(from the K12 Online Conference)
I have been facilitating Independent Inquiry in my classroom for the past three years. It’s similar to Genius Hour and 20% Time in Education. Witnessing the enthusiasm and engagement with which learners pursue their interests and passions has motivated me to evaluate, redesign, share, and promote passion driven learning.
In these years, the single greatest challenge has been establishing trust that time students spend pursuing their interests and passions is well spent. As asked by The Tinkering Studio in Chapter 5 of Design, Make, Play:
‘It looks like fun, but are they learning?’
Cynicism about learner directed learning is understandable. We don’t have content. The students inquire into and create the content.
When I asked students their thoughts and feelings about Independent Inquiry in our classroom, they agreed that it’s fun. But they also said:
‘I can do anything I want.’
‘I like to make things.’
‘We can work together.’
‘We can challenge ourselves.’
‘When we make things, we improve ourselves and think a lot.’
‘We practice being reflective.’
‘In Independent Inquiry, you don’t feel bad about making mistakes.’
‘Sometimes you have to start over again.’
We have had a fascinating variety of inquiries over the last three years, from baking to basketball free throw practice, lego robotics to fashion design.
Teachers who try passion driven learning in their classrooms discover that the deep learning occurs around the processes of thinking, inquiry, and reflection. We all pursue our passions differently, and our best learning occurs from exploring different paths to understanding, making mistakes, persisting through frustration, and reflecting on the process.
Regretably, many teachers go to great lengths to design detailed project organizers to ensure that students cross all of the ‘t’s and dot all of the ‘i’s of their learning process. Understandably, they want to have artifacts of student learning to control the process just enough to be able to ‘justify’ the use of time.
But that’s not learner directed, is it? It’s a project in which students have some voice, but the direction is already determined.
One might object, claiming that ‘most students don’t know how to direct their own learning. They can’t do it.’
‘They can’t do it.’
I cringe visibly when educators say that.
People don’t learn by already being able to do things. They learn by trying new things.
The brilliance of passion driven learning, what makes it the vanguard of a meaningful revolution in education is that it’s based on the premise that ‘They can do it’.
Our responsibility is to empower them.
Trust the learner
The first and most important trust that passion driven learning requires is between students and their teachers. We must trust that each learner will pursue their interests and passions to the best of their ability and gain their trust that we will do anything possible to help.
An infant doesn’t begin to learn to walk by taking a first step. They begin in the cradle by wondering how it is that other people can move around so easily. Their first attempts at mobility are so pathetic, they are adorable, and that’s exactly what we expect.
Self directed learning is no different. Most learners fail miserably and that’s exactly what needs to happen. Failure should be encouraged and celebrated. This failure is the foundation of a growth mindset and an environment of trust empowers everyone to act with courage to grow.
I have observed a wide range of fascinating independent inquiries. Some are shining examples of committed and creative hard work, some are simply pathetic. But the best and the worst are of equal value as they represent different stages of learning how to learn. In many cases, the so called ‘worst’ inquiries are actually the best.
Learn; don’t be taught.
When students enter my upper elementary classroom for the first time, they know how to ‘be taught’. They are well accustomed to clever lessons, activities, worksheets, and quizzes.
My goal is for them to learn how to ‘learn’. Which begs the question: ‘If students aren’t in school to ‘be taught’, what’s the purpose of teachers?’
It’s a fair question! What we are essentially saying is, ‘send your kids to my classroom! I’m not really going to teach them anything.’ What is needed is trust among all stakeholders including students, parents, teachers, administrators, policy makers, etc.
I have been fortunate to teach in an environment that explicitly promotes inquiry learning, and given the current trends of deeper learning, design thinking, and maker education, I imagine most schools would be willing to allow an experiment in passion driven learning.
Even given the initial trust of stakeholders, it’s our responsibility to sustain that trust by clearly demonstrating the success of our programs. Fortunately, the inspired faces of students describing their learning speak volumes, but it’s not enough.
The key to sustaining trust is transparency.
The first and indispensable tool I use is a Google Form for weekly reflection and self assessment. It’s the hub of our passion driven learning as we use it to reflect and discuss our learning.
The form we use in my class includes elements from the IB Primary Years Program, The 21st Century Fluency Project, the Connect Learning Core Values, and a writing prompt. These elements represent the essential goals for the school year. Of course, a form could include virtually anything, including Common Core learning objectives.
The transparency comes from the spreadsheet the form feeds. Every reflection is recorded with a timestamp and can be searched by any variable. The sheet itself is not sortable, but a straightforward script can import the contents to another sheet that is sortable. I have included all of these in a public Google Drive Folder for anyone to copy.
After several weeks of inquiry and reflection, it’s very revealing to give each student a printout of their own reflections to analyze. They are always impressed with the growth and maturity their inquiries and reflections show.
We also use the form during a weekly Independent Inquiry Meeting. My class has two consecutive hours scheduled for self directed learning, once per week, and each sessions begins with a meeting in which we discuss their previous reflections, new inquiry models, collaboration and service opportunities, and anything else pertaining to independent inquiry.
These meetings are also a great chance to explore our reflection ‘analytics’, a summary of the reflections in graphic form.
Coach, document, curate, share
Back to the question of ‘what does the teacher ‘teach’?’ in a self directed environment. One answer is that we become coaches. We must be intimately familiar with each student’s project, their strengths and areas of need as inquirers. Often, when I notice a student pursuing a particularly difficult line of inquiry, I independently perform my own research to help them find useful yet difficult to find resources. At other times, particularly when students work in a group on a highly creative inquiry goal, I just leave them alone to negotiate their own ways through the challenges.
The learning environment is incredibly dynamic, and opportunities to capture and document the best learning come and go in flashes. Another answer to what teachers do is that we become documentarians and curators.
My smartphone is always at hand to snap a picture and take a quick note. For curation, Evernote is extremely useful, as it allows me to tag photo notes with the student’s name and any other important information, including quotes from students about their learning.
Teachers know that well organized portfolios of student work including a range of assessment data are a good way to endear ourselves to administration.
Finally, all this learning needs to be shared, certainly with parents and ideally publicly. My preferred media are a class twitter account and blog. Twitter is perfect for live sharing of the learning in class and interacting with parents and other classes. In our class blog, I often reshare tweets and include more photos and explanation.
The best way to describe this sharing is ‘broadcasting’. If the passion driven classroom actively broadcasts its activities, the levels of engagement and depth of learning will be evident and celebrated.
Trust yourself to learn from mistakes, reflect, adapt, try again, and above all, share your own process for passion driven learning, just as we wish for our students.
Trust yourself to persist through the mishaps and misadventures of learning innovation and openly model a mindset to inspire students to embrace and pursue their interests and passions.