The Classroom as a Community for Inquiry


The classroom as a community of inquirers and learners.

Inquiry learning begins from the premise that we are, by nature, inquirers and thinkers. The Community of Inquiry is an approach which develops the practice of the Socratic method: this means that a stimulus or a provocation is provided to the community which then stimulates thought and dialogue. Dialogue identifies for the community those concepts that are central and common to us all, such as fairness and beauty; while we take for granted a common belief or definition, we also find that they are contestable concepts. Socratic dialogue assists to build the skills of thinking about thinking, argument and reflection. Dialogue allows students and the teacher the space to explore our own and other minds. Developing these skills is the intention of the philosophical community of inquiry as promoted internationally and nationally, by the various associations of Philosophy with Children in Schools.

Children’s psychological and cognitive development

Even though we still know very little of children’s psychological and cognitive development, our understanding has grown over the past few decades. In regards to education there is a large body of work that discusses how children construct and reconstruct knowledge. This approach is known as constructivism and it is a dominant theory that informs learning and teaching today and it is generally associated with the appreciation of child development as a continuum, a spiral, rather than a series of independent stages of development. Holding the metaphor of the developmental spiral, imagine also that our embodied minds travel through four-dimensional space, and, as we do so, we encounter resistance with nature and each other. We therefore seek solutions by asking questions, we imagine other possibilities, we try to change the circumstances that cause us discomfit.

•    One question for me is, can we assume that curiosity, and wonder, awareness, consciousness, and thinking, and a general desire for understanding are present in the baby to the grave? If so, the elements that change along the continuum of development supply the ‘complexity’ of conceptual understanding and knowledge.

Essentially, constructivism understands that knowledge is socially constructed and defined by our relationships. Consequently, there is an emphasis on the quality of the relationships between students, teachers and peers. I like to describe this collaborative thinking as the ‘meeting of minds’. Classroom instruction is not only defined by the teacher transmitting facts but by all members of the classroom thinking and communicating together: thereby learning by thinking; imagining possibilities; seeking opportunities; the means for a particular end; evaluating and reflecting; thinking about their thinking and coming to a common understanding. This approach requires a classroom environment which is safe for all to express their thoughts, explore their concerns and questions, and learn what it means to take responsibility for and manage their own and each other’s learning. Such a classroom is often defined as a  ‘democratic classroom’.

Learning to be a learner: Maturity and imagination.

An important aspect of children’s development is developing our mutual understanding of the importance of collaborative thinking and learning. Engaging with each other’s minds in dialogue assists in constructing our personal and social experience and gathering knowledge of the world around us in a meaning and purposeful way. This approach is based or modeled on the conception, and development, of a community of scientists as a community of inquirers. A community of inquiry pays as much attention to cognitive development, that is, thinking and related skills, dispositions, habits and ‘thinking tools’ as to physiological development and tool use. My engagement with children in the classroom in all its variety is about getting to know each other as ‘people’, as ‘humans’ and as learners learning together. I think understanding our ‘human-ess’ is essential to making sense of ourselves, and each other.

A critical aspect of effective teaching and learning is respectful relationships.

Assessment in such a classroom environment involves a matrix of ‘objectives’ broadly categorised into three parts, Assessment OF learning, Assessment FOR learning, and Assessment AS learning. Assessment AS learning is the dominant field and is intimately connected to our human, and personal, social and cultural relationships. It is about imagination, thinking, and reflection.
When assessing children’s performance, it is important to consider the learning environment, and as well have an understanding of our psychological and physical development and their interrelationships.
Ten assumptions about children’s development when thinking about assessment and reporting:
•    Students are always watching and observing what is going on around them.
•     Have inquisitive minds.
•     Grow and develop at varying rates.
•     Learn best when they engage in meaningful activities.
•     Need to be exposed to a variety of experiences to allow learning outcomes to be achieved.
•     Need a supportive environment to develop self-understanding and to understand others.
•     Respond to praise and recognition.
•    Engage in individual, and collective experiences involving ‘risk-taking’ and problem-solving.
•    Develop the means of making their own and collective connections, conclusions and judgements.
•    Need to repeat activities so as to explore possibilities refine skills and reinforce learning.

The following is an account of of my classroom practice over one year.

Sociability – interpersonal and Personal relationships  – Civics and Citizenship.

Grandparents Day was a great morning. The day just buzzed as children proudly talked about their work and the different things they do at school. From observation, there is a real affinity between these two generational groups. Initially, our morning ran much as we would do on any other day. Our guests joined in, keen to ask questions of the children and contribute themselves. There was no shortage of willing presenters to explain the various projects we have pursued over the year. Our grandparents were very impressed with the combined talent and maturity demonstrated by all the children. It would be great to see grandparents even more involved in the school in the future.

We have investigated how we can contribute to improving water quality. A major focus throughout the year has been around our concerns about water. We have begun exploring the natural water cycle and system of Transpiration and as well, the way we transport and use water. These understandings have been developed by applying their knowledge to understanding our connections to the local Plenty River and along with experiences of meeting with engaged adults, the Friends of Plenty River and the local councils Water Watch officer who is also a participant in the local Teacher’s Environment Network.

Guardians of the River is how the class defines itself in relation to their explorations of the Plenty River. Other literacy and numeracy strategies have been developed through the Litter Campaign and by reading the Jennie Baker story “Where the Forest Meets the Sea”, and researching, sharing experiences, writing songs and planning and developing an animated story about litter and the Plenty River. Others began writing a story using the structure of “One Drop and a Million More” which describes nature’s water cycle.

