How do we ensure that each learner is getting the most from their inquiries? For one student in my class, that is his inquiry. “How do I inquire into something that will keep me engaged for a long time?”
It’s a decent question, right? Critics of learner-driven inquiry who demand answers to this question are right to expect a high bar. I too am uncomfortable with learners being given free-reign to inquire into literally anything. On that note, to start, I thought I’d share some of my students’ suggested guiding questions and my matching responses (not all of them particularly helpful):
Student: What do the different colours inside a golf ball mean?
Me: Who cares?
Student: How do you play basketball?
Me: You already know how to play basketball.
Student: How can I make a game exactly like Fortnite?
Me: Does the world really need another Fortnite?
Student: Why do I love pink so much? (not the singer, the colour)
Me: Perhaps you want to find out about the aesthetics of colour?
Student: No. Just pink. I REALLY like pink.
So yes, critics. You’re right! Not every learner idea is a worthy inquiry. Even fewer hold potential for deep inquiry. Fewer still are potentially transformative for the learner. But that is the goal. On the flipside, is it really a guarantee that every teacher planned inquiry meets the brief? We’ve all taught units that have just not worked – to claim otherwise makes you the teacher of the decade or deluded.
The challenge, therefore, is to provide many varied opportunities which will provoke authentic inquiry. And I’ve struggled with this. What works for some doesn’t work for all. Whilst most students are champing at the bit for studio time and begging me for it, some still get that rabbits in the headlights look about them. They’re just a bit lost and they’ve noticed that they don’t have the same energy and enthusiasm for it as the others.
So here are some of the things that have worked:
- A good old one-on-one chat. Questions that provide a starting place don’t always focus on learning. Questions that seem to lead somewhere are:
- What would you like to design or make?
- What would you like other people to know about you?
- What is surprising about you?
- Where do you find flow? What do you love doing so much that time just seems to pass?
- What are you fascinated by?
- What would you like to be when you’re older?
- Marketing my own nerdy fascinations. Sometimes I like to share and model my own inquiries. Not because I want my students to share my obsessions, but it’s in the noticing of one’s own inquiries that we provide students with a way to discover potential ‘ins’. What started my fixation with tessellating patterns in architecture? Why is my Instagram feed filled with kitchen design pics? I’m hypothesizing that the noticing of curiosity is a skill as much as curiosity is a disposition.
- Noticing and naming the moment of curiosity in a student when it occurs outside of studio time. Asking the question at the time of that exact moment is really important. “Is this something worth thinking about during studio time?” Sometimes, that’s when the most authentic guiding questions happen. The benefit of this moment is that all learners are seeing it at the time it is happening. It’s a developing awareness that I don’t have to ‘come up’ with an inquiry. It will come out of me as a function of awe and wonder.
- Speaking to another person besides me. Sometimes I send my students to another teacher for a chat. It’s just a new perspective. I return the favour on occasion.
- Pivot or Persevere – this is a concept I picked up from Tania Mansfield and the Studio 5 team. I’ve started having small group discussions with students who are feeling ambivalent about their inquiries. My take on this idea is a chat during which the learner shares their inquiry journey so far and their fellow learners ask questions about the inquiry. This, in itself, seems to lead to new perspectives and ideas. But there is also an opportunity to either bring the inquiry to an end or new direction (pivot) or keep going; hopefully with new energy and insight (persevere). We’ve noticed that if others express interest in the learning, it can lead that student to new heights.
We want learners to develop the capacity for inquiry; including grit and determination. But we don’t want to flog a dead horse either. If we think about our own learning, some of it is short-term and targeted, some of it is over before its begun and some of it is lifelong. And each of these holds its own potential value.
We’ve also begun journalling our inquiries. A quick plan at the beginning of the day using paper and pencil because to write with a pencil is a different thing to do these days and because there are fewer distractions and pop-up notifications. A day plan is required and at the bare minimum, inquiry questions for each session of studio time.
A quick reflection at the end of the day.
- How well did I engage with my guiding questions?
- Were these the questions I spent the day answering?
- Do I need to modify my inquiry?
- What resources do I need to move further?
- How can I plan for more learning next week?
- Pivot or persevere?
- How can I go a bit deeper?