Workshop: A Cycle of Collaborative Inquiry

Published On: February 28th, 2023 | Categories: In The Classroom |



“20% time” or “Genius Hour” is an educational approach that allows students to dedicate 20% of their classroom time to working on their own projects or interests. In fifth grade, we call this approach “Workshop” and it has numerous benefits for students. Workshop encourages creativity and innovation by giving students the freedom to explore their own ideas and interests within the framework of cross-curricular activities. It fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility as students are empowered to take charge of their own learning. Of course, Workshop also helps to develop time management and organizational skills as students learn to balance their own projects with their other academic responsibilities. Finally, it can improve motivation and engagement as students are more likely to be invested in their own projects and feel a sense of pride and accomplishment upon completion. Overall, “20% time” or “Genius Hour” can be a valuable addition to any educational program, helping students to develop important skills and a love of learning that will serve them well as we learn not for school but for LIFE.

Workshop extends content through cross-curricular discoveries and aptitudes

Inviting students to pursue discoveries through the lens of their own curiosities engages learning across disciplines. Students are motivated by their peers, their interests, their existing skills, and the skills they wish to develop. In our current cycle of Collaborative Inquiry, students are posing inquiries around Chemistry & The Periodic Table. They’re collaborating to develop a guiding question and up to three supporting questions that will help them navigate their research. Students have also engaged in meaningful reflection of previous collaboration projects, allowing them to evaluate and articulate the essential skills needed to both contribute to and cultivate an effective team. They’ve derived from this reflection that communication and psychological safety are key, so as a result, we’ve been practicing language that is supportive of both. Students recognize that in a collaborative setting, both validation and advocacy are necessary. To accomplish both, they’re practicing phrases like, “What I’m hearing you say is,” or, “That’s a great idea. May I pose a challenge to your thought?” or, “Your idea could work. Let’s also consider…” The awareness of their own psychological safety and that of their peers is an essential component of having strong social and emotional skills. Altogether, the Collaborative Inquiry process pulls essential skills from Language Arts through inquiry design, research, and writing, Science through the broad idea of their explorations around Chemistry & The Periodic Table, and Social Emotional Learning (SEL) through repeated practice of reflection, validation, and advocacy.


Workshop challenges interpersonal and intrapersonal skills.

One of life’s biggest challenges is being honest with ourselves, isn’t it? We don’t like to admit defeat, we don’t like feeling uncomfortable, and we certainly don’t like taking risks if it means getting mud on our faces. Workshop tackles these feelings that students often harbor as they approach big challenges like Collaborative Inquiry. Students are asked to respond to questions that dig deep into their self-perception like, “What are you proud of?” and, “What pushed you out of your comfort zone?” They also have to think critically about what they’re learning through the process of each mission, whether it’s content-based learning, process-based learning, or personal learning. Collectively, students reflect as a whole group, too, and when each voice is heard, students learn to develop empathy for the experiences of their peers. They use signs that show, “I connect with you. I hear you,” or they pose questions to their peers to further understand the perspective being shared. All the while, students practice validating what others are saying and advocate for their own perception of the experience with common language that is explicitly taught and rehearsed in a variety of settings. This vulnerability, both with oneself and with a peer group, can feel daunting. But with supportive tools, practice, and guidance, students can successfully engage in conversations that lead to authentic, rich learning both independently and collaboratively.


Workshop focuses on the process, not always the product.

A foundational goal of Workshop is to engage in the skill-building and design process, including meaningful practice, proposals, research, project development, publishing, and presentation. Each of these are codependent – one cannot exist without those components that precede it if the goal is to develop something truly effective. Through this current mission of Collaborative Inquiry, students are trying their hand at different roles in their group, such as negotiator, collector, and consultant, to practice approaches and language that bolster strong teams in a collaborative, academic setting. Yes, these skills are ultimately transferable to later experiences that students will have as adults – most commonly referred to as “the real world,” but this season and this mission are also “the real world” for these students. A.J. Juliani, leader in Project Based Learning and Genius Hour, says it best, “Our job as teachers is not to ‘prepare’ kids for something; our job is to help kids learn to prepare themselves for anything.” To foster this approach, students are not seeing the full design process through to project development, publishing, and presentation. Instead, students will evaluate the process through proposal and research in order to solidify a foundation of effective group work in any setting. A close look at the process of learning collaboratively will help students evaluate the roles that they play personally in the successes or the challenges their group encounters. This practice of evaluation and reflection necessitates critical thinking and later application of learned habits and skills as students encounter more and more opportunities to collaborate in the future, thus fulfilling our school’s motto, “We learn not for school but for life.”


Workshop requires reflection for authentic, rich learning.

George Couros, author and leader in innovation says, “The ability to reflect is crucial for understanding and processing. It is also essential for our ability to move forward and create something from what we have learned.” Reflection is the knot in a thread that secures the intricate stitches of a learning experience. Requiring students to be metacognitive – to think about their thinking – evokes meaning in learning, solidification of experiences, and curiosity about what is next. Reflection also allows students’ minds to become more open, more malleable as they articulate ways that their learning challenged them and changed them. The beautiful thing about learning together and approaching this experience as “ours,” is that the reflective component is not just personal, it’s public. Every student takes on the role as “Owner” of the learning so that each one of them can say, “This work is mine,” just as easily as they can say, “This work is ours.” Learning isn’t simply the gathering of new information, it’s the recognition of how that new learning changed us and the challenge of addressing, “What’s next?” When personal reflection on learning becomes public, we find community in common thinking just as often as we find our own perspectives and biases challenged. While many consider reflection to be the end of the learning process, it’s really just the start of new growth, new curiosities, new questions, and a new beginning.

~Mrs. Bell, Fifth Grade Teacher