Reflection on Teaching through Inquiry: Content or Skills?

This is merely a reflection post. No fancy tools or strategies. A simple look at how we teach.

Recently, I’ve attended several workshops, which got me thinking about how we teach. One workshop I attended recently was a good example of how not to teach.

It had been a while since I had participated in such a workshop. The workshop was partially teacher-driven, in a direct instructional method. When one of the facilitators asked for questions, he would then immediately answer them. He often remarked on his surprise when we weren’t thinking like he was thinking. I hesitated to ask questions because I didn’t want a pat answer. I wanted to discuss. I didn’t want to be told what to do. I didn’t want content just forced down my throat.

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 11.02.24 AM

from the IBPYP model: http://www.ibo.org/pyp/

Since entering the PYP system, I’ve become more and more driven by inquiry and have enjoyed learning in workshops or professional development through inquiry. I understand the workshop content, about the Exhibition or language for example, through the bigger concepts, attitudes and skills. I’m the type of learner who thrives on this, and really, aren’t we all?

Yet, I still come from a background of direct instruction and traditional school and so without knowing it, I’m still often driving at content, which is only one part of the PYP. It’s the subject area, not the approaches to learning. In another recent workshop, or really planning sessions we had with Kath Murdoch, a profound and respected inquiry-based educator, I realized I’m still too focused on the content.

I planned a great provocation four our next unit, How the World Works. Students got a chance to tune in to different stations about different forces that shape our earth. I appealed to different types of learners, from rock handling and observation to watching videos and playing with Google Earth. However, in reflection, it was all about content. What do they already know about how the earth changes? What are the initial assumptions?

Knowing where students start with their understanding of a subject is important. However, it is just as important to focus on how students approach their learning. So, we need to pre-assess where they are with their skills for the unit. Kath pointed out to us that our unit seemed to be about scientific communication, and we agreed. How well then, she asked, do we know where kids are with their scientific explanatory skills?

Hmm. A simple question but it really made us think. I don’t know. Even in the last unit, I was focused on making sure they understood the central idea: How organisms rely on each other. I wasn’t focused on the skills, attitudes and concepts as much. I was aware, but thinking back, was it really driving me and my students?

So, we’re on the right track again with this unit, thanks to some helpful advice from Kath. We’re planning a pre-assessment to see how well they can communicate their understanding about anything they know that has some scientific basis: how day becomes night, the purpose of eyelashes, what fruits and vegetables do for our bodies. We’ll brainstorm with the kids about some ideas they might be able to express and then we’ll see how well they express them at the beginning of the unit.

We’ll analyze and reflect on their scientific explanations and then continue to study examples of professionals and older students expressing their scientific understanding. We’ll focus on communication in writing, reading and in math throughout the unit. Students will zoom in on a branch of earth science related to how the earth is changing. But, they’ll keep the focus on how they communicate their understanding. How do they do it well?

It makes sense, but sometimes it takes a little nudge from someone who looks in from the outside. Our habits, our background is rooted deep within us, and we need to keep reaching out to teaching through inquiry. Teaching skills, concepts and attitudes that are so important in life: the IB approaches to learning.

How do you teach? How do you reflect on your teaching?

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