The energy in Mrs. Bauer’s sixth grade science classroom is almost palpable. Groups of three to four students are out of their chairs leaning over their tables to get a closer look at a petri dish placed in the center. In the dish, two small insects scurry around. The students carefully move the dish and its inhabitants to get a closer look. Questions and proposals fly in the air and students rapidly jot notes in their science journals.
Teachers like Mrs. Bauer make inquiry-based instruction seem second nature. However, over the last ten years, my work as a classroom teacher, coach, and now administrator has made clear there are some common myths circulating about inquiry in the classroom.
Myth #1: Hands-On Experiences = Inquiry
On more than one occasion, colleagues have shared with me new “inquiry-based” lessons they were excited to try. Eagerly, they outline the experience with detailed instructions, step-by-step directions, and a predetermined process. As I reflect upon some of my past lessons, I find I have been guilty of this over-directional approach, as well. The time invested in carefully crafting such an activity is often evident, but the quest for inquiry definitely misses the mark. Lessons like this are often found as labs in science classes, and while this kind of scripted activity is a positive step away from the teacher lecture model, it is not inquiry-based learning.
Truth #1: Inquiry Is a Student-Centered Experience
An inquiry-based lesson is driven by student inquiries. I am careful not to simply use the word “questions” here, because inquiry is far more than just questions. Students need to have the opportunity to not only question their environment, but then explore those questions through research and experimentation. A standard hands-on activity may include scripted directions, a recipe, or another predetermined process. During an inquiry experience, students propose solutions and test their solutions through a cycle of trials and errors.
Myth #2: Inquiry Means Students Just Do Whatever They Want
I have often heard inquiry-based classrooms described as chaotic environments, characterized by watered down content. The misconception is that while students are engaging in inquiry, the teacher is just an observer who can sit at his or her desk.
Truth #2: The Teacher’s Role Is Critical
The teacher plays a critical role in the inquiry classroom in four specific ways. First and foremost, the teacher works to uncover misconceptions students hold about a given topic. Addressing these misconceptions is especially necessary in the science classroom because children use their experiences to make sense out of scientific phenomena observed around them. What they lack in experience, they often make up for with their imagination. If these misconceptions go unaddressed, students hold onto their creative explanations and force all new learning to fit around them. Second, the teacher helps inspire student inquiry by providing an environment worth exploring. Teachers can elicit inquiry by proposing a provocative question, providing materials for an experiment without a road map, or simply encouraging students to look critically at the world around them. Third, the teacher helps students use their content literacy to describe and document their work. In a classroom where inquiry is alive and well, it is true the memorization of vocabulary words takes a backseat. However, this does not mean that vocabulary is absent completely. Students learn the terms through experiences, which deepen the learning of the vocabulary and it is therefore more likely the learning will transfer to later endeavors.
Myth #3: Learning Objectives Ruin Inquiry
I have heard a learning objective described as a “spoiler” to a new movie. Meaning, the learning objective ruins the ending of the learning experience students are about to encounter.
Truth #3: Learning Objectives Let Everyone Know Where They Are Going
Learning objectives are more accurately associated with movie trailers, not spoilers. A well-crafted objective stimulates inquiries while giving students enough information to understand where they are headed in the learning experience without giving away all of the plot twists and excitement they will encounter. If you are planning a creative hook for your unit/lesson, it may be appropriate to hold off on presenting the objective right away. Keep in mind, the learning objective clarifies where students are headed. Some students may exceed this destination and some may need additional time and support to reach it.
Myth #4: There Is Not Enough Time
Providing time for students to uncover content certainly does take more time than a typical lecture. A teacher can say a lot during a lecture and even more information can be crammed into a packet of notes. However, there is a clear difference between covering content in class and actual student learning.
Truth #4: We Need to Prioritize
Time really is a tricky thing. We need to use it carefully. When working with teachers to find time, we encourage them to prioritize their standards or objectives. Which objective carries the most weight or has the greatest impact on the students’ future learning in your content area? Devote time to ensure students reach a deep understanding of these topics. Other standards/objectives play a supporting role and less time may be spent on them. This approach also means a favorite unit that used to stretch out over two weeks may need to be consolidated into a day or two.
Myth #5: Inquiry-based Learning Isn’t For All Students
“All this inquiry stuff is far too abstract for my low level learners.”
“Inquiry is too basic for my high level learners.”
Truth #5: Inquiry Is For All Students
The beauty of an inquiry-based lesson is it creates a wide entry point for all learners. Students can enter the learning experience with their personal vocabulary and background knowledge. Since the learning process is not set in stone, students and teachers work together to create individualized paths that meet the learners’ needs. All students benefit from the open nature of inquiry because they are not bound by a set of directions, which limit their abilities to problem solve and create. A student who struggles with vocabulary acquisition may tune out in a science lesson that requires the memorization of terms prior to a lab. However, when the lesson starts with students asking questions about a scientific phenomenon, the student has the opportunity to think and operate like a scientist. This student is also far more likely to submit new vocabulary to memory after schema has been developed around the concept. In addition, a high achieving student may quickly move through a scripted exercise in an act of compliance, astutely checking off steps along the way. This student misses out on posing her own wonderings, making discoveries, and deepening learning around the concept.
Inquiry has turned into a bit of an old wives tale, and the truth about inquiry has become lost in misconceptions and rumors. How do we ensure the truth prevails?
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