Years ago, toward the end of the school year, I felt like our class was in a rut. I wasn’t sure what we were missing–Autonomy? Inspiration? Creativity? All of the above?
Whatever it was, I decided to do something drastic. I had recently come across a story online of a teacher who encouraged her students to create videos, and it seemed like a great idea to me.
So the next day, I checked out the laptop carts and dived head-long. I told them they had to work in small groups. I told them they could create any commercial they wanted. I might have had slightly more structure than I can recall, but if there was, it wasn’t much. And I stepped back, awaiting the student-centered magic to come to life.
It was bedlam.
Shocked and dismayed at the chaos and the discord and the aimlessness, I cancelled the whole thing the next day.
Today, a small part of me still wants to leave this experience forever buried in the corner of my memory labeled, “I-can’t-believe-you-actually-tried-that.”
But the rest of me knows that our failures are rich with learning opportunities. It reminds me of a teacher’s remarks during a PD session on inquiry this fall in which she expressed a wish to hear more about inquiry attempts that have crashed and burned. So, having come a long way since then (I hope!), I think I’m ready to finally retrieve that memory from its dark recesses and shed light and learning on it instead.
Here are 5 major elements that I now realize I was missing:
2. Metacognition. While I had always wanted my students to take more ownership over their learning, I had never explicitly taught them to consider their own thinking processes. I appreciated Trevor MacKenzie’s (@trev_mackenzie) recent article about bringing inquiry into the classroom in which he describes how he sought out metacognition in the inquiry process with his students with the visual below:
“Students should feel connected to their learning, certain about how to plan their inquiry, and comfortable with its responsibility. The Types of Student Inquiry structure our coursework and learning in a gradual release of control model, one where students learn essential inquiry skills throughout the year rather than being thrown into the deep end of the inquiry pool right away.
Each of my students has a copy of the swimming pool illustration above, and it hangs on our classroom wall.”
I had undoubtedly thrown us all into the deep end without equipping my students with proper ownership over their own inquiry skills/processes.
3. Scaffolding. Mackenzie’s diagram is a great representation of the scaffolding I was missing; there was certainly no gradual release of control. One inquiry teacher who I find does a great job of scaffolding is Taryn Bondclegg. Her class blog, Risk & Reflect, is packed with examples; a recent instance that stood out was when she introduced back-channeling to her fourth graders. You’ll notice how they “tested out back channeling in a low stakes way” before diving into her ultimate purpose of using it during read aloud time.
4. Questions. Beyond general supervision and feedback, neither my students nor I had any driving questions to help them ponder, fine-tune, or reflect. I now know the critical role powerful questions play during provocations, wrap-ups, visible thinking routines, and just about everywhere else in an inquiry-driven classroom.
5. Skills. We had never made movies in my class before. None of us had the slightest familiarity with the movie-making software on our laptops. And while I have a lot of confidence in my students’ ability to independently figure out much of technology, it was simply too open-ended and complex for my fifth graders to handle, especially when combined with the general lack of structure. Another one of Kath Murdoch’s visuals of the phases of inquiry illustrates many other skills in the inquiry learning process that we neglected: finding out, sorting out, synthesizing, reflecting, and more (I highly recommend exploring her blog and other resources here).
As much of a train-wreck as this activity was, it was the beginning of my journey toward becoming a more inquiry-minded teacher, a journey that I am still on today. The experience taught me that increased student ownership requires much more purpose, structure, and nuance than I had realized. So, however naïve, I’m grateful that I took that first leap, laying the groundwork for more deliberate future attempts.
Do you have any stories of inquiry fails that you learned from to share? Please do in the comments!
featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto
4 Replies to “That Time I Failed At Inquiry: 5 Missing Elements”
Fantastic post Mary! When we share our classroom with such an honest and reflective voice amazing things happen. Surely your audience gleans from your tinkering and trying on what’s best for your learners. But you, with your own meta cognitive lens and careful prose return to your practice with something new, something more refined, and something your learners will benefit from. Kudos. I’ll check in here for more of your reflections in the future!
Thanks so much, Trevor! That is definitely my goal. And thanks for sharing your blog link–I look forward to learning more from one another!
This is great Mary! Inquiry is hard; it takes so much preparation on the part of the teacher. Every minute of the lesson needs to be thought out. Each of the elements in the post is critical. If one or more are missing, the teacher ends up working harder than the students and little is gained. I have learned over the years that preparing a class for a high level of inquiry starts the first day of school by giving the students simple tasks and focusing on the process they are going through rather than the outcomes There is a lot of stopping and directing the students to think about their own thinking, reflecting on their attitudes, and assessing their own work ethic. This happens literally every 5 minutes in the beginning. In the end, the payoff is remarkable and the students experience learning in a way that cannot be duplicated by listening to me talk.
Thanks for stopping by, Barry! I absolutely agree that it starts the first day of school–often, students have a lot of “unlearning” to do as they have become convinced that school is just about guessing what’s in the teacher’s head and giving the “right” answer. It’s tough to convince them they really can take their learning into their own hands, so the gradual release is important to help them approach that responsibility deliberately and seriously.