Students at Cloverleaf spend the last class period of each day working together on a project of their choice. They recently wrapped up their two-month long elevator inquiry, in which they rode a gigantic elevator, built a working elevator, watched elevator videos, read books about elevators, researched outstanding elevators around the world online, and wrote letters to an elevator technician. We explored the elevator topic in as many different ways as we could think of.
I was trained in the inquiry model during my time spent teaching in New Zealand. I was lucky enough to work in a school whose charter was based on student-directed and inquiry-based learning. This model centers on providing an open forum through which students may pursue their own educational interests. As a teacher, I ask many questions to help students come to their own conclusions during our inquiry time, rather than explicitly teaching or giving direction. Students are able to make connections, problem solve, and truly direct their own learning.
When students are given the freedom to come up with their own ideas, they immediately feel a sense of ownership over their learning. Choice increases interest, and interest increases retention. By diving into a topic students already know they want to learn, they are vested in the experience. We want to help our students work their way toward independence every way we can, so student-directed learning is just one more way to give them a feel for the driver’s seat. Giving students the opportunity to be leaders also builds confidence.
I’ll be the first to admit, the learning style can at times be frustrating, but in the most wonderful way. I was recently at a conference in which someone spoke on the discomfort of the “I don’t know” zone. The speaker’s goal for his students was to see the “I don’t know” zone as a problem-solving place rather than a stopping place. It’s OK if we don’t know what to do; that just means we need to look at the problem in a new way and approach it from a fresh angle.
It also doesn’t come naturally to me as a teacher (as I’m hoping other teachers/parents can relate!) to release the reins and watch what happens. Having this time with the students each day gives me much-needed practice at trusting them to figure things out. We as adults sometimes struggle with letting kids make mistakes, and tend to want to intervene. In this project, we sometimes ran into problems we couldn’t fix immediately. I had to encourage the kids to ask me the question, “What can I do to help?” so we could keep moving forward instead of getting stuck. This also helped them exercise their independence muscles– rather than waiting to be told what to do, as they may be used to, they can offer up ideas and take action!
Capping off our project with a thrilling trip to the Westin Peachtree Plaza in downtown Atlanta was a great way to both reward hard work and also highlight science in the world around us. We rode up 72 stories in the glass-encased elevator talking about how we would go about building one of THOSE!
Overall, I couldn’t be more proud of what the kids accomplished in this inquiry. Not only did they create an outstanding final product with their working elevator, but they began a journey that will hopefully take them far in life. They’ve become discoverers, following their curiosities, solving problems, and learning by their own volition.