Teaching Team Supports Inquiry-based Learning with Tech Tools

Blog Post created by teachontarioteam on Aug 24, 2015

kids on floor.jpgIn this installment of TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating a group project aimed at using iPad and Google Apps for Education as a platform for student-driven learning and inquiry in two schools in the Thames Valley District School Board.


Teacher Michelle Cordy is on a mission to ‘hack’ the classroom.


The Grade 3 teacher at Stoney Creek Public School recently teamed up eight other elementary teachers in the Thames Valley District School Board to use technology to support inquiry learning in Grades 3 and 6.


"We wanted to be responsive to the shifting needs of young learners entering our classrooms," says Cordy. "We think students who have experienced play-based learning in full-day kindergarten will have different views of themselves as learners, and a different set of expectations for the classroom. We expect that these students will want more agency in the learning and yearn for a curriculum which is co-constructed."

Michelle board_crop.jpg

In an effort to give students just that, Cordy and her team decided to use iPad and Google Apps for Education (GAFE) to support student-driven learning and inquiry in nine classrooms spread across two schools. Cordy’s co-lead on the project was Lisa Morris, a Grade 6 teacher from Parkview Public School. Other teachers who participated in the project include Stoney Creek Public School Grade 3 teachers Danielle Cadieux, Jerry Austin, and Sheryl Ledingham, and Parkview Public School, Grade 6 teacher Jennifer Parker and Grade 3 teachers Patti Clark, Kari McDonald and Shannon March. The project was supported by Ontario’s Teacher Learning and Leadership Project (TLLP).



"These are 21st century learners within a world that is a pinch, swipe and tap away," says Cordy, who is also an Apple Distinguished Educator. "We wanted to help these young learners be engaged, curious and feel like they can be partners in their learning, both on and off screen."


However, student-driven learning can also be messy, she says. "So, we looked for something that could support learning for teachers and students," she says. "iPad technology is the great amplifier of our times. We know it doesn’t solve problems, and it certainly introduces new problems. But what technology like the iPad does is open up new possibilities. It helps redefine what’s possible. For inquiry, the iPad gave us access to information and gave students ways to communicate their understanding far beyond what we could do with pen and paper."



The iPad, in particular, has built-in accessibility features, like text-to-speech, that allows kids to read with their ears instead of their eyes, Cordy says. "Kids can tap on text and the iPad reads it aloud," she says. "This way, they can access information that is beyond their reading level. So, the amount of information available to them expands." 


Click through to find out more about Cordy's top Apps for Inquiry learning in the chart on the right.


The team began building their approach to the curriculum delivery by clarifying what inquiry really means in an Ontario context, Cordy says. Researching Ontario Education Ministry curriculum documents was critical to this process, says Cordy, who summarized her findings in a blog post titled Making Sense of Inquiry-Based Learning: An Ontario Perspective.


The team identified three key inquiry learning definitions in their curriculum research:


  1. Inquiry-based learning is an approach to teaching and learning that places students’ questions, ideas and observations at the centre of the learning experience.”
  2. For students, the process often involves open-ended investigations into a question or a problem, requiring them to engage in evidence-based reasoning and creative problem-solving, as well as “problem finding.””
  3. For Educators, the process is about being responsible to the students’ learning needs, and most importantly, knowing when and how to introduce students to ideas that will move them forward in their inquiry.”


In the end, the project had two key components: teacher learning and student learning. "We had a group of nine teachers take on a new pedagogical approach and integrate technology to support that approach," she says. "The teachers in our group had a range of experience with technology and by the end, everyone had moved forward with their confidence and agility and ability to integrate iPad and GAFE meaningfully. We narrowed in on our understanding of inquiry too."


See Cordy's inquiry teaching in action in the video below, left.


As for the students, Cordy reports the level of engagement was very high. "What we saw is that you can allow for student voice and choice and still be on track with the provincial curriculum," she explains. "Students flourished when given the opportunity for inquiry projects at the end of a unit on forces. Students loved the opportunity to research their own topics ranging from airport fire trucks to unicorns. In these wildly diverse topics, we teachers were able to maintain accountability and connect students with common topics to form thought partners."


Beyond this, the teachers were able to connect topics back to the curriculum through reading genres or writing formats. "The students were able to follow their own interests while working in groups towards grade level expectations," says Cordy. "It took a little work, it was messy at times, but the students loved it. The students were engaged and so proud to share their learning at our mini class to class Share Fair at the end of the inquiry cycle."


The level of questioning and collaboration between the students in all the classrooms was also high, Cordy says. "It wasn’t always roses and cupcakes," she laughs. "This kind of student-driven learning asks a lot of students. They have to be willing to follow a passion and then stick to something. A lot of students wanted to switch topics when they found out what other kids were learning about. It was like a candy shop of ideas and the kids wanted to skip around. It took developing discipline on their part and realizing that they could pick another topic next time. Students had to persist and focus which can be challenging. But when it came time for them to share their projects, they were proud of what they were able to share, and they knew they would be able to feast on a brand new topic the next time. The kids really inspired each other. Topics like mythical creatures, black holes and monster trucks went viral. So, the next cycle of inquiry projects began and students could have another go."


Lisa Morris' Grade 6 class also showed terrific progress.

"The last two years have been amazing working with great teachers and technology," says Morris. "My class developed excellent inquiry skills. They became more proficient in their questioning, learning to develop deeper questions. They also became much more independent in their research skills, putting key word search and filtered searches in place to focus resources to meet their needs.

One of the great things to see is how they began to collaborate and share their findings using the social network we had built between the two Grade 6 classes to form a knowledge building centre. These skills and learning technologies were applied in other situations throughout the year, which clearly demonstrated the learning that took place."


The team shared project resources, handouts for teachers, examples of lessons, and examples of student work on their project website “Inquiry TLLP.” Cordy also shares six ideas to get started with inquiry in her Hack the Classroom blog here.


Support from school administration was key to the success of this project and related initiatives, Cordy says. Principals Steve McCombe (2013/14) and Cindy Kissau (2014/15) at Stoney Creek Public School and Principal David Clark from Parkview Public School played critical roles. "They were invested, supportive and involved," she says.

Watch the students share their reflections in a video (above, right)

interview some of the children did with Howard Rheingold

about their inquiry-based projects for Connected Learning TV (CLTV).


Questions? Ideas? Comments? Ontario educators can register on TeachOntario and join in more in-depth conversation about this school in Share under:

TeachOntario Talks Discussion: Teaching Team Supports Inquiry-based Learning with Tech Tools