Sunday, April 1, 2018

Ownership Through Inquiry

As a child, I was enamored by nature.  My twin brother and I were always observing and collecting any and all types of critters we could get our hands on.  Growing up in a rural area of Northwestern New Jersey made it quite easy to seek out and find different plants and animals on a daily basis.  We would spend countless hours roaming around the woods, corn fields, ponds, and streams in our quest to study as much local life as possible. It’s no wonder that I eventually became a science teacher as my surroundings growing up played a major role in my eventual decision to go into the field of education.  

To this day I still can’t believe how my mother tolerated us bringing an array of animals into the house.  For years my brother and I were particularly interested in caterpillars.  We would use encyclopedias and field guides to identify certain species that were native to our area. Through our research, we determined what each caterpillar ate and subsequently scoured trees, bushes, and other plants in our quest to collect, observe, and compare the differences between different species. We even kept journals with notes and sketches. When we were successful in locating these insects we then collected them in jars. Our research ensured that each species had the correct type of food as well as appropriate physical requirements to either make a chrysalis (butterflies) or cocoon (moths).  

In the case of moths, some were in their cocoons for months.  Hence, my brother and I stored these jars under our beds.  At times we forgot that we had these living creatures under our beds until at night we heard sounds of them flapping their wings and moving around the jars after emerging from their cocoons.  I can only imagine what my parents thought of this but am so thankful that they supported our inquiry in many ways from having encyclopedias available for research to providing us with the autonomy to harness our intrinsic motivation to learn.   Through it all our observations led to questions and together with my brother and I worked to find answers. Even though we were not always successful in this endeavor, the journey was worth it. Questions and even more questions drove the inquiry process for both of us and from there we leveraged available resources and synthesized what we had learned. 

The story above is a great example of how my brother and I embarked on an informal learning process driven by inquiry.  We owned the process from start to finish and our parents acted as indirect facilities through their support and encouragement.  Both inquiry and ownership of learning are not new concepts, although they are both thrown around interchangeably as of late, especially ownership.  Deborah Voltz and Margaret Damiano-Lantz came up with this description in 1993:
Ownership of learning refers to the development of a sense of connectedness, active involvement, and personal investment in the learning process.  This is important for all learners in that it facilitates understanding and retention and promotes a desire to learn.
After reading this description I can’t help but see the alignment to the story I shared above.  We learned not because we had to, but because we wanted to.  Herein lies a potential issue in schools.  Are kids learning because they are intrinsically empowered to or are they compelled to through compliance and conformity?  The former results when learners have a real sense of ownership.  There are many ways to empower kids to own their learning. All the rage as of late is how technology can be such a catalyst. In many cases this is true, but ownership can result if the conditions are established where kids inquire by way of their own observations and questions.  WNET Education describes inquiry as follows:
"Inquiry" is defined as "a seeking for truth, information, or knowledge -- seeking information by questioning." Individuals carry on the process of inquiry from the time they are born until they die. Through the process of inquiry, individuals construct much of their understanding of the natural and human-designed worlds. Inquiry implies a "need or wants to know" premise. Inquiry is not so much seeking the right answer -- because often there is none -- but rather seeking appropriate resolutions to questions and issues.
The first sentence ties in directly to the concept of ownership, but we also see how important are questions.  This is why empowering learners to develop their own questions and then use an array of resources to process and share new knowledge or demonstrating an understanding of concepts are critical if ownership is the goal.  The article from WNET explains why this is so important:
Effective inquiry is more than just asking questions. A complex process is involved when individuals attempt to convert information and data into useful knowledge. A useful application of inquiry learning involves several factors: a context for questions, a framework for questions, a focus on questions, and different levels of questions. Well-designed inquiry learning produces knowledge formation that can be widely applied.
Ownership through inquiry is not as difficult as you might think if there is a common vision, language, expectation, and a commitment to student agency.  The Rigor Relevance Framework represents a simple process to help educators and learners scaffold questions as part of the inquiry process while empowering kids to demonstrate understanding aligned with relevant contexts.  By taking a critical lens to instructional design, improvement can happen now. Curiosity and passion reside in all learners.  Inquiry can be used to tap into both of these elements and in the process, students will be empowered to own their learning. 

1 comment:

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