The inquirer

Janis Coffey, the Associate Director for the Institute of Positive Education, Australia

Janis Coffey, the Associate Director for the Institute of Positive Education, Australia

A practice example of how PYP teachers can provoke and inspire students to make their own discoveries through inquiry.

“Learning is a process of constructing, testing and reconstructing theories, constantly creating new knowledge. Teachers as well as children are constantly learning.” ~ Carla Rinaldi & Peter Moss ~

There are many moments in your teaching practice that stay with you forever. One of those moments was when Rhiannon had discovered the formula for calculating the area of a two-dimensional shape. I say, ‘discovered’ because, for her, this was unchartered territory. It was a warm day outside and the children were busy in Year 2 working out how many one centimetre squares it took to cover a range of different sized rectangles. I noticed that Rhiannon had not covered the entire space, but rather only made two lines across the width and length of the shape with the miniature blocks. I asked her what she was doing. She looked at me with pure satisfaction, knowing she had just made a profound mathematical finding. “If you multiply the number of blocks along both sides, it gives you the total area!”

I had not taught Rhiannon how to calculate the area of a rectangle that day. She had discovered it herself. I merely put the tools in her hands, ensured she had the right resources and asked her the right questions. This is the role of a teacher in the inquiry classroom.

Educational researcher, Professor Erica McWilliam, is a firm believer that teachers need to take on the role as ‘meddler in the middle’ rather than just being the ‘sage on the stage’ or the ‘guide on the side’. Of course our students can learn a lot from us and we are there to support them along their learning journey. But we are also there, in a sense, to agitate the learning process. We provoke students with engaging experiences or ideas. We inspire them to want to know more. Questions are posed to ignite thinking.

Inquiring is a way of approaching learning. An inquiry teacher asks herself, ‘How will my students discover new knowledge today? What experiences can I provide them so that they formulate new understandings?’ Teachers listen carefully to their students and document where they are in their learning. This is a vital part of the process that helps teachers plan and prepare for the next chapter. Students in inquiry schools discover the curriculum. It is not delivered TO them by their teachers.

Janis Coffey_Pull quote 3Learning in this way is meaningful to students. And we know that when there is meaning or understanding, the learning is embedded. Inquiry classrooms foster creative and critical thinking skills where students are making and testing theories. Explicit teaching of skills is done ‘just in time’. They are taught exactly when students need them, there and then. This is contrary to the traditional sense of teaching skills ‘just in case’ where students are taught sets of skills disconnected from one another and without real-life application. The ‘one day you may need to know this’ approach to teaching skills fails to engage the learner who is unable to make sense of it in their own world. Without applying the understandings and consolidating the new knowledge through practical experiences, students remain disconnected from the learning.

As for Rhiannon, she continued to test her theory with other shapes. We looked at squares and triangles and other polygons. The students worked together to refine their thinking and made new discoveries. We tested algorithms and used calculators to check our sums. I think of that classroom not as a space where students came to learn, but as our laboratory for thinking.

The original article can be found in The PYP Inclusive newsletter, Issue 35 of Victorian PYP Network.

Janis is the Associate Director for the Institute of Positive Education.  She has formerly been the Head of Teaching & Learning at Geelong Grammar’s Toorak Campus and has over eleven years’ experience in early childhood and primary education.  Janis is a Workshop Leader for the International Baccalaureate where she trains teachers in the IB PYP throughout the Asia-Pacific region. She is currently pursuing her Masters of Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne. Janis has a strong background and passion for the Arts and enjoys acting, writing and directing for both theatre and film.

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2 Responses to The inquirer

  1. Jenna 5 April 2014 at 10:48 am #

    What a fantastic experience you had with Rhiannon. I think sometimes, even as inquiry based teachers, we forget that students can get there without us telling them exactly how to do something.

  2. Victor Vega 9 April 2014 at 7:24 am #

    I am a participant in the learning process and for some kids explicit teaching “just in time,” means being explicit about schooling or inquiry into “how to learn.” Their natural curiosity will go a long way toward exploring interesting concepts. With multiple ways of knowing or teaching from multiple perspectives the possibilities for lines of inquiry can be infinite. Nonetheless, passing up on opportunities to teach students that we are allowed to balance our own ingenuity with the demands of schooling, for example, the call of the Common Core standards for college readiness, requires that we become agents of change and invite (challenge?) students to address concepts, teach them explicitly so as broaden their knowledge base and their chances of becoming proficient in areas they may never have imagined to be within their reach. This is the art of teaching! In Vgotskian terms, good teaching is ahead of learning. Kids are natural meaning makers and will construct knowledge about their world, but the meddler in the middle might need to become the leader that not only “agitates,” but expects participation and risk taking to balance invention (read discovery) with convention!

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