I’ve never been very good when put on the spot – I’m much better when I have thinking time. On Thursday a Science teacher came to me to check she understood the stages of the FOSIL Cycle before teaching a short practical inquiry. She is a teacher I have worked with for a number of years when I was teaching, and for whom I have a great respect. She is an excellent teacher and is constant working to refine her materials in the light of her experience each year – but she is unconvinced of the value of inquiry learning and wondered aloud whether it was really suitable for Science teaching. This is something I often hear from Science and Maths teachers, who often feel that students need to be ‘taught’ their subjects and would never understand if expected to find everything out by themselves (which is not what inquiry learning actually means).
What an opportunity! A teacher I know well genuinely wanted to hear what I thought and was prepared to be convinced if I could be convincing. At the time I spoke to her about outcomes, about:
how much more likely students are to retain understandings they have constructed for themselves than ideas they have been told – so the initial work may take longer but it needs to be repeated less often for it to stick;
how much more engaged they can be when they feel the material has practical applications that are relevant to their lives;
and how students at all ability levels can benefit. In our experience it is often the students who are perceived to be weaker who surprise us most in what they gain from inquiry – and I could give evidence from inquiries we have been involved with.
I don’t think I was very convincing and I don’t think she was convinced. Afterwards I wished I had spoken of Science as a natural discipline for inquiry – of great scientists like Newton, Da Vinci and Einstein who made their discoveries from an inquiry mindset – natural curiosity paired with scientific rigour, unhindered by traditional subject boundaries. I wished I had been able to convince her that with a skilled guide in the room (her!) it is possible to take the whole class on individual journeys of discovery and still make sure that they all address the same ‘objectives’ somewhere along the way. I wished I had been able to articulate more clearly my belief that inquiry is the future of education that will empower our students to find their own path in a world that is changing far too rapidly for an old-fashioned ‘knowledge transfer’ paradigm to succeed. Teaching students to think like Scientists actually makes it easier for them to learn Science – it isn’t choice between teaching skills and teaching facts.
In this case I am lucky – I’m fairly sure I will have an opportunity to have that conversation again and have another go. That isn’t always so, and I know there have been opportunities I have missed in the past. It reminded me of the importance of practising our ‘testimony’ – of thinking, talking and writing about why we do what we do in a way that is:
Honest. Our audience will know if we are half-hearted about what we believe.
Clear. Technical language is very important within a community to help us to move forward with a shared vocabulary. It can be a barrier to those outside.
Convincing. We need to be able to give evidence that what we are proposing works and is worthwhile.
Focussed. Why should this matter to this audience? My Science teacher didn’t want to know why inquiry was A Good Thing For Society, she wanted to know how it could help her to teach Science better.
Short. As you can see, I’m not good at that one! These opportunities are often brief, so we need to have an executive summary ready.
This would be a great place to practise our testimonies, so that we are ready when the opportunity arises. I would love to hear what you would like to say – and to what audience (a subject teacher or colleague? A line manager or Head of Department? Parents? SLT? Government?…).
Next week I will be talking to all our primary school headteachers about FOSIL and obviously I have been thinking about what I will say that will make a difference to them. Why would they listen and agree to embed this in their curriculums? I have a germ of an idea forming and I wanted to share it with you.
At LILAC one of the keynote speakers was Dr Ruth Carlyle a health literacy professional and her message was very clearly that information literacy is essential to every one of our children regardless whether they are going on to higher education. If children can’t read or understand the information they are finding when they leave school how is this going to effect us all as a society? Health effects us all and if we can’t distinguish the real from the fake information we are putting our own health at risk whilst also putting added pressure on our society who has to help us to sort out any problems we have created by taking the wrong advice or medication. As she talked alarm bells started ringing in my head, as in every conversation I have about information literacy I clearly focus on needing these skills to progress in education not necessarily in life.
So my thoughts on what I was going to say it this:-
Whilst inquiry based learning is necessary for those children who are doing well at school we must not forget that it is essential for all our children. Every child needs the skills of inquiry based learning in order to work through the minefield of information. If we allow any child to leave school without the understanding of how to find quality information we are creating a burden for our society. We have all heard of fake news and misinformation but add to that the wrong information about your health, the threat and cost to society increases. We have the opportunity here to provide every child with the skills needed for life and through using FOSIL in primary school we can create the stable foundation and building blocks to make this happen.
It was interesting. How do you effectively explain to Headteachers how FOSIL works in and can support students in 15 minutes? You can’t! What I was able to do was once again raise the idea that the library was there to support teaching and learning and should be invited into looking at the curriculum. No decision was made that day and even after sending follow up information I got nothing.
However, the one primary school that I support, whose headteacher was at the previous meeting was open to the suggestion that I could support them more. I now have an overview of their whole school curriculum and only yesterday a teacher send me their short term planning. This is a big step forward as I hope to be able to target year groups and topics that I will be able to use FOSIL with and over the next few years we hope to see inquiry skills improve.
Further to this, I was also invited to a P4C staff meeting. It took me ages to work our that P4C is Philosophy for Children… Anyway, it turns out that there is a wonderful link to FOSIL with this too as P4C is about Connecting and Wondering… How great is that? I am going to send the lead teacher the information about FOSIL and hope to get involved with this too.
You never know what door is going to open next. If I can get one primary school using FOSIL then hopefully this will begin to spread.