Down the Inquiry Rabbit Hole

Posted: 13th November 2013 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

I remember as a child being fascinated by the story Alice in Wonderland. I had two favourite parts: the Cheshire Cat having a rather mysterious conversation with Alice and Alice falling down the rabbit hole into a technicolor world she never knew existed. I have no idea what made me connect this story to inquiry, but I think it may help me illustrate my thinking, so bear with me.

In our school, we are doing lots of thinking and questioning about inquiry…what does it look like?  how much of my day do I devote to it?  how do I assess it?  how do I explain it to parents? how will I know that the students will learn what they are supposed to be learning about?  As staff and students try different things and ask hard questions we are building our collective understanding of inquiry.  I hope that as I learn from the staff and students over this year I can try to give my perspective on these questions, but I want to start by commenting on one area that I’ve been thinking about already.

Culminating tasks are something teachers either love or hate.  You can love them because it is an opportunity to inject some creativity into learning demonstrations. You can see how much students have learned as they work through the task.  You have something terrific to show parents.  All good stuff.  But.  Culminating tasks can be painful experiences for some students, due to organizational or persistance issues.  They can be isolating for some students who are working on demonstrating modified or alternative expectations.  And there are those tasks that seem to drag on f..o…r…e…v…e…r.  Painfully.  In a way that can neither be described as engaging or enriching.  Besides that, teachers often are trying to assess and evaluate so many expectations with a single task that they get to the end and realize it doesn’t really measure what they set out to measure.  More pain.

So now picture me explaining a culminating task to that Cheshire cat.  I see him sitting on that branch, swishing his tail.  A tilt of his head and a question.  Do we have to have a culminating task? 

Inquiry is a whole lot about process and a little about product.  I want students to leave an inquiry with a toolbox full of thinking skills, an appreciation for multiple perspectives and ideas, and some more practice in being creative, collaborative and persistent.  I do want them to also be able to share some discrete knowledge to anchor the experience and further develop their understanding of the world around them.  I may not know what that discrete knowledge will be, though, at the beginning of the learning (which is when I usually develop and present my culminating task to students).  I see, in a student-led inquiry, lots of opportunities to assess student skills and knowledge each and every day.  Can I evaluate some of those skills along the way too?  Can I share with students that evaluation along the way and still expect them to continue with their learning?  I think my answers to both of these are yes.  We’ve been working so hard in the last few years at making learning targets visible to students through the use of learning goals, success criteria, descriptive feedback, peer and self assessment and goal setting (Growing Success Continuum of Assessment).  If I use these structures and the curriculum expectations to share with students throughout what learning I need to see from them, I don’t think it matters too much if I see it 2 weeks or 5 weeks after we started.  If I’m giving descriptive feedback that causes student thinking instead of stopping it (thank you for this idea, Dylan Wiliam!), student learning shouldn’t end. 

When I look at documentation coming out of an FDK classroom, I still see student learning products, but they emerge naturally out of daily learning and aren’t prescribed tasks that take place when the egg timer dings and the teaching ends.  If I reconsider the heavily reliance on culminating tasks to evaluate students, I can still have mini products of learning that I can evaluate.  I can evaluate a student’s ability to organize ideas from their inquiry jot notes instead of a fully written paragraph.  I can evaluate an ability to infer from text from a recorded conversation between two students as they discuss a topic instead of waiting for their reading response journal.  I can evaluate a student’s understanding about the causes of the war of 1812 from the different perspectives they peg on their pinterest board and share with classmates instead of waiting for them to write a test.  I need to look for those opportunities to assess and evaluate when they naturally occur – not when the calendar tells me it is time to evaluate.  Depending on the metacognitive skills of my students and the learning to be measured, I should also include my students in the decision making process:  what can you show me in your portfolio of learning that clearly demonstrates your ability to infer?  why did you choose that to represent your learning?

As we move deeper into inquiry, I think we might be talking less about those gorgeous (daunting) culminating tasks and more about portfolios of learning.  I think we will still have learning tasks for students to do, but they might look different for different students, showing different discrete knowledge, and be evaluated at different times in the learning process.

Alice’s world was turned upside down when she fell through the rabbit hole.  Inquiry is a bit of a game changer for us.  Alice had to reconsider everything she thought to be true.  In some cases, she considered the ideas she heard and changed her way of doing things.  Sometimes, she held true to the knowledge she brought with her into this new world.  I don’t think we will abandon all we know about teaching and learning just because we are learning how to do inquiry.  But I think we will ask questions and reconsider how we do things.  From my perspective, culminating tasks may be one of those things where we may change our practices.  What do you think?

