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


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.


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

Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize 2015

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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

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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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Filed under Library Usage, sbhs

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


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 ………


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

Inquiry Learning Part 2: The Approach

Here is instalment two of our inquiry journey where Leon describes the approaches taken. If you want to know why we began this journey, you can read about it here.

Before throwing myself into the unknown, I had to learn about the process of inquiry. I had previously had many conversations with our librarian, Senga about Inquiry Learning but had always made excuses that I was too busy to make this happen in my room.  Looking back, I now realise I was scared to give away power and too proud to acknowledge that I didn’t have all the answers. (Told you I was a control freak!)

I knew that if this was to work I would have to acquire help from others. This would also mean opening up my classroom and putting my practise under scrutiny.

Two books I read which were to become my bibles were:
Creating Learner Centred Primary Classroom Guided Inquiry DesignCreating a Learner-centred Primary Classroom by Kath Murdoch & Jeni Wilson and Guided Inquiry Design: a Framework for Inquiry in Your School by Carol Kahlyhau, Leslie Maniotes & Ann Caspari. 

These gave me some foundation and ideas to move forward.

 I realised that I really did not understand what good research looked like, nor did I have the skills to teach them to my students. This is where our school Research & Learning Coordinator Senga became the first big piece of putting this puzzle together. My students and I met with her for several sessions where we learned how to research in books and online, how to synthesise important information and take notes, and reference our sources of information.

Dot Jot LDN ExampleLDN 9Home NotetakingMy students had never gone through the Inquiry process before so we decided to all explore the same topic. We had  already worked on a unit around healthy eating and so decided to look at sugar in foods and whether all the hype in the media had any substance.

Our literacy sessions involved in-depth analysis of research we had found and we also watched movies such as Supersize Me, The 200kg Kid, That Sugar Film, and Fed Up. Inquiry 2 Fed Up

I quickly realised this was becoming massive! There were millions of questions that we were losing track of and we would need help from experts to find answers.  

We decided we would brainstorm a list of people we may need to call on for help and the “Wonderwall” was born!


The Wonderwall is our dumping ground for questions that that arise during research.  We had sticky notes available at all times to write questions. Everyone answered each other’s questions as they came across relevant information.

9Home working

We approached staff members as experts to work with us and a great group of people got on board, prepared to help at any time. We already had access to a great research person from our library, who was also very good giving us ideas and resources for documenting our journey.  She was joined by a scientist, a P.E. specialist, a leader of learning, an English major with exceptional skill in photography and video, an Alternative Pathways teacher who the students have great respect for and a Mathematician & Physics teacher with a passion for teaching. This would become a great starting group to get things rolling.

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

Two-Sentence Horror Story

Goodreads have great Halloween treats all week for those who are into a good horror to tingle the spine.  However, it’s the two sentence horror story that has my mind turning towards writing activities for classes.

Two sentence horror Justin Cronin

Wouldn’t this be a great idea to share with your English teaching colleagues? I know our boys would relish the opportunity to gross each other out by suitably horrific premises, and what an excellent opportunity to encourage them to investigate wonderfully descriptive words to convey their message.  It also will teach them to be succinct in their choice of sentences and why each word matters.

Once the students have crafted their sentences they could each create a slide through Google Slides, such as the ones shown here (just love Justin Cronin’s work!), to publish their short horror story.  Teachers could create a class presentation with each of the slides to share with everyone.  Power-point would be an equally good presentation option for teachers who didn’t want to use and online option.

Two sentence horror Kendare Blake

Spine Poetry Jan Clothier

PS:  This is a great Spine Poem with the horror theme supplied by Jan Cothier at Karamu High School in Hastings, which I just had to share

Also, Sally Pewhairangi has invited you to play along on her Finding Heroes Facebook page

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Filed under Classroom ideas, Creative Ideas, Literacy