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

How to do inquiry Project-Based Learning (PBL Series Part 6)

This is probably the hardest aspect of PBL to describe.  How to explain how to do something that is inquiry?  How to describe something that, by nature, requires student involvement.  The key is the structures.

Honestly, this is very much a work in progress for me.  I’m learning how to do this as I go.  Call me a mad scientist; call it action research; call it whatever you want.  I learn by [informed] trial, error and reflection.  I want my students to learn that way too.

What structures, then, can one establish to support inquiry within project-based learning?

The hook

hookThis is where you get them.  Without a good hook, students will not want to inquire within the realm of the project that you have planned for them.  Great hooks can come from a multitude of places.  Pictures, video clips, artifacts, primary source documents, discrepant event demonstrations, play with a purpose activities, and the like can all make great hooks.  Use the hook to get them asking questions early and often.  Honor their questions and compile them into a class anchor chart.  Keep it present constantly.  Most importantly – resist the urge to answer their questions.  Get off the stage!

The driving question

You have 2 basic options here – teacher created or student created.  Of course, there are infinite variations from this theme.  Your firstquestionmark project should probably have a teacher created driving question.  This question recieves its moniker from the concept that it drives the entire project.  Thus, the driving question must follow a few key rules:

  1. Must not be a yes/ no question
  2. Must be worth answering and engaging to students
  3. Should have broad relevance across field of study, content areas, and walks of life
  4. Should address a big idea in your content area

Building Background Knowledge

Give students enough knowledge to inquire productively.  Give them general topical information, main ideas, representative case studies, segments of text, and more in order to build up some basic understanding of the topic.  Many basic knowledge-type questions will be answered here.  Let them use their favorite search engine or Wikipedia to knock off a few more of the basic fact questions.  There should be enough common experiences here to create a solid foundational understanding of the general topic.

Nurture student questions

Give students ample opportunity to brainstorm questions, to share them, to hone them and to investigate them.  Help them to delineate rich, complex questions from simple “Google” questions.  Nurture curiosity by allowing bunny trails do blossom into full blown discussions.  Keep a running anchor chart of student questions and encourage them to select one (or more) that they will investigate as a guiding question under the driving question.

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Part 2 - Why my instructional approach didn’t work

Part 3 - What PBL is and what it isn’t

Part 4 - The teacher’s role in PBL

Part 5 - Why PBL is good for students

Question mark photo cc licensed courtesy of Alexander Drachmann‘s Flickr photostream
Fish hook photo cc licensed courtesy of Lenore Edman‘s Flickr photostream

The teacher’s role in PBL (PBL Series Part 4)

The teacher’s role in an Project Based Learning (PBL) classroom is unique.  I’m still figuring it out – and probably will be for years to come.  That being said, I’m confident about a few things the teacher must do to make PBL click on all cylinders.

the teacher has to juggle many hats in the PBL classroom

the teacher has to juggle many hats in the PBL classroom

Here are 10 things a teacher should do to facilitate PBL effectively:

  1. Find a hook and deliver it well.  Grab the students’ imaginations and leave them with lots of questions, wanting to learn more.
  2. Set an engaging, thought provoking driving question but leave plenty of room for inquiry.  If you set the driving question, let the students decide how they will answer it.  Better still, let the students generate the driving question.
  3. Gather materials that the students can’t get for themselves.  Nothing kills inquiry quicker than a curious kid not having any way to answer their questions.  This include resources
  4. Serve as a mentor for individual students and small groups.  Help them figure out how to complete their project.  Help them to see themselves.
  5. Facilitate whole class discussions.  When students are working in small groups or pairs for an extended period of time, there must be whole class activities as well.  This maintains the learning community of the group.  Use discussion protocols like socratic seminars, rotating fishbowls and the like to get eveyone involved.
  6. Provide sufficient structure and support so that students don’t get stuck.  Help them to plan, monitor progress, and assess their results.  Keep the students focused on the big picture.  Remind them often of the driving question and revisit milestone dates and final product dates daily.
  7. Help students to determine success criteria for each project.  Facilitate analysis of various models that will help them to see what an end product might look like.  If you feel a rubric is needed, have them create it.
  8. Provide descriptive feedback.  Don’t evaluate their work in progress but give them information to help them see how to move forward.  Don’t let them bog down for too long.
  9. Recruit an audience.  Students should be presenting their learning to an audience outside of the classroom.  Invite parents, community members, other staff members, district administrators, local university staff and students, local scientists, local business people  – anyone who may have an interest in what you are doing.
  10. Allow time for reflection, for students and for yourself.  Use that reflection to improve the next project for students and yourself.  Listen to the students very carefully and learn from them.
Photo of mathematician Ronald Graham juggling used under cc licence from the Wikimedia commons

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Part 2 - Why my instructional approach didn’t work

Part 3 - What PBL is and what it isn’t

Why my instructional approach didn’t work (PBL Series Part 2)

You may remember, when we last left our hero, he’d enjoyed a subtle epiphany.  It went something like this, “I plan all this stuff and throw it at the kids.  They don’t think it’s as cool as I do.  Now what?”

kids need real choice, not just between the lesser of 2 evils

kids need real choice, not just between the lesser of 2 evils

There were 3 main problems with my old approach:

  1. Not enough room for student choice. I planned all of the lessons, labs and activities.  I directed the content, the process, and the product.  They were along for the ride.
  2. The connections that held the content together were all mine. It felt disjointed to them because I didn’t make the connections explicit, in hopes that they would discover them.  Too bad they couldn’t see into my scattered mind…
  3. Not enough room for inquiry. I was answering questions that they didn’t even ask.   I was answering my questions, not theirs.

So, having been properly epiphanized, I had to convert to a new pedagogical religion.  Enter project based learning (PBL).

This truly was less a sea change in my practice than a slight but critical shift.  All instruction must be about the end goal, aka “the project.”  The project, which is really about answering “the driving question.”  Duh duh DUH!

When it all boils down to it, I realized that I needed to plan less stuff for the kids to do and give them more time along the way to create a project.  I had to give them more choice about the project, the questions they were trying to answer and how they would answer them.

Next post – What PBL is and what it isn’t

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Photo cc license by degreeszero on Flickr

I teach kids science

I teach kids.  That always comes first and foremost for me.  I don’t teach a content area – a set of knowledge and skill that someone once arbitrarily divided into seperate disciplines (probably a textbook company).

That said, I do teach 3 high school classes with traditional labels: biology, chemistry, physics. I am blessed to work in a small high school (~250 students 9-12).  This means that students can have me as many as 3 times in high school.  I love that I get to know these kids over time.  I like to believe that I have aided in their development from immature freshman (of whom I teach 100% in biology) to (relatively) mature 11 & 12 graders in physics.

I get to know students as individuals.  I get to know parents and families.  Younger siblings come through my room every year.  There are families from whom I have taught 3 of their kids in my 5 years at this school.

This arrangement also affords me the unique opportunity of knowing EXACTLY what my chemistry and physics students were taught before.  I can tailor instruction and lessons to what I know is in their prior knowledge base.  I know the strengths and weaknesses of every kid in my chemistry and physics classes like the back of my hand.

“With great power comes great responsibility” ~Peter Parker, aka Spiderman

I don’t take this responsibility lightly.  My impact on the science education of students, of entire families, in this small community is significant.  My failures (there are many) often keep me up at night.

I keep coming back, though.  I come back because I have unfinished business.  I come back because I love the small school environment.  I cherish the trust and resposibility that have been placed in me.

I love to teach kids and I think there is no better place to do that than in a small school.