This is an area where I'll share not only the things that worked and the things that could be improved, but my personal thoughts and responses about the journey we took together, my students and I.
This project came about as part of the Humanities 10 program at H.J. Cody School. As part of the Humanities team, Galileo had always played a big role in our planning sessions. They helped us identify the big understandings we wanted our students to come away with, set curriculum-based goals, clarify and focus our thinking about teaching and learning, as well as actually create meaningful activities which would be used as the vehicle to achieve specific learning outcomes and design rubrics for assessment.
This project, however, involved a planning session with a difference. Candace Saar and I had previously experimented with Netmeeting software used in conjunction with the telephone to develop a unit while she remained in Calgary, and I in Sylvan Lake. In planning Riverrun, Candace came to Sylvan Lake equipped with a new tool, one called IO, which was designed to facilitate not only the planning model and the rationale behind it that we had implemented all year, but could also afford us future opportunities for team planning without travelling, making better use of our time. I was intrigued, and technophile that I am, immediately dove in.
I found IO, the online planning model that we used, to be an extremely thorough and robust tool for planning the unit. In the course of planning an inquiry-based unit of study, it took the designer through all the steps of bounding the inquiry, focusing the understandings, identifying possibly resources, and moving deeper, looking at what it is that is essential for students to come away with at the end of the inquiry. As well, the design of the unit linked the mandated outcomes with the skills and concepts the students would develop through carefully crafted activities related to developing the inquiry. All this was achieved through a rigorous process that, when completed under the mentorship of an experienced end user, was designed to ensure the development of a high quality unit that would foster critical and creative thinking skills in students, and give the designer a fuller understanding of the process and the thinking behind the achievement of this goal. For me, having a whole school year of onsite professional development, having exactly what I needed when I needed it, and having an ongoing mentorship process in place, was THE most singular and valuable experience in my teaching career. It is my fervent hope to make this experience available to other teachers.
This study intrigued me right from the beginning. I remember first learning of the fate of the Beothuk people when my daughter did a biography of the last remaining Beothuk, Shawnadithit, some years ago when she was in Grade 5. I jumped at the chance to revisit this fascinating topic, for the research I helped her do many years ago did not even hint at the fact that the demise of this entire culture could have been due to genocide. Was this one of Canada's dirty little secrets, akin to the Japanese internment camps, the residential schools for native children, the kind of "history" that is played down so much it is almost unavailable to the general public? I knew that if I was this hooked on learning more, my students would be similarly intrigued.
And so they were. As the study progressed, it was frustrating to find that it was very difficult to locate some of the information we knew had to be out there. Peter Such had published a book of research which included archeological findings that supported the incidents of which he had written in his novel Riverrun, but apart from that resource and some primary documents we were able to find on the Internet, we really had to dig deep to find reliable information. Next time, I would try to make some contacts with archeologists and other researchers in Newfoundland well in advance so they will have the time and resources to assist my students in their research. I think it would also be interesting to try to contact the author of the novel, and perhaps arrange a teleconference or e-mail exchange with him near the end of the study so the students could interview him and possibly get his feedback on their presentations. Another modification I would attempt would be to contact a high school in Newfoundland to do this study as a telecollaboration, culminating in an online or videoteleconference debate, depending upon available technology.
This study was well received by students and parents alike. Several parents commented on the fact that the students were supported in expressing their learning in so many different ways, that they were given an opportunity to showcase their knowledge in a manner that allowed them to best express themselves, as well as given opportunities to develop skills in areas that may have been weaker. For myself, I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to explore this topic side by side with my students, excited by the fact that I had no idea what we would discover in our research. I learned effective techniques for moderating a horseshoe debate, and knew I had been truly successful in my role as "co-learner" when a student turned to me to ask what my position was, and invited me to join the debate. The students were not the least bit intimidated by the idea of having me participate, and welcomed the opportunity to challenge my facts and thinking. I couldn't have asked for anything more!
I think the quality of the student work produced, and the evidence of their own reflections below, speaks volumes about the effectiveness of such a design process. I can't imagine designing projects any other way.
Hints and Tips
A valuable strategy is to have someone videotape the oral debates. These tapes can then be used in many ways: students can watch all the other debates, they can deconstruct various performances to identify strong debate skills, and they can analyze and assess their own performances as they search for means of improvement. Teachers can review the debates at their leisure and pick up on points and nuances they may have missed while the debate was actually in progress, allowing them to more effectively prepare questions and comments for the next one.
Recording student reactions, comments, and responses during seminars and debates provides a useful tool that can be inserted in webpages, presentation software such as powerpoint, or other multimedia productions. A digital audio recorder is an inexpensive piece of technology that can be used in many ways to record student reflections and provide insight into student learning. There are several freeware and shareware programs available with which to edit sound clips - a good place to search for such programs is www.download.com .
Posting the project in its entirety online has proven to be a particularly effective strategy. It allowed the students to be more autonomous learners, in that they could come in, check the online calendar for due dates, seminar group meetings, etc., and manage their own learning. It also gave them ready access to their work from home in the evenings. Communication between home and school was enhanced, and parents felt it allowed them to support their children's learning much more effectively.
