Inquiry-Based Learning

Personalized Learning and Query Books

Borrow a strategy from Isaac Newton and have your students keep a journal of their questions as they grow their own ideas for personalized learning.

December 11, 2014

This week, I began to ask students to think about their own ideas. Following Isaac Newton's example, they are starting digital query books to gather their ideas, ponderings, and questions -- both big and little.

The Growth of an Idea

This lesson, like many of my lessons, took a while to develop. Many forces were nudging me toward an "idea" lesson with students. It all began with #mnlead, a Twitter chat that I participated in last year. The subject was personalized learning, a current trend among educators. This chat deepened my understanding of personalized learning, which at its core is about giving students choices around how and what they learn -- putting them in the proverbial driver's seat for their learning. From personalized learning, I learned about Genius Hour, an educational trend adopted from developers at Google who are given 20 percent of their time to develop their own "passion projects." Curious to learn more? Check out Chris Kesler's great video explaining Genius Hour:

My interest in personalized learning and Genius Hour began changing how I worked with students, as I created opportunities for them to choose the way they demonstrate their learning, and provided choices for collaboration. I focused them on creating and sharing with their own voice.

An obstacle became immediately apparent as students began to direct their own learning. When allowed to choose which interests to pursue, many of my students didn't know where to begin! They were not accustomed to this responsibility and didn't consider their own ideas to be as valuable as those provided by others. Many struggled with the act of being curious or with pondering their own questions. They simply hadn't given it much thought and couldn't just flip a switch for instant illumination. As fourth and fifth grade students, they were used to adults telling them what to do rather than asking them to pursue their own ideas and interests -- especially in an educational setting. They needed extra time to focus on and mull over their options. You cannot develop passion projects if you have no passion or haven't really considered what those passions are. They had to first think through what piqued their interest. What would they like to know more about? What everyday problems have they noticed that need solutions? If they had never thought about it, they needed to reexamine their world with their eyes open to problems and their minds eager to find solutions.

Isaac Newton in Elementary School

It was right around this time that I discovered Steven Johnson's book and video, Where Good Ideas Come From -- a wealth of insights into how ideas are born. Another valuable source was a beautifully-illustrated book by Kobi Yamada, What Do You Do With An Idea? He describes the growth of an idea in terms that students can understand -- beginning small and growing with attention and time. This realization took away some of the pressure. You don't need to discover a Nobel Prize-winning idea the moment the teacher says, "Go! Done yet?" Rather, it's a process that begins with a kernel of interest that you patiently cultivate until you have something rich. I couldn't wait to share this great picture book and this approach with my students.

The final leg of my journey with this lesson occurred after I told my husband about my musings. He is a physicist, and when I mentioned my desire to help my students develop their own interests, ideas, and ponderings, he told me a story about Isaac Newton. Newton kept query books for his scientific and mathematical ideas. As he observed his world and questioned how it worked, he wrote his questions down so that he could develop them over time. Some of his query books launched entirely new branches of science and math! So there it was. My little Newtons would begin their own query books. Every one of their ideas might not launch a new science, but that really wouldn't be the main goal.

As students record their ideas, several things happen. They are giving their ideas a voice, recording them so they will be remembered, and building the habit of paying attention to their ponderings. Each query book would act as a personalized idea "bucket list" of sorts. As they collected and cultivated ideas over time, they would no doubt find that some have more merit than others (a truth that all great minds must accept). Although not every idea is born for greatness, each would help students become more creative thinkers. Moreover, they would learn to evaluate their ideas. Were they bearing fruit? Were they holding up against new information? This device would serve as a vehicle for personalizing their learning.

So this week, my students started their own query books. I am so excited! I realize it will take time for their ideas to develop, but I am confident that it will be time well spent. I cannot wait to see where it leads.

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  • Inquiry-Based Learning
  • Creativity
  • Education Trends
  • Teaching Strategies
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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