Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Inquiry in the Classroom

So far, I have tried many different strategies for creating a higher level of inquiry among my students. Project based learning provided multiple opportunities for the students to routinely be engaged in the inquiry process.  I ran across some valuable information from Kathy G. Short from University of Arizona where she shares several years worth of research regarding "Inquiry as a stance on curriculum." She states, "Inquiry is not a particular teaching method, a refinement of project approaches or theme units but a stance that underlies our approach to living as learners, both within and outside of school." Inquiry occurs when the students can make connections to what they are learning and relate it to their own personal lives and experiences where they combine "uncertainty and invitation."  It was stated with uncertainty comes questions to explore and with invitation comes the courage to seek answers. It is the "why" and "what if" and can be a stance of being "off balance." Short explains, "A life of balance involves staying perfectly still in the same place- in that comfortable rut, and reaching out for answers occurs because there is a driving force that compels learners to move forward to pursue new insights and unities."  Project-based learning creates an opportunity for all students to take a guiding question that is written in such a way that gives them the "need-to-know" that they can explore and investigate as they construct their own understanding.

It made so much sense when Kathy Short shared how a teacher's approach is to create instruction based on how people should learn with the question of "How do I teach Inquiry?" In the beginning, this is the exact approach that I took when looking for ways to strengthen and develop inquiring minds.  During research I learned that I should take a different approach with the question, "How do I and others inquire?"  Inquiry is a natural process, and once it is explored as to how this occurs then we can approach the ways in which to involve the students in such a learning environment that foster this: planning lessons in which contain a conceptual framework (for relevance and to engage), questions are asked that lead to divergent thinking, you serve as a guide through the learning process, ask the "why" and "What is your evidence" questions, and formative assessment is ongoing.

Inquiry begins with the learners' own experiences and understandings and without any connection to what is being learned, the information is forgotten.  When I chose the topic of civil rights for project based learning, I knew that it needed to be part of the 5th grade curriculum that involved humanity.  This was a topic that they could all relate to and bring in some experience and prior knowledge.  But before beginning the project, we began with a discussion about fairness and what it meant to them.  In their own words, they wrote their ideas in their reflection journals and made an immediate connection to what it meant to be fair and how they had demonstrated this in their lives.  They also shared examples of times when they experienced situations that were unfair.  Kathy Short supported this approach by saying that sometimes we have to move beyond the topic for significant connections to be made by the learner.  She gave examples that involved students exploring experiences of moving place to place instead of jumping right in and covering immigration patterns around the world.  She further states how units of inquiry need to begin with a conceptual frame, not the topic, for the students to make a connection to their own lives.  Civil Rights would be the topic and the concept would involve freedom from unfair treatment.  The students' connection would involve their own personal freedoms and their own experience with fairness.  After exploring the topic of fairness,  I introduced the following guiding question: 

Guiding question:  What can I learn about past civil rights struggles to help solve the issues that still exist?

This actually began the inquiry process and had the students wondering about a current, relevant issue that they needed to explore for problem solving and could relate to from the stand point of fairness.  Because of my focus to incorporate the skills to improve the students' written and oral communication, it didn't affect the conceptual frame of inquiry regarding civil rights.  There was no focus of building knowledge (information in isolation) separate from the conceptual frame. This can easily happen with the teacher's need to cover instructional objectives and "get lost in information" within a project.   The focus always needs to remain on the "why" of the unit.  After much research and personal reflection, this is something that I definitely want to be more intentional about in the classroom. 

Using primary sources (authentic documents, images, videos, etc.)  allowed the students to analyze and provide their own interpretations for understanding different aspects of the civil rights movements as they formulated their own questions for further research.  These were recorded in their reflection journals where they learned about revising for specificity, clarity, and being open-ended for further research. The following are some of the original documents that the students analyzed:

original letters to President Truman to stop segregation of armed forces
original warrant for Rosa Park's arrest
Bus rules before/during the civil rights movement
Pictures of sit-ins, child labor, women marching for voting rights,
newspaper articles about children striking
original document for child labor laws

Videos (click here)  Primary Sources (click here)

After the students explored the civil rights involving child labor, disability, gender, and race, they decided on the specific area in which they wanted to focus their research. The students had to explore the past to problem solve for the future, but some went as far back to the beginning searching for the answer of WHY. For example, one collaborative group wanted to explore WHY there were slaves in the U.S. and began researching the history of slavery in America even though the videos presented to them were only from the civil rights movement.

KWL This is an important part of inquiry in project/problem based learning that I previously reflected on.  I am creating a link here for reference.

Investigation began when exploring different sources as they looked to answer their questions about their chosen topic.  They had to evaluate url's for reliability and websites for validity.  This involved being current and having an author with credentials.  Then they had to draw conclusions from the information that would answer their questions, and from their discoveries, they had to come up with a problem to solve that mattered to them, something worth investigating. In Kathy Short's research, she stated, "One of the most common understandings of inquiry is problem-solving with the vision of the students engaged in research on particular topics of interest related to the class focus." She further stated that teachers often plan projects around a focus deciding what the students will research, but these particular experiences of guided inquiry don't teach them how to find a problem to investigate.  When teachers pose problems for the students to solve, the students aren't asking questions about issues significant in their lives and as a result never fully experience inquiry.

Collaboration As stated in the research presented by Kathy Short, inquiry can come in different forms: personal inquiry (the student poses the problem), guided inquiry (the teacher poses the problem that the student solves), and collaborative inquiry (the student negotiates problem posing and solving within a group).  Collaborative inquiry involves "reaching beyond ourselves and our current understandings where we think together." Within a collaborative group, inquiry takes place in participation regardless of the level of proficiency that each member can contribute. 
Exploration of unknown words in context was required during the research process.   As the students encountered unfamiliar terms during research, they recorded them and included the definition.  They were supposed to do this each time they researched a new website to instill the habit of inquiry as they approached unknown words in context.

Forming a hypothesis about a possible solution to the problem was the next step which lead to further investigation to test the hypothesis or find answers and solutions to the question and/or problem. The investigation lead to the construction of new knowledge based on investigation findings. Reflections were made and more questions were formulated for further investigation. 

Reflections are written and expressed throughout project-based learning but is especially important at the end of an inquiry project. The students in my class wrote a reflection essay after gathering, analyzing, interpreting, and organizing their research. As stated from an article "Supporting Inquiry with Primary Sources" from the Library of Congress, "expression is essential for inquiry learning because when they demonstrate new understanding and share, they solidify their own learning." The following are some samples of 5th grade reflection essays on the research they did on solving the problem of civil rights issues that still exist:

After researching and problem solving their chosen topic,  the students organized their information as they used a technology presentation to share their findings.  During my observation, the students in the role as the audience were very active in questioning when the presenter's thoughts weren't fully developed or were missing important information in the presentation.  One group was questioned about the pros and cons not being the benefits and drawbacks, but instead were presented just as ideas of what they were going to do to achieve as an outcome.  Other questions were just asked out of curiosity where the students in the audience were seeking more information.  The students seemed so genuinely involved as they asked specific questions about the presentations.  I actually had to limit the questions to make time for other presentations that followed.   The following are some samples of the technology presentations on civil rights:


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