Jumping In: Part 3 of Diving Into Inquiry

This is the part of the journey in which I made the bold and adventurous step of directly incorporating the inquiry model into my classroom. Having read the book Diving Into Inquiry by Trevor McKenzie I had arrived at the point in which I could see with some level of clarity how this would look in my teaching.

Just to back up a little, I did have some experience with an inquiry model in a digital technology class that I had been teaching for a couple years without even knowing it. I may not have had the framework or lexicon to describe what I was doing as being pure inquiry, but looking back by taking a student centered approach in how I designed rubrics, gave students agency in choosing artifacts for their learning, and through the creation of an authentic audience for their products, I had already been espousing the main tenants of inquiry based learning in my classroom. The jump I was looking to make this school year, was to have it more transparently embedded into the learning the students would be doing. So in looking at step one of starting the inquiry process, “Think big and plan for the future classroom you want for your learners”, I had already made progress towards that goal.

What I did do this year in a class that I had rebranded as “Music Technology” was to combine the elements I had already been using with the language of inquiry, and to also embed the framework of a design thinking model developed by John Spencer and AJ Juliani called “The Launch Cycle” into the process. I could write a whole series of blogs on the launch cycle model and their accompanying website and book, but I am just going to point you to their resources on the web and let you explore them yourself. So go here to learn more about the Launch Cycle. Basically this is a design thinking framework. And one that I think when it is combined with the tenants of inquiry espoused by Trevor McKenzie can combine to be a powerful force for learning. I included a graphic from their website for reference.

So how did this look? Well first I started off with the process of getting students to explore and investigate music technology as a broad topic. I started with a video that showed a music producer demonstrating how he uses technology to create an entire song from scratch using only his phone and his computer. The video showed how we as people are music creators and how through the use of technology we can design and build original musical creations with minimal resources. I then provided students the space to just explore different ways that music and technology work together to create original products. I held discussions with students in which they were encouraged to share what interests them and what they are passionate about. A student who liked surfing shared about the types of songs on their favorite YouTube surfing video. A student into video games shared about how music is effectively used to convey emotion during certain idea game sequences. Anything to get them to connect the topic of music technology to their own lives. And that’s what the overall goal was in this first phase, to just get them to connect to the learning that we were doing.

The way Mckenzie describes this process in Dive Into Inquiry is through the four pillars of inquiry. We were primarily living in the “explore a passion” and “delve into your curiosities” pillars, but you can see in his book that there are other areas in which you can get students to begin the inquiry process. In terms of exploring a passion McKenzie does provide a series of prompts that you can use for students to reflect about their passions which was very helpful. In the Launch cycle this is what Spencer and Juliani call “Look, Listen, and Learn”. It is essentially an opportunity for students to just be free, explore, investigate and begin that process of connecting with a topic or idea that they are passionate about engaging with.

Once students has identified something that they are passionate about, the next stage of this process was to start asking questions and doing some research. Now here is where there is a little dissonance in approaches between the “launch cycle” and the inquiry model proposed by Mckenzie, but I think both are equally valid approaches. McKenzie proposes that students should create an essential question, make a proposal, then begin researching. The launch cycle suggests researching, developing ideas, then making a proposal (they call it the “ask tons of questions”, “understand the process or problem”, and “navigate ideas” sequence). I have tried both, specifically in my year long Capstone course that I teach, and I personally have found that having students conduct the research then making the proposal afterwards as proposed by Spencer and Juliani has some advantages. But I do not think that it is black and white and that there is a lot of validity in having students make a proposal then beginning the research afterwards.

Again, having tried both, I personally found that when students make the proposal first before having done extensive research, they end up making changes to their idea. Where as if we provide students the space to do the research first and then make a proposal, they have more information to draw from when pitching their idea. I will also add as a follow up that many of these steps are cyclical and if students make a proposal, then research, then make edits to their original proposal they are still arriving at the same point of incorporating their learning into their proposed product. So in this sense as long as you are providing students the space to dig more deeply in their topic during the process of pitching their idea students will be successful in having agency in how they are going to be representing their learning. Much like anything, try out different approaches, see what works best for you and your students, reflect, and as always be open to change. All in all if there is some form of research and a proposal after students have identified an idea or topic that they are passionate about you are supporting student inquiry.

