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.”
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.