“Active engagement in professional learning promotes change in educator practice and student learning. Active engagement occurs when learners interact during the learning process with the content and with one another. Educator collaborative learning consistently produces strong, positive effects on achievement of learning outcomes. Active engagement respects adults as professionals and gives them significant voice and choice in shaping their own learning. Through active engagement, educators construct personal meaning of their learning, are more committed to its success, and identify authentic applications for their learning. Active learning processes promote deep understanding of new learning and increase motivation to implement it. Active learning processes include discussion and dialogue, writing, demonstrations, inquiry, reflection, metacognition, co-construction of knowledge, practice with feedback, coaching, modeling, and problem solving. Through exploration of individual and collective experiences, learners actively construct, analyze, evaluate, and synthesize knowledge and practices.” (Learning Forward)
Success Factor 3: Active Learning with Genuinely Engaging Activities that are Relevant to the Learner.
The big day arrived. Murray’s iTEAM had been given the afternoon session on the first in-service day of the school year to share their understanding of inquiry-based instruction, specifically of science, with their colleagues.
Arleta Ingram, Murray’s 7th-8th grade science teacher, began the session by posing the focus question, “What is Inquiry, and why should we teach using an inquiry approach?” She had her colleagues read the 2-page article “Inquiry Made Easy” from the STEM Institute Intro to Inquiry binder and then discuss within their group their answers to the question, based on their reading and their prior knowledge. Before having the entire group discuss the question, “Why is inquiry essential to teaching science?” Arleta asked each teacher to write a personal definition of inquiry.
Angelica Alvarado and Keneisha Charleston led the next segment by having the teachers pair up. Angelica told them, “We’ll give you an inquiry activity and you will role-play the students.” Keneisha told them, “The activity we’re doing is called Alka Seltzer rockets. Your tables already have all the equipment you need to do this activity. Take a little time and explore to see what happens.”
Arleta continued, “Quite a few had never done the activity, so they had no idea what would happen. The photos show the joy in their faces because they were surprised. Just like students, they started saying, ‘I need more tablets’ and ‘what if we put them all in?’ They didn’t want to put their goggles on, but I made them do that, and they got to see first hand why it’s important to have students safe in their classrooms. When those canisters pop, you understand immediately why safety goggles are a must.
After the teachers had explored the materials for a while, Ms. Charleston and Ms. Alvarado modeled using the Wheel of Inquiry, pulling out our colleagues’ questions and pushing on questioning strategies, ‘how can we get kids to pull out the dependent and independent variables?’ Next time we’re going to pick up on the journaling piece to show how important that is.”
Reflecting on what was special about the day, Arleta said, “It was really a team effort. Ms. Lawson and Ms. Alvarado made sure all the materials were ready and cleaned the goggles. Ms. Nadel … as we were conducting it, she was sitting among the teams working with them. Even though individual team members took on different parts of the session, they were all jumping in to support and respond and contribute. I was fielding questions, but all the team members were responding to colleague questions. Teachers asked, for example, ‘what if children are afraid of the noise in this activity?’ And we said that starting early enough with children in doing activities like this helps them get used to it. If a child is a little wary at first, that’s ok. Usually, they lose that pretty quickly in the excitement of their classmates doing the investigation, and they join in.”
At the end of the session, the Murray iTEAM gave each teacher a really large Wheel of Inquiry to use with their students. Arleta had made enough of them so that each teacher could have one as a take-away.
“Our staff left energized by the experience. They are all doing activities in their own classrooms now. It was heartwarming for me because I’m seeing the enthusiasm of teachers who may not have been enthusiastic about teaching science. They might not have felt comfortable before. It’s amazing how, in such a short period of time, I’m seeing people transformed. I’ve never seen that before. Maybe it’s because they have the support. And having the training also helps.
I saw a freshness come over everyone. They were behaving like students in the classroom. There weren’t eyeballs looking at the clock. We had to cut things short, and they were surprised the time was over.
We did make the point, “there’s no ‘you have to present it this way,’ but we’re saying that this approach is more effective, better than just reading about science. And the scientific method isn’t the best way to teach science, as a step-by-step process, because scientists follow a more inquiry-based model. Using the inquiry model rather than the traditional scientific method is how scientists really conduct their research.
Teachers told me afterward that they really like what we did and they really wanted the wheels … ‘I see how I can use it in my subject.’ Even the language teachers were asking for a wheel because they could see how they could use it too. Afterwards, a few people told me that it was great the way we conducted it. They could understand why kids were so excited about this approach.”
When I asked if she had seen any results from this in-service session, Arleta responded, “after seeing what we did, there are a few more people interested in joining the second team. It was interesting to see some of the teachers more on the quiet side really getting into it. It was powerful for the teachers to actually do it … to engage in inquiry.”
To summarize, visionary leadership + a commitment from a group of teachers to develop and sustain a professional learning community (teamwork) + engaging and relevant teacher-designed and -led professional development, can place a school on the path to more effective instruction, better student outcomes, and the creation of a vibrant learning environment for both students and teachers, one in which teachers and students are constantly moving forward. And isn’t that the kind of professional development we all benefit from and enjoy — active, engaged, job-embedded, relevant, practical, and fun?
On a side note, by leading their colleagues in professional development, Murray’s iTEAM members strengthened their understanding of this instructional approach. As our own Jim Effinger famously says, “No one learns more than the person who teaches something for the first time.”
A 10-minute video from Learning Forward captures, but in a very different educational context, some of the essential elements contained in the Murray experience, plus some additional ones to think about. It provides a nice summary of what it takes to effectively implement change in a school or school system.
To learn more about Golden Apple Stem Institute, click here.
To learn more about Murray Language Academy in Chicago, click here.