When students are ready for inquiry, the teacher might be, too

This post is based on a unit for Year 3 Language and literature students. To access the unit referred to in this post, please find it at this link.

Several behaviors taught me that the students were ready for some independent inquiry.

In the third quarter of the academic year, the Year 3 students showed that:

  • Many formulate question as a default approach
  • Most bring in material that provoke other thinkers in the room, including me
  • when one of them asked a question in class, another student or students attempt to answer it
  • They held dialog or discussion without me having to lead it, provoked by each other’s questions
  • Many used criteria language when we dialog on how we know we’re learning at the end of each week

We were approaching the Student Led Conferences in March. Planning for the quarter, I wondered if the next unit of inquiry might use Language and literature to expand the ecosystem of learning for the students.

Could a unit on poetry do this?

Might an inquiry into poetry allow students to transfer learning and make significant connections to other disciplines?

How might the unit help break walls between disciplines and forge connections?

In preparing for SLC, might this inquiry use ATL skills which prepare us to explain how we learn?

I decided that poetry opened an exploration of the key concept of development – through the related concepts of choice and quality.

Exploring quality allowed us to return to the language of learning, the significant descriptions of quality in the subject criteria and transfer this idea of quality to the study of poetry. Exploring the concept of choice links to author’s choices in Language and literature.

In the broader expressions of these concepts, we might also explore quality through criteria in other disciplines and choices students made as they produced work in their MYP subjects.

What and how did we learn?

Some of the insights students shared in their weekly reflection were:

  • Every word counts when a writer is creating a work.
  • Reading aloud can illustrate writers’ choices in sounds, silence and create an enhancing layer of meaning to a text, it can also “make others happy (PYP students) when I use my voice in creative ways” (quoted from student reflection)
  • Poets use the same visualization techniques as athletes (and it works)
  • Choice also has negative effects, such as choice of words when speaking in casual conversations.
  • Choice is sometimes limited by form and function
  • Sensory experiences (eating blackberries) help us to understand poetry. (Students really loved this lesson.)
  • Everyone makes choices to create quality, not just in literature and writing, but also in design, in making standards of quality (mathematics), and in the perception of molecular structure.
  • Universal cultural purposes of texts transcend language (math is a language, molecular structure is a visual language, design is a visual language)

It was the first time I had left the inquiry questions entirely in the students’ hands. I used provocation to trigger question formulation from the students. Having taught the QFT strategy to the students at the beginning of the school year, they were adept at the process of crafting questions.

The students’ questions were gathered and written on chart paper. We spent time as a class rephrasing questions until they were as good as we could make them based on a class rubric for good questions that we had developed together. When we reached consensus that a question was an effective one, the class gave me permission to write it down in the unit planner.

As we learned around the inquiry questions each week, we surrounded that question with student work from the formative learning engagements, products and reflections.

As the unit progressed, we added new questions. The walls of our classroom resembled an organic mindmap of our learning.

During the course of the inquiry, students demonstrated independence as they showed  improved ability to create criteria to describe quality for discrete skills in language and literature. We had looked for patterns in the poetry we read, and they came up with this list of qualities of effective poetry:

  • Effective beginnings and endings
  • Form that follows purpose
  • Word choice
  • Uses of sound and silence including stanza, line breaks, punctuation
  • Imagery
  • Choice of subject

As we explored each of these facets through the poetry we read, students crafted descriptions of each quality, citing examples from a range of poetry they found, and justified their evaluations of the quality of those works against the descriptions they had crafted.

They showed facility in using criteria from Language and literature to self-assess formative work.

As we moved into experiences that might allow for transfer, students made connections between language and literature and math, science and design. Highlights from their dialog with the students from these disciplines showed engagement with the concepts of development, choice and quality and what that looks like in other disciplines.

Some of the questions they formulated after the interdisciplinary dialog on choice and quality evidenced a metacognitive track in thinking:

  • Do all disciplines have standards of quality? Does life?
  • In what ways is creativity destructive, too?
  • Why can’t we use a common register in all subject disciplines?
  • Do we use metaphors and similes in science?

When we got to the last two weeks of the inquiry, I felt that my students had  made a breakthrough with their understanding of development and how it is shown through products, systems, and cognitive patterns.

They were beginning to really understand that disciplines are ways of using cognitive patterns for specific understandings. I also saw the students recalling their Exhibition in PYP with fondness as they appreciated the links to the concepts they knew from their PYP days.

I realized that opening the unit with prior knowledge was a strong way to enter the inquiry—looking at what we know about form, function, pattern and then using that prior knowledge to bring in the key and related concepts of our unit.

The summative tasks asked students to use the concepts of development, choice and quality to prepare an illustration of their learning in the MYP.

It was an open-ended task which simulated a reflection on the statement of inquiry through student curation of a portfolio of achievement.

The process of examining their work in each subject, choosing exemplars for quality, and explaining the choices that led to that artefact of quality with reference to the descriptors for the work in that subject – it was a challenging task, and a conceptual one, and I felt that they were ready for it.

I also felt that whatever resulted from this summative assessment would allow for meta-awareness of ATL skills embedded in descriptions of quality (in criteria) and to some degree, the transfer of the conceptual understanding and ATL skills from one subject to another.

It was a memorable inquiry for us. The engagement was evident in the quality of the student led conferences that March. It also indicated the opportunity of co-creating the next unit with the students. We later ended up with a unit on creativity through interdisciplinary lenses, with each student confidently pursuing their own lines of inquiry.

I learned so many things through this Year 3 unit. One of the most important lessons was to be comfortable with ambiguity.

At the start of the unit, I had the conceptual frame of the unit planned, including the key and related concepts, Global Context and exploration, conceptual and debatable questions, and ATL skills. I had an idea of the summative tasks which might allow for addressing all strands in the criteria.

What I didn’t have from the beginning were the factual questions and the roadmap for where the inquiry would take us.

Students brought in most of the poetry from a list of poets we had looked up together, and they asked questions before, during and after reading and engaging with the poetry. Their questions created the roadmap.

What I learned from this unit marked a milestone in my own learning. I realized that there is always going to be a tension between disciplinary grounding and the transfer that we want for our students. This is the debate on content versus everything else that we might see in our professional discourse.

I wanted to step outside the argument and find a way to link them. And one of the ways I discovered that was by being completely aware of the ATL skills and conceptual tracks of the unit.

Because the concepts and skills were always anchors for our learning, I didn’t need to worry so much about the specific materials that taught us those – I had to ensure that the students and I were always choosing these for their instructional purposes, that we used these materials to dive into the concepts and rehearse the ATL skills. The decisions we made became our environment and the processes that took us individually to the shared destination.

Access Resources from The Learner’s Toolbox:

To access the unit referred to in this post, please find it at this link. Please feel free to make a copy of the unit and adapt it for your students.

If you would like some more resources, check out my free ebook on “Designing Complexity for Learning” – a mini-toolkit to launch approaches to learning in your classroom–as a token of my gratitude for traveling with me as I provoke thinking around what it means to learn how to learn.

To join the tribe of educators who think together to iterate learning for adults and students, simply sign up here.

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Author: alavina

Cognitive CoachSM and professional development leader at large. Writer and editor at http://myptoolbox.com.

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