Feb 20

Inquiring Minds Really Do Want to Know

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?

Jan 31

EduCon 2.5: Creating the Conditions for Structured Inquiry

Some thoughts from others about the session I ran on Sunday morning – Beyond Googling: Structuring Inquiry

Inquiry Breaks Down Rigidity – by Kristen Swanson

Why Inquiry Learning is Worth the Trouble by Ian Quillen of KQED

So my Sunday morning session at EduCon was entitled Beyond Googling: Building the Conditions for Structured Inquiry. The slide-deck is at the bottom of post. It was an evolution of a workshop I’ve done before, but my whole goal was to really think about the session on both the real and the meta-session level. (Yeah, I just made up a word.)

The goal was to create an environment where some real tough questions around what this word “inquiry” really can mean in the classroom, followed by more problem-solving around how to do that well. In a workshop like this, there isn’t much research going on (although, given that almost any group of teachers at EduCon will have at least one internet enabled decide, if not five to ten of them – so that’s a challenge for next time, I suppose.)

I enjoyed doing the session, especially as session participants really engaged deeply in the questions we were asking. One thing that came out organically from many folks was something I was hoping would — inquiry isn’t just question and answer, it is very much a process…. and that the word can represent the idea of a deep dive into learning through questioning and seeking.

The 90 minutes went by really quickly, so much so that we were way over time before we all realized it was time to go. That’s what inquiry is supposed to do – it’s supposed to get people talking, researching, questioning and learning so much that time really does just fly by. So the session ended up being a pretty good model for what I hope folks can then do in their own classrooms, I think.

But what did I learn by facilitating the session?

It was a chance for me to keep exploring the idea that 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.

It was a chance for me to hear folks bring up empathy over and over again, as inquiry means deep listening and deep understanding of others – other texts, other people, other ideas. Inquiry should help all of us develop our ability to question to learn, not just argue to win.

It was a chance for me to think about — and talk about — how inquiry cannot just live in the classroom or as a stand-alone pedagogy of the stated curriculum. Inquiry allows students to access the hidden curriculum, as they will question grading structures. They will question discipline policies. They will question how teachers and students interact. And while, on one level, kids have been doing that for years, if students are taught the true spirit of inquiry, this will be far more than the traditional “Why do we have to do [x] this way?” Kids can question, problem solve, and most importantly, they can understand the complexity of school and of learning in ways that help them grow up well.

Perhaps my take-away, more than anything else, is how the longer we go on this journey at SLA, the more of a seeker I have become. Doing this workshop was a chance for me to step back and really look at how I have come to believe deeply that the inquiry process doesn’t just teach us a way to teach and learn, it gives us a powerful lens through which we can live our lives.