Sometimes when I’m reading teacher questions about inquiry, I come across something along the lines of: “I don’t get it, the kids were really interested in subject X and now they’re not. How can I get them to do an inquiry when they don’t stay interested inanything?”
Sing it sister (or brother – as the case may be).
I hear you, I really do.
One of the most challenging aspects of teaching this way is trusting the natural ebb and flow of children’s interests and questions.
I recently took my Senior level qualifications so that I would be officially qualified to teach grades 11 and 12. It’s been a long time since I’ve taught high school and I was pretty rusty. The whole unit planning process was bewildering to me after so many years of teaching in an inquiry-based classroom where planning comes more as a response to the children than it does as a top-down process that adults impose upon them. Going back to the process of writing formal unit plans caused me to reflect on the challenges of inquiry. Maybe some of our frustration with the in-and-out nature of inquiry comes from our expectation that it will look like those unit plans. Do we expect it to be linear? Do we expect that after the children introduce a topic, that they will then proceed to engage with it in a linear sequence of activities, ending with a culminating experience? Big finish, jazz hands, curtain closes, ta-da!?
I think that may be at least part of the problem.
Here’s an alternative way to think about it. Be a detective… notice where things pop up.
This week, we’ve continued to work on our Architecture project but we’ve let it ebb a bit, just to see what would happen. I haven’t been pushing the cardboard sketches as hard as I did last week. The materials have still been available but I haven’t put them out as an invitation. Here’s what I’ve noticed instead:
Creating tile mosaics that look very much like architectural drawings from the “plan” perspective
Children using the architectural examples we’ve looked at and their own prior knowledge to inspire their own buildings.
And today, B.W. using her own prior knowledge and what we’ve learned about design to create her own city.
Maybe instead of thinking about inquiry following the rhythm and organization of a unit plan, we might want to think about it more like a garden. Some plants you seed intentionally, other plants just pop up, their seeds carried by the wind or by a passing bird. It’s all about noticing those surprises, valuing them, and seeing how they fit into the bigger picture. Look for them – they’re there!
I have a confession to make (I think I may need a support group).
My name is Emily and I was a gifted child.
Joking aside, it’s something that I always feel awkward admitting – a bit shameful. It smacks of elitism, this gifted label. “What, you think you’re better than me?” I don’t. I really don’t. I know all about the pitfalls of intelligence testing, of narrow definitions of intelligence, of sub-tests that were later thrown out. The day I took the intelligence tests is one of my few clear memories of early elementary school. I can remember tearing through the verbal/analytical part, flying through the general knowledge, and grinding to a halt at the spatial reasoning – darn those puzzles. Was there a puzzle of a duck? I’m pretty sure there was.
I can remember being called to a little room by one of my classmates as she returned from her test and being told to fetch the next child when I came back. Neither of them joined the program. The reasons why we were chosen for testing and why we did or didn’t get invited to join the program were mysterious to us. No one ever explained and the whole thing was spoken of in hushed tones.
My parents were very uncomfortable with the whole thing – embarrassed even. My scores weren’t something I should ever talk about – I didn’t even know what they were until I found them as an adult – I knew not to ask. I can remember telling a friend about what we did ‘in gifted’ and being admonished not to talk about it – I might make her feel badly. As a child it was very confusing but as I got older I started to understand more about the complications of privilege. What we did at school on Wednesdays during our pull-out program wasn’t a subject of conversation at school or at home but, and here’s the kicker, it was, by far, the best day of my week. From grade 5 to grade 8 I lived for Wednesdays and from grade 9 to grade 13 I survived because of the space that the school allotted for gifted students to work and hang out and the events that they organized for us.
So here’s the rub; I’m torn in two directions about giftedness. On the one hand, I question whether it even exists. Aren’t all children gifted in some way? Children have so many gifts, so many talents, and so many ways of communicating them. Doesn’t a narrow intelligence test reduce all of that complexity to a falsely simplistic score that can’t possibly capture all of the miraculous diversity of children’s potential? Yes, yes, and yes. But then, there’s this first hand-experience of being outside of the norm, feeling different, weird even, and of being saved and supported by the very elitist programming that supports children who, popular wisdom tells us, will succeed regardless of what we do, even in spite of us.
So where does all of that angsty internal conflict leave me when it comes to my own classroom and to the children in my classes whose abilities lie outside of the bounds of that famous bell curve? It leaves me flumoxed sometimes, to be honest.
When I was in grade 5, we learned (in gifted class, of course) about Bloom’s taxonomy. We learned that acquiring knowledge about a subject – which was what we did most of the time in our regular classrooms – was only the beginning of learning. We were aiming higher, towards the upper echelons of the pyramid. Analysis… synthesis… evaluation… onward!
