One of the things I love to do in my spare time is introduce people to the mountains that are tantalizingly close to where I work and live.  I find that most people really enjoy getting out into the wilderness but may not know where to go or who to go with – that`s where I come in.  Seeing people’s expressions when standing at the top of some striking peak must be one of the best experiences ever!  Although I’ve done a number of different solo trips, I’ve found that enjoying a mountain top (or most anything in the great outdoors) is best done in the context of community.

Although I love leading people into the wilderness, it’s not always the most relaxing experience for me – especially if I’m on a trail I’ve never been on before.  Not only do I have to ensure that we stay on the right path, I also have to analyze the terrain, route-find if there is no trail, and have a pulse on how my fellow hikers are managing – both physically and emotionally.  To err in any of these areas can have a devastating effect on a trip.  Generally speaking though, the adventure and fun had on such a trip far outweighs any added stress.

I feel like I’m on a very similar journey in my classroom.  For the first time ever, my students are embarked on inquiry learning projects; although I have a rough idea of where I want them to end up, I’m still not sure what the trail looks like between where we’re at right now and our final destination.  In many ways this ‘newness’ adds to the adventure of the experience for everyone, but it’s also somewhat unnerving for me as I let go of some of my ‘teacher’ control.  Yet at the same time, I know I am on the right track when I see the enthusiasm and excitement as my students throw themselves into their questions. I also know I’m on the right track when my students tell me that this process is really hard – yet they continue to persevere.

For some of my students this is the first time I have observed them fully engaged in the learning process.

I still have a lot to learning about the process of inquiry learning and am constantly tweaking the process along the way (and even in the process of writing this I’m realizing that there are some issues I’ll have to address tomorrow in class).  Regardless, I thought I’d share the basic framework of how I’m structuring inquiry learning in my classroom.

Bring on the Inquiry Learning!

Since the beginning of the semester (starting sometime late September) I let my students know that they were going to do an inquiry based project and to start thinking about questions they might be interested in exploring.  I reminded them about this at different times throughout the semester which made it much easier when it came time to craft their question at the beginning of January – most students already had some idea of what they wanted to explore.

The Question

Crafting a question was their first task.  And with it came my first dilemma – how much input do I give them on their questions?  Several of my students had questions that were so big I could envision them getting frustrated by the sheer amount of information they would have to sift through.  In these cases I encouraged them to consider focusing their questions down to something that might be a bit more manageable.  The big thing I had to keep on reminding myself during this process was that these are my students questions – not mine.  Although in many cases I could word their questions in a more powerful or convincing way (and my perfectionist English side was prodding me to do so), I felt that I needed to let them own their question.  In some cases I did offer suggestions to help clarify their question and I also asked numerous questions for them to consider – in some cases it prompted students to change their question.  By and large though, I’ve tried to keep my own vision for their questions to the side and let the process of learning take over.

Planning

After students had their question established, I had them work on putting together a basic plan for how they were going to pursue their inquiry.  They had to brainstorm about possible ways to do research, how they might want to present what they found, and how they would keep a record of their learnings throughout the whole process.

Research

Then the research started.  After a several days of research went by I could tell that the initial enthusiasm my students showed signs of waning.  Some of my students where having trouble finding reliable research and some where getting lost in the sheer amount of information that’s available online.  I gave a number of mini-workshops on how to find reliable information online and in some cases I would sit down with a student and help them find research online.  In other cases I taught students how to skim through large amounts of information and to glean only what they needed for their inquiry.  As the research portion of their inquiry is coming to a close, my students are much more adept at navigating the web and finding relevant, credible information.

The Missing Link

Last week my students began to wrap up their research and started working on how they were going to represent their learnings.  However, as the week progressed I felt strongly that something was missing.  After reflecting about what this niggling feeling could be, I suddenly realized that my students had jumped from their research straight into creating without processing and thinking about what the information they discovered means.  I had not allowed any time to make conclusions from their research.  So the next day I ground the entire inquiry train to a screeching halt and we talked about the missing link – reflection.  To help them in this process I’m getting my students to write informational essays where they are able to draw up some of their own conclusions about their inquiry.  Through the essay, I’m not only teaching my students how to write in a systematic and organized way, I’m also teaching them how to THINK in a systematic and organized way, which will hopefully allow them to make better conclusions from their research.

And that’s where we’re at so far.  The next part will be creating projects where students share their knowledge in a real way with an authentic audience.  I know one student is planning on creating a blog, another will create a series of posters that will go up in the school, and another is thinking about putting together the framework for a video game.  Others are undecided.  It’s been an interesting journey so far and I am looking forward to how all of this will wrap up in the next two weeks.

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