Grade 3 Research Skills Unit

I feel lucky to work in an amazing team of Grade 3 teachers and with support staff at ISHCMC that inspire me, challenge me and work with me respectfully & collaboratively! We have the same vision of where we feel education should be moving and while we deliver lessons in different ways, we respect each other and often learn and build on each other’s ideas.

This collaboration led to our most recent unit that was focused on research skills. As I mentioned in previous posts (Studio 3 / Studio 3 & Skillz Studio) our team has been working to shift the focus of learning from knowledge-based to skills based.

This was a Where We Are in Place and Time unit (PYP) and we decided that the focus would be on research skills. Students would inquire into people from history during the unit (or into any topic during the provocation and Skillz Studio). They would and learn a lot of knowledge, but the focus of teaching, reflecting and reporting would be on the research skills. Students would explicitly learn how to formulate questions, collect information, record information and present their research findings.

Instead of starting the unit by breaking down the central idea and lines of inquiry, we decided not to put them up at all. Instead, we just put the word “Research” on the wall. We started by asking: “What is research?” and “What are the rules for research?” We had a bit of discussion and then students each reflected on sticky notes to record their understanding before starting the unit.

Then we gave them a provocation – a real provocation. We told them that they would do some research. They would work individually, for 1 week, for 1-2 periods a day, on 1 topic, and have something to share on Friday.

> “Mr. Billy, what should I research?”
> “What do YOU want to research? What are YOU interested in?”

> “Mr. Billy, where should I find the information?”
> “Where do YOU think you should find the information?”

> “Mr. Billy, Are these notes OK?”
> “Do YOU think these notes are Ok?”

> “Mr. Billy, how should I share my research?”
> “How do YOU think you should share your research?”

How often do we truly let students explore on their own without meddling? I’m not going to lie and tell you that I was hand-off the whole time, but I tried my best. After a few days, we started to see the specific needs this cohort of students had in terms of their research skills. Some areas were better than we thought, while others needed more help. Overall, a big theme we noticed was that they found research easy… because they weren’t researching a specific question, they were reading for information. Instead of letting their questions lead their research, they just let the book tell them information. This actually had us re-evaluate our central idea and lines of inquiry to fit the needs of the students. It also had us re-evaluate the way we were planning on teaching and we thought about new ways to address the specific skills these students needed.

After we reflected, our central idea and lines of inquiry were:

Central Idea:
> By researching, we can understand about individuals through history.

Our lines of inquiry:
• An inquiry into why we research (function, causation)
• An inquiry into the research cycle  (function)

After the provocation was the “meat and potatoes” of the unit. This was the part where we explicitly taught the skills of research. This was a more structured part, where students were still given agency, but where we explicitly taught and practiced the skills needed to research. As a class, we developed the specific parts of the research cycle and through the unit explored each one. During the unit, students inquired into different people as a way to structure and scaffold their learning.

Questioning:

As I mentioned earlier, through our provocation we discovered that students were not using questions to lead their research, but rather reading for information. While this might seem like semantics, it isn’t. When you research, YOU lead by searching for the answers to your questions. When you read for information THE BOOK leads and you are passively letting the book tell you information.

> “Research is hard!”

This would be a common thing I would hear – and it’s true. When students did find the information they were looking for though, it led to a very satisfying feeling and they were excited to share it with others.

As a way to teach/model questioning, we decided to use a question formulation technique. As a class we generated questions and used them for research we did together in class about sharks. As a class we:

  1.          Asked as many questions as we could.
  2.          Did not stop to judge, discuss, or answer any questions.
  3.          Wrote down every question as stated.
  4.          Changed any statements into questions.

Initially, we thought we would focus on thin and thick or open and closed questions. As we got into it though, we realized that it wasn’t specifically about the questions, but about the researcher. If the researcher is inquisitive and wants to “dive deeper” then even closed questions could provide a lot of opportunities. For example, How long are shark’s teeth can be seen as a thin question, but the researcher can go deeper by asking if different types of sharks have different lengths? Does that affect the type of food they eat? Instead of snorkeling at the top of the water, we encouraged students to grab their scuba pack and dive deeper down.

After working on questioning together, students generated their own questions to lead their research into the people they chose to inquire into. We didn’t focus on the types of questions, but on the researcher and how deep or shallow they went with their inquiry.

Collecting Information:

How would students choose the person they will inquire into? Students needed to be exposed to a variety of people to choose from, but we didn’t want to curate a list ourselves. Instead, we had the idea of asking our parent community. We asked each parent for 3 ideas of important people from history who they thought students should inquire into. This not only sparked conversations at home but also introduced us to interesting people from around the world!

After collecting all the names, students alphabetized and posted on the wall all the suggestions parents had about who they should research. Students then choose people from the wall and completed a sheet identifying the physical and digital sources they could find about that person.

     

We discussed reliable vs. unreliable sources and curated some places where students might find information using QR codes. We discussed possibilities of interviewing people, if that made sense, and took books out of the library to create our own Grade 3 library (also learning how to search for books remotely). We discussed safe search engines like Kiddle and Kidrex and explored how results came up when searching. We learned about ads in the results and to look at the link to see if it is a reliable source.

We talked about skimming & scanning when looking for information and students were encouraged to find information from multiple sources and compare it. Some even found conflicting dates for the birth and death of ancient people and this sparked some interesting discussions. We also discussed legal ways we can use images and how to cite them. Kiddle’s encyclopedia is a great resource for this!

Recording information:

Often we expect students to just take notes, but do we explicitly teach them how to do it? Using a shared text and research into sharks, we explored different ways to take notes. We looked into boxes & bullets, mind-mapping, two-column notes, graphs & charts, and sketch-noting. I modeled each one with our joint text and then students explored and experimented on their own.

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We discussed which ways worked for them and which they didn’t like using. We did gallery walks to learn from each other and shared tips and strategies.

Students really enjoyed sketch-notes and that was probably because we have a resident expert right in Grade 3 with my co-worker Libby McDaniel (‪@wecanbeawesome ). She creates her own personal sketch-noting journals, which are incredible, and inspired many students! In addition, I was inspired by her to try and record the progression of the unit on the class whiteboards and keep the learning visual through the unit.

Presenting Information:

Before diving into “flashy” ways to present our research, we focused on writing an information report. As a class, we jointly wrote one based on the shark research we had done together and then students wrote their own. We gave them a loose structure to follow with an introduction, main body, conclusion, and citations. Not only was this important for students to learn, but it also kept them honest about the amount and detail of their research.

After students wrote an information report, we wanted to spark ideas about other ways they could present their information in more engaging ways. We had a wonderful discussion talking about “traditional” ways to present information and “out-of-the-box” ways. We came up with a wide range of ideas, many of which we as teachers had not thought of previously.

Students chose a variety of ways to present information in engaging ways, such as becoming the person in a hot seat, creating games, making movies with green screens, interviewing the person (playing both roles), writing books, creating interactive posters, delivering Keynote/Slides presentations, etc… We met together in small groups with similar ways of presenting and jointly created expectations. This way, students knew what the expectations were and how to challenge and improve themselves. One of my students even changed her whole project after working together in the small groups as she wanted to level-up her presentation!

Skillz Studio:

Finally, after students had presented their information about the person they inquired into, we moved on to the “dessert” of the unit (with a cherry on top). Now that the students had time to specifically learn their research skills and practice with guidance, they were ready to go it alone. They had 2-weeks to manage their own time, with some must-dos, but mostly working on their individual research projects.

During Skillz Studio, students chose a specific research skill to develop and also a specific self-management skill. Since they had already done two different research projects, they were able to identify areas of strength and growth. They independently worked through the research cycle with a presentation at the end to their peers, teachers and their parents in our community.

There were some teacher workshops, but also a lot of student workshops. Again, since students had the chance to go through the cycle two times already, many felt confident enough to teach their peers. Not only did they focus on research skills, but also on self-management skills (as this wasn’t their first Skillz Studio either).

      

The most difficult parts of helping 21+ students work on individual projects during Skillz Studio are keeping track of all their work & goals, knowing which stage each student is on, figuring out who needs help and with what and helping students manage their time. It is a lot to keep track of and we have been constantly experimenting with different ways and ideas to do so.

To manage work, we tried a new idea. We used a shared Google doc with a graph on it that we shared with students. As students completed a section of the research cycle, they would upload evidence on Seesaw and then change the color on the chart (Green for done, Yellow for in progress, Red for I need help). I would then look at the evidence and add a tick mark. If there was a question, I would change the box to orange and talk with them about my concern. It is not perfect but worked quite well as a way to manage the organized chaos and keep track of everything happening. This is something we are still working on, developing and improving as we go. Any new ideas are quite welcome.

As a way to help manage goals, I met students in small groups based on their research goals to share strategies and ideas. I would also check in with students based on the graph. In addition, students also met in small groups with people who had the same self-management goals. Students were either working on their organization, time-management or informed choices.

As a group, students worked together to come up with some ways that they could be successful during the 2 weeks. Those focused on organization skills made daily checklists and reflected at the end of the day. Those focused on time management skills used timers in short intervals to keep them on task. Those working on informed choices drew icons on their arm to remind them to make good choices about where they sat, to focus on their work and to talk less. Through daily reflections, students decided if these strategies were working for them or if they needed to make some changes for the next day.

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Managing time on devices can be challenging, even for adults. Brain breaks are encouraged, but when the breaks end up longer than the time spent on the project it isn’t a break anymore, is it? So, as a way to keep track of the time spent on each app when using their iPads, students posted a screenshot of their usage for the day using the screen time app. This was really eye-opening for many students who didn’t realize that they were spending that amount of time doing things that were not helping them along with their project. Others used the app to set daily limits on apps, including productivity apps like Google Docs. They wanted to make sure that they were focused when working and this time limit helped them.

We also focused on the learning environment. I used to work in a real studio back in my design/advertising days. In a real studio, there is a lot of shared space, but everyone also has their own space where they can work. Some students started to develop their own spaces on their own, and so we decided to encourage this and asked students to re-arrange the room so they could create little areas for themselves to work. They were able to choose an appropriate place to work and focus and were able to leave things they created and made.

In the end, we had a Share Fair where students presented their research to the community, in engaging ways. They had all their notes and materials to share as well if anyone wanted to learn about their process. The visitors filled in reflection sheets and shared critical feedback about their presentations and the work they had done. Having a requirement that students share the work they have done is an important part of making the work authentic and allowing the community to decide if the learning was worthwhile and if the students were a success.

Reflections:

As in the past, students helped to mark and write their assessment for this unit. We also like to try and have at least one other perspective to balance it (parent, peer or teacher). For this unit, we decided to have the teacher write a part too. Students reflected on their growth and understanding of research through the unit, their strengths and learning targets. As their teacher, I also wrote a reflection, from my perspective. I then met with each student to share my thoughts and observations and we discussed them together, using evidence to support each of our sides. Finally, we negotiated the final marks for each of the research and self-management skills, using evidence. It is not a simple process, but I think it is worth it. I hate being the judge and jury and enjoy working with students to really dig deep and get to the truth. It is going to take some new and different ways to do assessments if we are going to focus on skills. So far, this has been working quite well, but I am absolutely open to suggestions!

In the end, I feel that this was a really successful unit and was a good model for how to focus units on skills as opposed to knowledge. It allowed students to learn the skills explicitly and gave them multiple opportunities to practice them. There was incredible motivation, student choice, and variety of topics explored and ways presented. I’m not going to lie and say it was easy or that everyone achieved their goals. While some flourished others struggled, but that is the point. It is always a difficult balance of teaching and support in order to allow students to learn from their mistakes. In the end, it was a really great learning experience for everyone. Not only was there a lot of knowledge learned, but also a lot of skills learned too.

Next steps:

We are always tweaking and talking about how to improve for next time. For example, this year we curated websites for the students and touched on search engines. We thought about focusing more on how to use search engines to find information next time.

This is a work in progress and as always I am open to suggestions to help improve the learning experience.

 

Studio 3 & Skillz Studio

I am fortunate to be working at a school that understands education needs to change in order for students to be prepared for their very different future that lies ahead of them. ISHCMC encourages us to experiment with new ideas in the classroom and push traditional boundaries.

The whole school has been moving towards something I strongly believe in and have been pushing for since I arrived; shifting the focus from knowledge-based curriculums to skills-based teaching and learning.

Last year, my colleagues and I in Grade 3 started experimenting with ways to change our units to be more skills focused and allow students more agency. I wrote about our experience last year. We keep moving forward, learning from our mistakes, and trying out new ideas.

This year we decided to do something a little different, and so far it has been working quite successfully.

We are an IB school and instead of doing 6 consecutive Units of Inquiry, we decided to make 2 of them yearlong. We did a yearlong focus on Who We Are (where students explored all the skill families) and How We Organize Ourselves (focused on digital tools and self-management skills). This took some organization ourselves, as we needed to make sure we planned in advance for students to check back into these units, reflect on their learning, and record their reflections for reporting.

We decided to focus all of our units around “skill families.” We started with Who We Are, which exposed students to all the skill families and they reflected on their areas of strength and growth. We then planned to explicitly teach and assess skills through each the units. In addition, we ordered and structured units so that the skills built on each other. Skills that were explicitly taught during one unit were then used in the following unit, but not explicitly focused on.

  • Who We Are – All skill families
  • How We Organize Ourselves – Self-Management Skills
  • How the World Works – Social Skills
  • How We Express Ourselves – Communication Skills
  • Where We Are in Place and Time – Research Skills
  • Sharing the Planet – Thinking Skills (although this skill overlaps with others)

Finally, we also added what we call “Skillz Studio” to the end of each unit. These are 1 to 2 week slots where students take over their schedule, have significant agency and focus further on the on the particular set of skills they just learned in addition to using and reflecting on their self-management skills.

We just completed our second Skillz Studio after our How We Express Ourselves unit. This unit focused on communication skills and students inquired into the central idea: “Skills and Techniques influence how performers tell a story.” Through the unit, students developed their speaking, non-verbal and presentation skills through reader’s theater performances. At the end of the unit, during Skillz Studio, students had the opportunity to use the communication skills they developed by creating their own presentations. Some chose to work independently, while others chose to work collaboratively. They chose stories to tell, either writing their own or adapting stories already written. They then spent almost 2 weeks managing their own time (self-management skills) to prepare and present their story in their choice and style (communication skills).

There were a wonderful variety of stories and presentation methods, such as stop animation, puppet shows, live movies, dances, mini-musicals, podcasts, etc…

How do you assess this type of learning? Each student chose 3 specific sub-skills, or techniques, that they wanted to develop over studio time. For example, a student who wanted to develop speaking skills might choose to specifically focus on “speaking loudly and clearly” or “using expression, emotion, and exaggeration when performing.” Of course, all of the different techniques were developed with the students. We kept a record of their skills on the wall too, so that we could see who else was working on the same techniques and check back in and make sure they were focused on their goals. We also had daily reflections on Seesaw and on the board to make sure they were on track to complete their projects.

In the end, students presented their work to the community in an exhibition. They received feedback from their parents, other parents, teachers, and their peers. Students talked about the skills they learned and used to create their presentations and the growth they made over the studio time.

Most were incredibly successful in their projects, but others struggled, especially with their self-management skills, needing support to complete their projects. This is all part of the learning though, as often failure and struggle is the best form of learning.

For their final report, students, parents, and teachers created it jointly.

Before Skillz Studio, students reflected on what they were going to do, which skills they were going to focus on and why. After studio time, their parents reflected on the skills their child improved the most in, need to continue developing, and how they have grown. Then, students reflected again after their parents about the skill they improved the most in, the skill they are the best at, and the skill they still need to develop. They also reflected on how they have grown and changed as a performer.

This narrative constituted the written portion of their report. There were also tick boxes for each of the communication and self-management skills. As their teacher, I marked where I thought each student was, based on the Gradual Increase of Independence (developed by @OrenjiButa). I then had meetings with each student to discuss where they thought they were in each skill. Using evidence that I had, and evidence from the students, we negotiated their final marks together.

I absolutely love this style of assessment as it gets to the truth. Instead of just having the teacher be the judge and jury, the assessment comes from students, parents, peers, and teachers.

So far, this style of teaching and assessing skills has been quite successful. The units give students a chance to learn about the specific skills and develop them. Then the studio time at the end gives them a chance to really use the skills and be independent. Our next unit is focused on research skills, and I’m looking forward to it!

Of course, this is still a work in progress and we are still experimenting and exploring how to specifically teach and assess these soft skills and prepare students for Studio 5 and for their futures. Any ideas or thoughts are much appreciated!

Studio 3

In order for students to be successful in an environment where they are empowered with their own learning choices, they need to have the skills to be successful. I believe that explicitly teaching and assessing these skills should be the focus of what we do in school.

I teach grade 3 at ISHCMC and just as our colleagues in Studio 5 have been experimenting with different ways to give students agency in their learning, we have been doing the same thing. How do we prepare students for the Studio 5 model? How do we teach them the skills they need in order for them to be successful?

We have been experimenting with focusing a unit on a particular set of skills, explicitly teaching and assessing them. Then for the final part of the unit, opening it up for the students to put their new skills to the test. An example of this was our WWAITAP unit where we explicitly taught research skills through the content of explorers and then students used their research skills to find out about various topics that interested them. Always coming back to the skills, not the content.

Most recently, students practiced their self-management skills by planning and organizing their week. We had a list of “must-dos” that students needed to accomplish. How they organized their time, where they worked, and how they decided to complete their tasks were up to them. No matter how they decided to work, everyone agreed that by Friday afternoon, all the tasks would be completed.

Students reflected every morning about the specific things they wanted to complete for the day and if they were on track for getting everything done for Friday. Then every afternoon, they reflected on their accomplishments, frustrations, and changes, if any, they would make the next day.

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This sparked some amazing discussions about how people work in different ways. Some liked to get everything done in the beginning and have free time at the end of the week. Others liked to mix in playing with work and still, others preferred to play earlier in the week, needing the pressure of the deadline to work at the end.

We had many discussions about the fact that there is no correct way to work. What is important is discovering which way works for you and knowing yourself as a learner. In the end, I asked them to reflect on their experience and here are some of their reflections:






I thought it was a really successful week and most students found the time quite motivating and fun. Interestingly, some actually preferred the more standard approach. Those students tended to be the ones who do not have as much self-control and need to develop their self-management skills, as opposed to being told what to do. It is those students who would benefit the most from this approach.

Of course, this is still a work in progress. We are still experimenting and exploring how to specifically teach and assess these soft skills, prepare students for Studio 5, and for their futures. Any ideas or thoughts would be appreciated!