The teacher’s role in an inquiry-centered classroom

The teacher’s role in an inquiry-centered classroom is absolutely critical.  It takes practice.  It takes patience.  It requires a willingness to try new things, fail, reflect, revise, redeem and repeat.  In roughly chronological order (within an investigation), here are 10 things that will allow constructive inquiry to flourish.

A teacher in an inquiry-centered classroom must:

  1. Introduce challenging, engaging ideas that inspire student questions. Honor those student questions and allow them to guide the path of the class.  Help them to identify the questions most worth pursuing and to hone them into strong investigative questions.
  2. Find a happy medium between giving your students too much direction and too little. This is a fine line.  If the students have freedom and choice and choose to do nothing, you need to diagnose that problem and work with them to fix it.
  3. Establish routines and structures in your classroom that support inquiry. Kids need to know when and how to have whole class discussions, small group discussions, team meetings, workshops, etc.  They need to know when, where and how to obtain materials.  They need to have a method for planning, monitoring and assessing the progress of their investigations.
  4. Engage in frequent conversations with your students to keep them moving forward with inquiry while assessing their current understanding.  Use open-ended, high-level questioning strategies that help students to come to conclusions on their own.  Challenge student misconceptions in a caring, respectful way.  Mentor them in a productive direction when they get stuck and can’t move forward on their own.
  5. Focus students on generating arguments based on evidence.  Don’t let them simply regurgitate information – challenge them to provide explanations.  On the flip side of that coin, don’t let them pose arguments based strictly upon opinion or unsupported inference.  Teach them to respectfully challenge each other’s assertions – and yours.
  6. Provide opportunities for students to choose how they will demonstrate their learning.  Inquiry doesn’t work when you put it in a box and tell students you are going to assess their knowledge with a teacher (or test generator) designed test at the end.  At least not one that is graded.
  7. Connect students with experts in fields relevant to their inquiry and facilitate their conversations.  Seek out local university resources – both professors and graduate students.  Seek out local experts working in fields relevant to the students’ investigations.  Find resources among local community members.  Connect the students to these people, in person or virtually (email, Skype, etc.).
  8. Teach skills and processes that students need to know in order to engage in effective inquiry.  Don’t put their inquiry in a box with a rigid set of steps or “scientific method.”  However, give them structures and tools to help them move forward.  More scaffolding will obviously be needed early on.  You may provide planning forms for students to complete prior to investigations, monitoring forms for them to use to track their progress, and peer/self assessment guides, among others.
  9. Provide time for reflection and metacognition within the structure of learning cycles.  Reflection is when students really make meaning of new information, assimilate it, and make it their own.  It’s when they learn from successes and failures and consider how to improve for future investigations.
  10. Have fun with your students! Demonstrate genuine love of inquiry, of learning, and of your content area (if applicable).  Inquiry should be fun – if it’s not, you’re doing it wrong.

What an inquiry-centered classroom looks like

Let me paint you picture of an inquiry-rich classroom:

This looks like an inquiry-based classroom to me!

This looks like an inquiry-based classroom to me!

Student work plasters the walls (if there are any), not the teacher’s favorite posters.  At the beginning of the year, the walls are mostly bare but that changes quickly.  The walls reflect the culture of the classroom.

Rules are minimal and focused on community building and learning – they are principles more than rules.  A teacher who dominates the culture of the classroom leaves little room for inquiry.  If a kid is afraid of angering the teacher, they may hesitate to try something with a potential for failure.

Discipline in an inquiry-rich classroom is low-key and subtle.  When a student acts up or is off task, the teacher has a quiet conversation with them and moves on.  When the entire class is struggling to focus, a class meeting is held to diagnose and treat the problem.  The teacher welcomes student questions and criticisms and makes a genuine effort to address them, when possible.

Students are allowed to move freely and communicate openly; they choose where to sit and with whom they will work most of the time (although it is important that they collaborate with different peers throughout the year).  The room often seems noisy and busy, with many students going in many different directions at once.  Students have access to the materials and information that they need, when they need it.  Desks/ tables are arranged in groups, not in rows.

