What is Socratic Dialogue in the Classroom?

“Socratic dialogue” is a term that is usually associated with a pedagogy in which a teacher asks his/her students deeply probing questions about the material being considered in a classroom.   The teacher does not provide answers for students; he/she answers students’ questions with more questions, encouraging the   learners to delve deeply into the material and search for the answers themselves. This pedagogy can be used in any discipline with and with any age group. It stems from the work of Socrates, who believed that knowledge that “wisdom begins in wonder” and that “education is the kindling of a flame, not the lighting of a vessel.”  While this pedagogy is not a teacher directed approach per se, it remains a teacher facilitated approach to learning.

I have used the Socratic Method in my classroom for the past 30 years, and I have become convinced that we can need to create learning environments   which deepens student voice and encourage young people to be more active participants in their own learning. We must align classroom practice with recent  research in brain  science that indicates that students learn best if they are actively engaged with the material- i.e., “the one that does the  work, does the learning.“ As Justin Tarte has observed, “The most engaged classrooms aren’t where teachers are asking good questions, they are the classrooms where the kids are asking good questions.”

Learner voice gives learners a chance to share their opinions about something they believe in. There are so many aspects of “school” and “learning” where learners have not been given the opportunity to be active participants. Some learners, especially those that are concerned about extrinsic factors like grades, may not feel comfortable expressing their own opinions. Giving learners voice encourages them to participate in and eventually to own and drive their learning. This means a complete shift from the traditional approach of teaching compliance that develops a “learned helplessness” to encouraging voice where there is authenticity in the learning. (http://www.personalizelearning.com/2015/10/learner-voice-demonstrates-commitment.html)

As we work to transform schools, we must begin to shift classroom practice from methodologies that are teacher-directed to practices that are teacher-facilitated to instructional approaches where students drive the conversations in the classroom and ask the essential questions.  The “Harkness approach“ is the term given to an approach in which students work as a learning community wrestle with materials,  exercise their voices and collaborate to make meaning curriculum materials- whether that  be a  primary source text,   a science experiment or a math problem.    The role of the teacher is redefined to be that of a curriculum planner and in the classroom, a co-learner. The role of the student is equally redefined to be an active participant in class discussions and to engage with peers to create meaning from materials.

This pedagogy moves classroom instruction one step further towards student centered learning on Barbara Bray’s Continuum of Engagement:



Similarly, the Harkness approach also encourages student voice and shifts the focus of the classroom to more Learner Driven Instruction as outlined in Bray’s Continuum of Voice:


( http://www.personalizelearning.com/2016/01/continuum-of-voice-what-it-means-for.html)

Socratic dialogue, specifically the Harkness approach, places students at the center of the educational process; it fundamentally shifts the dynamics of the teacher-student relationship and places ownership and initiative for learning on the student. “It reduces the impact of misconception, aids students in organizing knowledge, cultivates higher order thinking skills, and helps students to direct and monitor their own learning” (Lam, 2011).

School transformation must begin in the classroom, on a daily basis. We must undo what previous schooling has done to inhibit curiosity and the creative thinking of students. “If we want to engage students in thinking through our content we must stimulate their thinking with questions that lead them to further questions. We must resuscitate minds that are largely dead when we receive them. We must give our students what might be called “artificial cogitation” (the intellectual equivalent of artificial respiration)” (Paul, Martin, Adamson, 1989).  Shifting classroom practice is the way to begin.

Perhaps most importantly, this pedagogy promotes critical thinking skills, active listening and the ability to advocate for one’s own perspective while appreciating the interests of others. It encourages community and collaboration. It provides students with a model for civil discourse, which is noticeably absent in our world today. When our candidates for public office model shaming, blaming  and the inability to listen to one other, the  work in our classrooms is more important than ever if our democracy is to survive.



Kathy Cadwell, 2016 Cohort

At Harwood Union High School Kathy works with students, faculty and administration to integrate Socratic dialogue into the fabric of her school, beginning in the ninth grade Core, the Advisory program, and the Personal and Future Explorations class (PFE) where students conceptualize their Personalized Learning Plans.
To read more about Kathy’s work with Socratic dialog at Harwood UHS make sure to visit her site Socratic Dialogue in the Classroom.
Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Innocence Lost

I apologize in advance for the political bias that will be evident in this post. I mean not to offend anyone or trespass on the soul searching that transpires in all of us when we cast our votes on Election Day. I have spent all of my life in schools either as a student, a teacher or a principal, and it is in that context that I share these thoughts.

Like many of my fellow Vermont educators, I have been struggling to find the right words to catalog my feelings since the recent election of Donald Trump.  Denial, shock, sadness, grief, disbelief, anger and disillusionment have all been prevalent over the past week. Acceptance will come. I am just not there yet.

I remember being a sophomore in high school sitting in another meaningless study hall one morning and asking permission to go to the bathroom. I grabbed my pass from the proctor and headed down the long hallway, passing a classroom where a group of teachers were huddled around a radio listening intently to a far off voice. Retracing my steps a few minutes later, I noticed that one of my teachers had his head down on a desk. He seemed to be crying, not something a 15 year old witnesses every day in school. I walked past the door and stopped for a moment, surrendering to my curiosity.  That far off voice on the radio seemed clearer now and what I heard next would be forever etched into my soul. The year was 1963.  John F. Kennedy had just been shot.

Uncertain of the meaning of what I had just heard, I walked back to study hall and up to the desk of the proctor and whispered what I had just heard.  An hour later school was closed and we were sent home early to the care, support and counsel of our parents. Later that day my tearful mother informed me that JFK had died.

A few days later we were back in school hurrying from math to science and to history classes as if nothing had happened. I have no memory of the tragedy ever being discussed, the one that days earlier had caused one of my teachers to weep openly. That’s just the way things were back then. Schools taught the prescribed curriculum.

