Authentic Open Inquiry demonstrates teaching philosophy
Feb 26th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

scienceThis past Wednesday, I hosted my annual science symposium at my school.  The students who conduct year-long applied research projects participate by presenting a 10 to 15-minute oral with PowerPoint related to their topic. I try to make the experience as authentic as possible.  Students send a written invitation to their parents, and I always ask them to select a teacher in the building and send them an invitation as well.  One teacher attended, and provided me with the following email.  My response to her follows.  I think this written discussion we had indicates the nature of the power of authentic learning and its ability to affect student achievement:

Hi there,

I really was so impressed with you and your students last night.  What a successful event!  It’s astounding to see what our kids are working on, Frank.  And my goodness, you have taught them well in terms of presenting themselves, creating sound powerpoints, and articulating their projects.  I kept thinking about the millions of questions you must be asked on a daily basis.  I was incredibly impressed! 

What I especially enjoyed was the practicality of the applications.  That is something that isn’t lacking necessarily, but isn’t so evident in English.  So that was incredible for me.  Certainly, I had difficulty understanding much of what they were doing, but truly remarkable nonetheless. 

You are an asset to this building (any building) and I just wanted to congratulate you.



Thanks for your kind words.

 About 12 years ago I realized that to really, really improve student achievement there had to be a sense of authenticity to the work that students do. It couldn’t be “LIKE REAL LIFE,” it had to be “REAL LIFE.” It couldn’t be learning for the sake of learning only, but rather inquiry learning in context, with applicable value. There had to be a real audience (in my case, practicing scientists and engineers) that would evaluate their work – not just me as the teacher. This made my role very different – the teacher as the facilitator instead of the didactic knowledge disseminator. Ultimately the students are going to be evaluated (judged) outside of the building, so it is in our collective best interest to work collaboratively, with me assuming the role of the mentor.

 I started doing research with students, primarily because I found that a problem/project-based learning strategy was a method that worked very well for me as a learner. I also realized that in education we often scenarioize-to-death our perceived authentic assessments and projects, which I think takes away value. We also primarily use visual/auditory teaching and learning strategies with students, which often doesn’t meet the learning styles of all students. Some students are more global and tactile with their successful learning strategies.

 I also believe in concept-based learning – “big ideas” as the focus of learning objectives – and teaching students to making connections between their knowledge. Project-based learning is inherently concept-based. If we improve the 21st-century skills of students (problem finding and solving, creativity, oral and written communication) using the content or project as the vehicle for skill development, then I think we really develop the learning potential and achievement in students.

Research Mission
Feb 22nd, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

visionmissionvaluesAs I constantly straddle the realms of educational research and the role of a practitioner, I find myself trying to define my interests.  Today I describe my research interests in somewhat of a mission statement. I am doing it in plural form as, although I operate as an autonomous researcher, I have collaborators and someday hope to be directing my own social science lab.  I currently direct a high school natural science and engineering lab, and there is much more diversity in my interests and their interests:


We try to relate analytic thinking with creative thinking, which calls for multi-focused domain and divergent thinking. We are trying to promote synergic relationships between analytically and creative-oriented minds. Our research tries to bridge analytical with creative-oriented efforts, convergent with divergent thinking, to develop domain-specific expertise from non-focused or multi-focused generalism.

Research Interests:

By using appropriate qualitative and quantitative methods, we seek to better understand what promotes scientific thinking in young adults.

 Threads for study:  

  • The examination of problem finding and problem solving in authentic settings
  • Habits of mind for open inquiry
  • The impact of authentic inquiry opportunities on teaching and learning
  • The intersection of creative and logical/analytical behaviors in a situated cognitive learning setting
  • The development of 21st-century skills in conjunction with scientific content acquisition
  • The development of higher order thinking skills in science classrooms
  • The role of Web 2.0 interactive technology to improve critical, creative, and reflective thinking
Situated learning requires a non-traditional timeframe
Feb 19th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.


The tyranny of the bell:  the industrial model we use in secondary education to promote student learning and achievement.  The bell schedule consists of 45-minute periods where students engage in learning a discipline, then compartmentalize and move on to the next discipline.  It is an honored tradition in the educational institution, yet some are looking to move to alternative methods for promoting student learning.

The most noticable format is the block schedule.  Instead of a traditional 7 or 8-period day, the teaching and learning occurs in approximately 4 1.5-hour blocks.  The block model is often credited for promoting greater depth (although not necessarily bredth) of understanding.  In a well-planned block, students can often deeply engage in their learning and become more authentic producers of information.  I have often heard a description that I would consider a failed use of the purpose of the block:  “I gave a test for the first half and then lectured the second half.”  This is really no different than 2 45-minute blocks.  If X=45 minutes of learning and Y=45 minutes of learning, then using X+Y as a block, surely wasn’t what was intended.  Nonetheless, I am getting off track of what I wanted to write about .  .  .

I teach an applied science research class, where students develop and carry out their own projects over the course of a year.  What I am finding, is that both a 45-minute or a 1.5-hour timeframe are not enough.  I want, (I need) 3+hour blocks.  Yesterday, during February vacation, I had my lab open for students to work.  Some arrived at 9:30, some thereafter, some stayed for 4 hours, some for 8, some for 10.  One worked at Yale in the morning on an SEM, and then came to the school midafternoon and stayed until 7:30.  It was all about FLEXIBILITY.

Flexibility to learn as appropriate for the individual student.  Some were conducting experiments, some were using the computer lab to work on a poster, some were mounting posters, some were conferencing with me, some were organizing binders of research reports, some were conducting statistical analyses like ANOVAs, some were on their cell phones making arrangements for data collection at a different lab.  Each was doing what they needed to do to be successful.  Each was motivated – much of it was internal, but the external pressures of completing an assignment and presenting it for an audience of practicing scientists and engineers that weekend.

I was the principal investigator running my lab.  My students, the project managers, were engaged in behaviors of the scientific and engineering researchers.  We were THE community of practice.  We weren’t trying to be like scientists (“like real life”).  We were DOING it. 

Interestingly, we couldn’t do what we were doing – such deep learning, such authentic learning, if we were under the tyranny of the bell.  Vacation from school afforded us the opportunity to learn (in the case of this class) better than we could under normal “educational” circumstances.  I don’t know how we can operationalize this kind of learning strategy in a systemic way, and honestly don’t know if I want to all of the time . . .



What I do walk away knowing, is that education MUST take place in a variety of places and formats.  What I do know is that when the teacher assumes the role of the facilitator rather than the disseminator of knowledge, students certainly construct their knowledge better.  Better learning . . . isn’t that what we’re all seek?

Students as creative producers
Feb 16th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

stopmotionanimationI recently gave an assignment to my academic and honors biology classes.  I asked them to create stop-motion movies of the cell cycle, including the mitotic process.  Some students elected to add music and some even posted to YouTube.  Mitosis is often taught as a series of drawings and students need to “imagine” what happens from step to step.  In the case of the stop-motion video, the students must take “mini steps” to make the motion occur.  What I have found is that there really must be continuity to the images – they can’t just jump and thus I know if students really understand the process and the RELATIONSHIPS.  The critical thinking involved to make sure that the process makes sense allows students to truly construct their understanding. 

oscarWhen we watched the videos in class, I was most impressed with the following example.  The students were a bit reluctant at first to share, because they thought it was “too short.”  I dismissed this because of the evidence of understanding.  They clearly got it and made my favorite product.  And the Oscar goes to . . .

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