Saturday, 9 November 2013

Inquiry-Based Learning in a BYOD class

I attended a workshop this summer on Inquiry-Based Learning. It is happening in Kindergarten this year in our school, and it seems to be a fantastic way to engage the students in class. I wanted to bring this approach into my classroom this year. I tried this in a limited way last year, we called it "20% Time". I had heard about this at a Google Summit I attended in Kitchener, and it was very intriguing. So after Grade 6 testing was finished, the last month of school, my students were involved in several projects around the room. Some were instantly engaged in an activity they wanted to pursue, others joined in to something they thought was interesting, but in the end everyone got involved in something. It was difficult for the students at first, because they were so used to being told what they were doing, and what they need to learn.

This year I decided it would have to be a consistent part of my classroom culture if it was going to be successful. It would have to be something we do, an organic part of the learning that goes on in the room. It was hard to understand how it would look, or how it would work, or even if it would work. But I was determined to give it a try.  We created an "Awesome Ideas" board in our room. Students could post ideas here that they would like to do in class.

At first I thought that the whole class should be involved, a project that everyone was excited about. We were reading a book that the class really loved, and I thought they might really enjoy turning it into a play, so I started planting the idea with little hints. It worked, and the whole class has been excited and focused on creating, and practicing their play to perform for others. When we are working on this task everyone is engaged and focused, they are making something that they wanted to do, and they are naturally interested, as it is their own creation.

Engaging the whole class doesn't always work though. It is a group of students with many different interests, so they will naturally gravitate towards different things. I decided to create a space in the room for their ideas, so we could put them up for everyone to see. I initially thought this would spur everyone on to the same idea, but instead it helped me. I began to see that they have different ideas, that are all really great ideas. This was when I began to realize that my model of an Inquiry-Based class would have to change.

With their own devices at school, and the internet at their fingertips, students are starting to realize just how quickly they can learn about something they are interested in. We have spent time learning how to search effectively to find the information we want.

Two girls came in from recess and asked if they could do some research on berries they had found at recess. I let them slip off to work on it, as they were willing to share their results with the class. They came back, and asked if they could speak to the Principal. It turns out that the berries are poisonous and the girls saw younger students playing near them. They were concerned, thinking they might be poisonous. They presented their information to the Principal, backing up their argument with the research they had done on the internet.

On Friday, our class was working together on something that I thought everyone would be engaged in. However, there were three boys at the back of the room who were not. They're currently interested in slingshots, and had created a model out of paper clips and elastics. My first instinct was to tell them to put them into their backpacks and pay attention to the lesson. I realized that they still wouldn't be engaged in what I was teaching. How do I get them to work, and to learn something?

"Those are actually pretty cool, I like the design of them. Would you like to write a blog post about how you designed and built them?" Three excited faces nodded. Off they went, and they were focused until the lunch bell rang. Next week I think they might want to learn how the slingshot has been used throughout history. They could be researching on the internet, reading about a topic that is a high interest topic for them, analyzing information and deciding what to share with others about slingshots. A well placed question might get them researching how the Aboriginals in Canada used slingshots and that might lead to the other weapons that were typically used.

It is hard to take a step back and give up some of the control. I have always been the voice at the front of the class, sharing knowledge, inventing fun and interesting ways to try to get everyone involved in the lesson. Now I am beginning to realize that there are 24 people in our room with great ideas, and varying areas of interest. As we learn about all the great things that catch our interest, my role is to ensure that we still cover the curriculum. I am still the leader and I still have a vision of where we need to get to, but there is more than one path we can take, and as Robert Frost wrote:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


  1. Hey Scott -Sounds like your students are very engaged and actively learning! Whoot!Whoot! Two thoughts that might help you continue to support their inquiry-minds:
    1. WRDSB Virtural Library - a great alternative to 'googling' for information. Starting with Britiannica provides pre-vetted websites as well as reference material, articles, photos, videos etc.
    2. I tweeted out a Harvard link around supporting students to develop those thicker, inquiry questions. Here is the link for Question Formulation Technique...
    Happy Questioning :)