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. <; (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). <; (accessed December 22, 2015).

Heick, Terry. n.d. “7 Strategies To Help Students Ask Great Questions.” Teach Thought. <> (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).  <> (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

Embracing New Educational Technologies: Keeping Up and Keeping Track

“The world’s next generation of leaders has a responsibility to take advantage of the growing opportunities that have come with a rapid influx of technology and communication throughout the globe.”

Higher education is up against myriad challenges, from declining enrollment to rising costs and shifting demographics. The majority of college students today, for example, are non-traditional, and this trend is expected to continue, as change is a constant—the average number of jobs held and career changes has been increasing in the span of an individual’s professional life. Education is being redefined from an activity for a set age to a lifelong need. Meanwhile, student debt is an omnipresent concern. In response to these dynamics, higher education has been investing in educational technologies that have allowed dramatic changes in instruction and learning.

While K12 shares only some of these challenges—such as declining student populations and local and state-wide budget constraints—the silver lining is that K12 education enjoys access to exciting tools developed in response to the challenges facing higher education—ones that are tailored to K12 to prepare students for new models of learning upon graduation.jill 3 v 2.png A veritable explosion in educational technologies is changing K12 teaching and learning at a breakneck pace. Ten years ago, participation in virtual platforms was limited to teachers and students who were early adapters. Now, the learning curve is shorter, and teaching and learning take advantage of engaging interactive simulations, online games, online self-assessments, and virtual communication—all learning tools that provide immediate feedback to support student learning.

jill via

Virtual Intercultural Avenues

New educational technologies have the capacity to transform student learning across disciplines and grades. One such example is a virtual global campus called Virtual Intercultural Avenues—a concept that would not even have been possible just 10 years ago.

Developed with the support of a Rowland Foundation grant, VIA embeds cross-cultural experiences in the curriculums of budget-crunched schools, for students and their families Jill 1.jpgwho are trying to save for college and might therefore choose not to study or travel abroad while still in high school. Using platforms like Vimeo and Twitter (both launched in 2006), Google Classroom (2014), podcasts (2004), as well as Blogger, Skype, and Scopia, VIA is able to incorporate cultural competency in middle and high school curriculums, connecting students virtually without the accompanying financial burden of travel and study abroad.

While innovative, fresh, and exciting, new educational technologies give rise to new challenges. For example, given the exploding range of options for schools, the challenge is not the availability of technologies, but rather the assessment of alternatives.

jill 6.pngAssessment methodologies of educational technologies for K12 schools are crucial, so that human and economic resources aren’t invested in the wrong products, wrong training, and wrong processes—which in turn deprive students of immediate opportunities. Teachers and school administrators need to be equipped with the skills and knowledge to assess educational technologies on an ongoing basis, guide their implementation, and measure their impact on student learning.


Barbella, D., Brandt, L., Fong, T., Jones III, D., Li, T.N., Yuman, S., Y., Jany, X., McDonald, B., and Xiao, A.J.,”Cultural Competence.” The New York Times in Education. New York Times, 2016. Web. 05 Jan. 2016. <;.


jill 7.jpg

Jill Prado, 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

Trust as a Cultural Expectation in Schools and in Classrooms

gab 2I was recently fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit several Finnish schools. Maybe I expected to see something really enlightening in Finland; some amazingly creative teaching method or a particularly innovative model, but I didn’t.  I was not disappointed at all though.  We were able to confirm that much of what we are doing in Vermont is moving in the right direction.

The good news is that Vermont may actually be further along than the Finn’s in terms of innovative teaching practices in schools.  We are an extremely innovative state in terms of education.  The Finnish culture seems to be the driving force in their educational achievement.

gab 3The pervasive theme for me during this visit was trust.  It is prevalent in every part of the school and throughout the education system and it truly changes the way students access learning.  Every teacher we talked to and every principal who spoke to us shared proudly that teachers are trusted to implement the national curriculum in whatever way they see fit.  They proudly used the word autonomy over and over again (I was reminded of how I feel the Rowland foundation treats their Fellows).

