I started this week in Boston spending some quality time with Leslie Maniotes, two members of my school’s Social Studies Department and the Librarian from our Jr School.  We had the opportunity for a 48 hour immersive dive into Guided Inquiry that included trips to two schools in the Greater Boston area, Lexington HS and Westborough HS.  While the timing was not ideal (end of term, marks and reports due, etc), to spend two days thinking about nothing but Guided Inquiry was a chance to really unpack the model and get inside how it might look in a wider implementation at our school.  The following is some of my thinking coming out of that trip.

Guided Inquiry (GI) might just be the thread that ties together our multi-faceted approach at my school.  Not that I’m in the class of every learning opportunity at the school, but, from my perspective, it seems that GI can offer a solution to many of the issues that we are having with student research.  The Open, Immerse and Explore phases provide an opportunity to discover surface concepts, build personal connections to the content and allow for personal ownership of learning that is often lacking in traditional research units.  The fact that the Explore and Gather phases are separated gives the students the chance to realize that building a broad understanding of concepts is a different form of research requiring different types of information sources than the deeper research that is required for testing a thesis, building evidence or delving into complex issues.  I feel like this separation of research phases might address the concern that many of us have around credibility of sources and what is and is not acceptable to cite in formal research.  The Share phase is more about bringing back expertise to a broader Inquiry Community to inform the larger group and help the community make connections between deep topics.  It steers away from the private kind of sharing that students experience around submitting a final paper to a teacher, or the endless repetitive PowerPoints on a single research question.  If the Open, Immerse and Explore phases are done in such a way that personal connections to the topic are made and genuine curiosity is formed, then the Share sessions are welcomed as an opportunity to further understand something that the students care about.  And Evaluate is the place where all members of the Inquiry Community have a chance to reflect on product and process so that all can take the lessons learned on to the next step in their journey.  It is not about stamping a final grade on a paper.

I see a lot of cross-over between other pedagogical approaches that are being used and explored in our school.  We have been implementing and exploring Project Based Learning (PBL) in a variety of ways.  While I will admit that I have not done nearly the research into PBL that I have into GI, I see that, in some ways they complement each other well.  I understand PBL to be focused on the end product of a project.  An example might be that we need to build some sort of portable power source (battery) to operate a particular device. Our project is to build a battery (or multiple batteries).  We need to figure out how to do that, and we need to do the research to understand how batteries work (and how energy is stored) to be able to complete the project.  GI works from the other end of the continuum.  We don’t care too much about what the final product is, but we have a concept or question that we need to understand.  We focus on the nature of the inquiry and the inquiry process that, in a more organic way, produces a variety of products.  Both models focus on inquiry and the production of some sort of demonstration of the knowledge built, but the emphasis is put in different places.  When laid on top of each other, PBL can structure the end product of a GI process or GI can scaffold the inquiry of a PBL project.

We are also looking at Harkness discussions and Protocol training.  These kinds of communication structures certainly fit into GI as different approaches to Inquiry Circles and Inquiry Community meetings.

The folks that we met with at both Lexington and Westborough High Schools were sold on the model.  While there are clearly areas for improvement in the units that we saw at both schools that both the practitioners and Leslie identified, the changes that had been made this year toward GI were seen to have very positive effects.  Lexington was interesting in it’s clear parallel with our own school community: affluent community, professor’s kids or people move into the community as a stepping stone to universities, high academic pressures, similar cultural perspectives.  Here, GI was brought in as a way of improving a particular History unit that was identified as needing improvement.  While the Learning Team had only had one kick at the can and it seemed that there were still areas that they wanted to continue to improve, there was a lot of recognition that student choice through effective Immerse and Explore activities had created a much broader selection of topics for the assignment and deeper personal connections to those topics.  There were others in the school who we talked to that had witness the experiences of the initial history unit and were looking at implementing the model in their own courses and departments.  It will be interesting to hear how a broader school adoption of GI changes the culture of learning at Lexington.
Westborough was interesting in the highly structured approach to process and assessment.  I felt like it might be too structured for my liking, but to have thought through the implementation of a Grade 9 unit on Physical Science at the level of detail that they did, certainly ensured that students knew where they stood and many of the structural concerns were addressed prior to the beginning of the process.   It was also interesting to see their Vice-Principal (who had attended summer institute), Principal and a district level leader so supportive that they came to our meeting and spoke from a position of having observed what had been going on and understood and supported the GI concept.  The Principal spoke to the need of having GI as an essential part of every teacher’s toolkit.  We were able to be in the audience for the first four students to present in their sharing phase of the Science unit.  They spoke from a solid understanding of their topics and did an outstanding job of telling each of their stories.  A brief chat with the group after class revealed deeper connections to their topics and an obvious liking of the process that they went through to learn about their topic.  They each had slide presentations done in Google Presentations.  The final product form was important at this school as they had just moved to Google Apps for Education and were busy ensuring that the students built some skills in these new tools.  A cross-grade Science unit was a perfect opportunity to ensure that all students in a grade learned this tool.
While this is not yet evident in the schools that we visited, the reading and discussions indicate that part of the power of GI is in an entire school implementation from early grades with the aim that the scaffolding at younger grades allows for greater independence, freedom and ownership as students mature.  This would necessitate a common language being used across all grades in terms of how GI is discussed amongst faculty and with students and a mapping of what is going on at each grade level.  If a grade ten teacher is aware that movie making, game making, PechaKucha, modelling, and mapping have all been done in the past, they may be better able to allow students the freedom to choose the best delivery platform to tell their story.  On the other hand, if a particular concept, skill, or tool is particularly effective as a communication tool for a particular topic, and it hasn’t been addressed in prior grades, a teacher may choose to define the end product much more and spend time teaching the skills needed to produce that product.
It has also been found in the research that one of the long-term byproducts of a purposeful implementation of GI across multiple grade levels, is that students tend to frame their research across multiple topics through a certain personal lens.  Because of the importance of third space in GI, students tend to find themselves coming back to certain passions and viewing those passions through multiple topics over different GI units.  We watched one girl present her research in a ninth grade physical science unit looking at the muscular and neurological aspects of body movement.  She was a dancer and this helped her to understand her own body from a dancer’s perspective.  I can only assume that she would be inclined to look for other opportunities to explore dance in future inquiry units whenever possible.  This would help her to connect to a variety of otherwise meaningless curricular content while further developing a level of personal expertise around dance.
I do have a structural concern as I think through how to support from the Learning Commons.  GI emphasizes learning teams that are constructed at minimum of the content teacher, Teacher Librarian, and one other teacher.  If GI is to take off in a way that the folks at both Lexington and Westborough are expecting it too (as observed by initial curiosity and growth as other teachers witness successes in the early stages of implementation), we will need to restructure or at least augment Learning Commons staffing.  I can see potential for Guided Inquiry in all subject areas.  Recognizing that the Teacher Librarian is part of the core Learning Team for all units, this is a huge commitment of time (I’m guessing a minimum of a dozen periods/class) for each unit.  It also requires significant prep time in gathering resources and planning units for each of those units.  There is more time involved in each class than the more traditional approach of dropping in to a class for a quick lesson on research skills or the building of a pathfinder to resources on a particular topic.  There is still the job of keeping the Learning Commons running through supervision, collection management, promotion of reading for pleasure, etc.  It wouldn’t take too long before additional Teacher Librarians were needed to support an extensive implementation.  But it would also allow for some consistency around the teaching of information literacy skills throughout the school and the potential for revisiting particular skills and concepts across a variety of units and content areas.
I returned to school on Wednesday tired, but excited about the possibilities for Guided Inquiry in our school.  The idea that we can have a common way of thinking about student-centred inquiry across grades and our two campuses invigorates me.  The fact that there is a way that we can scaffold students as they grow to become independent learners who have had additional opportunities to discover their passions is powerful.  The process of supporting this shift in thinking and developing that common language is daunting, but the potential result is truly worth facing those fears!  Thanks to the team for taking the time to explore together.  Thanks to the folks in Westborough and Lexington for taking the time to talk to us and being such great hosts.  Thanks especially to Dr. Leslie Maniotes for setting up the visits and being such an active, generous and willing participant in our inquiry!

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