Inquiry Story - Alison Taplay

Alison Taplay Alison Taplay, Chair of Education and Community Support

Design Thinking

As part of the requirements for SCSW 180 School Practicum I developed an inquiry that required students to identify a challenge or problem they encountered as an EA. They then used the structure inherent in Design Thinking to solve the problem.  The reason for the assignment was to improve problem solving skills in our graduates; enhance their ability to be reflective in practice, apply critical thinking skills in real life situations; and empower them to direct their own priorities for learning during the practicum.

Students were required to use the first three steps of the Design Thinking inquiry method. (Discovery, Interpretation, and Ideation). Their task was to discover a challenge or situation and redefine it as an inquiry (Discovery), conduct research to better understand the challenge and the related theories (Interpretation), and then pose potential responses to solve the challenge (Ideation). In the Interpretation or research phase, students reviewed course materials, conducted research using the VIU Library and credible online sources, conducted interviews with school personnel and relevant others, made observations, and searched for other relevant onsite information related to the challenge.

For many students, being forced by the Design Thinking structure to slow the process of problem solving down and focus more intentionally on the interpretation phase helped them to better understand reflection and critical thinking. This activity helped students overcome their natural tendency to jump from problem to solution. Another noteworthy benefit of this activity was that school personnel became involved in the students' challenge and progress and were very impressed with their demonstration of their skills. This activity generated invaluable skill for human service professionals and served as a solid summative assignment.

The greatest challenge with this activity was that it was fairly labour intense for students who are already on work overload during their practica. In subsequent discussions, our department has agreed that the value of this inquiry exceeds the value of some of the more traditional activities we require of practicum students. We plan to reduce the traditional activities by offering choice and by dividing some of the activities between the two practica rather than repeating them in both.

Case or Scenario Based Learning

Graduates of the Education Assistant and Community Support program are usually hired immediately to work in schools or in community agencies supporting children and adults who live with disabilities. Case or Scenario Based Learning is an ideal way to help students prepare for the challenge of immediately applying their learning to complex situations.

In EACS 110 Foundations for Practice students worked in small groups to determine what to do when faced with complex situations usually that related to an ethical obligation like recognizing and reporting abuse, confidentiality and the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, or conflict of interest. The scenarios were specifically crafted to be shades of gray rather than black and white. We used scenarios throughout the semester while at the same time providing core content from week to week that relates to ethical practice. The premise is that students are gaining knowledge they can use to solve the scenarios, experience applying that knowledge with increasing sophistication, and practice working in groups.

This activity flowed very well in all learning environments (in-class, VIULearn, and Blackboard Ultra). I especially liked it in VIULearn because I could read the contributions of various team members and also respond to the groups final solutions with questions to continue to help them evolve their decision making skills.  What I learned by implementing this model was how to better develop scenarios with increasing complexity. What I would like to do in future is to develop one case or “story” that I could carry forward throughout the semester and perhaps even use in other courses.

Guided Inquiries - Jigsaw Example

In EACS 170 Challenging Conditions, a learning objective is to understand challenging conditions as they arise and are experienced at different stages of human development. I was challenged to design an activity that enabled students to explore this learning objective themselves in a guided manner. By engaging in the search for knowledge, students learn invaluable skills that can be applied beyond the activity and the classroom.

I prepared a jigsaw activity that required students to become expert on one theory of human development, share their knowledge with the class, and then consider how acquiring a disability might impact or be impacted by what they learned. I structured this activity by dividing the class into four groups six. I assigned each group a development theory and provided students with a short article discussing the respective theory in advance of our class. At the beginning of the class each group was given time to discuss what they had learned from the article. As a team they were asked to complete a work sheet that asked them to organize their learning around specific questions.

After completing this activity students were deemed expert on their topic. The class was reorganized into six new groups that each included one member of the original group. In the new groups student took turns teaching the others about the theory they had examined in detail. The expectation at the end of this phase of the activity was that each student has a solid understanding of one theory and a preliminary understanding of all four theories.

As a final activity, students returned to their original group. They were asked to consider how acquiring a disability at various ages might impact human development based on their current understanding. Finally each group reported to the class; as they reported I facilitated some further discussion by posing questions.

This activity worked very well in terms of teaching students how to learn on their own and how to evaluate and begin to apply the knowledge they gained. Students were very engaged throughout the activity and reported that they liked the class. They also did very well on the exam questions that related to human development. However, the activity didn’t quite achieve what I hoped for.

Fortunately, I was participating in a peer observation project and I had an observer in the class, Samuel Johnson. When we debriefed his observations I was able to identify the problems that occurred and able to understand how to improve the activity.

Based on this learning I will definitely use this activity again but I will refine it so that we move through the middle phase slowly with groups focusing on ONE theory at a time rather than all four. I will also rearrange the tables in the room or book additional space so that the groups can be further from one another. Finally, I will prepare a summary of key points to use as a closing mini lecture to cross check students understanding and then have them proceed with a check out reflection that includes their greatest learning as well as outstanding questions.

Team Based Learning (Problem Based Learning) for the Blended Classroom

Students in EACS 110 Foundations for Practice, learn about the roles and responsibilities of Education Assistants (EA’s) and Community Support Workers (CSW’s). For this inquiry, students were provided with various documents describing roles and responsibilities and could also seek additional information as they wished. Students then attended a webinar on Blackboard Ultra during which a panel of 4 professionals working in various EA or CSW roles made mini presentations and then responded to questions. Following the webinar, each group was tasked with developing a list of roles and responsibilities and then sharing with the class their total number, the one they believe to be most important, and their rationale for this choice. The rationale had to be supported by credible sources. This activity went exceptionally well because it was fun and motivating but it also really helped students grasp the diverse roles they may undertake and the various opinions in this unregulated field about what is most important.

Later in the same course, students learn about Codes of Ethics and Standards for Practice. After reading about ethics, ethical codes and standards of practice, students locate Codes of Ethics and Standards for Practice for various related professions like social work and teaching. After realizing that EA’s and CSW’s have no overarching professional body and therefore no provincial or national codes and standards, groups are tasked with drafting content for an EA/CSW Code of Ethics.

Students’ verbal feedback about this course was really positive in part because there was much less content and a lot more engaged activities. Their individual assignment and exam results match previous courses which confirms for me the promise of structured inquiry which is that if students go deep into one subject rather than broad, they will be competent and capable individuals who can apply their learning to diverse situations.

What was difficult in this course was to stay ahead of the class and prepare the next module to build on the last. I believe this is because inquiry based learning is so dynamic that one has to constantly make adjustments so that the class remains challenging but not so challenging that students get lost. I think the next delivery will be easier because I have the basic framework in place and can continue to develop and refine learning activities with high impact.


Alison Taplay is a professor and the co-chair for the Education and Community Support (EACS) department and also a professor and coordinator for the Disability Studies Diploma. In addition to a traditional in-class delivery, the department offers the EACS certificate to distance learners through a unique blended model that combines online studies with in class intensives in Powell River.

In Fall 2016 Alison adapted Design Thinking to create a summative activity for EACS 180 which is the school practicum. She went on in Spring 2017 to implement numerous inquiry activities often using Case or Scenario-Based Learning, and Guided Inquiries that relied on jigsaw activities. She and her colleague and department co-chair, professor Leif Rasmussen redesigned EACS 110 Foundations for Practice to utilize Team Based Learning (TBL); Alison then adapted TBL to be effective in online environments.

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