On bunny trails and the need to know


Follow the white rabbit

Follow the white rabbit

Sometimes my students lead me down a bunny trail.  One question leads to another and, before we know it, we’re Through the Looking Glass.  A discussion about atomic structure leads to nuclear weapons, which leads to World War 2, which leads to racism, which leads to genetics.  We meander into and out of science.  The students ask questions that I do my best to answer if none of them has an answer.  Somebody hops on a computer or their phone and looks up an answer if we get stumped.  The really good questions we write down to come back to later.  Those are some of the best moments in any class.

The thing that I’m always striving for with my students is to inspire a genuine “need to know.”  I want them to be so immersed in their learning that the need  answer a burning question leads them down the rabbit hole of learning.  Those are the days when the bell rings (I hate school bells, by the way) and the kids say, “class is over already?  Do we have to go to next period?  Can’t we just stay here?”

We need to teach students to ask and answer their own questions.  Teach them to ask great questions and to challenge themselves to discover the evidence they need to infer their own answer.  Teach them to explain and defend that answer to their peers and to the world.  Teach them to question the answers.

Don’t do inquiry

No, I’m not trying reverse psychology here.  I really don’t want you to do inquiry in your classroom.  Seriously.

10 Reasons NOT to do inquiry:

10. Inquiry is too loud and too messy

You bet it is!  There will be times where every student is doing something different and stuff is everywhere around the room.  Kids moving all over the room.  Lots of talking.  Materials here and there.  Your custodian may learn to hate you.  Save yourself the headache.

9. Inquiry is hard to grade

You’ll get no argument from me here.  Inquiry IS hard to grade.  If grades are more important than learning in your world then, by all means, don’t do inquiry.

8. Test scores might not go up

Then again, they just might… Billy’s in the back of the room on the brink of drowning in his own drool puddle.  Lucia and Jiselle are passing notes texting each other across the room.  Shaun is surreptitiously listening to his iPod.  Is your lecture preparing them for the state assessment?

7. School is not a democracy

Neither is America.  Students might start to expect to have a say in what they learn; we can’t have that!  What’s next, teachers having a say in what they teach?

6. It’s not easy

Drill and kill, worksheets, videos on Friday, giving the same lecture every year, textbooks, pacing guides, etc. are all much easier to do.  They’re easier for the students too – because they don’t have to think.  Who wants to think anyway – thinking is hard work!

5. There’s no test generator for that!

You’ve got me there!  Inquiry based test generator is an oxymoron.

4. It won’t prepare them for college

Maybe that says more about college than it does about kids and how they learn?  In reality, though, a kid who knows how to think and learn will probably do okay in college.

3. It won’t prepare them for the “real world”

Nope.  No boss wants an employee who can take on a project, manage that project independently and deliver a quality result at the end.  Mindless drones in cubicles is what they really want.  We’ve all seen Office Space!

2. I might lose “control” of the classroom

Can you lose something you never really had in the first place?  Control over a kid’s behavior is an illusion.  I work with a teacher who is really proud of the discipline in his classroom.  His car gets keyed regularly.  He gets prank phone calls in the middle of the night at home.  He’s in control inside his classroom, though.

1. School isn’t supposed to be fun!

Neither is work… I must not be doing it right, then.

Do inquiry because you want to love teaching.  Do it because you love students.  Do inquiry because you love to see kids discover things for themselves and take pride in that discovery.  Do it because inquiry based teaching is supported by years of research on learning (see How People Learn, Brain Rules, etc.).  Do it because students need to develop the skills to be life-long learners.  Do inquiry because it empowers young people to take ownership of their learning.  Do it because it allows for differentiation for student needs and learning preferences.

Don’t do it because some dude with a blog said to.

How do I DO inquiry?

The short answer: teach students to ask and answer their own questions, then let them do it.

Inquiry based graffiti?

Inquiry based graffiti?

The long answer:

It’s not as easy as it sounds but it’s well worth the effort.  My favorite way to initiate a new inquiry cycle is to expose the students to something new.  It could be a discrepant event, a phenomena, an intriguing factoid, a video, a story, a news article…. I’ve used all of these at one time or another.  Early and often, have students brainstorm questions they have about the general topic or things related to it.  Keep these on an anchor chart (aka parking lot) or have them record them in their class notebook (science notebooks for my classes).  Encourage them to brainstorm questions together.  Give them question prompts to help them think of more.  Model inquiry by throwing out some of your own questions (not too many – don’t do the thinking for them).

