Three Questions

Three questions a learner should ask themselves at the close of every day:

  1. What do I know now that I didn’t at the start of the day?
  2. What can I do better now than at the start of the day?
  3. What do I want to do with my learning?

Teachers can ask these questions of students and themselves to gain a greater understanding of their students’ levels of engagement and empowerment.

You Keep What You Make

Just before Spring Break, students in outside45 built canoe paddles under the guidance of Ian Magrath, master craftsman and husband of BICS teacher Laura Magrath.


Photo: Laura Magrath

Students were visibly and justifiably proud of their creations:  They understood that their paddle was unique because of their efforts in shaping it and they appreciated the aesthetic and practical value of their paddles.  It was evident to me that students planned to keep their paddles for a lifetime.  I can think of few other material things for which this is true.

It occurred to me that people typically keep what they make and I began to think about how true this is of learning.

If students are able to construct meaning and shape their understanding, they are more likely to “keep” their learning than were information simply told to them.  This construction of learning goes beyond the transmission model of education where information is transmitted from teacher/textbook/website/documentary to the student to a transactional or transformational approach to learning.[i]

In transactional learning, students do not simply adopt the knowledge of the transmitter but construct their own meaning through seeking various perspectives, problem solving, as well as considering their experiences to draw their own conclusions and develop understandings.   In transformational learning, the learning experience may shape the student’s perspective on a topic or even their worldview and transform the way they approach and synthesize future learning.  I have described these three approaches in more detail here.

In October 2013, the BC Ministry of Education released a new Draft Curriculum[ii] for Kindergarten to Grade 9 for most elementary and middle school subjects.  The curriculum is organized in such a way that teachers and students can connect learning from subject to subject and from grade to grade in a way where students can construct a story of their learning.

How is this done?

The new curriculum is organized around four to six “big ideas” for each subject in each grade.  In some cases, the big ideas are the same or very similar across many grades.

Big ideas, according to the Ministry of Education, are “statements that are central to one’s understanding in an area of learning.  A big idea is broad and abstract. It contains two or more key concepts. It is generally timeless and is transferable to other situations.”  I have shared one big idea in the Science curriculum from Kindergarten to Grade 7.

Grade Big Ideas from Science related to Life Science
Kindergarten The basic needs of plants and animals are observable through their features.
Grade One Living things have features and behaviours that help them survive.
Grade Two All living things have a life cycle that includes birth, growth, reproduction, and death.
Grade Three Classification organizes diverse organisms into groups based on their characteristics.
Grade Four Living things sense and respond to stimuli in their environment.
Grade Five Living things are comprised of cells, tissues, organs, and organ systems.
Grade Six Multicellular organisms rely on internal systems to survive and interact with their environment.
Grade Seven The theory of evolution by natural selection provides an explanation for the diversity of living things.


The scope and sequence of these big ideas allows students to develop increasingly complex understandings of living things, from observation of features to a theory on how they adapted these features.  As noted above, big ideas are timeless and transferable to other situations so that the learning in Kindergarten Science can be related to learning in other subjects.

An example:

Imagine a student learning about the Social Studies Grade Five big idea:  “The development of natural resources has shaped the economy of different regions of Canada.”  By observing the resources humans extract, students learn about the current needs and wants of humans that these resources fulfill.  This understanding can be linked to the big idea in Kindergarten Science:  “The basic needs of plants and animals are observable through their features.”  In Kindergarten, the needs are observable through the organism’s features; in Grade Five, the basic and not-so-basic needs and wants of humans are observable through their resources.

Through these connections, big ideas allow learners to deeply understand concepts rather than try to memorize a broad array of content.  In my experience both as a teacher and learner, people do well at retaining and making connections with their understandings of concepts but content is more easily forgotten.  In this way, big ideas – developed with content knowledge – are useful for future learning; unstructured content far less so.  Teachers and learners are less likely to connect discrete information from subject to subject and from grade to grade.  But it is possible to connect big ideas – there are only 4-6 per subject for each grade – to other subjects horizontally and other grades vertically.  This creates an opportunity for teachers and schools to help students think holistically about a topic, and in great depth.

There will be no guide for teachers to follow in connecting curriculum from one subject to another and one grade to another.   The curriculum is left intentionally open-ended so that learning, while focused and purposeful, can be personalized and contextualized to schools, classrooms, and students.  After all, the intent is for students, with structure and guidance, to construct their own understandings of big ideas and connect their understandings to other areas of the curriculum and their lives beyond school.

It will be the job of educators and students to not only understand the big ideas of their subjects and current grade, but to understand how these big ideas relate to different subjects in different grades as well as life beyond school.  Doing so is complex work but it is also a great opportunity to connect learning so that students can construct their understanding of the world, and who they are in it.


