by Peter Douglas
Sometimes inquiry based teaching leads you. You're just along for the ride, so to speak. I wanted to give my students some freedom to suggest ideas for our next inquiry. They had been working hard and producing wonderful pieces but I had some curriculum to address and had guided our last couple of inquiries. We opened up a discussion around that great debate topic, 'Should There be Zoos?'. We filled a board with possible inquiry questions. Then, a bit of magic. One of my students asked a truly great question: "Why doesn't our town have an outdoor ice surface?" And we were off!
We began by researching everything we could about outdoor ice pads. We looked at sample rinks, explored ice making equipment, examined building costs and generally built a rich background knowledge about what goes into constructing outdoor rinks.
Next, we broke up into groups and completed a series of exploration rotations on key components. Each group was responsible for researching their topic, reporting back to the class and moving forward to a proposal to our local town council. We felt we needed to be really convincing and serious, or nothing would come of it and so we set up a production that would include all kinds of reports. Budget, construction types, surveys of local successfully operating rinks and finally, models to show town council. We each wrote letters to our councilors and included a bound book of spreadsheets, photos and research. Then, we phoned the mayor.
Our mayor visited the class, listened to the students' presentations, watched some commercials we made, and then addressed the group. He was excellent, relating how the council goes about making such serious decisions, how a budget is created and what was the responsibility of the petitioners to council. And then he did a truly amazing thing. He promised he would return in one month's time to talk about the possibility of establishing a rink!
At the next meeting, the local papers sent reporters and the ball was now truly rolling. The mayor brought with him plans of the town and discussed possible sites with us. The kids were very respectful, considering how excited they were. The mayor was very realistic, suggesting that the most likely scenario was the least expensive option we had outlined. More importantly, he committed budget money to the upkeep and construction of the rink, once a site had been chosen. Currently, the students are working on their presentation before town council. We are creating a video and have 10 minutes of council time to discuss the process. Amazing!
The whole process really showed the students how democracy responds to the needs and desires of the people. It is a great lesson for the students to learn, one which will hopefully eliminate or reduce cynicism later in life. It was and is, a wonderful experience to watch the kids grow in confidence and civic responsibility.
Inquiry-Based teaching is not daunting. Just do it!
by Peter Douglas
Some of the constant comments we hear after a workshop are that the teachers love the techniques, can't believe how engaged the kids were, and how motivated the students were to complete the explorations. Unfortunately, close on the heels of these positive comments is a tepid suggestion that 'maybe I'll try it next year when I have more time'. The truth is, it's not difficult to make the change from a coverage approach to an inquiry approach.
Start off small. Think of some really neat topic in your curriculum that you enjoy teaching. Ask your class to create a list of questions that they have always wondered about the topic, or ask them to create a mind-map of ideas or questions they associate with the topic. Then, ask them to think of ways you might explore together. You, the teacher, will be learning along with them. (As an aside, I can honestly say that in my classroom we have now tipped the balance: the students end up teaching me more than I teach them on new explorations. After all, there are 27 of them researching and writing, and only one of me.)
Gather some simple materials to get started. Show a few videos, read a few books together, or take a field trip to build some excitement and background knowledge. This gives you lots of time to determine what mini-lessons you might want to include (we are responsible for a curriculum, after all). Now the real fun begins.
Set up some teams or groups in your room and give them fun names. Mix and match like crazy and don't worry about setting up just the right combination. The students will all bring something to the table that is going to build a satisfying whole. Create a rotation of activities that the group can rotate through and make sure of one vitally important element: every group presents their work to the class. The students will feel the excitement of preparing to teach their peers and rise to the challenge, I guarantee it. They may stumble and hesitate, but end result will be that their work has an audience, is appreciated, and is the stepping stone for greater success down the line.
See, it's not that hard. Get started today!