I was worn out. Period after period, in the library with my sixth-grade Humanities classes, the effort to keep students on task and productive while researching was becoming futile. Students used to be able to focus on their work and remain engaged with their assigned topics about the Renaissance. What was different? Why did these sixth graders seem so unmotivated? It was the spring of 2014, and I was having difficulty reconciling the significance of the assignment with my students’ interest level and focus. Students had been allowed to choose their topics (from a list of 30); why were they so off task? I was not alone. A 2013 Gallup Poll starkly demonstrated a sharp and steady drop-off in engagement for students. I began to wonder how I might tap into more intrinsic interest and motivation with my students.
In the fall of 2014, our librarian shared an article with me that completely transformed the way I structure my classroom. In the ensuing years, my colleagues and I have shifted our curriculum to incorporate the Guided Inquiry Design model (shown to the left) woven together with Project-Based Learning, and the level of interest, enthusiasm, and agency of our students has markedly increased. Inquiry and questioning were the tipping points for motivating my students.
In Warren Berger’s book A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, he discusses at length the life and career advantages for those who are good at asking questions. Most educators do not teach students how to ask questions. Berger cites the Right Question Institute’s examination of the 2009 U.S. “Nation’s Report Card” data, noting the correlation between the drop in engagement among students and the parallel decline in student question asking. Does this matter? Why should we teach students to question? If we have learned anything during Pandemic teaching, it is that it is decidedly harder to engage and motivate students who aren’t in the same place as teachers. As of spring 2021, thousands of students have disengaged from school and virtually disappeared during the past 12 months. This is a crisis for their futures and the country as a whole. Students who are invited to have agency and autonomy in their education are more engaged; transferring ownership of learning to students, by encouraging them to develop and ask their own questions, does just that. Through questioning and inquiry, my Humanities classes have become distinctly more learner-focused, while also covering the skills we anticipate students will need to be successful in their lives. So let’s look at what Guided Inquiry and Project-Based Learning look like in concert with the example of our sixth-grade podcast project about the Golden Age of Islam.
In the past, students were asked to choose a particular innovation or invention from Islamic culture and to write a short essay. In its current form, the project has been redesigned and planned using the Understanding by Design protocol. See example at right:
The learning outcomes and performance goals of the project are clearly articulated, as shown below: My colleague and I even created an example podcast and samples of many steps of the process for the students to use as models as they progress.
Since adopting the Guided Inquiry Design model, we now begin the research process by inviting students to build background knowledge during an immersion phase. The intended goal was for each student to craft two open-ended, driving questions, aligned with the essential question for the project, which would be used for their subsequent research. For one to two class periods, our students spend time reading a wide variety of books (both hardcopy and digital) that introduce the Golden Age of Islam. Categorized by things such as the arts, engineering, new ideas, people, and daily life, students rotate from table to table, spending time with the books and noting on an Immersion sheet like the one here what they notice and what they wonder about.
This step is helping our students build background knowledge and context for their study of the time period. The biggest pushback I receive when working with teachers on incorporating Project-Based Learning or Inquiry into their classes is that they don’t have the time. My colleagues and I have found that we gain time by doing both. The time spent allowing students to grapple with the material and develop their own understanding and questions pays off with a higher level of focus and interest in the topic. As a result, the initial phase may feel slower, but the increase in student focus impacts their enthusiasm and pace later in the process.
PBL isn’t about adding something new to your plate, it’s about re-arranging your plate with a focus on student voice and choice.~John Spencer
We end the Immerse phase with one-on-one conferences during which students choose their topic based on their interests. They move on to the Explore portion, creating their own questions about the topic they have chosen.
After a lesson from our librarian on the difference between open and closed questions and the uses of both, students come up with their own questions, several of each type. The use of Google Docs allows the teacher to ask questions of the students and make suggestions about their questions. After another one-on-one conference, students use two of the open questions on this Identify worksheet to design their big driving questions for the project. Students are coached to ensure that their list of questions aligns with the essential question for the project as well. All of these steps are carefully scaffolded to help students grapple with the driving question, and it is posted clearly where it can frequently be referenced during the entire project.
We use the Cornell Notes format for research projects in our classes, and we place a great deal of emphasis on each page’s final box, which we call the wonder portion. This portion can often encourage students to dig into new directions or to shift their focus while researching. It also encourages students to reflect on what they have learned while reading and exploring the various resources. Ultimately, we assess their use of the wonder portion with the Inquiry and Questioning learning outcome in their rubric.
When it comes time to prepare for recording their podcast or producing any performance task after research, we provide students with scaffolds to begin to articulate their understanding. The Podcast Planning Template below explicitly walks students through the process of identifying the key information about their research that they want to share as well as how it relates to the essential question of the project. Finally, they write a script for their podcast, in which they are asked to include all important facts and information that will be presented during their recording. This serves as an outline and a way to assess the facts and information a student is including in their final product.
We end all of these Performance Tasks with a self-evaluation like this and this and a Visible Thinking Routine like this one, ways in which we encourage students to reflect on what they have learned about themselves as learners as well as about the topic. Throughout the process, we ask students to reflect on what new ideas they have or have encountered, using discussion posts in our LMS, or (pre-COVID) putting sticky notes up on the exit ticket board in the classroom. These metacognitive tools help students to relate what they are learning with background knowledge, as well as to articulate the big ideas they are encountering.
Ultimately, whatever coverage of specific content we lose in taking the time to allow students to build their own understanding of the topic and choose their own questions to investigate is compensated for with more engaged and self-driven students. Our students have learned to question and to follow a self-chosen line of inquiry in order to investigate and find evidence to support their thinking and ideas. Additionally, our move to Competency-Based Education has allowed us to move away from proscribed content to a more skills and competency-focused approach to learning, which is complemented and supported by PBL and GID.