Building Inquiry in the 21st Century

Children love to question. But, recently I’ve experienced the antithesis--children who said they knew the answer to their questions. Was this the result of The Google Generation--was inquiry essentially being changed by the tools we have at our fingertips? Inquiry is the driving force that propels us as humans to search the skies, dive the oceans, find the unknown. It is the human ability to wonder, something children engage in naturally and I had begun wonder if we weren’t killing it--creating “nonquisitive” people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for integrated technology! I’ve found, however, that many students entering my room seemed to not know how to question, or even more so why to question. I began to wonder if questioning and wonder--if inquiry--was becoming a lost art, the side-effect of a culture that can "google" anything it needs to know, and often assumes what it sees on the internet is true. And I'm not alone.

Not alone at all.

When faced with what surprisingly seemed like a classes of children who “knew the answers” and had little desire to know more, I considered my options. I could lament my woes, wonder at where the world was going, throw up my hands, or inquire as to how I might bring about change. I didn’t know the answers--still don’t. I didn’t know the cause--I shouldn’t assume it’s related to our over-connected culture. I do know (in hindsight) that what we did together changed how they saw the world--and themselves in it. And can only hope that this will change what they do to learn in the future. Pursuing Passion My answer was to try to find a way to inspire, to reconnect, to engage--a path to which teachers are always trying to find the way. It was nothing new--but I needed a new answer. Passion based learning piqued my curiosity and seemed an answer to my problem: find out what each child is innately passionate about, and infect my students with my own passion.

Learning How to Sew.

Seemed simple--but it wasn’t...and yet, it was. Having an idea about how to respond is not the same as responding. I began to establish a framework for reaching out and transforming the way my students approached their own learning by keeping in mind these tenets of passion-based learning. These guided every decision I needed to make over the course of the year, from connecting with parents and parent-teacher conferences, to putting out a “call for help” to some of the Upper School students, to partnering with other teachers and professionals in the community, and heading off to a conference on Maker’s Spaces so that some of my students might try 3-D printing.

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But before all of that could happen, we had to begin with our big questions: What is passion? What does it mean to be “passionate” about something? What are you passionate about? Though we wrote a group definition, it was really more valuable when each student wrote their own “passion paragraph”. These developed over time. Looking for heroes to follow, we watched videos of other children who had pursued a passionate interest of their own. Kids like Caine Monroy and Jackson Gordon were big hits--they were kids; the sense of connection was palpable. “I want to build a robot!” “I want to be a veterinarian.” “I want to make movies, write a book, learn how to knit, train whales, build buildings…” The list was endless--but there questions weren’t. Turning interest into inquiry wasn’t a natural and so I decided that I had to scaffold this experience and guide their transformation more carefully.

What does Inquiry mean? Crafting questions that were “big” enough to spend a large amount of time exploring was another difficulty we encountered. I was completely unprepared for how difficult this would be for my students. We discussed what “inquiry” is and why being curious and following our curiosities leads us to learn more about ourselves and our research. At first, my students regarded inquiry as merely questioning, but slowly we began to see this in a more complex light. In reading the book What to do with an Idea? by Kobi Yamada, we considered how the things we were each passionate about could be developed and nurtured into something real. We reflecting on how passion for something, and how people responded to it, was all part of developing who we were and what we wanted to share with others. All of this was superficial at first, but as students began proposing their research projects, inquiry became connected to reflection and self-realization.

We began to formulate inquiry based questions about our passions.

"Can I Create my Own Cake Recipes?" Organizing our Passion Genius Hour was something I had heard about--but when I originally looked into it, there was little content as to how to execute it. Little knowledge. But it was an idea. And around an idea, much can be created. With colleague support and continued research,I began to build a basis for the importance of ideas--celebrating the nature of creative thinking with the picture book What Do You Do With an Idea? And then began the hard part: managing different projects as we tried to support individuals and shape the process….

Can I Make a "Wolverine Claw" and Design a Costume?

Presenting Our Work

Sometimes grouping students together who showed similar interest (architecture and engineering, movie-making and screenwriting, animal training and veterinary medicine) and agree upon a similar output can help manage supporting multiple research projects. Meeting with each student weekly to help reflect on progress was difficult and so we created a Genius Hour Activity Log in Google docs. At the end of each workday, students were given time to assess how well they used their time, what questions they answered, what they were still wondering about, and what their plan for next time was. Before we began each Genius Hour “class”, I would ask students to state their goal for the day--I found this very helpful in focusing our efforts and getting the most out of our limited time. Reflection and goal-setting had to go hand in hand.

