Meaning in the Journey

|Kelly Tenkely|

I always enjoy reading Seth’s Blog.  His posts push me into new thinking and often have me making connections to what we do within education.  His “Tool vs Insight” post was no different, below is an excerpt:

How is your vocabulary? It’s a vital tool, certainly. Do you know these words?

a, after, and, as, die, eternal, first, gets, gun, have, in, is, job, life, me, mouth, my, pushing, saying, step, that, the, to, Tyler, waiter, you.

How about these?

a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.

The first list contains every word in the opening lines from Fight Club, the second is the entire word list from Green Eggs and Ham.

Knowing something (vocabulary) is not the same thing as engaging art and meaning.  You can know each of the words listed above.  You can even identify each of their definitions on a multiple choice test.  Then what?  Without adding meaning to these words, they are pretty uninspiring, meaningless even.  But use some imagination and creativity, and suddenly those words tell a story.  They take us on a journey and suddenly the words matter.  Knowing isn’t enough.  A store house full of facts is pretty useless if students are never asked to actually engage them.

Inquiry is beautiful because it is in the journey of learning that meaning is created.  It is about curiosity, helping kids discover what they are interested in. Not only does inquiry act to engage, it’s actually been proven to be a better entry point into learning.  A Stanford research study into learning as a process revealed the following:

“We are showing that exploration, inquiry and problem solving are not just ‘nice to have’ things in classrooms,” said Blikstein. “They are powerful learning mechanisms that increase performance by every measure we have.”  Pea explained that these results indicate the value for learning of first engaging one’s prior knowledge and intuitions in investigating problems in a learning domain – before being presented with abstracted knowledge. Having first explored how one believes a system works creates a knowledge-building relevance to the text or video that is then presented, he said.”

Inquiry doesn’t make the facts (vocabulary) the focus, but rather gives meaning through the journey, the story, and the art. This can seem a rather obvious conclusion but it is fascinating how many schools strip away the journey to focus on the facts.  This is largely driven by policy and testing that requires the focus to be on the sound bites (facts) of learning at the expense of engaging the journey.  While this approach may result in some great data points that make us feel like we are improving our schools and doing the best for kids, at the end of the day it is an enormous disservice to children. Knowing vocabulary is not the same as experiencing meaning, and story, and art within words. I want children who can engage the world. Who are passionately curious about the world around them and want to dig deeper and add meaning.

Is this photo interesting?  Is it worth engaging?

Dreams of Education

 

 

 

 

 

How about this one?

 

Dreams of Education

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by: http:/flickr.com/photos/alicepopkorn

The first picture is a small portion of the second picture.  When we view something narrowly, we can miss the point entirely.

Too often curriculum narrows down a student’s view of a topic so much that there is nothing left worthy of engagement.  What they end up learning is very specific and doesn’t offer them any context.  Inquiry does the opposite, it gives students something interesting and worthy of engagement.  It shows them a fuller picture that urges them into a place of curiosity.

During our professional development time this week, I asked Anastasis teachers to engage the idea of inquiry.  To consider the role of the teacher, the role of the student, and the role of content within inquiry.

Role of the teacher within inquiry…

  • To be a learner- within inquiry, one of the most essential roles of a teacher is to first be a learner and to be transparent with that learning.
  • Within inquiry, teachers don’t limit learning by beginning with the end in mind.  Sometimes when the teacher has a very specific goal in mind, the rich learning experiences that could occur get sidelined because it isn’t the goal the teacher had for the learning.  For example, our students are learning about agriculture in kindergarten-first grade.  Typical standards for this age group would limit students to identifying parts of a plant and understanding that plants share similar characteristics.  While these are worthy learning goals, it limits the students by only expecting a minimum.  Our students were interested in germination, photosynthesis, and fascinated by the embryo within a seed.  Why limit?
  • To model curiosity and good questioning- students don’t always know how to indulge in their curiosities.  Many times they are so used to being asked closed questions (questions with only one answer), that they don’t know how to be curious by asking open questions (questions with multiple answers, or no concrete answer).  This has to be modeled for kids.
  • To be guides of learning- within the inquiry classroom, teachers are not directors of learning the way they are in a traditional setting.  The role of the teacher here is to be a guide for the learning.  It is being aware of when, and how, students may need direction and guidance.
  • To allow for students to own their learning- sometimes this means getting out-of-the-way of the learner.
  • To be aware- teachers must constantly be aware of and recognize student needs in the learning process.
  • To provide opportunities and help make connections- students don’t know what they don’t know.  It is a teacher’s job to orchestrate opportunities and offer materials that will provide the circumstances where students can explore and discover.
  • To come alongside students to help them learn how to think, NOT what to think.
  • To offer exposure to experts and experiences- as amazing as our teachers are, they can’t be all things to all children.
  • To facilitate students with understanding context and help them with discernment.
  • To offer opportunities for collaboration (both within the school and outside of the school).
  • To value a culture of thinking and curiosity.
  • To value student voice.

Role of learner…

  • To be open to questioning, exploring, experimenting and problem solving.
  • To be willing to fail, and work through the failure (failing forward).
  • To make connections between previous and new understanding.
  • To collaborate with others.
  • To be a risk taker.
  • To be constantly reflecting and re-evaluating.
  • To actively think, not just fact find.
  • To be open to other perspectives and ideas.
  • To be contributing citizens now.
  • To be learners in order to achieve rather than just achieving learning.

Role of content…

  • Content must be evolving, not rigid or stationary. (Boxed curricula is stationary, it doesn’t allow for evolution as students interact with it.)
  • To be applicable, valuable, and transdisciplinary.
  • To allow for student ownership over learning (not predetermined outcomes).
  • To meet social, academic, and personal needs of each student.
  • To be limitless in the learning it allows.
  • To provide the necessary conditions for students to question and experience their learning.
  • To be flexible and transient.
  • “Well, first thing you have to do is to give up the idea of curriculum. Curriculum meaning you have to learn this on a given day. Replace it by a system where you learn this where you need it. So that means we’re going to put kids in a position where they’re going to use the knowledge that they’re getting. So what I try to do is to develop kinds of activities that are rich in scientific, mathematical, and other contents like managerial skills and project skills, and which mesh with interests that particular kids might have.”- Seymore Paperet

Educational psychologist Vygotsky said that, “children grow into the intellectual life around them.” (Vygotsky, 1978, p.88) It is important for educators and parents alike to consider what kind of intellectual life we are providing for children to grow into.  Is it a life full of factual soundbites?  Or is it a life full of experiences, problems to solve, curiosities to indulge, and meaning to discover?  Learning must be approached much more like a journey and less like a finish line.

The vehicle for this journey: inquiry.

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