Ask Great Questions

This is a #mustread on student questioning.

sonya terborg

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I seem to write a lot about questions. The more I look into them, the more I see the massive potential they have to revolutionize the way we teach and the way students learn.

In preparing to share some ideas on questions at our faculty meeting, I came across an article about questions.  The article reflected on the results of a study in which they found that mothers are the people in the world who are asked the most questions each day.  And that the most inquisitive of question askers are four year old girls, who seek answers to an incredible 390 questions per day – averaging a question every 1 minute 56 seconds of their waking day.

I began the meeting by sharing the five most difficult questions kids ask – an interesting mix of curiosities (check out the presentation to see them).

All this was to lead into…

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Learning Demands Flexible and Interactive Spaces

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Last week I spent a day shadowing students through their day to experience a true day in the life of a fourth grader. While there were many exceptional learning experiences, one that was eye-opening for me occurred during an iDesign DEEP discovery phase, which exemplified one of our School’s principles and practice that Learning Demands Flexible and Interactive Spaces.

Mary Cantwell arrived in Mrs. Gunter’s classroom and discussed with students the need for change and movement in the classroom to spark their creative thinking. Beginning by encouraging movement, Mary unlocks and moves a bookshelf, opening up a large square of classroom space. (See Mary’s blog about it!)

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Not only did Mary advocate for students to move their desk arrangements to maximize groupings for three, but students swapped out their seating as well to maximize this flexible learning change. Who wants to swap seats? Who has been sitting on a wobbly stool and is ready to share with a classmate?

10. Shuffle the deck: Change up the locations of regular activities so children can explore new surroundings with their bodies and their minds. The Third Teacher

After desks were moved and seats (or not) arranged, students had a renewed energy to discover and brainstorm problems that they are truly passionate about solving. Some students were on wiggle stools, some on foam squares, some in chairs, and some standing… but all were on task.

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In the end, students had cleared enough pathways to jump from table to table for the first gallery walk share out. Their newly creating paths and space made this a comfortable transition.

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I’ve enjoyed reading and relating our School to the suggestions in The Third Teacher, and I especially love comparing the authors’ views on transforming teaching and learning to our innovated learning spaces, our School’s mission as well as our principles and practice and the everyday experiences of our students. The authors urge us to…

” 11. Make it new: Look at your learning space with 21st-century eyes: Does it work for what we know about learning today, or just for what we knew about learning in the past?” The Third Teacher

Taking the time to interact with our space to maximize learning can reap huge benefits in students’ experiences.

Kindergarteners Go Deep in Weather Learning

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Today I was invited to witness collaboration and solution seeking in action. Kindergarten students created Weather Rocks during Maker Class with @jimtiffinjr to complement their Weather Unit. Several students showed me their weather rocks and were able to explain what they were used for and why they were creating them. I was able to watch students collaborating and solution seeking in building these designs, as some students are still growing in their fine motor skills at this age and others found it easier to have someone hold the base while they wound the rope.

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Before the weather external expert arrived, students spent weeks going deep with a weather unit related to all aspects of learning. A quick walk through the Kindergarten rooms and halls proved that weather was taught deeply through data, mathematics, writing, visible thinking routines, reading, art, brainstorming, singing, and science mini-lessons.

Beginning with the K teachers’ brainstorm in our collaboration room, teachers began to brainstorm ways to interweave science, math, and writers workshop.

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We write on the windows, too!

An important norm at our School is Start with Questions, and both students and teachers had plenty to ask:

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Students even made predictions about how soon until we see spring weather (still under construction).

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Students also made predictions and recorded weather data:

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They learned the science and related vocabulary behind the clouds we see in the sky during science meeting (held much like a math congress). It is vital that our students think and speak like scientists and use the appropriate science vocabulary to describe their understanding.

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Students loved learning about weather tracking first hand from an external expert from Fox 5.

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Of course, our Kindergarten students had a literature-rich experience as well!

IMG_1086In fact, students made their thinking visible all over the School using white boards, chalk boards, and printer paper hung in our Media and Maker Space.

