I wanted to write a book about my experience teaching at the Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry.
I can expertly facilitate inquiry based learning. I just like entrepreneurial learning more and I have decided to re-focus my writing efforts on the ideas behind developing an Entrepreneur High School.
There is much to still be filled in. For what it is worth, here is a rough draft.
Maybe I will pick it up again in the future. At the moment, I have many more pressing projects.
Table of Contents
For many years, as a teacher, I pushed for innovation in education, confident I was making positive changes. What I did not realize at the time, was that I was pursuing this change inside of an existing system. This is much easier to do.
Then I helped establish the Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry (PSII, pronounced “sigh”) in Victoria, BC, Canada. And was the first teacher hired. Working with a small team, we grew PSII from its infancy, building the plane as we were flying it.
The vision of PSII was developed by Jeff Hopkins, an education veteran, and a former superintendent. You can find the full philosophy of the school at learningstorm.org. PSII is the culmination of over 20 years of Jeff’s education research and leadership.
Moving from vision to practical application has been an entirely different story. This book is about my experiences implementing this vision, the perspectives I have gained, and the leap in my education practice. Revealing the successes, failures and learnings of that process, I lay out what I believe are the important steps needed to facilitate a transition into an inquiry based system. This book is based upon four years of “in the teaching trenches”, a glimpse into the practical experience of attempting to change the BC graduation program. It is not theoretical. What I have learned comes from hard earned practice.
Inquiry Based Learning
Asking Questions is the cornerstone of the new system. I want our students to ask huge, deep, powerful, multidisciplinary questions that cannot be answered by Google. But Inquiry does not have to be just be a question, it can also be a quest – such as learning how to operate your own internet radio station; or mastering the entire Adobe suite on the road to becoming a professional designer.
Our current teaching system was developed during the factory age, and has grown redundant. Memorizing facts and formulas, and later regurgitating that information on multiple choice exams is no longer sufficient in 2017. Things are moving too fast. Relying on an unchanging, static stock of curriculum and content, which must be learned by every student at the same time, according to age, is outdated. Instead, we must focus on the underlying skills of learning. Such an approach frees students to study content they care about, and creates a lifetime of opportunity. This provides a far greater learning experience. What really matters are the competencies that they develop. The content can be anything.
For example, during high school, if we want to create proficient researchers and communicators (both in speaking and writing) the same skills can be developed whether learning about Canadian Confederation, or Samurai in Japan. What matters is that students follow a line of inquiry they are interested in. We do not build effective skills by forcing students to learn things that they do not want to learn.
Types of Questions
I have found, it often takes a long time for a young learner to begin trusting their own questions. To encourage the process, at PSII, the staff guide students through five different lines of inquiry to expand and deepen their learning:
- Values Questions – What’s important?
- Systems Questions – How does this work?
- Cause and Effect – Where will this lead?
- Theoretical Questions – How did we get here?
- Descriptive Questions – What happened?
From experience, most kids tend to default to the descriptive questioning. They need help to broaden and deepen their lines of inquiry using all the types of questions above. It is difficult to do. There is so much unlearning to be done.
Of course, not all of the categories of questions apply all of the time, but an engaged teacher can develop almost any type of question with learners.
For example, one of my kids had asked : Should Korea unify? It is a good question with many angles to explore; it provides a snapshot on human affairs. We went through the types of questions:
Values: What really is important about life? We had numerous conversations about the North Korean lifestyle and how it compares to our own.
Systems questions: Of course, there is the Communist system. Interestingly though, the route that we took through this inquiry was looking at how nature has flourished in the DMZ over the last 60 years with no human involvement (landmines!); looking at how ecosystems regenerate and how wildlife bounces back quickly. We have discussed the role human beings are having on natural systems.
Cause and Effect: This one is captivating as there are so many outcomes with re-unification. The North is far behind. Think of all the progress that has happened in the last 60 years. Think about how far advanced South Korea’s technology is – the fastest internet in the world! What happens when one million North Korean soldiers go looking for a job? A fascinating conundrum.
Theoretical: This one was slightly more challenging for this inquiry, but the student worked around this by researching the conflict in the Korean War, both militarily and ideologically. We looked at the motivations behind key players and why we make the decisions we do.
Descriptive: This type of question tied in with the others.
This is challenging work, and it requires considerable one-on-one time with a teacher. Changing the role of the teacher to facilitate this kind of learning is absolutely necessary. It is hard because it requires teachers to let go of domain knowledge. It must be remembered that it is possible to connect any two points in the universe. The pace of information creation is simply too fast today for the “stand and deliver” method of teaching to be effective . Instead, students need to learn how to learn anything, and then creatively represent and share that knowledge with others.
Below are an illustrative sample of questions that I have co-constructed with learners over the last 4 years:
What was the role of the Samurai in feudal Japan?
How can I become an expert filmmaker?
How can I program a robot?
What would the world be like if the Roman Empire survived to this day?
Does life exist on other planets?
To be in sync with the rapid knowledge creation that is happening today, we must end the silos of subject matter and move into information flows.
To do that, we must begin with a big question — an open or guided inquiry. For example: “How can we solve global warming?” This question must come from what the learner wants to know, not from what the curriculum prescribes. We must use all knowledge to find the solution: write about it, use the scientific method to test hypotheses, understand cultural ramifications, collaborate with community members, and more. This is an interdisciplinary approach; it is the unity of knowledge.
How can we possibly expect our young, bright minds to solve giant problems when they are relegated to 55 minutes for science…bell…55 minutes for English…bell…when the information they ingest is put into silos? When they are collecting the dots instead of connecting them. Kids find it difficult to think in an interdisciplinary manner after years of traditional schooling because they have been conditioned to think in one subject area at a time. When the breakthroughs happen though, it is remarkable.
For example, one of my students had the inquiry:
“What is happiness?”
She read numerous books and articles on the topic: Ben Tal Shahar, Victor Frankl, Jeff Sutherland, and more. She conducted a social experiment with her soccer team trying to improve their performance through weekly happiness exercises. She also weaved a “happiness” blanket on the loom (there is a loom at the PSII).
In a traditional high school, her learning would have been broken into English, Science, and Studio Arts. She would have had no opportunity to connect the dots, as each subject area is totally cut off from the other. Instead, she would have been reading “Lord of the Flies” in English while being lectured in Science. She would have been learning unrelated subject matter, with no unity of knowledge.
