“Children are learning about big ideas but they are also finding out about themselves and others in their community. ” (Jo Fahey, p. 27)
I’ve been spending some time reading through Jo Fahey’s recently released book, Ways to Learn Through Inquiry: Guiding Children to Deeper Understanding and reflecting on inquiry in the early years. It’s reminded me that we have so much to learn from the littlest inquirers in our schools. They come at inquiry from a place if pure openness. They don’t worry about saying what they think as they explore; they just say whatever comes to mind as they construct meaning, sort out differences and confirm or discredit their assumptions about the world, themselves and each other. It was timely that I happened to be observing in an SK classroom very recently. What I saw and heard brought the pages of Fahey’s book to life for me.
The teacher had planned a preparing provocation to have learners connect with their new unit of inquiry exploring the concept of shelters. The learning engagement involved learners working in small groups to explore, sort and categorize a collection of images (depicting various types of shelters, homes and habitats). The criteria for the task was that each group needed to work as a team to agree on how to sort the images into groups and then name their groupings. Students quickly set off, pouring over the images. I was very curious to see what each group would decide and how they would go about getting there. As I wandered the room kid watching, I happened upon the following exchange, as a group of students began to sort their images as “structures” and “not structures”:
A: This is not a structure. (Holds up a picture of a coral reef.)
B: How do you know?
A: Because no one put it there.
B: Well then who put it there?
A: I don’t know but it’s just there. No one built it.
B: What about the tree? (Holds up image of a tree.)
A: The bird did it.
B: Birds don’t make trees.
A: But they build in them.
Later on in the lesson, students shared their sorting categories with each other and discussed why they chose to label them as they did. When the group including the two students who had the above exchange shared, their sort still included two categories: structures and not structures. As the students went on to define their categories they indicated that images were “not structures because no one decided what they would look like.” Those pictures included in the structures category were there “because they’re not built out of the same things. Someone put them there and people live in them and some are for animals.”
The dialogue between these students and the level of thinking amongst them was so rich with inquiry. By the end of the lesson the students had a theory and a definition to begin developing their inquiry into the concept from. They were already engaged in the process of attending to differences right from the onset of the inquiry as they sorted, classified and reached consensus.
After reflecting on the lesson with the teacher afterwards, we both agreed that while the learners made some significant connections, they also had some misconceptions that could be further tended to through the inquiry process. While no direct question was asked of the teacher, several avenues for deeper inquiry were apparent and could be explored further:
– the idea that a shelter is only a built structure
– an inquiry into how coral reefs are made and how they do or do not provide shelter
-man made shelters vs. natural shelters
-shelters for people vs. shelters for animals
The possibilities could go on! And that’s the point. Providing constructs to facilitate inquiry leads to infinite possibilities for learning. The hardest part is getting out of the way and taking the time to learn from the learner – even the littlest learners!
Summer is here in this part of the world and with it comes heat, and heat brings thirst. What better way than to quench your thirst with a nice, cold glass of lemonade. This is what my 9 year old twins decided about a week ago. They have toyed with the idea of opening a lemonade stand for the last few summers but it never quite came to fruition. Well, during my absence from home at the start of the week they opened a lemonade stand, and I am in awe of the learning that is happening as they independently follow through with and implement their plan. They are learning “IN experience”, which is really what the heart of inquiry based learning is all about. It’s kind of ironic that learning “IN experience” can also be read as “learning inexperience”. Both statements are true to inquiry – inquiry is all about taking on the unknown and making it into a known – both “inexperience” and “IN experience”.
The kids started with an idea, prepared a plan and took action: they researched the cost of lemons and the other ingredients they would need, they came up with their lemonade recipe (the best I’ve ever had!), they made a marketing plan, gathered supplies, and then they set to work. In implementing their plan, they’ve learned what it means to break even, make a profit and take a loss; the importance of counting your money just right; they’ve learned about supply and demand, and quality control; ways to drum up business when it is slow, and what it means to have a slow business day. Best of all, they’ve learned team work as they’ve relied on each other and the two neighborhood friends who’ve set up an iced tea business along with them. None of this learning happened at a desk or under the carefully structured school learning environment. It happened because they had an idea, worked through their own inexperience IN experience by choosing, acting and reflecting. All along the way they continue to make decisions about their lemonade business to improve and grow it. The best thing of all is that I have had absolutely nothing to do with this little learning venture except to buy myself a glass of lemonade and toast the success of their endeavour. So what do you do when life throws you lemons? …Make lemonade of course! Thanks kids!
“Chaos in the world brings uneasiness, but it also allows the opportunity for creativity and growth.” Tom Barrett
Our Grade 5s are currently inquiring into the concept of sound and its environmental and technological applications. As a part of their inquiry they’ve visited some concert halls to explore how sound is used in a carefully designed space for a specific purpose. As we collaborated in the creation of this new unit in our program we wondered how much the students would really understand beyond the traditional sound basics. Exploring the applications of sound opened the possibilities up quite wide and with 10 and 11 year old learners, we wanted them not only to understand the science of sound – those aspects of sound that don’t change, but also come to appreciate that sound can be harnessed and the harnessing of sound pushes people to new limits, boundaries and change. The summative assessment involves the students planning, designing, constructing and presenting some sort of concert/presentation space. This afternoon I strolled into Grade 5 and landed in the most beautiful form of learning chaos – students spread out across the room surrounded by plans and construction materials. The chatter in the room was buoyant as they created their own masterpieces and inspired each other with their creativity and knowledge. Words like “acoustic baffling” and “resonance” were common place as they truly had become one with their task. Every material chosen had a specific purpose connecting back to enhancing the sound they hoped their space would create. Ideas ranged from traditional to downright innovative. My favorite was a dual purpose flip stage – on one side the stage was padded so that gymnasts and acrobats could perform daring feats to music; on the other side the stage floor was wood and Neil Diamond (a girl after my own heart) was perched in the center ready to belt out “Sweet Caroline.” Inquiry is a beautiful thing – and sometimes, beautiful things require chaos before they emerge. Learning should get messy, and as educators, we need to make sure that we provide a classroom community where that happens on a regular basis. When we step back and provide a learning environment that invites problem solving, innovation, and creativity learning becomes vibrant in ways we never dreamed!