Inquiry Book Study: Week One!

Welcome to the first post of the CSS Inquiry Book Series!

This series is free to open to anyone wanting to join in on our discussion of the book “Making Learning Whole” by David Perkins. You can get the back story on the series here.

The format of this series is a new post every Tuesday for 6 weeks – followed by discussion using the comment feature. The only exception is next week, when we’ll have the opportunity to attend a free webinar by the author David Perkins. Info about the webinar can be found here.

Thanks to those who have signed up – both to those who are signed up to read and comment, and especially to those 6 very generous souls who’ve agreed to guest post! There are over 50 signed up – most of whom we don’t know! What a great turn out.

Lets get started!

Introduction and Chapter One
(Writer Bio: Neil Stephenson is the Professional Development and Outreach Coordinator at the Calgary Science School. In this unique role, Neil spends his time doing two things: (1) assisting CSS teachers design inquiry-based learning projects and (2) sharing what the school does and looking for opportunities for connection and collaboration.)

I started reading this book a few months ago, and was immediately struck with what a masterful and yet simple job Perkins does of something that I have tried, and found difficult – explaining what it means to design teaching and learning around authentic topics.

Here at the Calgary Science School our main focus is inquiry-based learning, supported by technology integration (we’re a full 1:1 school) and outdoor education, both of which play a key role in connecting our school to the real world.

However, this concept of inquiry-based learning can be a difficult one to get your hands on – is it just student-centered learning? Is it the same as problem/project/discovery based learning? Is it about student question asking?

To assist us with developing a clear and consistent model of inquiry, here at the Science School we have chosen to adopt something called the Galileo Inquiry as our framework. This rubric presents inquiry as 9 categories (Authenticity, Academic Rigour, Assessment, Appropriate use of Technology, Active Exploration, Elaborated Communication, Compassion, Use of Expertise and Life Skills.)

And while I’m not going to get into the rubric here – what I immediately noticed about the introduction and 1st chapter of “Making Learning Whole” is how well they explain the foundation of inquiry, the first two categories on the inquiry rubric, Authenticity and Academic Rigour.

In my (continually developing) understanding of inquiry, I believe these are the two most important elements to developing an inquiry-based classroom. Over the last few years at the school, we have begun saying that inquiry is not a teaching methodology or set of teaching skills, but rather a disposition. Inquiry is about how a teacher thinks about the subject they teach, and how they introduce students to what is important, worthwhile, interesting, beautiful, etc about a topic. It’s not about doing an inquiry unit – but rather a way of approaching the whole thing – how you see yourself as a learner, how you see yourself in the subject you teach, how you see students as learners, etc.

To use Perkins’ phrase – I believe inquiry is bringing students into the ‘whole game’ of the subjects we teach as opposed to the breaking down of learning into isolated, disconnected chunks. At it’s core, inquiry acknowledges that the things we teach actually live ‘in the world’ and that one of our tasks as teachers is to work through what’s worth knowing about those topics, and design meaningful and authentic learning around it. Inquiry sees topics as topica (Latin = a place, a topography) that we bring students into. This gets at one of the key questions about inquiry – is it all student driven?

I believe that strong inquiry-based work is a delicate balance between a few things – between student interest and choice, balanced with strong teaching practices (including good assessment and clear goals) balanced with what’s meaningful and important about a topic. And it’s this third piece – the topic – that I think is often missing in the timeless debate between teacher centered versus student learning.

That’s what initially hooked me with this book by Perkins – a sense of the importance of the topic – ‘the whole game’ that we build learning around. And it’s this metaphor of the game that I want to start with – particularly in light of the teacher/student centered debate.

I really like the idea of ‘the game’ – even though Perkins does apologize for the lightness of the term. When I first read the intro on the ‘game’ I was reminded of reading I’ve done recently for my master’s degree – Truth and Method by German hermeneutic philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer.

In this major work, Gadamer argues that there’s a form of truth in the humanities that doesn’t have to rely on scientific method (a debate for other day!) and a good chunk of the text is an explanation of the concept of human experience. What I find interesting is that there’s a lengthy piece of Truth and Method that uses the concept of ‘play’ as a metaphor for human experience.

One of Gadamer’s arguments is that a true experience is something that happens to us, rather than the other way around. We often say we ‘have an experience’ where Gadamer would argue that it’s more the case that ‘an experience has us.’ Elsewhere Gadamer writes that true experience happens to us ‘above our wanting and doing.’ And so Gadamer uses the concept of play as one of the ways to explain human experience.

We all know that in the experience of play, we are caught up in something beyond ourselves – even beyond the totality of the players involved. The act of play seems to have some reality that exists between the players – it’s not found in only the experience of any one player. As well, as Gadamer writes, “play fulfills its purpose only if the player loses himself in play.” This is why play is so attractive – for people of all ages – it’s something beyond us that we can get ‘caught up in’ – an experience beyond ourselves.

And this is why I like the metaphor of the ‘game’ used by Perkins. While ‘play’ or the ‘game’ can seem like a childish metaphor for learning – I think it’s value lies in this notion that we’re building learning around something bigger than just the teacher and learner – that there’s something real – and we can be caught up in it.