This type of learning typified my experiences in those special classes – we were always pushed to go deeper, to think bigger, to look at problems from another perspective, frankly, to do what I now call “inquiry learning.” Subjects were never assigned to us; we got to choose what interested us. I can remember creating personal utopias and doing research in Dance History. I even worked for the local Provincial Member of Parliament – I was 13. Follow your interests, that was the mantra. Imagine if school had been like that every day. Would the program have even been necessary?
Today Bloom’s Taxonomy looks different. A new level has been added to the top of the pyramid: creating.
So where does that leave us in Kindergarten, when creating is at the foundation of everything we do? For our students, knowledge doesn’t come first – it’s not a prerequisite – it often grows out of their creativity, not the other way around. Children are creating from the very first day they come into the classroom; they’re creating from the day they’re born. How do we frame this notion of giftedness when we’re tackling learning from a completely flipped point of view?
Another story: When I was in grade 6, our teacher decided that we needed an extra challenge so she chose a few students who would use a different spelling book for weekly dictations. They were small pink books – hard words lived inside. Each week, we would wait for our turn to have our own, super-hard words and sentences read out for our special dictation. While I am grateful that I can spell chrysanthemum (that may have more to do with Anne of Green Gables than with grade 6 spelling), this experience represents for me the worst of what enriched programming can be. Too often, our attempts to challenge kids just mean giving them more of the same; more surface learning, more rote learning, more but not better.
What I am most thankful for in Ontario’s Kindergarten program is that it gives all children the opportunities that I only got on Wednesdays. In our class we spend most of our time creating and that provides children whose interests and gifts lie all over the bell curve with regular opportunities to problem solve and to ask big questions. Children’s questions are spectacularly different. Their play is as diverse as they are and sometimes what they do doesn’t fall into a neat, academic, curricular box. But I have, without question, observed children who I’m going to call gifted (for lack of a better term) find challenges for themselves in play. I have had students who have led read-alouds in their second year of Kindergarten. I’ve had students learn how to crochet, knit, and play complicated string games. I’ve had students create their own fashion designs. I’ve also had students create marble runs and block structures of incredible complexity. Today I had a student describe a long narrative about her block structure; she has a spectacular imagination. Last week, FI problem-solved how he could create trusses for his roof using tongue depressors.
It is often challenging to stay ahead of them, to remain nimble enough to meet their needs in a large classroom. But I am heartened that, if education can remain focused on creativity, great learning will follow. Like water trickling down the side of the Bloom’s pyramid, we will get to the knowledge if we start at the top.
Our partner architect visited the class for the first time yesterday; what an exciting visit! As MF exclaimed… “a real girl builder!”
She had so many great ideas to share with our students and we all (adults included) learned a lot. As non-architects it’s a big leap for us, as educators, to help the children through this inquiry and her visit gave us a much-needed shot of confidence.
She had a great strategy for teaching perspective drawing. She brought in two green peppers and used them as a substitute for a building because, as she pointed out, peppers have walls and interior space.
She showed us how to draw the pepper from the front (architecture term, elevation), from the top (plan), and with the front wall cut away (section). The children were captivated by the idea that there was more than one way to draw an object. They asked great questions and had amazing ideas about what kinds of buildings architects design (prisons, hospitals, shopping malls).
KC shared that it was important to make a diagram of your building and we talked about how we might measure our drawings so that a builder could follow them accurately. Our architect then showed us how to measure our model buildings so that we could translate them into drawings too.
She showed us how we could draw our buildings from elevation, plan, and section perspectives – this was especially interesting because it got the children thinking about shape; a triangular building looks rectangular when you view it from the top.
After all that learning we got the chance to do our own drawings! The children amazed us by applying their new learning so immediately and by using rulers, for the first time, with confidence and precision.
While A-frames were a popular building style in the 1960s and 70s, most children aren’t familiar with them.
And yet SN built one.
Where did she get the idea?
She says: “I just used my imagination. It was a little bit easy to build cause you could grab the two squares and put them together and then make a box around it.”
In her reflection, she captures the ease of building that made A-frames so popular 40 years ago.
When I was at Bennington College in the late 90s, the college had recently undergone a process known as Symposium. This re-thinking of college life had seen the elimination of Art History as a discipline and the re-evaluation of the reasons for teaching the history of art. In my own dance classes, Dance History was taught as a required, but not-for-credit, section of a dancer’s course work. The rationale we were given at the time was that we were there to make dance history, not to read about it.
What interested me as I moved out into the world was the ways that we, knowingly or not, make and re-make the histories of whatever discipline we are working in. Often what children make, whether they are building or dancing, reflects the history of the form. As in the development of concert dance, children will often make narrative dance/dramas before they are ready to venture into abstraction and post-modern chance dances of pure movement. We are seeing the same kinds of explorations in our Architecture inquiry, as children are drawn first towards the forms that they are familiar with (square and rectangular boxes, with flat and pitched roofs, then towards forms that are different but easy to build and next… who knows?