Teacher Reflections

Designing an Inquiry - By Sonja Wilson

A year ago I was provided with the opportunity to coordinate an AISI project for our school. I was told that it involved working with a professional development organization called Galileo. My curiosity, stemming from the science teacher in me, was immediately peaked. I was quick to recognize who Galileo the scientist was, but was not so quick to recognize what the Galileo Educational Network entailed.

It was apparent the work that Galileo did in creating teaching and learning had depth. Out of my thirst for cognizance, I began to dig. The well I began digging reached far into the aquifer when understanding began to flow. It was at this point that I struck water, and I truly understood what it meant to create a learning experience for my students. The Blue Planet project was authentic learning for my students, and it profoundly changed the way I viewed teaching and learning. It was not an easy well to dig, with rock formations to be conquered, time consumed and frustrations plentiful. The resulting degree of appreciation for water as an undervalued resource was extensive.

It had been my teaching experience to be well adept at knowing what pages of the textbook had to be covered by what date, as well as when the quizzes and test would fall in order to cover the textbook by the first week of June. This would allow the next two weeks to review for the big test of knowledge: the final exam. I knew that a bowl of porridge would stick with them longer than 10 months of learning in this manner. How to achieve an enduring understanding of the concepts while obtaining life skills, became my quest. This journey began with the grade 8 science unit - Salt and Fresh water systems.

I spent two days diving into the curriculum and repeatedly asking myself, “If my students forget all but one thing about water, what would I want that one thing to be?” Humans impact water and water impacts humans formed the enduring understanding. I wanted my students, as adults, to be able to meet me on the street and tell me they have made positive choices regarding water. Understanding what I want students to know allowed well-developed tasks to form. It was clear to me that teaching and learning in this manner would result in uncovering the curriculum rather than simply covering the textbook.

Designing an authentic and intriguing task for students was essential to ensure achievement of the fundamental understanding. It was essential that the students feel that their work matters for more than a mark on a report card. In a conversation with a parent, the father remarked that the nature of their supper conversation centers on water and what they, as feedlot operators, were doing to affect it. This social value mixed with personal relevance created an atmosphere for learning. Students were able to investigate a variety of viewpoints and select what was personally relevant for their inquiry.

The ultimate task of creating a group presentation for a public water conference allowed the students to communicate their learning with a variety of people. The attendees included parents, staff members, grand parents, former teachers, community members, local water experts, and a member of Alberta Environment responsible for public education, pollution prevention and the development of the provincial water strategy. It was clear that society cares: adults also seek to understand this issue and what the students have to say matters.

Following the conference I asked the students if they felt the water conference was worthwhile. Some of the responses included:

“…it was exciting to teach other people about your issue. It was a lot of work but worth it.”

“(The best part was) being able to teach other people about the issue…. gaining others knowledge….being able to present because you feel important and you fell like you can make a change in the way we use our water supply.”

“The best part (of the project) was the positive feedback (from the community) on the presentation.”

“The best part was presenting and getting the information out.”

“I wasn’t there (at the conference) but I wish I was now”

In achieving understanding of fundamental concepts, my role as a teacher changed. The delivery of facts was replaced by carefully formulated questions. Student requirements were not what tradition dictated.

Students became teachers.

“The best part was not sitting in a classroom working out of a textbook.”

“The best part was making the presentation and working in groups. I liked it because I got to share my ideas with other people.”

“It was fun to learn from other groups.”

Working with a relevant semi structured problem, the student rose to the challenge. Self, parent and peer assessments, combined with personal management checks and rubrics, clarified the expectations. One parent assessment of her child’s research paper stated,

“I enjoyed this paper and the subsequent discussion that followed with the family. I found it thought provoking, educational and responsibility for our oceans was shown to be ours. Thank you!”

Another parent wrote,

“…thank you for asking me to edit your project. I felt very honored and proud. Great work!”

Students knew what was expected of them and the requirements for achieving the mark that they desired. The students demonstrated problem solving, communication, decision making and project management skills expected of high school students, who are four years older than these students.

Technology became the tool to conduct the research, share the information, solve problems, create meaning and communicate knowledge. Technology made it possible. The students made it happen.

The students were skeptical of their ability to present at a water conference. After the conference, I asked the students if initially they felt they would be a successful at presenting at the conference. There were many “no” answers and pleasantly surprised students.

“No, I didn’t clearly know and understand everything about water systems but after studying and doing the project on it, it was quite easy.”

“No, because I looked too big and out of reach and too hard.”

“No, because I didn’t think that school would do anything so big and water would be that big of a deal.”

“No, because I thought that we could not turn a research paper in to PowerPoint and make it look good. I did not think that if we did do it, it would be such a big deal to lots of people.”

“No, not really because I have never done anything so important…”

“No, the conference was a new far out idea.”

“No, because I am not good at talking in big groups.”

“Yes, I knew it was possible but it would take some hard work.”

An overwhelming “yes” was the response given by students when asked if the project was a worthwhile learning experience.

Two months after the water conference, a group of my students were asked to present their learning experience with inquiry-based projects and integration of technology to Alberta Learning, and later for the administrators of the school division.

It was during their presentations that I realized my dream of wanting my students, as adults, to be able to meet me on the street and tell me they have made positive choices regarding water would truly happen. The students were able to talk freely and knowledgeably about human impact on water and water impact on humans.

Diving into the Blue Planet water project provided a fluid understanding of what is required to ensure that students will have an enduring understanding of the concepts while obtaining essential skills.

Inquiring minds want to know!

When I create an authentic task the possibilities are endless. Through teaching students to be responsible citizens, I have learned what is required to be a responsible educator.

©2002 Golden Hills School Division #75
©2002 The Galileo Educational Network Association