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Exploring Big Questions

St. Anne’s inquiry-based learning community

When St. Anne School (grades K-8, Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools) introduced inquiry-based learning a little more than two years ago, it turned things around for a school whose student population had been steadily shrinking. Students still study some subjects as discrete units in the morning; in the afternoon they form small groups to investigate a “big question,” then present their learning to other students. Inquiry-based learning has brought about a collaborative relationship among students and between students and teachers, and parents remark on how this has rekindled their children’s zest for learning.

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Saskatoon parent Megan Babyak remembers when her children brought home report cards stating “no conference required.” The children had no obvious academic or behavioural problems, so there was no need to talk to the teacher.

Even so, her oldest son, Marek, described by Babyak as “the kind of kid who wants to know how everything works,” had lost interest in school. His parents found this alarming, so last year they transferred Marek – now in Grade 6 – and his siblings Burke (Grade 4) and Audra (Grade 2) to St. Anne School.

The Babyaks had “heard good things” about St. Anne, a K-8 school within the Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools (GSCS). In 2011, the school had moved to inquiry-based learning, a change that recharged the learning environment and involved parents more deeply and expansively than before. Though they knew little about the inquiry method, the Babyaks marveled at how all three children began to thrive.

Students “really have ownership of St. Anne,” says Babyak. “The whole learning philosophy is based on sharing ideas and working together and just supporting each other.” For example, her youngest child knows older students in other grades and can describe their projects. Babyak now regularly attends school events, including teacher conferences, and volunteers to read with students.

The school day embraces both open-ended inquiry and structured learning on core subjects. Teachers promote a climate of collaboration that encourages learning by students across grade levels. The new focus came after almost a decade of declining enrolment at a school with about ten percent First Nations and Métis students and 25 percent from outside Canada.

When Darren Fradette arrived as principal four years ago, enrolment was projected to slip further to 140 students. But this year the school population rose to 210 students. That’s due in part to significant population growth in Saskatoon. But the enrolment uptick is also driven by families like the Babyaks who, taking advantage of Saskatoon’s open-enrolment policy, have been attracted to St. Anne’s particular learning environment.

The changes at St. Anne came as the GSCS was looking to strengthen its pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten early learning programs, which include inquiry-based learning as a core element.

Serendipity played a role too.

The office for the Catholic board’s early learning coordinator, Bonnie Mihalicz, was located in a vacant classroom at St. Anne. Informal conversations between her and Fradette led to a formal proposal for inquiry-based learning in Kindergarten up to Grade 2. When school staff joined the planning process, they lobbied to include all grades. In support, the board allowed release time to facilitate staff planning. Consistent with the school’s recognition of parents as partners, parents were deeply involved in the deliberations through their school council.

In fall 2011, St. Anne introduced inquiry learning on a school-wide basis. The day begins with what Fradette terms “explicit teaching”: blocks of math, guided reading, physical education and religion. Afternoons are quite different: blocks of time are labeled simply “inquiry.”

“When you’re engaged in these authentic [inquiry] learning opportunities, it’s hard to say ‘put away your science and take out your language arts,’ because the science is the language arts oftentimes,” Fradette explains. A “big question” forms the core of an inquiry unit and students, in small groups, decide what they want to learn, what sources they’ll consult for answers and how they want to present their own learning.

In Lorie Newberry’s Grade 1-2 class this past year, the question was: “Where do we hear rhythm in our world?” Students explored environmental music, The Blue Man Group and stomp, poetry, drumming and beatboxing, and presented a rhythmic performance at a school assembly for their finished product. Students in St. Anne’s upper grades probed big questions such as, “What are my rights and responsibilities as a concerned citizen in regards to living conditions of First Nations people?” and “How do natural occurrences and human behaviour affect self, society, and the environment?”

Beyond content, inquiry-based learning as practised at St. Anne accommodates individual differences, including students with learning disabilities. “All students have a talent in some area,” observes teacher Carol Engel. When her Grade 3-4 students decided to write stories about medieval times, “They did reading together, they did research together, they buddied up and worked together,” she says. “So you can meet a lot of needs that way.”

By design, the new program encourages a respectful, open relationship among students, staff and parents. Students present their learning to their teachers and grade-level peers, to other grades and to parents. The collaborative atmosphere has resulted in a sharp reduction in behavioural issues referred to the office, says Fradette. “We also see kids teaching kids.”

What do the students think?

“It’s way easier because instead of raising your hand every time you have a question, you can ask a group member,” says Grade 4 student Sam Fritz. He entered St. Anne in Grade 3 after attending a school where he was “bored and not having a lot of fun,” says his mother, Heather Fritz. In Sam’s mind, she says, “Teachers were there for discipline and for handing out work.” At St. Anne he has regular conversations with his teachers. “I think it’s given him confidence in dealing with adults across the board,” says Fritz.

When Cristin Sawchuk’s daughter, Ella, was in Kindergarten, she proudly told her mother that her teacher had called her a scientist. “From the very beginning, these little Kindergartners were being treated like real learners,” says Sawchuk.

For their part, teachers regularly share with each other what is going on in their classrooms. “You share ideas, you build on ideas, and it develops into something greater than you could do on your own,” says Newberry. “It kind of opens up that classroom door and looks at a community of educators, versus just a teacher in a classroom trying to get the work done.”

Engel, a teacher for 23 years, believes the school’s new approach to teaching and learning will pay dividends for students. They “are going to be really great at working with others and being collaborative partners,” she says. “I think they’ll be really good at questioning things, thinking deeply and knowing how to share their learning.”

The school’s enthusiastic embrace of inquiry-based learning has impressed Joanne Weninger, a superintendent of education with responsibility for St. Anne and 12 other schools, plus child care and early learning. “Every time I go there, I’m amazed at what they’re doing… It’s at a point, and I’m really happy to say it, where I could move Darren and the school would sustain the program.” This is critical, she notes, because parents have a right to expect that the learning environment will be sustained year after year, regardless of staff changes.

Adding to the sense of momentum at St. Anne, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Education last spring licensed a nonprofit organization committed to early learning and inquiry to operate a 30-space daycare in the school.

“I’m starting to see that this isn’t just a Kindergarten-to-Grade 8 school,” says. Fradette. ”This is an 18-month-to-Grade 8 inquiry-based learning environment.”

Photo: Courtesy of St. Anne School

First published in Education Canada, November 2013

 

EN BREF - Instauré depuis un peu plus de deux ans à l’école St. Anne (maternelle à 8e année, Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools), l’apprentissage par investigation a transformé cette école dont les effectifs d’élèves diminuent constamment. Le matin, les élèves étudient encore certaines matières en tant qu’unités distinctes; l’après-midi, ils forment de petits groupes et font des recherches sur une « grande question », puis présentent leurs apprentissages à d’autres élèves. L’apprentissage par investigation a engendré une relation de collaboration entre les élèves, ainsi qu’entre les élèves et leurs enseignants. Les parents déclarent que cette façon de faire a ravivé le goût d’apprendre chez leurs enfants.