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.

4 thoughts on “Start building an inquiry-based community today

  1. The conundrum is how this works with the demands to have specific and detailed lesson plans AND to cover standards laid out by the state. How do you handle this? How supportive is your school and admin? (btw-really enjoy your insights-keep writing!)

  2. Steve –

    There’s no doubt this is a conundrum. I’m fortunate to work in Washington State where we have 4 main state science standard categories (basically). Inquiry, Systems, Application, and Content. Many of my inquiry projects focus around one or 2 content standards but delve heavily into inquiry, systems and application.

    I have a very supportive administration that understands what I do in science and believes in it. Part of this is because I keep pushing my students to generate products that are shared with the local community. This helps all to see the value of what I am helping students to accomplish.

  3. I too teach in WA and our Sci standards also lend themselves quite well to the choosing of power standards process. Nicely written.

    I love what you are doing and you are inspiring me. But it’s so scary!! I too need that comfort of knowing what’s happening next thanks to my plans. And what if my students want to learn standards that I didn’t plan on and didn’t unpack? Still, you are right, I can’t have true inquiry without giving my students the freedom of choice.

    We don’t start school until after labor day so I still have time to “plan” for this. :)

  4. Al-

    Inquiry is scary. It’s also a heck of a lot of fun! What I’ve really found is that I thought I was doing inquiry before and I was doing very guided inquiry, at best. Once I started to let go a little bit and make the inquiry more open-ended, I realized that the kids were getting so much better at the process of inquiry! Not only that, but I continue to get better and better at facilitating it.

    Try, fail, reflect, revise, redeem, repeat.

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