[i]John P. Miller, Whole Child Education, some of which is available here

[ii] For a narrated tour of the online draft curriculum, click here.

Types of Learning

In speaking with students of outside45 shortly after they constructed canoe paddles with master boat builder Ian Magrath and their teacher Laura Magrath, it occurred to me that many students found their paddle instantly precious.  As soon as they planed and sanded their paddles, it became something they knew they would keep for a long time.

The phrase, “We keep what we make,” occurred to me, and I began to think of learning.  Do we keep our learning, meaning do we retain the knowledge, skills and understandings we develop, when we make meaning ourselves rather than this knowledge, skills, and understandings simply being transmitted to or at us.


Educators often describe three approaches to teaching and learning:  Transmission, Transaction, and Transformation.

Transmission is where, in the words of John Miller, “the student receives and accumulates knowledge and skills.”[i]  The knowledge and skills may be transmitted from the teacher, a textbook, a website, a documentary or other source.  The information flows one way and is largely seen as fixed; in other words, while knowledge may be gained by others, what is known is not increased through transmission.

Transactional teaching typically includes inquiry-based learning where students ask questions about a topic and acquire information to come to an understanding of the topic, and problem-based learning, where students are given a challenge they need to solve.  The focus, according to Miller, is on thinking rather than feeling.  This type of learning is linked to “constructivism” where students create their own meaning.

Transformational learning often connects with students emotionally, it challenges and shapes their attitudes and beliefs and through reflection upon experience,  shapes their worldview or perspective on a topic.  Beyond developing understanding and thinking skills, transformational learning teaches students about who they are in the world and as it affects their worldview and may influences the way they approach, perceive and synthesize future learning.[ii]

My next blog posts will be on BC’s new Draft Curriculum and the transactional and transformational opportunities it offers teachers and students to construct meaning and keep their learning.

[i] John P. Miller, Whole Child Education, some of which is available here.

[ii][ii] More information on transformational learning as described by Andrew Kitchenham can be found in his article “The Evolution of John Mezirow’s Transformative Learning Theory,” in the Journal of Transformative Education here.

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


Do schools need rules?  Does Canadian society promote bullying?  Why is it that humans are the only species that produce garbage?

These are a few of the questions that are guiding learning at BICS as our staff begins to provide inquiry-based learning opportunities for our students.

Teachers have always understood the importance of asking good questions but what is becoming a more prominent feature of learning is providing opportunities for students to own their learning by asking their own questions; and having the pursuit of these questions guide their learning.  When this happens, students become more engaged.  This process is central to inquiry-based learning, a core objective of our school’s “head” goal.

Increasing student’s capacity, ability and willingness to effectively exercise critical thinking skills is our school’s second goal.  Attached to this goal is the objective, to increase students’ ability to independently engage in an inquiry cycle that extends knowledge and deepens understanding.  An inquiry-cycle can briefly be described as asking a question, investigating it, responding to the question, discussing it with others, reflecting upon it, and then asking further questions to deepen inquiry.

Increasing student engagement is one reason to provide more opportunities for inquiry-based learning, the synergy between our school’s second goal and first objective, the development of critical thinking skills, is a second.  The Critical Thinking Consortium describes the habits of mind of a critical thinkeras being open-minded, fair-minded, and independent-minded, among others. These attributes can be developed as students engage in the inquiry cycle.  As students ask their questions of inquiry, they will need to be open-minded to the potential outcomes of their questions.  As they inquire, they must be fair-minded as their investigation exposes them to perspectives that may conflict with their biases.  And when they discuss the findings of their inquiry, they must be independent-minded in supporting their opinions with the evidence they have gathered rather than submitting to other opinions.

In addition to developing critical thinking skills, inquiry helps deepen understanding by focusing on big questions and enduring understandingsrather than facts and details.  While knowledge of facts is important and is acquired through inquiry, what is remembered in the long run, and what teaches students how to think about a topic, are enduring understandings. Understandings are foundational in the way one thinks about a subject and they are transferable to other subjects.  So what does an enduring understanding look like?  One example is, “Human body systems work together to create energy.” While students may not remember the name of the tube that connects the mouth and nose with the lungs (the trachea, which allows one key ingredient for energy, oxygen, to enter the body), students will remember the understanding this fact is attached to, namely that systems work together to keep a larger system alive.  This understanding is foundational for students to understand the human body as well as the interaction of other systems they will learn about in future studies.  This understanding can be pursued through questions of inquiry such as, What is the difference between a body that is alive compared to one that is not?

Much is made of companies like Google offering employees opportunities to pursue their own learning for part of their work week. Inquiry-based learning allows students to personalize their learning and pursue their passions, engaging them in their study, furthering their critical thinking skills and deepening their understandings.  We have much to learn about this goal, but the benefits of inquiry-based learning are clear.

