Basic Inquiry Doesn’t Have to be Sexy

I am now embarking on my second year out of the classroom, and surprise-surprise, I miss it. I’m not ready to go back just yet, but there are a few things that I am particularly excited about trying and nothing but my own classroom will do.

One is 1:1 iPads. I spend just about every minute of every day supporting a 1:1 iPad program, and in every class I enter, I can’t help wonder what exciting things I could have done with students if I’d had them in my own class.

The second is my evolving view of inquiry and assessment. Like most educators my age and younger, inquiry is a concept we’ve been quite aware of since teachers’ college. As PYP teachers, inquiry has been at the heart of our program and something we discuss frequently with colleagues and students. We don’t take assessment lightly either. In fact we often design elaborate projects that span weeks in an effort to create a meaningful final assessment.

There’s a problem though and it lies in how we choose to define our terms in practice. I’ve become concerned that all too often, despite our best efforts to resist it, “meaningful” degrades into “sexy”. What activity will get the kids really excited? What product will wow parents and colleagues? Can I one-up my teaching partner with my pedagogical wizardry? We lie to ourselves when we say we are immune. When we walk into a room of students working collaboratively on an avant-garde project, our impulse is to label it good and it may well be, but it also may be “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

A little competition is healthy, and I’ll be the first to promote creative projects as a valid way for students to explore new ideas, but we must resist two assumptions if what we are trying to win is student understanding:

  1. Don’t automatically assume that teacher-directed discussion is antithetical to inquiry.
  2. Don’t assume that a lengthy project assesses understanding better just because it took longer.

I hate to say it, but after 10 years in the classroom, these are things I’m just coming to terms with. These ideas are not my own and they are not foreign to IB audiences. I’ll focus on the first question of inquiry and save the second for another post.

Collaboration and group projects are not synonyms for inquiry. They may be good strategies to facilitate student inquiry, but we should not mistake those activities as proof of meaningful inquiry.

Most of us have taken an “Inquiry in the PYP” course, and in them there is usually a little bit of everything approach. I agree that we need a mixture of structured learning, guided inquiry, and open inquiry.  In my opinion, however, we all too often focus our planning around open inquiry because it lends itself so well to designing activities and products of which we can be proud. But if student learning is to be the true object of our pride, then we must come back to guided inquiry as a central element of our teaching — even if we risk being labelled “traditional” — the ultimate put-down in a PYP school.

For those looking to really focus in on inquiry free from all the bells and whistles,  Kimberly Lasher Mitchell is a great place to start. She recommends the following teacher stances to promote inquiry. Note that these are norms of communication rather than clever frameworks to design engaging activities.

  1. Provoke discussion and challenge thinking
  2. Stay neutral and judgement free – don’t say “good, great response”
  3. Invite elaboration– let them think through their theories
  4. Honor student theories – even the wrong ones
  5. Teach students to listen to each other
  6. As students think out loud their opinions becomes clearer and teachers can assess student knowledge and understanding
  7. Ask students where they have got their information from
  8. Wait time –give time for students to think and to get the courage to express their thoughts
  9. Paraphrase or reiterate to guide discussions back to the central idea
  10. Use the IB Learner Profile to elicit responses

Most of it is basic stuff, but reading that list doesn’t do justice to Kimberly’s insights. Her DVD, however, brings each of these into full focus and there are several extended model lessons to watch. There’s nothing sexy about these lessons, but in them, you get to see her go into an unfamiliar classroom and lead students in a unplanned, guided inquiry that owes more to Socrates than to Maria Montessori. At first it is almost painful to watch as she patiently follows the students’ silly theories, but in time, it becomes clear that there is a purpose and this purpose is being pursued with some very specific teacher behaviors. If nothing else, it is good to be reminded that, like doctors, we practice our profession. There are specific methods that we can employ when working with students in order to promote their learning. Sometimes they aren’t natural or easy.

Here’s a snippet I’ve uploaded:

Here’s the problem though. If you, a parent or an administrator were to walk into that classroom and stay for just three or four minutes, you would leave thoroughly unimpressed. They are sitting at their desks facing a teacher at the front of the room for God’s sake!

What do you think? Is it possible for PYP teachers to resist the circus-act and strip inquiry down to its most basic form and purpose? Is this dialectical method really compatible with constructivist theory? If there’s room for both, how do we resist falling for the sexy one every time?