March 19, 2013

Outside the Lines: Student Perspectives on Inquiry Learning

Sometimes it gets to me that my classroom is noisier and that my students’ work is messier. Why am I in constant negotiation with nine and ten year olds over quality, clarity, detail, what’s worth the effort and when it’s reasonable to expect to move on? Wednesday morning as I sat at my desk feeling uncertain and frustrated at the messiness of not having everything nailed down, categorized and properly evaluated, I decided to have a conversation with the kids about learning. I have to hand it to inquiry, it has made them good conversationalists and I have yet to regret asking students for their perspective in solving problems. This particular conversation was no exception...

Conversation originally recorded/documented on the white board and transcribed below. 

I need your help working through a few things. We talk a lot about how important it is to be informed by the ideas and suggestions of as many people as possible so I need you to be really honest for this conversation. Please try not to only share ideas you think I want to hear or that you have heard at home. I want what you share to be your thoughts and your perspectives. Okay?
Lots of nods

I’m wondering what learning was like for you before this year...
“Well mostly teachers just told us the answer to stuff and then tested us on it.”
“Yeah. It’s like it wasn’t about learning, just doing what you were told...”
“And nobody trusted us to do anything right. Or to do it a different way.”
“Well we basically got to do a whole bunch of different problems that were really just the same thing - not very useful.”
“We never really knew what we were doing. We just did it.”
“Yeah and you had to do it over and over.”
“Like tracing! Writing in the lines so you make the perfect size.”
“Over and over again is habit, not learning.”

Did it work though?
“Well no, it doesn’t work unless you always use those lines. Because you’re just copying lines.”
 “And you only did stuff for a period and then stopped. It might have worked if we learned things for longer than just a period.”
“We just rushed stuff.”
“Or memorized everything. But it’s different from learning. You never learn stuff if you just memorize it."
“It wore down my brain - I just stopped thinking.”

Okay, what motivated you to do the work before? Why did you write more neatly and “get your homework done on time?”
“To get good marks on tests.”
“Because people would be mad.”
“To get it over with.”
“For good grades on the report card.”
‘“Cause if you didn’t you missed recess.”
“To get candy”
“Because hockey depended on it.”
“We were forced.”
“We were bribed.”

So tell me about what it’s like learning in this classroom? The good and the bad. 
“Well we have lots of different tools that can enhance our learning. OR add distraction - it all depends on the decisions we make and how we use them.”
“We’re treated like adults. Like our ideas matter. Like they came from someone with way more experience.”
“It’s messier. Because you don’t have desks and you don’t have lines and practicing is your decision so sometimes you don’t.”
“Teachers don’t just have consequences, they have conversations.”
“You’re never done - even when you’re done. Done’s not a word in this school. ‘Cause it can always get way better.”
“It’s easier to be lazy or to get off task.”
“Failing doesn’t mean you did a bad job, it means try again.”
“How you figured out the answer matters as much as the answer.”
“And we don’t get told how to get the answer. It’s sometimes frustrating.”
“Yeah we FIGURE OUT the answer.”
“And before we do we talk about why and what and how...”
“Effort counts.”
“Teachers trust us. And we know they actually care...”

“Because they listen, and ask you questions, and look at you when you talk.”
“You can just FEEL it.”

Cool! So what motivates you to do your work this year? 
“It’s actually useful.”
“And you don’t want to miss anything!”
“Because I want be a part of it. Like the building or experimenting.”
“Because it’s okay if I don’t get it right the first time so I’m not afraid to try.”
“Because we don’t have to do it just one way. We have so much choice and freedom about how we do it.”

So why do things sometimes seem to be messier and slower this year?
“Well because most of us were so used to the lines. When there are no lines you don’t know what to do - you might hesitate.”
“Yeah, writing in lines is like memorizing or like building lego using the instructions... It’s nice if it’s supposed to be quick - not if you actually want to learn.”
“And also, stuff takes longer because there are so many different ways to solve problems. And lots of failing. But you can’t learn if you can’t fail.”
“When it’s about the presentation, it’s worth writing neatly. But when you’re just thinking, sometimes thinking IS messy.”
“Also, sometimes our work is a mess because we’re only human and we’re not always awesome. But making good decisions about our learning is our responsibility - not yours.”

Why school?
To learn, to get better at learning and to find things you love doing.
To experience success.
To teach.
So you can do anything.
So you can figure out how to live in the world.
To figure out how to work with people.
To understand.


  1. Excellent perspective on the work that you and your students are doing in your classroom.

    The same thing that makes inquiry learning so powerful is what frightens some people away from it: It's messy, loud, non-linear, and almost always up for negotiation. However it promotes powerful learning: question-posing, authentic research, true collaboration, producing real work for real audiences.

    Further, once the structures are established, it gives us so much more time to interact with small groups and individuals to assess, intervene, cajole, motivate, direct, extend, negotiate, and praise.

    This is certainly a blog post I will share with others. A nice encapsulation of inquiry's impact on students.

    1. Thanks very much for your comments Neil! I will definitely pass them on to the students. It has definitely been reaffirming to hear them advocate so articulately for inquiry learning, particularly in the midst of its messiness:-)

  2. Thanks, Deirdre:

    For the past eight years I've been teaching senior secondary humanities and this year I was "bumped" to grade 6/7 due to declining enrolment in our district. Your post mirrored conversations I've had this year in class. I've really enjoyed the flexibility that the elementary setting allows and relish the way inquiry beats the "mile wide, inch deep" approach to learning. I love that it allows for differentiation and lots of 1:1 conversations with students. Good luck with the rest of your year.

    1. Thanks a ton Jeff. I agree (though wish it were otherwise) that elementary tends to lend the flexibility for this type of learning and conversation. I hope the rest of your year goes well too!

  3. This is great! I feel the same way sometimes. I wish you were my son's teacher. I recently got into a twitter discussion with another teacher about the pros and cons of inquiry and co-creating with students. We were on different planets. This is my planet. Thanks for sharing this -- very energizing!

    1. Wow, thanks very much for the kind thoughts Martin. I am definitely grateful to have been enabled by working with a whole group of people on my planet.:-)