And then came September 11, 2001. By this time I was a principal of a Vermont high school. What I difference 38 years had made! Attempts at normalcy soon gave way to gatherings in the library, the cafeteria and in countless classrooms, as teachers and students tried to make sense of what was unfolding on the TV screens which dotted the school. The universal shock and horror needed an outlet and we did our best to provide it.

I am not suggesting for a second that the election of Donald Trump compares to the assassination of a president or to the worst terrorist attack in our nation’s history, but for many of our students the emotions may be similar…shock, sadness and grief.  After all, a man who, in the eyes of many, openly espoused racist views, scorned women and offended nearly every group out there other than perhaps white males, has just been elected President of The United States. Our students have watched all this play out on TV and on social media.  In the last few days there have been demonstrations in some of our nation’s schools where students are shouting “White Power.” Is Trump responsible for those racist rants?  Of course not…such attitudes come from the home. Has Trump given license for such sentiments to be voiced publicly? You decide.

As educators we know what to do. We recognize the “teachable moments” and that the lesson plans for the day need not come from the school’s curriculum guide or a textbook, but from external events and the very emotions of our students. What better opportunity for lessons on civility and kindness, including the hope that our new president can heal our divided nation. Today it may be about an election…tomorrow it will be about something else. Good teaching always finds opportunities.

How differently might I look back on my high school years if my feelings about the assassination of JFK, the end of innocence for many my age, had been given a voice in our classrooms.

Chuck Scranton


chuckExecutive Director of The Rowland Foundation and former principal of Burr and Burton Academy.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Thousand Tiny Moments in a Thousand Tiny Communities: The Narrative on Rural Poverty

Often I am irked by books and scholarly articles on closing the achievement gap because they tend to focus on either the racial achievement gap, the achievement gap in major cities, or both. As a current Vermonter who lives in a town with a population under 1000 and who grew up in rural Maine, these articles and books tell an unrecognizable story. The narrative of white, rural poverty gets left out because it is more difficult to pigeon-hole. It can’t be blamed on Jim Crow laws, overcrowded cities, or immigration laws. When our society focuses so much on urban, minority poverty, there is the unspoken elephant in the room: If we can’t blame the poverty on institutionalized racism like high incarceration rates, police brutality, and housing discrimination, then these white people living in poverty don’t have a good reason to be poor. It is a slippery slope from there to believing that when white people live in poverty, it is their own fault.

rural-povertyWhen books are written about rural poverty, the focus tends to be on well-known communities with high poverty. However, Appalachia, the Ozarks, the Mississippi Delta, the Dakotas, the Rio Grande Valley, and the Cotton Belt do not describe Vermont, Maine or any other New England community. New England is usually shown as an example with little poverty and therefore does not get much attention. New England’s communities should not have to be grouped into the narrative of rural America elsewhere.

The contrast can be clearly seen in statistics. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, 34.7% of Vermonters volunteer, ranking them 6th among the 50 states and Washington, DC, while other states with significant white, rural poverty are considerably lower, such as West Virginia with 20.7%. The number of volunteer hours given per resident in Vermont is 32.9, while in other states with high rural poverty portray considerably less, such as Mississippi with 26.4 or Kentucky with 27.7. Please don’t assume that the reason for this is because white people are volunteering more hours. In Mississippi, for instance, the three-year pooled number of volunteer hours by whites is 48 and by blacks is 52, indicating that volunteering is not limited by race.


New Hampshire’s Fish and Game Volunteers

However, Vermont isn’t the only New England state with these statistics. 73.9% of Maine residents engage in “informal volunteering”, such as doing favors for neighbors, while the national average is 62.5%. An astounding 90.1% of Mainers frequently talk with neighbors. And finally, 97% of those living in Maine eat dinner with other members of the household, an indication of valuing community at the micro level. (All statistics in this paragraph from Corporation for National and Community Service.)

A new narrative about rural poverty needs to emerge. It is a narrative of community, of shared resources, and a value of the land. The rural communities I know recognize everyone’s last name and their history; they are proud of the land they live on because the land has belonged to their family for generations. There are family farms that are no longer economically viable, and have been divided into small trailer parks. However, the descendents of the original farmers living in these communities help each other out and often try to make the farm fit their needs. The older generations still volunteer at the local library, school, historical societies or churches. The community gathers around people in need. Meals are prepared for those with illness or family emergencies; friends watch each other’s children. This new narrative of community engagement needs to swell and take its place in our national poverty discussion.

The current narrative that focuses on urban poverty particularly frustrates since it doesn’t recognize the statistics of US poverty. As Tom Vilsack, the US Secretary of Agriculture, pointed out in 2011, “…Rural America is a unique and interesting place that I don’t think a lot of folks fully appreciate and understand. They don’t understand that while it represents 16 percent of America’s population, 44 percent of the military comes from rural America. It’s the source of our food, fiber and feed, and 88 percent of our renewable water resources. One of every 12 jobs in the American economy is connected in some way to what happens in rural America. It’s one of the few parts of our economy that still has a trade surplus. And sometimes people don’t realize that 90 percent of the persistent poverty counties are located in rural America.”


