Ready, Set, Go  Get Started with Differentiated Instruction

Ready, Set, Go Get Started with Differentiated Instruction

Understand why differentiation is important, but not sure where to start? Click through to learn how to get started with differentiated instruction! differentiation | elementary | ontario | teachers | student

So if you understand the concept and benefits of differentiated instruction for the students in your classroom but are not sure where to start then hopefully this post will help you to set the stage and get started with differentiation.

My biggest motivation for differentiated instruction is my students with different learning needs.  This started with teaching ELL students and continues within my classroom walls.  In my time as an ELL teacher going into others classrooms there were many times that the DRA assessment would level the ELL student and then all other materials would be given to the student at that level.  This was always a problem for me as a teacher.  These students were not cognitively working at a grade one level and many of them were at grade level in their home language just not in English.

They knew what time it was but couldn’t communicate that understanding to you in English.  That didn’t mean that they needed to learn how to tell time.

I watched too many students disengage with work or pretend or hide that they didn’t know what to do in a classroom because they didn’t want to look stupid in front of their peers.

For me as a teach this is my main motivation for differentiation.  To allow the students who need the modifications or accommodations to get them without making them feel dumb or stupid or lose face in front of their peers.

If we really want differentiation to work we need to understand that in some way we need to set up routines, and a culture in our classroom where students understand that everyone is working on a different level and that there is more than one way to meet a goal.

Set the tone

In your classroom you need to model that there are many pathways to success.  Showing students multiple ways to do things is critical.

Don’t Judge a Kid by His Reading Level

There are many many times where a student may struggle with reading but have amazing potential and cognitive abilities.  Learning to access these is a key component to differentiation.  We need to stop associating a students ability to read with their ability to think.  By building on the strengths of the student we can help them access far more material. Reading is a complex task involving many skills, understanding which part of reading will help you to better differentiate.  But if your task assesses other subject areas how can you accommodate for the weakness in reading?



If you have multiple students doing multiple tasks at once in your classroom then you need to have solid routines set in place that describe how students function and work within your classroom.  It makes in much more difficult to just make it up as you go if you don’t have a structure or a framework to rely on.  At the beginning of each year or again later in the year when I feel that some of my routines may be slipping I revisit this list I made.  I use this every year to remind myself of how I want my classroom to run.  Check out my free routines pack here 

Classroom Management

This is another important skill that needs to be firmly established before you begin to differentiate your instruction.  There is no way that I could have 30+ kids all doing different types of tasks without good classroom management strategies.  Incorporating ideas from growth mindset, whole brain teaching, brag tags and many more classroom management tools I began using this past year.  Many different strategies will work but whatever strategy you use for classroom management you need to be confident, consistant and firm.  I may be open to a variety of learning opportunities.

Build Independence

This is another area that may take some time to establish.  It is the number one excuse for why teachers cannot embrace inquiry and cannot do centers and therefore cannot differentiate.  All most all students can gain some independence skills.  I set the expectation that students should be able to work independently we work together to establish the routines and the expectations that will allow them to be successful.  For example, in a writing conference, I ask students to identify when they feel their writing will be done.  We negotiate a reasonable time line for completion.  Then they are trusted to complete their work.  But guess what some of them don’t do anything and complete nothing.  Well, building this skill often requires that student experience safe failure.

Create opportunities for Safe Failure.

Safe failure is an important feature for my students.  I set reasonable expectations for my students and prepare an environment for them to work independently.  However, then I need to trust them to do what I have asked them to do.  However, some of them need to learn that when they do not use their time wisely they will fail to meet the deadlines.
This is a failure.
Yes, they fail, acknowledge they fail but make them reflect on this failure and identify why they failed and make a plan to not fail again.  Students don’t learn from failure they learn when they are helped to bounce back after failure
Tweet: Students don’t learn from failure they learn when they are helped to bounce back after failureFor some students this may take a few times and you may need to reset and realign their goals.  For these students it is baby steps but when they experience success after this failure then they will see that success feels better and is achievable.  When you trust that your students are capable of learning, being independent and letting them fail safely then you have a recipe for great differentiated instruction.
Remember this is a hard one for parents to swallow it is probably a good idea to let parents in on this shift in your approach that you are setting expectations and that together your job is allowing them to fail safely and to coach them through it.  Knowing that failure at the beginning will help prevent failure at the end because failure is a part of learning that should be embraced.
This one is a little tricky. You need to trust that your students want to be good.  For this to work you need to




