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