The next step is to build up their background knowledge about their topic.  This is especially critical in high school science.  There are many topics that my students do not have enough background about to generate good testable questions.  This portion of the inquiry cycle can include visits to a site for observation, videos, lab activities, engaging reading assignments, and even traditional lessons (I prefer mini-lessons that I limit to 15-20 minutes).

Now that the students have some background knowledge as a base to inquire from, ask them to select a question that they want to answer and have them generate a proposal.  This proposal will vary in format based on the type of inquiry.  For experimental inquiry, I ask for a hypothesis, variables, and a brief overview of the experimental procedure.  They may need to do some “pre-search” (research for ideas or to verify that their idea is feasible) at this point before proceeding.

Once a student or group has an approved proposal, they should now create a more detailed plan for their inquiry.  The format here will also depend on the type of investigation.  The point is for them to have a plan before they dive headlong into research/ experiment.  Of course, they can do “pre-search” at any point of the process.

Now is the fun part!  The students get to dive into their investigation and begin gathering information/ data.  Remind them early and often to keep track of their sources.  Model effective note-taking, research methods, lab notebook use, lab skills, or other necessary skills at this point.  It is important that these things are done on an “as needed” basis whenever possible.  One way to do this is to offer an optional mini-workshop for students in a skill that you see many of them in need of.  Those who want to attend your workshop (may be inside or outside of class time) can get the extra instruction.  Others may choose to opt out.  Giving the students the option is important here.

Finally, students need to do something with their learning.   This could be a lab report, poster session, blog post, presentation, or other product.  The point is that they should demonstrate their learning, ideally to an authentic audience.

Before moving on, it is essential that the students engage in reflection.  They should reflect on their learning; learning about content, about the process, about collaboration, about making a product, and about themselves.  Reflection is critical and becomes more meaningful when it is a segue into the next inquiry cycle – where they can learn from their successes and failures the first time around to improve!

Here’s a more detailed outline of this process in a Google Doc: https://docs.google.com/View?id=dd8tctbh_294c4v5x7cw Feel free to use and/or modify this outline to suit your own purposes!

From A to purple

Whenever I read an article or blog post, I think about it’s implications for teaching.  I can’t help it.  I’m a teacher 24-7-365.  Drives my family nuts sometimes but it’s who I am.

Reading Seth Godin’s latest blog post, The art of seduction, this morning was no different.  Seth’s talking about marketing but I’m thinking about teaching.  No, not in a creepy Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau kind of way.  Don’t go there.

Anyway, I’m thinking about how teachers are not unlike salesmen.  In fact, the more “traditional” the teacher, the more used car salesman-like they must be.

“Hey, kids, here’s what I want you to buy (learn) and how I want you to pay for it (show your learning).  This is how much it’ll cost you (busy work, homework, hoop jumping, etc.).  I don’t care if you want it or not, because I (or the feds, state, district, etc.) know better than you what you really need.”

By the way, I detest having to try to sell people stuff.  I did it once for a month or so during college with a direct marketed product.  I HATED trying to sell people stuff they didn’t want or need.  That’s my idea of hell, really.

Then there’s the idea of choice in the classroom.  Many teacher training programs and self-help guru books tell you to give the kids choices – just not too many.  Let them choose from options A, B, or C.  That’s differentiation in a nutshell…

That’s not real choice.  That’s choice in a nutshell.

How about letting students choose anything from A to purple?

Socratic seminars in science class

I love socratic seminars.  I have done several in the past few years and, every time I do one, I say, “I need to do more of these!”  The students learn so much from these rich discussions, both about the topic and about civil discourse.  Socratic seminars help to set up a positive culture in the classroom, as well as fostering Habits of Mind (Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision, Listening With Understanding and Empathy).

What is a socratic seminar?

A socratic seminar is an informal group discussion where the teacher acts as a facilitator (ideally by only asking questions – and the less, the better) while the students have a discussion.  The discussion can center around a piece of reading, a current news issue, an idea or ideal, or just an engaging question.  The key, though, really is the engagement.  The topic has to be one that students want to talk about – preferably argue about.

a great place for a socratic seminar?

a good place for a socratic seminar?

How do you do a socratic seminar?