Maine during the ice storm of 1998

There is a level of trust within New England’s towns; people watch out for each other and this crosses economic lines. There is an investment in the communities by individuals because there is less transitory poverty; often those living in these areas have been there for generations. Finally, town participation is inclusive. Families of all economic backgrounds come out for spaghetti dinners and football games. The percentage of Vermonters, for instance who are active in their neighborhoods, is over double the national average. (Corporation for National and Community Service.) This is the New England narrative I witness on a daily basis – neighbors helping neighbors, and this engagement in the community builds both trust and awareness that cannot be built when community members don’t interact. When members of a society are willing to cross economic lines and see others as individuals instead of a stereotyped group, trust emerges.

rural poverty 3.jpgThe role of community can’t be underestimated when discussing rural poverty, since many of the federal programs are difficult to access from rural areas. For instance, Maine takes up almost half of New England, but is often overlooked because it only holds 9% of New England’s population. However, 43% of New England’s rural population live in Maine and the rural poverty rate is above 15%. (January 2014 Report Community Outlook Survey Report)  However, programs like SNAP and housing vouchers don’t have the same impact in these rural areas because of limited access. “Rural eastern and northern Maine traditionally have high unemployment and under-employment numbers. …The rural infrastructure and the limited and untrained workforce does not lend itself to economic growth.” (New England Community Outlook Survey respondent from Maine)


Vermonters during Tropical Storm Irene

However, in every dark cloud there is a silver lining. The lack of infrastructure forces communities to look inward; when they know help isn’t coming from outside, they stop expecting someone else to step in and work together for a solution. This is where New England’s reputation for hard work and determination emerges. It is what I experienced as a Vermonter during tropical storm Irene in 2011 and as a Mainer during the ice storm of 1998. When the government bureaucracy finally showed up, days after the storms had passed through, they found neighbors helping neighbors. Temporary bridges had been made, roads cleared, river walls built up, and families taking other families into their homes. The looting often found in urban areas after a natural disaster was non-existent. Moments like this bond communities together and have no economic division.


rural poverty 6.jpgThe narrative of white, rural poverty must change to one of inclusive community engagement that crosses economic lines. No longer can we sit by and allow the nation to believe that poverty belongs solely to cities or a single racial group. New England poverty includes all races, and together they form a community. The unspoken bias of silence about white poverty must be broken. In its place, a new narrative emerges – a narrative of communities working together to rise up. This is not one, powerful story, but a collection of small moments. It is the moment a stranger stops to help push a car out of a snow bank. It is the moment a timber frame barn is raised through the collective effort of a hundred hands. It is the moment a meal is delivered to a new mother, hot from the oven. It is a thousand tiny moments in a thousand, tiny communities.


Kendra LaRoche, 2011 Cohort

Visit Kendra LaRoche’s blog, http://ruralachievement.jimdo.com/, to leave your own tiny moment of community teamwork in rural New England.

Kendra LaRoche specializes as a school coach, working with districts and individual schools to identify a specific goal related to the achievement gap, and develop and implement an action plan, as well as evaluate the effectiveness of the plan.  Additionally, Kendra offers workshops to educators in the areas of growth mindset, relationship building, increasing rigor, differentiation, and widening worldviews.

Kendra is a Rowland Fellow of the 2011 cohort, and currently teaches at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, VT. She resides in Middletown Springs, Vermont with her two children.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Myth of Meritocracy: Reframing the American Dream

Given the theme of “Equity” for this year’s annual Rowland Conference, I thought it appropriate to write about the hidden barriers that can prevent success in school and life.  Particularly, I focus on the American Dream which is frequently mentioned in political rhetoric.  This blog post aims to start the conversation around equity issues, especially as it relates to those in poverty.

american-dreamThe American Dream is deeply embedded in the narrative of the United States.  Equality of opportunity is blindly assumed, with little thought to potential barriers.  A vast majority of Americans believe that if you go to school and work hard then you’ll “make it”.  Scant attention is provided to the externalities inherent in our free-market capitalist society.   The achievement ideology as it is currently defined and perceived in the United States is riddled with misconceptions. .  Most people do not fully understand why so many individuals fail in their quest to “make it” and usually blame is placed on the individual.  Overwhelming hurdles imposed by structural constraints not only limit opportunities but quell the aspirations of those striving towards becoming middle class.   As a component of social reproduction, cultural capital holds significant sway in the success of individuals both in school and in society.  Clearly the achievement ideology is fraught with misconceptions that lowers aspirations, which in turn negatively influences upward mobility. Thus, the American Dream should be promoted pragmatically, exposing the structural barriers that prevent individuals from achieving economic success in the United States.

Defining the American Dream

american-dream-2The achievement ideology is deeply ingrained in the psyche of most Americans.  It is unquestioningly presumed that if one works hard then they will succeed. The United States is based on the belief of meritocracy, which assumes equal opportunity; in other words a fair chance to “make it”.  The American Dream is an individualistic view that does not really account for external barriers.  It is widely believed that if a person is unsuccessful, then it is due to personal inadequacy.  This definition is not accurate and it inappropriately places heavy emphasis on individual agency.  People often think those in poverty are personally deficient, such as being lazy or stupid.   The achievement ideology in the United States presumes that those who fail have themselves to blame (MacLeod, 2009).  To counter this, MacLeod (2009) acknowledges that,

The view that the problem resides almost exclusively with the children and their families, and that some sort of cultural injection is needed to compensate for what they are missing, is not only intellectually bankrupt but also has contributed to the widespread popular notion that the plight of poor whites and minorities is entirely their own fault.  (p.100)

This view needs to be reframed so that everyone have a better understanding of those in poverty.  Furthermore, the current definition of the American Dream sets people up for defeat and a prolonged sense of despair.  There are stark differences in the obstacles, resources, and opportunities available to those in the lower class versus those in the upper echelon.  Acknowledgement of this dichotomy is necessary to understand how difficult it is to climb the socioeconomic ladder out of poverty.

Cultural and Social Capital

american-dream-3A major barrier to success in both school and the labor market is due in part to a lack of cultural capital.  Cultural capital is a nebulous term, but for the purposes this post will be thought of as the norms, knowledge, skills, and linguistic prowess of a particular social class (Mehan, 1992).  More specifically, it influences the ability of a particular class to navigate and operate within the socially dominant culture, which is most often much different than the culture of the lower classes.  Pierre Bourdieu, the progenitor of the notion of cultural capital, argues that schools and society reward the capital of the dominant class, providing elites with a distinct advantage (Kingston, 2001).  Sullivan (2001) complements this by saying cultural capital  possesses an “exclusionary character”, essentially handicapping those without the “right” stock of capital (p. 89).  Another equally important component of cultural capital is parental encouragement, which influences aspirations (Sullivan, 2001).  This is only a partial explanation for the academic and economic success of the socially privileged (Sullivan, 2001).  Ultimately, those in the middle class and above have a greater stock of cultural capital, particularly capital that is valued in the dominant culture.

