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Inquiry Book Study: Week One!

Welcome to the first post of the CSS Inquiry Book Series!

This series is free to open to anyone wanting to join in on our discussion of the book “Making Learning Whole” by David Perkins. You can get the back story on the series here.

The format of this series is a new post every Tuesday for 6 weeks - followed by discussion using the comment feature. The only exception is next week, when we’ll have the opportunity to attend a free webinar by the author David Perkins. Info about the webinar can be found here.

Thanks to those who have signed up – both to those who are signed up to read and comment, and especially to those 6 very generous souls who’ve agreed to guest post! There are over 50 signed up – most of whom we don’t know! What a great turn out.

Lets get started!

Introduction and Chapter One
(Writer Bio: Neil Stephenson is the Professional Development and Outreach Coordinator at the Calgary Science School. In this unique role, Neil spends his time doing two things: (1) assisting CSS teachers design inquiry-based learning projects and (2) sharing what the school does and looking for opportunities for connection and collaboration.)

I started reading this book a few months ago, and was immediately struck with what a masterful and yet simple job Perkins does of something that I have tried, and found difficult – explaining what it means to design teaching and learning around authentic topics.

Here at the Calgary Science School our main focus is inquiry-based learning, supported by technology integration (we’re a full 1:1 school) and outdoor education, both of which play a key role in connecting our school to the real world.

However, this concept of inquiry-based learning can be a difficult one to get your hands on – is it just student-centered learning? Is it the same as problem/project/discovery based learning? Is it about student question asking?

To assist us with developing a clear and consistent model of inquiry, here at the Science School we have chosen to adopt something called the Galileo Inquiry as our framework. This rubric presents inquiry as 9 categories (Authenticity, Academic Rigour, Assessment, Appropriate use of Technology, Active Exploration, Elaborated Communication, Compassion, Use of Expertise and Life Skills.)

And while I’m not going to get into the rubric here – what I immediately noticed about the introduction and 1st chapter of “Making Learning Whole” is how well they explain the foundation of inquiry, the first two categories on the inquiry rubric, Authenticity and Academic Rigour.

In my (continually developing) understanding of inquiry, I believe these are the two most important elements to developing an inquiry-based classroom. Over the last few years at the school, we have begun saying that inquiry is not a teaching methodology or set of teaching skills, but rather a disposition. Inquiry is about how a teacher thinks about the subject they teach, and how they introduce students to what is important, worthwhile, interesting, beautiful, etc about a topic. It’s not about doing an inquiry unit – but rather a way of approaching the whole thing – how you see yourself as a learner, how you see yourself in the subject you teach, how you see students as learners, etc.

To use Perkins’ phrase – I believe inquiry is bringing students into the ‘whole game’ of the subjects we teach as opposed to the breaking down of learning into isolated, disconnected chunks. At it’s core, inquiry acknowledges that the things we teach actually live ‘in the world’ and that one of our tasks as teachers is to work through what’s worth knowing about those topics, and design meaningful and authentic learning around it. Inquiry sees topics as topica (Latin = a place, a topography) that we bring students into. This gets at one of the key questions about inquiry – is it all student driven?

I believe that strong inquiry-based work is a delicate balance between a few things – between student interest and choice, balanced with strong teaching practices (including good assessment and clear goals) balanced with what’s meaningful and important about a topic. And it’s this third piece – the topic – that I think is often missing in the timeless debate between teacher centered versus student learning.

That’s what initially hooked me with this book by Perkins – a sense of the importance of the topic – ‘the whole game’ that we build learning around. And it’s this metaphor of the game that I want to start with – particularly in light of the teacher/student centered debate.

I really like the idea of ‘the game’ – even though Perkins does apologize for the lightness of the term. When I first read the intro on the ‘game’ I was reminded of reading I’ve done recently for my master’s degree – Truth and Method by German hermeneutic philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer.

In this major work, Gadamer argues that there’s a form of truth in the humanities that doesn’t have to rely on scientific method (a debate for other day!) and a good chunk of the text is an explanation of the concept of human experience. What I find interesting is that there’s a lengthy piece of Truth and Method that uses the concept of ‘play’ as a metaphor for human experience.

