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.