Let people learn what they want to learn. Why not?
As we guide a student through a large inquiry, we are allowing the individual to make choices in their own learning. Naturally, as they dig into areas of interest, more questions will arise. Setting a curriculum creates a mandated set of outcomes, and blocks the ability for lateral movement in learning. This is a massive problem when one considers how fast knowledge is being created today.
When presenting the PSII model to both the government and the public, by far the biggest hurdle to overcome is: no curriculum. In actuality, there is a curriculum, but it is co-constructed from what the learner really wants to do, under supervision of a teacher. It is not assigned by a teacher. Or a government. It is not just differentiation from one particular topic or subject.
A student identifies an area of inquiry such as:
“How can I make an original film?”
There are many avenues to explore: script writing, camera work, rehearsals, editing, etc. Through digging into the research, this learner may uncover some piece of knowledge that they were completely unaware of and then take off in an entirely new direction. This is an emergent curriculum. It is responsive to what the learner needs in real time.
Facilitating learning outside of one’s area of expertise is a requirement in this approach that many practitioners have little to no experience with. It is an art form to guide kids in building their own curriculum. One of the best examples of emergent curriculum that I was engaged in went on for 2 years.
The first year, one of my students, Liam, started working with Arduinos (microcontrollers). It is amazing what can be created in your garage these days. Liam ran through the entire “how to” book in a flash and from it, extrapolated some incredible lessons that catapulted him into a unique set of engineering problems.
I connected him with Limbic Media, a local, unique, specialized engineering firm. From there, they gave him a light strip of LEDs to play with. And did he ever! Everyone at the school was huddled around the table with the LEDs running and flashing in cool patterns.
This then led into developing a sensored doorbell for Limbic Media’s offices and shop. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was actually a challenging engineering project. Liam and the team did it. Simultaneously, they were working on sensors to light up a pair of old school tourist binoculars for VIATEC (a local tech incubator). Limbic Media recommended us. So, we got to work on another cool project.
The following year, we strongly ramped up production tackling a sensors unit for an urban aquaponics farm as well as partnering again with VIATEC to create sound reactive light cubes. Both of these projects were extremely complicated. The aquaponics unit required tremendous problem solving; water is a tricky medium to work with. The sensor was critical in ensuring the pumps were working properly and constantly monitoring water levels and temperature that sent a heartbeat to a website notifying the owner if there was trouble with the system. That is not an easy project for a teenager to tackle, but Liam and a few others did an amazing job.
At the same time, Liam was the lead on developing the cubes which was also a challenging engineering problem: everything from developing the boards and getting them built in China to engraving the acrylic to perfecting the algorithm to learning how to work in a team and evolve a startup. VIATEC gave us $3000 to develop six of them. We succeeded.
This is arguably the greatest example of emergent curriculum that has happened to me in my teaching career so far. Most education systems are still mired in content and outcomes. Liam and I had many deep discussions about what education should be. Sometimes, he would get frustrated with the inquiry based model, but I would always ask him if he would have got to do this learning in a traditional high school. The answer was always no. He would have had to take computer programming, electronics (if offered), physics, and…? There is not a course out there that could cover what he accomplished.
For the future of education, it is imperative that there is no set curriculum. Of course, there can and should be competencies to excel at and be assessed in, but placing limits on what an individual can or should learn is handicapping society.
Not everyone is up for this kind of challenge, but the ones who are should be allowed to run as far and as fast as they can; innovation happens at the edges. There needs to be more than one way to graduate. Universities need to open to representing one’s learning path through more than just a standard transcript. I see no logical reason to oppose having multiple ways to graduate. There are numerous educational paths out there that are based on decades of documented evidence for their efficacy. Let’s use them. The world has changed. Anything can be accessed via the internet. Let kids explore where their natural inclinations flow.
What follows are pages of unedited work (not professionally anyway).
Co-construction of Learning
Many people think that an open inquiry approach means that it is self-directed. This is not true. It is about co-construction with a teacher. I believe that this is where the sweet spot is for learning; it is the flow, or the zone of proximal development. It is vastly easier to get into a state of flow when you are pursuing the things you want to instead of being forced into a silo that you did not choose.
There is no longer a need to stand and deliver a mandated curriculum. Instead, learning is done together simultaneously. The role of the teacher must switch to being the chief learner. It requires being nimble, responsive, iterative, with a strong sense of initiative to be able to see what each person actually needs in their learning. It is so much more impactful, especially because it is totally personalized to the learner and that individual discovers so much that is important to their life.
For example, I had a student with an interesting idea for an app that is about to go into development. He researched and documented every single social media app out there and took screen shots of all the pages and links, studied them, and found a weakness in the market. Working with a team that he contracted from India, he made professional looking mock ups and began pitching. Not bad for a grade 12 kid. As we progressed through the year, we constantly met, and I steered him to as many resources, literature, and possibilities as I could. He learned agile development, project management, leadership, business models, copywriting, branding, sales, marketing, networking, and more.
This is co-construction of learning. I was able to respond to his needs in real time. I was able to recommend books, introduce him to important people, have deep conversations, and lead through example of how to create a startup. Open inquiry, interdisciplinary, emergent curriculum, and co-construction of learning. This is the education needed for today.
Learning Happens Outside of School Walls
Learning does not just happen inside of school walls. We know this is not true. Learning happens everywhere. One of the least known powers of a teacher is the ability to do assessments for prior learning. This means, that kids can actually bring their life into the school. Most kids have a rich, diverse life outside of school.
For example, one of my students just competed in a sword fighting competition at the Highland Games. He learned a lot. He takes classes 2/week in traditional European martial arts. He has written about the history of the sword. He has read 12 books of a 30 book fantasy series. He is learning circus skills and trains at the gym constantly. Typically, none of this would count in school. It is ridiculous.
I have a student who wants to be a filmmaker. He volunteers at a local TV station shooting on location and in the studio learning how to become a professional in his field at 15. He is not physically at the school. Is he learning? Of course. This is the authentic learning we should all be striving for in our education system. School should be the most innovative place on the planet. It should be the main connector of establishing virtuous circles in communities. Not make work projects; actual things that the community needs that are entrepreneurial and economically viable. This will look different in every community based on specific needs but I firmly believe that it can be applied anywhere.
