Trevor Mackenzie on Inquiry-Based Learning

If you’ve poked around my website, you’ve probably noticed a section dedicated to Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) that was linked to a major paper I wrote while completing my M. Ed. in education. The details of IBL are presented there, but in short this approach to teaching is about formulating driving or “essential” questions and building research and analytical skills through student investigation of knowledge. This is very different from the teacher at the front of the room lecturing all class long while students take notes. IBL has students actively engaged in uncovering or discovering information and using it for a specified purpose. The key point here is that students are not passive, but very much present and participate in the learning they do.

Trevor Mackenzie has been a recent lead teacher in this area, promoting greater use of IBL in classrooms. I recently read an article of his posted on the Edutopia website (the link is here if you want to check it out). A common issue that he tries to address is that students and teachers, especially from more traditional education backgrounds, are not used to this switch in teaching and learning. Teachers who attempt to jump in head first and give their students full freedom to conduct their own inquiries from start to finish are likely to be met with a lot of uncertainty and stress. Trevor advocates for scaffolding (starting at an entry level and building IBL gradually gradually to eventually gain greater independence), which he believes is necessary for the teacher and the student if IBL is to work. This is the same approach I suggest in the paper mentioned above.

Trevor has written a book about just this topic, called Dive into Inquiry: amplify learning and empower student voice, which I’ve picked up and and working my way through at present. It’s definitely worth a read if you think this kind of instructional approach could be for you. Inquiry is becoming a central part of the Social Studies curriculum in Newfoundland and Labrador, so it’s something I’ve already been bringing into my classroom, a little bit at a time.

Inquiry is most successful when strongly scaffolded. The Types of Student Inquiry act as a scope and sequence to support learners in their journey toward Free Inquiry. In my classroom, we begin in a Structured Inquiry model, transition to a Controlled Inquiry unit, move on to Guided Inquiry, and if all goes well, conclude in Free Inquiry. These four types of inquiry make up our time together in the course.

This structure allows us to successfully address the curriculum and the “must know” content and skills of each discipline, grade level, and course. In the Structured, Controlled, and Guided units, I plan to achieve specific learning objectives and unpack particular resources in order to best prepare my learners for whatever summative assessment they will see at the end of our time together. Whether it’s a provincial, state, or governing body exam or the SAT, I ensure that this material is learned during the types of student inquiry I have more control over.

Students should feel connected to their learning, certain about how to plan their inquiry, and comfortable with its responsibility. The Types of Student Inquiry structure our coursework and learning in a gradual release of control model, one where students learn essential inquiry skills throughout the year rather than being thrown into the deep end of the inquiry pool right away.

Here’s a quick video from Trevor’s website that introduces some of these concepts.



Using Apps to Empower Girls in Mumbai

There is always talk of new technology being useful in the classroom for the benefit of student learning, but it’s quite something else when it’s being used in one of the world’s most densely populated areas that happens to be a slum.

Dharavi, Mumbai. Source:

Quartz India has an article about an educator, Ranjan, who has developed an after-school program, called Dharavi Diary, that seeks to teach youth, especially girls, about language, math, and app development. It may be easy to question such a project in an area where poverty is a serious issue, but it has had benefits for girls’ attendance in school. The children are also trying to develop apps that are socially and community conscious (e.g., an app that can sound a distress alarm and send emergency texts, and one that notifies the municipality of waste build-up in given areas).

It’s a positive example of how creative and dedicated educators and students can make a difference in improving people’s lives.

These girls went on to give talks on platforms like TED, building up their confidence. “There’s a happiness quotient and a sense of ownership in the girls,” Ranjan said proudly. “Over a period of three years, they have understood the value of the personal voice and acquired the skills to say no when they mean no, like in the case of domestic violence or eve-teasing (roadside harassment).”

Not only do the children take their knowledge back home, reading letters and working phones for family members, they also hold special workshops to propel social change among the older generations. A mother-daughter workshop was held to “break the taboo of menstruation,” Devashri Vagholkar, who started off volunteering as a science teacher and is now a core team member at Dharavi Diary, told Quartz. “We also did street plays about it.”

Inquiry-Based Learning Research Paper

As the final piece of my graduate work in education at Memorial University, I had to complete a major research paper on a topic of my choice. Being a teacher interested in student exploration of knowledge, I chose to focus on Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) in high school social studies. The research work sought to explore the nature of IBL and its implementation in classrooms or schools where standardized methods have a considerable foothold (some elements of this can easily be seen many schools in Newfoundland and Labrador), and to provide some framework or strategies that may help teachers increase the amount of inquiry their students do.

