Creating a Culture of Inquiry

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >

Inquiry is powerful. It can create student ownership in the classroom. It can validate the passions and interests of our students. However, creating a culture of inquiry takes constant work. Teachers need to establish it from the first day in the classroom, and work to keep it vital throughout the year. Here are some important things to know about creating that culture, and some ideas that you might consider.

Culture vs. Climate
We need to be honest at the forefront. A culture of inquiry will not happen overnight, but the right climate for it is much easier to establish. When we make a change or set an expectation for how a classroom will operate, we begin to affect the climate. It takes time for something to become a part of the culture. All the work that teachers put into creating a classroom of inquiry must be revisited over and over again. Teachers must commit to this change and continue to reinforce the practices and strategies that create a culture of inquiry. In addition, while climate can ultimately reflect an established culture, in its early stages, climate is simply a possible indicator of the culture that we hope to create. Therefore, students will need ongoing evidence and action to prove that a culture of inquiry truly exists.

If students don’t feel welcome in your classroom, they won’t ask questions or engage in the learning. Teachers need to make sure that students feel valued in their classroom. We can create activities for students to share their passions and interests. We should welcome students at the door every time they walk into the classroom. We’re ideally positioned to co-create norms and procedures to help our students feel safe and supported. There are many strategies to make students feel welcome, but don’t forget that this must be ongoing and year round to ensure that it truly becomes a reflection of the classroom climate.

Scaffold and Value Questioning
I know that with some younger students, when you ask them if they have a question, you get story instead. Many students need support in asking questions and creating different kinds of questions for different situations. Teachers should use a variety of strategies, such as structured protocols and question starters and stems, to support students in asking effective questions. In addition, we should find ways to value all questions that come into the classroom. If a student brings up a great question, try using it as the basis for a class discussion or creating an inquiry team to investigate. Another strategy might be to create a “parking lot” or ongoing list of questions that could be investigated at a later time. Thank students for their questions, because these inquiries come from their hearts and minds.

Essential Questions
One great tool for building a culture of inquiry is essential questions that drive learning. Wiggins and McTighe articulate this effect in their book Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding. My favorite phrase here is “opening doors.” Too often, the questions that we design might actually close doors for students, so we need to know who our students are in order to create questions that will open doors inviting them into learning. These types of questions are provocative, open-ended, and aligned to the content, but also allowing space for exploration. Ideally, there should be no single right answer, but instead many. In addition, the answer that students give will require them to justify their thinking. They may not find the best answer immediately, as they continue revisiting the question throughout the unit — or even the year. Rather than focusing on the answer, they should focus on the process of inquiry that begins when the question is asked. These questions can be teacher-created tools, as well as co-constructed with students.

Effective Assignments and Assessments
Related to one of the tenets of creating essential questions, we have to make sure that our assignments also mirror and honor inquiry.

Do our assignments focus on complexity and justification?
Do we honor student voice and choice in these assignments? Are students allowed choice in what they produce and voice in what the assignment will look like?
Do we create assignments and assessments that allow students to investigate their own questions aligned to the content that we want them to learn?

If we do all of this, we can create a culture where students are constantly working on and assessed on assignments that value inquiry. Inquiry is and should be a normal part of instruction and assessment for all students in the classroom.

A culture of inquiry can only become the classroom norm if there is commitment from all stakeholders — parents, students, teachers, administration, and more. Simply saying that we are an inquiry-based classroom and doing an occasional inquiry-based activity is not indicative of a culture of inquiry. Although this is a great first step, we need to reinforce this culture throughout the year by creating both instruction and assessment that value inquiry. The strategies articulated here are just a start.

Back To The Future To Improve The Present: Whole Child Reflections

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >

Although a new year of school brings new beginnings, it also allows us the opportunity to reflect on the past year and think about what we did to make it such a great year. The same can be said for the five tenets of the ASCD Whole Child approach ( By the end of the year, our classrooms are usually “well-oiled machines” where students are engaged and challenged in their learning, feel safe and supported, and are healthy in every sense of the word. I’ve had the privilege of visiting so many classrooms where this is happening. We can learn from our past experiences to better prepare ourselves for the upcoming school year and find ways to create a learning environment now that truly fosters the whole child. Why wait until the middle or end of the year to make sure students are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged? Let’s go back to the future to improve the present (i.e., reflect on how we ended last year in order to change and improve our current actions). Here are just a few of my reflections on how we can do this.

Engaged With Technology
By the end of the year, I see some of the most purposeful uses of technology to support instruction and assessment. When we use technology carefully and intentionally to help our students learn, we can sustain engagement. Haphazard technology integration can create a short “buzz” in the classroom, but purposeful use of technology—to flip the classroom, allow students voice and choice in their assessments, and more—can create better, more sustainable engagement for our students. We can start this journey toward strategic technology integration now.

