From Passive Learning to Active Engagement: Rewriting Curriculum for Deeper Learning [20:26]
Erin Conklin has been the K-12 social studies curriculum specialist for the Duval County Public school district in Florida since 2020. One of her initial goals when she first took on her leadership role was to assess the learning that was taking place in classrooms across the district and determine how to inspire deeper inquiry-based learning. This goal came with challenges, of course, as she endeavored to show social studies teachers that they could embrace an inquiry mindset in their classrooms, build on their strengths as teachers, and still meet district standards.
Conklin kicked off her journey by going into her district's secondary schools at the start of the year to learn how teachers were bringing history alive in the classroom and inspiring students engage in the subject matter. Her investigation revealed that, while the teachers she observed were all committed to both helping their students learn history and building critical thinking skills, she saw significantly more student compliance than actual engagement.
"Students were engaged," Conklin explains, "but they were completing activities like drawing or coloring in worksheets, even at the high school level. They were filling in blanks and connecting dots. That's not what learning history is about. History is about discovering something new."
To help teachers in her district transition away from the traditional "sage on the stage" role and into one that would help students begin adopting an inquiry mindset, Conklin got busy brainstorming to determine what kind of professional development would provide instructors with both inspiration and ideas for practical application. She spoke with social studies departments across the district, seeking ways to shake off a misconception that both students and instructors sometimes have when it comes to history: the notion that "learning history" means simply remembering dates, famous names, and important events.
Her quest even led her to disciplines outside of social studies: "I actually I went to our science department," she explains. "I asked those teachers, 'OK, when you guys put together a lab, how do you get students to think about the topic question? How do they come up with a hypothesis?'" The investigation revealed that the burden of assessment loomed across the curriculum, as course writers sought a balance between meeting standards and igniting student curiosity about class concepts.
Conklin also spoke with students themselves, and made some notably positive discoveries. "Our students actually love to do research when they have room for independent exploration. Students said, 'I want my teacher to give me a name so I can go and conduct research about them myself, find out who they are, and create something on my own.'"
This led Conklin to encourage her teachers to embrace a new kind of transparency in the classroom. She suggested teachers give copies of their own notes to students, essentially pulling back the curtain to reveal the teacher's thought process, remove the class "agenda," and replace it with student-led exploration.
To help teachers feel more comfortable with students' taking the wheel in class, Conklin had instructors create a written breakdown of their class periods. This revealed how much time was spent on activities, lectures, and assessments, as well as that ratio between how much time the teachers spent talking at the front of the room and how much class time was devoted to students sharing their own ideas and perspectives.
The result of such a breakdown? "Many teachers discovered that in a 90-minute class, 80 of those minutes were devoted to the teacher talking, and 10 minutes for the students. It was quite an eye opener. That was an important step in helping teachers see the value of releasing class time a bit more. By giving students lecture notes instead of spending unnecessary time belaboring the main points, teachers had more time to let students work together on research and projects where they could explore the implications of important topics and concepts."
Before she could help teachers employ inquiry methods in the classroom, Conklin had to "sell" many of them on the concept—and address concerns about sacrificing important class time that would normally be focused on "getting through" material. She realized that, to bring out a district-wide shift, she would have to be mentor, advisor, and marketing professional. In addition to worrying about the ever-present challenge of not having enough class time to do it all, Conklin knew some teachers would be generally skeptical. "Some teachers were wary," she says, "that the district was just making them jump through new hoops that would disappear in a couple years."
To get instructor buy-in, Conklin approached particular teachers across the district, selected for their willingness to experiment with new classroom modalities. "I wanted teachers who would go out and talk with their colleagues about the successes they saw in their classes; my 'influencers,' if you will!"
First, Conklin urged teachers to embrace inquiry one small step at a time. "Once I was able to help teachers see that we were talking about adding one new element to the curriculum where it was possible, rather than overhaul an entire semester, my job got much easier."
Luckily, Conklin was able to leverage her several years in the district to build on the trust she'd established with fellow teachers. "Because I've built relationships with these teachers for a long time, they knew I wasn't just going to push them into the deep end of the pool and make them stay afloat by themselves. They knew I was going to be there for them, and support them as they began implementing small changes, adding inquiry to just one lesson a week."
In U.S. History classes, for example, Conklin suggested teachers embrace a new split model of instruction. "I talked with teachers about reinforcing their existing curriculum by supplementing instruction with primary sources. I suggested the put a relevant political cartoon in front of students, and instead of simply explaining its historical context, demonstrate the process of asking key questions about the cartoon—and letting students search for those answers and come back with their findings."
This would mean giving students room to struggle when the answers (and subsequent deeper questions) didn't come easily. According to Conklin, that struggle is a vital part of the learning process, one that resonates outside of the classroom. "We want students to be problem solvers when they leave our classrooms. If we can give them room to build those problem-solving skills in class, they'll be better equipped to handle bigger challenges as the stakes get higher."
Conklin knows firsthand that the path to inquiry requires patience. For many teachers, it can be easy to default to established curriculum that has helped them see reasonable success and meet district standards in the past, even if they want to bring more inquiry their classrooms. She acknowledges that it can be hard to shed the "sage on the stage" mantle after employing it for many years.
Conklin has plans for more inquiry-focused PD in the next school year, as well as continued one-on-one support for her teachers. "It's really important that all teachers feel supported," she explains. "My team and I are always looking for new model lessons that teachers can adapt and try." Conklin knows that everyone will benefit from modeling the process of shaping thought-provoking questions that are open-ended, knowing that students will struggle at first to navigate them. "Start small," she advises. "Again, one of the reasons I like bringing political cartoons into history classes is because students can start by asking questions about what they see in front of them. In cartoons from the Progressive era, for example, they can look at how presidents were visually portrayed, and let those early questions propel them forward to start comparing Roosevelt and Taft more deeply and exploring their impact on the country."
While she knows that there is more work to be done in her district, Conklin is gratified by the positive outcomes she's seen so far. One of her middle school teachers piloted a class through which students could earn early high school credit; they used inquiry methods throughout the semester. "She brought in a lot of primary sources for inquiry: newspaper articles, letters, pictures, all kinds of great materials. And as a result, her students are eager to learn more. They're diving deeper into history on their own, and it's been so fulfilling for her to support their journey. Every time I speak with that teacher, it fills my bucket."
It's clear Conklin is prepared to play the long game when it comes to bringing inquiry-based learning into her district, especially knowing how it can benefit students—both in school and beyond.
Watch our conversation above to hear more from Erin about her experiences bringing inquiry into her district.
|1:00||Active Learning: The Difference Between Compliance and Engagement in the Classroom|
|3:02||Groundwork for Change: Inspiring an Inquiry Approach|
|7:45||Implementing Inquiry: One Step at a Time|
|10:48||Giving Students Ownership of their Learning|
|12:00||Scaling Up Support for Instructors|
|16:40||Impact on Students: Building a Culture of Community|
|26:45||The Long Game: Building a District-Wide Inquiry Mindset|