Sunday, July 01, 2007

Inquiry based learning requires both student and teacher skill

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Student research presentation year 7/8. Mathematics theme.

Inquiry, or problem or project based, learning is an ideal approach to teaching and learning but it is not always easy to implement. Several factors have to be taken into consideration if inquiry learning is to become a central method of teaching in your class or school.

The first thing to consider is that teachers will not be able to cover as much content as is 'normal' practice. This is possibly more a concern for secondary school subject specialists. Teachers at all levels need to think that 'less is more', to 'do fewer things well' ; to teach in depth focusing on the important 'big' ideas in any curriculum area.

Then there is a need to consider the expertise of the students.

Teachers will need to think about how much they want students to be involved and how capable their students are.

Good advice is to introduce autonomy in stages depending on the students' experience. For students with basic skills issues it may be necessary to introduce more direct instruction during the project or to design shorter projects. Primary teachers can teach necessary research and presentation skills in the language programme, while secondary teachers will need to develop student expertise in information research etc.

You may also want to select a topic to start with that you are familiar with. Some teachers might want to leave project work until later in the year until their students are taught the necessary skills but, possibly, the best way is to learn the skills in the process. Students might need prior experience in co-operative learning, how to research, and how to present their findings. Until such self management 'competencies' are in place teachers will find their time to taken up 'managing' to teach their students.

For students to gain success in project work teachers need to see their role as a 'learning coach' or adviser helping students 'shape' their projects and to ensure in depth thinking is occurring. Project work failed in the past because it too often degenerated into decorative 'busy work' - or today mindless cutting and pasting from websites or, less than thoughtful, 'glitzy' PowerPoint's.

Many of the above decisions will also depend on the confidence and skills of the teachers concerned. Teachers will have to develop considerable diagnostic skills to observe what students need and then to 'scaffold' help, or provide 'feedback' ( and 'feed-forward'), as required by individuals or groups.

To to gain the time to work alongside students in need ( to help or challenge) consideration needs to be given to classroom management.

Explicit group tasks ( preferably 'negotiated' with the students) provide a means to focus students. A simple daily group rotation timetable provides security and predictability for both teacher and students. Limiting tasks to four groups allows teachers to find time to focus on whoever needs assistance.

Each group could be focused on different aspects of the project: researching 'key' questions ( possibly using the computer); drafting out their research; developing final presentation ( using whatever medium has been chosen) for display or demonstration to class; and possibly some expressive work based on the study. One group could be working with the teacher, who might want to share ideas or challenge student thinking about the 'big ideas' being introduced. Primary teachers already use such a group organisation in their reading and maths programmes. Once students become used to the organisation group work become easier and opportunities for the teacher to interact and assist more focused.

The above covers a number of teacher decision and choices.

Good advice is to, at first, control planning of tasks and organisations and to pass such responsibility over to students as their (and their teachers) skills develop.

Secondary schools, with their tradition of their specialist subject teaching, provide other challenges.

Inquiry, or project based learning, requires that students access knowledge from whatever subject discipline required. Presuming that a school has taken the decision to introduce teacher collaboration and integrated inquiry learning a number of decisions need to be made.

At first a theme (e.g Our Environment) could be selected and each specialist teacher could develop appropriate activities in their subject area classroom. Teachers could at least plan the theme chosen collaboratively sharing expertise and ideas, but it would be all too easy to return to their classrooms and carry on as usual.

A better approach is to access a block of time and for teachers to share the planning of a theme ( e.g Change and Technology) assisting students as required. At first two different subject teachers might combine after selecting a theme that includes content from both disciplines.

Ideally project based learning should allow students to access the knowledge and skills of all teachers and for students. It should also allow students to plan ( with input from their teachers and parents) projects ( individual learning programmes 'IEP') to research and then to demonstrate their understanding in some form of final culmination.

The various units of the New Zealand National Certificate of Education (NCEA) have the flexibility to be integrated into such inquiry projects.

One New Zealand Secondary School has regular three day integrated units which all teacher and students involve themselves in planning and teaching and alternate this with 'normal' programmes. This would seem an ideal way to develop confidence and skill in inquiry learning for both teachers and students?

At the heart of inquiry learning is the the teachers ability to support and assist students to achieve superior products or outcomes. The best model is for teachers to learn alongside their students.

Once teachers gain experience with an inquiry approach to teaching and learning then who knows what exciting developments might 'emerge'. In secondary schools new learning orientated cultures, structures and organisations may need to 'evolve' and in the primary area a new appreciation of the power of personal interest and curiosity might replace an over emphasis on basic skills.

Inquiry, or project based learning, has the potential transform schools as we know them.

So far it is more rhetoric than reality - but the ideas offers an opportunity for creative teachers, and schools, to take centre stage in the educational debate, and to develop schools as a true 21st Century inquiry based 'learning communities'.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are so right. Whenever you try something different you need to do a better job than those around you - your success might even be seen as a threat by your more traditional colleages. It pays to go slowly, as you suggest, gaining confidence as you go.