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.