For example, right above the school is a video game development studio called Blastworks. One year, every Wednesday afternoon, a group of kids would go up to learn and do QA (Quality Assurance) testing on a few of their games. They learned how to find and document bugs as well as give critical feedback on game play and enjoyability. They got to experience what it is really like to work in a studio and do real work.
I believe that every school needs to fully engage its entire community in real social projects. There is no reason why a high school kid cannot do this; it is a key component to revitalizing many of our rural areas in BC and throughout the world.
Entrepreneurship does not have to mean just business. To me, it means getting out there and making things happen. As an entrepreneur myself, I constantly learn and study past and future trends, best practices in use, how they are evolving, developing startups, and much more. I feel that I am on the cutting edge of where things are going.
And where they are going for our high school students is forging their own pathways. Who believes that the job for life with a fully allocated pension is still intact? It is now global competition with a leveled playing field. Our kids need to be equipped for this. Which is why I so strongly believe in teaching entrepreneurship.
For example, I have multiple students who are high level writers. We should encourage them to submit work everywhere; learn to hustle and get articles published. Or take a freelancing gig doing some copywriting and start to build a reputation that allows them to work from anywhere on Earth. High school is a low pressure environment to experiment in. It is advantageous for young adults to try as many paths as possible before it becomes a high pressure situation where rent is due.
I taught a student like this. He streamlined his brand and was making money as a designer. He was involved in numerous teams learning how to work with others and negotiate which included managing forums for getting jobs. At one point, this learner was developing work that had the potential to earn $40,000 in competition funds. It is truly amazing the niche markets that are being created today (lookup Valve). He is learning how to become an excellent designer, both technically and artistically through constant practice.
I fully advocate for entrepreneur residences in schools. I have been able to bring in accomplished entrepreneurs to work with my students. For example, I brought in one of the cities best social entrepreneurs, and in one conversation, he was able to give a significant idea to that app building student mentioned above. Imagine 10 more of those conversations? If even one of their ideas makes it big, it could create hundreds of jobs for the local economy.
Recently, I read that entrepreneurship is about being able to fully express oneself. I like that. And I agree. I think it is valuable for teenagers to learn. For example, I had numerous kids making films and learning the production process. I wanted them to really hustle after it was in the can. I wanted them to know how to get it out there ensuring that they understood that one’s luck is proportionally increased the more connections that one makes in the world. I did not want them to just sit back on their accomplishment and think that accolades and future opportunities were just going to come waltzing through. Discussing and sharing one’s work with the world offers a tremendous opportunity to learn deeper about the whys of a person’s craft and their compulsion to spend countless hours doing it. This way, they begin to truly understand their place and how they can contribute to making a dent in the universe. That is what entrepreneurship allows.
Imagine having kids go through a 4 year entrepreneur cycle in high school? The things that would emerge from that? Imagine unleashing 100 of these kids on the local community? I cannot think of a greater form of self-expression for a town or city. Since we human beings are having a large negative impact on our natural environment, it behooves us to become exceptionally creative. This starts with allowing kids the necessary self-expression to learn the skills to build THEIR ideas.
I see no reason why a motivated group of kids cannot learn the skills to work in most industries in a 4 year timeframe (from grade 9–12). Not everyone is capable of this, and that is fine. But for the ones who are, some amazing things could be accomplished. I have proof. I have already been doing it and have numerous examples.
One of the best examples that I helped develop was a piece of software with the working title, “Artify”. We again worked closely with Limbic Media, and their head director, Manj, became our product owner. As much as possible, we worked in true Scrum (Agile Engineering), more than any other team that I have worked with in high school. I was the scrummaster, and I learned a lot myself about team processes and the vital importance of retrospectives, daily stand ups, sprints, breaking down tasks and reviewing them. It is so simple and simultaneously, so hard.
The team got to mvp (minimum viable product) by year end. It was a big accomplishment for a small team of high school students. The plan was to go into alpha at the beginning of the following year. We were just about to test it when the motivation to continue fell through due to questioning if the platform had viability. The team felt it didn’t (I thought it definitely still did!).
Every single kid on this project learned so much. They have all said so themselves. What is most important to me is that they learned how important and powerful a small team can be
Collectively, they wrote over 16,000 lines of code, did hundreds of mock ups, QA, and much more. They had to work through so many technical challenges and truly learned how to develop not just a piece of software, but a platform. I cannot think of a greater learning experience for the times we live in. Most importantly though, they learned how to work together as a team. Human problems are much trickier than technical problems. In every organization, it always comes down to talented leadership. If I can instill how to really work together, how to step up and lead from wherever they may be, it is the greatest thing I can do for society as whole as they are going to leave school and know how to make this happen.
I strongly believe in allowing people to learn whatever they want to learn. Personalized learning can produce tremendous results.
Most education systems are not yet practicing this. It is tough. While it is really good for the kids, it is really challenging for the teachers. I don’t believe that there is one specific way to implement personalized learning, but from my perspective, initial structure is critical.
The reason being is that each individual kid is on their own path and needing personal, authentic assessment is a huge task. In terms of assessment alone, this is what a typical day looks like:
- Discuss an inquiry on Terrorism and compare it to traditional warfare. Help the student develop his academic writing. He has improved so much with this one on one attention. His communication and writing abilities have made noticeable improvement.
- Discuss in depth, the book, “No Bankers in Heaven” about the the history of the NDP party. I will be assessing this learner’s historical and political analysis.
- Compare cults and religions and their effects on society. Tomorrow, we discuss Dianetics by Ron L Hubbard, the founder of Scientology (I just assessed a journalistic piece on the origins of Scientology from her last week. Crazy stuff, I learned a lot). I will be assessing her research skills.
- Do a run through of a video game being created in Unity to ensure its quality as we will be showing it to a local gaming studio next week to try and get this learner an internship.
- I could go on and on…
It sounds exciting — changing all the time. And it is interesting, but it leaves the teacher with having to be super nimble, switching gears constantly. I have personally found it difficult. Most days, I am rapidly going through multiple lines of inquiry, one after the other. It can leave me mentally exhausted.
However, this has made me an expert facilitator. I feel that I can facilitate any learning that any student wishes to pursue. This is one of the keys to being able to do personalized learning system wide. Teachers have to be taught to not be siloed inside of one or two subject areas, but have the skills to take on anything that the learner wants to tackle, even if that is outside of their areas of expertise. The teacher should be the chief learner. That is their role now. It is a paradigm shift that may take a considerable amount of time to change, but it is absolutely necessary to move the system forward.
Not everyone should be required to learn the same mandated curriculum. Diverse areas in a country need the flexibility to facilitate their region’s strengths. For the most part, the content is not what is important, it is the skills underneath that we wish to see our students develop. We all want them to be great communicators both in speaking and writing, think critically, be creative, and responsible. The content to build these skills should be left open to the individual. This is possible if we shift from assessing the work to competencies instead of courses.
Below are the competencies that we used at PSII. To me, they are a suggestion and I believe while needing to have universal skills sets, assessment also needs to have the flexibility to allow for interpretation of each region’s needs. Through my own practice, I have also interpreted them in my own way, building my teaching practice, playing to my strengths. I have spent most of my time focused on creativity, collaboration, physical literacy, cultural awareness, and instilling responsibility.
Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening
The fundamentals. Students should be writing and reading weekly. The goal is constant improvement. Whatever they wish to pursue, it is the teacher’s job to coach them to the highest levels possible. If the learner is a poet, then we push the limits of the language and the performance. We connect them with professional poets. If they write screenplays – exactly the same.
No matter what though, the goal is to strive to become an expert communicator. Those who succinctly communicate their vision get many more opportunities than those who do not. This is always my motivating “go to” phrase when I meet reluctant writers/readers.
Students need to think scientifically. They need to conduct experiments and interpret data. The scientific method is applied to not only hard sciences, but can be applied to any inquiry. It is an essential skill to develop critical reasoning abilities. Again though, the curriculum is not important. It is the skill underneath it. If someone wants to do water sampling, go for it. If another person wants to do a psychology experiment on color because they are striving to be artists – let them. It is about applying the scientific method – mandated outcomes are not relevant.
What we found in 4 years of practicing open inquiry at PSII is that higher level Math can be difficult to integrate into learner’s questions. We have a separate class to teach these bigger mathematical concepts that most students were not getting through their own inquiry.
We have also found this true for languages as it is hard to learn a language solely through inquiry. Math is a language and we have had separate classes for both.
Math is beautiful. Thinking mathematically is another critical skill. It does not need to be high level Engineering Math. Ultimately, it should be tied into inquiry just like everything else. Statistics for most students as it could literally be adapted to any inquiry and has a wide range of practical applications.
There are a lot of students out there who have no idea how to truly collaborate. In my opinion, it is the most important skill to leave high school with. Nothing, absolutely nothing, beats a team rowing in the same direction. Most kids that I have taught have never had the practice. This has been the most important work that I have done over the last 4 years with the students.
Facilitating this learning is what I constantly try to do. I will never stop trying to get teams of kids working together to create something of incredible value that not one of them could have done on their own.
I introduce them to team work principles and processes. For the most part, I try to be as hands off as possible to let them make their own mistakes and solve their own problems. I struggle with not directing the entire thing. It is hard to watch them mess things up, get unmotivated, and see negativity rise. I step in when it is essential to do so and I am always there to guide it.
Sometimes the individuals within the team cannot gel; the team dynamic is so askew that the amount of mental energy required to keep it from flying apart is just not worth it. Sometimes, it is important to also just let it go. I trust that even if the project does not work, a film, a play, software, etc…that they have learned how to work together, how to stay positive throughout the creative process, and how to forgive not only their teammates faults, but their own as well. This is massive learning that happens at different times for everyone which also contributes to the difficulty of team dynamics (especially with hormonal teenagers who have little to no worldly experience).
Collaboration is the major skill deficit that I see in society. We have all been a part of teams that cannot get it together. I strongly believe that having a synced team who are all helping each other is the biggest advantage in the world today. I want our young ones to leave high school knowing how to really collaborate — to know how to not pursue only their agenda, but support the objectives of their teammates too.
I believe leadership is the key determinant in how high an individual will rise in life. If a person with leadership level 5 skill, is being led by someone at level 2, it never works. A level 2 leader cannot lead level 5s. To get the most interesting work, be in demand, and have more freedom, I believe it is critical to develop each student’s leadership ability.
It is always easy to pull leadership examples from sports. I was in charge of the physical activity at the school. PSII is an environment where the kids organize their schedule. Many decide to organize exercise right out of their day. I spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to motivate students to make healthy choices.
The main solution that I came to is that it is imperative that I develop leaders and encourage peer to peer collaboration. I did my best to match highly motivated, physically experienced individuals with their friends who are not there yet. They need practice — both the kids who are not working on their physicality and the leaders that I am trying to develop. The problem is, is that it is difficult to develop a leader. Experience is the best teacher, and for most kids, it can take years to build this skill. I had both successes and failures. For me, it circles back to the fact that the greatest thing I can do for both the individual student and society as a whole is try to make leaders who will in turn make more leaders, and so on and so on.
Critical and Creative Thinking
Again, these are the fundamentals. We all want our kids to be deep thinkers and creative makers. This competency closely ties into the learning activities that the student’s decide on and the teacher’s role in facilitating projects so that students can consistently grow. They should be asking deep questions about rich subjects that matter to them. Teachers should be asking students to defend positions, analyze information, scrutinize arguments, and make important decisions. The projects and the assessments can take many forms that teachers should be entrusted to do. Standardized testing is not necessary.
As an artist, I absolutely love being in creation – whether it be with professionals or amateurs, it is just so rewarding for me. In the last 4 years, I have been able to create some awesome projects with the students; everything from films to aquaponics to software. It has allowed me to further my own artistic endeavors increasing my skills. This is exactly what I want to see in a system: positive feedback loops. Teachers are improving themselves and their students at the same time through co-constructed projects. It is not the teacher doing the same material year after year.
Cultural Awareness and Understanding
I have a degree in East Asian studies, lived in Asia for years, and my wife is Japanese. I love world cultures and history.
I realize that I am sounding like a broken record but students should have no limiting factors on the content they wish to pursue. If they want to study North Korea, let them study North Korea. Not everyone needs to learn about (or cares about) the Canadian gold rush. I personally love that stuff, but I have taught many students who absolutely did not love it and would have been much happier studying North Korea. In an open inquiry school, you let them study North Korea. It is the processes underneath – the awareness of the world’s history, looking at trends, great figures, and significant events.
Personal Responsibility and Planning
This is the competency that makes all of the other competencies work. Human Beings must take responsibility for their own learning now. They must plan their schedule, their learning activities, their physical exercise time, meetings with other students and teachers, and much more.
We all want kids to leave high school having strong personal discipline to make their ideas, careers, and lives happen. It is a large skill that most students have not practiced well. In most schools, one does not have to think. Bell rings, shuffle to next class. Teacher hands out assignments. Bell rings…
…In an open inquiry school, the goal is to have total learning freedom for the student. Most kids need A LOT of help with this competency. I have worked so hard to make this happen over the last 4 years. Again, I have had successes and failures.
Physicality is extremely important. We all want to have healthy children. Perhaps the most significant aspect of getting exercise is that it releases dopamine which makes you happy.
As an athlete myself, I find it personally rewarding working with the kids to get them stronger.
Human beings have become sedentary. There is the danger of kids getting lazy, sitting in front of screens all day. I have seen it happen. Human beings are creatures of habit. They will sit in the same place and follow familiar routines. This compounds significantly with anxious high school kids. In the spirit of adventure, students must be pushed out of their comfort zones. That is how they will truly grow.
Sitting all day in the same place is not a healthy habit. Human beings did not evolve to do so. It is critical to develop good physical habits young as they will carry through a lifetime and have far reaching benefits.
I know that some can be intimidated by going to the gym. All these big guys, lifting big weights. I can see it. Fine. Don’t go the gym. Run around the park instead. Play racket ball. Hit the climbing gym. But do it. I believe that learning how to move one’s body and develop strength is equally as important as learning how to defend a thesis or develop a hypothesis.
The Role of the Teacher
We are all up against something. Some of us more than others. The question then becomes, how hard can I push an individual to perform to their highest levels?
It is an art form. I have definitely pushed too hard at times. However, I would rather err on the side of pushing too hard than not pushing enough. PSII has a large proportion of kids with high anxiety or some other challenge. This has made me more careful in my coaching practice, but in no way has this stopped me from trying to get human beings to reach their potential.
There are a number of people who are just not in any place at all to be even nudged in the smallest way, let alone pushed to excel. Just coming to school for some is a challenge. OK, but once they walk through the door, get comfortable, what is next? Human beings are 60% water — water follows the path of least resistance. Many people cannot push themselves and take the easy route. They need external help. I am that help.
Of course, this is delicate. Too much, too soon is not helpful at all. But the reverse is also true: too little, too late, is also counterproductive. It is a balancing act.
No matter who the person is, I believe that humans are far more capable than we think ourselves to be. Most kids have been beaten down by the system. It is amazing. I was a lousy student in high school. My rebelliousness was untameable. The older I get, the more I am able to see how valuable that was. School could not even come close to breaking me. Bad grades, crap teachers, the principal’s office, suspensions…nothing could break my spirit. I am not sure where I developed that or if it is genetic, but I am so thankful that I got it as I have now witnessed countless kids be broken by a ridiculously outdated system throughout 10 years of teaching.
My fire cannot be squelched. It is my role in society to light others — particularly young people. I am not OK with just leaving people to their own devices and letting them choose when they are ready. Some will never make the choice. I have seen it happen. I have seen many broken ones, but I still believe deep down that everyone has the ability to rise up and be more than they are now. They need someone to believe in them. That is what I do.
It is amazing to see what someone can accomplish when a teacher fully believes in their capacity for greatness (whatever that means to the individual). Most recently, I have been working closely with a student who suffers from heavy depression and anxiety. She can’t even order a coffee at Starbucks unless there is a line so she can take her time in deciding what to get. Being put on the spot is debilitating. But she has incredible skills.
She wants to be a makeup artist. She wants to live in LA and work in Hollywood. She is articulate and gets things done. I could have babied her, knowing her background, but no, I have demanded the best from her. I have high expectations and I have pushed her to work at her limits. That means that I must do everything in my power to see her succeed. It means that I must be the example. I must show her that what I am asking of her, the standards that I am holding her to, I am also holding myself to. We are in it together — we are co-constructing our future side by side.
It does not feel good to not accomplish things. It feels really good to make progress and grow. At the end of the school year, I want kids to look back on the year and see how far they have come. That will be different for every person. I do not care where they start, but I seriously care where they finish. If they finish where they started, well, then I have not done my job to the best of my ability. They may hate me. They may curse me for working them and pushing them into uncomfortable places. But that is how we grow. We do not grow by sitting in the same seat, doing the same thing, being with the same safe people. To me, that is not learning. We learn by facing fear, testing our limits, and getting things done that we did not think possible.
The Fruit is Sweet, but the Roots are Bitter
We all want our kids to graduate high school with a tremendous skill set that they can apply to anything of their choosing. We want them to be responsible for their lives and learning; to have total freedom to follow any line of inquiry. This is the sweet fruit.
But for the fruit to grow, there must be strong roots. And often times, those roots can be bitter. It is essential to get the foundation before the freedom. It is not possible to be a jazz musician without having learned the basics. Structure is required to set the individual free. It is paradoxical.
In order for a jazz musician to improvise at will, the person has had to be disciplined and persevere through the long hours of learning the mechanics. It is the same with inquiry. It is not possible to set students free without a strong grounding. First, they must be anchored to learning how to communicate effectively, listen to others, present their work, and other critical competencies.
Structure is needed for open inquiry to thrive. To have total learning freedom by grade 12 is the goal. Some may never get there. Others may get there earlier. But everyone needs a foundation.
First Things First – Digitize
Go paperless immediately. Every student gets a laptop. It is just how work gets done these days. Information is being created at too rapid of a pace for textbooks. Massive disruption is happening in every single industry. The kids absolutely must have a laptop for school now.
While kids are digital natives, I have found over the last four years that there are still large discrepancies of skill with technology; some kids are geniuses and others still can’t manage their own files. Use of technology is only increasing and should be heavily encouraged.
There needs to be freedom to access the wifi – but it needs to be monitored. More on this later.
It truly is amazing what can be learned and created with a single laptop these days.
All students must demonstrate learning through an online portfolio. PSII built their own, but there are numerous options readily available. Check out Mahara.
It is really important to have a well-designed dashboard for easy access to all the student’s work. This is where they capture all of their learning.
By the end of grade 12, they should have a rich tapestry of selected works to apply to either post secondary institutions, or go straight into an industry. At the moment, for post secondary, transcripts and grades are the cornerstone of admissions. I believe a portfolio is a better approach, but will be difficult to execute.
Grades are imperfect. What is the difference between an 81 and an 84? I personally can’t see one. Especially when that learning is assessed in a grade book, added up and then divided by the number of assignments. That is just about as old school as it gets and I still see it happening.
Either way, a strong portfolio can help get high school students into the right place more quickly by allowing each individual to share with professors and other faculty.
It is absolutely invaluable in industry, especially in the emergent gig economy. This is the trend of work. Moving from project to project rather than a long term position with one employer. It requires nimbleness.
In order to get these gigs, it is vital to have a rich portfolio of sample work.
The Inquiry Process
- Initial questions
- More questions
- Learning Activity
Please go to the PSII website and download this document and process.
Trello to Teach Project Management Skills
For students to be most successful in an inquiry based approach, they need to be taught project management skills and understand the importance of being accountable for their actions. This requires weekly organization meetings to teach the skills necessary (more on that next).
Use Trello – or an equivalent. It is so easy to use. Again, it is critical to have a dashboard of all the students that can be looked at and accessed in an instant.
Strong structure is required at the start – particularly in grades 9 and 10. The goal is to move everyone into being a free, open learner by grade 12. There are many skills required to get to this level and are not usually acquired by students on their own. They must be guided first – especially when their brain’s are still cognitively developing.
We need kids to start taking responsibility for their learning early. Most have never had the experience to do so. Most of the time, it is the teacher telling and planning and assessing. In an inquiry model, students have to ask their own questions. This then needs to be guided to develop the underlying skills and competencies that will allow them to be free and open learners.
Thus, Trello. Teach kids professional project management skills immediately.
In an open inquiry setting, where students can follow any learning path they wish, it is absolutely essential to have at least one organizational meeting per week to ensure that they are planning responsibly.
This is a huge skill that sometimes has some cognitive development impairment. However, it is my belief that there is no reason why a 14 year old should not be responsible for their own learning. It is an important skill. To be honest, it might be the most important skill there is. I know many adults who still can’t plan their lives properly. The sooner we get our young adults planning and being accountable for themselves, the greater advantage they will have in their careers. Spoon feeding kids throughout the entirety of high school is counterproductive. Go here. Bell rings. Go there. Bell rings. Do this assignment. Test on Monday.
No. Instead, we must teach them proper project management skills with the ability to meet deadlines. This discipline is absolutely critical and must accompany the level of freedom that is given.
Organization meetings are the time to update their portfolios. Students should have at least 3-5 posts about their work that week. Teachers need to leave comments on those posts and students must reply. Peers should be encouraged to do so too. This is a powerful form of assessment. I believe it is vital now for the world to see individuals processes. Demonstrating how one responds to feedback and showing dedicated levels of improvement is incredibly valuable for future prospects. It is also great for parents as they can see their child’s work in progress and not have to wait for some random number on a report card a few times a year. They can actually see their child’s work with the teacher and their personal development weekly. Again, powerful stuff.
The organization meeting should also entail valuable processes that are guided by a teacher. Remember, one of the keys to inquiry based learning is co-construction with a teacher, it is not self-directed. This is a fluid process and while ideas should be shared within the teaching team for what is needed at the moment, there also needs to be flexibility for teachers to develop their own professional practice and be able to respond to their own groups as they see fit.
One on One Meetings
After organization meetings, the next critical piece is to structure one on one time with students. The challenge I have found with this is time; there is only so much of it in the day. Meetings can be long, and they are effective but also highly inefficient.
Because of their efficacy though, they must be done. It is a required support in an inquiry based environment as one of the main values is personalized learning. While there are similarities that emerge as students find common interests together, everyone is following their own path through to graduation.
High school students need guidance in developing their inquiry and their work. I am constantly having one on one meetings facilitating the areas that they are passionate about. It requires a fair amount of mental agility. However, I think it is far more exciting for a professional teacher to be working alongside students, helping them achieve their own goals rather than lecturing at the front of class for 45 minutes – usually about something the kids care little about.
Structure is needed. Instead of exam week, it is reserved for meetings, defenses, and assessment one on one with a teacher. Or two teachers to one learner if staffing/budget allow.
Students are expected to present, discuss, defend theses, demonstrate deep thinking and be assessed on it. This all goes into their portfolio and to me, shows a far greater picture of the individual than a grade on a final exam.
Presenting and Defending Work
Like High Tech High of San Diego, I strongly believe in students presenting and defending their work to not only the teachers or school, but to the public at large. There is nothing quite like having to be accountable for your work to the “real world” and not just some teacher or standardized test for motivating people. It puts a good pressure on them to develop their paths of inquiry throughout the year and explore it in as many facets as possible.
This makes it meaningful by its very nature. Some may be defending a position in global politics. Others may be presenting an engineering feat. There is always a performance.
Not everything will succeed. That is good. Failure is important and should be embraced. Of course, we all want to do our best. Sometimes, the horizon of teenagers is limited. In collaborative work especially, interpersonal challenges arise. Sometimes the team dynamic isn’t there. Things happen.
Good. Learn. Grow. Be transparent.
Feedback is given through both discussion as well as a post in their portfolio. To me, this is some of the most powerful, authentic form of assessment out there and is incredibly helpful to the student as it can literally be applied to anything. They can take it with them everywhere. They can demonstrate improvement over time.
It provides critical practice in speaking, reasoning, researching, and all the other important skills that we want our young adults to leave high school with.
The breakneck pace of innovation at the moment is unprecedented in human history. It fascinates me to no end. There is no way that a set of textbooks could possibly keep up with the knowledge creation that is happening. A laptop is the essential learning tool today – not a textbook.
This then means that there needs to be access to wifi. For me, it is necessary to provide unlimited access. The kids can literally walk across the street to a cafe and look at anything they want. That said, in my experience, the biggest problem is with bandwidth. This does have to be monitored. School is not the place to be pirating software or streaming Netflix.
Ultimately, it comes back to the value of constructing learning. It is truly amazing what can be done these days. It is time to move away from top down feeding, to bottom up inquiry and guidance.
Textbooks are poor creators of knowledge. On a laptop, I can make an infographic, blog post, video, podcast, photo shopped awesome thing to represent my learning of an area of interest that I have been researching. All represented in their portfolio that they can use to apply to anything.
I have not worked out the numbers, but I am pretty sure that all the textbooks a student needs throughout high school would quite easily equal one laptop.
One laptop per student and open access to wifi are key components to an inquiry based school as well as necessary ingredients to pursue innovation in our current, advanced, and getting more advanced, technological world.
Assessment: Observation, Discussion, Product
Through my research at PSII, we came across a piece of software that Manitoba was going to be implementing for the province.
It did not work for us, but their assessment practice was excellent. Assessment of kids should include all 3 of these areas captured again through their portfolio.
Observe what they do, how responsible they are, how they collaborate. Get the students to write about it. Assess it in competencies instead of courses: personal planning, leadership, etc…
Discuss what they have been learning. Again, make note of it in their portfolios. I have had some amazing deep learning experiences with students over the last 4 years through conversation. Now that I think about it, this is probably the most useful form of assessment that I have ever done.
Product. I personally love product. All products involve processes. They are inseparable. Building something that people can hold in their hands, present, or interact with in some way is just so satisfying. It is invaluable to learn how to produce high quality things.
This practice is ongoing and rarely summative. Student learning does not culminate in unit exam multiple choice tests. It is authentic and emergent — driven from where their path leads (guided by a teacher!). I strongly feel that this is such a powerful way to get the most learning out of a person and give them effective feedback. It is also highly rewarding and thoroughly enjoyable.
The problem is in its inefficiency as most of this happens one on one and relies on mentally nimble teachers. It is difficult to scale one on one. If we change the way we assess in school though, we capture more learning and give our kids way more chances of improving.
Proper implementation is critical to avoid slipping back into old school practices. It is necessary to make it abundantly clear that the entire inquiry process itself is what is being assessed: formulating questions, doing deep research, and representing the learning. All of these areas should be assessed and need to be posted on their portfolio.
Part of this process is matching student’s planning with their output. This is where the connection between Trello and their portfolio becomes useful. Teachers can match the Trello cards that students have archived with the posts that they have written (or the equivalent learning activity). From experience, most kids have little to no ability to do this and require a lot of practice in learning this skill. We need to teach kids how to plan their work and break it down into smaller tasks. They then need to turn that planning into something tangible. Again, all of this needs to be assessed along the way. If it is not, students will feel that it is not important and the level of both planning and output go down (I have seen it).
It is important to link learning activities with student inquiry. Often times, this does not come naturally and I have seen learners spin their wheels in a research phase for a long time.
It is critical to move them along the path, out of research and into representing their learning.
This can take a multitude of forms. Obviously, writing and communicating are foundational skills and should always be required. In my opinion, a great teacher asks for one writing piece per week. It is an essential skill.
That said, now, there are so many ways to represent learning. I personally love infographics. I especially love video. It is phenomenal the level of technology available to create highly professional video. I would really like kids to explore the use of a green screen. It is highly effective media which is what they should be learning today. Incredible, visual stories and themes can be created. There is always the potential to go viral. Get noticed. Mave waves. Be offered new adventures. Get paid.
This is a key component of an inquiry based school: co-construction of learning with a teacher. Not lecturing – discussion. Not teacher fed assignments – collaborate on projects that come from the grassroots – the students.
Scrum, Agile, and Lean in School
If you are unfamiliar with Scrum, Agile, or Lean principles, I strongly encourage you to look them up. They are incredibly useful methodologies that are responsive to our hyper evolving world. I have used all of them with high school students.
Scrum is the most effective team process that I have experienced so far in my professional career. It is challenging to do true scrum in a high school setting, but many of the principles can be applied, particularly when co-creating projects.
What I really like about it, is that work gets reviewed every 2 weeks, all team responsibilities are known, tasks are broken down, and there is a short, daily standup meeting to synch the day’s efforts.
The retrospectives (2 week reviews) are particularly useful. In my experience, what I have found is that it is almost never a technical problem holding up the team, more often than not, it is a human problem. I have seen technical problems get fixed in 2 weeks. I have seen human problems go on for years.
Every 2 weeks (or 1 or 3 weeks – whatever the team decides), everyone must confront their work. I like that a lot. Everything exposed (again, mostly human problems) on a regular basis is perhaps the most helpful thing for a team to do. I have seen both progression and regression. The ultimate goal, my biggest expectations are for an entire team of high school kids to improve 1000% year over year. I have not been able to achieve this feat yet, but I will never give up trying to make it happen.
My moonshot is to be able to apply this idea to an entire system. Imagine how far advanced society would be if teams of kids learned how to collaborate effectively to improve 1000% every year in public school? Impossible task? Perhaps, but that will not stop me from trying to introduce it everywhere.
Everyone is Agile these days. For good reasons. I have been applying its principles to all of my creative projects and I feel it provides excellent learning results. It is useful when applied in a high school setting.
At its core, Agile is:
Not a methodology! The Agile movement seeks alternatives to traditional project management. Agile approaches help teams respond to unpredictability through incremental, iterative work cadences and empirical feedback. Agilists propose alternatives to waterfall, or traditional sequential development.
This is the fundamental idea behind executing a successful scrum team. I believe that it is the way public education needs to go. Moving away from delivering the mandated outcomes, to being responsive to what the environment and students need, and being flexible to experiment and change as new information is acquired or created. This is the learning that mirrors the world we now live in.
It has been interesting to develop my entrepreneurial skills alongside the students. As much as possible, I have done my best to pull them into my professional endeavors so that they could experience it. Experience is by far the best teacher.
The kids need to know now what it means to be part of a team and how to contribute effectively. It is better to fail at it in high school where the pressure is extremely low, than in the “real world” where pressure is much higher. Agile allows for the flexibility of lateral movement when things eventually go sideways. I love its adaptability to nearly any circumstance in a learning environment and it is an important, fundamental component to being able to facilitate open inquiry in high school.
Closely related to both Scrum and Agile are Lean principles. Lean is about creating as much value as possible with as little resources as possible. It is about doing small experiments, seeing what works, learning, and then making the next decisions. This is helpful in an open inquiry school where a teacher has numerous projects on the go with students whose outcomes are not yet known.
Straddling 2 Systems
For the last 4 years, I have had to navigate between trying to move the education system to a new model while simultaneously having to report in the old one.
It has been a major challenge. The biggest problem with it is that the old system is still the way all kids need to graduate in this province (BC) and it is what all post secondary institutions still require. That puts a drag on innovation in learning.
The year always started off fine. We let the kids do open inquiry and delve into their passions. This usually went well. There are always some who don’t know where their interests lie, but with a little prodding, most students slot into something quickly. It might take them awhile to really find something deep, but nearly everyone that I have worked with finds an area of interest that they can sink their teeth into.
Then come report cards. As we were still required to report to the Ministry of Education (it is where half of the funding came from), we had to take all of the learning that happened and repackage it back into mandated courses that are needed to graduate. Inevitably, this is the moment where everyone freaks out and reverts back to the old system of courses, grades, and outcomes. It is difficult to innovate when we are tied into one way of doing things. It is necessary to innovate at the edges, experiment, and see how it filters back into the mainstream.
I had to wrestle with the kids, convincing them that inquiry is the way to go. Learn what you want to learn. Some did. Most were still largely suspicious because they know that they had to finish English 12, or Socials 11, or Math 10 to graduate. I assured them not to worry, if they are doing true inquiry and hitting all of the competencies, they will indeed manage to hit the courses and graduate. Mostly. We were still locked down with mandated content that everyone must learn. Why?
The only work arounds I had were IDS (Independent Directed Studies) and assessment for prior learning. I can turn anything into an IDS, as long as it relates to established curriculum. This has allowed me to create courses (and give credits) based on a single outcome in a pre-existing course. For example, I am able to take the “Start a Venture” outcome out of Entrepreneurship 12 and turn that into a full course. I have done it for countless areas: Psychology, Digital Media, Coding, Writing, Web Development, and many more. It was incredibly useful to capture the learning that the kids were doing and straddle the 2 systems.
Assessment for prior learning was also very valuable in helping me innovate. We all know that learning doesn’t happen just inside school walls. It happens everywhere. We want learning to be a seamless part of kids’ lives; not just come to school, study, and then leave and think that there is no learning going on. All teachers have the power to assess anything that kids do outside of the school and give them credit for it. I have now done hundreds of these assessments. It allowed me to innovate as much as I possible. A student who leads and represents his nation in a cross cultural exchange in a foreign country while running into numerous unforeseen problems deserves to get credit for Social Studies.
Self-Motivation Really is the Most Important Lesson in an Open Inquiry Environment
Being able to make things happen for oneself is the most valuable skill: to push through when the going gets hard, to personally meet goals that have been set, to take responsibility for failure. This is the most important thing to learn in high school (and life!).
These lessons are necessary in any high school, but in an open inquiry environment, they are even more important. It does not mean that it is a self-directed endeavor. The goal is always to be co-constructing learning with a teacher. This is a very different approach that most people are not used to. I give students as much help as I can, both in knowledge and encouragement, but then it is up to them to make it happen within their own line of inquiry, research, and representation of learning. This is a big switch for most kids.
I continually asked them what they wanted to do and then I supported their learning. It has to come from the student first. Again, this is a big change from traditional schooling. Some students never got it. Some people do not have the special sauce to pull themselves through all the learning that needs to happen to graduate. Some students need a lot of structure. Ultimately, I want all kids to be free to learn whatever they want. That is the goal. There are some that just cannot get there. For whatever reason, they are blocked — they just cannot bring forth the necessary motivation to make it happen.
That is when there is some conflict. What to do? Let the kids hang out there on their own until they finally “get it”? I have done that, and many times, the individual does understand that it really was up to them to do the work and pull through. There are other times when that did not happen and perhaps the best thing for me to do was just tell them what needed to be done. It is a constant, internal struggle for me because I am trying to show them that self-motivation is the key to success. I strongly believe that once that skill is learned, every other skill is readily available. It can be a challenge for a 15 year old.
Most people have something that they love to do and are easily self-motivated to do that thing. For a lot of teenagers, video games are a strong love. I am fine with video games if they are creating them, not playing them (all the time). In BC, there is a massive, multi-billion dollar industry around video game creation and I personally know people who are making tremendous salaries doing super interesting, creative work. I am all for my students getting a piece of that action (I always joked with them that I get 10%).
What I constantly question is: is it dangerous to solely just stick with what you love? It is kind of an age old question. Should we only focus on our strengths, or should we take time to buff up our weaknesses and become well-rounded? It is a tough call and I waffle back and forth between both sides.
The conclusion that I have come to is to use the single passion as a lens for all the other work and competencies that need to be developed. If an individual loves video games, well let’s dig into it. I asked them to become developers. Learn to use Unity or Unreal Engine. Learn to write code — C++, Java, etc. Read about the industry and know who the major players are and where the trends are going. Write thesis papers defending the importance of video games in society and that they do not lead to young people being more violent. Do scientific research on how colors affect mood and how that translates to game play.
Some got there, others did not. It really does come back to whether the individual can step up, take responsibility and push forward. Because ultimately, it is about finding that self-motivation. If focusing entirely on the love is the way to find it, then so be it.
I try to temper that though by explaining to the individual student that it is critical to broaden horizons. I use director Quentin Tarantino as an example. He says that it is not necessary for him to be the best at all the roles in film making, he can hire the best cinematographer, editor, etc. But what is important, is that he has insight into each of these roles so he can identify the greatest talent for the project. That is as close as I can come to relating the importance of motivating oneself to learn not only as much as possible in one craft, but look at other, related areas.
Mental Exhaustion (Avoiding burnout)
The one really difficult thing with personalized learning is that everyone is following a different path. It requires tremendous mental agility on a daily basis that often times made my head spin.
The upside is that I have been able to learn a gigantic amount of knowledge in 4 years. The downside was that there was just so much coming at me all the time. It was hard to keep in flow. I was switching rapidly between a huge range of subjects. It mentally burned me out.
Teaching is an emotionally challenging profession. A personalized, open inquiry environment requires nimble interpersonal skills. Again, there is so much back and forth, one on one conversations with the kids that is highly effective, but takes a lot of energy. There is only so much time in a day, and it is difficult to fit everyone in.