Planning for Inquiry Based Learning

Planning for Inquiry Based Learning

If you are getting started with inquiry you may wonder where to start and how to prepare. Click through to learn about planning for inquiry based learning!


These 8 ways to plan for inquiry will change how you teach! Click through to see how! inquiry based learning | activities | projectsIf you are getting started with inquiry you may wonder where to start and how to prepare for something that is student led. Although using an inquiry approach removes you, the teacher, from the absolute power position you,  still have plenty to do to prepare yourself to get ready for inquiry.  I wanted to share a few of the steps that I take to plan my inquiry units.

Planning for inquiry is different.  There is more to do ahead of time.  You have to be purposeful and knowledgable.  However, once this is planned the day to day planning is so much less as you work with students day to day to direct the learning together.

Here are a few of my steps for planning inquiry.

Look at Your Standards / Curriculum

What are you expected to teach?  Get familiar with the contents of the learning expectations.  Where does the expected learning start and stop?

Pull it apart

If you are getting started with inquiry you may wonder where to start and how to prepare. Click through to learn about planning for inquiry based learning!Start to take the expectations apart.  Put them in your own language.  In the Ontario curriculum, it is often structured in a similar fashion.  Big idea expectations are first, skills are second and basic knowledge is third. Knowing this will help you to decode the and order the curriculum in an easier way.  It is also important to differentiate between knowing the difference between the expectation and the examples.  The examples are just that, examples they are not the learning outcomes.  This will help you to know that following different lines and topics within the larger theme will be okay to do so.  I will often re-word the expectations at this point into meaningful language so that it is easier to understand.

Put it in order

If you are getting started with inquiry you may wonder where to start and how to prepare. Click through to learn about planning for inquiry based learning!Once I have pulled the curriculum expectations apart I then begin to put them into order.  In a split grade classroom, this is especially important because you will need to order the learning in a way that makes sense. But remember that you are going to approach this with an inquiry perspective so you are looking at the knowledge that students will need to have first, second and third, in order to meet the expectations of the big ideas for inquiry.  Doing this will help you to guide students where they need to go.
For example, in the matter and materials unit, students will need to know what matter is and the vocabulary.  The best part is that students will naturally ask these questions when presented with the answers. Show them a vocab card with the word sublimation and they will naturally ask what does that mean and try to guess by using their background knowledge.
If you know where they need to go you can plant the clues to get them there.  But by doing it this way you spark curiosity and interest as people naturally try to solve problems and look for answers.  This is why putting the learning in order is important.  You are not necessarily planning the lessons but planning the trajectory and logical progression of the learning.

Find common ground

If you are like me you might be teaching a combined class.  At the very least you will have students in your classroom that require accommodations and modifications beyond the grade level you have been assigned.  So this is where you need to find common ground and activities where there is common ground.  

Sometimes the content is so different that you can’t and you need to look for similar tasks with different subjects like experiments or research opportunities to align together so that the instructions are the same but the learning is different.
To differentiate the learning for different abilities you need to plan some tasks that have multiple entry points so that the output of students can be adjusted to meet individualized learning needs.

Begin to Research

If you are getting started with inquiry you may wonder where to start and how to prepare. Click through to learn about planning for inquiry based learning!I cannot stress this enough, if the teacher doesn’t understand the content then the students

won’t either.  If you are conducting inquiry you need to know your stuff.  You can’t always rely on textbooks.

Hop on google, ask your own questions and know the content.  I often have to do this when creating my units.  Learning the content at a more in depth level than your students is important.

