Connecting to Inquiry

Posted: 21st October 2013 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

I think, without a doubt, the best word that has come out of the new FDK (Full Day Kindergarten) program document in Ontario is provocation. It’s fun to say, makes you sound smart, and best of all it is actually an amazing strategy to support inquiry-based learning. Come on, say it with me. Provocation. Doesn’t that sound good?
Understanding what a provocation is and how it can be used is something of an inquiry itself. Right now, inquiry is a big buzz word in my school thanks to the fantastic staff in the building who are eagerly moving forward with our school wide goal to encourage a “teaching and learning environment (that) is inclusive, promotes the intellectual engagement of all students and reflects individual student strengths, needs, learning preferences and cultural perspectives” (School Effectiveness Framework, 2013, Indicator 3.1). As teachers from Kindergarten to Grade 8 embrace the ideals of inquiry, they are looking for strategies to help actually make it happen in the classroom. And to me, the best way to start an inquiry is with some kind of provocation.
A provocation can be any number of things, as long as it ignites student learning. Despite its current trend in educational language, the use of provocations in the classroom aren’t actually all that new. Anyone remember the movie Dead Poets Society? Do you remember Robin Williams’ teacher character when he used an old photograph in the school hallway to provoke student thinking and establish a big idea to engage his students in learning? That was a provocation.
While an inquiry is a web of ideas, skills and knowledge that are acquired over a period of time by collaborating learners, a provocation is the first link. It is the anchor that connects the student to the learning that they are about to engage in.
That actually brings up another pretty useful word. Connect. Provocations do just that. They connect a learner to an inquiry. They connect a learner to other learners in a co-learning kind of way. And when done well, they connect a learner to the curriculum in a personally meaningful and relevant way. Connecting is an awfully important skill for our students to do. In Ontario, we even measure it on our provincial testing. In my school, connecting is a skill that our students could do with more practice. Not the limited connections that we sometimes teach around a specific text (e.g. this text reminds me of…). These limited connections are given lots of air time in our classrooms already. I mean those deeper, richer connections that help students really understand a text, a topic, a subject or a strategy better. I think using provocations in inquiry could really help our students make connections more effectively.
Connecting learners and curriculum has another effect. Richard Elmore talks about the Instructional Core. This theory supposes that to improve instruction in a classroom, you need to affect three different factors simultaneously. You need to leverage the curriculum and the understanding of it, the student and the way he/she learns, and the teacher and the way he/she teaches. Elmore supposes that there are only three basic ways to change achievement in a classroom: improve teacher knowledge and skill, alter the content delivered, or change the way the student, teacher and content interact. Promoting inquiry in general and, more specifically, the use of provocations to jump start inquiry could be one practical strategy to do all three.
At my school, we are still just beginning to understand the many ways inquiry can look when you move from 4 year olds to 14 year olds and jump into it in all subjects. Those fearless early adopters (you know who you are and I thank each one of you!) are trying all sorts of things out. Some will work, some probably won’t, and some will work even better with a little tweaking. I hope they will stick it out and keep trying. I hope others will see their efforts and give it a try themselves. I hope the students will share their voices and help us understand where to go next. Most of all, I hope it is a way of learning that can be valued because it increases the depth of student learning, motivation and applicability throughout their lives.
I think Robin Williams would join me when I say carpe diem, fellow inquirers. Let’s give it a try.

  1. Jo-Ann C-H says:

    Wow Kristi,
    This blog really give me plenty of food for thought. I have used pictures or videos in my classroom before but never as provocation. What a way to hook the students in because it causes them to really focus (that is once you choosen an effective one). I have decided not to just dip my toe in the water but to get my entire body wet. As a class we are learning together. Through self reflection and talk with peers and my lovely VP I can already see where I will tweak things for next concept (not next unit). This is truly a learning/teaching style that only gets better as you do it, and we need to realize thst there is no perfect way to do it.

  2. adunsige says:

    I agree with both of you, Kristi and Jo-Ann! It’s great to have supportive colleagues (admin included), who encourage to share ideas (successes and failures) and make changes along the way. Provocations have been a wonderful addition to my program this year, and have certainly helped get the students excited about learning the new content and eager to make connections. I think that they also provide concrete examples of sometimes abstract content, which can be particularly beneficial to students with special needs. I’m excited to see where we go as a school with inquiring!


  3. Paul says:

    I am really excited to see where Inquiry Learning takes us as a school. I have much to learn and thank our teachers who are taking brave steps into the unknown. One of our challenges is to consider how we best support each other in this process and how we develop the structures to support teachers in the building who want to test the waters. How can we as your administrators best support you in this journey?

  4. adunsige says:

    That’s a good question, Paul! I think that one of the best ways that you can support us is knowing that we’re still learning too, so continuing to be willing to brainstorm ideas together, share successes and failures, and make suggestions when you have them. These are not negative … they’re ways to help us get better. And if you want to come into the classroom and learn along with us (maybe even trying to do some inquiry learning together), then please, come on in. I think this is also great for the students to see.

    For those people that may be questioning the value in inquiry learning, even sharing the positives that you are noticing (in terms of student think and reaching all students) might be a good way for others to jump on board. These are just my initial thoughts. I’m curious to hear what others have to say.


  5. Thank you for summing up the word provocation and linking it to something teachers can understand. The word provocation is being thrown around as a new buzz word. You have do defined it and put it in a meaningful context. I will share your post with my fellow colleagues who are embarking on the inquiry journey.
    Thank you,

  6. Nmcfdelk says:

    This is a well-thought and articulate way to define ‘provocation’ and help others understand what it means to be a ‘provocateur’ in today’s educational climate.
    Having said that, let’s not be too quick to search for ‘simple definitions’ and ‘answers’ before we give ourselves time to ‘linger and live in complexity’. As with the ramblings in the letter to the editor in the Spec this morning, this move to ‘oversimplifying that which is complex’ led to the downfall of ‘whole language’. What was supposed to be intricate and responsive and contextualized teaching was oversimplified/demystified and watered down to but a mere shadow of its true essence. Let’s not rush to commit the same error with ‘provocation’, ‘inquiry’ and ‘making thinking/learning visible’.
    “We live in a culture where we are constantly being offered solutions, before we have asked the critical questions (Ginsberg)…… in which real alternatives call for debate, deliberation and collective choices about things that matter (Moss)

  7. kkeerybi says:

    You make a valid point. Oversimplification is not my intention, but providing people a manageable starting point to enter the experience is (which, ironically, is somewhat the job of a good provocation, no?). Giving people permission to try something new – no matter how scary the thought is – is always a balancing act. You need to provide justification, allow for some clarity of purpose, and choose an entry path that will both allow for some success and leave the participant with a desire to explore more, try more, risk more and deepen understanding. For pioneers in the process such as yourself, it may indeed seem oversimplified. For those just getting started, it may just be the comforting nudge they need to give themselves permission to try. Thanks for your ideas. I do love the quotes!

  8. Aviva (@avivaloca) says:

    Kristi, it’s funny, as I was kind of thinking about this today as well. I wonder if when people are getting started, they need a more “concrete” understanding of what to expect — as inquiry and provocations can seem very scary if in stark contrast to what people may have usually done — but then those that are more comfortable with the idea, can dig deeper, ask more questions, and come up with an evolving understanding. Maybe this blog post acts as the “scaffolding” for those that need it (or maybe even like a provocation for provocations, which you implied).

    Lots to consider!