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Inquiry Book Study: Week Two

Welcome to week two of our inquiry book study!

This week we're looking at Chapter Two from "Making Learning Whole" by David Perkins. A huge thanks to Yvonne Denomy for being the guest blogger for this week! She's written an amazing post...


Chapter Two: Make the Game Worth Playing
My Bio: I am a literacy teacher in Saskatoon. Currently, I am on an educational leave while completing my final term in the Master of Education in Teacher-librarianship program through the University of Alberta. I am in the process of writing my capstone paper on the topic of designing authentic, inquiry-based experiences for 21st century learning. One of my big questions is determining what it means to “understand” in today’s rapidly changing information landscape in hopes of clarifying my vision of 21st century classrooms and schools. As you can well imagine, Making Learning Whole has been a perfect fit for my learning!

I have to begin by telling a story. Last year, I was invited to do some co-teaching in one of the Middle Years classrooms at my urban community school. Our primary goal was to improve student writing, so upon examining our student writing samples, the teacher and I established that one of our objectives would be to help students organize their writing by gaining a deeper understanding of text structures, particularly transitions.

Whenever I teach writing, I always try to show positive exemplars using pieces of writing that I love; on this particular day, I had framed the lesson using a passage from the text, Through My Eyes, the autobiography of Ruby Bridges.

In this passage, Ruby Bridges retells the events from her birth leading up to and including that historical first day at William Frantz Elementary School; written with wonderful transitions to sequence the events through time. I opened the lesson by asking the students to tell me what they knew about the Civil Rights movement and/or Ruby Bridges. The students had very little background, but one student offered that this “might have happened in the U.S, perhaps something to do with Martin Luther King Jr.” Immediately, another of our students responded, "Who cares about that? That has nothing to do with us, why are you making us learn about something that happened in the U.S anyways?" At first I was taken aback, but I just smiled and replied, "Great question. Why should we care?"


Yes, “beginnings are important,” says Perkins. So, I began by showing an image of the Norman Rockwell painting, The Problem We All Live With, (original image can be found here) and we inferred what might be happening in the picture. The students were highly engaged as we inquired into the painting, identifying the details we could be certain of, and those which must be inferred from our experiences and clues in the image.

Once the students had formed some hypotheses, I showed a short two minute video clip from the Disney movie, The Story of Ruby Bridges, depicting those few minutes as Ruby gets into the car and walks to the front doors of the school. We discussed how Ruby must have felt, and we imagined walking in Ruby’s shoes that morning. I then read aloud the passage from the text leading up to this moment, in Ruby's own words.

I think we had one of the best conversations ever as a class that day as we discussed how difficult it can be to face racism and the courage it takes to stand up for our rights and for what we believe (after all, our students know about racism, courage and human rights). We talked about big questions such as: What is worth fighting for? What allows some people the strength and courage to make sacrifices for what they believe (Ruby’s parents, for example, in allowing Ruby to go to school; her father losing his job; sacrificing personal safety...)?

When it came time to write, I reread the passage, continuing on into Ruby’s first day of school. We examined the words, phrases and structures that Ruby Bridges had used which helped us to sequence the events of that day. I then asked the students to retell an event from their own history using some of the transitions Ruby used in the passage (or their own). I think it was the best writing these students had ever generated for me.

As recess neared, this normally reluctant room of students asked if they could read their life stories aloud. It was moving, listening to students tell their personal stories, sharing (and showing) their courage while facing some of the hardships of their lives, openly and respectfully... using transitions to sequence the events. The student who had challenged me at the start of the lesson was perhaps the most engaged of all. On the way out the door that morning, I stopped that student and thanked her for her engagement in both the discussion and in her writing. Her reply, "Yeah, well for once, we did something that I actually cared about!"


Although I had only one scheduled block with this classroom per week, the students asked their teacher if they could continue the learning without me. Of course! As well, we came back to the text several times in our writing; modeling transitions to describe, show cause and effect, and so forth.

Perkins’ Chapter 2: Make the Game Worth Playing, naturally brought me back to this story. I think about how our goal that day was primarily to teach writing transitions. The fact that we achieved this goal and went beyond into something that really matters reflects, for me, the power of the choices we make as teachers. I think that is why this chapter is called “Make” the Game Worth Playing, not “Find” a Game Worth Playing. It’s truly what we make it. We certainly could have given the students a worksheet of transition words and phrases and had them practice these hard parts of writing in elements (elementitis).

Alternatively, our students could have learned about text structures, the Civil Rights movement or Ruby Bridges without big questions guiding our thinking (aboutitis). Instead, I think we were able to achieve something much deeper and far more worthwhile, simply by framing the learning, and establishing a good beginning. What strikes me is that this shifts the “hard parts” from the students to us; it’s not always easy framing the learning in ways that matter to the students.

Like so many things, I think it just takes practice. Although I readily admit that I am still figuring it out, I did have some practice beforehand, as well as the support of both colleagues and experts who helped me figure it out along the way, too. One of these experts was Jeff Wilhelm, author of Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry: Promoting Deep Understandings in Language Arts and the Content Areas with Guiding Questions (2007), a book that really helped me along my journey.