Do you understand how a catalyst is used to speed up the polymerization process to make plastic? This was one of the many topics I explored when creating my unit on matter.

Planting the Evidence

If you are getting started with inquiry you may wonder where to start and how to prepare. Click through to learn about planning for inquiry based learning!Starting your learning off with a provocation and beginning to build your WonderWall is animportant step to begin your inquiry.  This is where your selection of materials will help you to set the stage for your inquiry and to help you to guide the students to focus on the questions that relate to what they MUST learn.  If you put at word card with the word Sublimation then usually at least one student will ask the question “What is sublimation?” By setting up your WonderWall discussion with activities and questions such as


  • Look at the artifacts and cards, one at a time share what you notice about something you see
  • How could you sort these artifacts
  • What questions do you have or what do you wonder about what you see?
In my human body unit choosing a picture of a microscopic image of the air sacs in the lungs inevitably leads to the questions “why do we have grapes in our body?” or “What are the grapes used for?” This opens the door to a lesson or activity about the parts of the lungs.


You Don’t Need All of the Answers

Yes you need to be prepared and yes you need the knowledge of you subject content but there will come a time where you simply just don’t know the answers to your student’s questions.  Sooo… it’s okay, you don’t have to know and you can admit it.  Simply say “wow that is such an amazing question we really should look into that further.  Let’s look it up!” In inquiry, you are the guide not the giver and constructor of knowledge.  Allow your students to see and watch what you do when you don’t know the answer.  Being a model will show them what to do when they encounter a question or problem.
But this is inquiry, sometimes the learning happens in finding the answer themselves and their ability to retain this information is dependent on their ability to find their own answers.
In fact, one of the most amazing lessons I learned through my inquiry journey was to stop answering their questions (even when I did know the answers).
I had one moment of ‘out of body’ (not really…but for some reason I was super reflective that day) where I realized that the students were simply just looking to me to answer everything for them.  Learning and struggling to stop myself from answering their questions was hard, but watching them learn to solve their own problems and find answers to their own questions was very rewarding.

Final Thoughts

Inquiry is different from traditional teaching.  This is not traditional unit planning or the backwards design model.  You do not plan the activity that students will complete at the end.  If you are looking for an activity that everyone will do you are in the wrong place.
Inquiry means the students help to guide their learning.  There are still teacher directed lessons, there are still key concepts they NEED to learn and be assessed on.

However, you can guide and lead the student there in authentic ways.

If you are getting started with inquiry you may wonder where to start and how to prepare. Click through to learn about planning for inquiry based learning!

Save a few steps…

Need a break and want to skip a few steps?  Since I have done this already why reinvent the wheel.  I may not be able to help you teach it day to day, but you might as well benefit from the time I have already put into planning for inquiry lessons.  Check out some of the grade 4 and 5 inquiry science and social study lessons in my TPT store.


Top 5 Tips That Will Transform Your INQUIRY Projects

Top 5 Tips That Will Transform Your INQUIRY Projects

Take your inquiry projects from teacher directed to student focused with these tips that will help you to reframe the way you look at inquiry projects.  inquiry based learning | activities | projects
Whenever I check the teacher message boards that I am a part of, I always see many requests for ideas for culminating tasks for the various units that a teacher teaches throughout the year.  This stems, I believe, from the backward design process where teachers begin to plan their new unit of study by first planning the culminating activity.  However, if you follow this blog, you may have realized that I am moving away from the teacher-directed model of instruction and moving towards an inquiry approach where the students and teachers authentically develop the culminating task within some standard parameters.

The problem, as I see it, is not in having a culminating task but in planning an event or task that limits a student’s creativity or expression in order to do what the teacher tells them.  Placing restrictions on what students do to show you what they learned is where you are restricting student creativity.  I know that there is a lot of anxiety as teachers when we don’t have complete and total control.  I get it, I myself am a recovering control freak (ok maybe not so much recovering), but I have changed the aspects that I control within the classroom.  At the end of the unit, if every student’s product looks the same then how creative and differentiated is that really.