A Safe Growth Mindset
When students feel safe, they can grow. I’ve visited classrooms where students are always asking questions and trying new ideas without fear. They feel safe in not knowing the answer, and they feel safe in receiving feedback from their peers and teachers. How can we create a culture of critique and revision, where students continually seek feedback and ask deeper questions to grow in their learning? We can start by modeling a growth mindset as teachers and encouraging the process of peer critique and feedback. We can scaffold students to ask great questions. Let’s start creating a safe space now for our students.

Supported Through Relationships
By the end of the year, we’ve built strong relationships with our students. But we can start to build these relationships now by using formative assessment tools to get to know all parts of the child. We can use these assessments to look at data and academic achievement, but we can also use them to know how our students learn, their passions, and their family life. This balanced data can allow us to know our students better at the beginning of the year and establish relationships with them to ensure we target the right kind of support.

Challenged through Project-Based Learning (PBL)
Sometimes I hear people say, “I don’t think my students can handle PBL at the beginning of the year.” Although it’s true that we need to build a culture for PBL, I think, if appropriately designed, it can be successfully implemented at the beginning of the year to give students the right amount of challenge and rigor. PBL can create a place where students learn content with an authentic challenge. Our students deserve to be challenged all year round, so let’s start now.

Healthy Without Anxiety
Health is a big category in terms of supporting the whole child. While we may initially think of physical health, we can also think of mental health. When students enter our classrooms at the beginning of the year, they often have high anxiety levels, which is not healthy at all. By the end of the year, this anxiety in the classroom is usually gone. We can mitigate anxiety as soon as the year starts by standing at the door to welcome students, creating norms with them, and openly committing to supporting them in their times of stress. We can also tell students that failing is not the end but rather the beginning of learning. By acknowledging that anxiety exists and working actively to remove it from the classroom, we can create healthy students now.

The reflection process can also be replicated as a means of professional learning. This “Back to the Future” protocol ( can be done in the early stages of a process (whether designing a unit of instruction or setting the classroom culture). It allows you to reflect on the past and think about specific steps you can take to make your vision for the future happen. How will you go back to the future to improve the present this school year?

Using Assessment to Create Student-Centered Learning

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >

Assessment is key to creating a more student-centered classroom. Before proceeding, though, I want to clarify what I mean by assessment. I don’t mean testing, nor do I mean grading. Unfortunately this term (as well as other terms like data-driven instruction) has been hijacked to mean more testing and knowing students only in terms of their test scores. We know this is unacceptable and does not meet the needs of all students.

Yes, data such as test scores can give us a window into better serving our students, but it’s not the whole window. If we truly want to know our students, we must view them as a stained-glass window with test data as only one of many pieces. Assessment can allow us to know the whole child as we create a more student-centered classroom.

Assessing Student Passions and Learning Styles
One key way to create a more student-centered classroom is by assessing students for their passions and interests. All of our students come with powerful experiences that have driven their lives, such as family stories, favorite books, hobbies, and trips. We can use a variety of assessment tools like one-on-one conversations, journals, and graphic organizers to learn more about our students and what drives them to learn. Tools like learning profile cards can allow us to differentiate appropriately, leverage our students’ strengths, and push them to learn in different ways. Assessing for passions and interests can also push us to know our students more deeply and create a classroom designed for them.

Assessing 21st-Century/Success Skills
We know that some of our students collaborate better than others, just as some students have more global empathy that others. If we assess for these success or 21st-century skills, we can provide experiences and instructions that foster those skills and allow our students to grow in areas that are more than simply content knowledge or skills. Teachers can use rubrics and other assessment tools to let students know what these success skills look, sound, and feel like. In addition, they can use these assessment tools for self, teacher, and expert assessment. While some students may really know math content, for example, they may need support in building their grit, and we can make the classroom meet their needs in a targeted way.

Formative Assessment of Content and Skills
Test data lets us know how students are progressing toward learning content and skills from the standards. However, these standardized tests may only assess the bare minimum (if that) of the level of rigor that we want and expect from our students. Also, these assessments do not provide us with just-in-time data that we can truly use. What we get from them often comes too late for our purposes. While we can look at the data for trends, we may not be able to use this information in the immediate moment to meet the needs of individual students. Teachers instead should use low-stakes formative assessments to assess students’ content knowledge and skills. This way, we can learn which concepts and skills need to be retaught, and which ones students have mastered. These assessments are not graded. Instead, we can use them to create a learning environment that is more student-centered.

