Inquiry-Based Learning: My learning experience

I greatly enjoyed my modelling project, and this assignment was just the kick-start I needed to get into a hobby that I have been appreciating only vicariously for many, many years (by reading material like this).

I learned by asking questions and then looking for answers on the internet, in books and magazines.  One question would lead to others (for example, for additional details) and then, most excitingly, to a discovery of some piece of information that I wasn’t yet seeking but became intrigued by, which lead me into new directions of investigation.  The hobby of building model airplanes for me is inevitably linked to my interest in aircraft and my study of history; one interest feeds the others in a never-ending circular fashion.  Until now, though, no model kits were being built, only imagined.  Imagination is a great start, but human beings have a need to be creative and to hold and show the results of their creativity.

So another way I learned was by actually manipulating the parts of the kit, and by using the appropriate tools for the job.  You can listen to and watch someone explain what tool to use and how to use it, but until one tries to use the tool for themselves there is still mystery involved.  One “knows” how a tool is used by experiencing how it to use it.  This applied especially to more complex tools such as the airbrush and the paints and primers I sprayed through it.  Eventually I was able to make these work and the success was exhilarating!  (I am still excited about it and telling friends, a couple of weeks later.) img_3711 Continue reading “Inquiry-Based Learning: My learning experience”


Digital Storytelling in the Trades-Math Classroom

I really like the idea of digital storytelling, in part because I understand that many students, particularly those with learning challenges like dyslexia, often benefit from seeing and hearing a narrative. They can follow and remember a story told to them and supported by pictures, and it gives them a framework into which they can associate and fit new information that they learn.  And a lot of students in the trades are recognizable as having learning disabilities.

However, because I teach mostly abstract concepts, it is tricky to pick out subjects which could be expressed in pictures, at least in a sustained way.  I do have the impression, though, that digital storytelling could be used to introduce students to new courses and to give them an idea of what they can expect to learn about during the course.  A slide show is an easy thing to handle on the first day of classes, when everything is strange and information is coming at them too fast and from all directions.

On Day 1 of classes I typically discuss with each new class of apprentices the important details of two course outlines (one course outline for math and one for science).  I try to put my courses into context in their current level of training, and relate it to what they’ve learned in previous levels and will learn in levels yet to come.  I tell them about highlights of the courses and try to prepare them mentally and perhaps even emotionally for some of the difficult tasks they will have to perform.  I also try to tell them a little about myself to let them know what my own frame of reference is and to help them see that I am not an authority figure who is only out to expose their lack of math skills, but that I am approachable as a human being with interests outside of the college.

All of this could be accomplished very nicely through digital storytelling.  A slide show, heavy of photos and using excerpts from the course outlines and text books, and images from classes, could make the students feel very welcome on Day 1 and make them more confident (or less apprehensive?) that they’ll be able to handle what’s awaiting them in the weeks ahead.  Showing pictures of problems solved on the white board, showing pictures of models and teaching resources used in the class, etc., would be more effective at getting the students prepared for the course than just reading and talking about the course outlines.

It would take a bit of work to set up a good digital presentation, but pictures can be very interesting and memorable, and once the slides have been created the work would be done and it could be used over and over with minimal tweaking.  And of course, one things leads to another.  With a bit of experience at telling this first digital story, more ideas will likely come to mind in which more course content could be presented in the form of picture and story.

Flipping the Classroom

Even the math-phobic begin to like math class.

Have you given any thought to flipping your classroom?  Maybe you work with apprentices in the construction trades, and are looking for ways to make your related-subject classes more student-focused?  I have tried a few ideas in some of my classes already, and they seem to be working.  Some of my objectives in flipping the classroom include:

  • To remove some of the power imbalance in the math/science classroom, given that the students are adults (especially when higher levels of apprentices are involved);
  • To make the material feel more relevant, and friendly, to the students;
  • To allow students to work at their own paces, within the time allotted for the course; and,
  • To reduce or eliminate the need for homework, other than to study for tests.

