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