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Change happens – for the better

One thing in this world we can be sure about is that change happens. Just looking at the difference between how Great-Grandpa Schmidt farmed compared to today’s precision ag is astounding. We still have the harnesses Great-Grandpa Schmidt used to guide horses down the row as they planted a field. I can’t help but compare this with riding in a tractor controlled by a satellite and the only time a farmer has to steer is to turn at the end of the rows. Once the combine is turned, the satellite lines it up and maneuvers it down the row while tabulating bushels per acre. Change happens.

There have been many changes in the way we conduct the business of education. In districts across our state, teacher leaders have stepped forward to organize and deliver professional development (PD) in new and meaningful ways. In our district, one change we made this semester to professional development at the secondary level was providing staff an opportunity to choose workshops to attend. We know that at the secondary level, research supports the fact that students desire choices. It is no different for adult learning.

In February, teacher leader Jenny and I conducted a needs assessment and from the analysis determined one need at our secondary level was for strategies to enhance student engagement, a critical factor in the successful implementation of the Iowa Core. At our most recent PD day, teachers had four workshops from which to select. The sessions were ones focused on actively involving the participants in the learning. We chose to focus on Socratic Seminar, the Question Formulation technique, using Quick Response (QR) Codes in the classroom, and activities to use beyond a worksheet.

When organizing the morning, we listened to what they had to say about needing time to write lessons that used the strategy, so they were to attend two sessions and during session three they had time built in to create a lesson using one of the strategies they learned. The learning did not stop there. They also had to provide evidence of the learning implemented in their classroom by providing a reflection that included the strategy and results submitted in the following ways:

  • in writing (keep it simple)
  • a reflective lesson plan - lesson plan with margin notes
  • a brief video of implementation
  • observation by a peer with a reflection by the peer

The reflections have been arriving daily via emails and what a joy to read about both successes and failures but, most important, what they learned through the process.

The session on Socratic Seminar provided a strategy to take classroom discussion to a higher level. Students involved in Socratic Seminar listen closely to the comments of others, think critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others based on classroom text and use of open-ended questions. Earlier this year, I watched Kevin, a 7th grade literacy teacher, use Socratic Seminar where students were given the opportunity to read a text, write margin notes, and answer open-ended questions about the poem’s content. The day I observed, the students were discussing the poem “Captain, My Captain” by Walt Whitman, an extended metaphor poem about the death of Abraham Lincoln.

The seminar was lively and filled with timely discussion about politics and leadership. The overriding question was Who really controls the country? Students brought in what they had been learning in social studies and what they had heard on the news. With this strategy, classroom setup is important. Kevin had them sitting in a circle but included an empty chair. Half the class was involved in the discussion for a designated time while a partner placed behind them kept track of how often they participated. The empty chair was available for those standing behind if they felt compelled to join in on the topic. Rarely was the chair empty.

Keys to making this strategy work are using a rich text, providing an opportunity for students to become familiar with the text, preparing open-ended questions to keep the conversation flowing, and giving the set of questions to students ahead of time to jot ideas down before entering Socratic Seminar.

The students loved this opportunity to have rich conversations. Many said they wanted to have Socratic Seminar every Friday. What a joy to provide an opportunity for students to express their thoughts and learn about the opinions of others in a non-threatening environment where all conversation is treated with respect!

Kevin shared his success with Socratic Seminar with our high school teachers during a PD day and had them experience their own Socratic Seminar. He inspired an Algebra II teacher to use this strategy in his class. The teacher described his experience in the following way:

I tried the Socratic Seminar for a little change. It was out of the ordinary in Algebra II. I used an article about the connection HS GPA has to the amount you earn. Anyway I tried to have a discussion using Socratic to discuss stats and the article. It didn't go very well; I have never heard my classes be so quiet. I tried to get things going by bringing up the difference between men and women as well as races; nothing fixed it completely. Good news was we did get it discussed and I thought it was good information for them. Many didn't understand the stats so we discussed it. Hopefully they now have a better understanding.

Another strategy teachers could learn was the Question Formulation Technique (QFT). This is a strategy that provides a simple, yet powerful way to get students asking their own questions and building off their peers’ questions. Students are used to teachers asking the questions and one way to engage students is to get them to ask the questions. QFT is one strategy that guides students to ask meaningful questions.

The use of the Question Formulation technique was summarized by a teacher in the following way:

This week my Introduction to Health Careers class was exploring diagnostic health careers. This unit uses a lot of medical terminology so I decided that I would use the method of question formulation to help students learn four of the terms in one of the chapters. I placed Hypertension and Hypotension on the board and had them formulate questions at each table. They wanted me to define the words first! But I reminded them that this is not the first time they had heard these terms. I gave them five minutes to come up with as many questions as they could. Boy, was I surprised when they came up with EVERY question that I would have covered, if I had just lectured the entire time! After changing closed-ended questions to open-ended questions, they then had 15 minutes to answer each of the questions that I thought were important. I feel they will now actually remember what each of these words mean and I did not have to do the work. Will I do it again? Yes!

QR Codes provide an opportunity to use personal technology in the classroom. The advanced math teacher who delivered PD on this topic embeds QR Codes on review worksheets for unit tests. Students solve the problems and then use the QR Code to compare their answer with the correct one. The high school special education teacher who used this strategy in her classroom reported:

Students enjoyed learning about QR codes. They caught on very quickly (faster than I did on Friday!). They were able to scan the codes I made, scan and generate their own codes, and were motivated to watch YouTube videos on how these codes are used in the business world. This was a fun lesson!!

It has been a joy to receive positive feedback from teachers about professional development but also to hear about their implementation of new strategies in their classrooms. With the theme “Our Learning for Theirs,” the culture surrounding professional development is becoming focused on learning with direct application in the classroom. With a focus on learning for both teachers and students, change happens that is good for both teachers and students!

Points to Ponder

  • How is accountability built into your professional development?
  • How are needs assessed related to PD topics?


Socratic Seminar

Question Formulation Technique Using QR Codes

Using QR Codes

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