Even though inquiry cycles help us involve students and lead them toward understanding, they are often linear formulas that may still feel like an imposition to some students. Perhaps we, as teachers, can come up with our own version to engage students with a more open and flexible process, one that better suits the learner’s needs.
As a 5th and 6th grade teacher, I have learned a great deal by implementing inquiry-based learning in the classroom; it seems like the right way to foster intellectual engagement. However, when putting it into practice, I experienced a gap between the students’ ideas, questions, and impetus and the inquiry cycle I was trying to follow. The children seemed to have very different starting points, different routes they wanted to take. I had to find a way to incorporate these multiplicities.
While planning for last year’s exhibition, I felt that we could use the opportunity to break with what felt like a straightforward set of instructions. In order to give the students more agency and control over their learning process, I looked for a way to intervene the inquiry cycle. We originally designed our cycle as follows:
3. Initial questions
7. Plan development
8. Evidence of progress
9. Going public
10. Evaluate results
Then I came across William S. Harwood’s A new model for inquiry on the National Science Teacher’s Association website where he details a more sophisticated version of an inquiry cycle in which learners can choose from ten specific activities. So, in this spirit we designed 10 activities for the students to choose from, based on their specific needs. This a la carte method seemed to imply more work for the teacher and possibly a mess in terms of assessment. However, as soon as we started the exhibition process and the children chose the transdisciplinary theme Sharing the planet, they immediately felt empowered and were notably excited about the unit. When it was time to delve into questions and content, each one of the students had the opportunity to choose an activity that would suit their needs. Some students asked questions in a broad, general manner, while others were already interested in a specific topics like over-fishing or global warming. Each student could carry on and work on the stage they were ready for and decide if they had to define a specific problem, work on a solution, or start communicating results. Since each student was bringing evidence of their process in each stage, it was not difficult to assess their learning and methods and to give them feedback in a timely manner. The students were visibly more engaged and motivated; they were gaining ownership of their learning process and some associations were naturally beginning to form since the inquiry paths were converging or meeting at certain points.
We then proceeded to map this rhizome under the lines of inquiry, which we decided could be naturally scaffolded in the following way:
1. The benefits and challenges of living in a diverse world.
2. The historical roots and contemporary causes of conflict between peoples and nations.
3. The impact of the tools and strategies used to promote peace and resolve conflict around the world.
4. My role in shaping the world I want.
Making inquiry cycles fit our purpose was an innovative way of proceeding at Lomas Altas. We found it challenging but the benefits were clear. We had more empowered and engaged students who were more responsible in their learning and had opportunities to make decisions along the way. This way of learning translated into action as some of the parents made comments on how their children were making changes at home and asked if their families could be a part of the exhibition as well. The children realized that even though the world’s issues may seem severe and often too complex, each of us plays a part and that everything that we do, even on the individual plane, matters to make the world the place we want to live in.
I believe that, as teachers, we have a responsibility to help our students drive their own learning and to help them see that it is all up to them; only then can they truly be free and capable of developing their full potential in the future.
Rodrigo González is teaching 5th and 6th grade Spanish at Escuela Lomas Altas in Mexico City. Rodrigo has been teaching at authorized IB Schools for the past 4 years. He is a graduate from Naropa University and he manages a small bookshop in his free time.