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Trevor MacKenzie centers curiosity for student-led inquiry

November 08, 2022

A portrait of alumni Trevor Mackenzie

Trevor Mackenzie has been a high school teacher for almost twenty years. After graduating from UVic with a BA in 2002 followed by a teaching certification, he worked at Esquimalt High School for a decade and in South Korea for a year. For the past seven years, he has worked as an English teacher at Oak Bay High School and in 2019, he completed his Master of Education under the supervision of Dr. Valerie Irvine. His thesis, ‘A Framework for Implementing Inquiry-Based Learning in the K-12 Setting’, explored the barriers to inquiry implementation, growth and application, and provided structures to remove these identified barriers.

We spoke with Trevor to discuss his effort to bring more inquiry-based learning into the classroom.

Centering curiosity

Most high school classes approach inquiry from a teacher-directed stance. The teacher establishes guiding inquiries for the class and then delivers a learning experience designed around those inquiries. Trevor’s approach is just the opposite: He encourages his students to establish their own guiding inquiries based on their personal interests, then he facilitates learning experiences around them.

To do this, students must be naturally curious. It requires that they bring a topic, subject or question to the table that interests them personally. Which leads to the age-old question: How do we engage teenagers? Trevor explained that he uses a tool called provocation.

Trevor’s classes follow the standard BC curriculum and complete all the ‘non-negotiables’ set out by the province. His classroom is teacher-led, but not 100% of the time. It is, in his words, “a partnership with specific scaffolding that teachers engage in to ensure that the curriculum is explored.”

Over time, this approach allows for a gradual release of responsibility over learning from the teacher to the student. Trevor has observed that his students willingly demonstrate their developing skills more readily and more often when they have more agency over learning.

Provocation is a specific experience that you're planning for. It involves something that’s interesting, enticing, or inviting. It could be an image, a text, a video, or even an artefact. It just has to be something tangible that a class can hold and pass around the room. Getting students curious and using provocation generates questions that are worthy of discussion.

What inquiry-based learning looks like in practice

We asked Trevor how he facilitates this practice in his classroom. He points to seating arrangement as an easy place to start. Arranging desks into small pods of three or four generates more discussion and collaboration right away. Students will naturally bring up topics of interest with their peers, and the teacher who is observing can get a better understanding of who these students are and what’s important to them.

Trevor focuses on facilitating open-ended questions for his students. The topic can be researchable but does not have a definitive answer. He says that teachers need to explore these questions in order to shift learning into that open-ended inquiry space. Understanding questioning techniques allows students to independently explore the space beyond closed-ended or inquiries.

At Oak Bay High, students’ timetables include a ‘Focus Block’ during which they can attend any classroom and work on a project of their choosing. They have the freedom to choose where and what they work on, with an instructor nearby to supervise and provide support. 

When we survey our students about Focus Blocks, they say ‘Can we have more time?’ because of course, that’s what students are craving: Time to work on these problems and work on their learning and not do it in isolation in the evening. Because that's not only their free time, but there's no instructor there to support them.

A transformative story of success

Trevor shared a story about Garrison, a former student who largely impacted him as an educator. He said that Garrison would always start the school year with enthusiasm, but would disappear when the first assignment was due. He was there for the social aspect of school – not the academic part – and did not receive encouragement at home to prioritize his education.

One day at lunch after Garrison had disappeared for several weeks, Trevor was walking to a coffee shop when he spotted Garrison at the skateboard park. He called out and invited Garrison to join him for a coffee, an experience that would prove to be transformative for both of them.

Over coffee, Trevor simply asked Garrison: What are you passionate about? The surprising answer – graffiti art – led the two of them out of the café and down the road to the old ENN railway line. Garrison pointed across the tracks to his artwork. Trevor took photos on his phone. He asked Garrison if he’d be interested in writing an assignment about graffiti art.

The next day, Garrison came to class for the first time in weeks with a completed essay in hand. The essay was about how much the day before had meant to him. His classmates were curious about the photos of his graffiti art that Trevor had taken on his phone. They asked Garrison about his artwork, including his colour choices. Garrison began talking about symbolism and theme. Trevor took out his grade book and began writing.

For the rest of the semester, Trevor adapted assignments for Garrison so they would be focused on his artwork. Suddenly, the student who couldn’t see himself in the classroom was thriving. Ultimately, Garrison not only graduated from high school, he also painted a graffiti mural as a graduation gift to his class and the school.  

As Garrison was walking across the stage, I was so happy and proud of him. Clearly, he can succeed in school. But, for a student like Garrison, school needs to look, sound and feel different than what others may need. He taught me so much. He taught me that all students deserve the opportunity to explore their curiosities, interests and passions.

Trevor is currently working with UVic Assistant Professor Dr. Michael Paskevicius. Together, they are exploring the impact of inquiry-based learning within Trevor's high school class context as Michael visits, observes and interviews students.