  1. adunsige says:

    Kristi, I’m overjoyed that you’ve started blogging again! 🙂 I’ve been waiting for this post. I know that we’ve spoken about this topic a little already, and it was one that I really had to get my head around. I must say though, that I’m embracing the concept of no “culminating task” with our current Social Studies inquiry. We just finished a Science unit on Matter, and while the whole unit was inquiry-based, we kept with a culminating task. I think that you described it perfectly here: it was absolutely, positively painful to complete. It did drag on forever, and it really gave me no more knowledge than what I already knew about the students and their understanding of content. In fact, sitting down and conferencing with each individual group gave me as much, if not more, data than the final product. And I’m still waiting on a couple of final products that may be more painful for me to see done than for the students. 🙂 You nailed it in this post, Kristi: it’s the organizational piece for some students that make them struggle with these culminating tasks. And if the culminating tasks not giving me new data, are they really worth the time? In fact, my “time question” about inquiry may best be answered by eliminating culminating tasks!

    I actually took your idea about portfolios and have been using them for this Social Studies unit. It’s been so much better! Students are referring back to what they’ve already done, and they’re already starting to use their work to “show me” what they know. What a great way to assess and/or evaluate throughout the unit.

    Thanks for pushing my thinking in this direction! It’s been a real shift for me, but a good shift. I know that I spoke to some teachers about this the other day. They asked me about culminating tasks and inquiry, so I shared with them what you shared with me. I think that this is a hard shift for people to make. Usually we look at “starting slowly” when making changes, but is there a way to make a slow start with this change? How would you suggest getting people to reconsider culminating tasks? I like your “rabbit hole” analogy, but I’m wondering if this is enough. 🙂


  2. kkeerybi says:

    Thanks Aviva. Your response reassures me. There are sooo many days that I wish I still had a class of students so that I could test out my ideas! I agree that some people will be reluctant to rethink culminating tasks because they want to be sure they have something to measure. If we set out learning goals at the beginning, though, maybe a baby step would be to preplan mini tasks along the way that I can plan to evaluate those LGs. I think if people have this as a safety net to reassure them that they will be able to evaluate everything they need to, they will find other opportunities to assess and evaluate along the way. I hope you share your experience with staff too. Hearing about how it works will be very encouraging too!

  3. adunsige says:

    Thanks Kristi! Your mini-task idea is a great one! I’ve already been sharing your portfolio idea with others at school, and I’ll continue to do so more. I think that hearing about how things work always makes a change a little bit easier (I know that it does for me :)).

    Since you mentioned Learning Goals and Success Criteria, I have a question about that as well: how do you suggest doing this for Social Studies? Would you make the overall expectation the Learning Goal and the specific expectations the Success Criteria (just as I do for Language)? Is there a better way? Up until this point, I’ve been combining things with Language, so my Success Criteria has been overlapping with my TLCP, but I think that I’d like some Learning Goals and Success Criteria specific to Social Studies. I’m just figuring out the best way to do so, and I’d love your suggestions!

    Thanks Kristi!

  4. giwillia says:

    Thank you, Kristi. You’ve helped me along as I continue to think about how IBL ‘fits’. The shift from culminating task to a teacher/student conference where questions and opportunities like “How do you feel you can best demonstrate your skills?” is the means to truly starting to differentiate for our students. Although the sense of having a product may linger, it will no longer be the be all and end all of demonstrating the learning. Your comments have also set me to thinking more deeply about terms we are always bandying about such as ‘co-constructed success criteria’ and authentic, ongoing feedback. Starting to see the fit.

  5. […] more about Social Studies today. The problem of timing came up, and that’s when I mentioned Kristi Keery-Bishop’s blog post from last night about inquiry. We spoke about not doing a culminating task. That’s when the question came up of what we […]

  6. Byron says:

    I am intrigued by your post. The intent of the rich performance task should be the opportunity for students to act on their learning. In social studies the focus can be more than knowledge building because we can work to make change. An authentic task can be rewarding for the students, school and community.

    I do appreciate the discussion.

  7. sjdunlop says:

    Lately I’ve been seeing inquiry posts everywhere with the release of the new SS curriculum. It’s an exciting time as educators tackle this new way of thinking and how to actually implement it in a classroom. Your post is thoughtful and measured, as usual. I love the way you question and ask why. It’s so important.