The What, Why and How of Open Minds at BICS

How have Great White Sharks evolved?

Has soccer equipment improved player performance?

What does it take to survive on Mars?
I’d love to spend a day researching each of these questions from our Grade 6-7 students.  If only I had the time!
The Grade 6-7 teachers at BICS understand that students likely feel the same way:  They have interests that they would love to learn more about, if only they had the time.   Although we provide opportunities within the BC curriculum for students to follow their passions, we felt it was important to truly honour, encourage and celebrate our students’ curiosity by offering them a day to inquire into any topic that interested them.
This idea is not new.  For years companies and schools have been providing “genius hours” which allow employees and students time to pursue their passions.
We tried to balance making this an open day of learning with a format that would achieve the objectives below.  There is usually more structure behind inquiry than what first meets the eye.  We wanted students (and for #3, parents as well) to:
1.      Enjoy curiosity
2.      Practise their critical thinking and digital literacy skills in acquiring, evaluating, and synthesizing information
3.      Gain greater familiarity with the cycle of inquiry
4.      Have an opportunity to share their interests and learning with classmates, parents and teachers
5.      See that adults love learning too

The Format

Step One – Ask an “important“ question that is worthy of your time.
We gave students a strategy called the Question Formulation Techniqueto pick a “big” question that would sustain inquiry.  Students were asked as a class to create criteria for what constitutes important
Step Two – Share your question.
Students shared their question on the website padlet (  This allowed other students and parents to see and respond to the questions of all 75 students participating.  In one instance, a parent shared a student’s question with a professor and head of the Criminology Department at Simon Fraser University.  The professor emailed the student’s teacher a page worth of fascinating questions that the student could consider.  More importantly than receiving the questions was that the student understood that her learning was important enough to society that a complete stranger took the time to respond, in depth, to her learning.
Step Three – Explore
A handbook for each student provided a timeline for the day, a guide to evaluating website credibility, the location of technology (75 ipads and laptops), and a description of quiet and silent workspaces available. Students were also given three rules:
1.  Love learningPicture1.jpg
2.  Learn a lot
3. Make your learning purposeful.
Within five minutes of being released after instructions, all 75 students were fully engaged in their research.
Step Four – Share Your Learning
The focus of the day was on learning, not sharing.  But, we believe that engaged learners want to share their learning so we used the afternoon for students to visit with other students to learn about their topics. Many parents joined in for this process.  Students were given a marker and a piece of large chart paper as the only tools, other than talking, to share their learning; the focus was on content not presentation.
After students spent the morning largely on computers, we wanted them to understand the importance of sharing their learning with others:  not all information is on the internet and information that is available online is often scattered.  It takes a person, a student, to synthesize this information into a format that makes sense for them and perhaps their context.
Step Five – Reflection
For the last half hour of the day, students were given a reflection sheet which asked several questions related to their learning and the learning of others.  Students were asked what they found challenging, what was something they did that they will use again, when and how they did their best work as well as what they would do next time.  In response to the learning of others, students were asked what the most surprising thing they learned was, the most interesting thing, and something they learned that they want to remember.