And it’s that what I envision deep and engaging learning to be – being so interested in the
topic that we’re taken away by something beyond ourselves – into that state of flow written about by Csikszentmihalyi. (Great TED talk here) Or, in Gadamer’s language, “through the playful character of the contest, the contestant does not consider himself to by playing.” The game then is not just ‘fun’ but something real and bigger than ourselves that we bring into the classroom.

So for Perkins, the way to think about teaching and learning is to build it around a ‘game’ – not only as a way to engage students, but also as a remedy for the excessive ‘elementitis’ and ‘aboutitis’ that dominates much classroom activity. In the words of my graduate supervisor, David Jardine: (from here)

Each task faced in the classroom is precisely not an isolated fragment which must bequickly covered and then dropped in order to get on to the next bit. Rather, classroom and curriculum topics, conversations, and events are treated as ways in to the whole of the living inheritances that have been handed to teachers and students in schools. One is never “doing” an isolated fragment, but is always “doing” the whole living field from a particular locale. Particular events are “read” or “treated” as a part of some longstanding whole to which it belongs and from which it gains its sense and significance.

In addition to my attraction to the notion of the ‘whole game’, there were a few eye-opening and sobering ideas that came out of this first section of the book, a few of which I’d like to highlight.

One is the fact that some learning ‘about’ and some teaching of ‘elements’ is a good thing. My own tendency is to focus too much on the holistic game – at the cost of the elements. (Chapter three was a great read that way). I like how Perkins’ ideas seem so simple. Teach content when teaching content is the right thing to do. Not all classroom activities need to be about the game. As he writes, “Learning by wholes does not say that all learning should be aggressively discovery orientated. What suits a particular topic is something judgment call.”

What I really like about this quote is that it’s often the topic that we as teachers need to look to for guidance on how to teach. So much of the reading I do, particularly online, strives to structure teaching and learning around general principles and skills. It seems to suggest that student-centered collaboration, creative thinking, group work, technology, critical thinking and others can be taught isolated from the particular content, and that they are all good, all the time. What I get a reminder from Perkins is we need to judge when is best to let students loose and when to reign them in, when to let them explore and when to directly teach content. And what I really like it that it’s the topic that helps us decide.

And while the content of the topic is important, I also really liked the idea that learning should be about getting better at something. At CSS we heavily rely on the concept of ‘teacher as designer of learning’ and when teachers plan inquiry projects, one of the first steps is to determine what the intended learning goals are. In a similar way, I like the language Perkins uses – ‘getting better at something’ – and for me it reminds me that all the individual tasks that I design for the student need to build and scaffold toward the students actually getting better at something – and ideally getting better at something worthwhile.

The last point I’ll discuss in this post was very important for me – making sure that the games we bring into the classroom are appropriate and allow our students to ‘get better’ in the right thing! As we try to design engaging and interesting work for kids, I think it’s so easy to dress up learning with the wrong game – I know I’ve done it many times. And what’s difficult is that it can still look as though the students are still interested and engaged.

I really liked the ‘dancing mitosis’ example as contrasted with the designing a fish example. The dancing mitosis was a great reminder for me that we can try to engage kids with activities that aren’t central to the content, or more importantly, the actual reality of the game being played. Just because learning is built around a game – does not necessarily mean it’s the right game.

And I think this becomes even more dangerous the more technology is available. While I believe technology can provide incredible ‘whole games’ to build learning around – I also think there’s a potential to use technology to build a ‘whole game’ that has nothing to do with the intended learning. The real test – does the technology we use help our students ‘get better’ at what’s worthwhile knowing about the topic? In some of the research from our 1:1 program – we’ve seen a mix of both – technology can be a wonderful tool for building ‘whole games’ for learning – but it can also become a tricky distraction as students invest a great deal of time creating digital products that aren’t improving student learning.

There’s so much more that can be written about this opening introduction and chapter – and I’m hoping that some of it will get picked up in the comments.

I’m also hoping some of the discussion will be around examples of how these elements can actually be lived out in classrooms – that through this book study we will be able to take the ideas out of the clouds and into classroom practice.

So with that in mind – I’ll finish by sharing some examples of how we’ve tried to build learning around ‘whole games’ here at the Calgary Science School.

Mayoral Forum – back in the fall, our grade 9s hosted a forum for a local mayoral election. Students were responsible for researching the campaign issues and candidates, and then they hosted a live forum that was broadcast to other Calgary Schools. 2000 students watched as our grade 9s ran the cameras, lighting, and sound while taking questions in real time from other schools. Our students then visited two local university campuses, spending the afternoon convincing college kids that voting is an important democratic activity.

Building Virtual Machines. Grade 8 science students created virtual Rube Goldberg machines to demonstrate their understanding of simple machines. I like this example one because the technology does two things: (1) allow students to play a game (building the machine) that would have been much more difficult and time consuming without the tech, and (2) capture student thinking with the voiceover.

Water Quality Testing. Our grade 5 students were the first to try out a set of water probes we purchased. Students gained understanding of the background content by learning and jigsawing information on 5 qualities of water. They then gathered and analyzed samples from a local wetland. Here you’ve got students ‘playing the game’ in the sam
e way as experts – using the same equipment and doing the same calculations.

So what examples can you share of building learning around the ‘whole’ version of the game? How have you adapted games to be junior versions? And what challenges have you faced with finding the right game for the right outcome? How do we overcome this?