Inquiry, student engagement, staff satisfaction, meaningful deep curriculum and learning connections; Yesterday I saw it all. My colleague, Gary Kern the Director of Technology and Innovation for the West Van School District and I visited the Calgary Science School to learn from their vast experience about building a school around Inquiry. CSS is 13 years into its journey. Our hosts, Neil Stephenson, and Principal Darrell Lonsberry, treated us exceptionally well as we learned about their trials, tribulations and successes and toured the school. I won’t reiterate what Gary discusses below but I concur with all that he writes. My own revelation was that “Inquiry” is not about which model you choose, rather it is about developing good questions and giving students the tools and guidance to answer them. Another interesting focus of the school is its Board’s insistence that the school is “Teacher Centered”. This took me a bit by surprize as we are so conscious to be student centered. The idea that their Board recognizes the need to support its teachers first and make sure they have what they need to lead students to deep understandings was refreshing. This is not to say, my own Board doesn’t believe this but we seldom say it as forcefully as I heard yesterday. What I saw and experienced yesterday will help as I lead my own school, Caulfeild Elementary, down the path of inquiry – based teaching and learning. I invited Gary to give his own perspective below.
Yesterday the principal of Caulfeild Elementary, Brad Lund, and I had the privilege to visit the Calgary Science School (CSS). We were treated exceptionally well by the Principal, Darrell Lonsberry and PD and Outreach Coordinator, Neil Stephenson. I wanted to share our experience because what I observed at CSS was quite exceptional. CSS is a Grade 4-9 school in Calgary and you can learn more about it here. We travelled to Calgary to visit CSS because we wanted to learn what happens when a school is built around the inquiry model; what does the school look like, what are the students doing, what are the teachers doing and finally, does it make a difference?
What does the school look like?
The first observation I had of CSS is that the physical school was very much like every other school I've been in. It had classes, bulletin boards, students, teachers, supervisors and an office. CSS has invested resources to create larger learning areas for classes or groups to work together; otherwise, CSS was very much like any other school.
When we saw their timetable CSS organizes their students in a regular day - they typically have a Humanities teacher (LA and Social Studies) and then a different Math / Science teacher for every class as well as a number of specialized PE / Fine Arts teachers that support the timetable. The one area of the timetable that was unique was a "portfolio" block that was scheduled for students to work on their portfolio. The portfolio at CSS is at the beginning stages and is a result of removing Fine Art and PE marks / grades from the report card. Instead, students create an online portfolio that forms the "assessment" of their progress in these subjects.
From a physical and structural perspective, CSS isn't unique. What became unique for me is what I saw the students doing.
What are the students doing?
We were able to tour the building in the afternoon, walking into close to 10 classrooms. During the tour, classroom doors were open and teachers were very accepting of us visitors. In every instance when we walked in the classroom we saw students leaning forward "engaged" in some sort of work; most students had a laptop in front of them however that wasn't always the case. In one classroom students were working with pencil and paper to review concepts. The remarkable observation during this day was although many students were working with technology, I didn't observe any student using the technology "off task." They were either working on an iMovie presentation, working through a learning concept, or preparing a presentation or performance task for their classroom. The fact that students were leaning forward, engaged was quite remarkable!
What are the teachers doing?
It turns out that there is a simple, yet very complex process that the teachers follow to structure student learning. "Inquiry" is the foundation of CSS and over the 13 years of their existance the concept of Inquiry has deepened and evolved. At CSS, Neil and Darryl report that it has become a way of teaching and a way of thinking. Inquiry is about deep learning and learning to think as a mathamatician or a writer or a scientist. In order to bring this concept to the front, teachers have worked very hard to embed the "art of inquiry" into their teaching.
The inquiry framework used at CSS was supported by work from the Galileo Project at the U of Calgary and a rubric can be found here (worth looking at). My simple understanding of this deep concept is that the teachers have learned to craft an inquiry or question for most of the learning opportunities throughout the day, next guide students as they engage with the question or problem, provide an authentic performance task (which can be large or small), provide feedback, and then move into the next inquiry. What Neil and Darrell reported is that over the 13 years at CSS, teachers have moved away from large, interdisciplinary "inquiry" projects to embedding inquiry into all of their subjects and classes. The goal, as Darrell reports, is to have students go deep into a topic and learn to think like a mathematician or a writer or a scientist.
Neil Stephenson suggested the subtle difference in the CSS approach to inquiry is that it is not teacher centric, nor student centric, but topic centric. They want to take a topic and coach and encourage students to build a deep and enduring understanding about the topic. For me this is an important distinction as the topic of personalized learning comes to the front. Personalized learning at CSS doesn't mean that they teach 1 on 1 in the old way; rather they teach a class to approach learning as an inquiry into something deeper.
Does it make a difference?
In our short time at CSS and in talking to staff and students, the approach at CSS seems to make a fundamental difference to the engagement, relevancy and ultimately learning of their students. Neil mentioned on a few occassions that the best classroom management technique is to give the students something meaningful and relevant to do. Regarding technology it was no different; they don't abuse the opportunity because the teachers are always providing something meaningful and relvant to do. In the end, students should leave CSS with a life long skill of approaching learning and problems with an inquiry mindset; free to explore, question, analyze and make conclusions.
Thanks to the staff and students at CSS for letting us visit your school. I was extremely encouraged by the schools ability to have focused learning around inquiry, suported by technology, in all of their classrooms! Well done CSS!