Principals collaborate with teachers but they are confident that their teachers will get to know the student needs and either address them or get help in addressing them.  Teaching is a gab 1highly respected profession, although not necessarily highly compensated.  Teachers are expected to do whatever it takes to help students succeed.  If a student is struggling to get to school, teachers will call home and work with families to figure it out.  They are expected to work with students on their coffee breaks if a student needs it.  While there are plenty of teachers in the U.S. that do this, there is an expectation in Finland.  This is a duty that is part of the profession and a reason why it is so respected.

gab 4There is a culture of taking care of others rather than a fend for yourself attitude that makes these extra duties not seem like extra duties at all; it is the right thing to do and everyone will benefit from a society where people are well educated.  The Finn’s are very proud to teach their children this as well.

When looking at the bigger picture, it is noticeable that outside the school system, there is a culture of taking care of everyone with the intention of creating a better overall society.  The social democracy that is central to Finland’s economic system has a great impact on the reason why the Finnish school system reflects these cultural values.

Because there is such a focus on this issue of trust as a cultural expectation, teachers have a high degree of trust for students.  Teachers shared that they don’t worry if a student doesn’t learn to read right away; they trust that it will happen.  The idea of growth mindset that has gained traction in the United States in recent years is an unknown term in Finland.  The idea that all students can achieve though, is taken for granted.

gab 7I can imagine how different that must feel from a student’s perspective because I had an early reading experience that illustrated exactly this issue.  I didn’t make the connection until one teacher mentioned this attitude toward reading.  When I was learning to read, I was attending a Montessori school and I remember being taught to read but it was because I showed an interest.  I didn’t think about whether I was good at it or not.  I didn’t compare myself to anyone else.  I just read when I wanted to and they taught me how to decode words when I appeared to be ready and willing.  When I moved to a public school, I knew on the first day what the teacher thought of my reading skills.  I knew that I was in the lowest reading group and I knew who were the “smart” ones.

There is a high degree of equality and homogeneity that exists in Finland and this helps lessen the gaps that were so apparent to me in an American public school.  Kids are also trusted to be in the hallways; even the gap 8.PNGyoungest students go to the bathroom on their own without asking the teacher; we observed 1st grade students getting on city buses by themselves to go to and from school.  While they are supervised on the playground, the adults see this as a time that students can work out problems on their own.  They do not intervene but rather wait for students to come to them for help if they need it.  They trust students to do this.  There were about sixty students on the playground that I observed with only one teacher supervising.  We visited a 1st grade classroom that had a system for making classroom decisions.  Any student could request a meeting to discuss an issue and the class works out the problem, votes on various solutions and that’s that, without the teacher’s control.  They feel empowered in their learning environment and have a high degree of autonomy as do their teachers.

gab 5It would be easy to take these reflections and decide that we can’t change the economic system in the United States, becoming disillusioned with the possibility of change, but I have seen cultural changes happen on a smaller scale.  Enosburg middle and high school has been working on mindset for several years and we have seen cultural changes.  Bernie Sander’s recent run for president is a timely reminder of his impact on the culture of Burlington Vermont during the early eighties that I witnessed and benefited form as a teenager.  We may not be able to change the culture of our country in one shot but could we begin changing it from the bottom up having an impact on the students who are in our immediate vicinity?


Gabrielle Marquette is a member of the 2015 Cohort of Fellows

Gabrielle Marquette, Special Educator/ Consulting Teacher, received her M.Ed. from Saint Michael’s College in 2003 and her C.A.G.S. through Southern New Hampshire University with a focus on collaborative leadership.

She is a practicing special educator/ consulting teacher and has been co-teaching American Literature for thirteen years at Enosburg High School. She has been teaching at The Community College of Vermont for ten years and offers original graduate courses through Castleton University.

She was awarded a Rowland fellowship in 2015 to pursue research on implementing personal learning.

“I am committed to helping educators transform learning environments in public school settings so meaningful learning is accessible to all students.”
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Going Beyond Challenging the Educational Myth: Using relationships to combat the deficit theory

kl1Scores of books, blogs, and articles have challenged the deficit theory, which was defined by Collins in 1988 as a belief that the poor are poor because of their own moral and intellectual deficiencies. Of course, that hasn’t stopped a far greater number of people from continuing to believe in the myth of the undeserving poor. In today’s school systems, we are more likely to encounter the deficit perspective, or defining students by their weaknesses rather than their strengths (Gorski, 2008).

Jason Finley, 2009 Rowland Fellow, recently called attention to the equity traps in Act 77, arguing convincingly that the gender and income-based stereotypes of educators could negatively impact Personal Learning Plans (PLPs) and Flexible Pathways. Most teachers, staff and school administrators, as well as education policy makers would agree that we need to be cognizant of these stereotypes, but fear of one’s’ own stereotypes can also lead to inaction. The question remains, how can schools overcome their own hidden biases to combat the deficit theory?

Most educators have good intentions. Many educators also reflect on their own practices. Some educators even go so far as to recognize their own biases. Even these top educators, who are already going above and beyond many of their peers to thoughtfully reflect, are left to flounder when it comes to how to combat their own stereotypes. While many have challenged the myths of a ‘poverty mindset’, few have offered solutions. Teachers and administrators feel powerless to address access to education, since it often falls outside of the scope of traditional schools.

kl3Our culture still holds the ideal that education should be the great equalizer, regardless of whether it actually smooths the playing field or not. The first step to challenging the myth of the ‘poverty mindset’ is a recognition that classism exists and ‘the poor’ are not a monolithic group with predictable beliefs, values and behavior (Gorski, 2008). While there is still much to do in this field, my focus is for those who have already asked how schools perpetuate classism, who are stuck in limbo between realizing they have biases, as we all do, and fear of acting on these stereotypes. In this limbo, as in Dr. Seuss’ “Waiting Place”, nothing happens. Education does not become any more of an equalizer simply because we recognize stereotypes in ourselves if we do not act on this knowledge. We need more than recognition of the problem.

kl2 Schools often fall into one of two categories when addressing achievement gaps. The first type, labelled ‘the disbeliever’, does not recognize a problem. This can be based upon a lack of reflection or the belief that they are treating everyone equally by being blind to poverty, gender, etc. Stereotypes are different from facts. It is a fact that not all jobs allow parents the time to show up for parent/teacher conferences. It is a fact that not everyone has access to technology at home. It is a stereotype that parents disvalue education because they do not show up for parent/teacher conferences or provide their children with the technology needed to succeed. Facts must be recognized and accommodations made accordingly. In order for schools to be the great equalizer, educators must use scaffolding to ensure equality of access.

The second type of school is ‘the indulgent’. This type addresses the achievement gap by recognizing the many issues students have at home, whether they are facts or stereotypes, and lowering expectations for these students because they have so many other worries in their lives. There is no ‘scaffolding up’ for these students; instead the standards are lowered. When students from middle class or wealthy households have more difficult standards than those who live in poverty, education perpetuates classism. For ‘the indulgent’ schools, unnecessary fear morphs into mollycoddling.

kl4.jpgScaffolding based on facts, not stereotypes, allows education to remain the ideal equalizer our country desires. In order to sift fact from bias, schools must have relationships with their students. Although the emphasis on relationships isn’t the declared main goal of Personalized Learning Plans or Flexible Pathways, it is the unstated assumption. However, we must do more than state it. We must start shouting it from the rooftops because if it continues to exist only in the back of some people’s minds, it will never be recognized as the foundation of PLPs and will easily be forgotten when it is time to implement school change.

kl5The goal of Vermont’s Department of Education can’t be for every high schooler to have a PLP; a PLP is only the final outcome of a deeper, more difficult to define goal for every student to have a relationship with a trusted adult in their school who knows enough about the student to be working from facts, not stereotypes.


The question each school and each educator must ask is whether relationships are central to their implementation of PLPs and Flexible Pathways.


Kendra LaRoche 2011 Cohort of Fellows

Kendra LaRoche is a Rowland Fellow of the 2011 cohort, and currently teaches at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, VT.

She offers workshops to schools on the areas of differentiated instruction, formative assessments, curriculum design, and student-centered learning.  Additionally, Kendra acts as a consultant for schools, working with them to identify problems related to the achievement gap, develop and implement an action plan, as well as evaluate the effectiveness of the plan.