"If we provide enough room for restlessness so that it might function
within the space, then the energy ceases to be restless because it can
trust itself fundamentally. Meditation is giving a huge, luscious meadow
to a restless cow. The cow might be restless for a while in its huge
meadow, but at some stage, because there is so much space, the restlessness
This quote is especially relevant to my experience with the inquiry-based approach to teaching and instructional design. I found that after an initial adjustment period, most of my students learned to "trust the process", to become comfortable in the meadow, to appreciate the expanding, nourishing, enriching field before them. I found many of the teachers on the Humanities teams from my own school as well as that of other schools also learned to trust that the process, the energy, the grittiness of the learning would culminate in deeper and richer understandings for the students. Others, both students and educators, had a difficult time letting go of old images of teaching and learning, and that 'restless energy' overcame them. They were simply not comfortable with a different way of doing things, and lacked the confidence that the process would result in deeper more meaningful learning.
Having observed both teachers and students work through the planning and design process as well as the actually implementation of inquiry-based units, I feel that it's important to note that people who want to plan this way, who want to implement inquiry-based learning as a way to go deeper, to develop those critical and creative thinking skills in their students and themselves, must first have a firm foundation as to what is important in the design process. It's not about the activities, it's not about the technology, it's about the learning, about the deeper understandings that are at the heart of the inquiry. It's about education as opposed to schooling, learning as opposed to training.
That being said, I have to comment on the role of technology in this project. Learning in a technology-rich environment has certainly been advantageous to my students in many respects. They were able to use the Internet to access many primary source documents such as diaries and letters, museum records, vintage photographs from the era, photographs of artifacts and the area in question, and other research. Having their course work and calendar available online make it possible for them to work on it easily from home, and e-mail their written assignments or research to school, where it would be available to them the next day in class. The speed of the school Internet access was a frustration and in many ways, a limiting factor for us. To accommodate for that, and to address the amount of "down time" I began to observe as students waited for pages to load, I restructured the class time so that multiple projects were taking place at once. At any given time, students could be reading their novel, off attending a seminar group meeting to present and discuss their responses to readings, doing research, writing reconsiderations based on discussions with other students, preparing opening statements for an oral debate, collecting quotes, creating images, or constructing webpages, among other things. This worked well to keep things on track, and the students faced increased accountability for managing their own learning.
The final thing I want to reflect upon is the quality of conversation surrounding this study. A well-designed inquiry, I believe, will foster a variety of interesting and worthwhile conversations that serve to deepen and enhance the learning as opposed to the more traditional approach of 'talking at' the students.. There were so many contexts surrounding our conversations, so many opportunities to support and facilitate learning that would have not been afforded had it not been for the inquiry-based design and nature of this study, the fact that the outcome was not predetermined or preordained. There were small group conversations during seminars, other conversations about the reconsiderations based on the first conversations, and conversations, sometimes quite heated ones, during the oral debates. There were large group conversations about the nature of the work itself and management issues. Some of the most interesting conversations took place as students began to make choices, selections, and decisions while they worked in teams to create visual representations of a theme, as they decided how to deconstruct a task and organize the workload, while they debated the underlying generalization they would present, or as they worked to come to consensus on issues that had arisen in their team.
Teachers, under an increasing workload and more and more curricular demands, often wonder how they will ever fit it all into a single year of teaching and learning. I firmly believe that a sound instructional design process such as the one used to create this unit, provides teachers with an answer.
The Last Word...
...belongs to the students:
Elliot Eisner, in his article "The Kind of Schools We Need", states "Educational aims have to do with matters of enlightenment, matters of developing abilities, matters of aesthetic experience. What we ought to be focusing our attention on is the creation of conditions in our classrooms and in our schools that make the process of education a process that students wish to pursue. The joy must be in the journey. It is the quality of the chase that matters most." (Elliot W. Eisner, "The Arts and the Creation of Mind", Yale University Press, 2002)
The quotes below demonstrate, I believe, the joy in our journey, the quality of our chase.
"I have learned many new skills to help me become successful in life. My people skills have improved in that I can more confidently publicly speak, and I can work better in a team. This has been improved by the presentations that we've had to give in front of the class. The next one is my debating skills. I have acquired a liking for debating in a group of my peers. I can deliver a powerful and meaningful statement, and I have the facts and confidence to back it up. I have also improved my research skills. I can find what I need right away, quickly and efficiently." -Clayton
"...with success comes problems, problems that you must analyze and solve. You have to be strong of mind and know how to look at a situation in more ways than one. You have to be able to see a problem from multiple angles because when you can do that, you will see multiple solutions." -Lloyd
"Before I had taken this class I was not an independent thinker. I very much needed instruction and guidance to complete tasks. I now consider myself very independent and organizational. I found that prioritizing is a key factor in this environment because I am given so much freedom. I think to actively participate in this class you have to be proactive." -Meagan
"...we were able to create a unique learning environment in which the exchange of information from teacher to student was almost painless. Gone was the learning by rote, the endless droning of a teacher not interested in the curriculum. The teachers in this program are passionate about what they do, and teach like it. Student feedback is always welcome, and is usually integrated into the program in some form." -Stephen
"Self-assessment has played a very large role in my learning this year. I've found that by assessing my work I have been able to find weaknesses I didn't know that I had before. I think that self-assessment has helped me be more self-reliant and it has helped me not to be as influenced by the other people. I am more self-reliant because I do not need a teacher to tell me what I am doing wrong in my work. I am finding my weaknesses on my own and I am also finding my own strengths. In turn, I can improve my work, and excel in what I am already doing well." -Sandi
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