After reading Cindy Kaardal’s post ‘Feeling Backwards About Backwards Design’ I was left pondering my own practice and more recently reflecting on my current unit of inquiry. My most recent experiences have also left me a great deal to wonder but have also left me excited for the future. Is it time to rethink my approach? Most definitely yes in my opinion.
Until recently I have always been traditional in my thinking to inquiry; backwards thinking in my approach. But like Cindy I have also begun to have doubts and question my practice. Especially in light of my most recent inquiry. I have been left a great deal of wonderings. How important is the Central Idea anyway? What about the Summative Assessment? Are we teaching towards a preplanned Summative Assessment? If so, is this not restricting the children’s agency? Why don’t we follow the student’s thinking no matter where it leads? What happens if the journey leads outside our Central Idea, out side our curriculum? What will I assess?
We wish to provide agency to the children so why not follow their interests? Be taken over by their enthusiasm and independent learning?
Last year my current inquiry was not great. I found the scope too narrow, not enough depth for ‘real’ learning and to be truly honest there was not enough enthusiasm from my part to really motivate my students. There were limited resources at my disposal to support the inquiry. Some of the vocabulary and concepts too challenging for my Pre-Schoolers. I was unable to change the inquiry and I was not feeling enthusiastic for it this year. It was time for a rethink! A new approach to learning.
So let me explain. Below is my current unit of inquiry:
Central Idea: Animals and people interact in different ways in different contexts.
Lines of Inquiry:
- The different roles animals play in people’s lives
- Suitability of particular animals for specific functions
- Our responsibility for the well-being of animals
I thought ‘What is the most interesting thing about this inquiry for the children? What will really get them engaged? Well it has to be the animals I thought. Let’s begin with that.
The first lesson when the children came into class I had already prepared a video showing a variety of different animals in various contexts. No real depth to the video, just animals! To my delight the children were mesmerised! Authentic, enthusiastic and passionate discussion started almost immediately. Children shared about their pets, their knowledge of a wide variety of animals. It was comfortable, it was open and it demonstrated the children’s independent thinking and knowledge.
This is great I thought, so after some discussion I asked, ‘Which animals would you like to learn more about?’ Straight away hands went up, ‘Black Panthers, Tigers, Rabbits, Ducks, Dogs, Cats, Polar Bears……’ the list went on.
The children were then asked to think of at least one question that they would like to ask and find out about the animal of their choice. This is where our inquiry really began to take shape. For this post I am going to choose just one example of how these questions have driven our inquiry and challenged my views on backwards design.
One child had wanted to learn more about Pandas. The question was ‘Where do Pandas live? As the child is a relatively new to the class and an EAL student I decided that I would use this opportunity to develop research skills through whole class participation and help support his learning. So we went on Google and found information on Pandas.
What began with a simple question began to drive our inquiry. Other lines of inquiry naturally emerged as we researched information. More questions developed. ‘What is a mammal? What does endangered mean?’ As we continued to research these questions we quickly found that we had more questions to answer. Is a snake a mammal? What does nocturnal mean? I web of learning had begun to form.
We had also started to make many connections to the other children’s questions that had also started to grow and develop at the same pace. What I was discovering was that the inquiry was starting to take a life of its own. Moving away from our Central Idea and Lines of Inquiry. I was starting to panic even though I could see the children totally engaged in their learning. Was the inquiry becoming too broad? Would I ever make it back to the Central Idea and the Summative Assessment that had been planned?
We have now moved beyond simply finding out and asking questions. A word that had started to become prominent throughout our inquiry has been ‘endangered‘. This has led to an authentic interest in finding out what the human threats are to the animals we share the planet with. We have started to think about our world oceans and the use of plastic. The children were really shocked by the amount of plastic in our oceans and demonstrated real concern. Many children are taking action by asking their parents to stop using plastic shopping bags and taking interest in recycling. Who knows where this will lead but it is surely more important to the children even if it does move away from the Central Idea.
As I am now reflecting on the inquiry I have started to think about what is really important about the learning. The Summative Assessment that I had planned is not important. It assesses the knowledge of a Central Idea that is no longer of relevance or importance to the children.
What is important? The important words now associated with our learning from the Central Idea are animals, people, interact. These have been the driving concepts of our inquiry. These have been the corner stones so far in our inquiry.
Is it possible for me to completely change the Central Idea and Lines of Inquiry half way through. Absolutely! But how would I explain this to the school? I can’t change our POI or other documentation? Can I? Should I? or is it even possible?
The importance from my perspective is in the Transdisciplinary Theme ‘Sharing the Planet’ and if the children want to learn more about their responsibilities to our planet and our relationship with our fellow animals who am I or the Summative Assessment, Lines of Inquiry or even the Central Idea to stand in the way. Should we not be moving forward with the children’s thinking rather than thinking backwards in our design? Is our school’s documentation and procedures being restrictive to our children’s learning?
Why do I still feel a sense of dread after moving so far away from our Central Idea and the ‘plan’? We should not be afraid to modify, create and explore learning. Placing the interests, passions and enthusiasm of the students should be at the heart of our practice. Let’s allow for agency without taking it away. It surely is worth the effort.