Inquiry is more than an event; it is a way of thinking.
A Principal’s reflections on change:
When I hear people say, “ok we are going to start our inquiry time,” I am always a little concerned – ok, very concerned. Inquiry is not an event and I worry that when people treat it as an event the power of inquiry is lost. As a staff, when we started to really explore learning and teaching from an inquiry stance we tried to avoid falling into the “inquiry time” trap. Like all good inquiry, my understanding of this developed over time and the learning involved a fair amount of learning by failing.
When I think about my first year as a principal I felt the pressure to change the school and make an impact. That resulted in going for the quick fix. I thought bringing in a teaching strategy would be the fix. When I think of the work that I am involved in now in the Incubation and Design branch of the Ontario Ministry of Education, I see that I was focused on trying to find solutions before spending time on problem definition. In year one, the focus was on writing and developing a continuum of the forms of writing that should be introduced across the grades. To put it mildly, it was a failure. It failed for many reasons. I was driving the change, not the teachers and the students. It was about implementing a teaching strategy not about changing what learning looked like.
Like all good inquiry, my understanding of this developed over time and the learning involved a fair amount of learning by failing.
After stumbling through year one, we started to switch gears. We took a look at what was the instructional knowledge we had as a school. We plotted ourselves on an implementation continuum and took a look at the high yield strategies that we heard about, knew, were starting to do and were doing well.
This allowed staff to select a strategy that they wanted to learn more about and to also work with others interested in exploring the strategy. This put the learning in the hands of the teachers. They worked in interest groups, not grade groups, on things they wanted to learn more about. The groups also had staff at different points of the continuum from, “I think I heard about that once,” to “I do that often but I am not sure how it is making a difference.” While we were still talking about strategy, we were actually engaged in our own professional inquiry. We spent a year just learning about learning. Teachers made attempts with new ideas and strategies, co-taught and learned from and with each other.
One of the main learnings was not about the different strategies but about the process. The process of forming a question based on interest, having control, making connections and learning with others. While learning about strategies, we changed our stance from talking about teaching to better defining what it is like to be a learner. This is a subtle change but had huge impact. It helped us experience learning through inquiry alongside all of the joys and challenges experienced in such learning.
One of the main learnings was not about the different strategies but about the process.
When teachers started to do the same with their students it opened up the learning. It gave us a common foundation to build on. Documentation of learning became more communal in the school to show how students were learning and why students were more engaged. This took on various forms throughout the school including videos, photographs, blogs, classroom websites and Twitter… to name only a few. Bulletin boards not only in hallways but also in classrooms were showing the narrative behind the learning and in turn, created more rich dialogue for students and for teachers. Staff members were taking more risks and students were becoming more and more engaged. Alternatively, these various forums that were showcasing student thinking were also ways to share 21st Century learning with parents/caregivers.
Furthermore, when I see the work documented on The Learning Exchange of our students engaged in real-world math, I know it was not because we were doing inquiry in math, it was because this is how we approached learning in the school. It was the reculturing of what it meant to learn and teach.
At approximately year five as a principal, I felt we were ready to add a makerspace because the maker mindset was established as part of the school culture. Teachers were much more comfortable with this way of teaching and creating richer learning environments for their students. Learning opportunities not only happened in a single classroom but expanded to cross-grades/cross-divisions where students were immersed in much deeper, more hands-on problem-based learning and inquiry. As a former librarian, I saw the library as the logical hub to facilitate this great work. I was fortunate to have a teacher-librarian in Megan Linton, who was not only willing to take this on but had the skills and desire to champion it.
A Teacher’s reflection on change:
As a Teacher Librarian (at the time), it was important for me to understand that my position was fluid and always changing in order to meet the needs of all members of the school community. I went through a huge learning curve from the moment I stepped into John A. Leslie Public School, and I continue to learn. Working with Greg McLeod as Principal was an amazing opportunity. He allowed me to take risks and unlearn so that I could learn in different ways.You can imagine, when you are approached by your Principal to consider the launch of an Innovation Lab in the library, I panicked a bit and was thinking; “How am I going to do this?” “Where do I start?” “What do we need?” Fortunately, Greg was very supportive and provided me with a few resources to further my learning and understanding behind this concept of an Innovation Lab. Having administration support during this process was super valuable. Not only did I need to know I had the creative freedom (and some financial freedom in addition) to design learning spaces, but I also needed to know that it was okay for me to make some mistakes in my learning journey and that gaining new skills, such as how to use a 3D printer, tools, coding and other technologies was going to take time. To help ease some of my anxieties, I had the opportunity to visit a colleague, Stephen Gilbert, who had a great program and Makerspace already established for a few years in his school. It was very inspiring!
When you are rolling out an Innovation Lab/Makerspace in your school, you need to ensure you have established the readiness of your school community, as mentioned previously. Greg, Marianne Scott, the Vice-principal at the time, and I devised a schedule for how to ensure access to the Lab. The thing you need to think about is how this new space will be utilized. We wanted to ensure that everyone in the school had a chance to get into the space and experience it!
