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Learning through Inquiry

What I learned during my students' inquiry
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Awhile ago… a long while now… I posted about how one day I walked into my English 8 class, looked at my students and, feeling suddenly inspired, asked them what they wanted to learn. After much discussion, they came to the consensus that they wanted to learn “how people find happiness in the darkest of places.” So we did.

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(Photo Credit: Milos Milosevic. 2010.)

While they researched and took notes and discussed and synthesized their information, I learned along side them but my inquiry was more like, “how can I make sure they learn the curriculum when I’ve just given them control?”

The main learning my students offered me is that there is a distinct difference between giving students the liberty to go in many directions and scaffolding them to move in a purposeful direction with confidence.

The idea of direction rather than goal is supremely important; this is part of valuing the process rather than the product. When we began this journey none of us knew the destination. We had a question, our prior knowledge, resources, and energy. We did not know what the answer would be.

The question came from discussion about what they found most intriguing about a novel we had just read. To arrive at the actual words, we discussed and dismissed multiple other topics, drafted a variety of questions in small groups, synthesized these questions by making connections or deletions where they saw fit and, finally, we tweaked the top few questions until we had arrived at “How do people find happiness in the darkest of places?”

Our prior knowledge came in many forms. Our teacher-librarians Arlene Anderson and Lilian Trousdell offered what they know about inquiry (a lot) and took the students through a couple lessons to orient them with the digital resources available to them and the skills to navigate those resources such as how to use citations, understand a URL, take notes, and search efficiently. I offered my students my prior knowledge too, but mine centered more on skills involved in summarizing an article, synthesizing ideas, reflecting on their thinking, engaging in discussions, moving discussions forward, developing their ideas more deeply, and communicating their findings. My students’ also turned to one another’s prior knowledge; many of them offered stories of their personal dark places and relationships with happiness.

We relied on one another, our colleagues (thank you to Shelley Wright) the library and teacher-librarians, our families, the Internet, magazines, newspapers and novels as resources.

I will do all of the above again.

Here is what I will do differently next time:

  • Map the learning objectives more clearly for my students along the way
  • Have them reflect throughout the journey more often and in a more formalized way (perhaps blogging)
  • Run more frequent “formal” mini-lessons with small groups of students as the need arises
  • Anticipate students’ learning needs better ahead of time
  • Teach group-learning skills more directly and assess them
  • Avoid calendar issues which cause momentum to lag (in this case, job action and Spring break)

My students have also reflected on this recent experience with inquiry and would like to share their thoughts with you. Please check back next week for their answer to the question, “What is inquiry like?”, and some of their thoughts about how people find happiness in the darkest of places.