“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.
One of my greatest passions as an educator is inspiring creativity and the love to create in my students. The Arts have long been shown to have significant effects on the positive development of many other important domains, including the cognitive and emotional areas.
Research on the benefits of engagement in the Arts on children reveals the following (Upitis, 2011):
– Development of self-regulation skills: Due to engaging in the arts involving paying attention, using feedback, problem solving, taking risks, cooperating, and setting goals. Habits of practice, focus and discipline have shown to translate into other activities as well.
– Development of motivation and attention: A heightened sense of motivation from participating in an arts activity means the development of sustained attention needed in other subjects.
– Development of healthy habits of mind: Students who are involved in the arts are usually more co-operative, more willing to display their learning publicly and more likely to view themselves as competent due to an increase of self-confidence from experiencing success in their creativity. Through the arts, students develop habits of mind – such as being confident to express their own thoughts and ideas and to take risks. These habits of mind contribute to the students’ overall views about learning.
– Skills-transfer to other subject areas & overall school engagement: Arts activities involve situations in which there is not one answer, where there are many possible solutions, where ambiguity is exciting and where imagination is valued over rote knowledge. Those who practice the arts may be able to transfer skills related to being in these kinds of situations to other subjects or areas of study and experience academic success. Gains in academic achievement as found in various research studies, may also be due to an overall increased engagement in school by participating in the arts.
– Intrinsic benefits: “The arts are particularly important for experiencing the joy of creating: for making the ordinary special; for enriching the quality of our lives; for developing effective ways of expressing thoughts, knowledge, and feelings; and for developing our humanity” (Upitis, 2011).
For these reasons, many of my “invitations to play” are designed to elicit children’s creativity and to allow them to practice and explore their abilities to create. For a wonderful resource on how an education in the arts assists in the development of the “whole child” (intellectually, socially, emotionally, and physically), please take a look at this Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario document by Dr. Rena Upitis entitled, Arts Education for the Development of the Whole Child.
A Winter Animals Provocation: Our Animals in Winter Shelf!
Madison and I designed this Animals in Winter Shelf as a response to a few of the children’s natural interest in animals that came up within their play and in the books we read related to topics of snow and winter. As I’ve mentioned before, I am very much inspired by the Reggio Emilia philosophy, which involves the careful observation of and listening to children’s wonders and ideas. It is our job as educators, in this way of teaching and learning to recognize and take cues from the children to provide opportunities for them to explore and discover their interests further. This shelf has a level dedicated to a snowy outside environment, a level that could be interpreted as a den, cave or burrow, a section that includes books related to animals in the winter, a section for a basket of animal word cards and a section for writing materials. Although the children had not said a whole lot in the way of animals in winter prior to the creation of this shelf, we took the little bits they did say as a starting point for further discussion and questioning. In essence, this shelf was designed to spark inquiry – and that it did!
As the children played with the shelf materials, there was a lot of discussion over where the animal figurines belonged – on top of the snow (not hibernating) or below the snow (hibernating). I thought about how I would approach this and decided to initially allow the children to play however they wish. I didn’t correct them when they put the owl inside of the burrow or the bear on top of the snow and near the pond. I thought it was important to let them freely explore the new shelf without restricting their creativity or limiting their possibilities. To get them thinking more deeply about what each of the animals do in winter, I decided to approach the subject as a problem for them to solve – this time, approaching inquiry-based learning from an obvious and visible standpoint.
Posing Challenges to Incite Inquiry: A Question on Bears in Winter
I read them the book, “Bear Snores On” by Karma Wilson and we talked about each of the animals that appeared in the book. At the end of the story, I asked them the question, “Do bears hibernate?” I chose this question because I knew most people grow up believing that brown and black bears hibernate in dens all winter long. I wanted to surprise the children and teach them something they probably didn’t know and could become intrigued about. As I suspected, almost all of the children wrote their name under the “yes” box to bears hibernating. Those who wrote their names in both the “yes” and “no” boxes explained it was because polar bears don’t hibernate so it really depended on the kind of bear I was talking about.
After collecting the survey results, I explained that bears (excluding polar bears) don’t actually hibernate in the true sense – they go into “torpor”. This is similar to hibernation but not true hibernation because animals in torpor are not in as deep of a sleep and wake up every so often. Minds were blown by this fact! And there marked the moment where the winter animals portion of our inquiry took on a whole new level.
I thought it was important to teach the children where many Canadian animals go in winter. After learning about the three main types of animal responses to winter, we used animal word cards and sorted them into three different categories: Hibernate (and Torpor), Migrate and Adapt. As we went through the animals, we discussed reasons why each one did what they did in winter. This activity was put out at Thinking and Learning Time afterwards for children who wanted to try the challenge independently or in small groups. As we read more non-fiction books related to this topic, it got easier for the children to sort the animals.
Animals Who Adapt: Presenting the Polar Environments
We watched many short video clips about animals who hibernate or migrate in the winter time. We even watched some clips and read books about how some local animals adapt to winter. However, I knew an effective way to help the children understand animal adaptation to the cold was to teach them about the Poles. There is a beautiful Imax movie called, “To the Arctic” and I thought it was a wonderful way – through the large scenes and simple narration – for them to get a true feeling for what life was like there. So, after reading the book “North: The Amazing Story of Arctic Migration” by Nick Dowson, I allowed them to take in “To the Arctic”. Following the viewing of the movie, I led them through a visual thinking routine called, “See-Think-Wonder”. The Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero website lists this routine as one of the teaching and learning strategies that deepen subject-matter learning and cultivate students’ disposition toward thinking (for more information visit this page). This exercise got students to reflect back on the movie, make thoughtful interpretations and it set the stage for inquiry by stimulating curiosity.
By presenting to the children, the dilemma of the melting ice in the Arctic, students became passionate about this environmentalist concern. I believe children are never too young to be involved in these types of issues. If we view children as competent and capable people, we can open a world of possibilities we otherwise may never have gotten to witness and explore.
It was a natural progression, in talking so much about the Arctic Circle, to also introduce the antarctic circle and the Antarctica. We spent days looking at globes and maps and learning about the North and South (and even the middle – the equator). We also brought in our Space Inquiry knowledge and reasoned why the poles were the coldest parts of the world (due to the position of the earth on it’s axis in relation to the sun).
Where Are We Now?
The children have come such a far way in their understandings and in the Winter & Polar Inquiry since these photos have been taken. I cannot wait to show you where we are at now in the next post. Until then… Happy Winter Learning!
Ontario Ministry of Education (May 2013). Inquiry-based Learning. Capacity Building Series K-12 (Secretariat Special Edition #32). Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/cbs_inquirybased.pdf
Upitis, R. (June 2011). Arts Education for the Development of the Whole Child. Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. Retrieved from http://www.etfo.ca/Resources/ForTeachers/Documents/Arts%20Education%20for%20the%20Development%20of%20the%20Whole%20Child.pdf