Inquiry-Based Learning…not just a buzzword

Inquiry learning may have become somewhat of a an educational buzzword. However, I am here to tell you that the student learning benefits from this type of learning is real. Back in the fall, I had the opportunity to give a professional development workshop in my school district about Genius Hour (perhaps another buzzword, but a method of inquiry-based learning if you haven’t heard of it). Having experimented with successful implementation the previous school year, I have thought about this quite a bit. In fact, I have became so interested that I developed a graduate course on inquiry-based learning through Seattle Pacific University.

You can also watch my EdSurge Ignite Talk outlining my work with inquiry-based learning in my classroom here:

The following is a list of what I’ve learned about implementing inquiry-based learning in a middle school classroom, which can be adapted to any grade level.

1. Let your students pick!

Interest-driven and student-directed goes hand-in-hand with inquiry-based learning. When you’re asking students to deep dive into a topic, it only makes sense that they care about it. True interest can only be guaranteed if they’ve chosen the topic. That’s not to say there should be parameters. In my first round of inquiry-based learning, I asked students to investiagte a topic they didn’t feel they learned enough about in their social studies class. In our second round, they were asked to solve a problem in their local community. While broad, these umbrella topics allowed me to provide students with focus questions to drive their work.

2. Be flexible.

If one student is researching renewable energy legislation and another is trying to recreate a turn of the century washing machine, processes, deadlines and grading practices might need to flex to accommodate their work. If students see only one path to an A, they will be less apt to take a risk.

3. Failure is to be expected. Prepare your students for this and don’t allow it to hurt their grade.

Contacting a U.S. Representative may not happen for your students. The underwater submarine model they are building may not work. They need to know that this is okay and that the trial and error process is valuable. The confines of earning an A often limit our students. This is where we should start to revaluate how we set up projects.

4. Allow technology to support, but not dominate student learning.

If a students wants to film a commercial and you don’t have the slightest idea how to do this, that’s okay. Your students (depending on their age) have the prowess to figure this out too. It is okay to say, “Create a plan for how you’d like to do this and I’ll be here to support you.” What sounds like an edeavor far larger than you have time for might be as simple as a student recording on their phone and turning to a peer for help in learning a simple mobile editing tool. You never know until you open up this door. You might find you learn a lot yourself!

5. Praise students for their tenacity; this type of learning is not easy.

It is true. Learning in this way has many similarities to how adults work in the real world: creating a plan, learning along the way, utilizing experts around you, being flexible, etc. This may be the first time a student hasn’t been told, “This is how you earn an A” and for some this will be extremely frustrating.


You still need assignments, check-ins, deadlines, and lessons. While most of what I wrote above may sound like you will send your little chickens loose on the farm to scrounge for feed, this isn’t true. Modeling how to do online research, tools for project management, check-in deadlines and support meetings with you, as well as project proposals are all necessary and important to student success. This type of learning is ripe for direct instruction lessons and teacher modeling on all types of topics.

Contact me if you have questions or are interested in brainstorming together!


Visual Literacy: Analyzing Infographics with Students

In my last post, I wrote about the use of infographics in the classroom. Their creation can be a powerful exercise in both visual literacy and graphic design. A far cry from the poster projects of my youth, infographics call on students to synthesize information and think thematically. Just because you present students with a great online infographic creation tool (Piktochart, Visme, etc.) doesn’t mean they are ready to create one. Many students are not even familiar with the term infographic (informative graphic). I start any lesson on the topic by asking students to analyze the work of others. This extra step yields far better results in students’ final work.

Questions to Ask Students

  • How do you read this image? From left to right?

  • How does the organization of information/text structure help an author and a reader establish important themes?

  • What do you see first? Why?

  • What stands out to you at second glance? Why?

  • Where does your eye travel?

  • What relationship is shown in this infographic? How do you know? What choices did the designer make to ensure this was clear, even from afar? How does this help you to read this information?

  • How is color used? What is bright and what is dull in color? Why do you think the creator chose to do this?

Students are amazed to realize that these design decisions are not haphazard, but purposefully considered by the author. 

