Saturday, August 3, 2013

Inquiry: Learning a Lesson Instead of Completing an Assignment

Two years ago I changed the style of my physics class from a lecture based format to a more student-centered format by introducing flipped learning. In this transition I learned some unexpected lessons. The more student-centered a class becomes, the more important the ability of the teacher to instruct becomes. Also, unfortunately students do work to get good grades, learning is often secondary.  Finally, changing the system for high school juniors is difficult. It is difficult to convince eleventh grade students that completing an assignment is not the same as learning the lesson. Even with more class time dedicated to guiding students through application and practice many are still moving through the activities, complying and completing with only incidental learning occurring. The trick is to find a way to introduce activities where learning is primary and meaningful and evaluation is continuous not just at the end of the process. 

Designing lessons around inquiry learning removes the goal of completion and replaces it with creating and answering a question. Instead of “Collect data to create a graph showing the relationship of mass vs. weight” the lesson changes to “How can you determine the relationship between mass vs. weight?” This change puts the emphasis on the process not the final product. Focusing on the process makes the activity a real learning experience for the student. Instead of a single final product to grade, the teacher evaluates progress and learning throughout the lesson and the student is challenged to show learning with each step. 

To engage the students in the lesson the teacher designs an introductory activity with an over-arching question in mind. This activity should build on prior knowledge, pique interest, create relevance and draw out misconceptions. With this start the students can use familiar ideas and their curiosity formulate questions about what they wish to learn regarding the topic. 

Moving into the exploration phase of inquiry the curious student has created comfortable and personal base with which to proceed. Students can test theories, make observations, correct misconceptions and really experience learning. In this step the teacher is an observer. Skill is required to listen to the wonderful conversations and ask leading questions. While it is important to ensure the students address and correct their misconceptions, self-control is also needed to remain in the background as the student learns. By acting as an observer and facilitator the teacher gives the students control over their learning while keeping intervention limited to redirection and providing information when absolutely needed. Watching how the students explore and converse as they move through this step the teacher can witness and evaluate the learning process in action.

Having had the opportunity to explore the concept the student has gained knowledge, created new ideas and improved understanding. All of this will be used to explain the observations made during the exploration. At this point the student can show understanding based on personal experience. Now it is time for the teacher to add new information. The new knowledge can help build a more formal framework for the experience. It will also give the student a deeper understanding of the lesson. 

Together the student and teacher prepare to broaden the learning beyond personal experience. Combining experience and the new knowledge the student moves on to expand the ideas and questions to different situations. Personal knowledge becomes general rules or leads to more questions. The teacher’s role at this point is to ask the student to show or tell what they know now and ask what they think about a different situation or application. 

In each of the steps of this lesson cycle the role of the teacher is to monitor, redirect, question, and evaluate the learning. The role of the student is to show learning with experience, evidence and reasoning. Changing the goal from answering a series of questions or solving a problem set to feeding curiosity and showing learning removes completion as a goal and focuses on learning. When implementing this in the fall I hope I see the shift in my classroom. Perhaps students will realize if they take care of the learning, good grades will follow.

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