Sunday, 4 November 2012

The True Spirit of Inquiry...


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Here we are early in the formation of a new school. Not just another building, I believe we have the opportunity to build a place where students can experience learning in a unique fashion... a school where inquiry is the foundation for all classroom and field studies... a school where technology is used in a seamless fashion... a school that will provide a safe place to share ideas, be wrong and be encouraged to find out why... a school that has a culture where asking the question is the most important thing.... a school that is accepting of all, for who they are and who they are becoming. So we begin.

When I moved into my new role just a little over a year ago, I found that the process of inquiry had already been presented but that a true understanding of what this might look like was not well formed. Many of the staff really were not sure what a Science and Technology school would or could look like.

As the year began we started mapping our future. We modeled our mind map for this journey after the district education plan using the three pillars of literacy, high school completion and inclusion as we plotted our course. Literacy was being supported by the district with PD and resources. Inclusion was in it's infancy but we have a strong staff and a plan in place. High school completion we believed came down to keeping students engaged and interested in school. This is where we put the schools Science and Technology focus. We felt that when we established a strong program in these areas we would be the sciences and technology school we wanted to be and would have the students engaged and interested in learning.
Early in the last school year, I had the opportunity to go to an Inquiry Workshop at the Exploritorium in San Francisco. Inquiry has been at the core of my Science teaching since I started in the 1980's. For me the process is real and how I did things when I was working as a research laboratory technologist before I went into teaching. The inquiry process is one of continuous feedback loops using the scientific method in the real world. Way back in my early days at Glendale I was given a Tik Liem book. This book provided the model for how I set up my labs and classroom experiences from grades 6 to 9.While at the Exploratorium in San Francisco I came across the book again, it was being used as a resource for teaching inquiry in the U.S. Then, when working with the Galileo Network and the Grade 6 team, the book was again recommended as a key resource for Inquiry Learning ideas. I purchased a school copy and the Grade 6 team used it while planning and delivering a strong inquiry based Flight Project last year. I bring this up to share the point that Inquiry is not a new concept. This process has been used in science and social studies classes for many years and it is a process that can be applied to all subject areas. My experience at the the Exploritorium reinforced the importance of using inquiry in the classroom.

In the inquiry based lesson the teacher involves the students in the learning process by focusing on questions that they develop with the teachers guidance. The teacher then assists in helping the students problem solve and plan there learning experiences. While they research, document their findings, discuss and synthesize the information, the teacher and students learn together. The process allows the students to use their critical thinking skills to build knowledge. Many students prefer this type of learning approach because when they become involved they understand concepts better.While inquiry-based learning obviously works well in science, this approach can be used for all subjects. The key is being able to step back and allow the student-led classroom to emerge... move from being the "sage on the stage" to the "coach on the side".

This approach is difficult and there are some staff that will be asking, "I’ve just given them control?” The response should be that there is a distinct difference between giving students the liberty to go in many directions and scaffolding them to move in a purposeful direction with confidence.

The idea of direction rather than goal is supremely important, this is part of valuing the process rather than the product. When you begin this journey none of you will truly know the final destination. You had a question, prior knowledge, resources, and energy.You did not know what the answer would be. When you have come up with some conclusions communicating the learnings you have discovered together will be a critical part of the whole process.

The question comes from discussion about what the students found most intriguing about a topic that you present as the teacher. To arrive at the actual answer, you will go on a journey together. There are a number of things to remember during this process. This paper on 10 Tips for Inquiry Based Learning is worth a look.
Last year with the help of the Galileo team we learned that mapping the learning objectives clearly for the students along the way is very important. Having them reflect throughout the journey, in a formalized way (perhaps blogging, on video, on a wiki ) is important. Throughout, the presentations I heard staff say that anticipating students’ learning needs ahead of time was just as important as flexibility.

I also heard that group-learning skills may need to be taught ahead of time and that being well planned was very important for success. Questioning skills was an issue for a few staff as well. These are all areas we will need to develop and build capacity in.

So where are we now?

Well the next step will be at our retreat where we will spend time on our vision and mission so that we are all on the same track. We need to ensure that we all have the end in mind to continue planning our journey. After discussions with Sean, I see moving Inquiry to being the foundation block that we use to support our continued work on science and technology. A solid platform to move forward.

So in the true spirit of inquiry, what are the questions we need to be asking to become the science and technology school we dream of?

Larry Hartel,
Principal, GSTS