5 July 2013

Inquiry Learning in Tom's Class

Continuing to look for ways of making the eportfolio approach seamless and integrated within the learning process, I asked Tom Atkins if I could spend a bit of time in his inquiry classes at Tauranga Boys College. 
This is a snapshot of my visit last week. 
The setting:
- traditional 4 wall classroom
- 2x one hour class
- laptops available in room, wifi
- use of googledrive + edublogs + specific maths and writing online if/when necessary
The characters:
- two classes, boys, by year level groups (year 10 followed by year 9)
(students apply to participate in the Inquiry programme upon enrolling in year 9> selection is through a questionnaire where the students indicate why they would like to be considered, supported by a parent comment. 
The scene:
- students work in pairs on a question of their choice. It is their forth question this term. (In year 9, to start with students are given 2 questions to work on, then learn the process from there)
- sense of purpose: upon entering, everyone picks up a laptop and logs in, and gets started
- Tom is hands off to start with, and then spends time with each pair, evaluating and guiding and giving feedback
- This is week 3 of this particular cycle: students checking emails expecting to read from experts they have contacted, or finishing their questionnaires, or looking at the analytics from responses they have got. Some are framing their writing, others are looking for images and editing them. 
- The inquiry culminates to each pair's presentating their finding to the class at the end of the cycle. Then take comments and questions from the class. 
- Tom seizes one "teachable moment" with each class, the only time he actually speaks to the whole class for a few minutes: with year 10, he mentions questionnaires and puts a few pointers out on how to make a representative samples (eg: one yr 10 group is investigating Superannuation, and thus needed to obtain answers from people in employment: they have emailed TBC's staff the link to their survey). In the year 9 class he chose to discuss and give example of appropriate ways to write to request information to someone you have been referred to). 

My Story:
I saw:
- engaged boys, working in pairs to find solutions to their questions
- interesting questions, based around a range of themes: use of farmland, a motorway running the length of the country, lowering the drinking age, types of school, 
- students collaborating with each other, answering questionnaires for instance or working on same document
I noticed:
- the technology use is embedded, it's the pen and paper.
- respect of the environment, super effective classroom, all laptops are charged for instance
- students can eloquently talk about their inquiry and are prepared to ask me questions themselves
- students welcome a stranger to the class and are comfortable with the presence (and the questions!)
- the Year 10 class students display their ability to go beyond describing their questions, they are able to compare for instance, and have started analysing and relating ideas.
- through using googledrive students keep evidence of their learning: they will select from these artefacts for their final presentation
- Year 9 students describe the use of their blog as their log book, where they record what they did
- Year 10 students describe the notes they take when listening to and interacting during the final presentations as "their personal thoughts" that they keep to themselves.

I learnt from Tom
- each group has 8 inquiry class/week with two different teachers who work together on planning
- students tend to do better at NCEA when they go in mainstream in year 11

I wished I had asked:
The students:
-  how they feel about their choice of being in the Inquiry class
-  what they get out of it
- what process they use to get to their fertile question and how long they spend on it
- to show me the framework he and his colleague use to scaffold students' progress.

Looking at this snapshot through my "eportfolio lense" there is plenty of evidence that the collecting and selecting of learning pieces for a purpose is taking place and is making use of the technology available effectively. Students have a strong sense of ownership of their current work and know the steps to reach the success criteria. Collecting and selecting are two main ingredients of the eportfolio approach, with reflecting and sharing two other ingredients. One angle I would be interested in looking into is how the capacity to reflect on achievements and through learning from others develops over the two years of the programme.


  1. MMMM, Sounds dreamy. The first thing that would raise alarm bells in certain establishments is that the students, through the enquiry process, all end up with a different result, knowledge base and presumably diverse skills. I would be totally comfortable about this as it is clear that the process is orientated towards developing great learning dispositions (a la Claxton). Would that I had the professional trust invested in me to attempt such an approach. I can just hear it being said that if everyone doesn't learn the same language (presumably prescribed by the teacher rather than determined by the interests of the students) then how on earth are they going to have a common language to communicate? This is a valid observation to an extent, but one that could easily be overcome by doing some plenary (always with the students identifying useful common language)and some student-directed, inquiry-based learning. I'm sure we could make it work, but just not this year (or maybe even next.....)

  2. It is great how many learning areas are integrated in these classes. The classes have two teachers and they cater for the range of learning areas between them. No evidence of languages though! I don't know who effectively combines inquiry learning and learning languages in NZ at junior level and how they do that, maybe at Papamoa College to a certain extent. It was a great day nonetheless as I went with my eportfolio lens LOL!


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