Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Being Curious and Inquiry Learning

For some years we have been promoting curiosity via our approach to inquiry learning.

 We want the boys to develop an inquisitive disposition to the point of it being second nature to them. The macro picture of inquiry can be deceiving and may be seen as simply fostering curiosity, which of course is a laudable pursuit.

Inquiry learning starts with curiosity and exploration and leads to investigation into a worthy question, problem or idea. It involves asking questions, challenging the known, gathering and analysing information, generating solutions, making decisions, justifying conclusions and taking action.

Our job as educators is to enthuse and encourage the curiosity within children and in parallel, build the skills of developing good questions for inquiry, seeking out answers, testing hypotheses and exploring other questions generated during the inquiry.  The skills of inquiry learning are the building blocks for all learning.

I recently re-read a powerful quote from a former Headmaster (Gardner Dunnan) of the Dalton School in the USA.

“All students need a realm in which they can feel ‘expert’. That takes time, attention and hard work. But in developing that interest, they gain a capacity to succeed that you don’t get simply by having broad coverage.”

Just over a decade ago we started a class of 11 and 12 year olds who had already developed a strong set of work and study skills and were already well on their way to becoming independent learners. We gave them an opportunity to select a topic of choice and over the year complete an extended study culminating in a presentation of their work in November/December. I underline the fact that the whole process, including the decision around the initial question/topic, was supported and ‘scaffolded’ by the teacher. An enormous amount of ‘skill’ teaching and mentoring was involved.

This is really the ‘short story’ of the concept, but believe me when I say, the boys in this class over the years have all leapt at the challenge and their engagement has been inspirational to observe. They finish the year incredibly proud of their achievements (incredibly impressive studies) and move onto secondary school superbly prepared as ‘independent learners’ with a love of learning.

The year-long study would not suit every boy’s learning style. For this reason, all classes at the same year level are involved in inquiry learning but not in this ‘extended study’ approach.

However through our experience and observations, we had a strong hunch that this model did suit a number of children, even children who found some of the basics of literacy challenging, so in 2012 we trialled this approach with another class of 11 and 12 year olds. The class was selected as any homogenous class would be, except we identified children who we thought would enjoy and benefit by the extended study style of learning.

On reflection it has been a great success and the engagement of almost all the boys went to another level. Staff, parent and the boys’ feedback has been extremely positive.

One of the boys completed a study around the subject of Lego! Many would question whether there was enough ‘meat’ in this topic to complete a year-long inquiry? No question, as the student completed his inquiry and exceeded all our expectations. At the end of the year I asked him to reflect on his year and this is what he emailed me:

·         I liked being in an extended study class because it meant that we could do 'in-depth' research of a topic of our choice, something that we got really excited about. I really enjoyed coming up with different options of topics to do.

·         I personally liked the fact that we got to make our own booklet AND do a presentation to the class.

·         The way that we decided the questions we were going to ask for our study was really effective (using the windows program 'Inspiration')
·         It gives you a feel of what college will be like, with deadlines, projects, etc.

·         I like how you have to do a lot of designing the layout of your booklet.

·         You learn how to manage your time.

·         The teacher doesn't tell you how you should do something, you come up with a solution yourself.
Now the negatives:

·         Sometimes you might feel a bit, 'lost'

·         There are no other negatives.
All in all I like the way our class this year was run. I would love to have the opportunity to do it again.
We had a fantastic teacher, and i will miss this class next year at college.
From: Noah

Inquiry learning is indeed engaging and empowering. Good questioning is at the heart of the inquiry process. It is often open-ended (has no right or wrong answer) and/or a provocative question which demands research.

Ideally this inquiry approach is authentic, real work that that someone in the community might tackle with the possibility of creating new knowledge.

We use various techniques and a thinking framework or taxonomy called SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) to structure a lot of our teaching and learning around the inquiry process. This powerful framework provides a range of tools to grow the boys’ thinking.

Our staff continue to reflect on the Wellesley teaching and learning approach, stretching ourselves to grow our own skill set via our active professional learning culture. ‘We are learners too’ and will continue to strive to enrich the boys’ learning environment.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Being Creative Can Be Plain Hard Work

During the school year I don’t have a lot of time to read apart from professional education reading but over the Christmas break I tend to plough through a few books. My son who is a scientist living in New York, came home for Christmas and gave me Christoph Niemann’s book called ‘Abstract City’.

Niemann is an illustrator, graphic designer and author. After his studies in Germany he moved to New York in 1997. Niemann's work has appeared on the covers of The New Yorker, Newsweek, Wired and American Illustration and has won numerous awards from the American Institute of Graphic Arts, the Art Directors Club and American Illustration.

His book, ‘Abstract City’ contains the original sixteen essays from Niemann’s New York Times visual blog.

In an additional chapter Niemann explains why talent is over-rated and how yoga almost destroyed is design career.

Niemann’s book really appealed to me on a number of levels but mostly because he gives us all permission and encouragement to ‘back’ our creative thoughts. Most of us look upon the ‘creatives’ as people with special talents way beyond our own. Niemann very simply builds our creative confidence by his own admission that being creative is mostly down to plain hard work and a bit of luck and divine inspiration. Sure, some people have certain aptitudes for this and that, but fundamentally, these aptitudes mean nothing without graft. Usually it is not until we have dug very deep before we realise we have a nugget to polish. In essence ‘we are all better than we know’. K.Hahn (Outward Bound’s founder)

His graphic below tells the story. He says, “I hate it when people tell me, ‘You are talented.’ The word ‘talent’ implies a natural gift. As if there is a miraculous superpower that helps an artist produce decent work.” P258 Abstract City

The other myth Niemann debunks, is that working in a creative field is all fun and games. Like all things that are worthwhile, they take hard work and usually stress comes with this territory. This other graphic done by him is appealing. P262 Abstract City

A key message we keep hearing is that for New Zealand to improve its competitiveness in the global market place, we must foster creativity, innovation and enterprise in all aspects of society and particularly in schools.

At the heart of making a real difference to productivity is ‘smart thinking’ aligned with the courage to push the boundaries of our imagination and dare to do something different. We need to develop aspiration in our children. The desire to make a difference, tap into their self- belief and when appropriate work with others to build momentum behind their idea(s).

Schools have the responsibility to actively promote creative thinking and provide time for children to push the boundaries of their imagination.  If we can get young children practising thinking ‘outside the square’ and provide them with some thinking strategies/tools to stretch the mind, then anything is possible.

Being creative is hard work but immensely satisfying. It is a joy to see a child beam as they realise their work is of value. It becomes a self-fulfilling cycle as the positive feedback is the motivation fuel for more hard work.

Reading ‘Abstract City’ has been a real tonic as not only has it been a fun read but it has reinforced so much of what I and our school believes to be fundamental, and that is, our job as educators is to provide contexts for creative endeavor (be it in the arts, science, maths or any pursuit), expectations of ‘personal best’ effort and a warm, inclusive culture that supports risk taking.