By Tracie Weisz
In a story last year about Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap, they quote him as saying, “The culture of schooling as we know it is radically at odds with the culture of learning that produces innovators.” We can tell you the kinds of environments where we know kids are excited, enthusiastic, and open to inquiry and discovery – it happens naturally for young children almost anytime they are given a little freedom to explore, experiment, and create. However, the structures we set up in school, many ingrained in us from preservice texts, and even before (anticipatory set anyone?), often have schools doing things that take away those very opportunities.
Inquiry In The Classroom
A couple of years ago, I started to simply turn my social studies lessons upside down so we could practice inquiry. My 8th graders had not had much practice. At the beginning of a lesson, I’d show them something – usually a picture, a piece of art, an article, a short video, an illustrated map – something. I’d tell them what it was, as in naming it, and maybe giving it a little context, and then they had 5 minutes to write down all of the questions they had about it. Initially, this was a difficult exercise for them – they would not have many questions. When we talked about some of their questions, sometimes another student would shout an answer, even though none was obvious. There was one boy who I knew was very sharp, but routinely would only write down about 3 questions. After the 3rd time we did it, I asked him why he had so few questions in 5 minutes. He said he didn’t want to write down very many because he was just waiting for me to assign an essay paper on all of them if he had a bunch! What an eye opener for me! Apparently, without any ill-intent to squash inquiry, I had done just that!
Depending on the unit we are studying, the students share their favorite questions (according to them) in a Google spreadsheet. We collect questions here over the course of a unit. At some point, students decide which one (or more) they really want to pursue, and we make an initial plan of attack. At varying points, through reflective journaling, concept maps, and more questioning, they continue to plot and re-plot their plans as their studies unfold.