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.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

(Tech) Angels and ?
This year I have had opportunity to talk to a large number of teachers as part of my e-fellows research. One recurring theme has been computer technicians. There seem to be two categories of tech people in schools. One sort are indispensable - they are often teachers, have a teaching background or at the very least have an understanding of learning and the needs of teachers and students. They spend many hours, often unpaid and often unthanked, keeping computers running in classrooms. They help to make computers work for teachers and students. If teachers have a problem they go out of their way to find solutions. They understand that sometimes students will change computer settings but empower teachers by showing them how to fix the most common of these changes. They take these problems as an inevitable side effect of giving freedoms, but know that the benefits in terms of learning far outweigh any difficulties.

The other sort of technician would rather have no teachers or students getting in the way of the smooth running of their computers. They lockdown systems so tightly that no-one can change anything. They grump and groan when problems occur and take weeks to fix them. They complain constantly about students and teachers who create more work for them.
If the school has internet filtering software they have so many filters in place students and teachers can’t find anything. If teachers want sites added to the exceptions list they take weeks to consider this and more weeks before they do something about it - usually after the unit it was needed for has finished.

These people don’t give teachers any rights at all over their computers and certainly don’t show them how to do anything - that would take away from their power. They don’t take the time to explain the reasons behind their decisions and certainly don’t want to discuss them.
The result of this is we end up with computers sitting idle because they are so locked down they are useless. Teachers who were a little reluctant to use computers use these incidents as an excuse not to use them. Teachers who want to use them tear their hair out trying to get anything done. The technicians are happy - computers that aren’t being used don’t have problems. The students however are missing out and we shouldn’t let this happen.

Now I know these are two extremes but most technicians fall on a continuum somewhere between the two. If your tech person is nearer the first end of the spectrum, be thankful and, more importantly - thank them. If yours falls nearer the other end, challenge them, speak to the people who have influence and force changes. Yes there will be some problems when computers are freed up but the sky will not fall in and teachers may actually be able to use computers the way they were intended - to facilitate learning.

If you have any horror stories about the second type of technician I would love to hear them - e-mail me at jkellow@xtra.co.nz or write a comment on my blog if you want to share it with others. If you have one of the first sort I’d love to hear about that too - these people need to be recognised.
Have a look at the article I wrote for the ACEL/Microsoft Online Conference on Innovative Teaching and Learning. This paper outlines how Opoutere School went about implementing inquiry learning using supportive technology as part of the Kopu Digital Opportunities Project.