Inquiry Reflections

13 02 2014

My mind is reeling as I sit down to write this post.  My journey into inquiry and learning has been vast, profound and at times overwhelming.  As I wrap up our first Social Studies unit, using the new Inquiry Framework,  I’m not sure who has learned more, my students or me!

Maybe the best place to start is at the end, and work backwards.

The END:

Last week, my students gathered together to host a “UN Issues Summit” to discuss a number of pressing global issues and the role that Canada plays in these issues (Grade 6 Curriculum).  As a group of nations, they were also to determine how they would allocate funds (10 Million dollars), in order to support five of these issues.  They needed to prioritize and debate until they could decide which issues they felt were the most pressing, and then decide how to divide the funds among them.

The debate was heated to say the least!  Imagine one student pacing up and down the back of the classroom, trying to calculate the mathematical relationships between the number of votes each issue received in relation to the portion of money to be divided.  Another student, adamantly declaring that four people’s votes had been discarded when the top five issues were selected.  The debate raged between which was more important: children’s rights, climate change, racism, nuclear waste, coral reefs, endangered species, education, girls’ rights, or wars.  Students were synthesizing their knowledge, making authentic connections and pleading for the rights of others around the world.

Where was I in all of this… I took a step back and allowed the process to unfold naturally.  I let the students run the meeting, decide who would talk next, and how they would come to a final decision.  Chaos? A little bit.  But talk about passion and conviction, engagement and application of knowledge – I sat at my desk in absolute awe of my students.

Going back in time: Issues Summit Presentations:

I placed country cards on each student’s desk, identifying him/her as a representative of one of the countries in the UN.  If they were to address the group, they needed to stand, state their name and their country before proceeding.  The students loved this ‘formal’ style and it added to the level of respect and feeling of responsibility in the room.

In preparation for the Issues Summit, each student (or pair of students) was responsible for researching and presenting a global issue that they felt passionate about.  The Disciplines of Thinking in the new Social Studies Curriculum, created the framework for their inquiries.  Students needed to formulate questions that addressed three of the Disciplines of Thinking: Perspectives, Cause & Consequence and Interrelationships.  This helped students create a balance in the type of information they were seeking, as well as providing opportunities for them to think deeply about the issue they were researching.  They prepared a presentation to share with the UN about a global issue and ways Canada is involved in responding to it.  This presentation was as open-ended as possible.  Some students chose to make iMovies, some PowerPoints, and others speeches.  They were encouraged to be creative and share their learning in whatever way they felt comfortable.

In one of my blog posts, Questions Are Central, I thought about the central role of questioning in the Inquiry Process.  As we got into our unit, the more convinced of that I became.  Even as students were sharing their ‘final’ pieces there were more questions raised and more new paths to explore.  During the Issues’ Summit, one student responded “I’m sorry, I don’t know, but would it be okay if I found out and told you tomorrow?“.  While we all moved on, I was dumbstruck to overhear a conversation the following day at lunch time.  He approached the student who had asked the question, to say “Do you remember you asked me that question yesterday, I want to share what I found out….”. and the lunch conversation revolved around this student’s new discovery.  If this is not a measure of student engagement, I’m not sure what is.

Going back even further: Supporting their learning:

There has never been a time when the importance of differentiated instruction has been more obvious than through this unit of study.  There were some students who were able to take an idea and run with it – only needing to check in with me occasionally, and there were others who needed to sit with me almost every step of the way.  I used a ‘guided inquiry’ time – similar to guided reading – where I would pull a small group of students and work with them to revisit their questions, identify key words to search, analyze sources for accuracy or relevancy, interpret the information they encountered.  I needed to teach mini-lessons about how to search for information, how to summarize, cite, quote and reference information, how to synthesize and make connections, and more.  It was critical thinking in action.  It was authentic literacy in action.  It was a way for students to apply their reading and thinking skills.  We worked together to use a graphic organizer to gather and organize information, and represent their learning through their presentations.

And now, here we are.

My learning has been immense.  Here are a few things I’m reflecting on:

  • I know without a doubt of hesitation, that my students have a much deeper understanding of the Social Studies curriculum that I could have ever ‘taught’ them in traditional ways.
  • They were all invested in their learning and developed a passion and awareness for the content.  The levels of engagement skyrocketed in my classroom, to the point that students were begging to use their ‘free time’ to continue their work.
  • The students became the experts in the classroom.  I found myself comfortable with the fact that I didn’t know the answers, and often, I wasn’t even sure where to look, but we could try to find out together. My students respected the fact that I was a co-learner with them.  They appreciated being able to teach me things, and show me the sources for their new found learning.
  • Behaviour was not a challenge.  While there are often times in my class when I need to redirect off-task behaviour, this was not the case during this unit of study.
  • Every student was able to achieve!  Every student was proud of their work, and every single one had a solid understanding of the overall expectations in the curriculum.
  • I didn’t even know how to respond when one student said: “Thanks Mrs. Donohue for allowing us to have a learning experience like this!”

