Julia Steiny: Questions, Not Answers, Help University Park Kids Think Deeply


This is the second in a series on the University Park Campus School, following Part 1: University Park School Models Urban Education.

Small groups of students are standing in front of five big sheets of newsprint, each placed at a distance around this big, old classroom at the University Park Campus School (UPCS).  Last week Jody Bird’s 9th-grade biology students brainstormed questions they might have about chromosomes, prior to studying the subject, and wrote them on these sheets.

Julia Steiny

Bird says “I use questions to spark their curiosity and to find out where their learning is going.  They usually start with pretty basic ones – the who, what, where, why, how questions.  But even in this early group we got one compare-and-contrast, about the chromosomes of different kingdoms – plants, fungi, bacteria.”

If Bird can get them wondering, a little hungry for answers, they’ll dig into the topic themselves.  She and her colleagues must teach these kids to take on the work of learning themselves.

The school has a 95 percent college-acceptance rate.

“Being curious is part of how we’re human.  And my students know that taking risks and being curious is part of the culture of my classroom.  Biology is hard, really hard.  But if you’re curious about it, it gets a lot less intimidating.”

Some students knew what chromosomes were, and that they divided.  She prodded them, “From what you already know, develop a series of questions.  Talk with each other about the rigor of those questions.”  The newsprint questions ranged from “Why do cells divide?” to “Who last got a haircut?”

Well, that last one is Bird’s own.  She pulls the abstractions of academics into the lives of the kids, who all come from the immediate neighborhood of distilled poverty in Worcester, MA.  On average, UPCS students enter 7th and 8th grades two grade levels behind.  Eight-two percent receive subsidized lunch, a poverty indicator.  What do they care about mitosis?

After brainstorming the questions, the students read some assignments, and Bird gave a “mini-lecture.”  The kids take notes on what they learn in a journal which functions like a personal textbook, in their own words.  They struggle with textbook language, so formal textbooks become resource materials.

The kids read over the sheets and dive into their notebooks to see if any of the questions have been answered.  If so, students note in their journals that question #4 on sheet “C” was answered by something they’d learned from the reading or lecture.  After working on their own group’s questions, they take a “gallery walk,” moving from sheet to sheet, seeing what the other kids’ questions were, and if they’d been answered.

They’ll go back to these same questions a total of three times while they study this subject.  Next they’ll do a lab, and another gallery walk to see if it answers more questions.  More importantly, Bird enthuses, “Maybe you thought you answered that question in the first round.  But that might be the merely proficient answer.  With what you know now, what’s an answer that’s better than proficient?”  Deepen their understanding.  Guide them to dig deeper on their own.  There is no better intellectual tool than a good question powered by some curiosity.

UPCS’s whole strategy is to produce deep thinkers.  Constant questioning is only one of UPCS’s “six strategies to build college readiness.”  Other strategies include “collaborative group work” and “writing to learn,” as with the kids’ science notebooks.  But as their hand-out says, questioning fosters “purposeful conversations and stimulates intellectual inquiry.”

Deep thinkers can handle any test because they have experience and confidence with considering things thoroughly.

Fully 99 percent of the UPCS students routinely pass the MCAS.

But first UPCS often has to overcome the kids’ learned aversion to learning.

Bird muses, “When I was first teaching, I used to grade everything.  But what’s the message about taking risks and being curious?  I no longer focus on right and wrong.  Now I tell them that if they don’t know the information, they need to find it out.  That’s all.  This is tough stuff, but see how much you can get down in writing, and at least for today that’ll be enough.  I don’t get much push-back about the writing.  When you make a relationship with them, they’re willing to do things for you.”

She assures me that even her lectures involve lots of questioning back and forth.  If you full-on talk at these kids, who’ve been lectured to death in their authoritarian culture, they tend to wonder what’s on TV.  If they have to come up with questions – working with peers, not on their own – they have to shine some attention on the subject.  They’re not just absorbing information; they’re constructing their own primitive tools to go get information.

By the end of the 11th grade, UPCS students must be prepared to take at least one college course at their partner school, Clark University.  That’s a requirement.  So they’d better be adept at higher-order thinking skills and really confident about using questions to help them master difficult material.  They need to blend in with the smarty-pants college kids.

Despite the success with pushing kids to think deeply, this strategy hasn’t been replicated in any other Worcester schools.  Remarkable.

Of course, finding teachers who can do such work is no small thing.  Next week we’ll see how Clark works with UPCS to prepare new teachers of deep thinkers, and to support the existing ones.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny