Learning Inquiry Part 6 – What does it all mean??

This is the culmination of a truly amazing journey of learning for those of us involved! Today I conclude the series Leon and I first discussed writing at the beginning of this term.  I have loved working with him, wrestling with the questions the process threw up and celebrating the exciting outcomes for both us and the students. What follows is Leon’s reflection of his year with his 9 Homeroom boys and then a piece by Robyn Laidlaw, Head of the Alternative Pathways who describes her insight into this whole process.


 

I have had some interesting conversations over the course of my inquiry this year. I have more questions than I have found answers to and the waters are still very murky for me around guided inquiry.

One of those recent thought-provoking conversations was with a colleague around the inquiry approach which led to the question, “Do I think that children should be able to choose their own topic for inquiry?” My initial answer was yes, as this is one way you know you will have engagement from students as the topic is of interest to them. The challenge to my thinking came with a further question, “Well what if a student was to go through school only ever wanting to learn about motorbikes?”

This got me thinking.  How do we as educators introduce them to important topics in a way that sparks interest and potentially passion, which could then lead to them becoming invested in their learning? I have never met a student who has come to me wanting to know about the Treaty of Waitangi but is that because I haven’t introduced it in a way that is fresh and relevant for them?

I thought the process of inquiry, learning how to be a good researcher, was the really important stuff. For me, it became about the skill-set developed along the way far out weighing the knowledge gained. But then how does a young person aged 11 0r 12 truly know what their real passion is if they have only been exposed to a limited amount of life skills and subject matter? How does a student know whether they’re passionate about say, art, if they’ve never been exposed to it? Creating the right balance of knowledge versus skills is crucial in reaching this important equation.

As teachers we need to ensure our students are exposed to a range of experiences in the hope we can create an environment in which they can truly find their life’s calling. This is a different journey for each of us and it doesn’t happen always happen during the short years at secondary school. I know I didn’t find mine till I was 30. I’m reminded of something I heard someone say once, “some of the most interesting people I’ve met had no idea what they really wanted to do by the age of 30, 40 or even 50!”, so why would all our students experience that epiphany while they’re with us?? …… IT’S OKAY IF THEY DON’T!

On the positive side of the equation, using our library’s learning space and collaborating with our learning resource staff has been an integral part of us being able to successfully carry out our inquiry. Firstly, the physical space and the resources that were readily available to us made it easy for the students to work however it suited them for the task. They could find space to work independently or in groups. They had access to computers as well as the wide range of reference material to aid them on their journey. And they had access to a knowledgeable and approachable librarian. It was a perfect working environment to meet the needs of the learner.

Collaborating with Senga and her staff was also critical to our inquiry. The combination of the right environment, the right resources and the right people in a library is absolutely crucial to success.  As I have mentioned previously, the library had never been a positive experience for me due to my own arrogance! Senga was able to show us how our library space could be used to enrich what we were doing in the classroom. I had a number of conversations with her around the guided inquiry process and she was able to steer me in the right direction to find answers on the many occasions where I felt completely lost!

Working with our library staff enabled students to access a wide range of information in our library that I never even new existed. Not only resources and texts we had on site but also external, digital sources of information. If you are thinking of heading down the inquiry road I would definitely recommend your first stop to be your school’s library!

Some things I know for sure

  • Guided inquiry is the way forward to encourage life-long learners who have the skills to be whatever they want to be 
  • Levels of engagement noticeably improved in my classroom as students felt like they had more control over their learning
  • Students were happy to be assessed for their work as they got to show their learning in ways that were fun for them
  • Students had a real sense of direction due to the co-construction of a timeline and criteria. This meant that everyone knew what the targets were and how they could achieve excellence marks (although this did not happen for all!)
  • Students loved the freedom of learning in their own time, at their own pace and being trusted to carry out tasks along the way. This is how I operate best. I have spent many hours pouring over planning and reports in the same manner. I know when things are due, but I usually procrastinate till the last minute, or I will take regular breaks to listen to music, go outside, chat to others or find any excuse to avoid what needs done. But in the end my tasks are completed on time and if not I only have myself to blame! Surely this should apply to our students to some degree…… after all, it’s how the world works! However, I also believe that putting small goals and checkpoints along the way is essential so that students learn those time management skills that are necessary in today’s workforce

Things I still need to know

  • Far too many to list!
  • What does a real Guided Inquiry look like in practise?
  • How do you deal with those students that just seem to be reluctant towards learning?
  • What else can I do to meet the needs of individual learners?
  • How do I make this approach fit within our school’s assessment system?
  • How do I bring in a Bi/Multicultural approach to Inquiry?

Our research & learning co-ordinator put it in words that made sense. It’s like I have started a puzzle and have filled in the border. That was the easy part. Now I have to fill in the pieces in the middle, which is where the real challenge begins.

It would be very easy to go back to the safety of what I know and muddle through as I have done since the beginning of my career. However, having seen that glimmer of light though, I don’t think I would be doing myself or the profession any justice. I know there is massive hard work to come. I only hope that others take the challenge and also have courage to begin looking at teaching in this way. As we all know, it is much easier to paddle the waka when you are not the only one on the oar!

Thanks for those that have taken the time to read my reflections and rants, and I welcome any ideas or feedback moving forward. Finally, I leave you with a couple of quotes:

“Our whole reason for showing up for school has changed, but infrastructure has stayed behind”

“The less educators try to control what kids learn, the more students’ voices will be heard and, eventually, their ability to drive their own learning.”

Source Unknown

It is a privilege to sit and write this reflection. I am the current Head of the Alternative Pathways Department at Southland Boys’ High School. As the name suggests, our department runs a little differently from a traditional mainstream system in that our teachers are with their classes 80% of the school day. We have found at our school there is around 10% of our students who require more time with one teacher rather than the traditional 5-6 teachers in one day.

Our boys are likely to have lower literacy and numeracy levels, they could have home-life issues and some have multiple agency involvement in their out-of-school life, so these boys need a different approach to teaching.

The teachers in our department are a very special breed. They are the kind of teachers you would hope all students could have access to. Earlier in the year Leon assessed his group and decided to run with an inquiry approach in his classroom.

For me, as the head of this department, this has been an excellent step for Alt. Pathways. We know traditional teaching doesn’t work of our boys. We know they need to move more, they need to access all their senses to learn and using an inquiry approach allows this to happen.

I observed the class while Leon led the boys through their first inquiry. They have been engaged, they have been problem-solving, they have been taking their own learning to places that may not have been thought of in a traditional unit plan.  The boys have been given the right to develop their own questions and to find the answers. They have discovered there are often no single answers only more questions. In my opinion it has been a very successful journey.

So what does it mean for me?

  • It means we have boys wanting to be in class – less attendance issues
  • It means we have engaged learners – little to no behaviour management required
  • It means our assessment data is authentic – no prescribed ‘tests’ to show progress

Setting out on an inquiry is not for those faint of heart. I would only suggest this to other heads of departments if you have faith in your teachers. They need to be very good classroom managers, they need to have great organisational skills and they need to have a well developed system for tracking students progress throughout this process. They also need to be able to ‘let go’ of what has been seen traditionally as ‘good practice’. Students engaged in work can be noisy and messy and it doesn’t always mean sitting at a desk writing stuff down.

Having a supportive and informed librarian has helped in this process immensely. For my staff to be able to go to one person and one place to receive positive and timely support is so very important. In Leon’s journey he had that support from Senga and they in turn encouraged other like-minded teachers to also become involved. This gave Leon a base of teaching staff across departments that both he and the boys could go to throughout the inquiry.  A team approach is vital and our library staff are part of the teaching and learning team.

For our boys this has been an effective way to work through a term’s work. I congratulate Leon for his foresight and thank Senga for her support.