MacLeod (2009) reveals that social capital and social networks that provide useful resources, are equally important to success in the labor market as cultural capital is.  In the assumed meritocratic free-market society, it is believed that human capital alone is enough to acquire employment, but this is just not true.  As McLeod (2009) discovers through his interviews, social connections are often necessary to get one’s foot in the door.  Another component of MacLeod’s (2009) findings is that those occupying the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder tend to lack social capital, just as they lack cultural capital.

Social Reproduction

american-dream-4The class one is born into is the social class they will likely remain through their adult years (MacLeod, 2009).  Those in the upper socioeconomic strata do not have to deal with certain hurdles that those living in poverty must contend with.  A multitude of factors contribute to social class reproduction, several have been discussed already.  Certainly there is some aspect of choice in determining one’s social class but mostly it is structural constraints that are to blame.  Family plays a crucial role in social reproduction, as do schools, the economy, race and peer groups (MacLeod, 2009).  All of these components operate to construct what Bourdieu calls habitus.  McLeod (2009) synthesizes habitus as “…composed of the attitudes, beliefs, and experiences of those inhabiting one’s social world.” (p. 15). Habitus influences one’s response to social structures in such a way that they reinforce class inequality (MacLeod, 2009).   Habitus foments particular attitudes which in turn influences agency.

Structure – Agency Dualism

american-dream-6The dominant social construction of the American Dream discounts structure and focuses solely on agency as the primary force in determining one’s outcome in life.  The reality is that structure and agency are inextricably linked; inequalities in structure inhibit individual agency (McLeod, 2009).  A paucity of stable, well paying jobs that do not require a college education has become the norm since the genesis of the postindustrial era.  Blue-collar jobs in factories that were once the foundation of the middle class are now scarce.  The labor market is now split into low-wage menial service sector jobs and high-wage technical positions that require expert cognitive skills (Levy & Murnane, 2004).  This has created a hollowing-out of the middle sector of the labor spectrum and a social division of labor (Bowles, 1971; Levy & Murnane, 2004).  Limited opportunities in the labor market is but one of countless structural constraints that restrict possibilities for those in poverty.  Though external obstacles are a dominant factor, individual agency does play a role in social reproduction.

Mehan (1992) finds that people do actively make their own choices in life, however theses choices are not made under conditions of their own choosing.   Agency can have positive influences though.  MacLeod (2009) found that one of the greatest acts of agency was moving to another location.  This changed the environment that the individual operated in and thus the related constraints.  Clearly individuals do contribute to their own successes or failures, but as noted, agency cannot be discussed without thought to structural forces.

Aspirations and Expectations

american-dream-8Hopelessness and cynicism pervade the outlooks of those in poverty due to limited occupational opportunities and generally depressing experiences (MacLeod, 2009).  Leveled aspirations play an integral role in shaping the outcomes of those in poverty.  Changed aspirations can affect expectations and ultimately new behaviors and attitudes (MacLeod, 2009, p. 149).  One’s attitude has direct implications for both academic and employment success.  A change in attitude and outlook can have a significant impact.

Often, parental roles are limited for those in poverty, due to a fear of setting high expectations that will only be crushed.  MacLeod (2009) found that one mother thought “ …it inappropriate to foster high aspirations in her children, fearing that unrealistically high goals only result in disappointment, frustrations, and feelings of failure and inadequacy.” (p.58).  In opposition of this, it has been found that parents that foster high expectations for their children tend to inspire higher aspirations and decreased hopelessness (MacLeod, 2009).  In addition to the family, peer groups can also sustain and alter the aspirations of individuals.  When there is nothing to look forward to, attitudes and aspirations falter.  Constant failure along with a dreary future leads to feelings of futility and desperation that only furthers social reproduction of the lower classes.


american-dream-5The American Dream persists despite a plethora of research that debunks the equality of opportunity myth.  What is touted as a meritocracy, is in actuality a closed opportunity structure. Despite this fact, people still believe that success depends solely on personal merit.  It is commonly believed that to succeed it is necessary to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, supporting the ethos of individualism. A vast majority of people, including those in poverty, are blind to the impact of social class.  In the pursuit of the American Dream, countless individuals fail.  Usually failure is attributed to not trying hard enough or just not having what it takes (MacLeod, 2009).   There are however, numerous structural impediments that handicap those in poverty and prevent them from ever achieving the American Dream.  The social reproduction cycle is incredibly difficult to break out of and it engenders low aspirations and feelings of despair.   Potentially the most dangerous aspect of the myth of meritocracy is that some people do “make it” and climb the social ladder out of poverty.  This illusion of social mobility perpetuates the myth that it is agency and not structure that influences success.  Ultimately, the fact that upward mobility does exist legitimates the current inequalities in society (MacLeod, 2009).  Until there is substantial recognition of the structural barriers that constrain the opportunities of those in poverty, the American Dream will continue to be but a mirage for many.



Andrew Jones, 2015 Cohort, is a doctoral student at the University of Vermont in the education policy and leadership Ed.D. program.  He has taught for six years as a 9th grade science teacher at Mt. Abraham Union High School in Bristol Vermont and is currently the science department chair.  Along with his colleague Gabe Hamilton, Andrew Jones was awarded a 2015 Rowland Foundation Fellowship to research standards-based grading practices and to implement systemic change at Mount Abe.


All images are by artist Kay Crain and can be purchased here.


