Inquiry in a Secondary School Classroom

This post is dedicated to colleagues at Pathways and other schools where teachers are being the change.

In one of the MYP workshops I led last year, participants co-constructed their idea of an inquiry-based MYP classroom. While the groups worked, I overheard one of the teachers say, “We have to accept that we are not going to always be in control of the learning…did I just say that out loud?”

Figuring out how to use an inquiry based approach to teaching and learning in the secondary school is a challenge for some. It seems to be a ‘waste of time’ to spend so many lessons seemingly waiting for illumination to occur while students ‘do inquiry.’ It’s so much easier to just organize a series of lessons, punctuated by some interesting activity or discussion, and make sure the content gets covered.

And how might a high school classroom inquire, anyway?

One way might be through connectivity.

Teenagers like to do three things. Mizuko Ito calls these activities “hanging out, messing around, and geeking out.” Hanging out is being in the same space, whether physical space, cognitive space, or virtual space. Teens like to hang out. They also like messing around, which is a path to discover, especially with the internet, what they like. Teens used to create mohawks or big hair, or wear one shoe each from a different pair when I was one of them. Nowadays, they still experiment with appearance, but teens also test out new media to find out things they like, things that might become part of who they are. When teens find something they like, they “geek out,” or create products like playlists, infographics, visual texts, blogs and Tumblrs.

Knowing this about teenagers, what might happen in a unit of learning that 16-year olds would enjoy?

For a Language and literature class, literature and language studies transformed when we started hanging out, messing around and geeking out as we learned about our course concepts.

Hanging out

Using Facebook was something that we would do. The class agreed that I could make a Facebook page for the class called Lit Up, for the purpose of hanging out and talking about things related to concepts in language and literature. When the students ‘liked’ the page, they could then post media or text related to our assignments, and then use comments to dialog on the shared materials. The FB page became a place for students to explore appreciation for literature and new media, for example sharing videos of what they thought constituted effective communication, or a conceptual stance on what people do to belong to communities as an extension of our respective units centered around the key concept Communication and the global context Identities and Relationships.

Class Facebook page where students were "hanging out" and teaching each other about language and literature.

Class Facebook page where students were “hanging out” and teaching each other about language and literature.

How this transformed our learning required me to let go of the control of learning and let students be the ones leading mini-seminars on FB, posting questions they had and getting responses from their classmates, which fueled more dialog. As the students gained ownership of the hangout FB page, they began to teach each other, often without me present.

Messing around

In a four-week unit with Creativity as key concept, students were free to mess around, exploring sources of creativity. They were tasked with finding their interests as individuals, how they wanted to define creativity. As a group, they were tasked with defining creativity. The students followed specific inquiry questions about creativity they had constructed at the beginning of our unit. Some were interested in psychological underpinnings; others with how creativity is expressed; still other students had questions about creativity’s qualities and whether or not creativity is learned.

The ability to freely mess around in their research allowed students to build a multimedia library of sources and use social media to share these with the whole class. As our library of sources about creativity grew, so did the class understanding of what creativity was and how it was expressed. Students shared a wide variety of media including anime, hyperlinked bibliographies, videos of chefs creating masterpiece dishes, sites of painters, and manifestos.

Again, it was a matter of me letting go of control of the unit. I had set the key concept and related concepts for the unit along with course objectives and the open-ended summative assessment. My students built the learning engagements and the content of the whole unit. What resulted was a collaborative inquiry which elevated their sense of efficacy and interdependence. After the inquiries began, the students were asked in the summative assessment to synthesize their understanding through an open ended task. They had to figure out an individual task, which would fulfill the course objectives and a whole class task, which would show the interconnectedness of their learning.

The class decided that the individual task would be to (1) represent their understanding through any medium they wanted and (2) a “manifesto of creativity for life” produced using any type of text they wanted to produce. For the class product, they decided to create a visual text made up of individual sections, which when combined would form a creativity mural for a school wall in our building.

The frenzy of learning that happened in this unit was a phenomenal experience for me. As the students took control of their learning, they showed me the potential for how new media could transform the classroom experience and take the learning to new levels I had previously not seen.

As the teacher, my role changed. I was a guide, literally on the side, as each student found his or her own pathways to understanding the unit key concept. My role was also to provide some of the structure for collaboration, to point out important elements of effective transactions of ideas, so that students could move forward when they felt stuck.

Geeking out

The most satisfying thinking that happened to the students came in the form of their metacognitive awareness. As we reached the end of the inquiries, students had to investigate the text production task and decide on their medium of expression. Some students went analog, deciding to paint or make models in the arts and design classrooms. Other students decided to create video or presentations using mindmapping in Prezi. They had to keep in mind that the task they chose had to represent their manifesto for creativity for life. This was where I stepped in and asked them to speak or write about their processes of creation and the thinking that they engaged in as they created, using their handheld devices. This recording of the process and thinking became their metacognitive journal accompanying their expressions of creativity.

One student's manifesto for creativity for life and the rationale she wrote.

One student’s manifesto for creativity for life and the rationale she wrote.

Rationale for the manifesto's author.

Rationale by the manifesto’s author.

The students naturally became reflective as the unit progressed. In their reflections, which came in varied media, I began to see the statement of inquiry emerge as essential understandings. There were as many ways to state these understandings as there were students. But we all learned about the value of creativity for life.

Here is another student’s reflection.

Later, the students incorporated their process journal into their manifestos, and in the ensuing discussions with the class were able to explain and justify their author’s choices in both the creative product and the manifesto.

The most significant learning for the teacher was the letting go of full control. New media and the ways we use them in the classroom have strong ownership in the students – these are the tools of their lives as they hang out, mess around and geek out. As teachers, the approaches we take in using technology may not be the same approaches our students take; we have to accept the variance in how we use the technology to engage, and give our students opportunities to teach us about how they learn.

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Author’s note: Sections of this post are modified from an assignment written for CoETaIL  (Certificate of Educational Technology and Information Literacy).

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