What to do when students resist inquiry

the inquiry's the thing!

the inquiry's the thing!

The scene: any classroom in America

Backstory: Our hero, the intrepid teacher, in the face of overwhelming evidence, has decided to open up his classroom to student inquiry. He has provoked curiosity, facilitated brainstorming and set the students loose to explore their world with gusto. He is just about to begin congratulating himself for his progressive teaching methods.

Let’s look in on him and admire his brilliance at work, shall we?

- Begin scene –

Teacher (to student, cheerfully): “so, how is your project planning coming?”

Student: “this sucks!”

Teacher (taken aback but trying to stay positive): “can you be more specific? are you planning to study vaccuums, leeches or hurricanes?”

Student: “I don’t know. This is boring. Why can’t we just do a worksheet or work from the textbook?”

Teacher (clearly flustered now): “You don’t really mean that! You can choose your own question to pursue here. What could be more interesting than that?”

Student: “I don’t have any questions. Why do you always have to make everything so complicated? Why can’t you just tell us what to do and how to do it like Mr. X does?”

Teacher (trying to get control of the situation back): “Because I don’t think that’s a very good way for you to learn.”

Student: “So you’re saying Mr. X is a bad teacher? I like Mr. X’s class!”

Teacher (clearly blushing, planning retreat): “umm… no… not saying that… uhh… I’m just going to go over here now…” (muttering to self) “my methods professor never warned me about this…”

- End scene -

Any teacher who has made the switch to a more student-centered, inquiry-based classroom has encountered an exchange something like this one.

At first you are flabbergasted. You feel like someone just said to you, “I don’t want the internet; why can’t someone just bring me a newspaper and tell me what to read?” or, “who needs all of those choices at the soft drink machine? It should just have 7 buttons that all dispense Pepsi because that is what I’m used to!”

When you really sit down and think about it, though, it makes sense…

Inquiry requires students to think critically and to make decisions. It requires them to be responsible and accountable for their own learning. Inquiry places the choice for learning (or lack thereof) squarely on the shoulders of the student. Inquiry also removes the ability for the student to blame his or her boredom or lack of learning on the teacher (they’ll still try anyway, of course).

I’ve come to the point with my students where I feel that I’m able to change the conversation. Through practice and reflection, I’ve gotten better at facilitating brainstorming and questioning. I’m not surprised by this reaction anymore because I’ve seen it enough times.

One thing that I’ve started to do that has really resonated with students is to explain to them what they are experiencing and why it is good for them. I tell them something like,

“this is the perfect class for you! We’ve found an area where you need some work. The skills that I’m helping you to learn in this class will help you in future classes, college, careers, whatever. The ability to ask good questions and to find the answer to your own questions is fundamental to life. I won’t give up on you and I won’t think less of you for struggling or being frustrated. Don’t give up on yourself. How can I help you move forward?”

Some of them look at me like I have lobsters crawling out of my face. Most, though, react positively and welcome my help. Would that I could go back in time and help my past self (the hero in our earlier episode) navigate the stormy seas of adolescent frustration…

So, what is the would-be facilitator of inquiry to do in this situation?

  • Calmly acknowledge and affirm the student’s frustration – they’re really feeling it, after all!
  • Gently point out the fixed mindset and lack of personal agency that the student is displaying
  • Just as a teacher might do if a student doesn’t understand, say, the structure and function of DNA or how to use the periodic table, look at this exchange as information about the student’s particular learning needs
  • Understand that this behavior is classic evidence of a need to learn and develop inquiry skills
  • Make a note that this student needs greater support in inquiry situations
  • Explain all of this to the student (in student friendly terms, of course)
  • Check in with the student often and give lots of formative feedback to head off excessive frustration

What else should the teacher do in this situation?

Image of The Theater’s Stage of Yusupov Palace Saint Petersburg courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

How to be a better teacher today – a long look in the mirror

A new year!

mirror, mirror...

mirror, mirror...

Time for a fresh start. A clean slate. Back to the old drawing board!

2011 (is it just me or does that sound like science fiction?) – I watched Back to the Future series with my family over Winter Break. I love that the “future” in Back the the Future II is 2015. We’re almost there and I’m still waiting for my flying car!

Anyway, the start of a new year is as good a time as any to take a long look in the mirror and examine every aspect of your practice.  Some aspects of teaching that can benefit from a critical inspection:

  • Grading & assessment
  • Assignments & lessons
  • Pedagogy
  • Homework
  • Late work
  • Classroom management/ discipline
  • Standards & main topics

When you do this, set aside all of your assumptions; thumb your nose at the status quo. We’re all creatures of habit and it’s usually easier to keep doing what you’ve been doing than to reinvent the wheel.  And yet, that is sometimes EXACTLY what needs to happen.

Look at each practice one by one and ask yourself these questions:

  • What do I do?
  • Why do I do it this way?
  • How well is it working? (Ask your students too)
  • What are other ways it could be done?
  • What are barriers to change?
  • How can I learn more?
  • What criteria should help me decide?
  • What are my next steps?

I think you’ll unearth aspects of your teaching that exist only because they were the best solutions you had as a rookie (or even pre-service) teacher!.

That’s not a good thing…

image used under cc license from the flickr stream of lovestruck.

The inquiry teacher’s toolbox


what goes in the toolbox?

what goes in the toolbox?

What are the essential tools for the facilitator of inquiry?

The longer I teach through inquiry, the more I realize that I have much yet to master! I’m not going to lie - inquiry is difficult. No matter how well planned I think I am, facilitating inquiry requires me to be nimble; I have to be willing and able to adjust on the fly. Sometimes I think it’d be easier not to do inquiry.

That being said, there are a few things that I know a teacher must have in their pedagogical toolbox to support inquiry successfully:

  • A knack for finding good hooks to inspire curiosity and ignite inquiry
  • A feel for the dynamics of your class and the flexibility to act upon it (sometimes you’ll need to tear up your plan to go with the “flow” of the class)
  • A good brainstorming protocol for students
  • Organizational tools to help students structure their thinking (graphic organizers, planning forms, etc.)
  • Rock solid questioning skills
  • Poster-sized whiteboards and protocols for using them
  • Good discussion protocols for small group and whole class
  • A strong grasp of facilitation of small group and whole class collaboration
  • A method for delivering timely, effective feedback
  • Self & peer feedback protocols
  • Methods for facilitating student reflection
  • The willingness to ask your students for feedback on your class and the courage to listen to their criticism

What am I missing? What else would you add to the toolbox?

Image used under cc license from the flickr stream of Austin ampersand Zak