There is one thing I do want to mention here before we move on, there were a series of protocols and presentations of the learning that took place during the research and proposal phases. For the research, each student did have to submit their notes to me that was assessed on a rubric that they created through a process of collaborative work. They also created a slide deck summarizing the key information that they learned about their topic that was presented to the class. That was also assessed on a rubric that they created as a class through a collabroative process of suggesting different grading criteria. Not only did these steps encourage ownership and agency in their learning, but it also gave them an opportunity to practice those crucial 21st century skills of collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. In proposing their project idea they worked in small groups and pairs “pitching” their project idea and using a protocol of clarifying and probing questions from their peers in which they collected feedback. They then used that feedback to edit their proposals and prepared them for final submission to me for approval. Spencer and Juliani have something they call the twenty minute feedback system that was helpful here.

Next came the part in which they began creating their product. In this phase it is really important to make sure that they had a plan for how they were going to get this product made. If a student was going to make a video of them dancing with original music that they created and added to the edited video, they had to present a detailed calendar of the tasks that they would complete to bring this idea to fruition by a set a deadline. This was initiated in the proposal phase, meaning when proposing their product they had to provide a rough outline of 4 or 5 major tasks they would need to do in order to bring their product to life. In McKenzie’s book he has a section titled “the plan and the pitch”. He also provides a nice checklist of items titled “Free Inquiry Proposal” that outlines the questions a student needs to have addressed before they move into the creation phase. What I am saying is that this rough outline needs to be brought out of the proposal and treated separately as its own step.

My suggestion here is to not underestimate the importance of this step. It needs to be made clear to students that this all needs to be worked out before you can give a go ahead for them to begin creating their product. I have also found that this is also the part the students struggled with the most. In my case I found that a student might have a good idea, for example make a video of themselves dancing with music, but haven’t been able to think through the steps required to get to the final product. And this is where I realized I had aimed a little too high in that not all the students had come into my class with experience in this type of learning. Also being in a mixed grade arts elective I had students of different grade levels with a variety of capacities to independently design their learning.

Regardless, through careful work with each student, and intentional feedback and guidance I was able to develop a plan for each student to create a sequence of tasks and a proposal that had a framework that they could follow to ensure an opportunity at success. I did have the advantage of a smaller class and at a smaller school in which I had established relationships with many of the students. So the ability to effectively connect with them and draw out their ideas was made easier than if I had a large class with students that I had not had any previous relationship with. So I would suggest that maybe you be very intentional about the level of expectation you have for students in being able to design an entire project with the experience that they have.

Once the plan and proposal was made and approved, I was now able to simply give students the space, time, and resources to bring their idea to life. I created a system in which we made a large white board with each student, their project plan, the major taks with due dates, and their essential question. Each day they had to write a brief summary at the end of class sharing about how they had progressed on the task that they were currently working on and what they were going to do next. At the end of each week they did a broader summary of the work that they did that week and how they were progressing in the their overall plan. I found that this kept them accountable to themselves and to their plan and gave them the space to reflect on how they were progressing towards completion of their product. This is somewhat along the lines of what McKenzie called “learning evidence check-ins”. I would say though that rather being a check in on the evidence of the learning, these are check ins on evidence of their product development. Essentially the purpose of the class is for students to learn how to use technology to create products using music, so in that sense I’m checking for evidence of their learning. I feel that the sentiment is the same, but above all it is important that I am regularly engaging with each student to keep tabs on what they are doing.

So a lot of my time was spent moving from student to student, making sure they were engaging with their product creation, and helping guide them towards resources that would help them answer any questions that they had. I did find this last step very important. Rather than be the one with all the answers I forced them to go and find answers to any questions that they had. Sometimes this was really hard because there may be asking me how to do something on Gargeband that I knew how to do, but I really wanted to make the creation authentic and get them to be more comfortable finding answers on their own rather than always turning to me. After a little while of this they became very used to this process and stopped always turning to me when they have a quesiton.

