Points of Inquiry

A few months ago I was fortunate enough to attend the BCSSA Conference in Victoria.  As Chris Kennedy tweeted, “the presentations were largely stand-and-deliver lectures, but those of us who learn by engaging with others had an amazingly rich un-conference experience.”  It was there, for the first time at a conference, that I felt the ‘rush’ of being able to bypass traditional structures of learning and through backroom chat (that ‘disruptive innovation’) make new meaning, collaboratively, with all those around me and beyond.  I thought of the power of social media within education. I thought of the way we conceptualize learning environments. I thought of how the perceived value of innovation and creativity is increasing in our rapidly changing world.  As with most of what I do, I turned these thoughts into a narrative and shared it with my staff:

Miserably dark, cold and raining, its 8:00 am: a typical mid-January Vancouver morning.  At this point, Johnny usually rolls over in is bed, hits the snooze button and blows off his first class of the day at Anyschool High.  Not today.  Today he wakes up and bounces out of bed because ringing in his ears are the words of his Humanities teacher, Ms. Ekdahl:

“We have been good here at waiting, at being on edge at the edge of learning in the City on the Edge. No longer will we wait.  I’ll see you all in the Learning Commons for class on Monday. We start reading Cormac McCarthy’s, Blood Meridian . . . be ready to tweet and participate.”

The words to Johnny elicit personal excitement and promise because, a). he loves McCarthy’s darkness, having just read The Road, b). Twitter and c). Learning Commons (enough said).

Johnny arrives in the Learning Commons at 8:30 and Ms. Ekdahl, on her third grande coffee, is bustling about:

“Kids, thank you for arriving on time today; have a seat where you feel comfortable.  Take out your handhelds – open up your downloaded copy of Blood Meridian. Today we’re going to collectively start reading the novel.”

“In this lesson, I’m going to model ‘expert thinking’ for you.  I’m not going to ask questions but instead, while you are thinking and following along, I’m going to think aloud and let you listen to how I construct meaning while I read.  Now, rather than interrupt my stream of thought, I would like you to engage with each other and me through the back channel I have set up – I’ll project your tweets up on the wall through the lcd so that I can see them while I’m circulating, reading and thinking out loud – your responses will determine where we go with our discussion – scary but rather interesting, don’t you think?  I will be assessing the worth of this lesson, both for me and for you, solely through your level of engagement and backroom chat.”

Now, of course, you know the wrinkle because we’ve done this before:  our ‘hashtag’ could be joined at any time by anyone in the world or any student who happens to walk in the Commons and wants to participate. In fact I hope that Eileen and Gary can join us on twitter since they’re following us at home via our podcast: Hi Gary . . . Hi Eileen.  Let’s get on with it!

This narrative raises two issues of paramount importance: the learning experience and the learning environment.  Both of these issues represent key trends identified by the New Media Consortium’s Horizon Project around K-12 Education.  In addressing the learning experience, they conclude that “the way we design learning experiences must reflect the growing importance of innovation and creativity as professional skills.”  This innovation and creativity is happening daily here at JO, as evidenced by this very recent email I received from @MsWDBeamish:

Remember how you sent us a link about the teacher who had her students tweet as different people who were in the Civil War.  Well, we would like to do the same thing for a special project we are working on but our DI students would assume roles of people who lived during the Renaissance.

We thought perhaps you may enjoy tweeting as Machiavelli?

Wow: students synthesizing facts and personalizing knowledge by creating new meaning via tweeting in character on their class site.  Don’t ever underestimate the power of social media in influencing professional practice or the inevitable type casting that we as administrators often struggle against!

The second issue, that of the learning environment, is a huge one and opens up a larger discussion around learning spaces becoming more community-driven, interdisciplinary, and supported by technologies that engage physical and virtual communication and collaboration.  For us at JO, the creation of this ‘space’, this Learning Commons, will have at its core inquiry-based learning as the essential concept for the re-design of teaching and learning – as laid out in  BCTLA’s seminal 2010 publication, The Points of Inquiry: A Framework for Information Literacy and the 21st Century Learner. The hope for us is that every learner, every class engages in not only what they will learn but also, and perhaps more importantly, in how they will learn.  Students taking charge of their learning and through it teaching each other, integrating technology as a means of enhancing inquiry, and collectively creating a school-wide tech plan which foregrounds the learner, teacher, support staff, and student.

As it is for Johnny, his peers and the teacher, learning and the learning space must be meaningful and impactful to EVERY teacher and EVERY student.  In order to ensure this reality, we as educators need to be brave enough to move from the known to the unknown and in so doing demonstrate the forward leadership that will allow Johnny’s reality to be ours too.

