Some people love it. Some people hate it. Some people are just waiting until we get back to the “good old days” of spelling tests, worksheets, and math drills. Over this past week alone, both through online conversations, emails, and face-to-face discussions, I have heard it all when it comes to inquiry. This definitely seems to be one word that brings out the passion in people: be it positive or negative.
I used to think that I taught through inquiry, until two summers ago when I read Natural Curiosity and Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles In Action. Then I realized what inquiry really was and what it could be, and I looked at how to embrace this philosophy as a Grade 5 teacher. It was a very interesting year, full of lots of new learning for me and for my students.
Now this year, I’ve moved schools, changed grades (going back to primary and teaching Grade 1), and am still believing in the benefits of inquiry. A couple of days ago, my previous vice principal, Kristi, tweeted me with this blog post request.
This is something that I’ve actually been thinking about this week, and so ask, and you shall receive. 🙂 Here are my thoughts:
- In primary, students largely haven’t become as accustomed to worksheets and textbooks as they may have in junior, so they are more easily open to new ways of finding out information and sharing learning.
- The Full-Day Kindergarten Program often provides students with lots of opportunities to question and wonder (on topics that interest them), so many primary students continue to share these natural wonders in the classroom. (They don’t seem to need much encouragement to do so.) In junior grades, students seem more accustomed to the teacher doing the questioning, and it can take a while to help them redevelop these skills. Continuing to develop deeper, richer questions is something that I think both primary and junior students need to work on. The Q-Chart is one resource that can be used in all grades to do so.
- Overall, junior students are more independent readers and writers than primary students — often giving them easier access to a wide variety of content, and allowing them to easily record their new learning. In primary, I think the teacher has to do a little more work to help track down content at the students’ reading/comprehension levels and/or looking at audio or video options. (That being said, often junior teachers have a couple of students in the class that struggle in reading or writing. They may need to help access content for these students, and audio or video options and simpler texts are all good possibilities.) Showing primary students how to record their thinking using pictures, letter-sounds, and a few familiar words is important. With this modelling though, students can “write down” their learning in a way that’s developmentally appropriate for them.
- Junior students usually have more background information about topics — especially curriculum-related ones. This often allows them to dig deeper with their questions and their thinking. In primary, it’s essential to provide students with lots of background information so that they can further revise their questions and wonders. Related objects, simple reading materials, audio recordings, and videos can all help students learn more so that they can inquire more. Junior students still need to read lots to dig deeper, but I found that normally their starting point is further ahead (this may be different for each class though).
- The expectations, including the overall ones, often become more complex in junior grades. This makes it harder to connect all topics of interest. The primary expectations — especially those from Kindergarten and Grade 1 — are far more open-ended in all subject areas, so even students’ general interest questions can often connect to them. This gives more options for inquiry questions that relate to student interests, while also (importantly/essentially) connecting to curriculum expectations.
- Primary and junior students often seem to share their learning in different ways. While many older students will write about what they learned (at least to some extent), many young primary students seem to struggle more with writing. They are just developing these skills. They often use The Arts, building and creating, and oral discussions to share their learning. I think that this may change throughout the year, as my young students learn to write more. They’re already getting more excited about writing, and I hope to see this impact on how they share their learning.
- In both primary and junior, it’s important to document student learning and share it with others (parents being one of these key players). In junior, I found it easy from early on to have students involved in this documentation. They would often compose tweets sharing their learning or add captions to photographs that I took. In Grade 1, right now, this is more of a shared writing or interactive writing activity. I am definitely doing more of the documentation, but students are starting to orally discuss their learning (which is definitely a part of this documentation). Since so much is oral right now, I find myself recording more podcasts, as this is an easy way for students to play a bigger role in documentation: I press “record” and they talk. I showed them the other day how to record their own podcasts, so I’m hoping this will be the start of more student documentation. As I write this blog post, I wonder about the use of a screencasting app. Students could insert a photograph of their work, and discuss their learning using Educreations or ScreenChomp. I may need to try this next week.
- The types of small group mini-lessons and direct teaching are often different in primary and junior grades. Right now, in Grade 1, my mini-lessons are often focused on writing skills: helping students segment words by letter-sounds and using familiar words in the classroom to assist them with the actual writing process. In the junior grades, my mini-lessons were often related to expanding on ideas and sharing more of their thinking based on what they read or heard. These mini-lessons are sure to change throughout the year and would obviously be different in different classrooms, based on student needs. It’s important to remember that inquiry does not mean no direct instruction. It’s how this instruction happens that matters. The more conversations I have with people, the more I think that this is a key misunderstanding that often makes people “hate inquiry.”
While there are definitely differences in inquiry teaching in primary versus junior, I certainly see benefits to inquiry in all grades. After reflecting on my first week back at school though, I believe that we really need to somehow develop a shared understanding of what inquiry is and what it is not. I’ve seen first-hand that inquiry results in the improvement of students’ collaboration skills, thinking skills, and overall independence, while also allowing for more small group instruction: leading to the development of greater reading, writing, and math skills. After last year in junior and even after just one week back in primary, I can tell you that inquiry has helped me improve in “assessment for learning”: meeting students where they’re at and planning ahead to lead to greater student success. How do you support inquiry in the classroom? What differences and/or similarities do you see between inquiry in the primary and junior grades? I would love to hear your thoughts on this!