Why Inquiry?

inquiry“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

– Albert Einstein

I spend much of my free time with 3 year-old twins, and the questions that spill out of them are awe-inspiring. The sheer volume, the pivots they make in reasoning, the deepening of complexity all leave me in complete amazement of the human brain. My niece Taylor asks questions like, “what’s that taste about?” Or “what’s that smell about?” Those, in fact, are some of my favorite questions ever, because the way she thinks about wanting to know is so simple and yet so different from how I question my world.  I find myself biting into something and thinking, “yeah, what is that taste about?”

Inquiry, the act of questioning, is so prevalent in our youngest kids. But as they age, the questions become less awe-inspiring. Because of the way we teach them to fit into a highly linear educational model, our students’ questions become more like “Is this good enough?” “Am I done yet?” “Is this right?” While the incessant preschool questioner is still somewhere inside, the teenage version has been schooled into trading the more interesting questions of toddlerhood for the more functional ones that ease the prescriptive path through traditional education. That’s not a good thing.

Making the Case for Inquiry

Lately, there has been a flurry of formal exploration into the role of curiosity in the learning process. von Stumm, in The Hungry Mind: Intellectual Curiosity Is the Third Pillar of Academic Performance, found “… personality traits like curiosity seem to be as important as intelligence in determining how well students do in school.” Another set of researchers also found, “In both immediate and one-day-delayed memory tests, participants showed improved memory for information that they were curious about and for incidental material learned during states of high curiosity” (Gruber).  It’s becoming clearer that the science of curiosity and learning dovetails nicely with what we know about the day to day learning experiences in the inquiry-driven classroom.

Bringing inquiry into the educational experience is even more important in the modern age of technology and information overload as questions make us the critical consumers of information that our world demands. And how we model our own use of questions to parse the world can have a huge impact. Frequently in my classrooms, students came in with stories from the news and would share with the class. If I had not heard of the story, I would always ask “What is your source?” “Did anyone else see it?” “What was the second source?” We regularly engaged in a robust inquiry into sourcing of factual information. Especially today, getting into a habit of questioning how they know something to be true is one of the most important skills for our students to master while in school. We need minds that hear something on social media and immediately question it, not reflexively accept it as truth.

And it’s not just about sourcing information. It’s about using questions to develop student agency. Classrooms where students know the teacher will direct them down a pre-defined path to a pre-determined outcome are classrooms where students find it hard to invest in learning. They know they are the recipients of an experience, not active participants. Challenging the students with questions like “What do you think?” “How do you know?” “What else would you like to know?” “Now that you know x, what about y?” “Does that have implications? What are they?” and  “What is the next question?” are all ways to bring out original thinking and ideas and honor their voices.

Unfortunately, valuing student voice is approaching buzzword status. Real student voice, literally, starts with letting students ask the powerful questions that they want to ask. Valuing real student voice means that the teacher allows for the students to direct the course of their own learning. Real student voice recognizes that students are active players in the educational transaction, not just to do the work, but to engage their minds in their own robust inquiry. Questions are at the heart of all of that.

All of the reasons for infusing inquiry into learning environments are born out in personal, school based and research validated findings. However, the desire to value compliance over inquiry is still very real in traditional education.

Systems and Structures

A school culture that is built on inquiry has a different feel than the traditional environment in some powerful ways. And if  that school culture of inquiry gets paired with modern technology tools and resources, the educational experience becomes even more dynamic. FIrst, students are allowed to pursue topics of their own, and they demonstrate their learning in personal, relevant and meaningful ways.  Teachers become facilitators of the student development, not classroom managers. A teacher in this environment must become the best questioner in the room, prodding students through a regular pattern of questions that hopefully become embedded in students’ minds as they move into adulthood. No question, this type of school environment is exhilarating and exhausting. But when this version of school culture gets up to speed, it is a thing to behold.

The desire to move toward a more inquiry-based culture of learning is the first step toward making it real in your school. The next step is to reevaluate the systems and structures outside the classroom that shape the learning environment. For inquiry to be a core value it needs to be a foundational component not just in the classroom but in every aspect of the school, including leadership. If you value inquiry as a means to student learning, you need to also value it as a means for teacher learning and development as well. Teachers need to be encouraged to inquire within their professional practice because a compliance-based model of leadership will immediately feel out of step with the goals of the classroom.

Finally, inquiry-based learning is not something that all students transition to smoothly at first. Many students yearn for the trappings of the traditional teacher-led classroom where the rules and norms feel more in step with what they’ve come to expect from school. When a school decides to prioritize inquiry, it is important to remember that students need help recapturing the questioning skills of their preschool days. Dan Meyer said it best when addressing teacher concerns that some students were not ready for this style of learning, he said, “What is true is that after years and years of being asked questions every day, students may find it odd to be asked to pose their own.” The traditional schooling model values answers. To shift that focus to value questions, students will need support. Assume it like any learning endeavor – soccer, violin, – the beginning of that process is often tough to watch. This is learning. Infusing inquiry as a valued core tenet of the school ecosystem will take a concerted effort and a shift in both teacher and student expectations.

Places to start the conversation:

Where does student voice and choice live in the day to day classroom experience?

What systems in your school invite teachers to ask deep questions about the learning environment?

Other than inside the classroom, where else can you encourage a sense of curiosity and inquiry?

(Image credit: Bill Ferriter)

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