It’s a simple task – define inquiry…
Yet, I struggle in finding a definition that truly represents a holistic view of inquiry based learning. To me, inquiry is more than a method, more than a buzz word, more than simply asking a question. Inquiry is a feeling, an lifestyle, and a culture that is created. It evolves as time passes and morphs into different forms as curiosities rise and fall. Inquiry can be engaging, loud, and messy. It can change the way people think and the way people view the world. Inquiry inspires people to remove the old confines of how and when to learn. It allows for true out of the box thinking. Inquiry can also be very structured and methodical. Some may not see that from the outside, but behind the scenes, inquiry based teaching is incredibly thoughtful.
Inquiry is the “yes man” in a “no man” world. Inquiry methodologies encourage people to explore their ideas and when they fail – they try again. In this type of culture, it is okay to fail – as long as you reflect and try again. You will see a large increase in creativity in this culture because people are not afraid that they will lose points, get in trouble, or be ridiculed for being “wrong”.
I am in no way an expert on inquiry. I like trying new things in my classroom and finding new ways to make my students think differently. (I would love to learn how inquiry techniques are used in other disciplines… hint hint.) What I can provide are examples on how the students and I create an environment (a culture) that is conducive to inquiry. In my science room, we hold off on content for the first week. We focus on team building and collaboration. We also spend a great deal of time being silly and working on fun puzzles and brain teasers. Setting up this environment is crucial for an inquiry driven classroom. If they (and you!) don’t feel comfortable with each other then inquiry based teaching could just be an awkward exchange of looks in silence. When we know each other and feel comfortable in asking and exploring questions, we build the unit together. I am a huge fan of addressing misconceptions and exploring what the students already think and know about science. I like starting with a simple word wall. It is just a collection of ideas, phrases, and yes, words, that the students think about when I give them a topic. So, for example, my students came up with pretty predictable things for our topic/unit on microbes: bacteria, e. coli, virus, infection… Then they get into sweet things like: jock itch, toe fungus, cancer, fecal matter, pink eye, UTI’s, fermentation… These are the topics that are super interesting (and in some cases unfortunately relevant) for the students. What looks like a simple activity is really an assessment for me as the content leader in the classroom. What do my kids already know? What are they passionate about? What direction do they want to take this idea? This simple idea allows the students to build the unit. I can fit the crucial content into things they call out. (Now honestly, I might have to send questions back at them to help them get thinking or to guide them off a tangent.) So I tell them we will learn about jock itch, UTI’s, fecal matter, and pink eye. That sounds way cooler than we will learn the differences between various microbes. It makes the content relevant and more importantly, it gives them a voice in their education. I know what I need them to learn in my class but they just told me how they would like to learn it.
Okay, now the topic/unit is planned… moving on to how we approach the content. RIG’s (research in groups)is another technique I like to use to get the students thinking and researching. We already know what we’d like to learn about so we take the main questions that came up in discussions and explore them. To keep the microbe unit example going, they had a slew of awesome questions. What really are antibiotics? Where do they come from? Why does a cold suck so much? Where does mucus come from? Canker sores are herpes – fact or fiction? I do these in two different ways – depending on how the class discussion goes or how interested the students are in the questions. If there is one big question that the kids disagree on, I have the teams (collaborative tables with 4 people at them) research the same question. My only stipulation is that they must answer the question and provide scientific evidence to support their claim/answer. The groups spend time looking for answers and in the process come up with several other questions. I tell them to write them all down. We go through and present our answers and discuss the relevant content along the way. Pretty soon, the kids know the different between bacteria and viruses and also how to research, how to speak in from of a large group, how to argue a claim, how to react to set-backs, and how to ask additional questions. So I could have lectured or given a PowerPoint on the difference between bacteria and viruses but I believe using the students natural curiosities is much more powerful. #inquiryforthewin. The other way I use RIG’s involves the teams to research different questions but they all stem around the same general topic. Using this slight modification allows for a wider scope of answers and opinions. It also tends to generate more questions that can be explored (either through research, actual laboratory exploration, or through human interactions/conversations).
Last little tid bit on how I make the science labs inquiry based. Instead of a cookie cutter lab where the students are robots following a list of commands from a company that wrote the procedure 10 years ago, I have the students create their own investigations. I might start with a guiding question (like right now in AP Biology – What factors do you think will affect photosynthesis?). I go through and show them some different methods to measure/see that photosynthesis is working, then I set them loose. They have to come up with their own hypotheses, controls, and procedures. They collect and analyze their own data. They come up with their own conclusions about photosynthesis based on their data and the data of their peers. Each group does something different and presents their findings out to the class. I’m there to help guide the students to become better scientists and to expand their content knowledge but this way, they are doing the majority of the thinking for themselves. This inquiry approach ‘covers’ scientific thinking, collaboration, data analysis, summary writing & speaking, and a great deal of photosynthesis details all in shorter amount of time than a traditional lecture and lab to confirm the lecture.
So, what is inquiry… It’s complicated but beautifully simple. It’s open but thoughtfully structured. It’s asking questions but actually exploring and creating your own conclusions. It’s collaborative, but metacognitive and personal. It’s engaging in your passions, while learning something new. Inquiry is fun(gi).
(Special thanks to Kyle & Ryan as we have had several conversations about inquiry and collaborated to make inquiry a success in each other’s classrooms.)