In order to help disseminate the research, I’ve added a section to this website (under the menu) that deals with this topic – it includes a short introduction to the paper and some summary points on the research (characteristics of Standardized Education and IBL, benefits of IBL, the roles of teacher and student in this learning model, as well as a section dealing with incorporating IBL work in the classroom). You can also find a PDF of the paper at the end, for those interested in reading it. If you’re super keen, you can go right to the paper here.

Liberals Make Cuts to Libraries

The recent provincial budget has caused quite a bit of concern for the province’s population. With cuts to the public sector and the controversial Deficit Reduction Levy, the ire of many citizen’s has been sparked. Recently there has been an announcement that NL will become the only province that has a “book tax”, but beyond this the latest details discussed in the media relate to access to books and libraries.

Earlier today, Dale Kirby, the province’s Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, stated that changes to the public library system is needed to remedy what is seen as an ineffective service. VOCM posted an article that explains the government’s rationale for closing more than half of all the province’s public libraries over the next two years:

Education Minister Dale Kirby says high adult illiteracy rates in this province are a reason to make changes to the library system, not maintain the status quo.

Some 57 per cent of people in this province have below a level three literacy level, meaning they’d struggle with most jobs due to a lower literacy. Minister Kirby says that’s exactly the point of the move to close libraries. He says if the system we have isn’t working, something has to happen to fix it. He says today’s announcement is a step towards a regionalized service model for libraries.

As an educator, author and book lover, I support initiatives that improve literacy and education for all people in Newfoundland and Labrador, but I do not understand how closing 54 libraries will improve the province’s literacy rate. Libraries provide books, magazines, internet access and other benefits that encourage and help enable reading for young and old alike; their absence can’t possibly encourage the opposite. It’s hard to see how these cuts are anything other than counter-productive in improving quality of life for the citizens of the province.

If, indeed, there is a plan in place to improve literacy, then should the government not present that plan alongside the cuts to libraries? This would give some context for the decision and allow people to understand what other measures are being put in place to improve the situation, otherwise people are left in the dark and questioning the government’s actions. I’m in support of responsible government spending and effective use of tax dollars, but such decisions must be accompanied by a reasoned, considered plan to improve upon the status quo that is available to the public eye.

Should Students Learn Philosophy?

This is a question that I can’t remember coming up in any conversation I’ve had with another teacher. Philosophy is something that has, for many years, been reserved for older folks (by older I mean those perhaps 16-17+ in age), with the assumption that it is too difficult for students to grasp. But is this the case? What value can the teaching of philosophy have for school age children?

Some aspects of the academic study of philosophy may create challenges for school children (a deep exploration of the arguments made by Descartes, Kant, or Schopenhauer, for example, may be a bit much to ask students to do), but the process of philosophic thinking can certainly be useful and accessible for students. In doing philosophy, kids develop skills and competency in how to think, in particular reasoning and the consideration of perspective. We can all think, but the quality of thinking improves with practice and training. Philosophy provides opportunities for students to become better critical thinkers ready to face the challenges and success of tomorrow.

A recent article in the Washington Post highlights the benefits of teaching philosophy to students. In it, Steve Neumann argues that students can become better citizens (a vital concern of social studies and, one can argue, the education system as a whole) through the incorporation of philosophical thinking and questioning into curricula.

When people hear the word “philosophy” they might think first of something like a set of guiding principles or a general worldview. The New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick may have a coaching philosophy, for instance, while someone like the rapper Drake encourages us to have a YOLO attitude toward life. But academic philosophy is that discipline of the humanities concerned with clarifying and analyzing concepts and arguments relating to the big questions of life.

The focus is on asking questions because philosophy, as Socrates said, begins in wonder. We don’t just ask ourselves questions—we ask others, those who make up our society. It’s true that philosophy involves a lot of sittin’ and thinkin’ on one’s own, but as the late American philosopher Matthew Lipman wrote in his essay “The Educational Role of Philosophy:

“Philosophy may begin in wonder and eventuate in understanding, or even, in a few instances, in wisdom, but along the way it involves a good deal of strenuous activity. This activity generally takes the form of dialogue.”

Dialogue is key because only then will our assumptions, reasoning, and conclusions be challenged. Only then can we become better thinkers. And in the process of becoming better thinkers through intellectually rigorous dialogue, our children can become better citizens.

I’ve seen some degree of this developing in social studies courses at the high school level in Newfoundland and Labrador, not in the sense of a formal academic philosophy approach (there is one course that partially introduces students to philosophy at present), but in terms of inquiry-based and problem-based learning — vital skills that have recently found a home in new curriculum. Personally, I feel this is an area that can be developed to the benefit of students and, by extension, society as a whole, not to mention the value students might find in exploring how they and other groups make up and interact within society.