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Meet Trevor MacKenzie

TREVOR MACKENZIE is a learner, teacher, speaker, consultant, and outdoor enthusiast. Trevor teaches English at the 10th through 12th grade levels at Oak Bay High School in Victoria, BC, Canada. He is also regarded by many as the preeminent voice on inquiry-based learning today, authoring Dive into Inquiry: Amplify Learning and Empower Student Voice and co-authoring Inquiry Mindset: Nurturing the Dreams, Wonders, and Curiosities of Our Youngest Learners

The First Five Years Are the Hardest

When asked about an experience of adversity on his education journey, Trevor thinks back to his first five years in the profession. There were many forks in the road, he says, where he found himself questioning whether or not he even wanted to stay in education. It took him a while to move from substitute teaching to a full-time contract, and even then it was a real challenge to juggle all the responsibilities of a classroom teacher: lesson planning, unit design, assessment, parent communication, coaching, and other duties.

Trevor credits his local community of colleagues and professional peers who gave him advice, encouragement, and solidarity during those early years. Although his professional learning network has evolved far beyond the bounds of his own building, he continues to appreciate the power and importance of collaboration today.

Why Inquiry? 

First and foremost, Trevor says, he never proposes that other teachers must do things his way. “Teaching is an art with incredible nuance and subtlety, and there’s simply no lockstep approach or prescriptive framework to what makes a good teacher.”

That said, Trevor readily admits that inquiry-based learning is where his heart is, and he loves nothing more than helping other educators see what is possible for learners. Education has changed a great deal in the last decade – not just because of our access to phones but also in terms of the amount of prior knowledge that students bring to the classroom. It’s no longer about how much students know, but about what they can do with what they know.

Inquiry-based learning challenges teachers to facilitate experiences that help our learners to explore content and then create products that have an impact on others. Inquiry also challenges students to investigate the “un-Googleable” questions, the sort of questions that Google Home and Alexa cannot help them with. These are the kinds of vast, broad questions that students must chew on and wrestle with over extended periods of time. Inquiry encourages the development of the 4 Cs: competencies that are absolutely critical in today’s workforce. As a framework, inquiry provides the space and common language for students to become creators, problem-solvers, and active agents of their learning.

Inquiry and Curiosity

Children enter the school system full of curiosity, chomping at the bit to learn, to play, to read, and to interact. Sadly, students often leave high school with that curiosity and joy of learning greatly diminished. “Curiosity is at the heart of how we can better meet the needs of all of our learners,” Trevor points out.

We need to look at our curriculum with an eye to integrating inquiry approaches – it never needs to be a situation of all or nothing, inquiry vs the curriculum. Inquiry-based learning, when properly applied, allows us to explore prescribed curricular outcomes through the lens of curiosity and creativity.

Understanding the Types of Student Inquiry

Structured    Inquiry, Controlled Inquiry, Guided Inquiry and Free Inquiry

In the swimming pool illustration, Trevor divides the types of student inquiry into four levels: structured, controlled, guided, and free. Although it might seem tempting to jump quickly into the deep end of the swimming pool, Trevor cautions against initiating free inquiry without giving learners the necessary tools, understanding, and vocabulary. To move too far and too fast into inquiry is to invite chaos and confusion for teachers and learners, so strategy and forethought is required here.

Ideally, a school can work together on strong and structured units of inquiry-based learning so that all learners in the community become familiar with a common language. Frame those first units of study around central, unGoogleable questions. Use provocations to spark rich and engaging entry points to new areas of interest and study, and allow space for students to pursue side paths and related questions along the way. For help in getting started, visit TrevorMacKenzie.com for a large collection of free inquiry unit planning templates and other resources.

Inquiry and Assessment

When first introduced to inquiry-based learning, educators often have questions around assessment. To help guide teachers through these challenges and demonstrate what assessment can look like in the inquiry classroom, Trevor is currently working on a book that speaks directly to the mindset shift he has experienced around assessment in his own practice, and he goes on to describe some of the changes he’s made in the classroom.

