By Brenna R. Kelly
Fourth-grade mathematics teacher Crystin Moore knew her multiplication lesson was a success because the other 4th-grade teachers at Junction City Elementary told her.
Moore’s students had been so excited about the lesson that the teachers in their next classes got to hear all about it.
“I know when students leave my room and tell other teachers about what they learned and how they learned it, that it was successful,” she said. “When you teach math, that doesn’t happen all time.”
Moore had used inquiry-based learning, a way of teaching designed to spark students’ curiosity and lead them to answer compelling questions by using sources and performing tasks. It’s a new way of teaching for Moore and 10 other Boyle County teachers who are participating in a pilot program to spread inquiry-based learning across the district.
For Boyle County High School social studies teacher Ryan New, inquiry-based learning is a way of life. New, who was named 2017 Secondary Social Studies Teacher of the Year by the National Council for the Social Studies, has been using the method for years.
“Inquiry-based learning is a pathway for student independence, creativity and self-measure,” said New, who is leading the pilot as the district’s director of inquiry-based learning. “It should not be confined to social studies because it’s a product of who we are as human beings. We question, we seek answers to those questions and we engage in discussions and take actions as a result of the conclusions we reach.”
Students doing these types of lessons follow the inquiry arc, which includes developing compelling questions and planning inquiries, applying disciplinary concepts and tools, evaluating sources and using evidence, and then communicating conclusions and taking informed action.
As a frequent visitor to New’s classroom, Boyle County Assistant Superintendent David Young had seen inquiry-based learning at work and how students had to use critical thinking skills to work through the lessons. Young said it fit perfectly with the district’s desire to focus on teaching critical thinking skills.
“We want kids to productively struggle and to have to think through complex problems, to take time to sort through all the variables and come out with best solution,” he said. “We know that that is a skill that kids need, just as much as they need to be able to master the content.”
Traditionally, inquiry-based learning has been used in social studies classes. Young and New brainstormed about how inquiry-based learning would work in other subjects, studied the work of Kathy Swan, a University of Kentucky education professor and expert on inquiry-based learning, and developed the pilot program to include all grade levels and at least four subjects.
“We may be the only district anywhere that is practicing inquiry-based learning in math, English, and we even have a computer science teacher who is doing it,” Young said.
Before school began this fall, the teachers learned about how to write compelling questions, supporting questions and create inquiry design models (IDM), Young said. An IDM is a blueprint with supporting questions to frame the inquiry, sources students can use to understand the content and performance tasks so students can communicate their conclusions.
English teacher Kate Fryar created an IDM for the question “How should we discuss death,” which uses literature to explore death and dying.
“I believe it might be the only English IDM that exists anywhere that anybody knows of,” Young said.
Teachers in the pilot meet once a month to evaluate student work, share what they have learned and learn more about how to teach with inquiry-based learning. They also meet virtually in smaller groups once a week to share lesson plans and ideas, he said.
Moore decided to join the pilot because she believed inquiry would spur her students desire to learn mathematics. Inquiry-based learning allows students to see how math is used in the real world, she said. In the lesson her students were so excited to tell their other teachers about, Moore had asked the students to figure out how “Abby” could buy a bicycle.
“I allowed them to figure out what information they need, what information they want to know to be able to solve it,” she said.
She gave different student groups different scenarios. One group, after seeing how much money they earned at job, figured out that they wanted to multiply $15.75 by 7, but the 4th-graders had never multiplied a decimal before.
“So then they asked, ‘Wait a minute, how do I multiply this,’” she said. “And I thought great, they want to learn math.”
Moore planned that scenario so those students would stretch their learning beyond 4th-grade standards. Other groups in her class used a scenario that did not require multiplying decimals.
“The differentiation really helped because then they were able to learn that skill, and the other students were able to practice 4th-grade multiplication because that’s what they needed at that time,” she said. Moore can’t make every math lesson into an inquiry, she said.
“That one question about buying a bike took 50 minutes, but they only got to multiply one time in the scenario,” she said. So the day after the inquiry lessons, students spend time practicing the skill, she said.
“That’s really how it’s different from social studies,” she said. “In math the skill is used often, so we need to use it often as well.”
Moore also likes how inquiry allows her to have students explain their mathematical thinking with the step of communicating the conclusions.
“My students are being challenged, we call it the productive struggle,” she said. “We want them to push their limits, but we want them to also have support. Through the struggle, the learning happens. They have to explain it to me and talk themselves through it.”
That kind of evidence of deeper learning has convinced Young that the pilot program is working.
“I think we are all past the point of wondering if it’s something that we want to continue,” he said. “There’s no doubt it’s going to become part of what we do.
“In certain subjects, in certain grade levels, it may become the way we teach every day or it might become another model for teaching that fits perfectly on most days but not all days,” Young said. “But we’ve seen enough and without a doubt, there’s going to be some scaling of it across the district.”
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