Bowles, S. (1971). Unequal education and the reproduction of the social division of labor.  Review of Radical Political Economics, 3(Fall/Winter), 17-46.

Kingston, P.W. (2001).  The unfulfilled promise of cultural capital theory.  Sociology of Education, 74, 88-99.

Levy, F. and Murnane, R.J. (2004).  The new division of labor: How computers are creating the next job market.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

MacLeod, J. (2009). Ain’t no makin’ it: Aspirations and attainment in a low-income neighborhood (Rev. ed.).  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Mehan, H. (1992). Understanding inequality in schools: The contribution of interpretive studies. Sociology of Education, 65(1), 1-20.

Sullivan, A. (2001). Cultural capital and educational attainment.  Sociology, 35, 893-912. doi:10.1177/0038038501035004006



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A New Era of International Student Exchanges

via.PNGVirtual Intercultural Avenues is a multi-faceted global campus that uses 21st century technologies to give students and teachers the virtual mobility to communicate, collaborate, teach and learn beyond the traditional classroom and across borders.

via2.PNGSince its launch in 2013, Virtual Intercultural Avenues (VIA) has helped my students connect in myriad ways with their teenage counterparts abroad. Vermont students have had thousands of virtual interactions through Vimeo, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Scopia, Skype, and WhatsApp. Our students collaborated virtually on projects with students of other nationalities, participated in virtual classroom visits across the ocean, and shared snapshots of their lives and communities through video and our blog—comparing notes on vacations, music, sports, fast food, politics, and even bucket lists.

via3.PNGIt wasn’t long before we began to plan ground exchanges, bolstered by our virtual connection. When the high school where I teach, in Essex, Vermont, prepared to host French students in 2014 and Belgian students in 2015, we corresponded, planned and chatted virtually. I even attended French and Belgian parent meetings through Skype, to answer questions covering everything from Vermont weather to Halloween to safety precautions we would take when hosting their children. Our lively ground exchanges showcased Vermont while offering shared experiences for all three nationalities of students. The students practiced language and cross-cultural communication skills in their new roles as ambassadors of their schools, state, and countries. They solidified their friendships, have stayed connected, and began to plan trips of their own.


via4.PNGWhen it was our turn to plan a trip abroad in 2016, due to the unfortunate events that had recently occurred around the globe, student safety, which is always important, had a new and more serious dimension. Our parent and student meetings weren’t just about currencies and exchange rates, checked bags and carry-ons, SIM cards and international cell phone plans, and what to expect when staying with a French family and attending a French school. We also addressed terrorism and the proximity of recent attacks in France to our destinations, State Department travel warnings, and the French Ministry of Education emergency measures for schools. While the planning meetings were more serious than in years past, that did not take away from the fact that our students were also learning the very skills that would, in the future, position them to be part of the international teams that work to find solutions to global problems of the sort that dominated news in Paris and the world in 2015. In March 2016, we flew to Brussels, traveled to France, and were hosted by the same students whom the Vermont students had hosted the previous years. My students confided that they had had “the time of their lives.”

via5.PNGFrom the beginning, I wanted to promote language study; provide a culturally immersive experience that could be virtual or ground; encourage world area studies; foster cross-cultural communication skills; instill confidence in an ability to navigate in a global community; and provide the opportunity to make friends along the way.


Creating strong virtual connections for these NextGen learners, through consistent access to new and evolving communication technologies, has enabled us to create a robust and sustainable exchange that goes beyond the classroom, school day, or single school trip. Students who are using programs like VIA are building the language skills, cross-cultural communication skills, cultural knowledge, and relationships that will be required to solve global problems that transcend any one language, culture, or country.


Jill Prado, Member of the 2012 Cohort of Fellows




With the support of a 2012 Rowland Foundation grant, Essex High School teacher Jill Prado launched Virtual Intercultural Avenues in Vermont schools and abroad, linking schools internationally through new platforms embedded in a virtual global campus.

The VIA grassroots network includes middle schools and high schools in Belgium, France, Spain and Vermont.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

To Build a Better Question

aasl-1AASL’s Standards for the 21st-Century Learner mandate that we equip our students with the skills they need to pursue lifelong learning. The Common Core State Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, and C3 Framework for Social Studies Standards all advocate for genuine student inquiry, and the best thinkers in education are demanding that students take a more active role in their education to make them competitive in the global economy. One practice that can prepare students for a lifetime of engaged learning is asking questions.

What Makes Questioning a Literacy?

Literacies are how we make sense of the world; we read to gain knowledge, and we write to share new understandings. Asking and answering questions is also how we make sense of the world. It’s why young children ask so many questions—there’s a lot to make sense of and patterns about the world to discover. And yet, as children age they ask fewer questions.

aasl-4The Right Question Institute finds that as children’s reading and writing skills improve, the number of questions they ask decreases, and, unfortunately, as the rate of questioning diminishes, so does the rate of engagement (Berger 2014, 44–45). It is our belief that teaching students to become fluent questioners also increases their engagement in learning.

When we think of someone who is literate we think of a person who can read and write—someone who can do only one or the other is not fully literate. To be question-literate a person must be able to both construct and understand questions. To construct a question students need to know what the parts of a question are and how to put those parts together to ensure that the question is asking for the answer they’re looking for. Just as students need to learn the alphabet and develop phonemic awareness, they need to learn different question words and how expert vocabulary and concepts are incorporated into questions. Understanding a question is different from answering a question; it means being able to form an idea of what an answer might look like and what type of information is being sought. Knowing how to go about answering a question is an important skill, and the first step in that process is understanding the question that’s been asked. As with any literacy, students need regular practice to develop questioning fluency and to learn how to comprehend and analyze questions.

