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

21 thoughts on “What to do when students resist inquiry

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention What to do when students resist inquiry | Wisdom Begins with Wonder -- Topsy.com

  2. Great post! Students have become so used to worksheets and bookwork that require little critical thinking skills because that’s what they’ve been doing routinely. Shifting to inquiry based learning is a big change for them. As teachers, we have to be patient.

  3. “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?”

    WOW — That’s great! I love the positive spin…I never thought about it that way before! *facepalm*

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  5. As I venture into teaching students in coming months, I imagine I’ll be referring to this post often. I hoping to student teach in an inquiry based environment and then hope to use inquiry methods when I’m hopefully teaching full time this coming fall.

    As Frank mentioned, I loved your response to their frustration. Is it appropriate to share with them that I am experiencing similar struggles as I start to make the switch to inquiry? Although it might establish common ground, it seems like it might be a bit innappropriate. Thoughts?

  6. Very good posting! I like the scenario, it is so typical in our classrooms mostly because of our students comparing and contrasting inquiry-based versus traditional teaching.
    I believe that empathy is an essential skill to help the students move on.
    I like to use a variety of approaches to keep my kids engaged in my class, sometimes I do Modeling Instruction, other times we do a Project-Based unit and sometimes I use the 5E approach. I just blogged about this last one it here:

  7. Justin –

    Patience is most certainly crucial. That and recognizing the value of the learning experience they are getting and helping them to see it.

  8. Frank-

    So many kids don’t think it’s okay to struggle or be frustrated. What I used to believe was a “bad attitude” or laziness most often is actually a kid expressing the frustration caused by their lack of inquiry skills. Furthermore, since they don’t come to me with those skills, I can’t just put a task in front of them and say, “GO!” They need scaffolding just as they would if I asked them to find the specific heat of copper or calculate the impact point of a projectile.

  9. Andrea-

    Feel free to ask questions too. Teaching by inquiry is difficult and requires support from colleagues. If you don’t get that where you teach, get it from your PLN!

  10. Dolores-

    Great point about using a variety of approaches. I think that really benefits the students and keeps them and us from falling into a rut. It also is good for them to experience inquiry in a variety of contexts!

    I loved your 5E post and left you a comment over there. Thanks for sharing!

  11. This is a great post. Feedback is crucial for this process to work. Now that my students understand how inquiry works, have enjoyed success and are really engaged in their learning, they love it. Your script at the beginninng of this post was exactly what I experienced during my initial inquiry lessons and projects. I went through a lot of growing pains at my school introducing and demonstrating this practice to other educators who were hesitant to try it and now it has become the culture at our school.

  12. Jessica Brown

    Hi! My name is Jessica Brown and I am an Elementary Education student at the University of South Alabama. This is a great post! Although I have not started my field experience yet, I have heard this before. I agree with Mr. Noschese that your positive response is a great way to help encourage the student to want to continue trying. On the other hand, as a student it can be frustrating to constantly hear what will help you in the future. Maybe the teacher can also give an example of how it can help the student now as well.

    For example, I am helping a 10 year old girl with reading. She constantly gets frustrated because in her program she has to have a certain number of points at the end of the term and each book and quiz are worth a different number of points. She often picks out books with the highest number of points and these are above her reading level. Therefore, she does not understand the material and cannot pass the quizzes. I offered to help her pick out books on her level and discuss them by her asking questions about what she may not understand and helping her figure out how to find her answers. She asked me why I couldn’t just tell her what I thought would be on the test. I responded by telling her that I understand her frustration because everyone goes through that at some point, but if she can discuss what her specific questions are and be able to look back at the book to find the answers than she would understand what she is reading and do better on her test. By doing better, she will gain enough points over time and reach her goal. This seemed to help motivate her to do better.

    I really think that the inquiry-based method is a great way for students to learn. I would be interested to learn other people’s experiences and what worked best for them and the student. Feel free to visit my class blog and you can check out the EDM310 class blog or tweet me: @jlb986
    As part of my class project, I will be summarizing my visits to your blog on my class blog on February 6, 2011.

