I love my school. I’ve had an opportunity for the past two days to hang out with Leslie Maniotes and delve deeper into Guided Inquiry. Long-time readers of this blog (you know who you are) will remember that I’d gone to Boston with some school colleagues last March to tour some schools with Leslie. The conversation around how the model can be leveraged in our community started then but has really hit the turbo-chargers over these past two days. While I recognize that this is going to come across pretty fragmented, these are my random thoughts from over the course of the past couple of days.
There are some interesting tensions emerging on our discussions that are worth being aware of and exploring. Perhaps the most obvious tension is that between delivering curriculum and giving over control of content discovery to the students. Even the more seasoned teachers (and sometimes, especially the more seasoned teachers) have a real discomfort in letting go of the content aspect of teaching. The image of the teacher as being the master and source of content knowledge, coupled with the fact that we have been the one responsible for ensuring that students master the required content is a hard thing to let go of. It is a change in how we do things and it is a measure of our worth as a teacher. Even in BC, where these measures are at the school level and not the teacher level, there is a sense that if your class does well on some content based exam (cross-grade or Provincial exam) then you are responsible for their success. If they do poorly, you are to blame. What is probably the most interesting part of this observation is the fact that we are often unaware of where our comfort level really lies until we seriously start planning a unit of inquiry that crosses that comfort line.
Within the class work, there is also a balance between building close enough relationships with the students that you have a clear understanding of where their thinking is at throughout the process and leaving the students alone to get the learning done. Too often, it seems that we latch on to an all or nothing approach. We see ideas like flipped classrooms, inquiry projects, or other student-centred strategies to back right off and go grab a coffee. We then complain that students don’t take advantage of the time that we’ve given them. We loose the opportunity to build those relationships, especially with the introverts, and help students through their own tough spots in their learning. But, when we have those situations when we feel that the students don’t have enough time because of scheduling or other restrictions on time, where is the balance between giving them space to take ownership of their learning and having those all important discussions.
I loved the discussion of teacher agility in relation to class planning. We hit this from a number of different angles, but the upshot was that we, as teachers are trained to be pro-active and plan every moment of the learning experience. If we truly value student ownership of the learning though, we need to be able to give up some of the control of the planning be more reactive to student needs. This means that, as we keep our eye on the prize (we still need to be working toward whatever the ultimate learning goals are for the unit) we need to be open to different and often multiple paths to that goal. Different students will take different paces and will need to fill in or skip over certain parts of knowledge construction as they build toward whatever the ultimate goal of their learning is. They bring different experiences, different prior-knowledge, and different questions that they bring to the inquiry. We need to value that and respond to it.
The question was asked, “What happens when the students go beyond the teachers expertise and knowledge?” That, traditionally, has been dealt with an answer of “So what? That’s then beyond the scope of the course, so they will sit down, shut up and wait for everyone else to catch up.” Leslie’s answer brought in the information literacy piece around verifying credible sources. It is no longer enough for a student to simply learn something, they need to get in the habit of backing up their assertions through asking the question that Ron Ritchhart keeps coming back to in his Visible Thinking work, “How do we know that?” I’ve always hated the word student and teacher (even though I use the terms constantly). I prefer to think of the class as a community of learners, and I love it when I come out of a class having learned something new from the students!
The second day of discussion of Guided Inquiry was at our Jr School (grades 1-7). I’m based out of our Sr School (grades 8-12). A discussion arose around the developmental readiness of students to be able to handle certain stages of the Guided Inquiry Design model independently. Of course, at the Sr. School level, I assume that most, if not all of the model is accessible to students, even if the 8s need more structure and guidance than the 12s might. Of course, a primary class will be in a very different place developmentally and there were some great ideas tossed around about ways of having some stages tackled individually and others as a full class in order to model the idea of what good research/inquiry might look like. Leslie’s example was that K-2 students might have more of an individual focus in the Open/Immerse/Explore by exploring their own questions, thoughts, feelings about a topic, and then bring things together in the Identify phase to pick certain questions to explore and research as a group.
A recurring issue was the complexity of cross-discipline inquiry. I was involved in a few different conversations where teachers were strategizing ways of opening up a topic to a very wide exploration where traditional discipline divisions were blurred or completely knocked down. In that discussion, the question inevitably surfaced around how specific curriculum points were covered, whether it was OK that a student might focus on a particular favourite subject and ignore another, and how do we ensure that students are gaining experience with different ways of thinking and knowing? I left those discussions with ideas for rubrics that expressed that cross-curricular links needed to be addressed or Evaluate stage reflections that brought together individual student inquiry with that of the other students in the inquiry community. But the strongest concept that came out of these discussions for me was that of being extremely clear within the learning team as to what the goals of the inquiry are. If the learning goals are purely skills based, then we really don’t care what the content of the inquiry is. But, more than likely, the inquiry has content implications and the more clearly those needs are expressed the easier we come to answers about what meets those needs and what doesn’t.
At the end of two exhausting and inspirational days, I’m sure that I’ve emerged with more questions than answers, but then… Isn’t that what good inquiry is all about? “So What?” and “What’s Next?” Thanks to all of the school staff involved to Leslie Maniotes for being the catalyst and instigator of much of this discussion.