To become question-fluent, students must understand how different types of questions operate. They need to practice asking and answering various types of questions so they can understand how different question lenses change the type of question being asked and the type of answer being sought—for example, “Which form of transitional justice is most effective?” versus “How does a society decide which form of transitional justice to use?”

Just as letters can make different sounds in different contexts, different types of questions serve different purposes depending on their context. “Which form of transitional justice is most effective?” requires a different type of inquiry when discussing transitional justice in general versus the narrower and more detailed inquiry that can be conducted when a specific case is being examined.

How Are Questioning and Critical Thinking Related?

aasl-5Critical thinking is high-level thinking that requires us to analyze, evaluate, synthesize, or apply what we know. Its relationship with questioning is cyclical. Good questions—deep questions—are launching points for critical thinking. Questions, not answers, push us to think critically. As the cycle continues, critical thinking leads to more-nuanced questions. Questioning and critical thinking work together to further engagement, curiosity, thinking, and learning. As Richard W. Paul and Linda Elder have stated: “To think through or rethink anything, one must ask questions that stimulate our thought” (1999, 8). Answers are stopping points. Only when another question is asked can thought move forward.

Metaphors are often used by proponents of questioning, for example: questions are engines that drive thinking; questions are tools that help us dig deep into knowledge. We propose a rock climbing metaphor: questions are the foot- and hand-holds that help learners climb to new heights in their understanding.

aasl-6Authentic questions are crucial for cultivating both the motivation and curiosity needed to scale those heights. As Ian Leslie said in Curious, “Asking good questions stimulates the hunger to know more by opening up exciting new known unknowns (2014, 103).” A recent study reported in Neuron concluded that curiosity positively affects memory and information retention (Gruber, Gelman, and Ranganath 2014). But curiosity does more than just aid knowledge acquisition; it moves thinking forward by closing knNEURON_84_2.c1.inddowledge gaps.

George Lowenstein, psychologist and behavioral economist from Carnegie Mellon University, has described curiosity as a “response to an information gap” (Leslie 2014, 34). To feel curious, to ask good questions, we must become aware of our own ignorance. It is that awareness that enables us to ask questions that will build our knowledge. If we return to our rock climbing metaphor, questions allow us to scale great heights by providing leverage points. They scaffold a learning journey, chunking it into pieces small enough to traverse but challenging enough to keep the learner interested. The beauty of student-generated questions is that they are individualized; each student determines her or his own path up the cliff face. While some may be prepared for a greater degree of difficulty, others may need to set a less-challenging course. When students become literate in the art of questioning, they have the tools they need for lifelong learning; they can set a course that guides and extends their thinking.

What Do We Ask Questions About?

Students who lack background knowledge can find inquiry-driven learning challenging. At first, their questions may focus on minutia of assignments’ due dates and requirements. (We’ve all encountered students who want to know what the source requirements are before they’ve even decided on a research focus.) It’s difficult to start asking questions before you have some context for what you’re asking about; if you’ve never seen the sky, you don’t ask why the sky is blue.

A range of different strategies can pique students’ curiosity, but one of my (Sara’s) favorites is the write around. I am deeply indebted to Buffy Hamilton for introducing me to write arounds and the work of Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Elaine Daniels. Write arounds can take a number of forms, but the one I use most often when working with students to develop a research focus is text on text.

aasl-8Text on text write arounds involve my laying out several passages of text and/or images on a large piece of chart paper and students’ collaboratively annotating the texts by quietly writing on the text and chart paper.

I recently used this strategy with a class doing research on literature related to the winter holidays. The collaborating teacher and I sought passages that would help shift students’ perspectives around familiar stories; if you know why the sky is blue, and suddenly the sky is green, you have new questions!

aasl-9I have found this process especially useful in scaffolding the question-development process for students when paired with some of the strategies Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison wrote about in Making Thinking Visible (2011). These strategies can expose gaps in understanding and provoke questions that will lead to further inquiry.

Carol Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process provides excellent guidance for the right times to intervene and provide some structured questioning for students—when to help students find a handhold on the cliff. Students who have hit a point of frustration and are asking “What do I research?” are at a point where they need questions asked of them, and they need scaffolded support for developing a research question.

How Do We Foster Questioning in Students?

The first thing we can do to foster questioning is to make space for student’s questions. We can go a long way towards helping all students become literate questioners by giving them opportunities to ask questions and using those questions as springboards for learning.

aasl-10The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) is another way to develop students questioning skills. Designed by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana of the Right Question Institute, this process provides structure as students ask questions, analyze their questions, refine, revise and prioritize their questions. It is not enough just to have students pose questions, they also need to examine them critically. It is in the analysis and iteration of questions that the best questions emerge and that students develop their question skills. The QFT includes time for reflection on the process, encouraging students to think about their thinking and how it might apply to future learning.

For students who need help getting started with forming questions, it can be helpful to provide a list of question starts, such as “How would it be different if…?” and “What is the purpose of…?”. Scaffolding the question-asking process helps students develop fluency and confidence in asking questions and in understanding the questions asked of them. See our list of further resources for other strategies for scaffolding student questions.

The question-development process provides many opportunities for giving formative feedback while modeling questioning strategies. We can ask students why they think a particular question is useful or important, and what type of information they think they might find based on that question. Similarly, we can model our own questioning process when working with students and teachers by “questioning aloud” as we plan a lesson or a search strategy.

Sometimes student research is independent, but collaborative questioning can still be helpful. Students can be given time to develop their initial knowledge and questions on their topics through pre-search. They then present their findings to a small group, ending with a question of interest. Classmates listen and take notes, jotting down questions on sticky notes. Questions are shared with the presenter who then organizes and categorizes them, analyzing and revising them until a focus question emerges for research. This is a powerful tool both for practicing question skills and developing a better research question.

Regardless of How We Help Students Ask, Analyze, and Revise Questions, It Is Crucial That These Questions Lead to Something More.