1. Plan the criteria, not the product

It is possible for students to design a variety ways to show their learning that respects their interests and individuality while all still meeting the same expectations.  These little projects are called “show what you know” projects.  With these we make a list of concepts that student need to know about these are generally derived from our learning throughout the unit.  It is then the student’s responsibility to design a project that meets these criteria.  How they present it is not as important as what they present.

2. Fun means differentiated

Many times as teachers are requesting help to find project ideas, they are also requesting fun and engaging activities for their students.  Generally, as teachers, we are not interested in boring our students and making learning disengaging.  However, we teach individuals, not robots and their interests are their own.  If you want them engaged, let them choose the format.  At first, many students will probably pick traditional presentation strategies.  However, throughout the year as one or two students begin to push the traditional boundaries other students will start to take more risks in their style to pursue their own interests that reflect their skills.  We have to remember that in our classrooms there are many students who have strengths in different areas and those that do not fit well in a traditional classroom will struggle with traditional tasks but can and will amaze you with their ability to show you what they know in alternate ways such as using Minecraft, designing a song or dance, or creating a website.

3. Student-led inquiry

Inquiry means that students are helping to lead and own learning.  They are not leading their learning if where they are going and what they are doing is already mapped out.  This does not mean that we don’t have to plan because we do.  There will be certain concepts that are essential to building their knowledge and understanding that they can learn what it is that they are supposed to learn.  However, these are general.  If you have ever seen my units on TPT you will know that they generally follow the same format.  Provocation/Wonderwall-> Big Idea / Questions -> Building Background Knowledge and Understanding Lessons-> Knowledge Building Circles -> Reflecting Activities -> General Research Project -> Open Ended Sharing of Knowledge.  You will also notice that the pages are general enough that there are very few question and answer rote learning pages.  Students are generating their own knowledge and reflecting on this.  However, the focus and scope of these lessons allow a variety of different avenues and flexibility for the teacher so that each year your focus could be a little different.  The shift relies on the teacher understanding that they are guiding the learning not giving the learning.

4. Share the workload

there is a quote that is often used with inquiry that talks about the workload.  The teacher should not be working harder than the students.  In reality, this is true.  If you are working so hard to plan every little detail then simply just giving the students work.  This is not inquiry.  Inquiry involves students and teachers working together.  If you want an engaging activity for your students, ask them to tell you what they should do.  Plan it together.  Instead of taking hours and hours at home planning a lesson for students.  Stop planning at home and plan with them during knowledge builiding circles.  Even if that means that you pull out the curriculum document and list the things that they need to know about and asking questions about these things and then going from there.  Let them help you plan it.  Do it with them, and save yourself some time.

5. Learn the content, deeply

This has to be the biggest advantage for me in planning detailed units for TPT.  It has forced me to really learn the content.  Stop spending your time planning the unit and the lessons and learn the content and not at an elementary level but at a high school level.  Read the Wikipedia page on tension and compression and challenge yourself to be able to understand it.  This will help you when you go off script in class.  If all you know is what is on the lesson plan then it will be that much harder to teach this using an inquiry perspective.  You need to know your content at a much more complex level.  This is why it takes me so much longer to create a complete unit and why I include teacher background notes for you so that you can understand the concepts that you teach.

Are you ready for inquiry?  Use this quick checklist to help you get started and plan ahead for inquiry.  It’s in my free resource library along with many other tools that you can access free.  Just sign up below.

If you want to connect with me about inquiry why not join me on facebook inside my teaching with inquiry facebook group.  Join the conversation every Monday at 9 pm as we talk about all things inquiry and teaching.



Talking Inquiry – Letting Go of Control

Talking Inquiry – Letting Go of Control

Learn how to let go of control.  Changing the way you teach from being the center of learning to simply just facilitating is can be scary and intimidating.  Learn how and why you should let go of control and let your students lead.  inquiry based learning | activities | projects

Who I am as a Teacher

I am a teacher the thrives on organization and control over certain things in my classroom.  So I
  • Number student workbooks
  • Match all components of my program everything is colour coded
  • Classroom needs to match (my red pocket charts annoy me since they don’t match)
  • So picky I make all of my own stuff or remake things so the fonts match and it looks pretty


Despite this I am still a person that likes change but being stubborn I like to do it my own way and hate being told what to do.  So if you are like me then you need to commit to changing but find a way that is authentic to you.

Tech Support and Inquiry

Technology is an important tool to have when using inquiry but worry less that you only have some and embrace this and commit to proving that you can use it and you will get more.  I started with a computer lab and just booked time or used the on laptop kit.  If you are like me and teach a split you have a unique advantage since only a portion of your class needs to research at the same time.  Other subjects can be rotated through during this time such as language so that you can minimize the amount of need on limited devices.  Allowing students to bring in their own device helps even if it is as small as an iPod touch with an internet connection or any device that connects to wifi and has an internet browser.  If you have an internet connected computer hard wired you can make this into a wifi device by buying an old but working router from a thrift shop and plugging the ethernet cable from your computer into the router to broadcast the signal.  Many districts and school boards may not approve of this but my argument is if they can’t give you what you need, then do what you can prove that they need too.  Just remember to unplug it when IT tech people come by.


Getting Started with Inquiry

I started with one simple step by introducing an open-ended project for Rocks and Minerals and Energy Conservation.  Students did some research then chose their presentation with some suggestions how they would present this information.
WHAT I LEARNED – Students need to learn how to research but there was increased engagement in capable students.  I also learned that I needed to do more to support Special Education Students they needed a bit more scaffolding.  But overwhelmingly I learned that my students needed to learn how to research.  So this was my next step that I could integrate into language.

Great Learning Comes out of an Emergency

So what do you do when you have a student teacher with no plans.  Well, you do what any teacher does and you improvise.  Give them a problem and hope they solve it.  Impromptu lessons like build a bridge with textbooks that holds some weights….and go.   But I had to commit to not jumping in and helping them solve it I needed to let them do it on their own.  I needed to guide them to the learning they needed through questioning.  This was hard to do and I had to fight the urge to get up and intervene.
Reflection – But at the end of that lesson through power struggles and arguments between students I saw learning REAL LEARNING.  They have the capacity to solve problems…. arguments yes, failure yes, encouragement needed but learning was more authentic then simply reading about it.  They needed to learn with your support that failure was not the end of the world and that they can do this they can learn.   However teaching students how to talk to each other and disagree with each other is important.

Change your Plans on the Fly

Once you teach them how to talk to one another and they understand the concept of a knowledge building circle.  Start to listen to them and change your plans if necessary.  When teaching about government two students came in and asked if anyone had seen the leaders debate on tv.  My first thought was “umm they watched the leaders debate that is so awesome…”  I had a choice.  Do I follow my plan today or do I scrap it and follow this interest as the two students continued to talk to other about what they watched enthusiastically with others.  Well, I went with it.  Thank full for youtube we were able to watch it.  The thoughts and the conversations that resulted engaged more students in election issues, comments on hairstyles that seemed to take a prominent place in this race.  I still had a backup plan and knew enough of my subject matter that I was prepared with the knowledge to support their learning.  But I also realized that I didn’t need to have all the answers and that whatever we didn’t know would lead to new lines of inquiry that started with real opportunities for learning.  I was inspired by their curiosity and enthusiasm and was able to encourage it and what I noticed was that this was contagious from student to student.  I can change and let go of control it is okay and it works.  When you see your students engaged and learning you will convert too.

Value of Learning Goals and Success Criteria

Talked about this last week but…
This is when I saw how important it was to my students.  Students could decide how they would show you what they knew.  I didn’t plan a project, no rules, no limits, no planning.
I said here is what I need to prove that you know…SHOW ME YOU KNOW IT

I got a lot of “can I do……”  and that was okay.  I conferenced with students, met with them during their research process.  Checked in with them.  We co-created a rubric that outlined what a level 2-3-4 looked like.

They showed me what they knew  – Minecraft, story, rap, websites, PowerPoints, games, dances, (students used their own interests and strengths to express their ideas).  We drew upon students strengths and needs to help them show their learning.  I also learned that less control means less planning for me (more time with my kids at home)


How do I push it forward and build on this next momentum

  • Ask them to share their learning with others – Full school Energy Conservation Assembly
  • Can’t find research on some topics – contact experts and ask for help -> First Nations and Small Pox
  • BYOD – you don’t need to supply everything.  Let them bring in their own things.
  • Apply for Grants – just don’t forget to tell your principal.


  Overall Reflections

  • Ask them more questions.  Question instead of Tell…questions will help your students to draw their own conclusions when they are ready.
  • Sit back and watch and let them fail safely.  Failure is an opportunity to learn and improve and set this up as a culture in your classroom.
  • Arguments are not bad but opportunities for learning.  Just teach them how to talk to each other.
  • Surprising leaders emerge.  Students who know the value of hard work and constructing their own understanding will often become your leaders.  Students that typically do well at school sometimes struggle because they will wait for you to tell them what to do and when you don’t it increases their anxiety.
  • Not every student comes on board as quickly as others that is okay they will just keep reaching students one student at a time.  You don’t need 100% buy in 100% of the time.  Just grow your buy in one student at a time and you will eventually get them all.
  • Parents are lost…. so help them understand the changes that are happening in your classroom.


Where are you on your inquiry journey? What has worked for you? Share with me below.
Talking Inquiry – Learning Goals and Success Criteria

Talking Inquiry – Learning Goals and Success Criteria

Learn how to use learning goals and success criteria to help support student inquiry in your classroom. inquiry based learning | activities | projectsToday I wanted to focus on learning goals and success criteria and how they are the center of your inquiry teaching practice.  I talked about a lot of things today on my broadcast and wanted to share my notes with you and some pictures of how these look in my classroom.  Check out the video here if you missed it.

What is Inquiry:

Inquiry is student-centered teaching that turns student interest and curiosity into real learning through questioning, investigating, observing and collaborating.

Learning Goals and Success Criteria

A learning goal is your big idea often based on your curriculum expectations or standards.  They are sentences written in student-friendly language and often start with key-word sentence starters such as

  • “We are learning about…”
  • “We want to know more about…”
  • ” I can….”

Some examples that we have used in my classroom about learning goals are

  • First Nations and Early European Explorers – “What was life like for the First Nations before contact”
  • Human Body – We are learning about the digestive system and how it helps to keep your body working and healthy
  • Structures – “We are learning about internal and external forces that impact the strength of a  structure”
Here are some examples of the process we took to get from student questions to Learning goals to the criteria for success.  As you can see it is not alway pretty or ideal.  Sometimes they are not worded perfectly but they reflect the conversations that we had together.  Sometimes it is a multi step process to refine your ideas down to key big ideas and sometimes they change but in the end we knew where we were going together. This process took some leading by me to get us here.  Less than was needed previously but with the lack of background knowledge that my students had on this topic there was more to do to support them.
Summarizing and narrowing down student questions
Our Learning Goals in the center of our bulletin board with the picture of the wonder wall surrounding it.  For this unit we used questions as our learning goals instead of typical learning goal “We are learning about…” statements.
This is the list we co-created about the success criteria for the first learning goal of our unit.  Again not perfect but it reflected our conversations and understandings of what we needed to explore.
Although they are too small to read here, this is a picture of our whole human body unit with learning goals and success criteria for each system and learning activities.  We added our learning as we went along to our wonderwall board including evidence of activities that showed our learning and accomplishment of learning goals and success criteria.

Why are learning goals important?

Students need to know where they are going and what they are doing.  Learning Goals and Success criteria are the road map you give you students at the beginning to know what they will be assessed on as they learn.  This is very explicit.  These are the test questions that you give them weeks in advance and a guide to have them show what they know by the end.  If they can show you that they have learned what you set out to have them learn then they have been successful.

