or did not.  Not only will you re-enact some of the drama, but you will be expected to share your analysis of the situation both as a role-player and as a modern citizen looking back to 1861-65 from 2011."  Does this have significantly high challenge, so kids are not merely memorizing data?  I'm not sure yet. We need to get them analyzing and making decisions--perhaps that comes as they comment on the conflict or choose most significant decisions made by the real generals?


With something like this you can, with sufficient build-up (perhaps showing some of the Ken Burns' films) engage students in a KWHLAQ: "What do we think we already know about the CW?  What do we need and want to find out? [Here their questions stem from the fact of their becoming professional re-enactors/historians.]  How will we research these questions/plan our investigations?  What are we Learning along the way?  (And end with AQ: How can we Apply what we've learned and what are our new Questions?)


I assume this is for middle or high school?  These students could keep excellent paper or electronic journals (using GoogleDocs/Wikis and so forth).


What do you think?



Of course, you'll have to plan it so this scenario encompasses the major concepts/essential questions of the unit. It can then serve as your summative assessment, or at least one of them.

 Another good thing to do is have kids use their journals to keep track of initial and subsequent questions.  

Comment by Tommy Wandrum on April 29, 2011 at 9:52am
That is great.  Let's say you were doing a unit on the Civil War.  How would you approach this?  In the unit, the kids would have to learn about the major leaders, battles and causes.  Could you generate good questions from the kids by providing them with a senario where they are hired to be a Civil War reenactor and they have to plan how to set up the reenactment?  This is the first thing that popped into my head.  How would you do it?  I really appreciate you sharing your ideas.  It's really going to help my kids.   


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