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Wonder in the Classroom: Encouraging Inquiry

Updated on May 3, 2014
Architecture Students
Architecture Students | Source

Inquiry-based learning is

  • Student directed
  • Active learning
  • Driven to address a real life problem or question
  • Designed to create new knowledge
  • Knowledge more readily retained by student

Sustainable Knowledge

My daughter's ability to memorize facts is amazing. Her eighth grade self can recite specific details about the Spanish American War, describe the greenhouse effect, and give you a pretty clear picture of who Boo Radley is. Her test scores and grades are superb. Her priority is homework and she has always been intrinsically motivated to perform well. The problem is, she hates school.

When trying to recall when school became 'boring' and more of a burden for her, I have to say that with the exception of the very early primary grades and a teacher here or there, school has always been a tiresome ordeal. As a rule, she does not understand the "why" underlying much of what she is being taught. The facts that she memorizes disappear as soon as she no longer needs them.

The missing ingredient may seem simple but many teachers overlook it in their instructional design. In order to foster deep and long term understanding of a subject, students must attach personally to the topic and see a connection and meaning to the real world. If we can get kids to wonder, to imagine, and to ask questions, we will create the pathways to sustainable knowledge.

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Why Are We Learning This?

In third grade my daughter had to memorize the different layers of rocks and the basic vocabulary associated with geology. She was able to do so easily, but when I asked her why she thought she was learning about rocks, she couldn't give any kind of answer.

It would seem that by the 2010s wrote education should not be an issue. Some of you may be thinking that this article is a bit outdated and our system of teaching must certainly have addressed these concerns. But the simple question of why, to a student, is very much essential to both retention and motivation. Long past are the days when "because I say so" is an explanation our students will accept.

John Dewey at the University of Chicago in 1902
John Dewey at the University of Chicago in 1902 | Source

John Dewey on Education

It is worth pausing to explore the basis of our contemporary take on inquiry based learning.
In the early part of the twentieth century, philosopher and theorist John Dewey identified in Article 1 (What Education Is) of My Pedagogic Creed what he held to be key elements of true education. His theories appear to be as avant garde now as they were then in terms of practical application in today's classroom.

He states that the child must "emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group." He goes on to say that "Without insight into the psychological structure and activities of the individual, the educative process will, therefore, be haphazard and arbitrary."

Our modern classrooms often leave negligible wiggle room to create learning experiences which embrace these standards. Teachers may very well begin the year by identifying their students' interests and habits. But, in terms of instructional design to meet today's rigorous Common Core challenges, there is little place for individualized, intrinsic learning. In fact, many school districts have taken the teacher out of the instructional design process all together by requiring them to teach "modules" created by the state.

As educators we know, as Dewey did, that if students are curious, if they have ownership of the learning experience, and if they identify with it, they will truly learn. And, they will remember what they learn. It is true. So, why then, are we still producing fact hunters and espousing memorization?

In addition, Dewey's first key point emphasizes the "welfare of the group." No one can deny that citizenship and social interdependence are imperative notions when it comes to growing successful and contributing members of society. If this is so, why are service-learning and real-life learning experiences such a rarity in the modern classroom?

A good essential question...

  • Provokes deep thought
  • Is authentic
  • Promotes inquiry
  • Makes connections to prior learning
  • Is relevant
  • Cannot be answered using Google!

Essential Questions

As a library media specialist, I have the ideal vantage of seeing how curriculum is being implemented across all grade levels and subject areas. The range is vast! - from teachers who take students outdoors to collect, count, chart, and assess the community's litter problem to teachers who send their students to the library to google questions on a study guide (hear the lament of the LMS).

Good teachers know they must change and grow. Ours is not a static profession. We tweak and adapt our lessons each year. This year, I have added the element of the essential question to nearly every lesson I teach. Not only do I have a goal in mind (what students should learn or be able to do), but I ask them to consider the deeper application.

Essential questions are those questions that are at the heart of the matter. They are the questions that get us wondering and make us curious. If we let these questions guide the learning process and make room for discussion and time to ponder - time to let our students go forth and be curious, we teach them how to think.

I recently asked my class of 7th graders what they think the difference is between two teens who are cyberbullied, and one who chooses self harm and one who doesn't. I didn't tell them the answer or what to think. Consideration of this question informed their research and engaged them to create meaningful public service announcements with potential victims as their audience.

Flickr Creative Commons
Flickr Creative Commons | Source

Greenwave on Essential Questions

The Power Balance

In order for inquiry-based, student-directed learning to occur, teachers need to do something that is not in our type-A natures: we need to give over a little of our control. We need to be Okay with lessons and units that go in crazy, unexpected directions.

We need to stop enjoying the sound of our own voices.

To guide.

To show, but not tell.

To listen, but not judge.

To keep our opinions to ourselves, and to help students find their own.

To create powerful, guiding, intrinsically meaningful questions that engage our students...then stand back and watch them wonder.

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