Go Ahead, Figure It Out

“I am learning how to deal with frustration, time management, and learning to work without pressure.”

“I am learning to be really creative, and to problem solve.”

“I have learned that being independent is more responsibility than I thought it would be.”

One student spent our last period launching and adjusting his prototype rocket on the school yard, to the delight of those watching from inside. Another retreated behind a tree, where the wind conditions were just right, to spray paint the sneakers that she was turning into roller skates. Writing books, assembling robots, creating works of art, and building a wind-powered, name-bearing wagon round out the array of projects underway in the new Go Ahead elective. These were the projects chosen by the students who selected this elective, and this is the responsible risk that Mrs. Drummond and I chose to take this year. While neither she nor I have experience in any of these things, we do have experience in learning from scratch. We vowed to figure it out.

About half of our students were ready to go before the elective even started. For the other half, dreaming hit reality. The student wishing to build a rocket had his heart set for three weeks on using chemicals that were too dangerous. Another student spent multiple weeks hoping to build a metal-framed, motor-powered go-kart, only to be disappointed at the cost and complication of it all. These students had taken the biggest leaps, and had the farthest to fall to reach a project they could make. Did they regret their choice of elective? Were they wasting their time? We didn’t think so, but it’s what they think that matters. So we asked.

We started the reflection by stating the obvious – school is about learning. Then we asked what they usually learn (as they should) in their regular classes. The essentials, foundational knowledge and skills, learning skills, subjects you need for the future, and new things you otherwise wouldn’t choose to learn were among their responses. Then we admitted that they likely weren’t learning many of those things in our elective. So what did they think they were learning? Hands shot up. Here’s what they shared:

  • Trying to figure out a problem on your own
  • Wide-open creativity
  • Learning to deal with choice and freedom
  • Experience with personalised learning
  • Learning to work without pressure (this is my favourite)
  • Learning to deal with frustration
  • Time management
  • Independent work
  • Doing everything yourself

They also shared that it’s exciting and interesting. Choice and freedom made the frustration worthwhile. Because the projects are entirely their own, the lessons learned, however difficult, are theirs to own as well.

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There is a lot else they’re learning. They’re learning to ask for help. They are learning to find what they need. Some are learning to figure out exceptionally complicated diagrams; some are learning about character development in writing fiction; one is learning woodworking and two are learning to solder resistors onto printed circuit boards. They’re all learning to turn ideas into reality, and they’re learning that this includes the sometimes tedious effort of figuring out the details and communicating them clearly and convincingly to others (especially if THIS other needs to go buy resources).

There’s a lot that students should learn at school, and certainly much of that must cover the essentials. But developing students to be lifelong learners requires more. At times, it can be frustrating. It’s also deeply exciting and interesting for all involved. You just need to go ahead and figure it out.

Sometimes you have to just believe in yourself and go for it. For example, I didn’t think this project would work out at first, but it’s going very well.”

*All quotes are from grade 6 students in the Go Ahead elective.

Andrea Fanjoy,
Assistant Head, Academics
You can follow Andrea on Twitter @afanjoy.

 

It Works! (Question and Be Curious, But How? – Part II)

Question and be CuriousI thought it would!

A few months ago I wrote about the book Make Just One Change and the methodology it shared for teaching how to come up with good questions. For all the value of questioning, it seemed to me that the profession was pretty barren on direct methods for teaching this skill. Instead, some students seem to come by questioning naturally, and others pick it up as they mature, or not. Of course, students are exposed to lots of questions at school, and they’re regularly invited to come up with questions. Despite this, my gut was telling me we could accomplish more.

Then I read about the Question Formulation Technique (QFT). Immersing students in question-asking, it also offers the benefit of learning from one’s peers, it releases students from the threat of judgment, and it includes informed reflection, so students would start developing not only the habit of asking questions, but also the habit of asking increasingly effective ones. The method struck me as straightforward and destined to work. I had to try it out, and our grade 6 teachers were willing to let me. Their students were about to start their culminating social studies assignment and they needed questions to begin. Enter the QFT.

The Question Focus (or QFocus) was ‘Canadians Making the World Better’. The process began with a ‘question frenzy’, where groups of 3-4 students, one also being the ‘recorder’, came up with questions based on the QFocus. Rules of engagement were shared before the 7-minute frenzy: ask as many questions as you can; do not stop to answer, judge or discuss; write every question as it’s stated; and any statements were to be turned into questions. The recorder typed the questions in the class Edmodo newsfeed, thereby allowing all students to eventually see the questions of the whole class when the exercise was done.

The frenzy was followed by a brief exercise in open and closed-ended questions; a discussion on the students’ current purpose in asking questions (their QFocus and their assignment); and then an exercise in choosing and justifying their top three questions from the many others they came up with earlier.