If you haven’t already had a chance, listen to this clip of Jeff Wilhelm as he shares some of his thoughts on this topic. (Scholastic Professional series) I love how Wilhelm says, “You can’t just DO Romeo and Juliet, or Roll of Thunder, Hear Me Cry, or Number the Stars. You have to say, “Why is this in the curriculum? Why does this matter?”

What are your thoughts about this chapter or Wilhelm’s clip? Can you share some of the choices you have made in reframing topics so they matter (generative topics, as Perkins would say). Or perhaps can you share a favourite beginning, a story about the power of choice, expectations or challenge?

What is Service Learning

Alberta Education has identified three essential goals to be achieved by students within the framework of the Programs of Studies:

  • Engaged learning
  • Ethical citizenship
  • Entrepreneurship

These qualities are embedded in the culture of the Calgary Science School and are manifested through a variety of initiatives that emulate a humanitarian focus and social responsibility on local, regional, and global platforms.

As a means of facilitating a wide array of student-driven projects, Service Learning blocks have been incorporated into the timetable for all grades.

At the junior high grades, these periods share a time slot on the schedule to afford students and teachers opportunities to collaborate when two or more classes are focused on the same outcome. In effect, Service Learning represents the integration of knowledge, skills, and attributes in a meaningful and authentic manner that reflects the intent and vision of an inquiry-based learning environment.


Some of our Service Learning Projects so far:

Hands at Work Africa: Update!

As written before, one of our Calgary Science School teachers, Chris Dittmann, is currently on a one-year leave of absence from our school. During this year, he's volunteering for Hands-at-Work in Africa, an organization that works with oprhaned and vulnerable children in sub-saharan Africa.

Leading up to the Winter holiday, our school participated in a number of student-led fundraising and awareness building activities, as part of our annual Peace Festival. This student-led fundraising brought in over $13,000 for building projects in South Africa! What amazing and supportive families we have in our school community.

Here's an update from Chris Dittmann, who is managed the projects on site in South Africa:

Learning Strategies: Reading Skills

This year, one of the significant changes we have made at our school is the inclusion of a regular block of time, called "Learning Strategies" into our schedule.

This block is designed as a support to ensure that all our students are successful learners at CSS. The Learning Strategies time is available for teachers to provide additional support to particular students, or a way to meet the needs of students in different ways.

Our grade 7 team started the year using Learning Strategies as a way to build reading skills across all the subjects. Working with the students, 7 reading strategies were developed:

  • Determining Importance
  • Questioning
  • Visualizing
  • Making Inferences
  • Connecting Ideas
  • Monitoring Meaning
  • Summarizing

This video of students explaining the 7 strategies was created by one of the grade 7 teachers:


After showing this video during one of our staff PD days - the grade 8 team adopted the 7 strategies and had their students work through a 'talking to the text' assignment:



Reading image by margolove

Authentic Contexts for Learning

One of the key elements of inquiry-based learning at the Calgary Science School is embedding student work into authentic contexts. Our teachers spend a great deal of time designing work that bridges the program of studies and the 'real world.' This notion comes to us from our work with the Galileo Educational Network and their Inquiry Rubric.

One such context at our school this year is a community garden. We applied for healthy living grant back in the spring - and we were awarded the funding necessary to begin a community garden on our school site.

In addition to all the great hands-on experiences our teachers and students will have through building, planting and maintaining the garden, this project also creates a context for students to be involved in the design and planning stage. And one group of grade 7 students has taken up this challenge.

Working over the last month, the design of the garden has been turned over to students In planning the layout of the garden, the grade 7 teacher (Carolyn Armstrong) has her students all working on different aspects of the project. As we do a quick walk around this classroom, you see students working on tasks including:
  • creating PPT presentations on the garden (to be used in community discussions)
  • designing the layout on grid paper (using proper scale)
  • designing the layout with 3D models (using cardboard)
  • designing the layout using Google Sketchup
  • placing the layout (to scale) on our school site, using Google Earth
  • calculating a budget for the garden
  • researching decorative rock work (including calling for prices and calculating weight)
  • sifting and calculating gravel amounts
  • determining supply amounts and costs
  • maximizing the use of posts for structural integrity

Now that the students have become engaged in the design on the project, Carolyn is able to embed some of her math curriculum into the garden. Here's some of the math problems the students are currently wrestling with:




Other examples of math in context:

CSS Snow Angels

For some residents of Lakeview, the first snowfall of this winter was met with the arrival of the CSS Snow Angels. This group of grade 9 students took up the idea of becoming snow angels for their service learning project this term.

One local resident commented " What a wonderful surprise to wake up to find our front sidewalk had been cleared". No doubt this group will have a busy season ahead of them!




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?

Innovation in Education Discussion Series

The Calgary Science School is starting an Innovation and Education "think tank" discussion series. This initiative is designed to get a range of educational stakeholders together to discuss emerging ideas and possibilities in education, particularly around different technologies and their implication for the classroom.

We have planned our first "Innovation in Education" event for Wednesday, March 23rd, from 7:00 - 8:30pm.

A grade 8 teacher from the Calgary Science School, David Scott, will be the facilitator for our first event. David has become very interested the potential of digital publishing or 'etextbooks' - particularly as resource for teacher professional development. David is starting to build his first "integrated digital teaching resource" - a digital document embedded with video files, student examples and assessment resources.