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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Fostering a Culture of Inquiry

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
How can we apply literary elements and work with local experts to create high-quality graphic novels? How do cycles of revision improve our artwork? How might we impact voter turnout for a local municipal election? How do we deep our students' mathematical thinking?

Now in its 13th year, the Calgary Science School has had a consistent focus on problem-based and inquiry-based teaching and learning. Authentic, student-centered learning is embedded across all subject areas, and much of the learning is supported by innovative and powerful uses of technology and outdoor education.

Inquiry also infuses the school's approach to professional development. Instead of taking part in sit-and-get workshops, teachers conduct action research, participate in lesson studies, and have time with various instructional support staff to design inquiry-based projects with colleagues. Professional development tends to be teacher-directed, learner-centered, collaborative, and with an emphasis on critical analysis, according to Neil Stephenson director of professional development and collaborative outreach for the school.

"The name 'Calgary Science School' can be a bit misleading," Stephenson says. "We focus on more than just science education. Rather, we're trying to embed the disposition of a scientist into everything we do -- we want everyone in our community doing research, critically thinking, and collaboratively building knowledge." It's all part of a goal to build a culture of inquiry, and not just in classrooms. It extends to teaching staff, to school leadership, and to the larger educational community.

How does Calgary Science School define inquiry-based learning? Stephenson outlines the school's instructional approach in an online publication, Introduction to Inquiry-Based Learning. The story of Calgary Science School offers a good reminder that inquiry doesn't end with asking good questions; it also involves sharing results.

Adding Value with Outreach

As a Canadian charter school, Calgary Science School has a dual mission. "Our mandate is to continue to push our practice forward and be innovative in meeting student needs -- but at the same time also add value back to the educational system," Stephenson explains. That means finding ways to take the school's story to a broader audience so that others can benefit from the lessons learned.

One method of outreach is the school blog. It offers a platform for teachers to reflect on projects and share insights. When he started the blog two years ago, Stephenson acknowledges that he was the primary author of Connect!. But in recent months, more and more teachers have started posting project examples and reflections. "It's gaining momentum," he says. Recent posts have discussed the benefits of using Edmodo with students, reflected on a ninth-grade identity project that led to publication of a digital poetry anthology, and described development of a digital inquiry resource to help students explore questions about the Renaissance.

Internally, the blog provides an institutional memory and project archive. For teachers from outside Calgary Science School, the blog offers a library of inquiry-based project ideas that can be borrowed or adapted. The school hopes that teachers both around the country and beyond might use the blog to find inspiration and new ideas for inquiry-based, technology-supported teaching and learning.

In another outreach effort, Calgary Science School invites collaboration with other schools. "If teachers see a project on our site that they'd like to join, we can connect with them via Skype. Our teachers welcome that kind of collaboration. It's great professional development," Stephenson says. The school often hosts networking days, where teachers from around the city gather to share teaching ideas and collaborative build projects.

In yet another outreach effort, Calgary Science School will host ConnectEd Canada, a national education conference, in May 2012. In the mold of EduCon, hosted by Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, ConnectEd Canada will emphasize conversations rather than presentations. And because it will take place on a school campus, there's a heightened opportunity for student voices to enrich the discussions.

U.S. Contrast

Hearing about the outreach that happens regularly at Calgary Science School, I can't help but wonder what would happen if U.S. charter schools had a similar mandate to add value back to the public system. A recently released report puts the number of U.S. students attending charters at more than 2 million. In the spirit of inquiry, I wonder: How many charter schools are sharing insights to enrich the broader educational community? How could we encourage more collaboration between charters and mainstream public schools?

Please share your thoughts in the comments.




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Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Chief Operating Officer, Francis Parker School, San Diego

Suzie,

Thanks for sharing your experience and passion for inquiry-based learning. I won't take time and bandwidth preaching to the choir, but let me link you to a couple of folks who are taking this the paths of questioning and inquiry in truly exciting ways. Bo Adams and Jill Gough at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta have piloted some remarkable classes, in particular their Synergy 8 class for eighth graders that is one of the outstanding examples of pure transformation through inquiry that I have ever seen. You might want to check out their blogs and get in touch.

I am not a famous person or author, but I am really proud that Bo and Jill have used my book, The Falconer, to help in their thinking. It is based in teaching I have done at elementary, high school, and college level and I hope contributes to the discussion on how we can overtly teach the skills of questioning, problem-finding, and synthetic and creational thinking.

Keep us appraised of other developments in Calgary!

Thomas Stanley's picture
Thomas Stanley
Educational Consultant-former teacher in high school

Dear Susie
I work with a group of colleagues who have developed six global projects that we would like to share with other groups or countries. If anyone is interested in working with us please feel free to contact me. They are all 21st Century, Global, PBL activities, and are designed to use technology as an integral part of the classroom experience.

1. The Water Project
2. The Air Quality Project
3. Creating and sustaining a Forensics Science Program
4. Delivering a Project Based Learning Class in the online and blended learning world.
5. Developing an internship program in your school
6. Creating and Agri-business program for your school.

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