For example, he no longer puts any numbers or letter-grades on formative assessments — he only offers feedback. He also makes sure that students are invested in the assessment process through the co-creation of criteria, the inclusion of student voice, and by making sure that assessment occurs in the classroom, by and with students — instead of something done to them. Assessment done properly infuses course content instead of taking the shape of something slapped on to the end of a unit of a study. 

The Power of Grading Conferences

Speaking to the power of the conference, Trevor says that the simple decision to sit down with each of his learners to discuss their assessments for the term was one of the most helpful and practical moves he’s ever made in his practice. He immediately noticed the empowerment and sense of agency that the conferences gave students. For a change, many of his students actually wanted their parents to read their report cards because they had a direct hand in crafting those comments. Even more importantly, the process broke many students out of a fixed mindset regarding what past report cards and the education system had told them they were and were not capable of as learners.

Could Inquiry Reshape Professional Development?

Sadly, Trevor says, professional development is often not designed by teachers, and as a result, there can be a disconnect between philosophy and practice. Make sure that teachers have a voice, and make relevance and immediate application high priorities in the design of professional development activities, he urges.

What Else is Setting Trevor on 🔥 in Education

Beyond inquiry, something else that is setting Trevor on fire in education today is the conversation around diversity, equity, and inclusion. He’s taken some hard looks at cultural responsiveness, systemic biases, allyship, identity studies, and the unpacking of his own personal biases. Educators who greatly impress Trevor in this space include Gary Gray Jr., Liz Kleinrock, and Cornelius Minor. If we want our students to truly understand themselves as learners, people, and human beings, we owe it to them to help them understand the biases, narratives, and historical forces that shape our understanding of ourselves.

Serving with Presence

As much joy as he derives from working with learners in his classroom, Trevor is also passionate about teaching teachers and working with other educators around the world. Balancing the two consituencies well and being fully present in every context requires intentionality and mindfulness. “As I enter the classroom each and every day, I’m asking how I can be present and mindful of what’s immediately before me,” Trevor says.

A Personal Passion: Cycling

Trevor is an avid cyclist, and on many mornings he is up early and out of the house on his bike before school. He also enjoys a good community of fellow cyclists in his area that he enjoys biking and racing with. Cycling gets him going, fires him up, and keeps him healthy so that he can serve others well.

A Productivity Hack: Early Mornings 

Trevor’s best productivity hack is to get up at 5:00 a.m. each morning, and he’s been inspired by other creatives to work before the rest of the world is awake. It’s the perfect time to tie up loose ends, complete tasks, do important reading, or write reflectively. With small children at home and students at school, the early morning is simply the best block of time in the day to be productive and undistracted.

Voices & Resources That Inspire His Practice 

Over on Twitter, Trevor recommends following @TheMerrillsEdu. The Merrills are an amazing elementary teaching couple who take creativity to a whole new level in their practice. Make sure to give them a follow!

No edtech tool has revolutionized Trevor’s assessment practices more than FlipGrid, where students post video responses and interact with each other’s ideas. Microsoft recently acquired this legendary platform and made its features absolutely free for educators, increasing equity and access for all learners in the process. Make sure to connect with Flipgrid on Twitter @FlipGrid

The Innovator's Mindset by George CourosWhen prompted for a book pick, Trevor points to a classic — The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity, by George Couros. Trevor also shouts out another title that has been influential in his practice, Understanding By Design, by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe.

In the world of podcasts, Trevor is making a late appearance at the world’s most famous true crime series, Serial. He’s also gaining a lot from the Teaching While White Podcast – White Fragility podcast series.

As for YouTube channels, Trevor is going back to one of the faves he mentioned previously: Gary Gray Jr. Gary is an important voice in the conversation on equity and he keeps things real on his channel.

Although his kids are still too young for the chills and thrills of this popular series, Trevor has been enjoying Stranger Things whenever he does find the time for some entertainment on Netflix.

We sign off on this terrific conversation, and Trevor gives us the best ways to connect with him online. See below for details!

Connect with Trevor …

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Song Track Credits

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