Tweaking our Teaching

Last week’s post explored the importance of teaching students to find and examine sources for reliability.  This is a necessary skill, but I realized while reading this week’s modules on designing inquiry and essential questions, and exploring other articles for this course, that:

  1. We, as teachers, need to redesign our teaching so students ask more questions and learn that always asking questions is okay.
  2. Students need to be able to ask questions before they can begin any search for answers

These two thoughts were inspired by the large amount of reading that I did, my own reflection about the teaching I am currently doing, and how I can improve next year.  Though I read many articles, I am going to focus on two, one by Grant Wiggins, and the other by Barbara Stripling, that should be required reading for all teachers on their path to inquiry.  Though they are not from Modules 7 and 8, both articles connect with using questions and critical thinking to promote inquiry, and are well worth sharing with your colleagues.

In his 1989 article, “The Futility of Trying to Teach Everything of Importance”, Grant Wiggins explains that our curriculum must change because our students are learning what “curricular lobbyists” believe is important, and not really learning the skills that equip them for lifelong learning.  “To subscribe to the myth that everything of importance can be learned through didactic learning amounts to a pre-modern view of learning” (45).  In BC, our previous curriculum did just that.  The binders that existed for each curricular area contained long lists of PLO’s and SWBAT’s as we called them.  The Prescribed Learning Outcomes (PLOs) would include a list of ‘understandings’ that “students will be able to”  (SWBATs) do by the end of a particular grade.  How could an elementary school teacher, who is a generalist and teaches all subjects, be able to teach every single item by year end?  It was impossible, so many of us did the best we could by integrating across the curriculum, and attempting to use inquiry with our students.  My motto became, ‘quality before quantity’.  

Thankfully, British Columbia has implemented a new curriculum in Grades K – 9, with Grades 10 – 12 currently in their draft form until 2018.  Our curriculum has been reduced from multiple page binders to a single page (double-sided in some cases) for each subject.  The focus is now on Core Competencies, Big Ideas, and Learning Standards, which are divided into curricular competencies and content.  We are encouraged to teach through inquiry by creating essential questions.  The BC Ministry of Education website has embedded examples of essential questions within the Big Ideas on the curricular webpages.  Wiggins provides a ‘test’ for the modern curriculum, which “is whether it enables students, at any level, to see how knowledge grows out of, resolves, and produces questions” (46).  This new curriculum has forced us to reflect on our teaching methods, and consider whether we have encouraged our students to ask questions.  It has been a steep learning curve, but as we continue to learn, and “since it is impossible to teach everything we know to be of value, we must [my emphasis] equip students with the ability to keep questioning” (48).

Designing Student Learning

This series of videos by Grant Wiggins discuss Understanding by Design (which was developed by Grants Wiggins and Jay McTighe) and how we need to design our inquiry units to promote student understanding.  This is an excellent series and provides a brief overview, with relevant examples of the UbD framework. Grant Wiggins is an engaging speaker and the 30 minutes of viewing is well worth your time.  

Some teachers find inquiry daunting, and believe that students need to learn skills before they can learn through inquiry.  Grant Wiggins explains that necessary skills are learned as part of an inquiry unit [see the Math Inquiry unit “What is fair?”, Part 2 of 2 in Understanding by Design video above].  Barbara Stripling also demonstrates how to incorporate skills into inquiry in her article, “Using Inquiry to Explode Myths about Learning and Libraries”.  She describes each stage of the inquiry process – connect, wonder, investigate, construct, express, reflect –  in detail and provides strategies and techniques that teachers can use to increase students’ skills, understanding and engagement.   Many of the strategies Stripling mentions are already being used by teachers in their classrooms – making connections, conversations, K-W-L charts, word walls, class brainstorming, quick writes, journaling, note-taking, graphic organizers – and some would not consider them ‘inquiry-based’.  It is not the strategy that fosters inquiry and questioning, but the way the strategy is used with the students to increase understanding.  I think if more teachers gain a deeper understanding of the process of inquiry (Stripling’s six stage version, or The Points of Inquiry from the BCTLA), they would see that only minor ‘tweaks’ are needed (see Fonticharo, 2009) and might begin diving even deeper into inquiry with their students to increase engagement and understanding.

The more I learn about the inquiry, the more I realize there is so much more to learn.  This course has provided some amazing resources that I am excited to share with my colleagues, and incorporate into my own teaching in the library.  As Grant Wiggins says,  “the more you learn, the more you are aware of your own ignorance” (1989, 46).  

Resources I used for this Learning Log:

Fontichiaro, K. (2009). Nudging toward inquiry – Re-envisioning existing research projects. School Library Monthly 26(1): 17-19.

Fontichiaro, K. (2015a). Nudging toward inquiry – Framing inquiry with scenarios. School Library Monthly 31(3): 50-51.

Green, J. & Fontichiaro, K. (2010). Using picture books to jump-start inquiry in elementary learners: The Tiny Seed. School Library Monthly 26(5): 6-7.

Keeling, M. (2015). Backwards design considerations for the 21st-century school library. In School Library Monthly, 31(4): 22-24.

Stripling, B. K. (2004). Using Inquiry to Explode Myths about Learning and Libraries. CSLA Journal, 28(1), 15-17.

White, N. (2010). Nudging toward inquiry – Build a culture of questioning: Add pizazz to the Science Fair. School Library Monthly 26(10): 2.

Wiggins, G. (1989). The futility of trying to teach everything of importance. Educational Leadership 47(3): 54-59.

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wilhelm, J. D. (2012). Essential questions. Scholastic Instructor 122(3): 24-27.

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