"Inquiry is Really About Getting Kids to Think"

Linda D'Arco, Center for Authentic Inquiry
Our interview with Jonathan Vervaet, Faculty Associate in the Professional Development Program (PDP) at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia.

(We first learned about Jonathan from the Chris Wejr article in our last blog entry. Two of Jonathan’s grade 12 students attended an edCamp. In the very last session-- a group discussion about TEDxkids, the students, Dylan and Kenny, began to share their experience from his classroom. They noted the challenge of learning in a new way, a way that required them to think creatively and critically. A way that was void of worksheets and “right answers.”)

Jonathan Vervaet is a Faculty Associate at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, where he works with teachers in the PDP (Professional Development Program). At the end of this academic year, he’ll return to teaching high school social studies. His shift from working with students like Dylan and Kenny, to young teachers, fueled an interesting conversation with us around the challenges of learning to facilitate strong inquiry work.

Jonathan says, “Inquiry is really about getting kids to think.”

“It is a big enterprise to get people to change the way they teach. Sometimes students are hesitant, but sometimes teachers are, too. We are moving toward the teacher as a facilitator. I have met a number of people who have trouble with using the term facilitator rather than teacher. It’s almost like being seen as a facilitator isn't as important as being a 'teacher.'” In many ways we are asking teachers to reflect on what they see their role as and what it means to be teacher. Sometimes this means challenging some very long-held beliefs and understandings of what their careers are. They’ve grown up in a traditional learning environment. It’s what they know, it’s what they looked up to, it’s what they’ve wanted to do. So it comes as no surprise to me that there are teachers who are resistant to change. Change means reflecting on who they are as teachers, and who they are as teachers make up a huge part of their identity as humans. That’s why this work is so hard.

During our conversation, we identified some of the greatest challenges for teachers who are new to inquiry-driven learning.

  1. You have to work through the bumps. Your students will need time to adjust and you will, too. But the end results can be really impressive. Know that it won’t be enough to just look at other people’s examples. You have to do some dirty work, too. Embrace this process as your own inquiry journey. For Jonathan, inquiry learning was something he first found at the graduate level, and then he began thinking about how the learning he was experiencing could be modeled for younger students.

  1. You are not the expert. A major part of finding success as a teacher who embraces inquiry learning is recognizing that the role of the teacher is no longer to disseminate knowledge. There are too many ways now for our students to connect with the real experts in the world. We are here to help them make those connections. We are high school teachers. We are not necessarily experts. Of course you have to have a certain content knowledge to teach, but we are not the “world authority” on these topics. We can't be, and don’t have to be, the conveyors of content anymore. We know that by having students process and learn things themselves, they will learn more.  We as teachers need to be experts on teaching kids how to learn.  We need to help students take ownership of their learning.  Inquiry is a way to facilitate this.

  1. Assessment is Foundational. Too often, teachers who are new to inquiry-driven learning think about assessment last. But providing clear, “formative criteria” is really important. Students need to know what does good inquiry looks like. By providing them with a sense of destination, they will be able to see how the different steps of inquiry help them get to that destination. This will also allow them to reflect authentically and figure out their next steps. Because inquiry work will lead students to different conclusions and solutions, it is important that goals be set around improving critical thinking and cognitive abilities. If the goals aren’t clear, students are more likely to lose focus or go back to the question of “how many marks is this worth and what is the bare minimum I need to do to get the mark I want?” Students must see the benefit of the work they are doing. This is not about “jumping through hoops,” but it is about perseverance and making work of value. It’s all about thinking and it is all about ownership. There is no hoop. It needs to be their own, whether they are 14 or 24
  1. You will meet skeptics (and you need them). Jonathan, in reference to Ruth Sutton, says, “It’s important that we have them around. Skeptics keep us on our toes, they help us to keep questioning our own practice. They make us better.” Know that inquiry is challenged by a traditional system that is focused on the things that count (marks) in school. We still have big questions to tackle from parents, administrators, boards of and ministries of education. Our job as inquiry teachers is to continue to answer them with the work we do with students.

