What’s hair got to do with enquiry learning?

This morning, I was sent this article about growing up in Ireland with ‘unmanageable’ Afro hair. It made me sad for the writer, but also hopeful that she eventually gained a healthier perspective on this aspect of her ethnicity. It might seem trivial to focus on such a story when it’s about appearance but this is still an aspect society (sub/un/consciously) judges us on at all ages.
How does this connect to the classroom? Especially as adolescents, we go as far as scarring ourselves to try and fit in. Some of these scars are physical – such as the chemical burns this writer endured – and some are psychological. When we aren’t accepted as we are or – worse – we find ourselves made to feel like the ‘other’, it hurts. It impacts our self-worth and self-acceptance. This is why the conversation around diversity in the classroom matters. If our students can’t connect to their peers in the room on a given aspect of their identity, we need to provide opportunities so they find people and experiences they can connect with. It’s not up to us to develop their sense of identity. However, when we insist on teaching the content that we were taught, we make huge assumptions about the cultural capital they need now and in the future. Maybe they do need to know about Ancient Greek mythology and history as they may end up in a ‘western’ university, but that learning experience shouldn’t be at the cost of them exploring their own cultural mythologies. In any case, how much richer and deeper the learning experience will be as they start to see the relationships between mythology, identity, values and culture (to name but a few important concepts).
I believe the answer is simpler than we imagine – inquiry learning. With a case study to guide our students, we can start wherever we want. Continuing the example above – if it’s Ancient Greece where you feel most comfortable, let’s start there. However, as soon as we’ve established our starting point we need to provide space, time and resources for our students to follow our example in exploring their own histories and mythologies. We don’t have to feel fear that our students will wander off into realms we know nothing about; instead, we can feel excitement that we can learn from and with them. And inquiry learning doesn’t have to be threatening or more on our already overloaded plates. I follow the school of thought that inquiry learning isn’t an add on – it is part of an approach that sees learners taking more control of, but also more responsibility for, their education. That, in turn, reduces my workload and stress as students help shoulder the load in many ways including:

  • becoming more aware of their successes and goals so I don’t have to be the ever-annotating expert on such things
  • being able to measure their own learning, thereby reducing the need for me to comment on the obvious
  • growing competency in locating resources for their individual learning needs so I don’t have to plan a lesson at 3 different levels
  • highlighting their own achievements (and those of their peers), so I spend less time massaging their egos or playing ‘carrot and stick’
  • picking up their own avoidable errors so my feedback really can focus on what matters instead of ‘patching’ careless slips
  • choosing their own learning paths so motivation is intrinsic rather than from me

Start where you’re comfortable. If you need guidance in inquiry learning, this short article is a very accessible way in, and the graphic below shows you can jump in at whatever point you’re ready.

Source: https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/50620/how-to-ease-students-into-independent-inquiry-projects

What’s important is that we take that first step. We will fail and stumble, and that’s OK. Just like we tell our students, we learn from failure, adjust our approach and plan to do better next time. That’s what learning is. Let’s practice what we preach.

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