This post shares my three ‘aha moments’ from a presentation by Neil Stephenson about student inquiry projects. Neil is from The Calgary Science School (CSS) where the teaching pedagogy is leading the charge in inquiry based 21st century education. In order to successfully implement a student driven inquiry based project three essential conditions must be met; first, students need to understand the importance of careful documentation during the learning process, second, teachers must understand that there is an art to steering student inquiry, and lastly, teachers must realize that they are charged with the responsibility of equipping students as lifelong learners.
A fantastic end project is usually the result of ongoing and careful documentation of the process. We must ask our students to share their process of learning during their inquiry. In order to do this we must first emphasize and practise pause and reflection during smaller less time intensive projects. We must also encourage careful documentation and reward this ongoing process with praise and feedback. This leads me to the next ‘aha moment’… the art of steering student inquiry…
Critical questions with the possibility of many answers is a good starting point to steer student inquiry projects. Coming up with the critical question requires painful collaboration and deliberation. This first step is the most difficult because it steers the entire project. The examples below follow Scardamalia and Bereiter research about “deep constructivism” – in critical questions vs. “shallow constructivism” in non-critical question.
Once the critical question is established enough time needs to be dedicated to the student driven inquiry. Large blocks of time are needed for students to “play” be noisy and be messy. It is during this time that a teacher needs to practise his/her own art of steering student inquiry. The coaching and facilitation of a good inquiry project is key to the final outcome. Four elements to effective facilitation of an inquiry learning environment:
In my quest to enable and support teachers in taking on more inquiry based projects I have found that many are still overwhelmed and bogged down with content and delivering the entire curriculum. Neil articulated this as a disease called ‘Aboutitis.’ He mentioned that once a child turns five he/she is put on a rutted course chewing the information teachers throw at them. My last ‘aha moment’ occurred when Neil mentioned using curricular topics as spaces for learning and/or topics as worlds that exist and are worthy of exploration.
How we choose to structure learning can truly make a difference in student engagement and we must begin seeing ourselves as ‘designers of learning’ and not simply ‘deliverers of content.’ As teachers we have the license to talk about meaningful things and that is what matters the most.