One of Gadamer’s arguments is that a true experience is something that happens to us, rather than the other way around. We often say we ‘have an experience’ where Gadamer would argue that it’s more the case that ‘an experience has us.’ Elsewhere Gadamer writes that true experience happens to us ‘above our wanting and doing.’ And so Gadamer uses the concept of play as one of the ways to explain human experience.

We all know that in the experience of play, we are caught up in something beyond ourselves - even beyond the totality of the players involved. The act of play seems to have some reality that exists between the players – it’s not found in only the experience of any one player. As well, as Gadamer writes, “play fulfills its purpose only if the player loses himself in play.” This is why play is so attractive – for people of all ages – it’s something beyond us that we can get ‘caught up in’ – an experience beyond ourselves.

And this is why I like the metaphor of the ‘game’ used by Perkins. While ‘play’ or the ‘game’ can seem like a childish metaphor for learning – I think it’s value lies in this notion that we’re building learning around something bigger than just the teacher and learner – that there’s something real – and we can be caught up in it.

And it’s that what I envision deep and engaging learning to be – being so interested in the topic that we’re taken away by something beyond ourselves – into that state of flow written about by Csikszentmihalyi. (Great TED talk here) Or, in Gadamer’s language, “through the playful character of the contest, the contestant does not consider himself to by playing.” The game then is not just ‘fun’ but something real and bigger than ourselves that we bring into the classroom.

So for Perkins, the way to think about teaching and learning is to build it around a ‘game’ – not only as a way to engage students, but also as a remedy for the excessive ‘elementitis’ and ‘aboutitis’ that dominates much classroom activity. In the words of my graduate supervisor, David Jardine: (from here)

Each task faced in the classroom is precisely not an isolated fragment which must bequickly covered and then dropped in order to get on to the next bit. Rather, classroom and curriculum topics, conversations, and events are treated as ways in to the whole of the living inheritances that have been handed to teachers and students in schools. One is never “doing” an isolated fragment, but is always “doing” the whole living field from a particular locale. Particular events are “read” or “treated” as a part of some longstanding whole to which it belongs and from which it gains its sense and significance.

In addition to my attraction to the notion of the ‘whole game’, there were a few eye-opening and sobering ideas that came out of this first section of the book, a few of which I’d like to highlight.

One is the fact that some learning ‘about’ and some teaching of ‘elements’ is a good thing. My own tendency is to focus too much on the holistic game – at the cost of the elements. (Chapter three was a great read that way). I like how Perkins’ ideas seem so simple. Teach content when teaching content is the right thing to do. Not all classroom activities need to be about the game. As he writes, “Learning by wholes does not say that all learning should be aggressively discovery orientated. What suits a particular topic is something judgment call.”

What I really like about this quote is that it’s often the topic that we as teachers need to look to for guidance on how to teach. So much of the reading I do, particularly online, strives to structure teaching and learning around general principles and skills. It seems to suggest that student-centered collaboration, creative thinking, group work, technology, critical thinking and others can be taught isolated from the particular content, and that they are all good, all the time. What I get a reminder from Perkins is we need to judge when is best to let students loose and when to reign them in, when to let them explore and when to directly teach content. And what I really like it that it’s the topic that helps us decide.

And while the content of the topic is important, I also really liked the idea that learning should be about getting better at something. At CSS we heavily rely on the concept of ‘teacher as designer of learning’ and when teachers plan inquiry projects, one of the first steps is to determine what the intended learning goals are. In a similar way, I like the language Perkins uses – ‘getting better at something’ – and for me it reminds me that all the individual tasks that I design for the student need to build and scaffold toward the students actually getting better at something – and ideally getting better at something worthwhile.

The last point I’ll discuss in this post was very important for me – making sure that the games we bring into the classroom are appropriate and allow our students to ‘get better’ in the right thing! As we try to design engaging and interesting work for kids, I think it’s so easy to dress up learning with the wrong game – I know I’ve done it many times. And what’s difficult is that it can still look as though the students are still interested and engaged.

I really liked the ‘dancing mitosis’ example as contrasted with the designing a fish example. The dancing mitosis was a great reminder for me that we can try to engage kids with activities that aren’t central to the content, or more importantly, the actual reality of the game being played. Just because learning is built around a game – does not necessarily mean it’s the right game.

