What does it mean to deepen CTL practice using Inquiry?
By Lin Marelick, January 2011
Contextualized Teaching and Learning (CTL) has been proven to enhance student engagement and outcomes by building motivation, accelerating learning, and making learning applicable to students’ lives. Individual California Community College (CCC) instructors have developed applied lessons for decades but the efforts were not organized or documented. It was not until Linda Collins, Executive Director of the Career Ladders Project (CLP), began bringing experts from around the country to speak about their CTL programs did California Community College faculty begin to uniformly integrate basic skills into their lessons. In particular, Collins brought professionals from the IBEST project in Washington State who generously shared their expertise and successes and inspired CCC faculty to build contextualized programs. CLP then secured funding to develop the Career Academies, which funded the beginnings of a successful CTL initiative statewide.
Chuck Wiseley, PhD. from the CCC System Office, conducted research on the effects of contextualized instruction in California Community Colleges and found that “students in contextualized math classes are 327% more likely to pass contextualized courses, 387% more likely to pass degree applicable coursework, and 400% more likely to pass transfer-level courses in the same semester.” But contextualizing instruction alone does not solve the teaching/learning problems that face today’s community colleges nor does it ensure sustainable student success. Faculty need to study learning in a deeper way, regularly update their lessons, and improve their curricula overall in order to realize sustained student success. This is where Faculty Inquiry can make the difference because it has been shown to deepen the practice of contextualized teaching and learning.
Faculty Inquiry is about observing students, teachers, and teaching methods, studying learning, reflecting on practice, and understanding how teaching affects learning. It allows instructors the time they need to research what is going on in the classroom and how to make changes that lead to improvement. Often an instructor may have an idea about why a problem persists, but no evidence to support their hunches, and no solutions. The Inquiry process is about studying what goes on in class, finding evidence that supports or rules out hunches, and making adjustments to lessons that yield a positive result. It is through the cycle of Inquiry that instructors find ways to sustain student success.
Evidence can take many forms and be gathered in a variety of ways. Filming or audio taping classroom discussions, utilizing surveys, and conducting focus groups are a few common approaches. Evidence can also come from multiple forms of assessment or be obtained from the institutional research office on campus. But it is through the analysis of the evidence that a team makes discoveries which lead to sustained improvement.
In addition to being evidence-based, Inquiry involves using student co-inquirers, and requires a commitment to search for solutions that are sometimes hard to find. For example, it was through the implementation of the Inquiry cycle that the Laney College Carpinteria Program team was able to actually name what they were doing in class that was helping students. They realized that extended “think time” was crucial for students to process what they were learning. Allowing students time to “think aloud” while learning from each other gave the team insight into the importance of peer learning. They also gained a deeper understanding of why embedded ESL resulted in greater student engagement and deeper learning for limited English speakers.
Another example: at the Los Angeles Trade Tech College (LATTC), two counselors working with the Construction Trades program knew that building relationships with students was important for their students’ self-esteem. They noted that positive self-esteem was directly related to greater student engagement in class. Through their Inquiry project, they shared their findings with colleagues and demonstrated how to use “3D story telling” techniques to get students more involved in class. It was through a story telling activity that one of their colleagues realized that one of her students had had an experience in Catholic school as a child that was haunting her still, and that the student was not a flake but a person struggling with deeply troubling issues. The instructor was then able to see the student differently and help her through her learning challenges. The LATTC Inquiry team shared their discoveries and successes which led them to a larger audience where they now provide new student orientation college-wide at beginning of each semester. Their Inquiry project went viral!
And at Skyline, the Inquiry team divided Early Child Education students into two groups, students who were successful in class and those who were struggling. They interviewed each group and found that the students who were successful had more realistic goals for themselves and a better understanding of what it took to reach those goals. Through video taping the focus groups, the team discovered that the student groups had completely different body language during the sessions. The successful students were open and confident, while the struggling students were more tentative, lacked confidence, had unrealistic goals, and did not know what it took to achieve their goals. As a result of these observations, the Inquiry team decided to make changes to the curriculum. They addressed career goals at the beginning of each semester. They also added support workshops, held throughout the semester, to address study skills deficiencies and to clarify the students’ educational planning.
These are just a few examples of how deepening the practice of contextualized instruction was made possible through Inquiry. The journeys and stories of all five CTE colleges are on the pages linked to the CTE homepage on this website. The teams studied a variety of problems, and their solutions are particular to those problems. After you review their experiences, I believe you will agree that their Inquiry experience resulted in significant positive outcomes for their students, outcomes that are sustainable if instructors continue the cycle of inquiry in their programs.