"Bringing the Farm to School: Growing Healthy Children & Communities" by USDA is licensed under CC by 2.0.

“Bringing the Farm to School: Growing Healthy Children & Communities” by USDA is licensed under CC by 2.0.

For example, consider the infographic above. A quick “read” yields some clear key aspects of this infographic’s design. Thematic imagery is used to convey the larger message (farm-to table practices are present in some U.S. schools). Even a cursory glance suggests that numbers and statistics are a focus. Color and font size also draw attention to these statistics. This infographic is designed to highlight the successes of current farm-to-table eating in schools, rather than challenges. One may even notice that the sizes of the grocery bags decrease to coincide with the percentages represented on them. While this is far from a complex infographic, it is successful in presenting synthesized information about the topic. It is  also clear that graphic design elements are purposeful and on-message. You may think these simple elements are innately obvious, but it is useful to model your thinking and work with students to unpack these design choices as they relate to theme and message. Finally, I encourage teachers to survey students for topics of interest before choosing an infographic to study together. This will create further engagement and interest with students.

Using Infographics in the Classroom

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In my own classroom, the use of infographics has been a valuable tool to teach not only visual literacy, but graphic design. Our society is a visual one and students need to be prepared to not only interpret the meaning of visuals presented to them but to present their own visual stories back to others. Many already do this in some capacity on sites like Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat. Of course, creating an infographic does go beyond taking a selfie, requiring students to think very critically. Above are some infographics of mine that I’ve shared with students.

What is an infographic?

I tell my students that infographics (informative graphics) are a way to convey information to an audience in a simple, engaging way. I tell them that it is a way of storytelling. I tell them that it counters the notion, often seen in writing, that longer is better. I tell them that synthesis is truly the challenge here. The key to a successful infographic is a finished product that looks deceptively simple.

How do you use them in your teaching?

Each time I’ve presented this idea, I’ve been surprised by how many student haven’t heard the term infographic. They are, however, familiar with similar images in nonfiction books from their childhood. Students are often surprised by how much they can “read” from a visual image, as well as how quickly they can identify the  relationships present, such as in flowcharts and cycles, etc. I often begin by showing students some examples and asking them to identify key elements. This is an important first step to pave the way for students to create their own. Infographics can be used as a creative alternative to a typical project or even writing assignment. Students can share them in a printed form or with each other online. In the examples below, my students use infographics to share elements of symbolism from novels they had recently read.

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How do you make an infographic and not just a poster?

  • Get out of the habit of “go find and stick up” (Images are not stickers to place without thorough consideration.)

  • Viewer should be able to understand relationships at first glance (cross language barriers perhaps)

  • Overall imagery should be thematic or symbolic

  • Not just be content, but an analysis of this information

  • Does your infographic…tell a story? persuade? present an argument?

  • Consider the overall text structure (compare & contrast, sequence, cause & effect, etc.)


What tools do you use to create infographic?


There are many, many online tools available that can make this process easy and fun for students. Some examples are shown above. Please note that some of these tools have both free and paid versions with varying customization options. Be warned that “go find and stick up” is tempting with these tools. Additionally, by no means is a fancy tool necessary to create such a visual image. A simple tool like Google Slides, Powerpoint or even pen and paper can work just as well!

How Can Administrators Best Support Professional Development in Education Technology?

At the heart of my current studies with the Digital Education Leadership program at Seattle Pacific University is ISTE Coaching Standard 4, which focuses on how professional learning can be best support teacher practice and, ultimately, student learning. Professional development is often associated with the administrators who orchestrate it. As a result, recognizing how paramount administrators are to the implementation of good professional learning is the key to its success.

My exploration on this topic began by examining an additional set of ISTE standards, the standards for administrators. An excellent resource, these standards explore everything from modes of establishing a learning culture at one’s school to the development of school improvement plans. Most relevant to this post is ISTE Administrator Standard 3, which specifically calls for, “Educational administrators [t0] promote an environment of professional learning and innovation that empowers educators to enhance student learning through the infusion of contemporary technologies and digital resources.” How is this achieved? 

How can administrators best support professional development in education technology?

