What We Think About Inquiry

This morning, during our staff professional development time, we all talked about inquiry-based learning. Inquiry is already embedded into our school’s philosophy and practice. Just as we do with students, we spent time this morning reflecting upon our own practice:

  • What does Inquiry look like?
  • What are we doing already in our learning with our students?
  • What is the process?

We also discussed the challenges of an inquiry classroom. Sometimes, the learning is messy and chaotic. Sometimes, the amount of freedom that the kids have overwhelms them, and they don’t always make good decisions. And sometimes, loose deadlines are too much in the “grey area” for those kids who really crave structure and boundaries.

Ultimately, though, those challenges help kids to understand that the process in learning is often more important than the outcome. Mistakes happen. We all make mistakes, and we learn from them. Through inquiry, we reflect on our learning, and we make choices about what we learn, how we learn, and how we demonstrate what we learn.

Our students are thinking critically about decision-making, problem-solving, and sometimes, even behavior choices. They are always asking questions. A LOT of questions! When we have guest speakers or when we go on learning trips, I’m always so pleased to hear our speakers/tour guides remark about the types of questions our kids ask. “Wow, your kids have such great questions!” “Hmm… that’s a really deep question. I’m glad you asked that.” “Boy, you guys sure are curious!” (I’ve heard these three statements in the last two weeks.)

My kids are currently struggling with completing projects. They often have these wonderful ideas, but those ideas don’t always manifest into completed projects. We sometimes have a difficult time, at 8-10 years old, with using our work time to the fullest. Sometimes, we get distracted by each other, by the learning tools we have at our disposal, or by absolutely nothing at all. The latter is what one of my students calls his “spacing out time.” Parents occasionally wonder how we keep our kids accountable if they don’t always finish things during school. Parents like to see neat, high quality, completed projects. I get that, because I do, too. However, as the teacher in the classroom, I have the fortune of also seeing the process – the questions the kids have about different topics, how they decide what they’re going to investigate, and the choices they make in what they do with their learning. Mistakes are made, but again… I get to see how they problem-solve those mistakes. The kids blog about their learning, including what they learned during the process, but they’re not always able to articulate exactly what that process was. My biggest challenge is capturing the process to share with parents and other people. I need to get better at that.

So, my plan today was to come to my classroom, share what we (their teachers) talked about this morning, and then listen to their thoughts about inquiry. Before the kids came to our room, I checked Twitter and noticed my friend, Deirdre Bailey, tweeted about a post she had just written. I clicked on the link and almost fell over. She had just written about the exact same experience in her inquiry-based classroom at Calgary Science School in Calgary, AB. Here’s her post: Savouring the ISH: Outside the Lines: Student Perspectives on Inquiry Learning.

She had just done the exact same exercise with her class that I was planning on doing with my class this morning! I think “serendipitous” might be a new word to share with my class.

I decided not to share Deirdre’s blog post with my kids until after we had done our own reflection.

Questions I asked my students and their responses:

  • What exactly IS Inquiry? learning, questions, research, more questions, individual interests.
  • What do we use for our research? internet, movies, books, podcasts, speakers, friends, “experts.”
  • How do we share our learning? papers, posters, videos, books, drawing, poems, oral presentations, skit/plays, songs, persuasive writing.

After that discussion, I asked them how we learn differently than they did in other schools. They told me that “old school” is very different than “new school.” <– that’s how they decided to categorize them.

Old school is:

  • teacher lecturing
  • copying work from the teacher (taking notes from the information the teacher gives them)
  • worksheets
  • lists to memorize for tests
  • teacher=the expert
  • teacher corrects their work, but the students don’t always understand what they “got wrong.”
  • homework that seems like busy work
  • less freedom, less choice

They described “new school” as:

  • more discussion in large and/or small groups
  • sometimes, the teacher models or gives us stories that provide examples (replaces lecture).
  • we ask a lot of questions.
  • teacher answers questions with questions, and this used to frustrate us. Now we know it helps us think for ourselves.
  • teacher asks us, “What do you think about…” which makes us feel like we have an opinion that matters.
  • we problem solve more.
  • more freedom, more choice
  • more responsibility on us to do our work

I then asked them which “school” they prefer, and they all said “new school.” Then we skimmed through Deirdre’s post together, and they were really excited to see that someone else does what we do. When I asked them if they understood the point that Mrs. Bailey was trying to make, a few of my kids realized that it was showing how much responsibility is on them as the learners.

I asked, “if you have freedom, and you don’t use your time to your best ability, what happens?”

One student replied, “We waste time, and then our projects get rushed. We don’t always do our best work.”

Then I wondered aloud, “Hmmm… does it matter if we do our best work?” They all responded that it did, so a short discussion launched about quality of work, learning, accountability, and responsibility. As a teacher, my heart was overflowing… and my mommy heart skipped a few beats, too. THIS is what I wish my own children had been able to do in school.

Today was an inquiry activity about learning through inquiry. They asked questions. They sought out answers for their questions. They talked to each other, and we read about another class’s experience in inquiry. They shared aloud what they learned about their learning.

It’s been a pretty good day in my book.


2 thoughts on “What We Think About Inquiry

  1. The next topic of professional development I’m tackling is to deepen and hone my understanding of inquiry in my classroom and the Elementary Connected Classrooms project. We do a year long inquiry project with at least one formal lesson a week although the lead teacher switches through the three of us (that’s our collaborative connected lesson taught Fridays over video conferencing). We’ve done the Inquiry Project for three years now and while the kids LOVE it, and I LOVE to see their learning, the one area I’m still experiencing struggles with are the parents. Most don’t understand at all. Some don’t want their child doing it all and see it as a waste of time. It’s really difficult for me because I see the value, as do the kids, but no matter what I do, I experience some form of resistance each year. Kind of kills of the buzz of happiness created by the wonderful learning that occurs.

    Any ideas on how I can better communicate the benefits? I’ve opened the door to my room, offered links to CSS, Kieran Egan’s Learning in Depth work and talked about inquiry with parents but there are still always those that are closed to it. My town is small which means a choice of two public schools or home-schooling so the context is quite different from yours but I value your opinion so wanted to ask for your ideas on this.

  2. I love so much of this post. It is really incredible to read about the similarities in struggles and challenges but also in the kids’ conviction that “New School” is the way to go. I loved your reference to one of your student’s ‘spacing-out’ time. We definitely have that! I also have to agree that while our conversation started with my feeling a little frustrated by the inconsistencies, the messiness and the time that goes along with inquiry learning; once I gave the kids the opportunity to articulate why they felt these struggles are a part of our classroom and how important they felt it was that they navigate these themselves, as part of their learning, I felt incredibly reassured. Their perspective has left me feeling buoyantly optimistic and more certain than ever that we are moving in the right direction. Can’t wait to chat!!!

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