Meeting with Colleagues and Experiencing the Demonstration Classroom
By Peter Douglas
Louise and I have been very busy in the past few weeks as we roll out the demonstration classroom, thanks to our TLLP project. Teachers from around our board were invited to come spend the morning with us and experience our class in action. Our project budget allowed for supply teachers to free up our guests and it was therefore a relaxed and fun morning of joining the kids and later talking about the experience. Our colleagues arrived in groups of two to four over a number of days and the format was simple: Introduction to Inquiry-based learning, join the students in the classroom in action and ask questions of the kids while circulating, return to have a small group discussion, a presentation of work from the students, followed by a question and answer period (with the students), and finally an open-ended exchange of ideas.
I was very impressed with the level of enthusiasm the guest teachers exhibited. It was exciting to see the students engage so maturely with the adults as they shared their honest feelings about the inquiry process. Because we are so completely sold on this learning method, it was not difficult to talk about our successes and challenges. Alleviating the concerns about inquiry-based teaching was helped along by all of the good work the students presented and the caring concern they showed each other. After that, it was more a matter of helping the teachers see how they could implement the techniques in their classroom rather than convincing them it was a solid system.
Many teachers are hesitant to adopt a new format without seeing it in action. It was suggested that we 'take the show on the road' and offer to visit fellow teachers at their schools and help them get started. We are pursuing this goal with our board administrators for next year.
Teachers found it fascinating to see how well the students effectively used technology. Whether it was the comfort level of the students using modern tools or the creativity of the presentations that resulted, the feeling amongst the guests was that a skillful use of modern learning tools created a basis for dynamic learning. I felt it important to point out that any inquiry-based classroom is surely to benefit from good use of tech but that it wasn't a requirement. Asking great questions and working in a group do not rely on technical aids. What does help is the creative use of visually rich presentations. This can occur with or without tech.
Implementing Technology - Don't Worry, It All Works Out in the End
by Peter Douglas
Too much imagination can be a killer. I always over-think when we implement a new piece of technology into our classroom. What if it doesn't work? How do we connect it to our exploration? Did we waste our money? Is it just sitting on the shelf? Worries like these are what keep you from trying new things and adopting new tech. Our experience is that after an initial burst of enthusiasm for the new equipment, there's an awkward stage in which we try to graft it to our program, and finally, it becomes a regular tool for student learning. It's almost always the same progression, so why worry? It all works out in the end.
When we first bought a set of iPod touches, the kids went crazy with them. We were using Tony Vincent's blog on 'Learning in Hand', downloading all kinds of apps, struggling with printers and moving files, and generally sifting through what works and what doesn't. Then, after all of the processes and procedures had been mostly worked out, they just became a natural tool in the kids' hands. No longer a flashy, dazzly, shouty new toy, the iPod Touch became a work-a-day communication tool. Still fun, but more functional.
Next, we did some fundraising and purchased ten iPads. These went through an almost identical progression from newfangled toy to functional workhorse. The sizzle dies down, people relax, and the real learning-by-doing begins. I think it's always been the same. I can remember my first calculator being about the size and weight of a brick and spending hours transfixed by it's magical calculation power. How many hours of my life did I spend exploring computers when new innovations came along? Now, the laptop is a household appliance, almost as common as a toaster.
I'll never forget my first year with a Smartboard. The kids went crazy with all the buttons, made the most ridiculous flashy projects just for the pure joy of trying all the gee-whiz features, and predictably, settled down and used it for the wonderful tool that it is. Learning curves are steep when implementing new tech, but the effort is always worth it. Twenty-first century learners become adept at exploring features and fearlessly pushing buttons. My students can't wait to try new equipment and surprise me with the innovative ways they find to implement it into their project work. Boldly go, I say.
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!