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Ed Tech Professional Learning Considerations

For the past few weeks I have explored ISTE Coaching Standard 4b to try to understand how professional learning specifically impacts the use of education technology. School districts continue to take major steps, both in effort and resources, to provide professional development opportunities in the hopes of improving student learning. Unfortunately, the results continue to indicate that most professional development is unsuccessful (Jacob & McGovern, 2015). What are some potential options?

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Reflections on Peer Coaching: Experiences and Essentials

As part of my studies with the Digital Education Leadership program at Seattle Pacific University, I recently engaged in and completed an exercise in peer coaching with a new teacher. I considered the additional challenges that face new teachers in the first few months of school and transitioned from an advocate to a collaborative partner, capable of leading and guiding inquiry. I practiced communication skills, including active listening and questioning strategies as my collaborating partner and I worked to build lessons together. Much of my work in this course centered around the study of Peer Coaching: Unlocking the Power of Communication by Les Foltos

How can a school without a peer coaching program still benefit from the peer coaching method?

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Using Universal Design to Differentiate Instruction

"Universal Design for Learning" by Giulia Forsythe CC 2.0

“Universal Design for Learning” by Giulia Forsythe CC 2.0

As part of my recent exploration of peer coaching, I have recently explored what it means to peer coach and what 21st century learning looks like in the classroom. Now, my attention has progressed to think about lesson improvement within the peer coaching process. As previously discussed, effective learning challenges students to shift from simple consumers of information, to producers of knowledge in the real-world (Foltos, 2013). For many, this type of learning is not easily integrated into daily teaching (Foltos, 2013). What steps are necessary to co-plan an effective lesson plan?

Creating a Task

Foltos (2013) wrote that first you need to create a task that is complex and real-world. It shouldn’t be too simple or too easily solved (Foltos, 2013). While this concept sounds good, it can be difficult to translate into a learning activity that is both relatable and digestible for students. Foltos (2013) suggested that real-world problems presented are aligned with student interest and that requirements can be easily defined and understood by students.

Defining Standards

Next, it is important to define the standards being focused on. There can be multiple categories of standards to consider: curriculum standards like those found in the Common Core, 21st century standards such as those with the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, and technology standards like the ISTE Student Standards.

Crafting Student Directions & Assessments

From here, the learning context can be defined. This might be more easily understood as a “series of carefully sequenced learning activities” (Foltos, 2013, p. 125). It is, of course, important to determine how the learning activities correlate with the standards (Foltos, 2013). Finally, student directions can be crafted, assessments can be created, and resources can be identified, all through a process of receiving and sharing feedback.


One of my collaborating partner’s current focuses is differentiation. As such, I thought it relevant to align this week’s guiding questions about co-planning lessons to questions of differentiation. Differentiation is easily discussed but not as readily implemented into the classroom. It remains a great theoretical concept that is difficult to implement on a daily basis, given time constraints and curricular demands.

What protocols can be used to collaboratively design differentiated instruction effectively?

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Why Do We Need to Define What 21st Century Learning Looks Like?

“Shared Vision” by Annie Tremonte created using Piktochart is licensed under CC 2.0.

This week in my studies with the Digital Education Leadership program at Seattle Pacific University, I am continuing to explore ISTE Coaching Standards 1 and 2 by investigating what effective student learning looks like. Just as norms are an important part of a peer coaching relationship, so too is a shared vision for what effective 21st century learning looks like. This shared vision creates a starting place for any collaborative work.

The future of education is changing to respond to the internet’s information age. With an overwhelming amount of information accessible online, the role of teachers is less about possessing knowledge and more about facilitating learning driven by the students themselves. It is about preparing students for the emerging skills of tomorrow’s jobs. Resources like the Partnership for 21st Century Learning and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) set out to define what effective students learning looks like to get there. Commonly referred to as the four C’s, communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity are referenced as the basic elements of 21st century learning. However, these skills can appear vague or nebulous compared to the daily needs of instruction. As a result, it is important for coaching teams to define which skills are most important to student success (Foltos, 2013). The work to define these characteristics becomes “a road map that describes what teachers need to do to improve their practice and specifics on how to shape teaching and learning activities to reach their goals” (Foltos, 2013, p. 105). Foltos (2013) provided a solid reminder that while it is easy to say that students need to learn 21st century skills, it is more challenging to transfer skills such as critical thinking to daily classroom practice.

