GID – The St. George’s Experience

In my last post, I gave you some context as to what my school is about and how I came to become a GI disciple.  Today, I’d like to get into how we’ve leveraged Guided Inquiry at my school.  These are certainly not the only instances of GID that have been used at my school, but these are all ones that I’ve been involved with in some way and illustrate some of the successes and challenges that we’ve faced.

As a precursor, it is important to know that my school has been considered one of the top schools in our Province (some would say country) academically as measured by scores on Provincial and Advanced Placement standardized tests and the kinds of schools that our graduates get admitted to.  We recognize that we have done extremely well in an older educational paradigm and that as student needs change (and Provincial curriculum changes to match) high academic standards as measured by standardized test is only a small part of what we need to do in the future.  We need to go beyond the covering of content and go deep into addressing how students think.  This means that we are spending more time uncovering content than covering it and are emphasizing helping students learn for themselves rather than simply teaching them “what they need to know.”  This has precipitated a number of shifts in what the work of the classroom looks like (and what the classroom itself looks like) and has brought in Guided Inquiry alongside of Project Based Learning, Harkness discussions, NSRF Protocols and the Visible Thinking ideas of Ron Ritchhart among other things.  This has meant that, at times, some ideas from each of these arenas seep into teachers’ practice while at other times, entire pedagogies are adopted as a whole.  You will see below that some of these implementations of Guided Inquiry rely on some of these other ideas and some are more loosely based on GID leveraging some of the key components, but not the entire system.  As I stated in my previous post, there are so many great ideas within GID that taking parts of the model will improve teaching and learning but adopting the entire model will transform them.

Canadian Identity and Immigration

Our first run at GID was motivated by my trip to see Leslie in Boston.  I’d done the reading and I’d bounced ideas off of Leslie.  But I thought that I wouldn’t truly understand until I got my hands dirty.  Boy was I right.  My teaching partner in this unit, Christina Tutsch, and I were completely naive.  We looked at the number of classes we had before Boston and said to ourselves, “8 phases = 8 classes!  Easy peasy!!!”  It didn’t take us long to figure out that that was mistake #1!

We started with a brilliant Open phase.  Our topic was looking at Canadian identity in context of the immigrant experience.  Historically, our Social Studies 10 curriculum leads up to the founding of our nation in 1867 and waves of immigration from various parts of the world played a significant part in our history up until that time.  But of course, we didn’t simply close the doors on July 1st, 1867.  We continue to have immigration stories impacting our nation and national identity.  Given that we live in a very international city and our school has a significant boarding community, many of these stories relate very directly to our own boys.  We opened with the viewing of a piece of Poetry as written and recited by Shane Koyczan at the opening of the 2010 Olympics entitled, We are More and then viewing an ad by a national beer company, I am Canadian.  From there, we had a discussion about what it meant to be Canadian.  I poked and prodded and tried to incite some argument.  My students are so polite.  But I did get them thinking about the possibility for one person to be more Canadian than another; if it was a piece of paper that made someone Canadian or something deeper.

In conjunction with some basic dissemination of content knowledge around particularly key points in our history where immigration patterns had particular influence, the students did their own brief research via Wikipedia and broad web searches in order to build a timeline of immigration to Canada.  This allowed the class to have a common jumping off point for their own research that was followed up in the ensuing Explore phase.  By this point the students were fully on board with the topic at large and were beginning to see connections to their own lives, whether it be Chinese-Canadian students taking an interest in the Chinese railroad workers that were key to building the trans-Canada railway to students who were interested in stories of parents who weren’t able to practice their chosen profession in Canada because of archaic laws and the broader implications of discouraging highly trained professionals from immigrating to Canada.   The identification phase was done informally as one on one discussions about topics where teachers helped to refine student ideas.

It was through Explore and Identify that the folly of our “one class per phase” really started to surface.  Students who immediately saw connections that interested them had little problem outside of refining their ideas.  Students who wrestled with this more took much longer and required more time outside of class.  Luckily, with this particular cohort, we had some flexibility with their schedules and could rob time from other places to give them more on the project.