The Purpose in Grit

It’s been said, “Nobody likes a quitter.”  Young people would typically be shielded from such statements today, but many of us hold very strong beliefs as to the importance of persistence and self-discipline – in other words, of stick-with-it-ness or grit.  So if grit is important, what are educators and parents doing to promote it?

While on a three day backpacking trip with my grade six and seven students in outside45, I noticed the literal grit building on my hands and reflected upon a presentation to West Vancouver Teachers in August by author Jennifer James and follow up discussions and readings with colleagues. Dr. James spoke on a number of topics but the two that most strongly resonated with me were the importance of grit and the energizing effect of having purpose and reminding ourselves of our purposes often.  The topic of grit in particular has spurred follow-up discussions led by Superintendent Chris Kennedy which included readings of Paul Tough’s ideas on grit, featured in the Globe and Mail (in Margaret Wente’s article), Tough’s article in The New York Times and an article by Grant Wiggins on motivating intellectual grit.

So what is grit?  What factors and experiences develop grit?  What erodes it?  And what is the connection, if any, between the development of physical and intellectual grit?

Many people regard an individual with a high level of grit as also possessing the following attributes or virtues:

  •  Persistence – not giving up, even when something is challenging and not fun;
  • Resilience – facing setbacks and moving on without being (too) discouraged;
  • Toughness – having an ability to deal with uncomfortable conditions for a long period of time, often thought of as endurance;
  • Self-Discipline and Excellence in pursuing long-term goals– holding the belief, as a former professor of mine said, that “anything worth doing is worth doing well.”

So what experiences or factors motivate persistence, resilience, toughness, self-discipline and a pursuit of excellence?  It would seem these qualities are not hard to possess when one is doing something they find enjoyable.  But grit is often identified with doing what needs to be done when enjoyment is absent.


I don’t think it was by accident that Dr. James featured the topics of gritand purpose in the same presentation.  For someone to have grit, they do not need to find the task enjoyable, just meaningful, purposeful.  And to find something meaningful, they must also be able to “connect the dots” in seeing how small, perhaps tedious tasks and practice, fit into the larger scheme of things.  For example, a hockey player practicing wrist shots understands they aren’t practicing that skill because they want to become great at taking wrist shots, they want to become great at playing hockey.  The same must be the case with learning.  As the saying goes, not only must justice be done, it must be seen to be done.  So learning must not simply be purposeful, it must be seen by the leaner as purposeful.

Failure and Reflection

To develop resilience, students must be allowed to fail.  Tough notes in The Globe and Mail:

There is a real difference between developing self-esteem and developing character, and in the past few decades we’ve become confused about that. Yes, if you want to develop kids’ self-esteem, the best way to do it is to praise everything they do and make excuses for their failures.

But if you want to develop their character, you do almost the opposite: You let them fail and don’t hide their failures from them or from anybody else – not to make them feel lousy about themselves, but to give them the tools to succeed next time.

Failure must be seen, as said by WV School District’s Director of Instruction Lynne Tomlinson, as a learning tool.  Excuses must be replaced with reasons, those reasons can be addressed and through that process students learn they can improve.

As I continued to hike with my students, I began to understand the expanded purposes of taking students backpacking.  The main intention was to take students to a stunning part of the world, to let them be wowed by its beauty and give them some questions to wonder about.  The other intention was to challenge students with carrying all of their personal items (food for three days, clothing and shelter) up a challenging trail where discomfort was inevitable.  I noted before the hike that the students who would find the hike the most challenging would also find it the most rewarding, and my hope was that after pushing themselves beyond what they thought they could do, they would develop a greater sense of self-efficacy in knowing that they can accomplish hard things if they stick with it.

As a teacher, my goal is to make that experience as meaningful and transferable as possible, so a worthy question to consider is does enduring physical hardship translate into developing intellectual persistence?*  Many people, when asked to reflect upon what past experiences developed their grit refer to practising for sports teams or preparing for dance or music recitals.  It would seem possible, and hopefully likely, that there would indeed be transfer as long as the athlete/dancer/learner, possesses the same growth mindset for physical and intellectual tasks, in other words, they believe they can both improve their physical and various intelligences through practice and training.  If one is of the mind that practising makes them a better athlete, they will practice, but if one is of the mind that the various intelligences are fixed and they cannot become more intelligent, perhaps there will be less crossover and grittiness will not transfer.

Students must have opportunities to accomplish more than they thought they could and not be allowed to settle for anything else while at other times students must be allowed to fail and learn from it.  Students must understand that they can develop their physical and intellectual capabilities, that neither are fixed, and both require a tremendous amount of effort to improve.  And students must be given some level of independence so that they can attribute their persistence, their grittiness, to their character, to their development, not an extrinsic motivation.  While none of these insights are new, they are worth remembering just as Dr. James implores us to remind ourselves of our own purpose often.