Our Reflection

In observing students, reading their reflections, and speaking with some of the parents who attended, we learned a number of things:
·         We may need to give students more time to work with their topic and questions prior to the actual Open Minds day:  finding relevant learning materials, creating a mind map, engaging with each other’s questions on Padlet
·         Parents enjoyed the opportunity to engage with their child`s learning and the learning of other children.  About twenty parents came for all or parts of the day; we even had a parent come to learn about her own topic, nicely modeling her passion for lifelong learning.
·         The involvement of parents and our school’s Principal heightened students’ beliefs that this day, this celebration of their curiosity, was important.
·         Our students need more digital literacy skills; accessing and synthesizing information
·         We have a truly remarkable group of grade 6-7 students who worked hard throughout the day with little prompting from their teachers. 
·         Most students, not all, really enjoyed Open Minds.
While teachers often see themselves as confined by time, it is refreshing to see ourselves as controllers of time as well.  We have the ability to prioritize and make time for what we think is important.  Open Minds has been a great way to make time for students to celebrate curiosity and explore their passions.
Thank you to the grade 6-7 team of Mrs. Magrath, Mrs. Rogers, Mrs. Wilcott and Ms. Layzell (on mat leave) for helping plan Open Minds and with the writing of this blog post.
Further Information
If you have an interest in some of the ideas shared in this post, some of the links and documents below might be of interest:
1.  Click here for a post by West Vancouver Teacher Darren Elves for more information on student questions and the Question Formulation Technique.
2.  Click here for other posts on inquiry at BICS.
3.  Click on the files below to access some of the documents we shared with parents and students for Open Minds.  If you are an educator, feel free to use/modify these documents.
Open Minds 2013.pdfOpen Minds 2013.pdf  – Information for Parents (what it is and how to get involved)
Open Minds 2013 Pamphlet.docxOpen Minds 2013 Pamphlet.docx Pamphlet for students for research and shape of the day
Open Minds Notes.docxOpen Minds Notes.docxOpen Minds Cornell Notes + Reflection

How Far Does Paper Travel?

About 600 years ago, Johannes Gutenberg created what became known as the Gutenberg printing press allowing for the written word to spread ideas to those who could read as well as help the illiterate by providing texts for practice. 

The printing presses in Europe and Asia were revolutionary because they facilitated the circulation of ideas by producing, quite efficiently at the time, large quantities of paper copies. 
The printing press is a contrast to a student printing out a solitary piece of paper for an assignment at school.  The students’ ideas don’t spread very far.
In an earlier blog post, I wrote about how students in intermediate classes at BICS were using their Student Dashboards and that one useful feature of these dashboards was the opportunity for students to blog.  In this post, I will share how, to make the most of this new feature, Ms. Layzell, Ms. DeReus and I sat down to plan a persuasive paragraph writing unit, one that allowed for the spread of ideas.  Our goal was for students to understand that:
  • The writing process can shape the opinion of the author and his/her audience;
  • A fact can be proven whereas someone must be convinced of an opinion;
  • Persuasion is a call to action or a challenge to change the audience’s thought/emotions.
At this point, you might be wondering if these goals could be met without the use of technology and Student Dashboards and I would argue that they could; but not as effectively.  The Dashboards aided us as teachers and our students in two ways.
First, the teachers involved were able to create our own blog posts that gave information about various topics that students could choose to write about. Students could visit Ms. DeReus’s blog and read about Attawapiskat, or Ms. Layzell’s blog about the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline or my blog about screen time.  All students at BICS using dashboards have access to any teacher’s blog, therefore when team teaching, it is easy to give students choice as to what they wish to research, students simply need to visit various teachers’ sites to see a variety of options.  Modelled after blog posts from our District’s Digital Literacy Support Teacher, each of our blog posts provided videos, links to credible websites for students to research, and an outline of the writing process including links to graphic organizers. The teacher blog posts were therefore jumping off points for students to do research and were a far more engaging, interactive and useful method of presenting a writing assignment than a piece of paper which doesn’t take the student very far.
Once students had done their research for their persuasive paragraph, either on one of the teacher options described above or on one of their own topics, the Student Dashboards provided a second benefit:  Students were able to publish their work.  What good is a persuasive paragraph if there is no one to persuade?  The Dashboards provide students with an audience, and like copies made from the Guttenberg press, students’ ideas were able to travel a lot farther than one piece of paper dropped into the teacher’s marking tray.
In addition to the benefit of writing for an audience, students have the benefit of being that audience.  They can learn about what their classmates have written, and they can share how their classmates writing made them feel or what connections they made during their reading.  The network created from students blogging  reinforces an important lesson for students:  that learning is a collaborative process and that ideas spread to form new ideas.
Good ideas need to spread and we all search, in our personal and professional lives, for efficient and meaningful networks to facilitate this. With Dashboards, students gain a greater sense of what their classmates are writing about, and they create another space for something all people need, to be listened to.