Questions I still have:

Although this unit was amazing, there are still things I’m struggling with:

As I wrote their report cards, I wondered how to capture the difference between ability and achievement.  There were some students who were able to dig deeply into their research independently.  They took initiative to research on their own time, to actively seek out information and to creatively and passionately create their presentations.  And yet, there were others who needed me every step of the way.  The role of differentiated instruction played a huge part in their success.  Without direct support and guidance from me (or other teachers assisting), they would have struggled to complete their presentations.  However, in the end, we are not evaluating the process – but their achievement and understanding.  Through this differentiated process, they were able to achieve the expectations set out for them.. but how is this reflected in their final grade?  Should a student receive a “B” if they have been able to demonstrate a good understanding of the curriculum, even though it took almost daily support to get there? Is this different from a “B” that a student would earn by demonstrating a good understanding while working somewhat independently? It is my job to ensure that every student meets with success, and to that end, I am happy.  I am however, still reflecting on how to accurately capture this when assessing an reporting. Maybe you have some ideas?

Thank you all for joining me as I reflected on my learning through this process.  The role of my PLN continues to grow in importance in my personal professional learning.  I am so grateful that my learning extends beyond my classroom and school walls and allows me to partner with likeminded educators, wherever they may be.  Thanks Aviva (@avivaloca), Nikki (@MsTown), Jo-Ann (@6Chotline), Beate (@bmplanche), Louise (@Robitaille2011) and #ontsshg for being a part of my ongoing learning journey into inquiry!!  It’s so nice to know that support is only a tweet away!




14 responses

14 02 2014
Jo-Ann C-H

Lisa I would have loved to be in your class during this unit. My class did something quite similar. Based on the recent ice storm disasters we looked at a unit on natural and man-made disasters in different countries during our language class. It also covered math, media, oral and geography. Students researched, wrote reports that included graphics, charts and maps. Did a media accompaniment and then presented to CERF to ask for funds to help their country recover. I wish I had released as much as you did. We pulled names to decided who would go first. Kids voted on the allocation of the funds and whether they had received enough information to make a decision. Some were sent back to better their appeal. Some were denied because if their country’s wealth. From looking at yours I see ways I would have tweaked mine to make it better. However the kids said that they had 4 weeks of fun and would like to do way more activities like this.pity we didn’t realise what we were bith doing. It could have been a great collaboration between the 2 classes. Thanks for the journey. You continue to truly inspire me.

14 02 2014
Lisa Donohue

Thanks Jo-Ann for sharing. It’s amazing how similar our units ended up being. My kids also loved learning in this way. I’m hoping that I can continue to find ways to encourage them to question, explore and think about their world. It truly has been an amazing learning opportunity for us all!
Our next unit of study is about First Nations.. I know you’re doing work around this topic as well. Maybe some room for collaboration here? 🙂

14 02 2014
Aviva Dunsiger

Lisa, not only did I really enjoy this post, but you’ve also helped me think about my new Social Studies unit. I’m just finishing off our Science Unit on the human body (which was done all through inquiry), and when I met with my principal today for a TPA debriefing, he asked me about my upcoming Social Studies unit. He was curious to hear about where I planned on going next. I said that I had a few ideas, but was still working things out. How was I going to make the government as interesting as the human body (two different subjects, I know, but still a problem)? Well your idea may have helped me out. There’s lots of expectations for this unit in Grade 5 that connect with various types of issues. I think that I might be able to use some of the amazing ideas you’ve shared here, and some of the fantastic things that Jo-Ann shared about what she did, and combine them to make “Social Studies come alive” so to speak. Thanks for the inspiration! This was just what I needed! (I’ll keep you posted! :))

As for your comment about evaluation, here’s what I do (and by no means am I saying for sure that it’s right, but it makes sense to me): as you said, our job as teachers is to help students succeed. With that in mind, providing the scaffolding that these students need for success (be it a different way of sharing information or more regular check-ins) does not make them any less successful in the end. If they meet expectations, I would still give them the B, but in my comments, I’d share the strategies that I used to help them meet with this success. What do you think? I’m curious to hear what others have to say about this too!


14 02 2014
Lisa Donohue

Aviva, as always, I enjoy getting glimpse in to the wonderful world that is your classroom! You continue to inspire me with your creativity (I just happened to read your blog “We’ve Moved Way Past Gross”
In the past, I dreaded teaching the government unit – but I imagine with your creativity and an inquiry lens, it will be amazing! Can’t wait to hear more about it.

I agree with your opinion on assessment. I know that it is our responsibility to put accommodations in place to help every student meet with success and we need to measure their achievement in terms of understanding the content. While we want all students to be successful, it is also important to indicate what steps were needed in order to help them meet with success. Do you think this should be noted in the Learning Skills section of the report card or the curriculum areas?

14 02 2014
Aviva Dunsiger

Thanks Lisa! I’m really excited to see how the government unit evolves. After reading your post, I’ve been doing some more thinking. Ideas are forming … 🙂

As for the accommodation piece, I tend to mention it in both the specific curriculum areas as well as the Learning Skills. I think it’s important for parents (and next year’s teacher) to see what accommodations were in place to make the student successful in that specific subject area, as well as in school in general. What do you think?


14 02 2014
Lisa Donohue

I agree. I’m curious to see what administrators think.

14 02 2014
Aviva Dunsiger

Hmmm … interesting comment, Lisa! Why would administrators think differently in this situation? Now I’m eager to ask my admin and find out! 🙂


14 02 2014
Kristi bishop

Well I’m an awfully new administrator so I don’t know if my opinion counts or not but for what it is worth, I tend to agree with the idea of a B with the reporting of the process that was used with that student to make it work. I remember doing report card writing in services when tGrowing success first came out and there was a lot of heated debate about whether we should use the qualifier “with support…” because all students should have, and need, support in their learning. In this case, I think this is offering the support. I agree that explaining what that support looked like is important, and NS could include strategies/goals that students could use to gain more independence.
The other thing I loved about your post was your use of the disciplines of thinking to help structure your students’ inquiry. Inquiry is overwhelming in its open nature and providing this structure is very helpful without closing down the inquiry process itself. I haven’t done a good enough job of explaining this valuable feature in the new SS curriculum. Thanks for the reminders!

14 02 2014
Lisa Donohue

Thanks Kristi for sharing your thoughts… And yes, your opinion counts!
Assessment should be an ongoing dialogue between teachers, students and administrators. There are so many blurry lines to navigate. Thanks for joining the conversation!

14 02 2014

Congratulations, Lisa. You are the teacher I would want for my own children!

I found it interesting to read about all of the amazing work you are doing, and then to see your struggle with grades. Maybe “grades” is the part that doesn’t fit your new thinking.

I would love to read more about your exploration of this thinking. Here is a link to some work to enrich the conversation:

Keep sharing your thinking. It helps all of us continue on our journeys.


14 02 2014
Lisa Donohue

Thanks Donna for joining the conversation and sharing with me. I know we are all trying to figure out how to navigate these muddy waters together. It helps to know we are not alone in our learning/struggles.

20 06 2014

Hi Lisa,
I love and wish I and my students could be apart of something as exciting as what you have described. I don’t know where to start or how to prep/plan for an activity like yours and the others mentioned. I know I’m letting my students down by not providing them with the indepth inquiry activities and I want to jump on board. If you or anyone has a ” #” step plan of how I can get something like your activities started, I would love to see it. I’m all for trying anything new and having fun.
Mr. K.

20 06 2014
Lisa Donohue

Hi Darren,
Thanks so much for your comment! I’m happy to share any of my learning. If you let me know what grade you are teaching, I might be able to help connect you with other teachers who are also digging into inquiry. I’m teaching Grade 6 this year, and here is an outline of the “Canada and Global Issues” unit that we did this year.
Please feel to use any/all of it and adapt it if you can to help your learners.
All the best,

24 06 2014

Lisa,I’m so happy you replied, thank you.  I will be teaching Grade 4 next year. I just spoke to my junior division teaching partner and she is excited we might have some help to start to plan.  We are at a small school and only have me and her as the Grade 4,5, and 6 teachers.  Looking forward to any help you can give us. Darren—–Lisa Donohue <> wrote: —– To: Lisa Donohue <> Date: 06/20/2014 10:15AMSubject: [New comment] Inquiry Reflections

Lisa Donohue commented: “Hi Darren, Thanks so much for your comment! I’m happy to share any of my learning. If you let me know what grade you are teaching, I might be able to help connect you with other teachers who are also digging into inquiry. I’m teaching Grade 6 this year”

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