Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Primary Students Benefit from Inquiry Learning Too

I wrote this reflection on inquiry learning in primary classrooms after viewing a series of training videos on inquiry learning from http://www.curriculum.org/secretariat/inquiring/ in the context of my primary qualification course with Brock University. These videos are really worth watching! Here are the highlights of four of these videos in the inquiry series.

In the video “Teachers Demonstrate Effective Descriptive Feedback” from the “developing inquiring minds” workshop (http://www.curriculum.org/secretariat/inquiring/ ), two teachers model to their students how to give descriptive feedback to each other about a writing piece on the moon that they wrote and that the students also completed in their writing journal. The students are sitting on the carpet and watch the teachers interact about their writing. Once the teachers have finished providing feedback to each other, they ask the students to share what they have noticed about the feedback process. 
     There are several aspects of this practice that I would definitely use in my primary classroom. I think that modeling to the students is a very effective way to show them what is expected of them. For example, in the video, the teachers are very polite with each other, they take turns speaking and they do not interrupt each other. They use positive words and use “I” statements. This aspect of the lesson is important to show students how a conversation between two people should be like. 
     Also, instead of the teacher telling their students “this is how we should provide descriptive feedback to someone”, the teachers ask the students to share ideas of what they noticed during the class discussion that follows the modeling. This type of inquiry is more engaging to the students, and they will remember better this lesson. 
     The following quote from the video summarizes what the teachers were trying to model during this lesson: “Teachers model active listening, and use explicit vocabulary to give feedback. They are reflective about their writing, the dialogue focuses on words, text form, word choice, conveying ideas and creating visual images in the readers’ mind. […] The teachers ask thought-provoking authentic questions and each set next steps for their writing.” Students observed and commented on these aspects of providing descriptive feedback during the class debrief. 
     The other important aspect of this lesson is the student practice that follows the class debrief on what makes good descriptive feedback. Students have the opportunity to work in pairs and share their journal writing to a peer. This allows them to provide descriptive feedback to a peer in exactly the same context as their teachers. This immediate practice session makes the lesson much more effective since students learn better by doing. The teacher records the students’ ideas of good descriptive feedback on a chart following the modelling, and the students can use this chart as a visual reminder of how to do this better. 
     Lastly, this lesson shows how powerful team-teaching can be, and I would certainly consider using this technique as a modeling technique, but also in order to get the perspective and ideas of students from two different classes.

In the video “Preparing for Shared Writing” (from the “Developing Inquiring minds” workshop, http://www.curriculum.org/secretariat/inquiring/), a teacher engages her class in reading their own journal entry on the moon in preparation for writing a shared piece on the moon. Students individually read their piece to the class, and the teacher participates in the listening activity, sitting among the students. She models and engages the students in active listening and writing down “treasure words” from each piece that is read. After each reading, the teacher comments positively and provides feedback on the student writing and encourages the rest of the class to do the same. When the readings are complete, the teacher asks the class what “treasure words” they noted and she writes them on a chart in order to use them during the shared writing. 
     Sharing personal writing in front of the class can be intimidating for students, and it is obvious that this teacher promotes a culture of respect and positivism among her students. By having the peers ask questions, provide positive feedback and find “treasure words” (“treasure” having a very positive connotation!) in each student’s writing, this teacher builds all of her students’ self-confidence in their writing and collaborative abilities. This classroom is a place where students feel safe enough to take risks by sharing their personal writing and ideas to their peers. In fact, in this classroom, students are “members of a responsive learning community”. (“Inquiry-Based Learning”, 2013)

In the video “The Students’ Perspective”, the students explain what they like best about the inquiry learning approach. The students’ answers clearly demonstrate that one of the main benefits of inquiry learning is their enhanced intrinsic motivation to learning. This motivation stems from the many factors, such as the opportunity to work in groups, and the increased choices in learning topics and in learning materials (books, computer, etc.). The choice in learning topic was connected to the initial students’ writing journal about the moon. The class collaborated to find treasure words from the students’ writing, and this resulted in several topics and deep-thinking questions that the students further inquired about based on their interest. Students point out that once they start researching a topic, they find interesting information on other topics along the way. Students are therefore able to make decisions and to take responsibility for their learning. (“Getting Started with Student Inquiry”, 2011) This self-directed, collaborative inquiry learning on topics of interest is highly motivating for students. 
     Another benefit of inquiry learning for students is the resulting classroom culture where that students take risks and feel enhanced respect for one another, as they work as a community of learners asking deep, interesting questions. (“Getting Started with Student Inquiry”, 2011) Last but not least, students develop their critical thinking and problem-solving abilities when they use an inquiry approach to learning, which will be highly beneficial in their future careers. (“Inquiry-Based Learning”, 2013). 
     There are many benefits of inquiry learning for the teacher as well. While the students research their topic, the teacher can observe, help and assess the students on a more individual basis. Also, class management is easier on the teacher when students work on topics and through learning materials that they are interested in. 
     Another benefit of inquiry learning is the increased possibility for cross-curricular learning, by focusing on the “Big Ideas” of the curriculum, which pragmatic teachers can appreciate since the Ontario curriculum is quite packed. (“Inquiry-Based Learning”, 2013) Lastly, the teacher also becomes a learner in an inquiry classroom, and therefore gets to learn interesting things too!

The classroom learning environment is an extremely important factor in order to achieve independent learners. In the video “Classroom Tour”, the teacher describes in detail what she does to help her learners develop their independence. 
     This teachers provides much scaffolding and modeling to her students in each step of the inquiry process. For example, she develops learning goals with her students that are based on the curriculum learning expectations. The learning goals are posted on the wall and are referred-to when necessary so that students know whether they are on track during their inquiry learning. Rubrics are also posted and discussed with students so that they know exactly what they need to do. The teacher also keeps a questions chart on the wall, as well as a list of treasure words in another chart. Subsequent math charts are also on the wall. Most of the collaborative work is kept on the wall as a visual reminder of the class and individual work. Students can easily and independently consult these resources whenever they need.
     The teacher modeling is very detailed and the teacher ensures that the students reflect on each step of the modeling, so that they understand why it is beneficial for them and the whole group to work this way (see for example the modeling sequence in the video “Teachers Demonstrate Effective Descriptive Feedback”). Modeling is extremely important since the students cannot necessarily guess how to behave and work well collaboratively. For example, teachers must ensure that students know how to interact and work positively with one another, and how to ask good questions for their inquiry. This ensures a safe environment where students know they can take risks in their inquiry learning and decision making.
     By providing choices in their learning topics and learning media, the teacher helps the student become more independent in their learning. Students also have choices in the final product that they submit for assessing (painting, writing, presentation, etc.). When students are engaged, curious and interested in what they are learning, and how they are learning it, they are more on task and naturally become more independent in their learning.


Ontario Ministry of Education (2011). “Getting Started with Student Inquiry”. Capacity Building Series, Special Edition #24

Ontario Ministry of Education (2013). “Inquiry-Based Learning”. Capacity Building Series, Secretariat Special Edition #32

Ontario Ministry of Education. “Developing Inquiring Minds”. CSC Webcast, Oct 15, 2010.

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