The end result? Better questions than the teacher had seen students come up with in past years. They were mature questions that even caused concern in some parents who thought they were too hard (until they learned they came from their children). The students were welcome to change their questions if they felt they needed to, but instead most chose to stick with them, and by doing so ended up writing longer and better assignments than required.

Good questions are at the heart of great learning. At KCS we’ve seen over and over again that students are capable of more than most would expect, if we only persist in finding how to unlock it. We’ll be adding QFT to our list of tools for unlocking potential in students. And this will be one area of education where I no longer have that nagging feeling that we don’t do enough.

Andrea Fanjoy,
Assistant Head, Academics
You can follow Andrea on Twitter @afanjoy.

Question and Be Curious, But How? – Part I

One of the biggest challenges in education is in knowing how far you have to go to make sure all students learn what matters. Some skills are picked up by many quite readily. Other skills, not so much. For some things the profession has a wealth of precedent, other things not so much. Deciding how far you have to go is driven by experience, knowledge, assumptions, and the amount of time teachers have to think about it once all other important demands are dealt with.

Question and Be Curious is one of our KCS Habits, and all evidence says it’s a habit that matters. It’s no exaggeration to say that democracy, progress, and the understanding of all that happens are rooted in asking and seeking answers to questions, and doing both well. Learning to ask questions readily and well, however, is not easy for many. Sure, students learn the grammar behind asking questions, and goodness knows they get thorough immersion in being asked questions. But teaching the art of question-asking lies in an educational no-man’s-land. When and how are students taught to ask their own questions?

The widespread absence of an answer to that challenge occurred to me as I read the book Make Just One Change by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, based on the work of The Right Question Institute. To be fair, most teachers try in various ways to develop this skill, and many students pick it up, either readily or over time, to at least some degree. That being said, and despite pretty significant efforts, I haven’t seen a system that can directly develop this skill in all students that is more convincing than what’s shared in this book. Called the Question Formulation Technique, it immerses all students in asking questions, directly teaches students about them, and engages them in critical analysis of their questions in order to develop awareness of the suitability and relative value of questions. According to Rothstein and Santana, students who’ve gone through this exercise have found it transformational. While I haven’t yet experienced it, I’m convinced enough of its potential that I’m borrowing a class to try it out.

Does it work? Will it work for every student? If it does, what impact will this have on their learning? These are the questions I am asking. Stay tuned for Part II of Question and Be Curious for the outcome.

Andrea Fanjoy,
Assistant Head, Academics
You can follow Andrea on Twitter @afanjoy.

Our mission, should we choose to accept it

The KCS mission is “To be the defining force in developing lifelong learners by stewarding an environment that prepares us for the next challenge.”

QuestioningAt our first class meeting of the school year, the grade 7s looked at some pretty interesting and mindboggling questions. Was it algebra? Physics? No, they were questions about themselves, like the following:

  1. Five years from now, your local paper does a story about you and they want to interview three people about you. What would you want them to say about you?
  2. If you could spend an hour with any person who ever lived, who would it be? Why? What would you ask?
  3. Describe a time when you were deeply inspired.

These questions come from an activity called The Great Discovery, from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey. You can read them (and try to answer them!) for yourself here: http://www.emporia.edu/dotAsset/f1d87806-07e0-48e8-919d-92637f6e028e.pdf

As a teacher, I was taking a responsible risk. I didn’t know if my students were ready to tackle these questions. They really impressed me with their thoughtful answers. Thanks to all the wonderful teachers they’ve had at KCS, they were prepared and they were able to take on the challenge.

After considering the questions, we came up with personal mission statements. I know, 12 year olds making mission statements sounds like a stretch! It turns out they have a wonderful grasp of what they would like to get out of life.

  • To make a difference in the world
  • To always be a good sport and to work hard
  • To be a leader and excel at my job and hobbies
  • Be positive and do not worry
  • Never give up no matter what tries to stop you
  • Live life to the fullest
  • To challenge myself to do new and harder things
  • Don’t give up. Keep trying
  • Have fun and work hard
  • Always strive for perfection
  • You can’t like it if you don’t try it
  • Always be happy and positive
  • Always try and never give up until you achieve your goals in life
  • To make a positive difference in the world
  • Don’t give up
  • You only live once
  • When you’re down, get back up
  • Be a good sport, it’s just a game
  • Your past decides your future
  • Be happy and positive
  • To be a leader in the world

The mission statements are displayed in our classroom for the year so that we remember our missions. We’ve chosen our missions. What’s yours?

Ms. Gaudet
Citizenship Coordinator, Grade 7 History & Geography