Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Student Ownership

Student Ownership of Inquiry Learning
When considering the matter of student ownership of the inquiry the ideal situation is where students have full ownership of the initial question, idea, problem and/or issue. This was emphasised by Sharon Friesen of the Galileo Foundation (http://www.galileo.org/) in her keynote at the 2006 Learning@school conference and I totally agree that this is what we should be aiming for. However the reality in the primary school classroom is that many students don’t have the skills to come up with rich questions until these skills have been taught. (See the comments attached to this blog) Also, how do we achieve this ownership in the classroom and still cover the topics we consider are important for students, but for which they show little interest? How for that matter do we work on topics they don’t even know exist?
Resourcing can also be a problem with completely student-generated inquiry. Setting students, especially younger children, loose to search in the books and on the internet until they have the necessary information literacy skills to do this effectively would result in a lot of surfing and not a lot of results. They are also going to waste a lot of time on sites that are not suitable for their age, reading skills and/or developmental level. Try telling your students they can’t start the inquiry for 2 weeks while you wait for the National Library books to arrive and you have had a chance to find some websites suitable for them to use. This is not to say that the web and National Library are the only sources of information but they are often important sources.
So what is the answer to this? Last week I attended a Regional ICTPD cluster meeting and found a few ideas. Mark Treadwell spoke of resourcing difficulties and the use of guided inquiry where students discuss a topic and are guided into an investigation. In his article Education in the 21st Century Part 1 www.teachers.work.co.nz/archive_Nov_2004.htm Mark talks about Teacher Initiated Learning Experiences, Shared Teacher-Student Initiated Learning Experiences and Student Initiated Learning Experiences. Barbara Reid clarified this further for me by referring to Shared, Guided and Independent Inquiry. We use this model when teaching reading and written language, why not inquiry?
In a guided inquiry for instance the teacher may display thought-provoking photos and then, when discussion ensues, guide the students to develop a rich question arising from that photo. Because the teacher has displayed the original photos they will have already been able to find some suitable resources. Students will of course also be able to find some of their own resources in addition to those supplied by the teacher but they will have a good resource base to start from. Students should have some degree of ownership as they have been part of the process of developing the inquiry focus. Eventually students would have sufficient skills to complete independent inquiries and this should be the aim.
One way I have approached this is by starting a discussion on a broad topic that my knowledge of my students tells me they have an interest in, and is one I know I can resource. This is the immersion or knowledge attack stage of inquiry. I then encourage students to come up with their own question(s) for inquiry, with help from me to guide them in framing a rich question.
Students also often need some background in the topic before they can frame a rich question. I have often started with a teacher guided inquiry then branched off onto an independent student-directed inquiry which arose from that topic. For example, we were looking at Antarctica and the discussion, directed by me, got round to what there is to do and see in Antarctica. The students investigated this and came up with their ideas on what a tourist visiting Antarctica should go and see. While doing this some students started to have doubts about whether tourists should be allowed to go to Antarctica at all and this led into a separate inquiry topic of which they had full ownership.
More illumination on this matter came from reading Jacqueline Brooks’ book ‘In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms’ which seemed to offer some answers evidenced in this quote:
“One common criticism of constructivism is that, as a pedagogical framework, it subordinates the curriculum to the interests of the child. Critics contend that the constructivist approach stimulates learning only around concepts in which the students have a pre-kindled interest. Such criticisms miss the mark. Posing problems of emerging relevance is a guiding principle of constructivist pedagogy. However, relevance does not have to be pre-existing for the student. Not all students arrive at the classroom door interested in learning about verb constructs, motion and mechanics, biological cycles, or historical timelines, but most students can be helped to construct understandings of the importance of these topics. Relevance can emerge through teacher mediation. In discussing Dewey’s notion that education ought to take into account students’ interests, Bruner (1971) writes:
. . . a point of departure is not an itinerary. It is just as mistaken to sacrifice the adult to the child as to sacrifice the child to the adult. It is sentimentalism to assume that the teaching of life can be fitted always to the child’s interests just as it is empty formalism to force the child to parrot the formulas of adult society. Interests can be created and stipulated (p. 117).”
(Brooks, 1999, p.35)
Brooks goes on to explain some of the ways we can kindle that interest thus giving students ownership of their inquiry. This fits well with the ideas I discussed previously about guided inquiry. It also fits well with the immersion or knowledge attack stage of an inquiry. This book is well worth reading, I can certainly recommend it. The Galileo Network Inquiry Rubric has criteria for authenticity and student ownership of an inquiry topic which is also well worth a look. www.galileo.org/research/publications/rubric.pdf
Brooks, Jacqueline Grennon. (1999). In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms. Alexandria, VA, USA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.
Bruner, J. (1971). The Relevance of Education. N. Y.: Norton.


  1. Hello,

    I found your post about regarding the keynote that I presented at the Learning@School conference in Roturua. I want to clarify that while I believe strongly that students must in time formulate their own questions, identify the problems or issues, or pursue their own idea they need start with Structured or Guided Inquiry as formulated by Herron. Missing this essential and necessary scaffolding by teachers is where inquiry work often goes into the ditch (a western Canadian expression for something gone totally awry). If I left that impression at the conference, I want to make sure that I correct that for you and the other participants.

    Kindest regards, Sharon

  2. Sorry Sharon, I didn't mean to imply that you didn’t believe in guided inquiry and providing scaffolding where necessary. Herron’s Four Levels of Inquiry certainly provide a great model for how we can go about this.

  3. Anonymous9:29 pm

    In my opinion here someone has gone in cycles

  4. Anonymous11:57 pm

    This information is true