Step by Step Guide to Ambiguity

1 11 2013

As I try desperately to wrap my head around the shift to inquiry based learning, I begrudgingly admit that I miss ‘close’ activities or multiple choice questions.  There was some security in knowing that I must have taught something ‘right’ because my students got it ‘right’.  I find the ambiguity that comes with the open-endedness of inquiry somewhat challenging.  I know that students need to explore and question, but I also know that I need to assess and evaluate… and the two seem incongruent.  And yet, the further I move into the inquiry stance, the more it just feels right.  I see kids engaged, I hear valuable conversations, I find myself eager to learn from their findings.  There is a buzz in my classroom like never before – certainly nothing that would have ever been brought about from a ‘close’ activity.

Inquiry_ProcessWhile I struggle to understand the ‘inquiry process’, I have come to believe that it is less of a ‘process’ and more of a stance. The term “process” indicates that there is a clear beginning, logical steps and a relatively predictable outcome.  Well, it seems that Inquiry has none of the above.  It can start with questioning and the students need to gather and analyse information; or it might start with evidence and students are asked to analyse it to draw conclusions; or they may apply the entire process (formulate questions, gather and organize, interpret and analyse, evaluate and draw conclusions, and communicate).  Even the image in the new Social Studies Curriculum portrays this as an interrelated set of elements – rather than a linear ‘process’ …and yet it is still called a ‘process’. But, it is much more of a “stance” – a way to view learning. A set of tools and approaches to learning that enables students to question, access information, analyze sources, think critically, synthesize their findings, and share their learning. It is way of approaching learning from a critical standpoint.  I’ve heard it explained it as “helping students know where to look, but not telling them what to see”.

All well and good… but, what does that look like in a classroom?  Where do we start….especially when we are embracing a ‘process’ with no clear beginning or end?

If you’re anything like me, a practical example or two would have helped me begin to see how I can make the shift to inquiry learning.  So, with humility and riddled with things I will most likely do differently, I’m willing to share one of my first full-fledged leaps into inquiry:

photo 61.  As a Grade 6 teacher we were well into our unit on Space.  At this point, we had already explored many sources, dabbled with inquiry through guided reading, and shared some pretty exciting stuff.  I thought it was a perfect time to see what the students still wanted to learn.  I placed chart papers in the centre of each group and asked students to write down questions they still had about Space.  Not surprisingly, they were full of thoughtful questions.

2.  I taped the charts around the classroom, and invited students to do a ‘gallery walk’; looking at the different questions and trying to identify common themes or “big ideas”.  During the class discussion that followed, we noticed that most of their questions fell into one of the following categories: Black Holes, Astronauts, Planets, Other Galaxies, and Stars.

photo 1 photo 2   3.  The next day, I put the five “big ideas” around the room, and asked the students to choose the one that they felt most interested in learning more about.  Each student then moved to that area of the classroom and as a group worked to generate specific questions they wanted to know more about. photo 5  As I watched the students working, I realized that they needed some guidance about formulating questions.  We paused briefly to discuss some criteria that would make a good question (1. Something you actually want to know [don’t know already], 2.  Something that is reasonable/realistic to find out, 3. A question that would give a “thick answer” [not a yes/no].)

4.  We took some time to evaluate our questions and highlighted key words that would be helpful when searching for our answers.  (Most of my students believe that when using Google, they should enter their ENTIRE question).  Hence, we had a chat about identifying key words.  At this time, I asked each student to select one question that they really wanted to know the answer to.

photo 4photo 35.  And then the research began.  I brought out the iPads and the kids began to search.  Previously this year we had already talked about the importance of evaluating the reliability of sources (and this continues to be an area of learning for all of us).  They searched. They talked.  They questioned, they searched some more.  They recorded their ideas.  They watched videos. They collaborated to find information for the other members of their group.  The information was flowing between students as kids found facts that answered different questions.  I guided.  I asked questions, I suggested key words to search, I helped rephrase questions, I viewed videos, I read articles alongside my students… we were all learning… and learning together.

6.  At last, some students started to synthesize their findings and begin to generate responses to their questions.  They had accessed different sources, evaluated the accuracy of the sources, considered the relevance of the information, made conclusions based on their findings, and were getting ready to communicate their learning.  Of course, they were not all able to find answers to their questions… in that case they shared the learning that did happen… some of it more interesting than the question they originally started with.

Ah ha!! The Inquiry “Process” at work.  I guess it’s as simple (and as complicated as that).

While I’ll never know if I taught it ‘right’ because they would all have different answers if there were such a thing as “the final ‘close’ task” and there is no multiple choice question that could possibly target the wide array of topics… I have a strange feeling that I’m on the right path.




3 responses

2 11 2013

Lisa- thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and ideas as you learn about the inquiry stance. I love the idea that it is a stance rather than a process. I’ve been working at the system level for the last two years and haven’t had a chance to try out this ‘process’. Your post has made it very clear in my head how this might look in the classroom. I’m looking forward to sharing your post with teachers I work with.
Thanks so much!

2 11 2013
Lisa Donohue

Thanks for your comment, Kerry. I think we are all learning about the impact inquiry can have on student learning. I’m excited to co-learn with other teachers as they explore inquiry with their kids. Thanks for sharing.

2 11 2013

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