How do we turn these frameworks, standards, visions and characteristics into realities? What does it looks like, specifically in an English language arts classroom?

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Coaching Relationships with New Teachers: Implementing Inquiry over Advocacy

Untitled Infographic (5)

This week in the Digital Educational Leadership program at Seattle Pacific University, I am exploring the roles of communication and collaboration in peer coaching as they align with ISTE Coaching Standards 1 & 2. Foltos (2013) asserted that effective communication and collaboration in a coaching relationship, “emphasize[s] inquiry over advocacy” (p. 87). He stated that reliance on advocacy can result in too much reliance on a coach’s expertise (Foltos, 2013). Instead, inquiry and feedback cycles between collaborating partners build capacity for autonomous problem solving, which serves to best meet student needs (Foltos, 2013). 

For better or for worse, new teachers have the same amount of responsibilities that veteran teachers do. Additionally, they have to learn these responsibilities in real time. While coaches desire to build a new teacher’s capacity, it is still all too easy to advocate when daily problems need solutions. Unfortunately, reliance on advocacy puts the coach in the role of perpetual expert (Foltos, 2013). While I am not an expert in all realms, I do have an expertise that could be useful to a new teacher. On the other hand, I don’t want to influence a teacher too heavily from my one set of experiences and perspectives. Where is the balance between inquiry and advocacy in a coaching relationship with a new teacher?

How do you promote inquiry over advocacy, given the vast amount of new information new teachers need to acquire daily? 

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Revising a BYOD Action Plan: Creating an Online PD Space

Action Plan Feedback

This quarter, I have been working to develop an action plan centered around how the policy of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) fits into my ideal learning environment. Recently, my class came together for a face-to-face session to review emerging plans. We engaged in a practice known as a Tuning Protocol to receive feedback. Just as student learning isn’t as powerful in a vacuum, neither is the ongoing learning and development of educators. Dearman and Alber (2005) address using collaborative practices to analyze and reflect on student work, and claimed that the involvement of educators in reflection and decision making not only creates commitment, but propels and sustains instructional shifts. After my participation in this process, I can see how this would work.

I was astounded by the high level of my peers’ action plans. Their thoughtful reflections on their school learning environments seamlessly merged into their envisioned growth opportunities. The feedback I received on my own plan left me poised to dig deeper, clarify confusions, and make decisions about how it will all come together. For example, @EllenJDorr prompted me to remember that I have to address the connection between BYOD and student-centered learning. Student independence requires teachers to loosen some control over the use of technology in the classroom. Additionally, @Ingersoll_Ryan reminded me that it is not just about rationalizing the positive impacts of BYOD, but owning the distractions personal devices do cause. Yes, students will be distracted at times, and this will be challenging. However, we can own our role to instruct students how to manage this distraction.

Professional development has continued to be the focus of my plan. While I have continued to focus on the unconference model, I have struggled to articulate the research-based evidence of this choice. Additional research has highlighted the power of working in cohorts, who focus on content and engage in active learning (Desimone et al., 2002). The professional development cycle I graphically outlined above centers on these fundamentals. The first step of my plan involves introducing this professional development plan to staff. Many in my cohort suggested that I showcase what successful BYOD in the classroom looks like, share school demographics about student online and device use, and present the rationale for why BYOD benefits student learning, all in the pursuit of inviting staff to participate in the larger conversation (@MrsBTodd gave me a great suggestion to develop a simple infographic to distribute).

Finally, the feedback I received also pushed me to realize that I need jump in and start designing this professional development process. My biggest struggle has been how to blend the unconference model, which fosters interest and participant-driven conversations, with the inquiry model, which supports instructional growth via experimentation and collegial feedback. Participating in both of these practices led to my own instructional shifts this past year, so their value is fresh in my mind. So how do these two ideas come together? I thought the only way to figure this out was to start to build it…

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