Student questions can be used in many ways:

  • as research questions to guide inquiry,
  • for formative or summative assessments,
  • as focuses for reading texts,
  • as tools for problem solving,
  • as driving questions for project-based learning, or
  • as questions for Socratic Circles or Harkness Discussions.

Students will always need to be able to ask—and answer—good questions. By working with students to build better questions, we ensure that they will always be able to answer the question: “What do I want to know next?”

Jeanie Phillips

Jeanie Phillips is a member of the 2014 Cohort of Fellows.

Jeanie Phillips is the librarian at Green Mountain High School in Chester, Vermont.  A trained collaborative practices facilitator, she believes in the power of collaboration to foster deep  learning. As a 2014/2015 Rowland Fellow, Jeanie is designing  opportunities to increase student engagement and personalize learning  in her library learning commons and in her school.  Jeanie is also a member of AASL (American Association of School Librarians) and is currently serving on the AASL Standards and Guidelines Implementation Task Force.

This piece by Jeanie Phillips and Sara Kelley-Mudie was written for and published in the May/June issue of Knowledge Quest, the Journal of the American Association of School Librarians.  The original content can be found here as printed in that publication.

Thank you to Jeanie and Sara for their permission to republish this piece here on the Rowland Foundation’s blog and to Meg Featheringham the Manager/Editor American Association of School Librarians for her consideration.

And finally, if you aren’t familiar with Carol Collier Kuhlthau’s work, Jeanie and Sarah recommend exploring her website.

Works Cited:

Berger, Warren. 2014. A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. New York: Bloomsbury.

Daniels, Harvey, and Elaine Daniels. 2013. The Best-Kept Teaching Secret. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Gruber, Matthias J., Bernard D. Gelman, and Charan Ranganath. “States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit.” Neuron 84 (2): 486–96.

Leslie, Ian. 2014. Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It. New York: Basic Books.

Paul, Richard W., and Linda Elder. 1999. Critical Thinking: Basic Theory and Instructional Structures Handbook. Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Ritchhart, Ron, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison. 2011. Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rothstein, Dan, and Luz Santana. 2011. Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Further Reading:

Berger, Warren. n.d. “How Can We Teach Kids to Question?” A More Beautiful Question. <http://amorebeautifulquestion.com/can-teach-kids-question&gt; (accessed December 18, 2015).

Hamilton, Buffy J. 2014. “Moving from Our Mindmaps to More Focused Topics with Question Lenses and Musical Peer Review.” The Unquiet Librarian (October 27). <https://theunquietlibrarian.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/moving-from-our-mindmaps-to-more-focused-topics-with-question-lenses-and-musical-peer-review&gt; (accessed December 22, 2015).

Heick, Terry. n.d. “7 Strategies To Help Students Ask Great Questions.” Teach Thought. <www.teachthought.com/critical-thinking/inquiry/8-strategies-to-help-students-ask-great-questions> (accessed December 23, 2015).

Ludwig, Sarah. 2015. “Using Question Lenses to Identify Conceptual Themes.” Sarah Ludwig: Sharing What I Learn about Education, Libraries, and Tech (February 2).  <https://sarahludwig.wordpress.com/2015/02/02/usingquestionlensestoidentifyconceptualthemes> (accessed December 22, 2015).

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

JSEP as a Model for Learning


Students build life-long friendships.

There is no limit to the number of strategies, techniques, and technologies that tout successful educational moments, but learning derived from the students themselves results in unparalleled outcomes. In the remote settlement of Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, students from Greenland, Denmark, and the United States gather for a three week polar science experience that exemplifies this student centered approach. A modest program with personal exploration as its central goal, connects young people with a variety of international practicing scientists. Ultimately, this program – dedicated to inspiring the next generation of polar scientists, defined by the participants, and built around its location – can provide powerful lessons in practice and pedagogy for traditional education systems.

Tuttu 101.JPG

The area next to the glacier is so inspiring as there is a dynamic balance between rock, ice, and life.

The idea of the Joint Science Education Project (JSEP) was conceived by the Joint Committee, a high level government forum, during the International Polar Year. These diplomats recognized the value of fostering international diplomacy as well as interest in polar science. For the American contribution to the program, Dartmouth’s Institute of Arctic Studies currently collaborates on its implementation with financial support from the National Science Foundation. Over the years, the program has grown and morphed into its current rendition. Despite the evolution of the program, polar science remains the dynamic and unifying platform and student growth the primary purpose.

If allowed the opportunity, naysayers could cite many reasons why the success of JSEP is not transferable beyond Greenland’s rugged, glacier scarred landscape. So let us address the elephant in the room directly. There are many advantages for JSEP that would be – at best – challenging to reproduce in schools.  JSEP selects five participants from a large pool of students from across the country, which means the American students are highly motivated and qualified; JSEP takes place in an interesting and exotic location that is difficult to get to from the U.S.; and JSEP has an enviously small student to educator ratio of about 5 students per teacher. Attributing JSEP’s successes solely to these statistics; however, prematurely overlooks the true pedagogical strengths at the heart of the program. It is JSEP’s driving philosophy that is worthy of reflection.

Lesson 1: Interdisciplinary. Using polar science as a vehicle to provide authentic field experiences opens the door to many interdisciplinary possibilities. Polar science, by its nature, connects STEM content areas. It is organized by its location rather than its subject matter. The clear distinctions between physics, biology, chemistry and earth science that are the tenants our secondary schools become blurred. Examples of research based out of Kangerlussuaq include atmospheric chemistry to measure the concentrations of gas trapped in ancient ice cores; lichenometry (using lichens as a date indicator) to calculate rates of soil erosion; and creating detailed maps of the topography beneath the glacier using various remote sensing devices.


Each country hosts an evening focused on their culture. During the Greenlandic night, students compete in a traditional game to see who is able to eat their dried fish the fastest without using their hands.