IMG_1087A highlight was seeing the students singing “Are you Looking?”

Finally, collaborating with other grade levels was a must! Kindergarten paired with third grade students to build a cloud in a jar.

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After completing the experiment, students were asked to illustrate and write in their journals about their learning experience, using this proficiency scale for assessment purposes: 

1 2 3 4
I can describe the experiment in pictures. I can describe what happened during the experiment and what happened at the end in words and pictures. I can describe accurately what happened in the end and why with words and pictures. I can describe accurately what happened in the end and why using accurate vocabulary words and detailed pictures.
Vocabulary:energy, data, solution, temperature, patterns, light, observations, weather, precipitation, shade, shadows, environment

By the end of the unit, students experienced all facets of #STEM (or STEAM or STREAM) and met the learning outcomes for the unit:

Next Generation Standards: 

K-PS3-1. Make observations to determine the effect of sunlight on Earth’s surface. [Clarification Statement: Examples of Earth’s surface could include sand, soil, rocks, and water] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment of temperature is limited to relative measures such as warmer/cooler.]
K-PS3-2. Use tools and materials to design and build a structure that will reduce the warming effect of sunlight on an area.*[Clarification Statement: Examples of structures could include umbrellas, canopies, and tents that minimize the warming effect of the sun.]
K-ESS2-1. Use and share observations of local weather conditions to describe patterns over time. [Clarification Statement: Examples of qualitative observations could include descriptions of the weather (such as sunny, cloudy, rainy, and warm); examples of quantitative observations could include numbers of sunny, windy, and rainy days in a month. Examples of patterns could include that it is usually cooler in the morning than in the afternoon and the number of sunny days versus cloudy days in different months.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment of quantitative observations limited to whole numbers and relative measures such as warmer/cooler.]
K-ESS3-2. Ask questions to obtain information about the purpose of weather forecasting to prepare for, and respond to, severe weather.* [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on local forms of severe weather.]

While I included the learning outcomes at the end, Kindergarten teachers considered the learning outcomes and the goals for the unit, including what they hoped for students to be able to know and be able to do by the end of the unit, at the very beginning. Starting with the end in mind is a UbD strategy they have practiced with success all year.

I can’t wait to see their weather forecasts next week using the green screen and their self-drawn maps of our area.

Global School Play Day #GSPD

We have a norm at Mount Vernon to Have Fun. And we certainly upheld that norm today in first grade.

#MVPSchool Lower School students celebrated the Global School Play Day (#GSPD) today, and I was lucky enough to spend the entire school day learning about a day in the life of a first grader. First grade students enjoyed extra time playing outside before lunch, but in the afternoon, the real creativity erupted in what first grade teachers called “Imagination Station.”

There were two expectations to follow:

  1. Use only your imagination.
  2. Respect your classroom and your classmates.

Students excitedly created everything from drama productions to hair care stations. They enjoyed building, painting, and even opening a cafe.

“Put the fun in fundamentals. Injecting a learning space with playfulness and humor creates a warm and welcoming environment.” -The Third Teacher, #62.

First grade students’ imaginations soared with both individual and group painting stations:

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Dramatic productions complete with costumes, songs, dances, and choreography:

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Building in all shapes and sizes, including Legos:

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And math manipulatives:

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Blocks and building materials:

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And good old-fashioned construction paper hearts (reimagined, of course):

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Knowing that imaginative play is an important part of every single day in the life of a child, it was especially significant to celebrate the Global School Play Day today. I wonder if any of these free moments of play has sparked an idea in a child’s head that just might be the next great innovation. Oh yes, I’m about to start reading Steve Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation….

The Beginner’s Mind

I’m in the middle of reading Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question. I’m intrigued by the idea of shoshin, or the Zen principle of what is described as a beginner’s mind. The overall idea is that looking at a problem with a beginner’s mind, or the naive mind of a 5-year-old, can lead to new ideas and innovations in life, business, and school. Beginner’s minds are full of questions, and no question is too simple or silly.

Today I walked through the halls and found many beginner’s minds at work.