Assessing for Instruction
All of these data points and assessments should primarily drive instruction in the classroom, and they are all examples of powerful formative assessments. The intent of formative assessments is to feed forward in the instruction, and create learning activities that individual students need. Yes, this may mean whole-group instruction, but it often means small-group or individual instruction. When we use formative assessments carefully, we can discover whether students need a think-aloud or model, or if they are ready for independent practice and application. In addition, formative assessment can tell us if students need more collaborative learning. Whenever we plan instruction, we know it is never set in stone, and we use on-the-spot assessment to make immediate decisions for instruction, as well as using these assessments to feed forward for future instruction. If we use assessment to provide the right just-in-time instruction, we can increase student engagement in a more student-centered classroom.

Truly, assessment can be a powerful force for knowing our students and creating a classroom that can meet their needs. We simply have to move past the baggage that comes with the term assessment, and understand that it can mean a lot of things. We can assess for content and skills, yes, but we can also assess for passions, interests, success skills, and the like for the purposes of the right instruction at the right time.

Four Steps for Working Smarter For Your Students

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >


In working with teachers to implement the Framework for Intentional and Targeted Teaching® (FIT Teaching®) strategy and other instructional practices with schools that have partnered with ASCD Professional Learning Services, I find that a key theme keeps emerging: working smarter, not harder. We, as educators, have a lot on our plates, both in and outside of school, so we need to approach effective instruction with a purpose—to work smarter for ourselves and for our students. Sometimes we work ourselves too hard and we don’t even know it. We make mistakes and provide whole group instruction when small group instruction is needed. We try to increase engagement but we forget to create a climate where all students can learn. Let’s try to avoid such mistakes by following these four steps for working smarter.

Build The Culture
We know that great learning can’t happen without a great climate and culture—both within a classroom and throughout an entire school. Students and stakeholders need to feel welcome when they walk into the building. This happens with a warm reception at the front office, school tours, celebrations of learning, and the like. It’s important that we not forget this. Great instruction needs a great climate, and it can also help build a great culture of achievement for all students.

Know Your Purpose
If we don’t know where we are going, we may not get there. Students should know what they are learning and why they are learning so that they have a focus. Teachers should also have a clear understanding of what and why students are learning so they know what to scaffold and what to assess. After observing a history lesson with a teacher at Anaconda High School, I noticed there was an activity at the end of the day that, while interesting, seemed disconnected to the purpose of the lesson. In fact, the teacher was concerned about having enough time for everything that day. We reflected and talked, and she came to the realization that this activity wasn’t needed that day but could be used on another day depending on the purpose for learning. By knowing our purpose, we can ensure we are working smarter to plan and implement instruction.

Assess Your Students
Let’s be clear here: I said assess, not grade. Assessment can vary significantly, from low-stakes exit tickets and “clickers” to drafts and RAFT (role, audience, format, and topic) projects.
If we assess our students and their learning, based on our purposes and objectives, we can determine where they are on their journey and plan accordingly. We can give students the right feedback. We can delve deeper to find out if there are errors in student learning or if students simply made mistakes. With assessment, we can decide whether instruction is needed or simple prompting, cueing, and questioning will move students toward mastery.

Select the Right Instruction
From assessment, we can decide next steps to “feed forward” in the instructional process. Although these decisions often happen after a lesson is complete, an assessment during a lesson can allow us to make on-the-spot decisions on what students will need. While watching a math teacher at Anaconda High School, I noticed that he recognized that students were not doing well with the independent practice during a lesson. He stopped and moved back to focused instruction to address the gap and build confidence in his students. This was a great example of the right instruction at the right time.
If we work smarter, we can avoid teacher burnout. If we work smarter, we are giving students what they need. If we work smarter, we can build relationships and know our students.

Reflect on these strategies and set some goals for next year. How do you (or will you) work smarter for your students?

Grades Should Reward Students At Their Best

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >

Grading is hotly contested issue. Should we grade students? When should we grade students? How do we work through the culture of grading? What about students who only care about grades? There are no easy answers, even though there are many opinions, players, and deeply held beliefs. Personally, I would like to see education move completely away from grading, but I know this will take time and require deep reflection on our educational experiences and the educational experiences we want for our students.

So how can we move forward on this journey to a place where grading is a thing of the past? I think it really comes down to this tenet of learning: reward students at their best, and don’t punish them in the learning process.

Whether you call this standards-based grading, mastery-based grading, or even competency-based grading, it really doesn’t matter. It all comes down to a honoring the belief that our students can and will learn. The pacing may be different, the path may be different, and the role of the teacher may be different for each student. Through clear and transparent frameworks for grading (mastery-based, standards-based, etc.), our students know what excellence looks, sounds, and feels like. Our role as educators is to move our students to a place of educational achievement. Shouldn’t a grade reflect that? A grade is an indication of what a student learned, not how he/she tried and failed. We need to ensure that our grading systems reflect this. If we grade students when they try and fail, rather than when they succeed, our grading practices do not match our mission as educators to help our students succeed. The same is true for averaging grades. These send mixed messages to students. On the one hand, we say we believe in student achievement, but in practice the grade does not reward that.

