Show me. Don’t tell me

Today I spoke at my first staff meeting in the role of learning consultant.  The topic? Project-based learning.  I gave an overview of PBL using the projects I’ve done with my classes.  Showing everything from our Holocaust museum, to our anti-slavery social media campaign, to the smaller Biology projects we’ve created.  One of the things I love about PBL is the flexibility and versatility of it.

Many of the teachers seemed really interested in the idea.  One teacher put up her hand and said, “I love the projects you’ve done with your students. But how do you do this in a grade one class? Until someone can show me, I can’t wrap my head it.”

My answer? No idea.  I’m not going to pretend I know how to do PBL with 25  six year-olds. The truth is I can’t fathom it. I might actually lose my mind, and I absolutely agree with her statement. I think many teachers feel the same way. The curriculum in my province is written for inquiry, yet very few teachers are using inquiry in their classrooms. Why? I honestly think they don’t know how to. We’ve told them, not shown them.

This is part of the reason I blog as I do. I think it’s great to cast the vision about important ideas such as students needing tech-embedded, 21st century, inquiry classrooms, but I’m a show me, not tell me sorta person.  I always think, “okay, but what does that look like.” To me, that’s the hard part.   I think there are a lot of teachers out there who are the same.

At the staff meeting today, I had an idea.  What if I create a multi-level, inquiry/PBL resource for teachers in my division that shows & teaches how to create & implement inquiry/PBL lessons & units in their classrooms — including video footage & interviews from classrooms, lessons & unit ideas, and assessment strategies? What if it’s split into K-3, 4-6, 7-9 & 10-12?

The truth is, I want to learn how to do inquiry in an early elementary classroom. Why? Because I think it will make me a better inquiry teacher. I think how inquiry is taught in the grade one classroom would be the foundation of all inquiry learning, regardless of grade. Often there are things I take for granted because my students are older — and sometimes projects fall apart because of it. But in a grade 1 classroom you can’t do that — or there will be chaos.

The more I think about it, great inquiry teachers likely have the same foundational habits   I admit that younger learners need more scaffolding, but so do high school students who are just learning the inquiry process.  As students grow & learn the scaffolding is slowly removed.

I am a huge advocate of PBL because of the changes I’ve seen it create in my own students. And I’ve always thought, “If only kids could learn to do this sooner.” I think the way to make that happen is to help equip teachers by showing, not telling. And I might need to learn a lot more about inquiry in order to facilitate the process.

The great thing is my school division’s learning department is built on collaboration.  Consultants in our division work on learning teams, and cross-collaborate with others based on expertise.  I know there are other consultants who are interested in this same topic. Maybe we can create this together. I’d love for us to wade into the mess of PBL with our teachers.  What if the culmination of this venture is an immersive PD experience for teachers to experience PBL as learners, not as teachers?

One week into my role as a learning consultant I have more questions than answers, but my motto has become “Show. Don’t tell.”

picture courtesy of flickr cc: Jem


About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. Furthermore, I am Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member
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13 Responses to Show me. Don’t tell me

  1. Patrick Brennan says:

    You should talk to our Kindergarten teacher. She’s amazing. Our school is (attempting to) change completely to inquiry based learning this year. Her classroom is awesome. She just listens to their questions and runs with it.

    • Thanks, Patrick. Once we get started on this, I’ll definitely have to connect with her. Maybe even spend some time in her classroom, if she’s open to it, to see how she structures things. Inquiry really is a magical process!

  2. Dan Machacek says:

    Hi Shelly – Great post. Our school is definitely moving in that same direction. In different divisions we have had a book study on Marc Prensky’s book, “Teaching Digital Natives” and have found it to be a great resources to help us understand the concept of “Partnering”. Along with that our MS is now working with Apple to implement CBL (Challenged Based Learning) which is very similar to PBL. If you are looking for some great examples of what this might look like at lower grade levels, their website is worth having a look. This site also provides classroom guide for implementation that we have found to be very useful in guiding us. This blog is also a useful resource if you would like to collaborate with a school that is doing it. Hope you find this information useful.

  3. Melanie midgley says:

    Like your motto and completely agree…I’ve spent the last few years teaching in a pre school setting, and while a scary thought for some, i say all primary teachers should give it a whirl. It has deeply impacted my teaching practice and will absolutely influence how I teach older children in the future. I certainly sit back and observe/listen to what motivates
    more, spend more time on social/emotional needs and value the process over the product…your new job sounds exciting and
    I’d love to hear more about what you discover-please keep sharing!

  4. Becky Bair says:

    Shelly, I think this is a great idea. As I was starting out I ran into the same problem – most of the resources I were finding were either preschool or secondary. There was very little out there to guide me as an elementary teacher.

    Kathy Cassidy ( is a wonderful resource for doing PBL with our littlest friends. I also remember reading a fourth grade teacher’s account of participating in the Mastodon Matrix project (you can read about it here: but unfortunately I haven’t found the blog post yet. Those two have been great resources I’ve found so far.

    One thing you can definitely tell your primary teachers is that it’s messy, and even if you see what it looks like in somebody else’s classroom there’s a 99% chance it’s going to be completely different in yours. But it would be great to have a resource where like minded teachers could meet and share what’s been working and what hasn’t.

    • I’m fortunate to work in the same division as Kathy, so I’ll be dropping into her class to watch what she does. I agree that inquiry is always different, even if you do it with the same class a second time.

  5. One of your colleagues at the Voices from the Learning Revolution group blog — Kathy Cassidy — wrote about her PBL adventures in her Grade One classroom a few months ago. She might be a good resource, since she lives in the neighborhood. 🙂
    Here’s the link:

  6. pavel says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your sentiment in this post. I’m thinking along similar lines when it comes to teaching a college senior-level research design course starting next week. There remain unanswered questions, of course (like: how *real* the modeling of research methods can be and still remain robust and rigorous enough to serve students’ research goals), but that’s what makes it authentic (and a learning experience for all).

  7. Kelli says:

    Create the resource Shelly! What a gift this would be to us teachers trying to work out our journey in creating inqury-based learning environments in our classroom.

  8. Pingback: Show me. Don't tell me | Wright'sRoom | Inquiry-based Learning in the school library |

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