The Inquiry Continuum: Who's At The Center of Learning In Your Classroom?

By: Dan Koch

I was lucky enough to be able to not only attend the LearningForward conference in Orlando in December of 2017, but present there as well during their FastForward session (think PechaKucha, or 20 slides/20 seconds each). This was exhilarating, and I was glad to have had the practice presenting to all of you at the ADE Academy 2017 in Texas about our student technology team, the Genius Squad.


Having been a teacher for 8 years, I felt I had a pretty good understanding of how my classroom worked and how students learned. I’d been to many conferences prior to this one, and, respectfully, I had seen and heard a lot of the same stuff before (students first, technology is a just a tool, the teacher is a lead learner, etc). All of this is good practice and shouldn’t be marginalized to those attending EdTech conferences. Differentiating instruction is tried and true, and the concept is not foreign to teachers, veteran or newbie alike. Throughout the conference, I would drift in and out of concurrent sessions, fill up my motivational or philosophical tank, and be fired up that this type of thinking is being spread around. Sometimes I would learn of a new technology tool or iPad app, sometimes it would be more pedagogy focused or mindset-based. All great stuff.

Then, I walked into John Antonetti’s session.

I, along with my colleague Meg Jones, are the two technology integration coaches in our district - so we naturally registered for John’s session entitled “Technology To Engage Thinking.” Right off the bat, John told the audience: “In this session, I’m not going to teach you to use technology. You can figure that out yourself.”

What unfolded was a deep dive into cognitive processes of the brain, how children learn, and our role as teachers in the pivotal time in childrens’ lives when their brains are most malleable and impressionable. And we used some tech tools to help.

One such discussion that we’ve gone on to adapt in our district, which has been transformational in terms of our teachers’ thinking about their own instructional practice, is a workshop we call “Dialogue & Collaboration: Placing Children at the Center of Learning.” [Side note: Meg Jones created these resources and deserves all the credit. And you should totally follow her on Twitter.] 

Here’s the link to the entire NearPod presentation, which we use to guide teachers through various tasks:

Basically, the structure is simple. We begin by celebrating successes of the campus, from novel uses of technology to providing routines and spaces for student exploration, or having a “growth mindset.”

The entirety of the remainder of the workshop is us posing questions to teachers and discussing their answers. We used NearPod to provide a means for immediate feedback (from drawing on images to providing text responses) and also to model some usage of technology that teachers could go back to their classrooms and experiment with. However, the real power of this format is the dialogue that results when talking about what children need in the classroom.

We posed these questions to teachers, which they could respond to via NearPod:

There are no "wrong" answers to any of these questions. Questions 1 and 2 are meant to get teachers thinking about how much planning goes into how (and why!) students will use technology as opposed to how they themselves feel motivated to incorporate it--but the third question, "What do you consider when planning for a lesson or unit," is purposely worded to omit the word "technology." Teachers answers were varied but the general idea is that all answers are relevant - standards, student schema, how well students understand previous concepts, etc.

After this, we introduced FlipGrid as a video response tool.  We posed the following two questions back to back while offering some sandbox time to play around with FlipGrid and get used to its features:

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This is where the magic happened. After having some fun with FlipGrid, we got into a discussion about the similarities between each of these questions. Is expressing understanding and expressing ideas the same thing? How do we measure it? How can teachers provide time and space for children to express both? This difference wasn't unanimously accepted - some teachers believed that the expression of understanding was the expression of ideas, because a concept had been solidified.

Then, we introduced these simple images and posed a simple question: What are children doing?

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From these images, teachers were able to visually scan these images and decide what it was students seemed to be doing in a classroom. Both images have students "using" technology--in the first, we see a child reading what appears to be an eBook on American Football. Teachers agreed that in this image, the child was merely accepting meaning from either a book or reading passage. The second image, however, is a bit trickier. At first glance, it appears as though it has all the "look-fors" for authentic usage of technology and instructional practice: turn-and-talk, small group, technology being used, and children interacting with content. It was clear to teachers that these children were making their own meaning because they were discussing, pointing, and reading.

But were they? Who provided the passage? Who told them what words to look for? Who created the task?

The teacher.

What we wanted teachers to come away from this workshop with was the mindset that there are two things that can occur in classrooms:

1. Children accept meaning that is given to them.

2. Children make new meaning themselves.

There are a few other concepts we introduced in the NearPod presentation, such as Paulo Freire's "Banking Concept" of education - in which children are treated as consumers most of the time. In schools, we "deposit" information into the child, and then "withdraw" that information in the form of assessment:


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The main thing we wanted teachers to realize is that every lesson falls somewhere on this continuum of teacher-led inquiry to student-led inquiry. Sometimes, we need to make that "deposit" of information. Other times, it's important for students to make their own meaning and have the space and time to pose their own problems and solutions.

To conclude, I showed this video that was shared with me via Facebook to illustrate just how unique a child's thinking can be. You could place it anywhere in the workshop, but it provides some levity and laughs. Just replace "parent" with "teacher:"

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Overall, I'm thrilled with how positively teachers came away from this opportunity to think critically about their own classrooms. It's certainly changed my own thinking as well. I hope you can use it in some way!