When we started moving more toward this model at a school I was teaching, we had to have critical conversations about this, where all stakeholders were involved. Our continued message to all was this: “We will only reward students are their best, and not punish them at their worst.” Many found that hard to argue with. Who doesn’t want to be rewarded at their best? Who doesn’t want a chance to try again? Who doesn’t want to be rewarded for learning rather than punished for mistakes and failure in the learning process? We continued to document and monitor our students in all assessments, but grades were rewarded when students showed mastery. Here failure and mistakes were honored as steps in the learning process, not used as punishments to force students to do work through antiquated grading practices.

The journey of learning is full of failures. In my ASCD Arias publication Freedom to Fail, I write about how grading systems prevent failure from being a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow. Our students deserve the chance to solve problems, take risks, and, yes, sometimes fail—but always in safe ways. If we grade everything, we are not honoring this. In fact, we are doing the opposite. We are punishing students. We are not meeting the needs of the whole child. Grading can determine whether or not a student feels safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. We can also reduce students’ anxiety and make them healthier if we don’t grade everything. A grade should reflect what a student learned, so it should never be set in stone. Grades must be flexible to allow students to have the opportunity to learn again. Grading policies that reward students at their best create students who are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged!

ASCD Professional Learning Services in Action: Implementing FIT Teaching® at Anaconda High School


This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >

Miller APLS 1200x1200
I’ve had the privilege of working with the fantastic teachers and school leaders at Anaconda High School in Montana as they work to improve their instructional practice by implementing the Framework for Intentional and Targeted Teaching® strategy. The FIT Teaching strategy, as it’s more commonly known, focuses on establishing a purpose for learning, designing instructional practices that allow for the gradual release of responsibility, and creating formative and summative assessments to inform future instruction, all while fostering a positive school culture. What is exciting about this strategy is that it focuses on all four elements simultaneously. Often when we work to improve schools, we only focus on one area. We might take a year to focus on an assessment or a school’s climate. With the FIT Teaching strategy, however, we understand that all these elements of education are not mutually exclusive and, in fact, rely on each other to make learning possible for every child. For example, assessment allows us to know our students and craft the right types and levels of instruction. It can also help build a positive culture within the school. If we spend time building that culture, great teaching and learning will follow.

Beginning the Journey
To start the FIT Teaching process at Anaconda, ASCD staff and I put together a pre-assessment for the teachers and school leaders to fill out. We wanted to model formative assessment to drive instruction, just as teachers do for their students. This data collection allowed us to craft an implementation plan. Together with the school’s leadership team, we looked for areas of pressing need and areas in which teachers already had a level of competence. In addition, we decided to use a teacher leadership model to build capacity so that the implementation would be sustainable, regardless of teacher or leadership turnover. This is a key facet of effective professional learning. We want to make sure the learning sticks, and we want to empower educators to take ownership of the great work of delivering professional learning to their colleagues. In addition, we looked at the school’s existing initiatives and instructional practices so that we could align the FIT Teaching strategy with this work. We didn’t want it to be “another thing” for teachers to add to their plates; instead we wanted it to make what they already do well even better.

Blended Learning Approach
I wish I could visit the teachers more than I do, but I also know that is not financially feasible. Thus, we took a blended learning approach to help Anaconda implement the FIT Teaching framework. We started with an on-site visit to give the school an overview of the strategy and make some decisions as a team on which element to start with. In this case, we selected purposeful learning as the first focus, followed by gradual release of responsibility, and finally formative assessment. We are now at a point where we are focusing on culture, but we are still continuing the great instructional and assessment work we have invested in. After the initial on-site visit, I spent a day in the classrooms, coaching, observing, and assessing teachers to determine what would happen next. This allowed our PLC meetings, which also occurred in person, to be effective and aligned to teachers’ needs. In between these coaching visits, teachers sent me lesson plans, reflections, and video tapes of themselves for feedback. This allowed for a continued partnership and relationship even when I was not able to be there. Now, we are also in the process of selecting PD Online® courses to provide additional support for their implementation of the FIT Teaching strategy.

Next Steps
The teacher leaders at Anaconda have successfully taken on the task of implementing the FIT Teaching strategy at their school, and I appreciate all of their work. I know they have busy lives as sports coaches, parents, and even members of other PLCs at the school. They have been reflective, open to feedback, and great thought partners. I will be seeking their feedback through a coaching survey. The leadership team and I will also look at the implementation plan to revise and refocus it. We will work together to craft their professional learning activities for next year, when the teacher leaders will take the reins and continue the FIT teaching process. Through all this work as an ASCD Faculty member, I can honestly say I have learned as much from the experience as they have.

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