View From The Glen

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Thoughts on Inquiry Based Learning

I wrote about what I love about Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) and how I use it in the college classroom on my #EduBlog, Here, I want to look at it from a different perspective. From the perspective, in fact of a 14 year old grade 9 student who has been introduced to IBL this semester in Geography class.

And hates it. HATES. Did I mention he hates it?

That student is my son. And to be fair, hate is a strong word. Dislikes. Finds it inefficient. Never wants to do Geography again.

For the uninitiated, IBL (or Problem Based Learning, a close relative) is a new way of teaching material in which the student is given more choice, more say, and ultimately more responsibility in their own learning.

For Erik's first project, he was given a research question to research and answer and present to the class in the method of his choice. He got a B. He could have given more detail. He was frustrated.His problem: He felt he had answered the questions, but he needed to go one step further. "If the teacher asks for X but actually really wants Y + Z as well, why wouldn't she just say so..." said my mathematically-brained son. "Otherwise I'm like, WTF!" (Sense of humour intact).

It was time to get to the heart of the matter. He's not super communicative, Erik, especially when Mom starts bugging him about schoolwork, so it took a few weeks to elicit enough responses to really understand. Here's what I have:

  • Inquiry based learning is messy and there is no clear answer. His mathematical mind really struggles with this. It's happened for years in English class where he never understood how to give enough detail until I turned it into a math formula: Give as much detail as you think answers the question, then add 50% more (D + 50%). He could do that (or at least he understood that). So we tried that again: Answer the question, and add 20% more information (Q + 20%). So far, so good.
  • Inquiry Based Learning takes time. Erik has always been an efficiency expert. The shortest route. The fastest result. The quickest response. He does things once. So having to suddenly take the time to a) figure out what he wants to find out; b) add 20%; c) put it together creatively (not his strength); and d) ensure it is thorough....well this is not fun for him. 
  • We talked (car rides great for talking to recalcitrant teens...they can't escape) about WHY IBL is important. Would you, I asked, rather be told what to think or how to think? Duh. He is NOT a follower, that boy. Well, I explained, seizing my advantage, IBL is about teaching you how to think. I gave (top of my head, I swear) an example about trucks and fuel and how someone good at IBL would solve the fuel-environment issue (something he IS interested in)...and you know what, I think we were getting somewhere.
  • Erik is very introverted and has mild Aspergers. He is highly functional, but man, does that kid hate change. Always has. And loud noises. So a noisy class of IBLearners doing something brand new that many are excited's an understatement to say it is not Erik's cup of tea. His sisters, both introverts themselves, love IBL, and are keen to help Erik (to his infinite delight <sarcasm>. Nothing more fun than a younger sister who wants to tell you what to do).
  • Erik's memory is phenomenal. One of our big issues with him has always been that he gets good marks without trying too hard (grade inflation is another issue for another day...gets me too riled up), and this has largely been due to his memory. Because until this year, noone ever challenged him in a way where he needed to work hard. As a result, his grades in Geography are harder to maintain. This causes him stress. And why wouldn't it. As he said, it doesn't seem fair that they changed the system (translation: they changed a system that was working favourably for him to one that he struggles with, that is harder for him to achieve in, AND that is new - see previous point about hating change). Like I said...STRESS.
So what can we do? First, if you are a teacher who loves IBL/PBL (and I am too, I get it!) I implore you to please be gentle, especially if introducing it in a higher grade. Not all kids love it, many struggle with it and need some serious scaffolding. They need to be exposed to it slowly, and see small successes, not just a major project that is seemingly open ended (to them, it really is!). 

As a learner, embrace it. It's a great way to become a life long learner. It's a great way to have some say in your own curriculum and do projects that interest you (even Erik saw the logic in that). It needs to be broken down into manageable chunks, and its okay to get help along the way. Ask for it (Erik not a fan of asking for help - again, not something he is used to needing to no experience in it).

As a parent, take heart. It's surmountable. Erik's most recent project was on coffee (his choice) and though his research skills still need work (he flounders without specific guidance), he did bring home the work he had done in class  and we used it to put together a creative project. Neither of us knew what we were doing when it came to using Camtasia to make this video (ignore the echoing intro), so I used it as an excuse to model the Inquiry-Based Learning process. 

And whaddya know...? He even admitted it was "sorta fun" to make.

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