    -Jessica Brown

  13. Last spring one of my college students hoping to be a teacher said to me “Dr. Strange, I just want you to teach me so I don’t have to learn.” After some thought I think I know what she was telling me. She has grown up in classes which are not inquiry based but which are what I call “burp-back” classes. Stuff in facts, catch the burp back, measure it and award a grade, and don’t worry that nothing is left but has benn thoroughly burped out. It is not easy to overcome the unfortunate results of “burp-back” education which is so pervasive in our culture. I have no easy answer to your question. But it is important to continue to try and break the terrible habits that burp back classes have foisted on teachers and students alike.

    John Strange
    University of South Alabama

  14. I think this is wonderful. I grew up learning from teachers who taught traditionally. Now, as a junior in college, I am facing a little difficulty in learning how to use inquiry methods. I do believe it is a lot more difficult, especially if it’s something that you are not used to, but once you figure it out, it’s a great tool and I actually believe you get more out of it. I think with students, you just have to coach them through it with positive direction (as you have done), and eventually they will see the light at the end of the tunnel!

  15. John,

    Thanks for directing your students to my blog! I hope it was useful to you and your class.

    The day I quit growing as a teacher is the day I should retire.

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  17. As a parent of a 10 yo boy (in Australia) who has grown up with Inquiry and E5 during his primary school education, I must just mention that it is not just the novelty of the process that causes resistance from students . You need to recognise that what is being asked is quite difficult, and when something is hard a common response is to block. It is not laziness either, kids need to learn the specific skills required to do the work, they are not born with them and do not pick them up incidentally,except at a very basic level.

    Most of the homework set by my son’s fabulous teacher is Inq stuff (no worksheets here) and most of the preliminary work has been done in class. Even so, at home, my son gets stuck and needs lots of scaffolding and practise. We break the work down into the tasks required, eg identify what the task is, extract information that answers the question from whatever texts, make notes, combine the information in whatever format is required.

    I use my knowledge of the 4 steps to skills training to help him acquire these skills. Specifically, I demonstrate the skill in real time, then repeat while talking about what I am doing (eg articulate my thinking processes), then get him to talk me through it while I do it, then give him a turn. Once he has some capacity to perform a skill he practises it until he can do it with some facility. If practising is not getting him anywhere we go back and re-do the first 3 steps.

    All of this is very time consuming and the challenge is that progress is often slow and my son gets disspirited. He can identify the elements that he finds most difficult and we plan to work on them, but nonetheless it is tough stuff and should be acknowledged as such. Empathy is fine but real structured teaching is what is needed. When my son gets stuck it is because he can’t do it – yet!

  18. Julia,

    I agree with you that inquiry is hard. That being said, my point is that kids resist it for precisely that reason, especially high school students who have little or no experience with it. They want answers handed to them on platters. They want easy worksheets that they can breeze through in 5 minutes and spend the rest of class visiting. Many “good” students resist inquiry very steadfastly because they have learned how to “do school” and I’m now turning their idea of school upside down.

    Yes, inquiry skills absolutely must be taught. However, doing inquiry is the ONLY way to teach them the skills. It doesn’t work to lecture about inquiry, then say “now go do it!”

    It is awesome that your child is having an experience with inquiry at such a young age. I would question, though, why is he being assigned so much homework at such a young age? If he can’t do it on his own, it probably shouldn’t be homework!

  19. I always show great confidence in their ability to master the skills. On days when I sense their frustration level is too high, I suggest that the next day’s agenda move back one step. That’s all it takes: everyone takes a deep breath and tries again.

  20. An excellent post! But hidden in the dialogue is your answer: “So you’re saying Mr. X is a bad teacher? I like Mr. X’s class!”

    Unless an initiative as important as this is seen as a whole-school policy, led from the top with all staff pulling in the same direction any young teacher will have a serious up-hill struggle. It requires charismatic leadership and an ability to change the hearts and minds not only of the students but also of all staff, governors (in UK schools), stakeholders and parents/carers.

  21. Pingback: Resistance to Change « physixteacher

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