The other reason that this is nice is that sometimes we really don’t know how to answer their questions For example I had one student building a MIDI controller using an Arduino. This was something that I had zero experience with and I honestly couldn’t have helped him even if I tried! Where I was able to be of help was in connecting him with resources or mentors that might be helpful. For example I contacted a teacher at a local school who taught a music recording class for high schoolers and put them in touch via email. Through this communication the student was able to get some information about their question that ultimately allowed them to create their MIDI controller.

Moving forward as the students progressed through their product creation phase about 3/4 of the way through I created a check in phase where students shared their progress in small groups and asked for feedback on how to overcome a particular challenge. This would align with the “highlight and fix” phase from the launch cycle of Spencer and Juliani. I didn’t quite see this specifically built into McKenzie’s process in Dive Into Inquiry, but I will say that there are a number of mentions of peer feedback, and looking at other’s work. So while he may not explicitly outline a process for doing this in his model, the process fo eliciting feedback, sharing with peers, and revising your work based on that feedback is covered. Again, do not underestimate this phase as well. Students are very honest with each other and also I have found that since they are the ones in the process of creating their product, they can often see things or suggest things that we may not notice. And again, there is that built in power of students taking ownership of their and each others’ learning and having agency in the process. Rather than turning to me for validation or confirmation of their work, they are using input from their peers on how to make improvements. Of course it is important here that you have clear protocols and expectations in place for how this process will unfold in order to ensure respectful communication and collaboration. The last thing you want to see is a student getting discouraged or giving up because another student was inappropriately critical of their work. But I have found that students are very respectful of each other and are more than capable of providing effective feedback to each other.

So this brings us to the final and most exciting phase. McKenzie called it a “public display of understanding”, Spencer and Juliani call it the “Launch”. Either way it is important that you provide students a platform to show off what they created. So I did this in a few different ways. First internally students presented their creations to their classmates via a prepared presentation in which they summarized their essential question, their process, and their final creation. Again they were assessed on a rubric that they collaboratively created as a class. I then created an opportunity during a lunch recess for all students to come into the digital media lab to see and interact with the products. And then finally I solicited a few projects to be shared at our school assembly. I also can add that the timing of the project completion conveniently feel right after our parent’s weekend event so while parents were visiting students were able to share with parents and families when their projects were right at about 95% complete. In the future I think I would create some sort of authentic showcase for all parents to interact with the student projects, possibly during a block of time after school.

Now I am not going to say that everything went peachy and happy. Some students were behind deadlines, some had to drastically reduce the scope of their project to create something tangible. Some wanted to shift their idea completely in the middle of the project creation and were sadly dissaponted when I guided them towards seeing their idea through. Some students struggled with learning the necessary skills to execute their project idea. But all in all, I asked students to be reflective on their process and identify where did things go wrong. I shared my own experiences of projects in my own life that had gone awry an how I had to pivot to get it completed. I constantly emphasized that this is a process and that in the long run it is most important that they learn how to think independently and to problem solve, rather than be able to create some masterpiece.

It was a big mental hurdle for students to revel in the process rather than the product. Students struggled to have to create something to represent their learning rather than just take a test. In fact about half way through one student said out loud, “why can’t we just take a test on this instead of having to do all this stuff?”. Fortunately one of the students shot back, “yeah but then we wouldn’t have anything that we created at the end, we’d just have some piece of paper with a number on it”. I quietly looked at up and thought to myself, “thank you, maybe we got a shot here”.

I can’t say how right McKenzie was when he said, “find comfort in the uncertainty”. I had no idea how this process was going to go. I feel fortunate to work at a school that trusts me and gives me the freedom to teach a class like music technology where my leadership can say, that sounds awesome, go for it! I know I am privileged to work at a school that can provide me the resources to purchases the items necessary to create music technology products. But as I will share in the next post in this blog series, this way of teaching and learning can work in a variety of classrooms with a limited budget. Because after this experience in music technology I was so inspired that I felt ready to take this into my grade 8 Algebra 1 class. I saw so much potential in these models developed by Mckenzie and the team of Spencer and Juliani that I knew I had to go deeper, I had to dive even further into his thing called inquiry.

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