Are Your Students Problem Solvers and Innovators?

During Period 1 today, I got the chance to join Nina Wallace for a very special learning opportunity. Three people from McMaster University (MCYU) came in this morning to work with 15 students: five Grade 4’s, five Grade 5’s, and five Grade 6’s. These students learned about smoking and the impact on the body through a combination of direct instruction and hands-on learning. I was only able to observe for about the first 30 minutes, so I’m not sure how things ended, but here are my takeaways.

    • There is a place for direct instruction. MCYU gave the students lots of opportunities to share theories, explain their thinking, and make predictions, but they also gave them the facts. In order to dig deeper, we need content … and accuracy matters. The group leaders planned the lessons well though, and kept the mini-lessons short so the exploration time could be longer. Direct instruction does have to equate with a long lecture.
    • Schema matters. This was a mixed grade grouping, and at least for the time that I was there, the students in each grade worked just with their peers in that grade. As Nina and I discussed, the Grade 6’s finished the initial task the fastest and seemed to be the most independent. The Grade 4’s took longer, and needed more support. The Grade 6’s would have learned about smoking in Health in previous years. Would this prior knowledge have made a difference? Would mixed grade groupings have been more beneficial, or would the older students have dominated the discussion?
    • Activate prior knowledge. Determine a baseline. I think of this almost as an initial assessment task. This can be done in many ways. This morning, I saw the MCYU leaders ask the class to make a list of the short-term and long-term effects of smoking. Then the leaders shared all of the lists, and used this as a way to address misconceptions and add additional information. 
    • All students need an entry point. I really liked how the activities allowed the students to share orally as well as in writing. Ideas were more important than conventions, so even struggling writers could feel confident sharing their thinking. Students were encouraged to take risks, but in a safe enough way that they could comfortably do so — and they did.
    • Developing thinking skills is a must! When the MCYU leaders facilitated their first activity, I had a chance to go around and talk to the groups of students. I realized that when faced with a challenge, we need to help students become critical and creative thinkers. Can they explain their thinking? How do they determine the answers when they’re not sure and don’t have access to resources? 
    • This final point, makes me think of the Four Frames of the 2016 Kindergarten Program Document. The last frame discussed is Problem Solving and Innovating.

      Screenshot 2016-04-20 at 21.13.21

      How are we helping students develop these skills? If they do struggle in certain academic areas, how can they still learn to problem solve and innovate? I wonder if the answers lie in giving students …

      • longer blocks of learning time.
      • more opportunities to try, make mistakes, and try again.
      • more small group mini-lessons to target areas of need.
      • more open-ended activities, and reconsidering worksheets that might limit thinking skills and/or not allow for differentiation.
      • more opportunities to collaborate with others (including reflection opportunities to help support future learning).
      • play-based and inquiry-based learning opportunities in all grades.

        I can’t help but think back to one of my favourite blog posts by Kristi Keery-Bishop. If developing these skills matter, then we likely need to “let something go.” What might you let go? What might you add? What benefits do you see this having for kids? I’d love to hear your thoughts!



2 thoughts on “Are Your Students Problem Solvers and Innovators?

  1. Hi Aviva,
    This is my aside to your commentary which is not necessarily the focus of your blog.
    I would like to comment on your idea about how schema facilitates learning.I think it one of the many reasons that many children living in poverty have difficulty attaining new concepts. Their schema bank is not usually as large as other more affluent children. For example, one year EQAO had a menu on the test. I feel this put underprivileged at a disadvantage as they have less opportunities to eat at restaurants offering menus as opposed to fast food. While we can build on children’s schema at school we cannot control the schema learned in the home environment. This is one of a myriad of reasons why we need to address child poverty. By the way, FDK is listed as one strategy to address poverty.

    • Thanks for your comment, Carla! I actually teach in a school with a very high poverty rate, and the topic of “schema” is one that I’ve examined closely in the past couple of years, as I’ve seen the impact that this can have on inquiry learning (and really just learning in general). That said, I think that this speaks to the need to provide even more diverse learning experiences for these students at school. I can’t help but think about this “Ms. Frizzle blog post” that I wrote last year after an amazing field trip to EcoHouse: I wonder sometimes if loading up a bus and having rich, learning experiences like the EcoHouse one may be one of our best ways to close the achievement gap. What do you think?


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