Another bit of fun that we had with them was that we regularly teased them about the end product for their research.  I would say, “You do recognize that we haven’t told you anything about how you are going to share your research with each other…”  And then I’d dismiss them.  The result of delaying any discussion of the final product was that the students focused on the story rather than how many words an essay would have to be, or some other product related concern.  The discussion at the end of Gather became around how best to tell their story.  The boy who’s father couldn’t practice his profession in Canada wrote a letter to the Prime Minister addressing the issues that immigrant professionals face and offered some possible solutions.  Others did audio, podcast-like presentations.  Others did more traditional writing.  The end products weren’t quite as creative as we’d hoped, but then again, we didn’t really give them much time (one class!) to explore these options.

Sharing and Evaluation occurred primarily through their blogs as they read each others’ work and commented.  The nice thing about the blogs was that they were using the same blogs as their Inquiry Journal so the final product was published as the summary to a longer line of published thinking.  The final de-brief on content and process, which was held as a larger group discussion revealed some great connections and the affinity that the students had developed for the GID model.  A brilliant first time out of the gate, even if we did cheat things and not quite give enough time to really flourish.

What does it mean to be human?

More recently, we used elements of the GID model for a full grade exploration around the question of “What does it mean to be human?”  This unit involved 150 Grade 8s and 10 teachers including myself.  It was addressed as part of their English, Social Studies, and Science classes and was purposely broad to allow connection making between the subject areas.  The execution of the project offered some challenges from the get go, but ended up in some very powerful learning and some very excited students.

This is a new configuration of our Grade 8 programme at our school, so there are many aspects of our work that are still in “beta testing” mode in terms of how we organize for teaching and what connections between subjects can be leveraged, and as this was our first cross-discipline inquiry project, there were many issues to work around.  More about those next post.  Suffice to say, it took some time to get all of our ducks in a row and the Immerse phase had really begun before we could organize an actual Open activity.  We dealt with this by having students start doing regular reflections in their individual classes on a regular basis so that they could at least start to draw some connections between the disciplines and pull personal meaning out of the content.  The result was that we did get some good connections with course content that might have been lost if it was dealt with in a more traditional manner.  Having said that, by the time we got to the Open activity, which was an Affinity Mapping protocol (from the NSRF protocols), the students were already thinking in a very discipline-centric manner.  It was hard to break them of that after the fact.

This was another unit that was pressed for time – not as much as the Social Studies 10 unit described above, but still squeezed in.  There were a lot of pieces that the students were asked to do along the way.  They completed a worksheet that had them develop a driving question and research questions that supported the driving question as part of the Explore and Identify phases.  They were regularly journaling electronically and their teachers had access to these.  They did a check in and final Annotated Bibliography as their Inquiry Logs and they did peer-review forms and worksheets to get them to analyze their sources of information more critically.  We packed A LOT in in a few short weeks.

The end product was of their own choosing with the stipulation that it had to stand alone (no explanation required from the student) and had to maintain an audience/reader’s attention for about 5 minutes.  Given the lack of time, we got a lot of poster boards and Power Point presentations.  The students tended to go with formats that they were already comfortable with, rather than identifying the best platform for delivering their message.  There were exceptions in the form of films, infographics, sculptures, 3D models, but those were more the exception than the rule.

The sharing was all done on one day.  During their class time, peer groupings of 4-5 students came together.  The presenter displayed their piece and then there was written and verbal feedback from the other students.  Later on that evening, we had parent-teacher interviews and the boys took over a few classrooms and displayed their work for their parents.  It was fascinating and encouraging to watch the parents not only find their own son’s work, but to see how many of them spent time looking at other projects and discussing them.  All in all, the projects pushed the students’ thinking and, even in the short amount of time that we gave them, gave them cause to explore something that genuinely interested them.  Each teacher had a smaller group of students that they were “advising.”  Many of the students that I worked with talked about how they might further explore their topic, even when the final reflection piece didn’t actually ask if they would.

We have a number of folks who are actively working with GID or ideas from GID to enrich their students’ learning experiences.  Topics that are currently on the go include: relationships in the context of Romeo and Juliet, creative writing around global issues, and revolutions throughout history.  Other ideas that are being bandied about include programming paradigms in computer science, coaching techniques in a physical education class, privacy and security in the context of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother.

Comments and questions are always welcome and I will respond!  My next and last post will be around connections, challenges and bigger ideas connecting to GID.  See you in a couple of days!