Numeracy and Literacy

Ukulele and the formation of the ‘BUGs’, the “Briar Hill Ukulele Group”. There is clearly much musical talent and a desire to perform, which I hope will be developed over the coming years. The children had great fun designing their bugs and transferring their designs to their T-shirt. Their debut concert at the Spring Fair was a cause for delight and was one of the highlights of the year. Learning the ukulele has stimulated discussion about how we learn and the need for practice, effort and motivation. Apart from the challenge of learning a musical instrument, the program supported our learning and singing of the song “Botany Bay”, which provided the stimulus for an exploration of child convicts and transportation, and the occupation of land and settlement of the early colonies. This theme arose out of a story about the gold rush and the Ballarat diggings. We also explored the different media used to tell stories: in this case we watched the Australian children’s animation, ‘The Little Convict’ by Yoram Gross, and we read, compared and exchanged ideas about the book of the same name.

Creating an animated story using the stop-motion software on the Mac computers has been a literacy focus over the semester for some Children. Rachel Bishop introduced the Jeannie Baker story, ‘Where the Forest Meets the Sea’ and the story structure provided a model for the class to create their own story about the Plenty River litterers. Planning for the story introduced concerns about plot, character, and sequence. The children had to develop their ideas, organise their storyboards and come to agreement about how each idea would connect to make the overall story, truly a team effort. Discussing and making their own animation was also supported by our visit to the Pixar exhibition at the Australian Center for the Moving Image (ACMI). This visit assisted in our appreciation of constructing stories and story telling, and as well supported their process in creating their own animated story. Earlier in the year we had read the Judith Wright novel ‘The Dingo King’. Supporting activities around this story explored how writers used descriptive words to ‘paint’ pictures for us to imagine. In their reading and writing activities we have looked at how our choices of words and character are important elements of a good story.

Environmental Education for Sustainability activities have connected to literacy and numeracy in the classroom. Numerical understandings have been applied and reinforced by collecting rubbish, sorting into categories, and counting rubbish in the playground. The rubbish was later washed and used to make dramatic symbols supporting their ‘put litter in the bin’ message. Children wrote and performed songs that further promoted this message. In the classroom, they have used their graphing knowledge to develop comparative data. Their anti-litter campaign and the Plenty River and water use will continue to be a focus next year. Our visit to the Rethink Center (Banyule Council’s recycling centre) allowed us to see how these ideas are used in recycling rubbish where it is sorted ready for the manufacture of different products. The continued drought and the difficulties of growing plants and maintaining a garden in these conditions have been recurring themes. The children have planted gourds, pumpkins, zucchinis and corn and sunflowers as well.  In the classroom, we have been observing and recording the conditions and variables that affect the growth of moulds.

Scientific and philosophical understandings.

Scientific and philosophical understandings allow fascinating comparisons to be made between different forms of living things and their own mutability of form. I hope to continue this line of investigation next year as one of our big ideas. The development and application of these understandings will inform their environmental studies as they apply this knowledge to the science and lore of cooking, and their work of cultivating the garden, and as well, to the natural cycles of the garden.

Weighing, measuring, supermarkets and commercial packaging. It is important to see literacy in all its dimensions, such as imaginative, speculative and historical writing and as well the use of non-fiction, informational and commercial texts. Our visit to the supermarket was a stimulus for a number of different activities and projects in numeracy and literacy. They have begun looking at type-faces, choices of colours, size and placement of words and the relationship those things have to imparting a message. Explorations of packaging and nutritional content lead us to look at weighing and measuring. I would hope to continue these activities as part of their health program. Another emphasis this year has been the practising of the structure of algorithms and process. We have been developing our understanding of multiplication and multiplicity concepts, beginning with repeated addition. We have also been revising adding and summing, the relationship with subtraction, which is finding the difference between two numbers. Division, fractions and time have also been introduced.

Spelling strategies have been a particular focus especially as the students grapple with words that are not obviously phonetic in the way many three-letter nouns are. There has been a focus on the different ways of writing the same sound and how two or more vowels clustered together are used to denote one sound but also indicate a change in meaning and use. Everyone received a spelling journal for use in the classroom and as an element of their home reading activity. The purpose has been to encourage them to focus on the increasing complexity of English words and spelling.

Words and their meaning have been an element in our literacy and numeracy studies. We have been using reference materials such as atlases and dictionaries to connect language to the comparing of size and measurement and the understandings we need to make meaningful comparisons. Examples of these included the very tiny baby, born premature weighing only 318 grams – or, as the children discovered, 1½ cups of dry rice. The news story about the squid that was washed up on a Tasmanian beach was used as a stimulus for a measuring and comparing activity. By measuring themselves, they worked out how many of their body lengths were equal to one giant squid of seven meters. These stimuli were taken from newspapers where the same information is often presented in a variety of ways – text, photographs and a comparative diagram. Each element introduces new information that can be comprehended only according to its form, that is, the written, the visual and the diagrammatic. This layering is an element in what is called ‘multiliteracy’, which explores the connections between the different modes of delivering stories and supplying information.

In these ways, we have experienced how numeracy depends on language capacities.  Inquiry learning encourages their acquisition by establishing a classroom grounded in mutual respect sustained by shared knowledge. During 2007, we set out to achieve a love of learning. This letter locates the formal report in the ethical and pedagogical environments that make sense of assessments.
Peter Curtis, 19/12/07

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