Turns out, the two-year olds have it right.
When they ask“Why?” it is a pretty important question. They are trying to make sense of their world, and while most parents can quickly tire of the question, those two-year olds are on the right path. We want our students, years later in school, to still want to figure out their worlds.
So what happens in the intervening years? How do we go from the natural curiosity of the two-year old to the practiced detachment of the stereotypical teenager? What is it about school that teaches kids to not care about their work — and by extension, their world?
The ultimate stereotype of the American classroom is still Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where Ben Stein is profoundly unlucky in getting any student in the classroom to care about the Smoot-Hawley tax. And maybe the Smoot-Hawley tax is irredeemable, we don’t know. But those kids in that class will never know because the teacher was asking questions he knew the answer to, and the students had one job – to parrot back those answers.
That pedagogical approach is long since past its prime – if it ever had one in the first place.
An inquiry-driven pedagogy is – at heart – about asking questions we do not know the answer to. In Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig writes:
“A man conducting a gee-whiz science show with fifty thousand dollars’ worth of Frankenstein equipment is not doing anything scientific if he knows beforehand what the results of his efforts are going to be. A motorcycle mechanic, on the other hand, who honks the horn to see if the battery works is informally conducting a true scientific experiment. He is testing a hypothesis by putting the question to nature.” (http://design.caltech.edu/Misc/pirsig.html)
And while the overwhelming majority of teachers are very good at the “facts” of their discipline, we have to get better at using those facts to help students build meaning by asking powerful questions that ask them to apply knowledge, attack problems of their own design, and come up with their own ‘small-a’ answers.
Inquiry really requires people — students and teachers — to live in the uncomfortable places, and that’s hard. Inquiry requires that we all develop a nimbleness of mind so that we do not give in to the orthodoxy of our own ideas. That’s important for students and teachers (and principals) so that we can start to really hone our skill of deep thinking.
And an inquiry-driven education does not preclude content – in fact, to the opposite, it makes content all the more important. For kids to tackle a problem they see in their community requires them to have a complex understanding of the problem before coming up with a worthwhile solution. For kids to engage in deep inquiry and make real decisions about what they think and understand about complex issues requires them to have synthesized a great deal of information.
It is the difference between simply having kids learn the facts and figures of the Smoot-Hawley tax – to return to Ferris – and having students question the relationship between commerce and government, study the historical evolution of that relationship and then decide for themselves what they believe the role of government in influencing the market.
And if we want our students to really be thoughtful scholars and citizens, don’t we owe it to them to teach them how to think for themselves?