How to use them in an Inquiry Classroom.

  • Co – create them with students and have them contribute their interests and knowledge to the learning decisions.  This will increase engagement because you are helping them learn what they tell you they are interested in.
  • This part of your inquiry journey happens after your knowledge building circle and Wonder wall session.  This is the step that guides the rest of your learning.
  • take their questions from their wonder wall and group them into categories and try to make sense of the themes of their questions.  This is not totally on them your selection of the questions help you to manipulate the direction of the learning while students may identify the themes or focus.
  • Introduce the subtopics to your students and have them discuss the themes of where they are going in their learning.  Have them help you to explore where they will be going and what they will be learning about.  Ask them what they think the big idea is.  We want to know more about…, or We will be learning about…
  • From there organize your sentences into an order for learning.  What organ system will you learn about first, second, and third.  What makes the most sense to learn first.  Often this should start off from simple to complex allowing students to build the necessary background knowledge that will be needed and necessary prior to them using higher order thinking skills, critical thinking, and applying what they are learning to solve real world problems.
  • Once they have developed the learning goal statements it is time to break down the first learning goal and determine how they are going to accomplish this task.  Depending on your students comfort level and knowledge of the topic they may need more or less support from you to do this.  Make a list of things they need to know.  This may change as you go along and they gather more information.  This can often be a messy part of the learning and sometime the most difficult but pay attention to what your students are saying this will give you a lot of insight on where students need and want to go with their learning and what gaps you will need to help them fill.  Again you may need to provide more support for them at this stage if all you hear in your classroom is crickets.
  • Remember that you are going to use this to help you students build their knowledge that stems from their own interests (or at least the interest of the collective group) Stop checking curriculum boxes and start helping your students meet their goals.  You are there to guide them and facilitate their learning.  Stop doing all of the work.  It is time, that your students take ownership of their own learning and share the load.  This will, in fact, reduce your planning time or at least change it as you are not preparing lessons but are finding resources to help students guide their own learning.
How to get them to use it?
  • You need to use it.
  • You need to make it the center of your conversations with students
  • you need to reference it
  • you need to point out that this is what they will be assessed on
  • you can follow the cycle of assessment to help keep them focused on this learning through regular conferences, check-ins, and observations.
  • Assessment of inquiry seems difficult, but in reality, if you have strong and explicit learning goals and success criteria, that forms the center of your learning. Then it is very easy for students to show you what they know.  They can use them as a checklist for their learning and you can simply just check off when they have accomplished a learning goal when they show you what they know about that topic and meet the success criteria.  It becomes easier as you do this more often to evaluate whether or not they have shown a thorough understanding, a good understanding, or a simple understanding of the concepts that they have been learning.

Ready for the next step in inquiry? Up next learn how to let go of control so you can let students lead through student-centered inquiry.









Talking Inquiry – Knowledge Building Circles

Talking Inquiry – Knowledge Building Circles

Learn how to use knowledge building circles in the classroom to support student learning through inquiry! | inquiry based learning | activities | projects
So I just completed my very first live video in my Let’s Talk About Inquiry Series on Facebook Live.

My first video was about how I used  Knowledge Building Circles with Wonder Walls in my classroom to help facilitate inquiry.  I wanted to share my notes with you so that you would have an additional copy of the ideas that I shared in my video.

