Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Guiding Learning

I don’t know about you, but I am in constant debate and conversation with my blended learning friends over the need to teach versus students being in charge of their own learning. Today I was reminded, once again, why our teaching is so important.  

Let me tell you what happened that provided me with this reminder. So, we know Vygotsky’s teachings of the Zone of Proximal Development.  That zone is out of reach on our own. Good teachers reach into the zone and teach students right where they are.  This is what I call guiding learning.  This is why we named Guided Inquiry – Guided Inquiry- not just Inquiry Learning or some other name. 

Guiding learning is important. If we leave students on their own to discover, they may never discover important information that can move them forward in their understanding.  They may never see an important bit of information that can take them to new understandings and help them dig deeper into a topic.   

When we don't know something how can we possibly search for it?
Let me tell you my example that led me to remember how this ZPD is important.  My daughter has a love of horses, riding, and pretty much anything horses.  But, we don’t own a ranch or farm or horses of our own.  But she is curious about them and often checks out books from the library about all kinds of horses and horse topics, fiction, non-fiction about wild horses of the west and Shetland horses of Iceland.  She’s learned about their nomenclature, historical information about how horses were used in the past and today.  We’ve gone to horse shows of all kinds and rodeos.  But facts and experiences don’t accumulate to expertise on their own. 

It wasn’t until we read a book on Shetland horses and found something odd.  Shetland horses have a special gait called tolting.  These horses ride at a gait that keeps their riders more steady.  Piquing our curiosity we found a video on Youtube of Shetland horses in Iceland today moving at a tolt.  It was an odd video- all in Icelandic language and we felt immersed into a foreign land where horses did odd things.

The next time we went to lessons with our expert on horses who trains, rides, coaches expert riders in western style horse riding, we told her about what we found out about this curious style of tolting.

Listening to our stories of tolting, she realized that we didn’t know the details about the western gaits.  So she began to teach.  She explained the three gaits in western riding walking, trotting and loping. She explained how  the horse moves in each gait and how each gait differs, how a rider or observer can recognize them, and why it matters to know this. 

This mini-lesson on gait reached into my daughters third space and ZPD taught her new information taking into consideration what she already knew, (the names of the gaits, and how they felt to ride them all) and blended that with new information and why it was useful for her to know this information when she was riding.  Next, her teacher modeled what she described.  She hopped on my daughter’s horse with too short stirrups and showed us what the three gaits looked like. We saw the horse walking with as if seeing it for the first time, recognizing the foot pattern she described.  She showed us trotting and loping too. We really saw these things for the first time in those moments with this new information. Then as any expert teacher would do, she checked my daughter’s understanding and had her ride the horse at different gaits to see if the horse was leading with the correct foot. This expert teacher reached into the ZPD, made relevant the ideas we were thinking about gait, and stretched our understanding in a way we couldn’t discover on our own. Or if we did, it would have taken much longer to discover this and make relevant connections to her understanding as a rider of horses. 

I suppose, we could have looked up gait and found this information on-line, but we knew the gaits of western riding so we wouldn't see the point, relevance or importance in doing so. Now, with our new lens on western gaits, we will look it up and extend our current understanding. So, I argue that ignorant searching is never as powerful or the same as having an expert guide our learning.  Experts stretch us in important and new ways that we could not do on our own. 

We, in Guided Inquiry, are experts in the five kinds of learning. We reach in and guide our students thinking in each of these areas as needed. Let me explain using a few examples for each kind of learning.

Teachers knowledgeable on the inquiry process are experts who can help our students in their ZPD of learning how to learn. We do this by offering the right tool at the just right moment to support thinking and more them forward in the process. We ask a question or provide a journal prompt that gives us information about where they are in their process.  This acts as a catalyst for reaching into the ZPD and knowing where kids are in their thoughts, feelings and actions in the process. We then take that information and confer with students to let them know, for example, that frustration is normal in the explore phase. We encourage them to keep skimming materials until something interesting speaks to them from the page.

Experts in content reach into the ZPD to help students to deepen content knowledge. The horse example above provides a great example of how to reach into the ZPD to grow content knowledge.  In the classroom content experts are looking for misunderstandings and gaps in knowledge and use teachable moments to fill those gaps.

Experts in literacy development support our students to grow their linguistic abilities and communicate what they are learning while it is happening and synthesize new arguments and ideas in cohesive ways to be able tell the world.

Experts in information literacy reach into students ZPD with a mini lesson on locating, evaluating and using sources ethically.  This occurs in an authentic context, when students need to use an atlas, the mini-lesson comes, not before in preparation, but when the student recognizes this need.  We know of this need by assessing learning and knowing where students are in the process, and designing the right time to reveal specific information that will support their learning.

Experts on social learning work toward student collaboration. We strategically place students in groups to provide opportunities for students teaching one another as they expand their own knowledge through inquiry.

So how do we know when and who to teach in this zpd?  We know by using formative assessments and the routine use of tools and learning experiences designed to support what the students are experiencing at any given moment in the process. Journaling throughout with intentional prompts that match the process and zone of intervention you seek information on, provide information on process. Inquiry Logs that track the learning journey, give us information on how students are engaging in inquiry and reading in different phases. Inquiry Charts show us how students are deciding on the questions to dig into deeper. Inquiry Charts can also show us how students are synthesizing information to build bridges between ideas and important ideas. Work that prepares students for Inquiry Circles and the conversations during circle time tell us how students are collaborating. The discussion in the Community of learners at the close of an inquiry sessions tell us about how students are connecting back to the big ideas and essential questions that the unit are grounded in.

All this is to say that teachers are important. Collaborating as a team and using our expertise to guide learning, raises the level of learning for all of our students to heights that they cannot reach on their own. 

We have expertise and can grow our expertise in the five kinds of learning to support our students through inquiry taking them to learning spaces they never dreamed of on their own. Together we learn more. Learning in a vacuum, we can only go so far.

How are you facilitating your students learning in the five kinds of learning through inquiry?

I’m not alone in this Jeff Goldstein argues for the same kind of teaching- http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeff-goldstein/the-art-of-teaching---in_b_278916.html
When we dig deep and teach this way, not only do we impact in the moment learning, but we also impact lives and hearts forever.

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