An Irresistible Challenge

Today was the first day back at school.  My students don’t return until Monday; however, teachers have two organization/prep days this week.

To be honest, today was really shocking.  Last year, I didn’t begin the year as an inquiry/constructivist/tech teacher. I was a pretty traditional teacher.  I lectured A LOT. I was even pretty good at it. But it’s not what I want my classroom to look like.

As I flipped through my chemistry and biology binders, I was surprised by how many notes there were.  And quizzes. Why in the world did I give so many quizzes? I realized that most of the talk in my classroom was teacher talk, and my students certainly weren’t trying to figure concepts out with each other.  I can’t even imagine teaching like that anymore.

But at the time, I didn’t know any better.  It was how I was taught.  And how, for the most part, I was taught to teach.  But as I was flipping through all of those notes today, I wondered how my students and I weren’t bored out of our minds during the entire thing.  Maybe it was because we didn’t realize it could be any other way. Or maybe we were and just wouldn’t admit it.

By the time I was done today, my binders were almost empty — most of the stuff in them hit the recycle bin.  The first thing to go were the quizzes.  I also have no plans to lecture this semester. Not that I don’t have expertise to offer. I do.  And when it’s appropriate I will share it.  But it wont’ be a continuous diatribe.  Instead, my students will discover and wrestle with biology, chemistry and English.

At some point, this became the new normal. I tend to see everything now as an inquiry problem, in my own life, and in the learning I’m facilitating for my students.  It doesn’t occur to me to create a set of notes, or that I should learn all about a subject so that I can tell my students what they need to know about it.

But even though that’s the case, I still don’t have all the answers. I’ve thought multiple times today, “how in the world am I going to teach my students to create their own chemistry experiments well enough, so that a) the lab isn’t set on fire; b) nothing gets blown up; c) they can create a double displacement reaction?” The third one is my biggest concern.

I have no idea.  But the reality is, you jump off the cliff anyway.  Because for me, there is no other way.  I’m tired of pretending I have all the answers. I don’t.  And I’ve discovered my students don’t really want me to.  They want to have some of the answers, and they should.

The words that have echoed through my head countless times today are Rodd Lucier’s, “What if a problem is really an irresistible challenge?”  Imagine that.  An irresistible challenge. What if figuring out this inquiry thing is really an irresistible challenge that will set me and my students free? Or you and your students free? What if life is an irresistible challenge?  Shouldn’t we be allowing our students to discover that?

photo, by shaunanyi, courtesy of creative commons, flickr.

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About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. I am currently a PhD student in the area of Curriculum and Instruction. My focus is play-based learning in high school, and it's impact on brain development.
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12 Responses to An Irresistible Challenge

  1. Kim Vincent says:

    great post. inspiring…and i’m not even a teacher!

  2. Nicole Primeau says:

    Wow! You are awesome. I really wish more teachers would push pass their comfortable limits, as you are here! In terms of your fears about them creating meaningful labs start with the basics. Have them work on basic problems in their own lives so they’re comfortable with asking questions and seeking solutions to these problems through the scientific method. Then move on to the chemistry after they have had some practice with that. With the double displacement. You might need to give them a list of potential materials to use or a model to folllow after having them think about and question what double replacement might mean. You could also have them think about what it might mean to everyday life before having them think about it in terms of chemistry and how they migt explore it in their everyday life, then have them think about it in terms of chemistry. Remember they will be scared out of their minds about this so easing them into it and reassuring them that it will be ok and that you are in this with them will help them they will be more receptive.

    • Thank, Nicole! These are some really great ideas! This semester, for me, it’s thinking through what the basics are, and then scaffolding, or modelling how to move to more complicated things. Thanks for the ideas!

  3. Nicole Primeau says:

    Oh shoot! I accidentally hit publish before I was finished! Anyway, if you need help or have questions please feel free to ask. I’ve been constructing a more inquiry based Biology class for the past 7 years. Good luck and have fun! It’s scary, but fun

  4. Oh Shelley (and @thecleversheep), I like the way you think. Life as an irresistible challenge… delicious. http://bit.ly/n572OO

  5. Amen, sister! I feel the exact same way. When I looked at my boring powerpoints and “traditional” classroom set up from last year, I cringed. All new class, all new me for this year. Here’s wishing you a great school year!

  6. Wow Shelly, every sentence resonates with authenticity. Thank you for being so transparent and encouraging the rest of us to ‘clean out our binders’ too! The perspective of ‘everything being an inquiry problem’ is key to moving from lecture to active learning. I’ll be sharing this post with our teachers!

  7. John Thomas says:

    I was struck by your inspired words: “It doesn’t occur to me to create a set of notes, or that I should learn all about a subject so that I can tell my students what they need to know about it.”

    I imagine that many teachers – especially those with binders – would consider your ideas dangerous :)

  8. Shelley, great post. I particularly like it that you are doing this with Chemistry. My chemistry teachers agree that their labs are very canned and that they don’t don enough of them and that even the more complex ones at the end of the year are still guaranteed a predictable outcome as long as procedures are followed correctly, In some respects I think it is easier for those of us who teach history or World Languages to embrace this shift so I am thrilled you are jumping in, in this most traditionally taught of the sciences.

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