Cascading Challenges: A Choreographed Approach to Sustained Student Inquiry
Imagine a classroom where students excitedly play with ideas, exploring ways to re-invent, re-interpret and re-think while engaging with concepts, ideas, events and people set out in the prescribed curriculum. While we might like to dream of such a classroom, research suggests we are falling far short. It appears that the longer students are in school, the less they enjoy being there. Perhaps this is because schools spend too much time teaching answers to be replicated rather than posing challenges that invite exploration and innovation. If learning were driven by provocative challenges, it would help to shift the role of ‘teacher’ from a purveyor of knowledge to a choreographer of learning.
Sustained Inquiry through the Cascading Challenges approach
Consider the language typically used in describing the tasks students complete in school: summative assessments and culminating activities/task. Both make the task a demonstration of learning, often occurring at the end of the learning to provide evidence of success at achieving the desired outcomes. What if we were to re-frame how we view and label the tasks so that they become the “driving tasks” that act as an invitation for students to learn? By making rich, meaningful tasks the drivers for learning, we will be able to better nurture the competencies central to 21st century learning. Perseverance, open-mindedness, innovation, critical thinking, collaboration are all more powerfully nurtured when learning is launched by an invitation to a meaningful challenge. When the teacher choreographs learning experiences, students become competent users of the intellectual tools called upon by the nature of the challenge.
Three Keys to the Cascading Challenge approach
1. Cultivate a culture of inquiry
- Invert the traditional approach so that the invitation to solve a problem is the driver for the learning rather than the culmination for learning
- Frame an overarching inquiry and challenge to focus the learning on a clear target for students
- Begin with a ‘learning launch’ that invites prediction, speculation, initial drafting of ideas, and imagining an ideal
- Identify 2-4 lines of inquiry to help students develop conceptual and procedural understandings necessary to successfully respond to the overarching inquiry and challenge
- Develop a learning map to help students understand the relationships between the broad learning goals, lines of inquiry and daily lessons
2. Problematize everything
- Make critical thinking a routine part of learning by developing daily lessons that explore the lines of inquiry through manageable and focused critical challenges
3. Allow students to affirm, revise or extend their thinking through continual reflection
- Encourage reflection and support failing forward through a thoughtbook, for example, where students predict, speculate, hypothesize, revise, edit, confirm as they learn
- Use the Cascading Challenge approach that allow setbacks or ‘failures’ to be embraced as opportunities for learning rather than evidence of shortcomings.
How can we promote Sustained Inquiry?
When we create opportunities for sustained inquiry and allow children to explore them, great things happen. With a rich, generative question driving the lesson, students are able to imagine, test, revise and extend their thinking. Carol Dweck terms this type of learning as ‘incremental learning,’ when comparing ‘entity learning,’ where the answers expected are fixed. Using the Sustained Inquiry approach helps teachers nurture a growth mindset in their students – where they see challenges as something to be embraced, and intelligence as a product of their perseverance and new experiences.
Creating the conditions for sustained inquiry involves two distinct types of inquiry:
The ‘mucking about inquiry’ refers to the phase of inquiry where we first invite students to offer an initial speculation, conjecture, prediction or, in the case of creating, to sketch a prototype. Drawing inspiration from the popular game Angry Birds, this phase can be seen as ‘launching the birds,’ during which teachers present an authentic and provocative challenge, inviting students to record an initial response in their thoughtbook. As their learning deepens, students are invited to continually reflect on their response, extending, revising, or even re-starting if necessary. The meta-cognitive process supported by the thoughtbook allows for learning to be an iterative journey as students reflect on what is or is not working, encouraging them to seek new information and understandings to fail forward.
To avoid inquiry becoming a fruitless and frustrating exercise for students, it is essential that student explorations are supplemented by ‘guided inquiry,’ during which teachers carefully choreograph the development of the intellectual tools students need to deepen and extend their learning. Applying the Cascading Challenges approach to curriculum design, teachers scaffold learning by carefully planning the lines of inquiry and teaching the intellectual enablers that allow students to arrive at thoughtful and often innovative solutions to presented challenges.
Concluding thoughts on the Cascading Challenges approach
The Cascading Challenges approach draws together the strengths of various approaches to learning to create the winning conditions for student success. Rather than being seen as a new idea or another program to implement, sustained inquiry is best seen as an evolution. Effective teaching and learning unites many aspects of teaching in a manageable, coherent and transparent plan, ensuring the understandings and competences required by students are diversely addressed. The invitation to innovate, communicate, act responsibly, and solve meaningful problems is at the core of learning for all students under the Cascading Challenges approach.