The thing you need to think about is how this new space will be utilized. We wanted to ensure that everyone in the school had a chance to get into the space and experience it!
I was very passionate about collaborating with colleagues and had developed this relationship previously in the Learning Commons (library). Having the Innovation Lab in the Learning Commons was a perfect fit! Not only was it great for resource access, but it was also a large enough space for tools, materials, a 3D printer, Green Screen, Lego Wall and other materials needed for inquiry. My schedule was for Science prep in the morning and partnering with other teachers in the afternoon. Library exchange was done through open library periods where classes were given Library Passes and they were to be used in periods selected for open exchange. This allowed for many classes to frequent the lab during various periods throughout the day. Some periods were with me, and other teachers who felt comfortable bringing their classes down were able to do so, as long as they signed up for the slot. I created a signup schedule through Google docs.
I really enjoyed exploring the space and it was important to me to figure out a way to document student learning and use what was available in the process! Collaboration was at the forefront, so it turned into a communal space of respect for learning by using whiteboards and windows, through Knowledge Building. These areas were slates for students to add their thinking and continue to add, take down and share ideas across grades. I realized for this to work, the display boards had to be flexible and not permanent so students did not feel that their ideas could not change/evolve. I also used iPads and video devices to capture the learning, as well as Twitter for purposes of sharing.
In addition, I had an amazing opportunity to attend a few Entrepreneurial Thinking workshops, given by the MaRS Institute in Toronto, which taught me how to teach through creativity, innovation and branding. I also learned about STEAM education through a variety of workshops, run by various educators with the Toronto District School Board. It was amazing to combine these different concepts and teach through these lenses so students could understand the process behind product design for the real world. It definitely took time to bring all these ideals together and develop this respectful environment. I was taking risks and was encouraging staff and students to do the same.
It was amazing to see how student risk-taking evolved over time. Some were starting to build relationships with others whom they may not have worked with prior to this experience. The ones who were deemed “quiet,” were starting to share ideas because the community was safe and respectful. Other students started questioning their peers’ ideas. Students were not afraid to fail, as we discussed and learned about the value of this and how this can inform next steps for adjustments to whatever was being created. There were many failures, but working through this with the class and breaking down the negative connotation of the term “failure,” led to amazing conversations and sharing of ideas between students.
There were many failures, but working through this with the class and breaking down the negative connotation of the term “failure,” led to amazing conversations and sharing of ideas between students.
I learned a lot about my strengths as an educator, which I really didn’t discover until this experience. At this point of the Innovation Lab launch, I was in my sixth year as a permanent teacher. During these years, I had to revisit how I learn! I knew I was a visual/spatial type, but I also discovered my communication skills and ability to be flexible and to adapt. Thankfully, these skills were an asset to the type of programming I was aiming to deliver. I discovered that I had learned a great deal (and am still learning of course) and was excited to explore how I was going to make curriculum links to real-world experiences. I feel very appreciative of the knowledge and skills I have gained so far and look forward to adding to this. I will continue sharing what I have experienced with others in the future.
If I were to have this experience again, of course, I would do things differently as there is always room for improvement. I am a lifelong learner. In order to be responsive to my students’ needs, it’s integral for me to embrace new ideas. I will continue to reach out and learn from my professional networks, and take risks in the learning environments I encounter with staff, students, and parent/caregiver communities.
My advice to other educators would be to get to know your community first. Introduce ideas slowly in your creative space to see how they are used and what students and staff will do. Don’t forget to include parents through regular communication (blogs, websites, Twitter, etc.). Take the risks! Give yourself a chance to learn before sharing with your students, but don’t stress about becoming an expert. It is amazing to see where students can take learning. Be willing to find the information that supports your learners or bring in other experts to explore and learn with you. It is the 21st Century and the capabilities of students are endless, given the right tools and guidance. It is an educator’s obligation to at least try and provide this enriched learning experience!
Greg McLeod is a former Principal from TDSB and has been a teacher, consultant and Vice-Principal in TDSB. He enjoys new challenges and has had the opportunity to teach at OISE/UT as a coordinator and instructor in the B.Ed. program. Greg enjoys learning with and from others and has worked with educators from around the world. Greg currently is an Education Officer in the Ontario Ministry of Education’s 21st Century Leaning Unit in the Incubation and Design branch.
Megan Linton is an Elementary teacher of the Toronto District School Board and is currently on Maternity leave, she has taught in the Learning Commons (library) for four years. Throughout her career, she’s had the privilege of teaching Grades K-8 through and Inquiry and Entrepreneurial Thinking lens. She has also taught Grade 1/2 and 4/5. In 2015, Megan had the opportunity to speak at the Ontario Library Association Super Conference at the Toronto Convention Centre, on implementing Inquiry, STEAM and the maker mindset in your classroom/Learning Commons. She is passionate about collaboration not only on a professional level, but she also sees the power of this for creating a safe learning environment for student thinking and risk-taking.