What I have tried already is to give the students all of the course material at the beginning, and explain what is expected of them along the way and at the end of the course.   I do this by preparing a booklet that guides the students through the material, mostly by way of exercises for them to do, along with some notes about references for them to read.  I have used this method in classes in Level 3 and 4 with students from three trades.  Students appreciate the ability to work at their own pace and to manage their own time according to the changing workload levels imposed from other courses.  By the later levels of apprenticeship, much of the groundwork has been laid in math and science courses and the students are feeling more motivated and independent, so they like to have more control of class time, and to have the possibility to avoid having to do homework on their own time.  I have also made my test dates more flexible, so that as long as we get the objectives met in time, the class can tell me when they are ready to write the tests.  With this set-up, my role is to move quietly about the classroom to see how students are doing and intervene only as needed.  Regarding my intervention, I try to keep it to a minimum, but when I find that a large part of the class is struggling with a topic, I will take a few minutes to explain/clarify what is causing the problem and discuss with them how to overcome it.  Even in that though, I try to get the class to spot the solution and tell me what it is, rather than just spoon-feed them by direct lecturing.  From the students’ perspective I have become a helper, an ally, and “the math coach”, as opposed to an authority figure who has to be suspected/distrusted.  Even the math-phobic begin to like math class.


Student-Centred Learning

The Flip: End of a Love Affair

In her updated article, Shelly Wright describes why she gradually let her flipped classroom give way to a different classroom form which she says is even more student-focused.

How Her Class Was, Flipped

She describes the flipped classroom that she tried but moved away from as one in which the students would be tasked with listening to or observing the lectures for homework (via videos, for example), so that she would have more time for “hands-on” learning-type activities in the classroom the next day.  She had wanted to try this arrangement, she explains, because she had felt that she unable to do as many hands-on activities with her class because of the large amount of time she needed to get through all of the course content.  In practice, however, she came to feel like she was playing a kind of shell game, and just “juggling the traditional lecture” rather than “moving forward into a new learning paradigm.”

How Her Class is Now, Even More Student-Centred

Her classroom has evolved, apparently quite smoothly, into one in which the students are expected to take much greater responsibility for their own learning, and her own role has become that of a learning coach; she helps the students to learn, to reflect on their learning, to develop skills in finding and evaluating sources, and to work together with their peers.  She explains the objectives to the class at the start of the course and sets goals for them, and then monitors and facilitates their progress as they proceed to learn what they need to know at their own pace.  A significant side-benefit of her new classroom format is that there is no longer a need to give homework, since everything gets done in class.

My Comments, Observations

The problem that Shelly first turned to “the flip” to try to address is one that most, if not all, teachers share; we only have so many hours allotted to us in which to conduct our classes, but there is so much content to be covered and it takes a fast pace to get through all of it in sufficient detail.  Shifting the lectures to the students’ time outside of class is not really an option, especially in the construction trades when the course is not a “core” subject and you know that the non-academically inclined students have enough homework without you adding to it.  Moreover, many students would argue that time is money and, therefore, the instructors are supposed to teach them what they’re supposed to know… and there would be complaints to Apprenticeship.

That aside, we do know, too, that the students in construction trades tend to like to learn by doing, so if it were possible we as their instructors would sorely like to accommodate their preference and give them more hands-on activities in the classroom.  But how to do it?  How does the instructor cover all the necessary content, not give homework, and make opportunities for hands-on learning in the classroom, all at once?

Shelly seems to be on to an idea which might be adaptable to teaching the construction trades, and it’s actually similar to something I have been doing with in my Level 3 classes math and science classes.  I find that by Level 3 the apprentices have become quite independent, and if the objectives are explained to them they can work quite effectively through a series of projects at their own pace, with the instructor standing by to provide advice and guidance when needed.

The biggest problem I have in turning over the classroom to student-led learning is a physical one which results from the inflexibility of the classrooms themselves.  The classrooms are almost always tiny and so tightly packed with students and furniture that it prevents any movement of the students around the room and makes it nearly impossible for an instructor to move around to see how individuals are progressing.  And that is a problem for just about any teaching style… but it’s what we have to work with in rooms that were designed for yesteryear’s classes.

I welcome your comments and ideas.