What else can educators and parents do to develop grit and facilitate the transfer of grittiness from physical activities, which seem to be common to many people, to intellectual rigour?

* Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, is an interesting read about, among other things, intellectual persistence.

Anchors to Learning

We retain 90% of what we teach someone else or use immediately, 50% of knowledge gained and used in group discussions, 20% of what is learned in an audio-visual format, 10% of what is learned from reading, and only 5% of what is learned from lecture.

These often cited facts form the “Learning Pyramid,” which were studied in the 1960s by the National Training Laboratories (NTL) out of Bethel, Maine. They raise a number of questions not the least of which is if 50% of what is “learned” is not retained, can any of that 50% really be counted as learning? And more interestingly, from a practical standpoint, how can teachers create learning experiences where what is learned is retained for the long run.

This latter question lies at the heart of what schools are attempting to do with inquiry-based learning, a topic I have written about previously here. Teachers are attempting to attach learning to “big ideas” and “enduring understandings,” that shape students’ perspectives on concepts and topics. But, while big ideas and enduring understandings form a framework, perhaps even a story, for students to organize learning and shape thinking, this is still a very cerebral, abstract process and therefore invites a question:   Are there other, perhaps more tangible, things to anchor learning to?

Anchoring Learning to Places and Experiences

An answer to this question forms part of the rationale for outside45.  Our goal is to anchor learning to various experiences and learning environments. The goal is for students to make associations between places and experiences and the knowledge and understandings acquired in those places and during those experiences.  Our aim is that if the place and the experience in that place can be recalled easily, this will open the door to recalling all of the learning that occurred in that place as well.

Anchor BP.jpg

Field experiences are a large component of many classes at BICS.  Grade One-Two teacher, Mrs. Brind-Boronkay takes her students outside as often as possible.  She notes, “I find, for young children in particular, if they have something tangible, it helps them to retain information.” A recent trip to

Chinatown offered a wonderful experience for many primary students because many of them had never been there and not only did they get to eat Chinese food in a local restaurant, they were able to explore the streets and shops using all their senses and get a taste of another culture.  Visiting a place, and people within that place, even for just for one day, offers an immersive experience which simply can’t be simulated in the classroom.  I recently took my grade six and seven students on a field trip of downtown Vancouver and heard from many of my students – some of Mrs. Brind-Boronkay’s former students –that their experience visiting Chinatown in grade two was one of the most memorable experiences of their primary years.

Learning Anchored to Imagination

BICS’ library is far more than a room.  It has also become an imaginative space where students can utilize their creativity.  BICS` librarian, Mr. Marquis, is the voice behind several mascots that he notes, “Personify an area of curriculum and have slogans and identities as such.”  For example, the much-loved mascot Kwil is for writing, Kwillette for art, Leef is a lover of literature and reading, and Renai Research.  Students

become more interested in their learning when they are invited to play in a fictional world that teaches them core literacy skills attached to memorable mascots.  Many students engage in a Digital Dialogue (more information here) by writing to Kwil who always writes back, so a dialogue is created which encourages students to write, often a lot!

Learning Anchored to Emotion

Ms. DeReus shared that students in grades four and five at BICS recently completed a unit on immigration which created an “emotional anchor” for learning.  In the unit, students receive a passport and participate in an activity where they are let into Canada, refused entry, or even deported through the different time periods of immigration waves.  This form of experiential education emotionalizes learning and allows students to develop a sense of empathy for immigrants.  It seems likely that students will remember their feelings and the causes of these feelings far more than had they just read about people’s experiences.

Learning Anchored to a Product

Many of us still remember our favourite projects from school, particularly if we were proud of them.  Students demonstrate learning in a variety of ways and when students are proud of what they produce, the emotional element of learning is triggered and thus learning can be retained more easily.  In Mrs. Rogers Grade Six and Seven classroom, students are constantly engaged in projects that include students demonstrating knowledge in unique ways all of which are added to their “Traveller Booklets” that act as a portfolio of learning.  At the beginning of the year, students created an avatar who travels around the world and around curriculum compiling artifacts, sometimes literal, of what they have learned.  The creation of such a portfolio creates a wonderful keepsake for students and helps organize learning into a memorable framework, that, when reviewed, opens the door to all that was learned.SB ANCHORS NEW.png

In the examples above and other conversations I had with teachers, a common relationship between learning that is retained and learning that is memorable is quite clear.  While this insight is simple, making learning memorable when students receive five hours of instruction, five days a week, 182 days per year, is not.  Anchoring learning to places, experiences, emotions, creativity, and creative portfolios, are just some of the tactics teachers use to make learning memorable and meaningful.  Please share in the comments below what other “anchors” to learning you think are effective to make learning experiences meaningful and worthy of remembering.