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Passionate Children~What did they say that they took away? “I've learned that I keep on trying till I get it right and I also learned that my real passion is design and building. Because my favorite part about the robot was when I got to build it also one of my favorite parts was to see what it could do. I’ve also learned how sensors work and where the power flows in the robot. Also how important one piece can be to the robot so if one piece was sideways or not the right way the robot wouldn't work.” “Passion is the key. I learned what passion is. I learned what Genius Hour is. I learned that passion is a key to life. We need it. We praise it. We are it. It’s brought us to our passions of caring for animals, architecture, robotics, flight, community and so much more. Genius Hour has taught us the key, the key of life. Passion. Genius Hour did a lot for us. It let us pursue our passion, learn by that, kindness, friendship, perseverance, etc. Most of our learning was guided in special time to pursue our passion. That is what Genius Hour did for us.” “I’ve learned about not giving up, how to program, how to make something from scratch, about my passion, about myself, about taking your time, about doing my best work, and many more! It’s changed how much I see goals I’m trying to reach. For example, it’s helped me because it kind of shows how much more there is to learn. And most of that stuff, I want to learn. It’s like a fork in the road and I choose to go a certain way and then something else comes to my mind and basically asks me a question and I am the only one who can answer it. The one thing I’ve learned, is not to give up on anything. TO HAVE (A PASSION), OR TO NOT TO HAVE (A PASSION), THAT IS THE QUESTION.”

Learning How to Design and Program Video Games

“I learned many things about architecture and 3D printing. One thing I learned is that when 3D printing you have to make sure everything is connected, or else it comes out of the 3D printer wrong. Another thing I learned is that architects have to put in lots of support beams on a building or bridge when designing it. The next thing I learned is that some 3D printers are very small so you have to scale your project down, for example, I had to scale down the castle I was making. I also learned that you can make as many errors as you need before getting it just right. The last thing I learned is that 3D printing is more efficient than using cardboard. All the things I’ve learned like accuracy, efficiency, and trial+error, have made me really smart.”

“My Genius Hour changed over time, but it still has the same basic concept. At first my genius hour was R/C planes specifically, but it has grown to aviation and how things fly and these are some things I learned. Aviation is all about thrust, lift, weight, and drag. Put those all together in a machine and you think you have a plane? Wrong! You need to have flaps, ailerons, an elevator and a rudder! Most important is the shape of the wing. The wing’s shape can painfully effect the plane's flight. The wing is made so that it has the right amount of pressure under the wing and over.” “I have learned how to cite my sources. I also learned about picking a good topic. I started off by finding something many people do, like smoking. Then you research it or try to improve it but in this case I wanted to stop it. When you find something for your topic you research it and add in some fun interesting facts that nobody knows and that's how to have your Genius Hour as a big hit.” Why is this important? Will one of my students use their lego skills to help another? Could experience with 3D printing lead to innovations such as Neri Oxman's or even more applications like the ones at Pier 9’s Artist in Residence program? Beyond the obvious academic skills that my students could articulate that they experienced, and the soft skills that grew in their student toolkit, there are the long range benefits that every teacher hopes will evolve. Perseverance, cooperative learning, goal-setting, reflection, problem solving, articulated reasoning, are all part of the 21st Century skills that are well integrated into a learning atmosphere such as this. And this is the point--to integrate academics into the student’s world and transfer classroom lessons into personal learning experiences where we must use our social and academic skills to achieve individual goals.

It wasn’t perfect. Not by any means. We are continuing with Genius Hour again this year. This year, however, I have a cleaner outline for its execution. Drawing upon the Project-based Learning movement, I’ll be adding in a structure to our Genius Hour that includes workshops and strategically placed benchmarks: proposal, plan, presentation--each with workshops, work times, and reflections built in. As one student said of me: Genius Hour is her Genius Hour--actually teaching is. And it will “take some time and effort” and require some rethinking--as many of my students saw in their own experiences. I don’t know if easy access to information is creating a culture of "nonquisitive" people, but I do know that it is our responsibility to build critical thinking, interrogative questioning, perseverance, communication, collaboration, and literacy--in all of its forms in the hearts and minds of children.

Breaking the notion that we are creating students who are ill-prepared for the problems that they will face has to be the responsibility of every teacher in every classroom--at whatever point they find themselves. Genius Hour is one way to shift that thinking toward possibility and the future.

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"Each of us must become impassioned, finding meaning and self-fulfillment in our own life's journey." Alexandra Stoddard

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