What does it have to do with my classroom?
Most of our schools focus on teaching a set of basic skills that do not serve the needs of modern society. Traditionally, schools stressed the accumulation of information, and did not emphasize skill development or nurturing inquiry-based habits of mind. This approach to education was adequate when the United States was a largely rural society, depending on unskilled labor. Our modern society is faster paced, globally networked, technologically oriented, and requires workers who can problem solve and think critically. Today, much learning, if not most, occurs after formal schooling. Our schools must change their approach to education to produce students who can thrive in the modern world.
The traditional focus of education is no longer appropriate. The world has changed: local apprenticeships are rare, and young people must master new ways of acting and thinking.
Our society is becoming increasingly larger and more complexly diverse. Young people must develop an understanding for the complexities of modern life and be able to grapple with new ethical and practical issues. We must educate our young so they can participate as responsible members in contemporary society. They also need to be given the chance to grow and develop fulfilling personal identities in settings that are relatively free of risk.
Inquiry learning can turn information into useful knowledge. It stresses skill development and nurtures the development of good habits of mind. Information, lacking a useful context, often has limited applications beyond passing a test. Learning plans and teaching materials need to include a relevant context for new information to lead to broader understandings. It is often hard for
students to understand the connections between activities within a particular subject. This confusion is heightened when students struggle to understand the connections between different subjects within traditional schools.
Many traditional schools lack a coherent and simplified process for interrelating subject material between grades. There is little emphasis on planning across subjects. And not enough effort is spent defining the ultimate goals of education -- the skills and abilities students should have when they complete high school. While many subjects share information-processing skills, much more can be done to enhance the connections among them.
"Habits of mind" should be an important goal, or outcome, in education. These habits can produce a world view that incorporates different disciplines or subjects. They can be thought of as the "ground rules" for a particular
discipline, and include, but are not limited to, verification and respect for data in science, the importance of beauty and desirability in art, and the role of belief and faith in religion.
We are not suggesting that these habits of mind should be taught -- or even that they can be taught.
They are best nurtured through appropriate modeling and experiences. Nor is it suggested that one
world view is right in comparison to another, but rather the different disciplines can offer different
and important perspectives. However, it is important that habits of mind are nurtured and valued for
the particular discipline being studied. Habits of mind are nurtured through questioning and
reflection. Questions like: How do you (I) know? Can we (I) ever know that? What is the evidence? How
did you (I) arrive at that decision?
Questions, whether self-initiated or "owned," are at the heart of inquiry learning. While questions
are also a part of the traditional classroom, the sources, purposes, and levels of questioning are
quite different. In the traditional classroom, the teacher is frequently the questioner. Questions are
usually intended to provoke feedback about a reading or activity assignment. In an inquiry classroom,
the teacher asks questions that are more open and reflective in nature. Appropriate questioning
techniques are important in an inquiry-based classroom, especially in the lower grades where they
become a foundation for self-initiated questioning.
Dennie Palmer Wolf, in THE ART OF QUESTIONING, published by Academic Connections in 1987, suggests that there are four major types of questions: inference questions, interpretation questions, transfer questions, and questions about hypotheses.
These questions ask students to go beyond immediately available information. For example, a
high-school photography teacher held up a black-and-white portrait of a machinist taken by Paul Strand
and asked, "What do you know by looking at this photograph?" Through careful questioning and
discussion, his students realized the image contained hints that implied a whole network of
information: clues to content (where and when the photograph was taken), technique (where the
photographer stood, where the light sources were located), and meaning or attitude (what Strand felt
about industry and workers). To push beyond the factual in this way is to ask students to find clues,
examine them, and discuss what inferences are justified.
If inference questions demand that students fill in missing information, then interpretive questions
propose that they understand the consequences of information or ideas. One day, when her English class
was struggling to make sense of Frost's poem "The Silken Tent," a teacher asked, "Imagine if Frost
compared the woman to an ordinary canvas tent instead of a silk one. What would change?" Faced with
the stolid image of a stiff canvas tent, students suddenly realized the fabric of connotations set in
motion by the idea of silk -- its sibilant, rustling sounds; its associations with elegance, wealth,
and femininity; its fluid motions. In a similar spirit, during a life-drawing class, a teacher showed
his students a reproduction of Manet's "Olympia" and asked them, "How would the picture be different
if the model weren't wearing that black tie around her neck?" A student laid her hand over the tie,
studied the image and commented, "Without the ribbon, she doesn't look so naked. She looks like a
classical model. With the ribbon, she looks undressed, bolder."