Technology, though not a necessity for inquiry, has it’s place in an inquiry-based classroom.  What technology is present is used freely and frequently by students to gather data, conduct research, and create products.  Technology is seen as a means, not an end and is used as one of many available classroom tools.  The focus of any technology use stays on learning.

The teacher is rarely seen in front of the room talking to the whole class.  Often, when someone walks into the room to find the teacher, they can be seen standing by the door for a few moments, scanning the room, unable to locate the teacher because he or she is moving about the room to work with the students.

Students engage in rich conversations with peers and with their teacher on a regular basis.  These conversations center around content, process and product.  Ad hoc workshops (both teacher- and student-led) often develop around knowledge and skills students need to complete their inquiries.

Assessment is student centered and learning-focused.  When students are too focused on grades, they really struggle with inquiry.  They need to trust that their grade will not plummet if their experiment, design, or ambitious project crashes and burns.

The teacher and the students genuinely enjoy what they are doing.  The teacher loves teaching and loves students and it shows.  The students like to be in this class because it feels different than their other classes; they are stimulated intellectually but they also feel safe and comfortable.

What else would you add to this picture?

Image Copyright John Rostron and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Play with a purpose – oobleck

I like to do a pretty light hands-on activity for the first day of school.  Many of you are probably familiar with oobleck (cornstarch and water).  This is a very fun and safe system for students to play with.

This is how I do it:

The hook

Show this video and ask students to think of questions that come to mind:

Freeze the video at the appropriate point to generate discussion (I like to do this before the guy in the lab coat lets himself sink into the oobleck pool).  Ask students to write down as many questions as they can in 2 minutes and tell them not to share their questions with each other yet.  After the 2 minutesis up, give them another 2 minutes to share with a neighbor.

Now, you need to call on a few students to gather a list of questions.  Do not evaluate the questions (I always get quite a few about the program being in Spanish, or things like “why are we watching this”).  Once you have a decent list (say, 5-10), ask the students which one they want to answer.  I usually try to make sure that “is is real?” is somewhere on the list and that we are trying to answer that question (maybe along with one of their choice).  This is a good point to talk about skepticism.

Play with a purpose

Next, tell the students to grab a cup, a popsicle stick and some cornstarch.  Ask them to play with it by adding water and trying to find an interesting consistency.  Tell them to be observant and to get their hands dirty.  It’s time to “play with a purpose.”  Remind them that their purpose is to use their observations to decide if the video is real or not!

Once most of the students have a good mixture, I like to take them outside and let them really play with it.  I tell them to pour it, try to form it into a ball, throw it on the ground and see what happens, etc.

Argument based on evidence

Back inside the classroom now, I ask what the answers to our questions were.  I ask, “was the video real?” and get a resounding “YES!”  I ask the students how they know and they tell me that they just DID it – and some of them will describe how the oobleck behaved.

Now I tell the students that they just did science.  They played with materials but did so with a purpose – to answer a question with evidence.

Then we watch the rest of the video and enjoy the goofiness of it togther.  Invariably some kid asks, “can we do that?”

I wish kid, I wish…


Start building an inquiry-based community today

In order for inquiry to flourish, you must let go of the need to plan and control.

Today is the first day of school!   I am excited to meet new students and to see familiar ones.   The clean slate of a new year is always invigorating.   Right now, my classroom can be whatever I want it to be.  My students can accomplish any task I dream up for them, no matter how challenging.   Our classroom can be a true community of learners.

At some point reality will set in, of course.   We all hit a wall (students and teachers) after a few weeks when the honeymoon period is over.   I love it when the honeymoon phase ends, though.  That’s when things get real.   That’s when students are comfortable enough in your classroom to be who they are.   That’s when the real community building begins.

My classroom culture has been increasingly centered around inquiry for the past few years. I thought I was doing inquiry before, when I would do labs, field trips, and class projects.   The problem was that I was the one generating the questions that drove the curriculum.   Oh, sure, I would ask kids to share their questions and we’d often discuss them.  The problem was that the driving questions, the ones that guide where we go as a group, almost always came from me.   That was guided inquiry, at best – inquiry in a box.