WonderWalls and Knowledge Building Circles

These two components of my inquiry unit help to start off my unit.
Knowledge Building Circles – Start off you inquiry
  1. Collect your artifacts – pictures, items, key terms.  These will generate the ideas that you need to begin your inquiry.  Try to find familiar artifacts that students would recognize and pick a few that they may not know what they are.  Ones where they will be forced to make connections between two concepts or think deeper about various topics.  For example, I use a branch with my human body unit to connect to the branches of the lungs or a pump to show the connection to the heart.  For the forces unit, I show an explosion of Japan and Chernobyl.  For small pox, I show a picture of two native women sick on a bed.  A cross, to show the impact of the Jesuits on first nations or a picture of a gustoweh.
  2. Establishing a space – set a whole group meeting area where the center of the area and focus of the students is on the artifacts.  Students are used to the teacher being the focus you need to shift away from the teacher as the focal point to the artifacts and the teacher as a participant.  While beginning an inquiry and transitioning students from traditional teaching to inquiry I found that it was important to set yourself up higher than students.  This will help them to understand your gradual release of control over the conversation.  Eventually, as this knowledge building circle evolves and develops you can move your position to one that show equality to being removed and fully led by the students.
  3. Setting Conversation norms – before beginning your first knowledge builidng circle establish rules for communication.
      • One person speaks
      • Actively listen to your peers
      • No idea is bad – How to disagree respectfully
      • It is about sharing ideas not answers
      • Know the difference between what you think you know and what you know based on evidence.  Fact, opinion, hypothesis, theory and conclusion.

    These ideas can be students generated and teacher led.  My students this year even established a talking object that they needed to have before speaking.  Good ole Fluffy Sparkle (I didn’t choose it or name it that credit goes to my students.)

  4. Getting Started: Focus on the Wonder and Questions – to get started lay out your artifacts on the ground in the center of your circle.  Provide students with a paper or sticky notes to write on and have them look at the artifacts and ask questions.  Provide students with sentence starters to ask deeper questions.
    • I wonder….
    • What is …
    • How does….
    • Why might….
    • What does….
    • How does _____ relate to / connect to ________
  5. Sharing – Have students share their questions with the group.  Remind students that this is the time for questions, not answers that it is okay that questions asked by our peers do not get answered right away.  (this is really hard for some students)
  6. I think – Students talk what they have been thinking about during the wonder phase and they begin to share their thoughts.  Remember to help students to classify their thinking as a fact, opinion, theory/hypothesis, true knowledge based on evidence.  Ask students if they can group the artifacts into categories to help us focus on what it is that we want to learn. Although this is led by the students ideally, it is most often heavily manipulated by the teacher in order to cover curriculum expectations.  The key is to know when to let them go and when to refocus them.  This takes time and skill and can be very messy at first.  Just know that when it gets messy you can always regroup and refocus another day.
  7. Wonder Again – After the students have grouped and organized your artifacts have them wonder again to add any further questions that they may have.
  8. Record and Model – record student thinking along the way throughout the knowledge building circle this can be done in multiple ways.  Have a student record their personal thoughts as they have them on a sticky note or appoint a secretary a student that will write down questions on a chart paper.  As you begin your inquiry journey you will have to often model and paraphrase student responses in a way that will help to deepen their understanding.  Asking why, why, why, why, or how, how, how is a good way to do this.  As students give you surface level and simple questions ask them why and to justify their question.
  9. Sort And Classify – as the students sort and classify your artifacts this becomes the basis of your wonder wall.  This is the working document that helps us to remind ourselves where we are going and why.  Remember that it is okay if there are some minor misconceptions on the wall as theses will be great learning opportunities.  However, it is very important that you highlight these as you debunk them so that students to not begin to form long lasting misconceptions about the topic you are studying.
  10. Conclusions – looking at your sorted and classified artifacts and all of your questions it is time to focus on the big ideas and what it is that they want to learn.  For example, in the human body unit, the artifacts are specifically from the lungs, heart, and digestion.  They easily come up with these three main systems then from there can see common questions that can be asked about all three.  The same happens in the First nations unit where they can see that some pictures are of first nations communities and others are from early European communities.  Once these big ideas are developed they will form the basis of your co-created success criteria that will frame the rest of your learning in your units.
  11. Coming Back – Over the course of your unit you will come back to this sharing circle to reflect on your learning goals and your wonder wall. You will add new knowledge and build on ideas and information that you put up there.
Want to learn more about inquiry based learning in the classroom.  If you missed lesson #1 click the photo below to learn more about wonder walls.  Ready to learn about inquiry? Click over to lesson #3 to lean how important learning goals and success criteria are to establishing student led inquiry.