An Invitation to Learn

In Monday’s blog post, I asked everyone to dig deep and analyze their own attitudes about time. Today, let’s think about how we present the learning process to our students (which definitely relates to time). In short, is learning a drag, something to merely tolerate? Or is it a process of discovery?

When you want to learn more about something, do you reach for a textbook or Powerpoint presentation? Or do you ask a person, do some research, watch a film or video?

 

What can educators do to establish a warm, inviting, exciting mood for learning? In Guided Inquiry Design, the first three phases of inquiry learning (Open, Immerse, Explore) are critical. Kuhlthau et al establish again and again how important it is not to rush students because establishing a learning purpose affects successful implementation of the rest of the inquiry process.

Educators learn from studying the Open, Immerse, and Explore phases of inquiry learning that they should not begin a unit of study by handing out an assignment. No learning context has been established! Just yesterday a student told me, “We just started reading a speech in English class today and answering questions about it, but I have no idea who was giving the speech and why.”

In my school, students can take an elective called Media Center Service Learning. We have had success implementing a unit on social justice. When we start talking about it, they all inevitably ask, “What is social justice?” That question shows me their lack of previous knowledge, so imagine how ineffective it would be if I simply handed out an assignment sheet or packet on the day we began the unit.

Units of learning should begin with an open invitation to spark students’ curiosity. Students should be curious about lots of things because they typically haven’t had many life experiences yet, so there’s a lot they don’t know. What would make you curious to learn more about something? (Probably not a textbook or PowerPoint presentation.)

At the high school level, I’ve had success using the New York Times Op-Docs website for short documentary clips to engage students and get them thinking. For the example of our social justice unit, here’s one clip we used, featuring an all-girls school in Afghanistan. Students wrote questions during viewing on a shared Google Doc which we discussed after viewing. The clip prompted some great discussions among students who before viewing the clip didn’t know the meaning of social justice. They were astonished to discover some of the information presented in the clip. Some students went on to research the school because they were curious, naturally leading into the Immerse phase of GID.

In Immerse, educators need to give students opportunities to encounter the breadth of the topic. Building background knowledge is critical if students are going to have enough information to eventually narrow down a topic in the Identify phase of GID. During my unit, the students continued their discussion about the clip. I also arranged for some guest speakers to visit my library. A representative from a local organization which works to help victims of human trafficking attended as well as a representative from a local community center and a public librarian. These three individuals spoke with students about how their jobs involve issues of social justice. This event helped show students the breadth of social justice issues around the world but also in our local community. Students took notes and also participated in discussions in inquiry circles. They were particularly interested in the human trafficking organization (SWITCH).

At this point, students have already encountered a great deal of new information as a group. As we transition into the Explore phase of GID, “students browse through various sources of information to explore interesting ideas and prepare to develop their inquiry questions” (Kuhlthau, 2012). In our unit, we prepared 13 stations each featuring an issue of social justice. Students rotated among the stations, writing down questions. We included books, articles, political cartoons, photographs, video clips, and much more. Remember that students should only be browsing, skimming, and scanning at this point. They may feel overwhelmed by the amount of information, and now is not the time to be bogged down in detailed note-taking. As Kuhlthau (2012) states, “when students rush through exploring, their thoughts about their ideas have little opportunity to evolve or develop. As learners slow down and relax, they can read and reflect on the information they are exploring” (79).

Here is proof that GID works: some of my students ended up choosing a topic that was not featured in the Open, Immerse, or Explore phases! These same students who began the unit asking “What is social justice?” had progressed enough to find their own topics. I could not have been more proud of them. And yes, some of these students were reluctant learners.

As an end product, students wrote a letter to a local representative, organization, or newspaper explaining the social justice issue and proposing a solution or course of action. Their end products were much more effective because they were given time to explore issues that interested them and that they cared about. They gained a much clearer, detailed picture of social justice because they moved through the Open, Immerse, and Explore phases. Imagine if I had merely provided them with an assignment sheet including a list of possible topics. The students would not have developed an emotional connection with the unit.

All of these activities took time. Use your fellow teachers and school librarians to collaborate. Branch out into your community and see which learning opportunities are available. Ideas provided in the Open, Immerse, and Explore phases can make learning so very exciting!

-Jamie Gregory, NBCT, Duncan, SC

@gregorjm    jamie.gregory@spart5.net