Jonathan says, “Now that I am working with teachers, it is interesting to see how they react when they are asked to participate inquiry learning themselves. Many of them are being asked to think critically for the very first time in their educational careers, which is surprising because most of them have only recently completed their undergraduate degrees where one would assume a lot of critical thinking takes place.  Some are shocked by the expectations of the curriculum where there are no marks and they are asked to own their own learning. Some still want to know what they need to do in order to complete the program as quickly as possible. They seek a stability in knowing what is expected of them. It’s important that we slow them down and help them see that inquiry work is foundational learning; not just to become a teacher, but to become a better person. We need to ask new teachers big questions and get them thinking about their greater purpose in life. As Parker Palmer writes ‘We teach who we are’ and a big part of becoming a teacher is holding up the mirror and figuring out who I am and what am I bringing to the profession. My own favorite teachers and mentors made me do that, and I am a better teacher and person for it. They helped my come to a place where I really wanted to consider my own practice critically. Now I maybe reflect on my practice a little too much— like when I’m going for a run. I still need to try figure out how to turn off the reflective thoughts.”

What are some of the things you anticipate happening when you go back to teaching high school next year?

“I know that I’ll be working to fit the way I want to teach my classes with an inquiry approach into a larger school system that still prioritizes the traditional means of earning marks. Students, parents and some teachers still see high school as university preparation. The goal of school to many is to get good marks. While I believe we’ll never get rid of marks, how we generate them can change. I am fortunate to work in a school district that is working with teacher inquiry groups that are interested in how we can move to a more competency based grading system. I know that most of the students who take my classes will feel pressure to balance their course loads with other “test-driven” courses. In my experience students often consider those more traditionally taught classes to be more important.

I also face the challenge of having spent the last three years mentoring new teachers. I need to get back into the classroom and make some of the changes I have been talking about in my own practice. I have learned so much about teaching by observing and mentoring close to 100 student teachers and feel like I need to take those learnings back to my classroom. It’s exciting; if only a little daunting! Those will be some of my challenges next year.”

We also asked Jonathan, “What are your own personal inquiry projects?”

"Right now I'm really interested in mindfulness. I was introduced to it by a colleague of mine at the university.  We’ve even built some time for contemplative reflection into our program time. I'm just dipping my toes into it, but it can be hard to find time to meditate for a half hour every day. When I do though, I can feel its benefits for me. I’m also interested in seeing how the mindfulness movement plays itself into schools. Mindup is being used in many schools here as a way to promote social emotional learning and self regulation. We brought it to our student teachers, and I was surprised that some felt it was spiritual and in tension with their religious beliefs. I know mindfulness stems from a Buddhist tradition, but I never saw it as a religious activity. For me, mindfulness was about my body— about noticing the air going in and out of my lungs, about paying attention to my emotions and thoughts, about relaxing. To address the tensions we brought an actual model elephant to class. We literally put the ‘elephant in the room’, and we had a really rich conversation about mindfulness practice, our religious biases and how to address the tension between our identity and our role as public school teachers. It was very interesting."  

Another instance of inquiry, if you will, was when Jonathan was challenged to learn how to unscramble a Rubik's Cube by two of his students. “I had a grade 9 class and there were two boys who could do the Rubik's Cube really fast. They asked me, “If we can do this in less than 30 seconds, can we have no homework this weekend?” I don’t normally assign homework but played along and said ‘sure.’  I then thought if two boys in grade 9 can do this, surely I could too. I asked the boys if they could teach me how to beat the puzzle. It was one of the most difficult things I have learned in a long time. I literally spent hours learning to see patterns and think about algorithms. In the end I learned because of the support I had access to. The support was the students. They showed me how to hold the Rubix Cube and how to remember the patterns. I think it is important for teachers to consider the last time that they learned something that really challenged them. Then they need to think about how they figured it out. And then try to identify the ‘Rubix Cube’ for the students in their class. This might change the way we teach and assess. This experiment helped me get a better perspective on learning."

Jonathan’s Contact Information:

Jonathan Vervaet
Faculty Associate at Simon Fraser University
The Professional Development Program (PDP)

Jonathan has numerous recommendations for further reading and reflection.  They can be found on his blog www.jonathanvervaet.wordpress.com or by clicking here.
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