She resides in Middletown Springs, Vermont with her two children.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Equity Traps within Act 77: Flexible Pathways and Personalized Learning Plans

In Vermont we are actively working as a state to adopt a number of exciting and meaningful school transformation initiatives. One of these involves creating Personalized Learning Plans (PLPs) for each student, starting this year in the seventh grade, that will be a dynamic process to help guide students through multiple pathways towards their post-secondary aspirations.

aoePLPs are an opportunity to create an image of a student and their future by piecing together a mosaic of interest inventories and aptitude tests, the structured efforts of educators guiding students through advisories, post-secondary guidance counseling, family input, community members as mentors, and most importantly the students’ visions of themselves and their future aspirations.

blindspotPLPs have the potential to be an amazing tool to engage, inspire, and support all of Vermont’s students. I strongly believe that this is the direction Vermont should head in transforming education.  If, however, we head in this direction without being fully cognizant of the implications of every individual involved in the PLP planning process bringing unconscious biases, perceptions, and expectations, I fear that we as educators, and as a state, may fall into a series of Equity Traps.

Being unconscious of mental models is in fact only part of the problem.  Worse yet, might be our belief that we are immune to these deeply embedded biases.  The research shows that not only are we unaware of our own biases, but “our conscious or stated attitudes may conflict with them.”  This is suggested by data that shows, while we in Vermont make great outwardly efforts to be socially conscious and progressive around ensuring equity in guiding students towards post-secondary pathways, we may lag behind other states in the results our actual efforts.


If we do not accept this reality, we may be creating an academic planning process which systemically tracks students into pathways towards post-secondary aspirations which are based not only on our unconscious mental models and biases, but also misguided student self-assessments (where perceptions of societal expectations of competence control for an individual’s actual competence), prejudiced gender-based parental expectations, students‘ own fixed-mindsets in relation to gender/racial/socioeconomic identity, and the very strong evidence of stereotyped guidance among school counselors.

Simply put, the elements and the planning processes which underpin PLPs are fraught with Equity Traps that could lead to the systemic integration of academic tracking and post-secondary counseling that is based on a student’s gender/race/socioeconomic identity rather than their true potential, interests, abilities, and inherent aptitudes.

There are opportunities to overcome these Equity Traps. Two of which that have the greatest potential benefits are 1) educator training around our own mental models and unconscious biases and 2) around instilling growth mindsets and promoting self-esteem in students.  The first of these could be supported through the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity (NAPE) and the second through the work done with growth-mindset and social emotional learning by local organizations such as Up for Learning..

NAPEThe Director of Special Projects at NAPE, Ben Williams, believes that educator professional development could help ameliorate these Equity Traps though a “research-grounded process to assist educators in transforming their practice to increase the participation and persistence of students in nontraditional occupational programs and pathways. Through a process of examination, reflection, and action…prepare educators to reach, teach, and maximize the success of every student.”

 upforlearningThe second is a piece, focused around growth-mindsets and social-emotional learning, is one that many Vermont schools and educators are already addressing.  Perhaps, however, educating students (and educators) about these areas should be the foundation for designing PLPs.  UpforLearning is doing tremendous work with Vermont students and teachers in the area of mindset, metacognition, and motivation.  On this topic they offer workshops where “school based youth-adult teams attend a full-day training where they learn concrete tools to dispel the common myth that intelligence is fixed and strategies to reinforce the theme, ‘whether you think you can, or you can’t, you are right’ (Henry Ford).”

Helping students believe in themselves and their abilities, regardless of the beliefs of society or other individuals, is imperative to putting students on the pathway that is best for them.

It is a complicated issue, with no simple solution.  But, even though “we can’t cure unconscious bias, with self-awareness we can address it.”  We need to be aware of these Equity Traps and also of the need to learn about how we as educators can best avoid them in the process of developing student pathways.

unscious bias.PNGI have little doubt that my concerns will be questioned by those more educated and experienced in this area than I might be.  I welcome it.  It is, in fact, my hope and intent that these concerns be questioned. If we as a state are to successfully implement PLPs, in ways that allow for their full potential, we must at least consider the presence of Equity Traps in PLPs.

In sharing these concerns with members of the Rowland PLN, Jeanie Phillips had questions about what other educators might suggest we do, or are doing, to address bias and inequity in the PLP process.  She wondered what role professional development could play in uncovering bias and making safe spaces for educators to talk about practices that contribute to inequity.  And, she believes we need to collectively consider what PLP best practices could eliminate, or at least reduce, implicit (and explicit) bias.

Take a few minutes, read the excerpts below (or, take a few more to read the documents themselves) and then consider what questions you have about the potential for Equity Traps in PLPs.

