If you’ve read this blog before, or if you have talked to me for more than ten minutes, you’ll know that I am passionate about promoting inquiry in our schools. I realized last night that I’ve never really articulated why I think it is important and meaningful. I’ve read the research, I’ve seen how inquiry efforts affect students in the classroom, but these are my personal reflections. This is about how inquiry has affected me, not as an educator, but as a student.
I was a student in the Wentworth County School Board in the 1980s. I don’t know much about what the prevailing teaching practices were at that time, but I was aware even in grade 1 that my school experience wasn’t the same as many of my friends. Between grade 1 and grade 8, I think I was a part of every integrated and congregated classroom type possible. For many years I went to a different school (or two), in addition to my neighbourhood “home” school. One day, I would ride a little bus to some random school and meet with students from other schools and we would work collaboratively. We might write a script, practice and film it (no easy feat in the 80s – I could never be the cameraman – the camera weighed more than I did). The next day, I might be back in my home school doing mad minute multiplication drills. Days when I was engaged in intedisciplinary study about something (I built my own filtration system using wine making equipment in the 4th grade to demonstrate how a kidney worked) zoomed by with me happily learning with other class members, educators and outside experts (I had a scientist teach me the finer points of distillation and filtration so I could refine my understanding of kidneys). Other days, I was at a desk, relegated to seat work which I did out of a sense of compliance rather than interest. My reward for finishing: I got to “help” other students.
Don’t get me wrong. My experiential learning experiences weren’t without some bumps. I distinctly remember when I was in grade 2 and we were developing debating skills. I was the youngest student in the class – (most were junior/intermediate students). Somehow, I was assigned to debate a topic that was a little above me. Abortion. I can still remember the look of realization on my teacher’s face when I asked what abortion was. Despite glitches like that, overall I feel very lucky to have experienced the alternative learning opportunities I had.
So what? I got to do amazing things to further and demonstrate my learning. I learned about topics that I was interested in. But really, what was the long lasting effect of that? I can’t say for sure, but here’s what I know about myself as a learner now.
I am a classic introvert. I can’t make small talk to save my life. But I do know how to build relationships with people that allow me to collaborate, question and learn with others. And by others I mean pretty much anyone. I am a pretty reflective person. I like to set goals, seek support from lots of sources, try things out, reflect and try again. I think I’m a risk taker. In the name of learning – mine and others’ – I am not afraid to jump in and try things out, even when I don’t know the outcome. I like to ask questions. I always want to know the “why” (and I always want students to know the “why” of what they are learning too). Some people have niche interests: they are a “techy” or a math person. I can’t claim to have show much favouritism. I can learn just as passionately about phys ed as I can about the arts. Math and science are in my comfort zones but so are english and history. I don’t think I started with well-rounded interests. I do think learning in integrated curriculae settings taught me to see that I can find relevance and meaning in learning about a wide variety of topics.
Those are definitely my strengths as I see them. I have lots of weaknesses too. I tend to jump in rather passionately about things and I can work at them with blinders on. I don’t always recognize that not everyone feels as deeply about the same things I do. If I’m stuck on something and I question others about the topic because I want to learn more, it can be perceived as me being defensive or argumentative but I really am just intending to learn more and figure things out. I still struggle with being compliant just for the sake of compliance when I don’t understand a bigger purpose for it. I am always looking for other angles and can make a situation more complicated than it probably needs to be. While I don’t really need praise to keep me going, I do second guess myself all the time and look for criticism or negative feedback from others to help me figure out what I need to problem solve next.
Overall, I’m happy with my skills as a learner. I’m not perfect and I still have lots of learning I need to do and learning “quirks” I need to work on. But when I think of my strengths, I see many of the qualities we are hoping for our students when we use inquiry based learning. I can’t say that there is a direct correlation between my experience as a student and how I learn now, but I’m guessing I didn’t just happen onto these learning skills. I know when I look at my experiences as a student, the ones that looked like inquiry based learning are the ones I remember as positive ones. My “traditional” classroom experiences…not so much, even though I was very successful on paper in these classes too. I want those kinds of memorable experiences for our students.
The trends in educational practices are constantly shifting. I don’t know how inquiry based learning will be viewed ten years from now. For now, research and curriculae point to it as a means to support our students to be engaged learners developing the skills needed for a 21st century learner. For me, it’s also personal. I hope in the next few years we can hear our students articulate how their experiences with inquiry based learning have shaped them as learners.