Student Driven Inquiry – Process vs Product

Last month in the Primary School we found ourselves in the midst of the Year 6 Exhibition; which is essentially a student driven, inquiry-based research project that extends over a period of approximately 12 weeks. It overwhelms both students and teachers and engulfs us all in questions, that create yet more questions, challenges and of course there is always a little bit of drama! This is student driven inquiry at its best and it injects a wide range of emotions into learning. For me personally, it is when I can see learning brought to life, largely because of the relationships and connections that are formed during this demanding process.

It is the process that I want to emphasise here. So much of learning (at any age) is about the final product and the learner is so focused on the end result throughout the journey to get there that the learning along the way can get undervalued. What I love about the Exhibition and how it has evolved at our school is the focus upon the process, it is the means through which the learning takes place.

Depending upon who you speak to on any one day during the yearly ISM Exhibition journey towards our final Exhibition ‘product’, you might hear exclamations of joy, despair, satisfaction or even frustration. This is even more prevalent when groups meet for their weekly ‘planning time’ with their mentors. The Mentors have a unique and central role in encouraging, questioning and guiding their particular group to be successful and help students stay on track during the inquiry process.
Screen Shot 2013-05-30 at 9.33.23 PM
For a glimpse into some of the process and understand the final ‘product’ have a look at our student blogs. Each group kept a regular journal during the Exhibition process and at the end of the inquiry they uploaded their learning to share with everyone.
Enjoy learning about The Mediterranean with Year 6!
Screen Shot 2013-05-30 at 9.32.23 PM

BETT & the Blogging Journey

As I listened to the presentation by Head of ICT, John Jones (@mrjonesICT )
that charted the highs and lows of the blogging journey our school has been traveling along at the Bett 2013 Exhibition, I was struck by a number of things.
Screen Shot 2013-02-24 at 7.40.13 PM
Firstly, the immense progress that can be made in a relatively short space of time; what has been achieved is inspiring and is largely due to the passion and commitment of our Head of ICT. Our school has opened its doors to the outside world and invited others in to share in successes, provide inspiration for learners and give feedback and purpose to the learning taking place. What’s more, the reciprocal role of this experience, that is, that the students are also being asked to give their personal opinions and feedback has been transformative in many of our classrooms.
That is not to say that the journey has been smooth, in fact, in reality it has been anything but smooth! Nor does it mean that blogging has been embraced by all, although, it is gradually spreading school-wide as teachers explore what is the best fit for their classrooms and learners.
Screen Shot 2013-02-24 at 7.20.51 PM
Change, any kind of change = tension, heightened emotion and hopefully a great deal of reflection and debate. Being part of charting the unknown and navigating a pathway to successful blogging has been an enriching experience as an educator. Would I change anything about the journey so far, not at all, it has all been learning, the highs and the lows.
Secondly, the greater realization that technology, rather than stand in the way of forming relationships has actually opened possibilities, broadened horizons and enriched learning for everyone. This is often the argument I hear against using blogging or indeed, technology as a tool in classrooms, that it depersonalizes  leaning, or stops traditional talk and collaboration.
Relationships are really at the heart of any learning community and this is exactly why blogging has transformed much of the learning taking place in our classrooms.
No longer is it only the teachers’ opinion that provides feedback to students but suddenly there is a wider audience to encourage, critique and comment on student learning. The relationships that form from this online forum are key to its success. The one thing that has changed however is the definition of these ‘relationships’. That, I believe is the ‘new’ part of using technology as a tool in education.

Reflecting on BETT 2013

So, I survived my first BETT show, I navigated the maze (quite literally a maze!) of stands, speakers and technological wonder and made it through, overwhelmed, exhausted but most definitely inspired and restored!

Interestingly, all of this without actually knowing what BETT stood for… I mean I had a guess, a pretty good idea what the acronym was… but I didn’t really know. On reflection, I thought of the question Sugata Mitra concluded his presentation at BETT, ‘Do we need to know?’.  Was my understanding and appreciation of BETT lessened any by my ignorance as to the title of the event?

