A New [Year’s] Challenge: start with small strategic steps

I’ve come to describe my classroom as an inquiry-driven, project-based, tech-embedded environment. But that’s not where I started.  For most of my teaching career, I’ve been a pretty traditional teacher; even now I slip back into that mode sometimes. However, as I went through the motions of trying to “teach” my students, something didn’t seem right. My students seemed to learn things only for the exam, were focused on the mark, not the learning that was supposed to be taking place, and dumped all their notes and assignments when the unit or semester was over. Frustrating.

The shift to  a student-centred classroom has been a rollercoaster, but well worth the work and effort.  For the most part,  my students are engaged and have started to take responsibility for their education. We view knowledge as a process, not a product. I think the most valuable skill my students have acquired is the ability to learn, unlearn, and re-learn.  In today’s constantly changing world, this is one of the most important things they’ll take with them when they graduate.

Teachers who are interested in shifting their classroom often don’t know where to start. It can be overwhelming, frightening, and even discouraging, especially when no one else seems to think the system is broken. The question I’ve been asked often throughout the past year is where should a teacher start?  I’ve thought about this a fair amount, and I think small strategic steps are the key:

1)  Start with creating one inquiry unit in one subject.  You can jump in and change everything at once like I did, but that’s slightly crazy.  However, if you design one unit in one subject, at the end of each day, or week, you can analyze what worked and what didn’t. While teaching doesn’t always leave a lot of time for luxuries like reflection, it really is the key to figuring out inquiry learning, and as the teacher, it’s one of your most important roles.

Sometimes you may not understand why certain things aren’t working. Ask your students. I’m often surprised by how much they know and how adept they are at articulating what they need.

Two of the best resources I’ve found for creating an inquiry classroom are Carol Kuhlthau’s work and Alberta Learning’s Guide to Inquiry Learning

If you don’t know how to create an inquiry classroom, ask me. Press the contact tab on the top of this post, and ask whatever questions you may have.  I’m happy to help. If you need resources, I can probably point you to some.

2) Talk to your students about their learning — a lot.  Especially in the beginning, I talk to my students about why my classroom is structured differently than every other class in our school.  I show them Ken Robinson’s talk about how the 20th C. school system doesn’t really prepare students anymore.  I also show them Chris Lehmann’s TED-x talk emphasizing how education is broken and Karl Fisch’s Did you Know?.

I tell my students that essentially I’m preparing them for jobs that don’t currently exist, that will use technology which hasn’t been invented yet, to fix problems we’re not currently aware of.  How do I do that?  They get the point.  It’s about developing skills, and we use content to do that.

But I also talk to my student’s about stuff like how their brain works, and how neural connections need to be made. That often for students to learn, it has to be attached to things they already know.  The last week of school, before break, we talked about cognitive dissonance and Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development.  They like to know there’s a reason for the way they feel when they don’t “get it”.  And they like to know that everyone’s zone of development is different.  In fact, they were amazed to find out everyone’s brain is different.

And, yes, I use the big words. I simply explain what they mean. I don’t use them to sound smart. I use them because it makes my students feel smart; most of our society doesn’t treat our students like they’re capable of understanding or doing much. I do.

3) Embed technology in ways that are authentic to the learning process. The first tools that I teach my students are Google Docs, Diigo or delicious to bookmark their research, and Symbaloo to house their tools.

Experience has taught me that the first day I introduce a class to Google docs, we will get nothing done. To them, it’s the most amazing thing ever.  They usually spend most of the class typing back and forth to each other in the doc. No big deal. However, eventually, my students open Google docs without me telling them to. I have students who literally use them for every lab, essay, and assignment.  And the ability for a group to work on and edit the same document at the same time, more than makes up for the initial class we lose.

The social media tools we used to show our learning in our slavery unit seemed like the most natural and logical tools to use.  As a classroom, we want our learning to extend beyond the four walls of our classroom. So we have a discussion, or likely multiple discussions, about what that should look like. We also want our projects to have “real world” implications.  What’s more real world than advocacy against modern-day slavery using social media?

Essentially these are the two criteria we use to assess the product we’re going to create. How do we extend our learning beyond, our classroom and how can what we’re doing here make a difference to the real world?  Our tools are the natural out working of these.

4) Remember that inquiry learning is an emotional process. Each stage of learning has specific emotions attached to it, and at some point, you will likely hit the wall.  That’s normal.

I’ve found that we need to talk more as an inquiry class. My role is to be well aware of how my students are doing emotionally, especially when we’re dealing with a weighty, overwhelming topic like slavery.  While this may not matter much in a traditional classroom, it can completely blow apart an inquiry one.

I won’t promise you that any of this will be easy. It’s not. You’ll likely have days when you wonder why you ever started it. But trust me, it’s worth it. Take the challenge.

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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5 Responses to A New [Year’s] Challenge: start with small strategic steps

  1. Ted Green says:

    I really appreciate how you have broken down the challenge to shift the way we think about and approach learning. Four steps in approaching a deep transformation make this seem less daunting. The video is a wonderful illustration of an authentic learning process in action.

  2. Thanks, Ted. I think if teachers can see that inquiry isn’t as big and scary as it might seem, they might be more willing to give it a shot!

  3. Marilyn Pavier says:

    WOW! Your explanations of learning for the future is so powerful. I am excited to try to create learning opportunities where students are engaged in work that is relevant to their current lives building capacity for the future. Project based learning or passion based learning units enable feelings of excitement. Thank you for sharing how to begin and showing the possibilities of where it is possible to go.
    i particularly like your analogy that
    you are preparing you students for jobs that don’t currently exist, that will use technology
    which hasn’t been invented yet, to fix problems that we currently are not aware of.

  4. Kathleen Tsakiris says:

    I love this line, ” I think the most valuable skill my students have acquired is the ability to learn, unlearn, and re-learn.” I think the most valuable skillI I can develop as a teacher is the desire to learn, unlean, and relearn as well. Thanks for the inspiring video and the luscious links. I feel encouraged that some of the “contained chaos” in my classroom may actually be good for my student’s future.

  5. Pingback: Weekly Learning Links 1.29.12 | Teaching & Learning at Trinity

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