And I think this becomes even more dangerous the more technology is available. While I believe technology can provide incredible ‘whole games’ to build learning around – I also think there’s a potential to use technology to build a ‘whole game’ that has nothing to do with the intended learning. The real test – does the technology we use help our students ‘get better’ at what’s worthwhile knowing about the topic? In some of the research from our 1:1 program – we’ve seen a mix of both – technology can be a wonderful tool for building ‘whole games’ for learning – but it can also become a tricky distraction as students invest a great deal of time creating digital products that aren’t improving student learning.

There’s so much more that can be written about this opening introduction and chapter – and I’m hoping that some of it will get picked up in the comments.

I’m also hoping some of the discussion will be around examples of how these elements can actually be lived out in classrooms – that through this book study we will be able to take the ideas out of the clouds and into classroom practice.

So with that in mind – I’ll finish by sharing some examples of how we’ve tried to build learning around ‘whole games’ here at the Calgary Science School.

Mayoral Forum – back in the fall, our grade 9s hosted a forum for a local mayoral election. Students were responsible for researching the campaign issues and candidates, and then they hosted a live forum that was broadcast to other Calgary Schools. 2000 students watched as our grade 9s ran the cameras, lighting, and sound while taking questions in real time from other schools. Our students then visited two local university campuses, spending the afternoon convincing college kids that voting is an important democratic activity.

Building Virtual Machines. Grade 8 science students created virtual Rube Goldberg machines to demonstrate their understanding of simple machines. I like this example one because the technology does two things: (1) allow students to play a game (building the machine) that would have been much more difficult and time consuming without the tech, and (2) capture student thinking with the voiceover.

Water Quality Testing. Our grade 5 students were the first to try out a set of water probes we purchased. Students gained understanding of the background content by learning and jigsawing information on 5 qualities of water. They then gathered and analyzed samples from a local wetland. Here you’ve got students ‘playing the game’ in the same way as experts – using the same equipment and doing the same calculations.

So what examples can you share of building learning around the ‘whole’ version of the game? How have you adapted games to be junior versions? And what challenges have you faced with finding the right game for the right outcome? How do we overcome this?


Unknown said...

The whole game in my context is reading since I work for the Great Books Foundation. In fact, the context for our reading game is pretty authentic even for beginning and pre-readers. The adult game is reading with understanding and thought. Even for adults, we suggest rules of this game that limits grandstanding and provides a field of play that has boundaries--stay within a text. The junior version has most of the same rules but also has texts that are more appealing and easier reads for the young or novice reader.

In the game, which we call Shared Inquiry, a main question is posed by a leader that is intriguing and does not have an easy answer. Each reader gets a chance to speak. Each response must stay in bounds and can be responded to by the group. Within this game, readers get to hear other viewpoints, strategies, arguments, and hone their own skills. There is lots of re-reading because answers to questions must be found somewhere in the text. It's a very rich game that looks a lot like discussion.

Melita Farley said...

What a lovely, and thought-provoking post. Thank you.

Mark - I really like your concept of Shared Inquiry and wonder whether this is an important element to take further with learners. It is very easy to focus on a particular outcome for inquiry based learning activities, but I feel that we as teachers/facilitators need to leave space to learn with our learners. Focusing on a particular outcome (or set of outcomes) can mean we miss some exciting learning along the way.

Experimentation, be it with ideas or physical items, can provide as many surprises for those 'teaching' as it does to those 'learning'. Perhaps our role in those moments is to be comfortable letting learners see that we are also learning, and encourage them to take their experimentation further by considering why things may have happened or what they might expect to happen next.

19anne said...

Thanks for the opportunity for this discussion!

As a primary grade teacher, I particularly appreciate how Perkins uses the term "secondary dimensions" for outcomes that may occur, but were not originally intended. Young children are easily "engaged" and will quickly alter any learning pursuit as their interests and curiosity evolve the inquiry process continually.
"Play" is indeed how they learn best. And the game can change very quickly!

