February 24, 2012

Learning from 9 yr olds...

Deirdre Bailey

As we explore the value of collaboration and inquire into effective learning, the most valuable discovery that I have made this year is that children have a lot to share; the more I listen, the more I learn and - beautifully - the more they learn.

I started the year with the expectation that I would help them discover what it was that I wanted them to know; I expected that I would never lose sight of where we were going and my goal was to track their progress and ensure that their path was tracking in the right direction. I wrote a blog earlier in the year on how the process of inquiry was like climbing a mountain where the destination was the peak, identified by the 'teacher' but the path was freely chosen by the 'learner'. The first time the kids went up a mountain, the paths were varied and hesitant. By mid-January they were almost exclusively ploughing ahead without much need for re-direction. Most recently, I have been discovering that the peak is not where I thought it was, it reaches higher, to a destination originally obscured by the clouds of my own prior knowledge and prejudice. Nine-year-old students have been taking their learning beyond the ends I envisioned and they have been finding faster routes to the peak. It is to the point where when we ask a question, their thinking takes them places I never expected it could go.

A week ago we started a conversation about characteristics and terminology for 3D shapes drawing on their previous knowledge. We had managed to define a point as a location where 3 edges meet which led to a conversation about cones and how to explain the point on a cone as there are no clear edges. Based on previous conversations in class related to the concept of infinity, one of the students defined a cone as a 3D object with an infinite number of edges. Boom. Grade four.

A few days ago we had a conversation about the differences between 3D and 2D in which they were easily able to engage, in particular drawing from their experiences with 3D films and video games. Definitions ranged from descriptive and sensory to mathematical. One student defined 3D as a piece of paper and 2D as the writing on the paper which led to a counter-argument that writing exists on paper as a result of ink molecules which are 3D on a miniscule level but nevertheless 3D. The question was then raised whether anything not 3D could exist in the world. One student responded with: "Nothing in the world is 2D. 2D is just an image in your brain. 2D is a thought, not a thing." Boom. Nine years old.

Yesterday a student suggested at the end of a Math period that we refocus our discussions by defining as a class units of measurement for 1, 2 and 3 dimensional entities. Today a student suggested we use Google Sketchup to expand on our exploration of three-dimensional shapes. "I'm thinking you could challenge us to construct a building within some parameters, maybe we could only use certain types of 3D shapes..."  Another student had been researching 4th and 5th dimensions and wanted to talk about the ambiguity of chance. We are becoming accessories in their learning. It's beautiful.

I continue to understand the inquiry process through the mountain exploration metaphor where we do not drag students to the top or march them up the well-worn path as might typically have been done in a more traditional system. As the guide, not the prison guard, I have come to understand that we are constantly engaged in empowering students' own decision-making such that they discover the peak for themselves. Most recently, I have realized that the more we let them think, the more they think, the more they know, the more they understand and the more we learn together. I wish I could have explained multiplicative commutativity with their conviction when I was in elementary school. Maybe I could have if someone had given me time or permission to play with rotating arrays. Opportunity is everything: tell them that the sky is the limit, point them in that direction, and they will land on the moon. Cheesy. Cliche. Fact.

February 8, 2012


Amy Park

Inquiry takes time.  This has been a recurring theme, and one we have discussed at length, in our math/science class over the past few months.  If we want students to become proficient in any aspect of their learning, or life for that matter, we must give them time.  Time to wrestle with challenging issues. Time to celebrate small successes. Time to learn from mistakes. Time to listen to each other and time to grow.  When we rush kids through the learning process we deny them the necessary foundational blocks needed to develop into successful, self-directed learners.  The curriculum is filled with content and at times can seem overwhelming.  If we focus on “covering” each strand, then we lose sight of the big picture.  By pushing through the curriculum, we change the focus from being student centered to teacher centred.  This is not to say that the curriculum is not an important document. It is. However, as a professional, I see it as my responsibility to carefully read through the curriculum and determine what are the “need to know”, “nice to know” and “worth being familiar with” components – a model based on Wiggins and McTighe research

We discovered through our recent Science inquiry into decomposition, that in order for kids to demonstrate depth of understanding, we need to be on their schedule, not ours.  We have invested hours of work into building background knowledge, conducting research, experimenting in the science lab, and finally documenting the entire learning process. Now that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, we have been struggling with wanting to wrap things up.
But the learning process can’t always be wrapped up in nice, neat, little packages. Just because we want to move on, doesn’t mean our students are ready to. Listening to their voices and actually internalizing what they are saying (or not saying) has caused us to rethink our desire to "keep on keeping on".  Taking that little bit of extra time to really listen has helped us realize how much our students are learning about being true scientists, mathematicians, technologists, writers, producers, artists, and more.  They are also developing strengths and skills as collaborators, problem solvers, critical thinkers, reflective thinkers, and they are increasingly able to interpret all different kinds of data in order to create meaning. These curious and confident nine-year-olds prove to us everyday that being committed to the goal of learning and inquiring is far more important than being able to recall mundane facts that will be forgotten the moment they step out of our room at the end of June. We are hopeful that the skills, competencies, and attitudes that our students will be leaving with will serve them well as they venture into higher grades.  Effectively developing these simply wouldn't be possible without time.

Professor Lilliane McDermott further emphasizes this point. She states, “Meaningful learning…requires that students be intellectually active… To be able to transfer a skill learned in one context to another, students need multiple opportunities to use that same skill in different contexts. The entire process requires time”.

McDermott, L. (1993). How we teach and how students learn:  A mismatch? American Journal of Physics, 61(4). University of Washington.

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005) Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD)