Confessions of an Inquiry Teacher

Last year when I began using inquiry and student-directed teaching in Biology, we were part way through the semester. Because of that, there are so many things that I didn’t realize.  But I’m learning them now.

After I made the decision to shift our classroom, we floundered for the next couple of weeks figuring out what it would look like.  My students had to learn to collaborate, many for the first time ever. They had to learn how they learned and also how to teach others. But as time passed, my students became stronger at collaborating, learning, problem solving, and eventually, critically evaluating.  And I placed responsibility for their learning exactly where it should be, in their own hands.

Fast forward to this year.  I started my biology class as an inquiry/project-based classroom.  I figured it would be much easier this time because almost all of my students had experienced an inquiry classroom with me last year.  I was wrong.  The problem? My students learned inquiry in an English classroom, not science.  And that makes a world of difference.

I learned early on that inquiry in an English and science classroom look and feel different.  In my English classroom, all of the objectives I have are skill-based. None are content. However, in chemistry and biology, there is a large amount of specific content that students must know, in addition to skills within each discipline.

This difference allows students in my English class to explore the topic that is of most interest to them, within the unit we’re studying.  They don’t need to learn all, or even the same content that others are learning.  However, in Biology, it doesn’t matter if they’re interested in ATP production.  Everyone needs to know it.

When we started the semester my students broke into small groups to research & create a presentation on cells. We headed to the computer lab, and students immediately began to research the topics outlined on the wiki.  They bookmarked relevant web pages, started Google docs, and logged into their Symbaloos.  From what I’ve seen, they have incredible ideas for their presentations. Everything was running smoothly, or so I thought.

My first indication of trouble was two days ago — on lab day.  We were performing two labs, one based on cellular respiration, the other osmosis and diffusion.  As they read over the lab, one student looked up and said, “What do hypotonic and hypertonic mean?”  Well, they’re words that explain what happens during osmosis.   And my students should have come across them while they were researching the processes that cells use.  They didn’t. So groups quickly googled the process  of osmosis/diffusion, as I answered questions.  And based on this information they created their hypothesis. Problem solved.

Most groups finished setting up both experiments, and would record the results the next day.  Students knew I would be away, and they would have a sub.

This morning, shortly after class commenced, one of my students burst into tears, another sat down next to me, looked into my eyes and said,”I’ve tried, and I don’t understand this stuff.  I read it, and it doesn’t make sense. I learn best when someone explains it to me.”  The moment she made that statement the light went on.  She’s an auditory learner.  Why didn’t it occur to her to find a video to watch?  I hadn’t taught her.

I asked how many students were confused.  A number put up their hands.  I asked how many of them learn best when they hear the information?  A large portion put up their hands.  A few are hands-on learners, and only two raised their hands for reading. Wow.

So I told them we need to do some backtracking.  Immediately, I put three videos on our wiki that explain the most basic, and important, cellular processes.  My students will watch them this weekend and create their notes. On Monday, we will connect how they relate to the labs we’ve just performed.

Last year, by the time I shifted my classroom, my students had already been exposed to multiple ways of learning.  We had started creating a textbook on our class wiki that was tailored specifically to what we were learning.  Students had used numerous Khan Academy videos, TED talks, notes, simulations, pictures, and videos that showed biological processes within that context, before we shifted to more individualized learning.  Additionally, we had talked extensively about what good resources look like.  All of this made a huge difference.  None of the students in my current class have ever heard of Khan Academy.

I explained to my students why I made this mistake.  I didn’t accurately gage the supports needed in the beginning to become independent learners.  I also explained that for the next couple of weeks it’s going to feel like we’re floundering around — because we will be, in an attempt to figure out what this class needs.  They all learn in very specific ways, and we need to figure out what this looks like — together.  The good thing is my students trust me, and that will make this journey easier.

So come Monday, we will begin again, wiser than before.

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. Furthermore, I am Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member
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15 Responses to Confessions of an Inquiry Teacher

  1. I love learning from your experience. It really is amazing how each class can be so different, isn’t it? I too, as teacher-librarian, have tried the same lesson in multiple disciplines only to get wildly different results. One of the things that I’m sure adds to your students experience is to have you twice in a row. You’ve already developed trust and expectations, so they feel comfortable relying on you for help. More than anything this is what I miss most about having my own class.

    • Having students more than once makes a big difference. You learn how to work with one another, I think. These past couple of weeks have been a real eye-opener. But I’m excited to get back at it tomorrow.

  2. Beautiful article. I just started a new long term sub assignment (dipping my toes into teaching) and would love to just have all of the knowledge of trial-and-error that you have. This is the way to learn in a classroom!

  3. I like your statement “Because I hadn’t taught her.” Most students need taught now to access new information… we can teach that through questioning, but they need guidance. One of my students ran across ‘binomial nomenclature’ this week in a launch packet, and the larger lesson of the day was walking him through how to find out what that term really meant… in a way that a 9 year old could handle. It takes time to walk them through the process of not only finding information, but evaluating it for accuracy and usefulness. Thanks for sharing your learning! I’d love to hear more about the ‘supports’ you’re finding needful.

    • I completely agree. For us, the next couple weeks will be spent exploring and talking about the complex biological processes that a cell is really involved in, and how to put that into language that they can understand.