How can I add wires to my camera? My camera is going to take me weeks to build!

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Can we all fit in this elevator? What if we skip counted backwards by twos from 20? Would we be finished by the time the doors open?

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How might we make this game harder? Can we communicate by just clapping and stomping?

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Our young innovators are hard at work every day, thinking in a different way than we do naturally as adults. But experts say that with a little work and a mindset change, we can actually begin to think young again.

As another birthday passes and another grey hair emerges, I’m very much ready to step back into the mind of a child and view the world through a different mindset in hopes that it sparks an increased ability to be curious and to question the world around me in a new way.

Learning Walking for Solution Seekers

Each month in our Lower School we celebrate students who exhibit characteristics of The 21st Century Mount Vernon Mind, our School’s version of the 21st century soft skills we believe all students need to strengthen to be positioned for future success in life and work. This month, we are focusing on Solution Seeker.

SOLUTION SEEKER

  • Formulates meaningful questions
  • Inquires, evaluates, synthesizes, and discerns cross-disciplinary knowledge and perspectives
  • Sets goals, develops a plan of action, and tests solutions

I headed out on several learning walks this month looking for curricular and student demonstrations of the solution seeker mindset, and I was not disappointed.


Grade 2 students worked together to measure the width of the courtyard using “giant feet” as a unit of measure.  Frannie came up with the solution to have all 6 partner groups put down their feet & mark it. Then, do it again. The courtyard measured 41 giant’s feet long!

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“…we can overtly teach young people to become more creative, strategic, and inventive in their thinking, to make the leap from a passive learner of previous knowledge to an active creator of new ideas.” – The Falconer by Grant Lichtman, p. 3

Our grade 2 solution seekers took problem solving and communication, two of the mathematical process standards, to the next level in this deep dive into measurement.


Additionally, Kindergarten students participated in a Gingerbread Baby design thinking challenge, where they designed friendly traps to get their gingerbread babies, who had run away for fear of being eaten, back. Chase told me that he was a solution seeker by finding a gingerbread baby in the cafeteria and the library. Chase explained,

“I built something. A gingerbread house! It’s going to make the babies come in it. I made a carpet, and it feels like this one!”

Brady made a home for his gingerbread baby when he returns, saying,

“I made beautiful beads in my home, but the babies can look but not touch, just like my sister Abigail. I do not want them to get hurt, but I want them to be happy, so I made plenty of places to play.”

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“Wonderfully creative, innovative, and practical results can come out of the collaborative process.”  Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess, p. 171

More great pictures and video footage can be seen on Mary Cantwell’s blog (@scitechyEDU).


Grade 3 students were challenged to be solution seekers for their grade 1 buddies, who are still developing their fine motor skills. Working with our Director of Media and Maker Programs, Jim Tiffin (@jimtiffinjr), during their maker class time, grade 3 students created hands-on mazes for their younger friends to work on with their hands. Using wooden 2x4s, 12 gauge electrical wire, (finding that the thinner wires were too flimsy), 24 gauge telephone wire, blue wire nuts, pens (they hacked a pen!), standard electrical D-battery holders, lamp holder, and a bulb, students created a variety of mazes. Solution seeking how they could light up the bulb with proper circuit configuration, they iterated ways to make the maze faster and to change the difficulty level.

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“We got to use tools that our parents would never let us use!”

Drilling the holes, using the PVC pipe jigs, and cutting with wire cutters were a highlight!


Grade 4 students became heavily involved in the solution seeker mindset to create voting booths for their grade 3 peers in maker class. They were tasked with determining the best way to create a user-friendly booth to accommodate Kindergarten through grade 4 children of different sizes. There was also a programming component using Scratch, where they were to create a voting interface to design the voting screen that students will use to vote. Finally, they had to find ways to tally the voting results digitally.

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“When soldering, prototyping, programming, and inventing return to the lives of children, remarkable projects result.” – Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager, Ph.D., p. 27

It’s exciting to think about what amazing innovations will be discovered when our lower school students take on the future world, knowing that they’ve intentionally built their solution seeker mindsets since elementary school.