I have read and heard varying reports and comparisons to previous BETT conferences about the location, layout and physical space that it encompassed and the ‘buzz’ or ‘energy’ it generated, but for me the whole event was simply about people. Technology may have been the focus but people were at the heart of the BETT show. It was truly the people there that inspired me and restored my values and beliefs in education and learning. The tools that are available now are truly amazing and innovative but it is the ways in which teachers are using them to enrich learning and allow students to make connections from an early age.

The 100WC created by Julia Skinner, @TheHeadsOffice, is just one such example of how technology has been used to inspire and encourage even the most reluctant writers and essentially is all about connecting people to share comments and give feedback. Our Year 6 students at ISM are enthused and love this morning writing challenge which gives them the opportunity to be creative, share thoughts and ideas and gain feedback from readers around the world. A simple, but powerful way in which technology has been harnessed to improve student learning.


Enriching Comprehension Skills – Imaginative Illustrator

I currently teach Literature Circles lessons to two Year 6 classes each week, generally my favourite part of the week, when we can immerse ourselves in reading together! One of the greatest challenges in a multi-lingual, multi-level classroom is managing student groups to ensure everyone is understanding what they are reading and moving beyond this to actually questioning that understanding.

In order to address this, recently I developed some lessons to support students in deepening their understanding and engage them further in the role of Imaginative Illustrator as part of our Literature Circles. This role is often a student favourite, essentially there is a belief that it is the easiest! Draw a picture and talk about it. Seems simple, right? I decided to challenge this assumption and encourage students to reflect and use their critical thinking skills at a much higher level.

We discussed visualisation and ‘making a movie in your mind’ as the strategy that most students use to help support them in this role. I then introduced 3 further strategies that might help to develop this further:

1. Envision maps

Essentially this means having some paper handy so that the reader can doodle or note words that are significant for them whilst reading.

2. Post it

The reader uses post-it notes to mark pages in the book or a ‘golden line’ a powerful sentence that inspires the reader.

3. Image pin it

This can be done in a variety of ways, essentially using visual images to make a collage which reflects the reader’s understanding of the text. For example, using magazines and printed images to make a collage or perhaps digitally, using the app Pic Collage.

As a class, we practised applying these strategies by listening to different story extracts in order to practise together. Here are some examples of student application of the strategies.


Imaginative Illustrator Pic Collage


Students embraced these strategies and continue to experiment with them in order to discover which are the best fit for each of them Individually. Recording what they were actively thinking as they were reading, and preparing ideas before they actually completed their illustrator role students were much more capable in summarising what had happened in the story; demonstrating greater skill in considering character, plot and setting in more detail. Using these tools has enriched their ability to connect with a story and produce more thoughtful and meaningful illustrations.


Primary School Vs Middle School Girls Football Match!

It was with great excitement and anticipation that the Year 6 Primary School girls gathered after school on a crisp January afternoon.  The girls had only had a number of football training sessions with ‘Coach Jones’ but were enthusiastic and confident in facing their first match challenge against the Year 7 girls. The final result was a 2:2 draw. A rematch is planned between the Dark Devils and Pink Panthers very soon!

What is a classroom?

For teachers and children thoughts are turning to getting ready for back to school around this time of year. Students in many countries are buying new backpacks, pencil cases and school supplies, whilst teachers endeavor to get classrooms ready and organised for the arrival of their new students. Bulletin boards are being papered, materials labelled and posters go on display. Of course, all of this is important in order to get the classroom ready for learning, after all the classroom is the ‘hub’ of learning, isn’t it?

But what is ‘The Classroom’? It really got me reflecting on some discussion that Year 6 were engaged in at the ‘deciding’ stage of our collaborative, inquiry-based exhibition project earlier in the year. The students were brainstorming and discussing the idea of ‘ childhood’ and their teachers presented them with a photograph to comment on using a web 2.0 tool, Voicethread. A simple photograph and question sparked a lengthy and engaging discussion, both inside and outside ‘the classroom’, about what the similarities and differences were between classrooms.

Year 6 Voicethread

Discussion ensued as to whether a classroom is your physical environment or whether what is happening with the people gathered together makes ‘the classroom’. As one student pointed out ‘it’s about the people not the things.’

