Student Well-Being Opinion

Inquiry-Based Lessons Require Flexibility (Part 1)

By Starr Sackstein — June 14, 2016 5 min read
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Students are splayed out on the floor, dripping into the hallway. Notebooks are scattered and laptops are in laps or on tabletops, as student meaningfully collaborate to develop ideas.

The tables and working environments have been adjusted to meet the needs of each group. It’s noisy, like an eight on a scale of one to 10; but it’s purposeful noise. If you isolate the conversations, you can hear the independent thought process of each student in a group and can even map out the trajectory of the progress.

Often the best learning happens in the messiest environments, but despite appearances, those classrooms take a ridiculous amount of sculpting and nuance.

In order to make a truly functional inquiry-based classroom, you must set up routines and rituals early on that support the process and make adjustments as the year matures. Really successful classrooms will require a teacher to read the room well and continuously tweak everything from group assignments, assessment expectations, and direct instruction based on the needs of each class.

Since the teacher won’t be at the front of the room often in each lesson, there is plenty of time to gather data and assess the progress of the students, as well as address the immediate needs along the way.

Setting the Scene for Project-Based Learning

Planning for a project-based, student-led learning environment starts with a well-made assessment that allows for student choice while addressing many standards at the same time. Once the teacher determines and develops the assessment, he/she must backward plan to sculpt the look of each class period to best provide students with the instruction and resources needed to promote successful outcomes.

Ensuring clarity in success criteria is essential to students knowing what they’re shooting for in this process and for the teacher to stay focused on what is happening every step of the way.

Gathering both the content and the skills needed to develop a truly dynamic assignment, a teacher needs to think about what he or she knows about the learners who are sitting before him/her. What are their unique learning strengths and challenges? How can the content best be delivered and shown? Where can student voice/choice be assumed and offered without giving up the integrity of the learning?

First, the teacher will need to consider the amount of time it will take to successfully complete the assignment, accounting for different learning paces and needs. How many direct-instruction mini-lessons will be necessary to teach the skills that are not yet known? How will these lessons play out and in what order?

Making the Assessment

Depending on the ages of the students, involvement in the planning process can vary. In my 12th grade classroom this year, I offered students the opportunity to review my entire Hamlet unit. Rather than teach it the way I have in the past, I offered students an opportunity to redesign it based on the objectives that needed to be met. The original was comprised of multiple shorter projects and the redesign was one larger project that took the same amount of time and spanned the entire play.

All the students in the class had the opportunity to work in a group to come up with a new project idea. Then out of the projects developed, I selected the ones that best aligned with the original objectives. From the ones that were left (ranging from a short independent play which would have been similar to the next project to performances that were very close to the original assignment), the students voted on the project they most wanted to complete.

Then I worked with the group of students whose project was selected to further develop an assignment sheet and success criteria, as well as benchmark dates for completing different aspects of the assignment.

Sample Assignment

The Hamlet Psych Evaluation Project — Each group of 3 (and one of 4) will be assigned a single character from the play Hamlet by Shakespeare. Your task is to psycho-analyze your character based on what you know of him/her from the text. Modernize language where appropriate and make sure to cover your character over the course of the whole play.

The final product will be a video or screen-cast that demonstrates a deep understanding of the character and his/her function within the play. During the class viewings on 3/14 and 3/15, students will be expected to fill out a Google form for each character. A reflection will be due for every person the class about his/her learning over the course of the project.

Students were completely empowered in this process. They helped me come up with how it would be assessed and even the Google Form developed for providing feedback after we watched the movies, which was a part of the final product. The forms were made so that students could be held accountable for watching and the content contained within the films, as well as for providing constructive and positive feedback to each group.

Here is some sample feedback provided in the form from the students:

“I really liked how you chose to go about diagnosing Horatio’s problems, looking at him I don’t think I would have thought of that disorder right away. I also liked how you used the dogs to play people and that shows that your really used the resources that you had on had. Your bloopers were extremely funny. The one thing that I think you need to work on for next time is your editing was a little choppy, I feel that at certain parts you switched scenes too fast and some dialogue was accidentally cut out. Other than that, you did well.”

“The group had some really good things to share, though it was a little rough to understand some of it (and I think some of it got lost) with the presentation that they prepared. I think in the future, they should have a voiceover for the whole time in the background to explain what’s going on because some of the screens were tricky to read. Other than that, I think they did a good job putting everything together, especially the illustrations! Those were awesome!”

Although younger students may not be as ready to develop an entire assignment there is no reason for them not to have choices in how and what they produce along the way, as well as participating in building the success criteria together.

Whether in the form of a rubric or a standards checklist, students should know what is being expected up front before they begin work. They should also have a better than working understanding of the standards being assessed. Giving them time to review these standards, internalize them, and rewrite them is one way to ensure they understand them.

How do you set up inquiry based learning in your classes or what is your biggest inhibitor to spending more time doing it? Please share .

*Stay tuned for part 2 of this post later this week.

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.