October 23, 2011

Permanent State of Re-Invention

I turn around and look at the teacher I was in August and my perspectives have changed so dramatically that I have some difficulty remembering exactly what it felt like 'before'. I remember sitting down to plan with Amy Park in August and being confused about how to allow for openness in learning while restricting inquiry to the curriculum topics. I remember answering a question about 'inquiry' in our first staff PD and feeling uncomfortable with the answer. I remember driving to the Shuswap reading Fosnot and having the feeling that we were on to something big by introducing conversation and conjectures in mathematics but being terribly unsure of how to properly explain the necessity of cultivating understanding vs. memorization. On my own journey of inquiry into how best to construct a classroom of passionate exploration and powerful educational experiences, I have had three important conversations that stand out.

The first was two days before the school year began as I sat down to plan a year of learning with my new teaching partner. I had not yet given lesson design any thought, I knew Amy knew inquiry and expected the direction to come from her. We began with a look at the curriculum and I was instantly lost between a desire to open the topics completely and the feeling that we would be better to address each area of study bullet point by bullet point. Unsure of how to connect these, I asked Amy if, in an inquiry classroom, the teacher knew where they were heading. 'Absolutely,' was the response. 'If you don't know where you're going, how do you know when you get there?' First lightbulb! Start with 'what do I want them to 'get', see, appreciate or understand.' Ask questions but understand that directionless questioning will result in directionless exploration and people disengage without a destination. I love analogies, so here's an analogy of how I was suddenly able to appreciate an inquiry-based lesson design.

'Class, there's a mountaintop. We need to get there... It's pristine and inspiring. It will give phenomenal views of the valley and a new perspective on the world." 

My second 'A-ha!' was during our first PD of the school year as I returned my 'what is inquiry' sheet to our PD and Outreach Coordinator Neil Stephenson. We had been asked to identify examples of inquiry in the work we had undertaken in our classrooms. I struggled to find examples. I wasn't sure they were good ones. I wasn't sure I had hit the nail on the head in my explanation of what inquiry was. I was uncomfortable with the fact that I was partly wrong. 'I'm not happy with my answers' was my comment to Neil as I returned my sheet. 'That's fine, you don't need to be' was the response. It was the first time that I considered there to be value in acknowledging an unknown. By identifying the fact that I was unsure about the answers I allowed for possibilities. Neil's response provided a challenge and opened a space in which to inquire. The topic of inquiry, what and how, became exciting because it was presented as uncharted territory. No one had given me an absolute answer and I was lead to believe that a permanent definition might not even yet exist. Second lightbulb! A 'hook'. Identify that there might be more than one way of answering a question or uncovering a solution. Suggest that there might even be strategies yet to be discovered. Suggest that a fresh approach might be pivotal, that our way of thinking could be the answer...

'I know there's at least one way to get there. I'm not sure if it's the fastest way. I'm not sure if it's the only way. I just know that mountaintop is worth getting to.'

The third lightbulb came over a weekend away at the Shuswap in which I took Fosnot's Young Mathematicians at Work - Multiplication and Division  and David Perkins' Making Learning Whole and then tried to explain to my husband the irrelevance of 'training' children to memorize mathematical equations and concepts. I remember announcing with gusto 'It's just not good enough for them to tell me that 7x3 is 21 if they have no idea what it represents!' To which he responded: 'But if they can answer the question, why is it so necessary that they understand exactly what they're doing?' I remember being most frustrated by my inability to answer his question with authority. 'I just don't exactly know yet' was my mostly huffy response as I rushed back to the books I'd brought with me to blend a Fosnot/Perkins perspective into an answer. I didn't get an absolute answer for Scott from my reading. But I did get an appreciation for the things you learn on the path of discovery. And two weeks later, as Amy and I tossed around some questions for Math over the phone, I finally had that next 'A-ha!' as we reflected on the difference between teaching them answers and asking them questions... 'Are we getting kids to think, or are we telling them what to think?" was her question as I elaborated on how I had arrived at the idea that rather than give them strategies for each multiple, we ask them which to discover their own. I finally had an answer for Scott and was one step deeper into understanding the process.

'Is the path most traveled up that mountain the fastest? Is it the most rewarding? Can it connect to other paths along the way and in what way or how often? Explore. Imagine. Share what you discover along the way and remember that the experiences that change you along the way are what will make the top worthwhile.'

Through connecting with other brilliant educators on twitter, by reading an insane amount of blogposts, and trying to justify my new understandings to everyone I meet, I have had hundreds other lightbulb moments, but these three still stand out as transformative. For other teachers on the trip up the mountain, though I am still nowhere near the top (and am starting to think that getting there might not even be the point) I'm high enough that I've had glimpses of the view and man is it powerful. Inquiry is worth it.

"The re-invention of daily life means marching off the edge of our maps."       Bob Black


  1. As you look to August and think, 'who was I?' - know that I too look back and think, look where I/we have come. Despite 9 years in this profession, with countless A-HA moments, this has been, by far, the most transformational year for me. I love the analogy of the mountain top. There have been days when I feel as though I am close to the top and others where I feel as though I am falling, uncontrollably to the bottom. Yet each day, I learn and grow. Being on this journey together has been some of the best professional development I have ever experienced.

    This is what I know:

    The amazing thing about inquiry is that there is no "one" way. There are limitless paths that take both teachers and students on incredible journeys of discovery. Where the lines between teacher and student are completely blurred. Days when I am sure the students have taught me more than I them.

    When thinking about inquiry, I often turn to my mentors from Galileo Educational Network. This passage from Galileo speaks to the way we teach and the way we engage our students in meaningful learning experiences:

    "Students learn in different ways and effective teachers must be able to design rich learning experiences for students that engage their minds and hearts in intellectually robust ways. Recent research has revealed that students need to have ongoing assessment woven into the very fabric of their day-to-day learning experiences in order to become self-directed in their learning and teachers need to use this assessment information to guide their instructional decisions. It matters that teachers and students build strong pedagogical relationships. In addition, teachers need to work with other teachers to improve their practice."

    I have seen evidence of all that is mentioned above in our classes. Is it perfect? Not quite (yet). But are we on the right path? Without a doubt. Students are excited about learning, they believe that anything is possible, they trust that there isn't always one answer (and they are willing to give it all they have), they question and re-question, and they support one another (even if they disagree). You are right in so many ways - Inquiry IS worth it!!!

    You cannot teach a man anything. You can only help him discover it within himself. - Galileo Galilei

  2. D, your passion for your profession is palpable, and it is a beautiful thing. What struck me from this post is the idea of 'opening space in which to inquire'. Funny you phrase this in this particular way, as my current professor uses the same terms, though obviously in a different context. What resonates for me, though, is the concept of 'allowing for possibilities', whether it be in your teaching methods, in your students' answers, or when I am working with patients. What could be more exciting than to learn and discover what is possible beyond what we know! But we have to allow for it first!