Elementary School Teachers’ Biases Discourage Girls From Math & Science

“The pipeline for women to enter math and science occupations narrows at many points between kindergarten and a career choice, but elementary school seems to be a critical juncture.  NYTReversing bias among teachers could increase the number of women who enter fields like computer science and engineering…”


Brain Shows Unconscious Prejudices

Mental Models “…finding reveals an unconscious feeling about women pursuing careers rather than staying at home. You’d think that would be strictly a male bias, but men and women show it equally. And to a startling degree. Eighty percent of test takers associate men with a ‘work’ category and women with a ‘family’ category.”

On The Origins of Gender Human Capital Gaps: Short and Long Term Consequences of Teachers’ Stereotypical Biases

Consequences of Teacher Biases“…teachers’ over-assessment of boys in a specific subject has a positive and significant effect on boys’ overall future achievements in that subject while having a significant negative effect on girls. We also provide evidence that suggests spillover effects across biased behavior of teachers of different subjects can also impact students’ achievements in other subjects.”

Gender and the Career Choice Process: The Role of Biased Self‐Assessments

Gender and Career Choice Process“…cultural beliefs about gender differentially influence the early career-relevant decisions of men and women. Cultural beliefs about gender are argued to bias individuals’ perceptions of their competence at various career-relevant tasks, controlling for actual ability. To the extent that individuals then act on gender-differentiated perceptions when making career decisions, cultural beliefs about gender channel men and women in substantially different career directions.”

Nurse or Mechanic? The Role of Parental Socialization and Children’s Personality in the Formation of Sex Typed Occupational Aspirations

Nurse or MechanicStudy investigates the role of parental socialization and children’s agency in the formation of sex-typed occupational preferences using data for children aged between 11 and 15.  “One interesting implication of this study is that any action directed to increasing children’s motivation and self-esteem, if successful, is likely to reduce occupational sex-segregation in the future.”

The Legal Implications of Gender Bias in Standardized Testing

Gender Bias in Standardized TestingCareer interest inventories, which are widely used in the secondary schools for vocational education counseling and placement, also result in substantial gender-based score differentials.”  “…numerous studies have found evidence of sex-stereotyped counseling in schools. A consistent and troubling finding has been that students who select nontraditional programs do not report receiving positive encouragement from guidance counselors in their choice.”

Five Stereotypes about Poor Families and Educationwashington post

…our understandings of and attitude about people in poverty, even if we don’t believe we are applying them to individual students, have an effect on low-income students’ school performance. Stereotypes and biases matter. They matter in an extremely practical and immediate way. And no amount of resources or pedagogical strategies will help us provide the best opportunity for low-income students to reach their full potentials as learners if we do not attend, first, to the stereotypes, biases, and assumptions we have about them and their families.”

The Myth of the Culture of Poverty

ASCD…we must consider how our own class biases affect our interactions with and expectations of our students. And then we must ask ourselves, Where, in reality, does the deficit lie? Does it lie in poor people, the most disenfranchised people among us? Does it lie in the education system itself?

Equity & Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Students & Schools

OECDDesigning fair and inclusive education systems is a stepping stone to providing high quality education for every child.  Inappropriate design and practices of education systems allow educational inequities…


For Economic Growth, Invest in Women and Girls

vtworksforwomenVermont Works for Women published a report on what young Vermont women say about how well-equipped they feel for the challenges of school, work, career, and economic independence as adults.”  These 210 Vermont women, ages 15 to 25, shared “they lacked exposure to careers that might be of interest.  They didn’t know about careers that might lead to financial independence.”


Jason Finley 2009 Cohort

Jason Finley, a member of the 2009 Cohort of Fellows, is the Work-Based Learning Coordinator at Randolph Technical Career Center.

At the Randolph Technical Career Center (RTCC) I help students to become post-secondary ready through work-based learning experiences which build confidence through competence, promote a sense of pride in work well done, and teach students the perseverance and grit necessary to manage obstacles while valuing the effort it takes to turn challenges into opportunities.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Elijah Hawkes: Defining context for graduation standards

This year, most Vermont schools are in the process of solidifying the standards by which the next generation of graduates will be measured.

Unfortunately, with all the attention paid to district consolidation and Common Core test results, we don’t hear much about these efforts. But the redrafting of our standards is crucial work. The standards express what we expect our young citizens to know and be able to do. Indeed, they convey what kind of people that we expect our children to become.