 

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Filed under Collaboration, Guided Inquiry, Library Usage, Reflective practice, Research and Learning Coordinator, Southland Boys High School

Inquiry Learning Part 5 – Student Voice

Student voice bird

Image:  The Voice

When all is said and done, what we do in schools, it’s all about student learning and engagement.  Here is a little taste of what some of Leon’s students had to say about what they learned and what they thought about the inquiry process:

What did you think about the inquiry?

  • It has been a bit hard but we managed to get through it
  • Before this, I have always had a teacher behind my back watching me and telling me when to learn about the subject what topic to do and do it this way.  Here, I have a chance to get on with my work and feel free to get on with it
  • It was fun to research and present it as a class in different ways.  As people we do different things differently
  • I didn’t really like it at the start, but as we learned more about how sugar affects our bodies I really enjoyed it.  I liked that we got to work and manage ourselves
  • I didn’t like inquiry too much before this but I have really enjoyed learning about sugar and managing ourselves and our time
  • I think that it’s a good way of finding things out because you have the freedom to search up whatever you want about the topic and learn stuff you never knew before

Speak up

Image: Speak Up

What did you learn?

  • We’ve been in the library with Ms White and she taught us how to use URLs to choose our information and use three different websites
  • I learned how to research by using Dot Jot notes, bullet points and short cut keys
  • When we research, be sure to have more than one source of information and that it’s important to reference where we get our information from
  • I learned how to research and find information quickly.  I also learned that I had to check information with other sources and record where I got my information
  • How to record websites and referencing information

And my personal favourite:  “this year I think I have achieved more than I did last year.”

Next week is the final post in this series about Leon’s inquiry journey, where he will reflect on what he’s learned through this whole process and his Head of Department will talk about the process from her perspective. Plus I will share my own perspective of planning, collaborating and teaching research skills.

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Inquiry Learning Part 4: The Gold Nugget in the Tricky Stuff

Inquiry

Here comes part four in our inquiry series.  Leon shares his concerns about the process, how students reacted to the new learning structure and what he learned because of it.  If you’d like to you can catch up here, here and here.

As I’ve already alluded to, there were definitely some stumbling blocks along the way with our guided inquiry. There were many times when I felt like I needed to intervene as I became concerned about the amount of work the boys were producing. I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and let them take ownership of their learning process, which was the hardest thing for me to do as it goes against every fibre of my being!

There were two students who constantly missed deadlines and never seemed to be on task. I had conversations with them around the importance of meeting deadlines, self management strategies and how this work would make up a large part of their final assessment for the year.  Following each conversation they would “pick up their game” for a short period of time but seemed unable to sustain it.

I asked myself why. What was I missing? They told me they were enjoying the topic and found it interesting but I was worried they were they just telling me what I wanted to hear. Was it because this new way of learning was taking more time to settle into it? Were my expectations of them too high? Was it the lack of perceived structure to the lessons and my approach to teaching?  Was the work beyond them?  I spent considerable time locked with my thoughts, trying to make sense of my questions, while wrestling with whether I should punish them for failing to meet deadlines and failure to submit work.

In the midst of grappling with this I finally snapped! I took them both aside and gave them a right grilling about their work ethic and how little they had achieved in two terms. I continued by pointing out they appeared to have learned nothing and wasted almost half a year.

Hold on to your hats, this is the awesome part!  Their response to this was that they had learned something and they then proceeded to tell me about what happens when you ingest unhealthy amounts of sugar and the effects this has on the body.

The light went on for me and I started probing them further for more information. They could describe what happens when sugar enters the blood stream, how it affects our organs, and the difference between eating whole fruit and just drinking juice and that we need the fibre from the fruit to help get rid of the glucose. Both talked about having sugar highs and lows and how it impacts your thinking. The discussion was awesome!

