As our students create, explore, learn and grow, they are discovering the world around them as well as who they are, as individuals. Through each choice they select, mistake they make and alternative point of view they encounter, our children learn what makes them, them! The more opportunities we give our little ones to explore their interests, the more their spirits are nurtured and soon they emerge as their authentic, true selves. As the year is drawing to an end, we have been so lucky to have witnessed over 40 different personalities take shape and grow. As Spring brings new light to our days, it also brings with it the development of our little ones’ identities. And so with this post, I bring you some of the experiences that took us through our Spring months when we were not involved in our other inquiries. Some of the experiences may be small but they still played roles in developing our students’ personalities along their journeys.
“How do you start an inquiry project?”
I get a lot of questions about how an inquiry project starts. To address these questions, I will explain my own understanding of inquiry-based learning while utilizing one of the best pieces on this approach to teaching and learning that I have ever come across from the Ontario Ministry of Education (find the whole article here).
I think many educators are intimidated or at least, not totally ‘sold’ on the idea of inquiry-based learning because they have the misconception that inquiries always start and are fully led by the students, themselves. “How do students know what’s best for them to learn and know? How can they learn the basics in an unstructured environment” they ask. While the students do have a lot of involvement in the planning and executing of an inquiry, it is the job of the educator to teach and model for them, the tools they need to successfully move through an inquiry project. These tools include: how to contribute and extend others’ ideas, how to formulate good questions and in essence, how to take those ideas and questions and move into the investigative stage. The educator, then, is not taking – by any means – a passive role and the environment is not unstructured, just differently structured. The educator plays an active role, creating a classroom culture where ideas and questions triumph as “central currency” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013). As the educator acknowledges and praises students for presenting deep questions and in turn, creates an environment where students come to love learning, she simultaneously assists students in moving from a position of wondering to a position of understanding and further questioning, sending the message that learning is a lifelong pursuit. It should be stressed that inquiry-based learning does not mean the absence of longstanding teaching approaches like explicit instruction of skills and knowledge not naturally acquired through student-guided explorations. It just means that there is a combination of these approaches along with small group and guided learning in order to best support students in moving forward in their inquiry ventures.
Throughout these inquiry projects, the educator, with her expertise of the curriculum, is able to locate and pull out curriculum expectations from the children’s investigations. So – in response to those original questions often asked by educators – the students are able to explore topics and problems that mean something to them while the educator ensures aspects of the curriculum are being covered (bonus: students’ wonders often exceed curriculum expectations!). This is not as difficult as it sounds, especially when the educator focuses on the “big ideas” found within the curriculum and picks up on students’ interests or questions that, if explored further, would likely lead to the achievement of overall curriculum goals (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013).
It’s important to understand that inquiry-based learning is not letting go of the class and allowing complete self-direction by the students. After all, “Students’ thinking can be limited when confined to their own experiences. Educators have the privilege of introducing students to ideas that do not emerge spontaneously and from discovery alone, and similarly, they must assume the role of helping children notice things that would not otherwise be seen” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013). Therefore, sometimes this means that the educator may also be involved in the initial ‘sparking’ of an inquiry project by presenting the students with topics, questions or materials that could potentially grab the interests of the students and give them some direction for their next set of wonders and investigations. Educators “play the role of “provocateur,” finding creative ways to introduce students to ideas and to subject matter that is of interest to them and offers “inquiry potential” or promise in terms of opportunities for students to engage in sustained inquiry of their own” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013). The idea is to keep things as open-ended as possible and to allow the students to interact with new stimuli in their own unique ways. The educator may assume that by presenting particular “sparks” the inquiry will unfold in a certain way. However, most often it never quite evolves as the educator imagines and the children end up swaying the inquiry in unexpected directions according to their interests, backgrounds or strengths in abilities.
The Birth of our Winter & Polar Inquiry
Encouraging Thinking About Winter
After coming back from Winter Vacation, we found that the students just needed some time to relax and get back into their routines at school. There wasn’t a whole lot of burning questions or major wondering going on at first. Instead of waiting, we offered some new learning centers and invitations to play that we suspected would get them back into their “investigative” frame of thinking. We knew that “Whether inquiry begins with the student, teacher or a shared classroom experience, what matters most is that the initial query sparks student interest and provides the opportunity and resources for in-depth student investigations” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013). Since we had quite a bit of snow now (as opposed to before Christmas), we decided to work with the topic of “snow” and see where it took us.