If inference and interpretation questions ask a student to go deeper, transfer questions provoke a
kind of breadth of thinking, asking students to take their knowledge to new places. For example, the
final exam for a high-school film course contained this question: "This semester we studied three
directors: Fellini, Hitchcock, and Kurosawa. Imagine that you are a film critic and write a review of
"Little Red Riding Hood" as directed by one of these individuals."
QUESTIONS ABOUT HYPOTHESES.
Typically, questions based on what can be predicted and tested are thought of as belonging to sciences
and other "hard" pursuits. But, in fact, predictive thinking matters in all domains. When we read a
novel, we gather evidence about the world of the story, the trustworthiness of the narrator, the style
of the author, all of which we use to predict what we can expect in the next chapter. Far from letting
their students simply soak in the content of dances, plays, or fiction, skilled teachers probe for
predictions as a way of making students actively aware of their expectations.
Click on the interactive button to the left to see a dynamic representation of how the known and the unknown interact.
Concept by Joe Exline |
Illustration by Sabina Daley
An inquiry classroom is quite different from a traditional classroom. These differences become increasingly pronounced as the teacher and students become more comfortable and experienced with inquiry learning. It can often be difficult to locate the teacher in an inquiry classroom, because she is
rarely found in the traditional spot: behind the teacher's desk. Students also move around the classroom as they interact with others and locate the appropriate materials and resources for their work.
STUDENTS DOING INQUIRY LEARNING
What does inquiry-based learning look like? Much of what is said about science and inquiry learning can be applied to all subjects. The following list describes some of what inquiry learning looks like in practice.
| ||Students view themselves as learners in the process of learning.
| || |
- They look forward to learning.
demonstrate a desire to learn more.
- They seek to collaborate and work cooperatively with teacher
- They are more confident in learning, demonstrate a willingness to modify ideas and
take calculated risks, and display appropriate skepticism.
| ||Students accept an "invitation to learn" and willingly engage in an exploration process. |
| || |
- They exhibit
curiosity and ponder observations.
- They move around, selecting and using the materials they need.
- They confer with classmates and teacher about observations and questions.
- They try out some
of their own ideas.
| ||Students raise questions, propose explanations, and use observations.
- They ask questions (verbally and through
- They use questions that lead them to activities generating further questions or ideas.
- They observe critically, as opposed to casually looking or listening.
- They value and apply
questions as an important part of learning.
- They make connections to previous ideas.
| ||Students plan and carry out learning activities. |
| || |
- They design ways to try out their ideas, not always
expecting to be told what to do.
- They plan ways to verify, extend, confirm, or discard ideas.
- They carry out activities by: using materials, observing, evaluating, and recording information.
- They sort out information and decide what is important.
- They see detail, detect sequences
and events, notice change, and detect differences and similarities.
| ||Students communicate using a variety of methods. |
| || |
- They express ideas in a variety of ways, including journals,
drawing, reports, graphing, and so forth.
- They listen, speak, and write about learning activities
with parents, teacher, and peers.
- They use the language of learning, apply the skills of
processing information, and develop their own "ground rules" appropriate for the discipline.
| ||Students critique their learning practices. |
| || |
- They use indicators to assess their
- They recognize and report their strengths and weaknesses.
- They reflect on their
learning with their teacher and their peers.
This is a modified list based on "Inquiry-Based Science,
What Does It Look Like?" published in CONNECT MAGAZINE, March-April 1995.
TEACHER'S ROLE IN AN INQUIRY CLASSROOM: FACILITATOR OF LEARNING.
| ||The teacher reflects on the purpose and makes plans for inquiry learning.|
ways for each learner to be actively engaged in the learning process.
- She understands the necessary skills, knowledge, and habits of mind needed for inquiry learning.
- He understands and plans ways to encourage and enable the learner to take increasing
responsibility for his learning.
- She insures that classroom learning is focused on relevant and
- He is prepared for unexpected questions or suggestions from the learner.
- She prepares the classroom environment with the necessary learning
tools, materials, and resources for active involvement of the learner.
| ||The teacher facilitates classroom learning. |
Ultimately, the importance of inquiry learning is that students learn how to continue learning. This
is something they can take with them throughout life -- beyond parental help and security, beyond a
textbook, beyond the time of a master teacher, beyond school -- to a time when they will often be
alone in their learning.