This led me to an epiphany of sorts around my pedagogy. These boys may not have followed  “the rules” we had set out as a class at the beginning of the process but they had definitely absorbed the information, synthesised it and had even formed more questions to continue the investigation. Was this not the point of what we were doing? Not all students research and process information the same way and here was the evidence.

Yes there were a lot of times along the way where I felt like I wasn’t really ‘teaching’, rather standing back and letting them go. To begin with this felt lazy to me.  I worried every time someone walked into my room they would be judging me for what looked like lack of control and sometimes utter chaos. 

However, this job of teaching isn’t about me and how I look.  It isn’t about having total control over students.  To a certain degree, it isn’t even about the content of what they learn. To me, teaching is about the HOW they learn. Sure, I can impart knowledge and go over and over facts, figures and strategies, hoping that it sticks, but I have done this to death. The big thing I have come to realise is that it’s all about the skills they learn to become self-regulated learners. How I can motivate and give them the tools to become life-long learners.

The other great thing I realised is the importance of collaboration.  I’m very lucky to be working in a big school where so many were willing to help us on our journey. This would never have been possible without the input of other staff. I have to say a massive thank you to Senga, our Research & Learning Coordinator who showed us how to research, record and present our findings and thinking along the way.  I’m that guy who never really spent much time in a library because for me, it was never cool to be there when I was at school.  So it’s only now I fully appreciate the massive resource it has become for me. 

 As teachers it is easy to get so wrapped up in our own classroom with our own students and exist in our bubble, doing what we do and protecting our realm, hidden away from others. 

 Through this I have learned that opening up and asking for help is not a bad thing.  In fact it’s actually a wonderful thing! I have learned more in the past two terms about how learners learn than I have in the previous eight years. Now I welcome anyone into my classroom to help, share or critique my professional practise. I do not view this as criticism.  I see it as a chance for me to grow as a teacher and provide extra opportunities for my students as they benefit from the perspective of others. 

 I am still only in the beginnings of my inquiry journey but see the massive benefits this approach has on learning. I am determined to continue on this path. I will allow myself to feel okay about the mistakes I have made along the way as we have all learned because of them and they’ve allowed me to move forward. 

Next week   Leon will share some of the students reflections about their inquiry journey this year.

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Filed under Classroom ideas, Collaboration, Guided Inquiry, Reflective practice, Southland Boys High School

Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize 2015

CC Flickr Image

I am super excited for and very proud of my good friend Tania Lineham, Head of Science at James Hargest College, who has just been awarded the very prestigious Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize for 2015.  Tania is one of the most innovative, passionate and hard working teachers I’ve had the privilege of working with. (Huge emphasis on passionate!)

That in itself is more than enough reason for me to give her public accolade, however having just listened to Tania’s interview on Kathryn Ryan’s Nine to Noon Show on RNZ National aired this morning, I felt compelled to share it with my librarian and teacher friends.

During this short 7 minute interview Tania talks about:

  • separating science fact from science fiction
  • fostering critical analysis and scientific literacy
  • developing critical thinking tools
  • evaluating information, including the sources information comes from
  • identifying reliable websites
  • embedding digital citizenship

Any of this sound familiar? Are these the topics of conversations we have in our libraries? Or if not, are they the types of conversations we’d like to have with our teaching colleagues or should be having with our librarian colleagues?  These skills, among others are opening topics of conversations in which both teachers and librarians have things to share with each other

Tania has been and will always remain one of my flock-mates. She is a strong collaborator and we had many professional discussions when we worked together which really inspired me in my role as a co-educator.  Well done my friend.  It is richly deserved. (and the piccy at the top is just for you)

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Filed under Awards, Collaboration, Information Literacy, James Hargest College, Science

Full House and All Engaged in their Learning

CC Flickr

We had a full house in the library to finish the day today. Three classes were here, sharing the space with each other.

A Year 7 and a Year 8 class in the main part of the library and a Year 10 class working on Power-points for their English assignment in the computer area.