Our role as educators is to ensure that we help focus and re-focus their natural inquiry to "what matters" the most. These outcomes must be clearly understood, and agreed upon, by the teachers and students before the play begins. Knowing the boundaries of the "game", student interest and choice can be honoured and developed.

Sometimes those "secondary dimensions" especially within an integrated curriculum are worth playing too, as learning does shift in new directions when students (and teachers) are highly involved in their learning. Perhaps then the question of finding (or changing) the right game for the right purpose must be examined.

Neil Stephenson said...

When I get a few minutes I'll pull together a response to the comments so far - which are great.

In the meantime, just came across this interesting blog post - which I thought was a nice example of learning writing through the 'whole game'


Tim Pope said...

When working with math teachers, I often joke that I writing a book "Confessions Of a Struggling Math Teacher: My Personal History As a Math Educator". One of my struggles is that I unknowingly assumed that students came into my classroom having already played the game. I assumed students have already recognized "math experiences" in their own lives. I merely sought to abstract those experiences in the algorithms and variables of algebra.

I now know that to be successful with all learners, I need to facilitate students creating mathematical experiences in the classroom. I can them help them formalize this experience (the hard parts). The challenge as an educator is to ask the right questions to help students connect these experiences to the mathematics required by standards/tests (saving the argument about the value of these until another day).

Hyacinth Schaeffer said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post, Neil. I have enjoyed reading all the subsequent comments as well. My main experience is in science education, so my example comes from there.

In my former position as Director of Learning for Science Alberta Foundation, my team and I would work hard at developing resources that would mimic the whole game ... Perkins' junior version perhaps. One in particular was a Science-In-A-Crate resource called "Environmental ER" where the ER stands for "emergency response" - in this case to a pipeline breach near a fictional community. The curriculum content came from Grade 9 "Environmental Chemistry". We talked to oil companies to find out what the response is to a pipeline breach (sadly, something that is often in the news) and found out that an entire team is deployed to respond. The urgency was palpable as we did our research. Working with the real experts who performed these jobs, the resource that emerged began with a televised report of the incident, and deployment of ER teams (groups of students) and the teacher as the ER commander. At each of 7 stations students had to analyze real data (obtained from the experts). The stations represented each of the specialists on the team (chemist, aquatic biologist, soil specialist, etc). Putting all the evidence together from each station, the ER teams present their findings, conclusions and recommendations to the commander. It becomes clear that there is not one "right" answer, but that evidence is essential in supporting recommendations. They also find out that there are many perspectives at work, not just from science, but economic, political, personal, etc. The thing students liked most was that the data they were working with was real ... not pretend. And that the situation was "real" with "real" consequences that they could relate to in the news. It felt like the whole game to them. The same could be said for "citizen scientist" involvement ... the data I collect contributes to a bigger database and I can see the results.

Clearly the content/topic is very important but I like that Perkins continues to ask: what topic and skills? What kinds of thinking? It's not just discovery learning, and it's not just playing the whole game. It's about the other 6 principles as well.

Looking forward to reading more ...

Hyacinth Schaeffer said...

I'm curious about what the group thinks about SOLO Taxonomy as seen in this video in relation to Perkins concerns over "elementitis" and "aboutitis". He does make a case for needing to deal with elements and information at the right time and in the appropriate way.

Sarah said...

I really enjoyed reading the blogpost Neil posted above. The blogger refers to the mundane nature of breaking learning down in to little pieces that are hardly recognizable, which seems to agree with what Perkins is saying. In particular though, I appreciated this:
"No one seems willing to believe in how much children are capable of learning and doing when they’re permitted to exist in a world where everything is interconnected."

Indeed our brains are constantly making connections, synthesizing new information into already existing information so we can make sense of our experiences. Some models within education promote knowledge building that's more complex than just reweaving into the information as you go along. Instead, each stage of knowledge builds upon another that needs not be revisited because one level doesn't make sense without the previous one. It seems that this is where Perkins is going too.

Neil Stephenson said...

Thanks for all the throughtful comments everyone - I'm enjoying the discussion.

Starting with what Sarah said - I think my definition of inquiry is more and more framed by the concept that "everything is connected". I think the starting point is bringing topics into our classrooms that are rich and 'generous' - that will open up into important discussions and further inquiries.