Last year, I really began to let go of that control and allow much more open-ended inquiry.  I loved the results.   I loved the way it impacted both student learning and the culture of the classroom.  The goal for this year will be to infuse inquiry more deeply into all of my classes.

What I’ve really learned over the last couple of years of doing more and more open-ended inquiry, though, is the symbiotic nature of inquiry and a democratic classroom.  If your classroom culture is teacher-centered and you rule with an iron fist, inquiry is stunted.

Now, I was never one to rule with an iron fist, but I am a planner.   I am a bit of a perfectionist.   I wanted to have clear plans laid out for coming activities and lessons. The better and more detailed my plans became, though, the less student-centered my classroom became.

This taught me a powerful lesson:

In order for inquiry to flourish, you must let go of the need to plan and control.  To reach the goal of an inquiry-centered classroom, all aspects of a classroom must reflect that goal.  Today is the day to start building that community.

One step to becoming a better teacher

I can make you a better teacher.  Right now.  With one simple step… backwards.

taking a step back

taking a step back

What do I mean?

Take a step back when it comes to control in your classroom.  Release your kung-fu grip of control over content, over discipline, over what students create and how they create it.

Let your students step forward to fill the breach.  Become a facilitator of learning.  Allow students the opportunity to ask and answer their own questions – to inquire.  Let them determine how they will answer those questions.  Allow them to determine how they will demonstrate their newfound knowledge and skills.  Make your classroom a democratic place in which students feel they have a voice.

Once you’ve stepped back, and they’ve stepped forward, get behind them.  Support them like crazy.  Teach them the skills they need to inquire effectively.  Track down the materials they need (if they can’t).  Connect them with experts or others with first hand knowledge or experience.  Help them to find and decipher primary source documents.  Give them frequent, honest, useful feedback on their progress to help them to continue to grow.

Image cc licensed by Scarto

All hell can’t stop us now

It has to start somewhere
It has to start sometime
What better place than here?
What better time than now?
Rage Against the Machine, Guerrilla Radio

I have a inferno raging in my belly.  It’s been growing steadily stronger.  The time has come to wrest control of our schools away from corporations and educational nihilists and make them oases of learning.

It has to start somewhere…

Our schools CAN change.  It’s not too late.  Our schools CAN become everything they should be.  The movement has to start somewhere.

“Be the change that you want to see in the world.”
Mahatma Gandhi

It has to start sometime…

Why wait?  Every day you wait is another child lost to boredom, apathy, drop-out, or failure.  Round up the like-minded educators in your school and get the ball rolling.

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”
Lao Tzu

What better place than here?

I  believe that my dreams for our schools can be realized.  I have to believe that we can transform into student-centered, democratic schools where students come to learn and want to stay.  I have to believe that we can lower dropout rates, increase graduation rates and send young adults out of our doors ready to enjoy productive, satisfying lives.

“The only place where your dream becomes impossible is in your own thinking.”
Robert H. Schuller

What better time than now?

We’ve come to a crossroad.  If we as educators stand by and watch the show, we’ll be steamrolled.  On the flipside, could you imagine the power that would be wielded if a small group of committed teachers in every school decided to be the change?

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.
Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Margaret Mead

…all hell can’t stop us now!


Failure is an option

I start school on Wednesday; many of us have already started. This to be my best year of teaching; I have no doubt about that. If you want to have your best year of teaching, here is my advice:

Fail. Fail big. Fail often.

If you want to be an innovative educator, you have to be willing to fail. Success comes with growing pains. If you don’t push yourself to break free of your shell, you will never overcome the lizard brain. You will never become great.

To become the best teacher you can be, you must be willing to try and fail. Failure IS an option. The key is that you learn from your failures and you move forward.

What is the worst thing that could happen?

So, let the fear in. Embrace it. Let it wash over you. Visualize your worst possible failure as an educator. Imagine how it will feel, smell, taste, sound. Then crush it like an empty aluminum can.