As happens frequently, I was impressed and inspired by the reflective comments of students and with the subsequent exhibition project that developed. Their comments struck a chord and really started me thinking about the differences between classrooms globally, both historically and today. I recently came across an article titled ‘An Intriguing Glimpse of Classrooms Around the World’ Julian Germain classroom portraits, which showcased the photographic work of Julian Germain,, who has been traveling the world taking portraits of classrooms. These portraits provide us with insight as to how varying learning environments are for students worldwide. I wonder how much these varying environments shape the student learning taking place in them today?

We are now in a world where learning in a ‘classroom’ isn’t confined to the traditional space but is online, virtual, global and, in many cases, multilingual. The classroom, as the Year 6 students pointed out, isn’t the physical features and materials but the communication between learners and sharing of knowledge. Our students are inspiring us to think outside the traditional; in a digital age learning ‘classrooms’ are everywhere from webinars, to twitter, Showme to The Khan Academy, the traditional image of a classroom has evolved beyond four walls.

What does this mean for our learners? How does our teaching and learning have to adapt as the classroom environment evolves? Recent books such as ‘Are we getting Smarter’ by James R Flynn present research suggesting although IQ scores are rising, this is centered around human adaptation rather than us getting smarter as a society. Adaptation. Evolution. How will we continue to challenge and support our learners as the concept of ‘the classroom’ environment evolves?

Connecting Learning

What memory do you have of a meaningful learning experience as a child? More often than not our most meaningful learning experiences don’t happen in school. How can this be? Isn’t school supposed to be where we do our learning? Today, in my mind, education should strive to build the bridge between daily life experiences and learning in the classroom. Often, our significant learning experiences as a child are linked to learning to do something collectively as a team; or a creative project or challenge when we felt curiousity to find out more; or when we had the motivation and desire to achieve a goal.

Finding out what young learners are curious about and sparking their interest is key. As is a shared understanding of the purpose behind the learning activities they are experiencing in school. The more that learning is meaningful and engaging to students, the more actual lasting learning will happen.

With so much talk about individualised learning, learner responsibility and personalized learning journeys, I found this interesting reading:


It may be somewhat extreme, but the message seems to be simple: sharing personal learning goals, allowing learner’s to take responsibility, reflecting on learning and making authentic connections, are all central to instilling a desire to become lifelong learners.

Learning to Make Mistakes

Mistakes, errors, corrections, shouldn’t haves. Whatever you want to call them, we all make them, most of us daily. In fact, education, learning and indeed life is all about making them, yet our students are often most afraid of mistakes. The focus for learners is more often than not on what wasn’t done well and what wasn’t learned. What we got wrong is important but only because it tells us what we need to do next to improve. Empowering students with the knowledge and skills to be reflective as learners is the key. We shouldn’t erase our mistakes, we should highlight them!

Teaching students to use ‘what went wrong’ or the mistakes they have made, is how we can ensure the process of lifelong learning is instilled from a young age. Teaching students to accept mistakes, take control of them and use them to their advantage is a gift that we must give young learners. This is not to be misinterpreted though, we are encouraging students to get things wrong, although, if by doing so students learning is enriched, why not? Taking risks and accepting when we are wrong are skills and concepts that are extremely challenging. So how do we begin to ’empower’ young learners and arm them with using their mistakes to reap positive rewards?

One simple strategy is lead by example. If we show as adults that we will take risks and accept when we are wrong, young learners will do the same. Fear and embarrassment of ‘being wrong’ or failing sends the wrong message to students and reinforces the belief that all mistakes should be erased and forgotten.

Another strategy is to reflect upon how we, as adults, respond to mistakes. Using powerful vocabulary that is focused on future learning is essential. When a child makes a mistake respond with:

‘What would you do differently in the future?’

‘How will you remember that next time?’

‘I remember when I made that mistake, I learned…….’

Demonstrating that we learn from mistakes reaffirms to a child that they are not ‘bad’ or ‘stupid’ and prevents the blocks that we ourselves may have had to face as learners when we were growing up.

Find more good strategies and links here: