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:
> 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.
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:
- Asked as many questions as we could.
- Did not stop to judge, discuss, or answer any questions.
- Wrote down every question as stated.
- 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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.