Sunday, August 11, 2013

Why Inquiry?

The simple answer is that inquiry lessons are a good use of class time. The real answer is a little more complicated. With the flipped learning model, lecture time has been traded for time to really work with students helping them learn, apply and practice. For the last two years the lessons have been changed and improved to take advantage of the time with students. Even with better activities, the majority of students are still focused on completing the work and grades rather than the learning. After conferences, professional development and a couple graduate courses, I finally got the message, the assigned work is designed to be completed and graded. Overall the level and contend of the assignments are fine, but the style of the assignment needs to change. The focus has to shift from answering a series of questions from the teacher to something more meaningful to the student. Inquiry has the potential of shifting the goal to learning and thinking. 

I have tried a few inquiry lessons before with mixed results. The lessons that turned out well were accidentally designed correctly. There was also an element of luck to go along with the curious nature of the students doing the work. The lessons that missed the mark were due to my misunderstanding and lack of knowledge regarding creating an inquiry lesson. With years of assigning labs with well-defined procedures, I have seen inquiry as more of a method for the ideal science class full of future scientists. For an on-level course it appeared to be an invitation to a free-for-all with expensive equipment, a big time drain in an over-full curriculum and have the tendency to provide more play time than real learning. What I have learned is that more inquiry is exactly what the on-level, non-science students need to learn and enjoy science. Students will need time and training to learn how to participate in inquiry successfully. The naturally curious and confident students will adapt quickly. Those that are unsure or intimidated by science will need encouragement to become comfortable with the open nature of this method.

I have to become more comfortable with creating inquiry lessons. The abilities and understanding of inquiry learning provide a frame work for designing quality lessons and activities. Using those to analyze, adapt and create labs will ensure that learning is part of the lesson in which the focus is shifted to the student.  I have found that inquiry lessons are far more flexible than originally thought. They can range in depth as well as the amount of teacher direction. One of the requirements of inquiry is the assessment of learning throughout the activity. It is important that the students are helped to stay on track with their learning. They should also be asked to show what they understand at different points during the activity. With the checks in place students can be lead through the process with varying amounts of intervention depending on the needs of the students.

There is more to inquiry than just posing a problem and letting students create a question then find the answer. Work must be done in advance to set the student up for success. They need to be familiar with using measuring tools, creating an investigable question, designing an experiment, analyzing results for evidence and using the evidence to make a valid conclusion. For the student who has only seen labs that are procedure and question driven, this will take some adjustment and modeling. Since the students do the creating and designing the ideas come from their experiences and prior knowledge and are at a level that matches their abilities and understanding. This gives the student a comfortable starting point to build upon. It is also using the curiosity of the student to create meaning and a reason to learn more about the topic. Students have the freedom and opportunity to learn at a deeper level. 

I should say that the title is an example of a non-investigable question. For inquiry purposes the question should be “How will inquiry lessons change the learning in my physics class this fall?” The change should help the student change focus from completion to learning. I hope inquiry will lead individuals to find meaning in the work they are doing and they will be excited to show their understanding of concepts not just memorized fact and processes. I am excited about assigning and facilitating the inquiry lessons this fall. Inquiry lessons will be the starting point of a new unit. Since students already have some experience with motion, forces and other physics concepts it makes sense to have a way for student to start from what they already know. This will create interest in the upcoming learning and provide an opportunity review prior knowledge and to correct misconceptions. Students will be encouraged to create a question of their own that goes beyond the initial inquiry and can be answered with the learning throughout the unit. I would love it if students arrived in class wondering what they were going to learn today.

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.