Chess in the library

I love the concentration on the chess game and the concentration on the book side by side.

Chess and concentration

Year 10 PP 2

More learning going on!

And my favourite shot of the day.  A pair of Year 7’s, complete with spectator poring over their chess game while a Year 12 student reads through his notes in preparation for his next exam.

Chess and study 2

Everyone was happy working, reading, playing, studying, talking, learning together.  It’s one of my most favourite things about working in a school library!

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Inquiry Learning Pt 3: The Process

Here is part three of our guided inquiry journey.  Leon expands on what direction their inquiry took and sets out the process he trialled with his class.  If you want to catch up on the first two instalments you can do that here for part 1 and here for part 2.

In term 1 this year we had completed a unit on healthy eating. This prompted a lot of discussion about food, what was healthy and what was not. There had also been lots published in the media about sugar and its ill effects on our health. The class decided they wanted to investigate this further.

An in-depth discussion ensued about some of the choices of food and drink that was available in our canteen and from that it was decided to see if we could affect what was offered for sale.  We decided to look at other healthy alternatives and whether or not it would be cost effective to serve meals that had no highly processed foods. Our next step was to backwards map how we might make all this happen.

In groups we brainstormed ideas about all the things we would need to do to make this happen and put together a timeline so everyone knew what and when different tasks had to happen.

Brainstorming process

Sugar

Note: (I believe this step is crucial to any inquiry. You need to have a timeline and establish some parameters, including a goal otherwise, as we discovered, it is very easy to get off task or have ideas spiral into something massive that will go on forever and ever!)

The first thing we had to do was gain the permission of our rector to investigate foods our canteen was selling.  A team of students put together a simple power point presentation and invited him to come and listen to their proposal. Students had to back up their suggestions themselves with relevant information as we knew Mr Baldwin would be asking some tough questions. This meant that every student had to do their own research to learn about the effects of highly processed food and sugar on the body both physically and mentally. Our researching skills really paid off at this time (thanks again Senga).

Students also made appointments with other teachers in the Science and Health departments to gather further information to strengthen their argument.

During this process it became clear that the students were all doing different things at different times. This was where I had to let go of my inner control freak! As a class we talked constantly about self-management and being able to work to a deadline. I had to trust that students would complete set tasks without me constantly looking over their shoulder.

I deliberately gave the boys a lot of freedom to come and go from the classroom and work how they needed to work. For some this meant taking regular breaks, listening to devices, working in groups or individually as well as having regular catch ups with each other. It was amazing to see them becoming “experts” in particular fields and all feeding off each other for information.
Chicken Tacos with Tomato Salsa cook book

As a class we designed a cookbook made from healthy recipes we had researched and students had to show their learning in some way, shape or form. This could be anything from a mock news interview to a power point presentation to a poster or simply submitting their inquiry journal.  Documenting our journey in this way would prove invaluable.

Students designed the criteria for our final assessment and came up with a list of ways that we could measure each other’s learning. Having them co-construct the criteria for assessment meant they had real ownership of the task.

So it sounds like all is coming up roses and I am now an expert on inquiry and my class is perfect aye! WRONG! Not all my students responded well to the less structured approach we took with our learning. Two students in particular really struggled with this concept, choosing to be completely off task and “abusing” the system. In the next posting I will continue to outline both the successes and the stumbling blocks along the way to successful guided inquiry ………

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Filed under Challenges, Classroom ideas, Guided Inquiry, Inspirations, Reflective practice, Southland Boys High School

Study Skills and Exam Prep

As part of supporting our seniors, especially our Year 11’s, to prepare for their NCEA exams, I have offered tutorials to help them actively and successfully make the most of their study leave.  I have also added it to our library management system so the students can also access the information from home.

This is a trial only at this stage so I would love to know if there’s any other areas you think I need to add that would be important to tell our students.

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Filed under Exam Preparation, Information Literacy, Senior students, Study Skills