As others have mentioned, a rich topic can also lead to 'secondary' outcomes. In fact, we could say that a great topic could lead into countless outcomes. And for myself - I'm starting to see both the potential and the danger of a really rich topic. I know that my own tendency is toward the big, rich, authentic task or question - and this book is really helping me to see the important of narrowing or thoughtfully constraining the study.

Inquiry can so easily turn into "activity mania" which is where I completely agree with Hyacinth's comment about balancing content AND skills.

I just spent this morning sitting in on a fantastic planning meeting for a grade 6 math question. What I loved (since I'm not a math teacher) was how the teachers started with a deep understanding of the skills (ratio and percents) and then structured the question around that. What I also really loved watching was how the expertise of the teachers, particularly around the usual student misconceptions with ratio, was carefully considered. In planning the question, the teachers spent a great deal of time choosing the right numbers that for the question, to ensure that the right student misconception might emerge.

For me it was a wonderful example of a highly structured, highly 'teacher-centered' approach to math inquiry - and this approach at the front end means that students can be led into a space that has already been deeply explored by the teacher. What was interesting was how the potential for student exploration and problem solving was not removed - in fact is was central to the problem - but rather the question was slowly and carefully constructed to get at the right types of mathematical thinking. In this sense, it was finding the right 'whole game' for this particular skill.

For me - this is definitely the most significant thing from my reading - and I'm seeing it everywhere! How much time we waste as teachers playing the wrong game.. even though it looks engaging.

And like other commenters - I'm looking forward to seeing how the other 6 principles fit inside this metaphor of the game.

Larraine Ryan said...

When trying to "find the right game" or to anticipate the (un)intended positive consequences of Neil's CSS Gr 6 Math Inquiry, Sarah captures it best in selecting Perkins' quote "...believe in how much children are capable of learning and doing when they’re permitted to exist in a world where everything is interconnected." The students will learn more from navigating the inquiry by making connections to what they already know and deconstructing a "near miss" or actually falling into the "mathematical trap" anticipated by the design team than from engaging in the right types of mathematical thinking. As Perkins says, it's in the doing rather than in the elements of the task that provides a "junior version" of the mathematical problem solving enterprise, rich!!

DKMead said...


Its very interesting that you mention SOLO taxonomy, as one of my page notes in the introduction is also quizical of SOLO's role in this.

I believe SOLO is the antithesis of elementitis. As despite being hierarchical it is integrative, unlike Blooms. So that from a whole experience you may only get certain elements, but they exist in a whole structure. In fact i think SOLO is a tool that will help us and our students identify the hard parts.

The notes that I made in the introduction refer to the how poorly teacher feedback tends to be in diagnosing learning problems. SOLO is great at this and feeds forward to the next piece of learning.

Sorry all for the tardiness of my responses! I've almost caught everyone up!



DKMead said...


I totally agree about the need to teacher structuring of inquiries. There is a great art to this, and something that I find difficult. Its almost as if I forget all of the pedagogical content knowledge Ive spent 14 years aquiring. The video clips on the Calgary Science School website, really make clear the amount of focus that highly structured inquiries give to student learning converstaions. Inspiring.

Is there a process you use to plan the content of the inquiries? Love to hear/steal it?



Neil Stephenson said...

Hi Darren.. I totally agree.. it's an art! In presentations that I give about Inquiry, this always comes up - and I think it's the central struggle with Inquiry. How much should be student driven vs. teacher driven? My typical answer (though not helpful) is that it's situational. It differs for different grades, subjects, topics, particular students, outcomes, etc. I think this is the 'heavy lifting' that is at the heart of teaching inquiry - negotiating this balance.

For myself, I'm starting to lend more toward the teacher-driven, or more accurately, 'subject-driven' side of things. When I started teaching inquiry about 8 years ago, I was very student-centered - lots of big chaotic projects! Since then, I've been actually finding myself moving back toward the centre - and have been really thinking a lot about the importance of the topic as the centre of the inquiry. You can read more about my thoughts here:

In terms of planning for inquiry, here at the Science School we use the Galileo Inquiry Rubric as the foundation for our understanding. This might help:

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