Developing inquiring minds

What makes one student more inquisitive, more capable of troubleshooting, more confident to pursue learning on his or her own than another?

I first noticed a distinct difference in groups of students during observations in my introduction to teaching class. I was assigned to an 8th grade English teacher and scheduled my visits to catch an honors class and a basic class. The honors class wasn’t just given a heavier load and more difficult work. I saw immediately a difference in receiving instruction.

As the teacher gave assignments to each class, the distinct difference I noticed was that the kids in the basics class asked dozens of questions, “What do you mean?” “How do you want us to do that?” “How do you want us to start?” “How long does it have to be?” You get the drift.

In the honors class, once instruction was given, there was some silence, as the students contemplated and considered what the teacher had said and how they were going to interpret it for their own work. And then they went to work – quietly.

In my own classes, my journalism students, who come to be in those classes by way of application, recommendation and interview, are that type of student. They may have a few questions; after all, this type of writing and working is quite different from any they have encountered in their years of schooling. But once they have developed their plan of action with some guidance, they go to work interviewing, drafting, seeking feedback, revising, editing and helping others do the same. After a few weeks of learning how the news lab works, they are more inquisitive, more capable of troubleshooting and even more confident to pursue learning on their own.

Take for instance our addition of Google Drive this year. In an effort to step up our technology, make it possible to do more writing and editing from more places and save paper and toner, I introduced Google to my editors over the summer. Then I told them to teach each other and explore to see what else they could learn. So they did.

It wasn’t long before the news staff figured out sharing folders, which made sharing drafts so much easier. We shared that knowledge with the yearbook staff, who started using it shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, the yearbook staff had delved into spreadsheets for the ad client list and the ladder. In that endeavor, we learned a little more about sharing with commenting versus editing privileges and exactly what that means. We also learned about revision history and how to restore an earlier version – thank troubleshooting skills.

Knowing that my journalism classes have many qualities that seem to develop these skills in students, I have tried to move some of the “project” thinking, peer-to-peer problem solving attributes and freedom of choice over to my more basic classes. My hope is to develop their critical thinking skills and a desire to learn that will replace the “just give me a worksheet I can complete with the answers I get from you or my peers so I can have my points” mentality. If students can become intrigued by participating in their learning, it just might make a difference for them.

Over the past couple of years, I can say it’s worked to a degree. Having a journalism Mac lab in my classroom helps. I’ve had my English classes conduct more research than my other English dept. counterparts can do with their limited computer lab time. I’ve introduced blogging, which has inspired some, but not all of my students. I’ve allowed freedom of choice for projects to accompany literature units – many of which were never completed. The introduction to journalism class did some research into historic journalists last year that incorporated choice in technology tools and good old stand-in-front-of-your-classmates presentation skills, but it also encouraged that peer-to-peer teaching I love so much.

Since every year, in some cases, every semester, gives us the opportunities for do-overs, I seem to be in a reflective mode most of the time. When I take these attributes that work so well for the high-achieving students to my classes that have such a mix of high-achievers and those who just show up, I have to provide more scaffolding. While I provide choice, I cannot leave it open-ended. I have to show some solid options, and examples go a long way in helping students visualize their projects. The peer-to-peer problem solving has to come with specific guidelines, because some problem-solvers take their jobs to heart more than others.

As this semester winds down, I make plans to get it wrapped up with what we have done so far, and I look ahead to making improvements for the work to come.

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About teachjournalism
I am a high school teacher of journalism, technology and reading. I advise the school's newspaper and yearbook, both student-led publications. Documenting and sharing my experiences is a way of reflecting to improve my own work and and inviting commentary so that we might all benefit. I believe, as I tell my students each year, that we all learn from each other.

2 Responses to Developing inquiring minds

  1. cafecasey says:

    This is a really tough thing. I find my kids are disturbed when I say, “Go do something. Your grade is either 100 or 0. That reflects that I saw you trying or not.” That’s what I do for genius hour. They have to do something with the intention of iterating. Most won’t. They’ll still get 100. The majority took a couple weeks of “What do I do.” Now, they’re just doing. Love it. Schools have trained them/us to obey. We have to untrain them.

  2. Ah, the fit-inside-the-box training and the untraining to come. Yes, oh my, yes. I’m playing around with standards based grading. Seems I can’t take the easy route. Have to keep changing things up, trying to make it better. Family resented for years that I was always busy. They kind of “get” why I do what I do now.

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