While the connections and crossover between disciplines seems obvious from our adult perspectives, experiences like JSEP are eye opening for students who have spent their entire educational careers progressing through a series of distinct courses. More than once, students share personal epiphanies noting “I had no idea I could combine physics and chemistry into one career.” While comments such as these showcase the success of JSEP, more troubling they highlight the failures of our current educational systems.

In addition to the intersections between science disciplines, the polar regions also provide opportunities to insert elements of the humanities including social sciences, government, history, and the arts. Students contemplate current issues such as mining rights as the ice sheet retreats and Greenland struggles to gain political and financial independence from Denmark. Students connect with locals to learn about the traditional use of native plants for medicinal purposes as well as consumption. JSEP also draws on the diverse perspectives provided by the international delegation of students to enhance understanding and communication about environmental change in the polar regions.

Lesson 2: Varied Expertise. Scientists, clumped as a homogeneous group, carry the reputation as challenged communicators. Sharing complex concepts with audiences of varied backgrounds is difficult for any presenter; and yet, there are assumptions that as professionals, scientists will excel at this skill for which they receive minimal training.

Greenland 2 002.JPG

Small groups of students work together to develop and answer questions. There is extensive field opportunities as well as time in the classroom to process data and observations.

Science teachers have backgrounds in STEM content. As college graduates, often holding degrees in the sciences, these teachers work to balance their understanding of content with mastery of pedagogy.  During summer months and professional development days, occasional courses or conferences focused on their content areas are squeezed in between the improving best practices in education and their personal lives. Maintaining a current license requires evidence of continued learning in their subject matter, but this patchwork of courses and credits can never provide the same level of familiarity as with scientist dedicated to their research.

Greenland End 001.JPG

Students work closely with the faculty and graduate students from Dartmouth College. Many of the students are from underseved populations. JSEP promotes confidence in students that may have questioned their capabilities to reach for highly ranked schools. Currently to former JSEP students attend Dartmouth College.

JSEP brings together these groups of specialized experts – high school STEM educators, Dartmouth faculty, and graduate students. This international collaborative team uses the graduate students’ research as the seed from which to build rich meaningful curriculum. The teachers help with the development of the lessons and support graduate students with the implementation. It is mutually beneficial as the graduate students gain experience communicating their research through direct instruction and through guiding students’ independent field work.

Lesson 3: Student driven. On the very first day of JSEP students walk along a ridge in small groups and record as many observations and questions about the environment as possible. The walk ends on the top of a bluff providing 360 degree views of the valley. The graduate students meet the group and from the vantage point use natural landscapes to give brief introductions to their research. With small teams of students rotating through these stations, students gain confidence to ask questions and connect with the researchers.

Following this day of exploration, students write three questions they are interested in pursuing. Their questions are not required to mirror the graduate students research exactly, rather the idea is to tap their own interests and quandaries and pair them with the most relevant graduate student.


Small groups rotate through stations showcase graduate research. The amazing vantage point is an ideal location to promote deeper thinking about the landscape.

Based on the students’ questions new groups are established with each graduate student working with between 3 and 4 students. The goal for each group is to develop a question, follow the scientific method and produce an end product that will communicate their discoveries to the public (each group shares their work with international travelers at the Kangerlussuaq airport). The graduate students mentor the students. This includes working directly with the students to develop reasonable, attainable questions, traveling into the field to collect data and checking in with their group through the analysis process.

Mapping with Ruth 046.JPG

Students share their learning with intergenerational travelers passing through the airport. This provides a diverse and captive audience for the JSEP students.

Allowing students the freedom to explore their own questions and then providing them the time, space, and support in order to become experts themselves results in unique and informative student produced products. There is deep understanding, strong sense of ownership, and excitement for polar sciences. On the end of the program survey students’ comments included, “This was the first time was I was trusted to ask my own questions.” “I loved working with scientists in the field. They were all so helpful and inspiring.”

It is not a new realization that providing students with opportunities to explore their own interests and deliberately integrating subject matters produces positive results in both learning and engagement. The problem is more schools, courses, and programs, need to move beyond reading and talking about these philosophies and to begin adopting and implementing them as pillars in their programs. This best practice cannot be a special day before a vacation or occasional events sporadically appearing throughout the year, rather it should be the center of planning and collaborating for teachers. JSEP provides another example of creative and committed educators working along scientists to promote STEM in the next generation.


SeaTomatoesLichtens 076

Students complete an erosion lab in Greenland.

Look beyond the spectacular backdrops in these pictures and see the faces of students connecting with their learning in engaging and interesting ways. Schools do not need to have ice sheets in their backyards to recreate this environment. Educators need to tap into what they do have.  Their communities do have institutes of higher learning with a pool of potential near peer mentors.


A similar activity is completed outside of Rutland, Vermont. Students evaluate soil erosion originally caused by Tropical Storm Irene.

Their schools do have a natural world with interesting possibilities to explore just beyond their student and faculty parking lots. Their courses do have numerous links to other content areas, current events and local issues. And ultimately their students do have interesting questions to investigate, they have the capability of collaborating and seeing projects through fruition, and they have the potential to become truly engaged and inspired by their own learning.

Greenland End 034

Final group photo. This is taken during our midnight hike to a nearby waterfall. Since we are north of the Arctic Circle, the sun never sets while we are there.


South Pole Pic

Erica Wallstrom, 2014 Cohort, at the South Pole in  Antarctica.

Erica Wallstrom is in the 2014 Cohort of Rowland Fellows and is working with her fellow Fellow on developing Rutland High School’s Global Issues Network (GIN) – which strives to mentor and motivate youth to take informed, thoughtful and sustainable actions to address the most pressing global issues.

Through the integration of academic disciplines GIN will foster communication, design solutions, participation, and understanding when grappling with complex issues that result from both the actions and inactions of students.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment