A couple weeks ago I had what I think might be my biggest insight this school year.  For the last two years I’ve experimented with different forms of inquiry learning with my students with varying degrees of success.  For most of my students it has increased their level of engagement and some amazing learning has happened.  But during this last semester I began to see something that started to put up red flags for me, and for months I was unable to articulate why these flags were going up (partly too because I didn’t take the time to properly reflect on what was happening in my classroom).  My students were learning but it seemed too…haphazard.  It wasn’t focused learning.  For some it was distracted learning.  For others it was trying to prove their own biases.  There was a very small contingent of my students who truly possessed the skills necessary to learn effectively through inquiry learning.

Then one day it hit me.  I was doing some research online when I came across a chart outlining the habits of mind that are necessary to effectively learn.  It was then a 1000 watt light bulb was flipped on in my mind (seriously – light was shooting from my ears and my eyes started watering!) –

effective inquiry learning can only take place if students have the habits of mind to learn in this way.

By the time this insight illuminated my mind from the aforementioned 1000 watt light bulb it was too late to change what was happening in my classroom – the semester was almost over and my students were nearing the end of their inquiry projects.  It became abundantly clear to me though that things will have to change for next year.

One thing that I did really well this year was teach my students about how they can know if they’ve learned something.  I spent almost a full day teaching the six facets of understanding as outlined in Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s “Understanding by Design.”  We used their language of understanding over and over to reinforce how they can know if they’ve learned something.  The next step for me will be to teach the necessary dispositions to effectively reach these understandings.  I’ve come to realize that one of my overarching goals as a teacher is to create students who are self-regulated learners.  They will be able to take the skills, dispositions, and ideas learned in my class and be more effective students in all the other classrooms they visit throughout their high school career and beyond.

To be honest, I sometimes wish I didn’t have to teach these things.  I wish students came into my classroom – whether in grades 10, 11, or 12 – and already have the understandings about learning to jump right into the course without me having to bring them up to speed on how they know how to learn.  It takes a LOT of time to teach these things and then even more time to reinforce them while at the same time weeding out the jumping-thought-hoops learning that most of my students are so accustomed and comfortable with.  If these ideas were taught, reinforced, and validated in every class from grade one on with ever growing sophistication, imagine the learners we would graduate!

I feel like there is an ever growing movement towards inquiry based learning.  In fact, in almost every pedagogical workshop/presentation I’ve been too this year there has been some mention of inquiry learning.  This is a good thing and it reveals a fundamental shift in how educator think about teaching, learning, and school.  However, after my light bulb moment, my concern is that teachers are going to throw their students into inquiry based learning without laying a foundation that will enable their students to effectively use this model of learning.  Perhaps the cart is being put in from of the horse – which almost never ends well for the horse!

I look forward to my next season of learning about self-regulated learning and habits of mind to make this possible.  If you have any book, blog, article, or video suggestions that will help guide my thinking – please feel free to send them my way!

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