Monday, 1 September 2014

Teaching through inquiry: a reflection of a reflection Part 1

I recently came upon a post by my friend Aviva (@avivaloca). In her blog ( she was reflecting on teaching through inquiry. I started to respond in her comments but was thinking of so much more to write.  I believe a lot in Inquiry and I think that it has a lot of potential to really impact our students.  I also know that there is a lot of misconceptions around inquiry or a feeling that because of it students are falling behind.

I want to first start of by stating that for me Inquiry is probably the best way to teach.  If done right it can offer a perfect balance between students choice and teacher taught skills.  I know in other blog posts I have mentioned how I go about teaching through inquiry but will attempt a short intro here.  In my classroom students solve problems or sort through provocations that all them to explore as a individual, group or class.  As students are exploring, questions and observing I am conferencing with individual students.  Every now and then we stop and ask questions to the whole class.  This allows the learning to be shared and focused.  At the end of the exploration period (which can be longer then a period or day) we have a consolidation time where we bring our findings to the class. During this time I am focusing the talk to the big ideas that I saw transpire.

As I mentioned this blog post is in response to Aviva's questions. Now Aviva had a lot of questions and for the sake of the length of a blog post I have split the conversation into two groups.  The first centers on planning needs and part two will center on the teaching needs.  Though in all truth they go hand in hand.

In her blog Aviva asked these planning centered questions: 

  • How does this impact on long-range planning (i.e., we need to teach all of the overall expectations, but could student wonders impact on how and when this information is taught)?
  • How does this impact on the use of tests and culminating tasks? How “formal” do assessment tasks need to be for students to show us what they know?
  • How does this impact on the marking? Will a focus on inquiry also eventually lead to a provincial change in evaluation methods (i.e., moving from grades and percents to specific anecdotal comments, such as the ones used on the Full-Day Kindergarten Report Cards)?
  • How does this impact on homework? How do we inspire students to want to learn outside of school, and how do we show parents the value in learning that does not rely on a textbook or black line masters?
Let's get into answering Aviva's questions:

1) Long Range Plans: 

I believe that you still need to have a set of long range plans.  In Ontario we have a curriculum that must be followed.  Even though students are exploring and observing, their is still is guidance that a teacher must follow.  Not only this but having long range plans allows me to keep in mind what subjects, themes and big ideas I need to blend in.  I also post these long range plans for my parents to follow.  If they want to help at home (which I highly encourage) they know roughly what subject matter we will be focusing on. Now even though I have long range plans they often focus on curriculum big ideas, problems and often have questions that I will be asking the kids.  My plans are not focused on the specific expectations because I know that through problem solving and inquiry these will be covered.  I also find that my problems cover many various expectations not just the subject that I am teaching.  However, without my long range plans I wouldn't be able to make those connections or be able to comment/ communicate to parents what is happening in the classroom.

2) Tests and Culminating Tasks:

This for me has undergone the most transformation in my teaching career.  At first I was yeah we need tests or their has to be some sort of culminating task but to be honest as the years have progressed I have used less and less of these tasks for assessments.  As students are working on problems I am always tweeting, conferencing and recording notes.  I have found that I actually understand my students more than I ever did. So much so that one day I was giving a test and as I looked around I knew what their answers would be before I gave it to them.  I also new what their next steps would be, what errors they would be making or what questions to ask them.  This made me think first was this assessment necessary and why was I doing this.  Instead of wasting two periods on a test I now make it a learning experience and use the time to discuss the big ideas with my class.  Now all students benefit from the assessment not just the ones who got it right.  In addition, I know that most test or tasks were designed for parents to know what their child is doing in class.  I now assess pretty much everything (just in different ways).  My notes are sent to parents through duo-tangs, notebooks or rubrics.  With GAFE my students and parents can see comments in real time for writing.  It is this formative feedback that is the most rich and engaging.  In fact if my students or parents don't know what mark they are getting on their report card than I haven't really done my job right or communicated effectively.

3) Assessment: 

Marking is way different.  Before marks where from tests or assignments.  Now I find that everything to some degree is marked; definitely commented on. I now have a general assessment form that I use through GAFE, this allows me to have a record of my conferences and comments throughout the year.  I also believe that assessment belongs in the hand of the students.  Through constant conferencing and talking my students should know where they are on the landscapes and trajectories that we make together.  They should know their next steps and goals.  We also do a lot of goal setting and planning to help them learn how to grow.  This again helps with parents because the students are always thinking about their learning and talking about it.  I also have been using social media like twitter and storify to allow parents into our classroom.  By asking questions within the storify it helps parents connect with their child's understanding of the topics learned in class.

4) Homework: 

I have never been a fan of homework.  I don't know if this stems from my own experience with it or not but I find that this (in a traditional sense) does nothing for students learning.  Now don't get me wrong, practise is important.  You can never be great at anything without practise.  But doing mind numbing and senseless worksheets is not practise.  In addition, in elementary much of the research shows that it doesn't help the students in fact it often hinders their learning.  Successful students (in my teaching experience) are the ones that have had experiences to draw upon.  They are the ones that have been read to as a child, done things with their families, play outside or play games.  Their is a lot of learning in the family model.  Students also have their own passions and interests that they should be encouraged to pursue.  In my classroom, reading is the homework.  In fact its not really considered homework as this is a must for success.  I also give one math problem a week and encourage my students to play math games from our bin.  I also have Youtube videos for the students to watch and learn from.  This helps with the teaching when they come back to the classroom.

This has been a hard transition for many of my parents (for my whole career) but I often explain to them about what to they think is valued more in life: knowledge or use of knowledge?  AS they are in the work force who do they want to hire or work for them: Someone who has all the knowledge in the world but doesn't know how to use it or someone who can critically think through the work given to them and problem solve?  This often brings many interesting discussions.  They are also always impressed at the learning that is happening with their child.  I often get: they actually want to come to school! All they can do is talk about what happened today! They are so independent! When this happens I often don't get too many questions.  Now occasionally I have parents who want more, for them I offer this:

I cannot cover everything in the curriculum on my own, many things may be glanced over or skimmed because it is not where the class needs to be.  Please encourage you child to try and learn this on their own and bring it back for the class to learn.  I always give opportunities for students to present their learning and be the teachers in the classroom.  I also mention that as Parents they have every right to teach anything that they want to their students and I encourage it.  Its these experiences that will help them grow and learn together.  All I ask is that they have a growth mindset and not think that what they are learning is the only way.  This also goes for my teaching too.

As inquiry continues students start to learn how to critically think and evaluate the information given to them. This is such an important skill to have.

This brings me to the end of the first part of Aviva's questions.  This of course is only my thoughts and in no way is it a final answer.  That is the best part of inquiry learning, it takes a community of learners to bring about understanding.  I would love to know your thoughts, as I am always rethinking Inquiry in the classroom.  Please share them with your own blog or comment below love to hear them.  And stay tune for part 2, which will probably be posted shortly after this.

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