  1. Thanks for a great description of the shift necessary to engage students as active learners. I will be curious to see how your school scales these concepts into all classes so that all students develop and learn the skills that this type of learning reinforces.

    • The “I will be curious” statement, Gary, is the big one. How to embed concepts like this in each classroom so that students access the tools that will allow them to take charge of their own learning. What I find interesting about this particular narrative is that although the teacher and students are using “the tools,” the crux of the lesson is the teacher, through her model of expert thinking, instructing how to decode fiction, how to engage with the text at a sophisticated level and how to make personal meaning through engagment. Our reality is not only to show students how to use the tool(s) but also how to become crticial thinkers through their use.

  2. I can’t remember how many times I’ve arrived home from my science education job at UBC, excited about some new pedagogy research or practice, only to have my wife, a K-12 teacher, tell me they’ve known that for years. Instead of perpetually playing catch-up, I’m happy that I’m not a generation behind when it comes to thinking about technology and social media in the classroom. Just this week, I’ve been chatting with instructors about how we should embrace and exploit phones and laptops in class, not ban them. This post, Gino, will push that conversation forward. I’m sending my community a link as soon as I hit “Post Comment”. Thanks for your vision.


    • Thanks for the comments and shared excitement Peter. The use of mobiles in education really is a ‘game changer.’ The question now is 1. how to use them in a way that redefines our already exemplary ‘delivery’ in the classroom and 2. how, in their use, they will empower our students to be disciplined learners who can synthezise information and crete new knowledge (3 of the 5 minds that Gardner claims – and I agree – are prerequisites for success today and in the future).
      On another note, I’d love to hear how you are integrating technology within Science ed at UBC.

  3. Great post and interesting comments Gino. As a teacher-librarian in Kelowna attempting to move our program and school practices into the same direction I am a keen observer. I also know Ms Ekdahl rather well and comprehend her intentions and the model of inquiry learning so well laid out in the BCTLA document; however, I am having some serious pause for concern in implementation. It would appear to me at this early stage two things: 1. The traditions and deep rooted soul of a strong library was service, research and literature. Our school culture has grown to expect and appreciate all three from it’s library but now has some struggle with independent inquiry. The school(people in it) still see research as a librarian’s domain more than their own. 2. Good or bad or indifferent, I now see our incoming middle school learnere, who have had 1to1 computing classrooms for three years, LESS independent, less skilled at inquiry and more entitled to facility and resouces with less respect. I know it’s a new age and a transition but when ‘ their’ commons is increasingly disrespected as a place of scholarship and perceived as a place to simply socialize, I have serious concerns. I have more trouble with broken furniture, spilled drinks and disruptive behavior than ever before when the student knew it was the ‘librarians’ space. I see many wonderful kids in a day but I also have 25 years of ethnographic data to compare with. The teens today are as amazing as they ever were but they are not the same. They are far less mature and independent thinkers and problemsolvers than educators and parents assume. They expect an immediate return or reward for every deed.( ya I know you think I’m an old geezer) The ‘average’ teen student I observe and communicate with, has more trouble with inquire now than previous generations! Yes. Why? Well I think it is because their base knowledge is inadequate to generate further questioning but also that WE, teachers and parents have spoon fed and delivered everything for them. When I see mothers trying to get an exempt note for a freshman college student I know we have enabled kids too much.
    I think the concept of inquiry learning is vital but also demanding for our system and society that loves tests and ‘merit’ cookie cutter COSTCO solutions. We dont walk the talk.
    I think a learning commons demands serious cultural support and time to practice(like most educational objectives) I believe it demands a level of student maturity and faculty training and attitude. As one teacher-librarian in any given hour, I must support a Commons full of 160 teens plus a class of collaborative instruction. This is a testimony to our service and efforts to welcome everyone but it also requires huge energy, resources, and space. A Commons such as ours had the square footage but it requires funding of materials, technology, resources and staffing to survive- but most of all it demands that an entire school must trust and support the leaders who espouse a shift toward inquiry based learning. Successful models require energy and time to mature and adapt. Schools and Libraries are cultural entities not just FTE’s or Msquared, they are complex organisms.
    I will roll out my welcome matt slowly and cautiosly because I do not feel, like father toward his children, that those put under my responsibility are grade ready for an inquiry driven learning commons model so eloquently described in Ms Ehdahl’s narrative. Anyone who know me, understands I am a progressive educator, even risk-taker, but I will not risk damaging what I know IS supporting learning for what MIGHT support a new kind of learning. Not yet, not on my watch. It isn’t Mr. Smith’s Library that could be lost but an educational program built on 2 decades of proven academic and anecdotal success. That said, oh what a future to aspire to and what a vision it would be.
    Love the conversation. Love the chance to add my bits…

Comments are closed.