ISTEs Introduction to Inquiry-based Learning: Part 1

Neil Stephenson on Inquiry-based Learning

Our school district has been very proactive in delivering multiple choice options for our professional development and I have been equally active in sharing these resources from our high school‘s Instructional Coach with you. Today I am pleased to share yet another initiative via our district’s subscription to ISTEs webinar series. This topic that meshes with our high school’s move next year to a modified block schedule as our 9th grade students rejoin us after hiatus of 4 decades.

Resources for this presentation can be found at Thinking In Mind, the rubric at this link, and Stephenson’s multi-resource blog, Connect.

Human resources; Neil willing to Skype into classrooms

Neil Stephenson is a PD Outreach Coordinator from Calgary Science School where inquiry-based learning flourishes. Stephenson began by stating there are many approaches and no quick easy answers, but moving yourself as a teacher into an IBL situation is stimulating because your classroom comes alive as you push education forward.


One of the ways Stephenson’s school flourishes begins with a 1:1 laptop initiative. Teachers design work, create authentic learning experiences, and engage in solid teaching practices using technology integration, but Stephenson notes that the technology is not what drives learning; it’s the teachers. Understanding understanding is critical and Google platforms have aided in collaboration and communication. He notes that language arts and the humanities are easier for this kind of approach, but his school is moving toward developing math and science strength for IBL.

Clever instant student feedback

We became interactive in the chat by developing a six-word telegram defining IBL, but our group seemed to focus on 3 words (Twitter generation). This concept would make a great instant student feedback for an assignment, and would be nifty done on WallWisher. Stephenson says the challenge is between the student interest, teacher practices, and the subject’s discipline or content. Teachers sometimes need to be under the guidance and voice of the content as well.

Deeply-transforming how we think about our subject or students or designing work for them will never change by the technology itself and profoundly meaningful PD will not occur if developers take an if you wish or when you want approach. Students must become knowledge producers not consumers, and that knowledge must center on deep meaningful questions or problems that are solved collaboratively. Are we using technology to dress up what we are doing, or are we using technology to focus on the task we are asking our students to perform in a meaningful engaging way.

Not just projects, but a sustainable learning experience

Social, academic, and intellectual are 3 forms of engagement, but intellectual engagement is the one form that drops as students travel through high school. If we are to improve intellectual engagement, then 5 things must happen. First, teachers must be designers of learning. As a designer, Stephenson means not just a group of projects, but one deep question rooted in the subject that guides what the students are learning.

More than media mania

There is a fine line between focusing on the task and meaningful learning. The hardest part of the inquiry process is determining the right question that will engage students and allow student voice and role and still have them know what is most important about what we want students to learn. It must be more than letting students loose; it must be structured and focused on what we all need in and out of school. It must be more than media mania.

Rubric for self-assessment conversations

The primary focus of this first in a two-part webinar will focus on the inquiry rubric. This rubric is a way for teachers to design a good inquiry. It is a tool to determine the elements and can be used to self-assess a teacher’s practice and then deliver feedback more publicly within the system. For a rubric to have depth, it must become a conversation with a common language.

Science IBL blends into Math

Authenticity and Academic Rigor are hallmarks of IBL, reminiscent of Wiggins and McTighe’s Learning by Design. Authenticity is the enduring understanding, where does it live in the world approach to design. Authenticity requires teachers to live in their world of content so they can design their projects around what is relevant, meaningful, and connected that will intellectually engage students.  A blog suggestion for mind-boggling math IBL is Mr. Meyer, a great resource to explore.

How does the real world work?

Academic Rigor has to do with getting students to think and act like the discipline they are studying. How do you get students to think and act and see the world like a scientist and not just as someone who is learning science? Or math? Or any subject? What counts as proof? What generates a perspective? How do we get them to move beyond the textbook in the subjects we are teaching? The way writing is taught in school, for example, is not how real-world writers write. How do we get engagement in the topic?

Tech tools mirror real-world work

Critical also is what tools we use, what tools the discipline uses in the real world to work? It should not be I want to use a wiki in class but a mindset that says what does the real world use to do this task? In your design, use real-time data to collect and analyze the authentic question.

Deep constructivism

Active Exploration speaks to where students can engage in deep constructivism. In this approach, choice informs what students work on and enables collaboration among students. How does technology leverage that with hands-on experiences that mirror the question. Students become experts in this area and share findings, but should connect research to real-world living and in the present, if the project is historically configured in the past.  If Renaissance art is researched, discussed, examined, it is then presented to an art commission in the school’s locale to determine if, for example, Calgary has the conditions to become a Renaissance city.

In concluding Q & A with Stephenson, Neil notes that part of our professional development means we as teachers have to figure out how what we teach is important to our students. It is our responsibility to know if they are moving toward their futures in a purposeful way, not just learning content.

Hands-on homework for 1-26

If you are attending the Part 2 webinar session, you have meaningful homework.

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