  4. Britt Gow says:

    Thanks for this post Shelley – it takes some courage to admit we didn’t get it right the first time. Inquiry learning isn’t the easy option by any means, but I agree that it is a powerful way for students to learn. I have struggled with the idea of Inquiry learning in my Biology class, due to the focus on content in assessment for this course. I do believe we still need a balance of direct instruction, scaffolded or guided learning and inquiry in any classroom.
    One successful strategy was to ask students to create a video (common craft style or animation) that explained mitosis. We also decorated cakes with lollies that represented cell organelles. Students also created a teaching tool to explain one of the biogeochemical cycles to the rest of the class. I hope we do get the time for some real inquiry, where students can investigate an area of interest, create their own experiments and communicate their results to others. This may be more possible in Year 7 to 10, which do not require external examinations that contribute to university entrance scores.

    • I love the common craft video idea. I think my students will too! So we’ll definitely use that one! One of the things about inquiry, is that is takes as much problem solving and thinking for me, as it does my student, and I really like that.

  5. Jerrid Kruse says:

    This has little to do with whether the students are a certain “kind” of learner. Instead, consider that you have not properly scaffolded the learning experiences. Inquiry does not mean students are off on there own. Rather than helping students find the right resources, perhaps you need to help them have the right experiences & help them thoroughly reflect on these experiences. This doesn’t mean you are simply showing kids things or telling them info.

    Also, you focused on process skills in your English class. For god’s sake please do the same in science class. If students are exploring cells and or respiration, you’ll have the opportunity to help them underwent where ATP fits in. Don’t make ATP the goal, make it part or the process of exploration. This, of course, is not easy.

    One last idea for you. Your inquiry seems to be literature & info & library based rather than inquiry that reflects what scientists do. It sounds like your labs were pretty step by step. This is not science. Try starting with some observations & see where kids take it. You’ll be surprised how doing the googling after the hands on inquiry benefits your students & increases their interest & more accurately reflects the scientific endeavor.

  6. While I think that some of it has to do with what kind of learner a person is, scaffolding was also an issue. I believe I said as much. But I think the key thing you said is helping my kids have the right experiences and helping them thoroughly reflect on them. I can’t think of anything more important I can do than this.

    I appreciate the suggestions you’ve given. One of the things that I”ve struggled with is getting rid of the recipe labs in Biology. I’ve found this much easier in Chemistry. But I like the idea of starting with observations and seeing where the kids take it. And then googling to try to find answers. Thanks!

  7. Great reflective post. I am diving into problem-based learning (well, easing into it, like you do in a cold pool!) this year, and started partway through last year as well in my Biology classes. Like you, it amazed me how my students hadn’t ever been taught to work together, and did not have some basic research and processing skills. Like you said, I had to teach them. A lot of teachers don’t want to take the time (and it does take time if they have no experience with it) because they are worried so much about their content, but I think this is a matter of “Which will they need more in life–the ability to collaborate or the knowledge of what happens to a red blood cell when placed in a hypotonic solution?”

    I do agree with Jerrid in that some student-led inquiry/observation first does seem to work best; it ignites the intellectual fire as students want to find out more about what happened in the experience. I also do exclusively self-designed labs, where students define a question to hypothesize and test from a general question I give them. The first part of the process before hypothesizing is to do some research, some directed by me (using a diigo list), and some on their own after they get their results. I have found that scaffolding in this way really helps them out. After a few I stop giving them the diigo list, and let them do the initial research on their own.

    The one comment in your post that struck a chord with me is when your student said that she learned better when someone explained it to her. I’ve had entire classes say this to me as well, but the truth in my case was that they had always experienced success (or had never known anything different) with the traditional teacher role of filling students with knowledge, and have basically come to rely on the teacher to do the thinking for them. When they are put in situations where things aren’t as clear-cut, or they have to develop other ways to learn, they tend to get nervous, and want to fall back into the comfort zone of the teacher doing the work of learning. I guess what I’m saying is take what they say about their learning styles with a grain of salt; many students in my experience have been told what type of learner they are rather than discovering that for themselves.

    • The whole reason I switched to problem-based learning is because of the skills involved. I think it would be great if my students remember what a hypotonic solution does, but collaboration & problem solving are much more important in the long run.

      For some reason, it didn’t occur to me to put the lab first, even though in Chemistry that’s what I’ve done. Reading peoples comments over the past couple of days has been incredibly helpful in clarifying what this should look like. I really like your idea of the diigo list. One of the areas I’ve been really struggling with is trying to figure out a way for my students to learn the content they need, to create labs that make sense.

      I also appreciate your last paragraph. I find my A students tend to do exactly what you’re talking about, so I gently push them to become independent learners. I know I’ll need to do the same with this class. Thanks for the reminder!

  8. Beth Schara says:

    I completely enjoyed reading your article as well as all the subsequent posts. I am a curriculum and instruction coach at an intermediate level school. We are at the very beginning of our journey with project based learning, and more specifically for science, inquiry based learning. My teachers have been working toward a lesson design focused on the 5 E model and I think this is a good way to slowly approach inquiry learning.
    I particularly liked what you said about learning style, because I do believe that plays an important part. So far, my 18 years in the classroom and 4 years as an instructional coach have taught me that it takes a very intentional blend of all the things you and the others have mentioned to create a successful learning environment. Purposeful scaffolding, attention to learning styles, and a “healthy push” for our students to be independent thinkers is what it takes.
    Your comments have definitely spurred my thinking and I intend to share your blog with my teachers. We can all learn from each other’s experiences!!! Thanks!

  9. Pingback: Reading vs Literacy « The Official Edufy Blog

  10. philedufy says:

    Shelley, I’m really impressed with your efforts. Integrating inquiry, PBL, differentiation, learning interests is certainly all in a similar direction, but there’s a lot to keep track of. Your posts have been great – I hope you keep it up!

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