From the teacher side of things, I like to plan a few key questions to ask about the topic of discussion (I may or may not ask all of them).  The students will have some background knowledge prior to the seminar – could be from a text that they read, a video that they watched, a lab, whatever.  I like to have the students bring their chairs into a large circle (you might have to clear space for this – or do it outside; outdoor socratic seminars rock!).  You then set the ground rules for the discussion (no interrupting, be respectful, no side conversations, etc.) and ask the BIG QUESTION – the main topic of the discussion.

What is it like?

When it’s working, the students are arguing respectfully, agreeing and disagreeing, building on each others’ points, and referring to prior knowledge or creating new knowledge collectively.  Once in a while, I remind students of protocols or norms if they get too fired up.  Occasionally, I throw out another question to keep the conversation going or steer it back on task.  I do my best to resist the urge to state my knowledge or opinions on a matter – even if they are begging for it.  It’s not about me!

Okay, I get it.  But, in SCIENCE class???

What better way to help students to understand the process of science than to get them arguing?  The key is to teach them to challenge each others’ claims respectfully (How do you know that? What is your evidence? Where did your evidence come from? Is it dependable evidence?)

How do I start?

You start by doing three of them.  With the same class.  Relatively close together.  Not one or two.

Yes, three.  One for you to screw up and for them to be confused.  A second one for you to facilitate better and for them to still be confused.  A third to get a decent feel for how this should really go.

Fear and loathing in inquiry

Why do many teachers hesitate to allow their students to truly pursue the answers to their own questions?

Fear and Loathing

Lonely highway - destination unknown

Lonely highway - destination unknown

Fear of the unknown – it’s what causes people to be scared of the dark.  True student inquiry is “the dark.”  It’s where the whims and interests of students can lead you down a path that might be uncomfortable – or even disastrous.  So, what do we do?  We put inquiry in a box.

We say, here is your question and the procedure for you to follow.  Why aren’t you motivated?  This is a LAB!

Sure, hands on is better than worksheets and lectures.  But here’s a news flash – labs can be boring too.

Students don’t necessarily learn any more from traditional – or, even, “guided inquiry” – activities than they do from lectures and worksheets.

Why not?  Because all of the important thinking is done for them.   Then they are left with a glorified worksheet with procedures to follow, tables to complete and discussion questions to answer at the end.  Good for you, you just created a “hands-on” worksheet.

Why do we do this?  Loathing.

We loathe the things that come with giving students freedom.  Kids are off task.  The noise level rises.  Chaos erupts.  The veteran teacher next door peers into your room and glowers disapprovingly (at the noisy students, of course, never at you).  Parents complain that nothing new has shown up on the computer grading system for 2 weeks (quick, give ‘em a worksheet – that’ll fix ‘em!).

Fear and loathing – the enemies of inquiry.

Chemistry, condoms and the Colosseum


The Colosseum, Rome

The Colosseum, Rome

One of the most successful inquiry activities that I did this year wasn’t successful because of my careful planning or my skill.  It wasn’t successful because of expensive equipment or great lab space.  It wasn’t successful because of technology integration or guest experts.

It was successful because I took a chance.

It was successful because I said, “yes.”

I had wanted my Chemistry students to test the effects of acid on various materials.  I demonstrated for them the effect of sulfuric acid on a pop can (if you’ve never seen it, here’s a good video of it).  They read about acid rain and brainstormed a list of possible materials to expose to acid.  The students came up with things like wood, plastic, copper, aluminum, etc.  We brainstormed our scientific question as a class: “what is the effect of acid rain on different materials and why does it affect them differently?” or something like that – this question really isn’t important.  What’s important is what happened next.

I asked them to come up with their own subquestion under our class question and then gave them time to brainstorm.

When they called me over and said can we do _______? I said, “yes.” (Okay, so I asked a few clarifying questions first and made sure they had a clear idea but the gist of the conversation was, “yes.”)

One group asked if they could test the effect of acid rain on different types of building materials, using major world landmarks as their guide (the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, the Great Pyramid, etc.).  I said, “yes.”

Another group asked if they could test the effect of acid rain on metal that had been painted, clear coated, both or neither (because they like cars).  I said, “yes.”

Yet another group decided to test the effects of acids on condoms.  That was a hard one to agree to, believe me, but I said “yes” anyway.  Nevermind the pile of open condom wrappers in the garbage, Mr. Custodian, it’s all in the name of science!

By saying, “yes” to their ideas, to their questions, I said yes to a lot of other things:

I said, “yes” to student engagement.

I said, “yes” to authentic inquiry.

Most importantly, I said, “yes” to LEARNING – both mine and theirs.