So… this whole year I told my students,
“I don’t know is a good answer- it is the start of great inquiry.” In fact, my students recite this to each other when someone says, “I dunno.” We started each unit talking about Kath Murdoch's inquiry cycle, we ended each unit by reflecting on our inquiry. We inquired into our inquiry. We were masters of the inquiryverse.
Or so I thought.
When we got to the Learner Profile attribute of Inquirer for our new unit on Sharing the planet, I invited the students to offer any suggestions, ideas, definitions, and connections that they might have. What did I get?
I called on that one kid, you know, the one who always has the answer.. and his response?
“I don’t know Ms. Tosca- It’s a tricky one, isn’t it?”
Hmm. Okay, time to access their prior knowledge by reminding them of all we had done during the year, leading them, guiding them, to what I thought would be an easy kill. BOOM- blank.
Double hmmm. This told me a lot. There was a gap. My students needed the Learner Profile attributes to be built into the context of the unit concepts from day one in order for them to really get what they meant in the big picture of the learning cycle. 14 years into my practice and a good kick in the face once in awhile is a great reminder to be a better listener to my learners. So, for my new unit, I went back to the beginning and rethought my approach.
I began by reading the book ‘Eloïse and the strange museum visit' which focuses on one of the other Learner Profile attributes we are highlighting for the unit. I invited the students to co-create a definition for the word 'Thinker'. We discussed the strategies and the ways in which we demonstrate being a thinker each day. I reminded them if they ‘caught’ their peers showing any of the Learner Profile attributes to give them a positive comment on the ‘Positive Energy Board’. This is a place where the students celebrate each other by writing compliments to one another about their actions, words and choices. Using simple positive psychology is the behavior management my classroom employs.
When I reflected on past units of inquiry it became clear that when the children started the inquiry by tuning into the central idea it was a slippery slope into a theme based unit. In their minds, How the world works turned into simply, 'materials', Who we are into, 'friends'. This time, I wanted to shift the initial tuning in to the transdisciplinary theme, key concepts and Learner Profile attributes we were engaging with. I designed the provocation to allow students to generate ideas on these big, abstract concepts by using a silly hook. If humans could communicate with other animals, what would they tell us? Many of the answers were just what you would expect a five year old to say, “Hello.” “Will you be my friend?” Some students reiterated what they had read in the 'Thinker' book, which deals with a little girl learning about how to clean up the planet. This showed they had retained that information and were trying to apply it to new contexts. I accepted all suggestions and giggled along with the kids as they did silly voices to match the animals on the wall.
The invitation to think deeper:
The next day I read the book, 'Communicator’ with the children and debriefed about what strategies we could use to communicate with others effectively. One child made the connection that animals communicate too- we just don’t speak their language. This offered the perfect opportunity for us to ‘dig deeper’ into the provocation from the day before. I invited the children to dig into their thinking and made puppy digging motions. This hooked the kids mentally into the idea of shifting, digging, and activating our thinking. I challenged them with pictures of animals in different situations, some happy, some not. Students looked at the pictures and shared what they observed. Then I asked them to think about what these animals would tell us, careful to not drive their ideas from my perspective but to get them to think in different ways. Interesting debates began to surface. Some students believed the animals were happy, even when the pictures were of animals trapped, or in large nets or tiny cages. Some had different ideas and said they couldn't be happy because they weren't free. It was interesting that sometimes the kids would make the puppy digging motions as they offered their ideas and suggestions, almost as an involuntary way of working through their thinking.
However, one of the most interesting debates came from one odd and wonderful little girl that I teach. She told me, "The lion says, Yum, I want to EAT the zebra!" So I pondered out loud, I wonder if that's fair....
She immediately said, "Yes, it's fair. If the lion doesn't eat the zebra he will die." But another boy argued, "No, it's not fair! Then the zebra dies! Why doesn't the lion just eat the apples in the jungle?" I quickly started to write down student questions that spun off from this conversation and posted them to the student question wall.
"Do lions eat apples and oranges?"
"Do lions live in the jungle?"
"What happens if there are so, so many zebras because the lions don't eat them?"
"What if the zebras all die, what happens to the lions?"
This gave me clear and wonderful insight into the misconceptions, prior knowledge and readiness groupings of my students. After a long talk about being fair there was this beautiful moment when a little boy pointed at the Learner Profile wall and stated, “But Ms. Tosca it's about being balanced too, right? We are all connected and so it’s not fair but it has to be like that, right?”
I couldn't have said it better myself.
Now, I had them right where I wanted them. Invested in their learning. Understanding the Learner Profiles as real and contextual, asking deep questions, debating and justifying their ideas, eager to find out more, admitting that they didn't know and willing to take the risk to be wrong.
I wasn't looking for a 'right' answer at the end of the session, I was looking to see what my students were knowledgeable about, where their misconceptions lay, what they were interested in, and for them to become inquirers.
My own practice is a highly iterative one. I am constantly in flux because I am always thinking about how I could improve and change. But sometimes I miss things. This year's group of students were telling me something different than last year's group of learners. When they turned the units into themes, they were telling me they didn't know how to be inquirers. They were telling me they needed a bit more modelling, a bit more help to get there. They needed a scaffold, a book, a conversation - and more. I was lucky I took the time to listen.
So I challenge you to be reflective too. Ask yourself:
How do I unpack the Learner Profile attributes in my classroom each day?
How do I celebrate and acknowledge when my students embody and show the attributes?
How do I design the learning happening in my class to promote deep thinking and connection to the transdisciplinary themes and key concepts?
How do I renegotiate units in response to my reflections?
How do I use what I know of my learners to guide the inquiry?