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Inquiry Based Lessons Require Flexibility (Part 2)

When we make class time about exploration, it's important that we not only design worthy assessments, but we also track what we learn while the students are going through the process.

This data will be integral to planning moving forward.

Data Collection and Reflection

Data collection and reflection will be an integral part of the inquiry-based classroom as well. Neither should be isolated experiences, but rather ongoing practices that help improve the process as it progresses for both the students and the teacher.

What is working today? How do we know? What can be adjusted? What will it seek to improve? What hasn't worked and why?

One way I have gathered data is to walk around with a notebook and while having conversations with students, jotted down notes. After the class was over, I took the time to review the notes and write a blog post about the experience.

After internalizing what I observed and talked to students about, it was time to determine how the lesson would be adjusted in the days moving forward. If any of the groups were missing the depth of analysis, I needed to go over it again another way.

Often if I noticed that two or more groups misunderstood the directions, I stop in my tracks to clarify for the whole class. I may even ask a student who I knew understood to share it in their own words. The class won't move forward until I'm certain everyone in the room has clarity on what the expectations are.

Setting regular goals for completion is also necessary to help students learn valuable time management skills for developing more independent learners. This shouldn't just be the success criteria goals, but short-term, academic goals specifically.

Teaching students that goals should be specific, measurable, and growth-oriented is essential to their ability to see legitimate growth as learners. So instead of setting up a goal of "finishing my project on time" a more specific academic goal might be, "to complete vetted background research early to ensure enough information for my project in the form of scholarly articles and academic websites from universities."

Once specific academic goals are set, the teacher can engage in a dialogue about progress, and the students can track those conversations as well as learning either in a notebook or in an ongoing document. For example, as one group and I were brainstorming ideas for a tutorial project, we first discussed their understanding of the content they had to teach about feet I and meter in poetry.

As I listened to them describe what they would do the tutorial on, I noted that something wasn't clear. They needed to do more research on specific meters and they had to find examples that would help make the learning visible like a poem where they could use scansion in the line. As I made the suggestion, another person in the group was already on one of the resources I had provided and pulled up an example to ensure they were on the right track. This clarification made all of the difference in their final product. One of the students noted this interaction in her final reflection submitted at the end of the assignment.

Reflection on goals and progress of learning should become an embedded part of the inquiry-based classroom as there will be moments of trial and error and in order to not waste time making the same missteps, students should test and move forward as they would in a science classroom when testing a hypothesis.

Workshop Class time

After the project has been planned, and the mini-lessons delivered, students should understand what is expected of them during the workshop time. This is work time. Either in groups or individually, students should have some choice as to how they spend their work time and where they do it in the classroom.

Often in my classes, since I'm at capacity with 34 students, the room doesn't comfortably hold them all. Some spill into the hallway outside my doors, some sit on the floor, and others adjust tables and chairs to be comfortable in their learning environment.

Although a small adjustment, giving students this kind of ownership of how and where they work can make for a much more comfortable and safe learning space as well as an opportunity to develop community with the students.

For the project-based classroom to be successful, we need to give students ownership of what is happening. The teacher's role is significantly different as students are more empowered. Teachers have the opportunity to work with small groups, and individual students and more differentiated instruction are possible.

There is also room for engaging students in more leadership roles where feedback can be sought out from different learners in the room. This also promotes community and authentic learning opportunities.

To go back to my earlier example, the students who helped design the project were often the go-to leaders on this project as it was their ideas. Every group had the opportunity to determine the way they would approach their character, although specific characters were assigned so there was coverage of the whole text.

Students used class time to work diligently at a pace that made sense for their group and planned where necessary to do work outside of school in either a Google doc or with the use of Voxer, keeping me in the loop as I checked while taking the status of the class and answering each group's questions as we went.

Often, it was a chance to problem-solve together, me throwing their questions back to them and allowing them to bounce ideas off of me.

As teachers seek to implement the inquiry-based classroom, they need to be open to allowing student questions to guide the process. This can't always be planned and so there is a certain amount of uncertainty that must be accounted for.

Although a traditional procedural lesson plan may not be needed, the specifics of the mini-lesson and objectives should be tracked and paced. Students should be clear on where the wiggle room is possible and how their questions will drive the learning in most places.

Although we have plans, we must be ready to abandon them to follow the direction the class goes in. These kinds of moments can't be planned and the opportunity to follow an authentic interest shouldn't be passed up on. Build a good ten minutes into every period where students are allowed to meander if the entire lesson wasn't redirected earlier.

Too often, as teachers, we are programmed to say no when students ask us something and change can be challenging. In the student-led, inquiry-based space, yes needs to be the new no. We must allow students the opportunity to take risks, and encourage them in those risks, even if we know they won't work out. There is so much learning in the mistakes and missteps, that we mustn't protect students from the value of growing from those. New questions will arise and they will need to tackle them head-on, individually and as a group to be successful.

Projects in this environment grow so many skills that go beyond the classroom learning, consider the whole child, and promote interpersonal skills that make learning interactive and connective. Putting students in charge of their own learning with the implementation of a project-based environment allows students to truly own what they learn and create meaningful learning memories.

How do you put students in charge of their learning in your space? Please share

*This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in June of 2016


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