The Best Learning…?

The plane bounces in the air after a delayed departure. I look at my colleague and we wonder if we’re in for a rough flight. It takes a few minutes, but the turbulence starts to settle down, and we each turn to our books and iPads.

After three days of intense conversations about inquiry and innovation, of presentations from passionate teachers about their learning experiments, and fascinating observations in the classrooms at the Calgary Science School, my thoughts are in a similar state – bouncing around full of turbulence (though the five Starbucks runs might have something to do with that too). The flight smoothed out quickly, but my thoughts will take a few more days and weeks to come together on this experience.

The conference and visit to the school have left me with vivid impressions and ideas. I’ll figure out what they all mean later, but for the moment I’d like to put some of them down in print.

From Calgary Science School

1. When we started our tours, school staff told us just to ask students about what they were working on. These were amazing conversations. What stands out most for me was ability of the students to articulate the purpose behind any aspect of their learning, whether talking about the goal of the learning activity, where that activity fits in the process of their learning, what they need to do to take the next steps, how they would solve problems they encountered, and how they were being assessed. They were even able to assess the quality of their own work according to the expectations set by their teacher.

Students who are able to speak this clearly about their learning have a huge advantage. They can present their work and skill clearly to any employer, and they will be able to manage their own learning in any situation they are presented with. In our world where people have multiple careers, the ability to learn, to unlearn and to relearn is an essential survival skill. These students are ahead of the game. But there isn’t anything special about the students themselves. They’ve been taught to think about their learning in this way by their teachers.

From the ConnectEdCa Conference:

2. Just like the inquiry based classroom, the ConnectEd conference is based on the idea that everyone in the room has valuable insights to contribute. Growing out of a network of adults who are deeply committed to making their own learning visible to each other and to their students, this is a community of experts. Some workshops are conducted by recognized leaders in their field, some by teachers who are trying out new ideas in their classrooms, but everyone in the room is expected to contribute. There is no passive learning; every adult learner is active and engaged.

Even the leaders in the group are taking part in workshops like everyone else, deeply engaged in the sharing of ideas, extending their own understanding of the topics they are passionate about.

The flights attendants on the plane to Calgary reminded us that in an emergency we should put our own oxygen mask on first before helping someone else. So too with teachers. We need the oxygen of learning ourselves if we are to be able to help our students learn at the deepest levels.

From my final workshop, Assessment in the Inquiry Classroom
(facilitated by David Scott, Amy Park and Deirdre Bailey, of Calgary Science School)

3. It sometimes seems that what we do in schools and what we do in our worlds outside schools is disconnected. Students can reach the end of their 12 years of education feeling scared and unprepared for life after high school. But they shouldn’t. They should feel like they have the experience and training to enter into the next phase of thier life. So why don’t they?

Schools have been traditionally very good at teaching students about things. But the inquiry based approach assumes that students learn better by taking on a real world role. They can learn to think like a scientists or jounalists, not just write tests on biology or five paragraph essays in English. Teachers can help students learn how a scientist thinks, not just what she knows. What are the kinds of questions she asks when confronted with a problem? How does she go about finding answers?

The best way to learn what a scientist does (or a journalist, mathematician, historian, chef, artist, or metalworker) is to do it. While students may not become scientists in one class a day, they will develop confidence and understanding of what it is to think like a scientist.

Bit what about the rigor? Can they learn enough about the subject by acting like a scientist or journalist?. They can, according to Larry Rosenstock (High Tech High), who says that, “Rigor is being in the company of a passionate adult who is rigorously pursuing inquiry in the area of their subject matter and is inviting students along as peers in that discourse”.

These are three intriguing ideas about my own learning, and what the learning of my students can become. I plan to learn more.


I am an educational leader, a photographer, a thinker, and a parent. We live in a world of abundance on the West Coast of Canada. I learn together with wonderful people in my home, community, work, and church. My goal for my students is that they leave school with confidence based on demonstrated excellence in at least one domain of learning, and with the life, employment and thinking skills to open the many doors of their future.

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