As schools recommit to their graduation standards this year, the academic skills to be named are not really in question. The skills are spelled out in long lists we know as the Next Generation Science Standards, the Common Core, etc. What doesn’t get specified is anything about the kind of context in which students will acquire and apply these skills.

What hangs in the balance is whether our students will be asked to acquire knowledge for knowledge’s sake, with the promise that it will prove useful later in life, or be guided to acquire skills and understanding through meaningful application and practical problem solving.

There are ways to write the standards such that they become drivers of student work that has deep relevance to the needs and identities of young people and their communities. There are ways to write the standards such that we make a dent in that troubling and persistent statistic from the Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey: that only half of our teenagers feel valued by their community.

But most of the standards – as currently written – don’t push learning in these directions. Here are a few observations about the current wording of the proposed content area graduation standards (Math, English, Social Studies, Science, Health, Foreign Language, the Arts, and Physical Education):

• The number of times the proposed graduation standards, across all content areas, include the word “democracy:” once.

• The number of times “Vermont” appears in the Vermont standards: zero.

T. Elijah Hawkes• The number of times the word “local” appears in these standards: once.

• How many times does the word “entrepreneurial” appear in the graduation standards? None.

• The number of times the word “community” appears: once.

• True or false, the proposed graduation standards in science include the word “climate?” False.

• The number of times the proposed standards include the word “citizen”: once.

• The number of times the proposed standards include the word “stewardship”: zero.

• The number of times the words “practical” or “application” or “build” or “make” appear in the Vermont graduation standards in math: zero.

The presence/absence of specific words is critical because there are only five to eight core standards in each content area. Every word counts. These are the expectations that will appear on student transcripts. These are the commandments that will go on the walls of classrooms, and in syllabi, shaping everyday teaching and learning.

The Agency of Education has done a fine job of distilling thousands of national standards into concise lists of key skills in each content domain. And people familiar with the graduation standards – also called proficiency-based graduation requirements – will note that there is a separate list of “transferrable skills,” including “practical problem solving,” and “citizenship.” This is good. But if we really value citizenship, practical problem solving, and engagement with contemporary concerns, it is important to explicitly drive those expectations into the core content area standards and classrooms. This is where students spend most of their time; these are the domains in which teachers are certified and the subjects about which they are most passionate.

I’m not suggesting that academic abstraction and rigorous theoretical work don’t have their place. But theory and abstraction should be coupled with practical problem solving: the direct involvement of students in our communities, ecosystems, politics and economies. This is how young Vermont residents become powerful Vermont citizens.

If we don’t write our standards in this way, we risk compartmentalizing citizenship as an aside, something you do after school, a special project, a stand-alone service learning trip. Citizenship risks becoming a checklist, or a log of hours: 30 minutes here volunteering at the library, an hour here picking up litter. Such efforts are important, for they can be gestures of sincere caring and community building. But when schools think of service in this way, it’s a far cry from conceiving of citizenship as the very context and reason for acquiring knowledge and skills in the first place.

All learning should be service learning – done in the service of making our selves and our world a better place. In the words of Vermonter John Dewey, “The ultimate test value of what is learned is its use and application in carrying on and improving the common life of all.” Yes, and our standards should convey this explicitly.

Our students will rise to the occasion. And our towns will see even more young people graduating with marketable skills, connections to the local economy, knowledge of the local ecology, strong college readiness portfolios, adult allies all over town, and a deep sense of their own power to shape this world for the better.

T. Elijah Hawkes, Co-principal of Randolph Union High and Middle School

T. Elijah Hawkes is a father, writer, educator. The views expressed in these posts are his own. He is Co-Principal at Randolph Union High School, in Randolph, Vermont. He was founding Principal of the James Baldwin School in New York City. His reflections on public schools, democracy and adolescence have appeared in, Rethinking Schools Magazine, Kappan Magazine, Education Week, and Schools: Studies in Education.

This commentary by T. Elijah Hawkes was written for and published on September 10, 2015.  The original commentary can be found on VTDigger’s website at Elijah Hawkes: Defining context for graduation standards.

Thank you to Elijah for his permission to republish his commentary here on the Rowland Foundation’s blog.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment