ThinkThankThunk

Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.

12

Inquiry Stylee: Phineas and Ferb

So, I’m a science teacher. Let’s not forget that, as I feel myself becoming more and more conscripted into the legion that is this freakishly active math blogging community. When I teach science I use a method called inquiry. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a psychotically research-supported technique that amounts to the following pedagogical theme:

Do science in science class.

The problem is the same problem that all edu-trends suffer. Someone who really loves the idea espouses it to everyone else. Research is done, and then teachers, who don’t really feel the need for a change, adopt the language but none of the philosophical shifts. I’ve frothed about this before with regards to SBG (click-through only if you’ve had a rabies shot, sorry)

So, inquiry has begun to suffer the predictable fate of being watered down and relegated to students picking form a short list of “inquiry questions” tabulated at the end of text book chapters by trend-surfing, text-book-publishing profit barons.

What’s even worse is that many teachers begin to develop a total aversion to direct instruction. They fear that telling students anything will make the magic inquiry beast shatter into a buhjillion pieces that can only be reassembled by a team of microscopic elves trained specifically for the task.

The lack of direct instruction after inquiry creates a wishy-washy classroom where students never know what they’re learning. Yes, exploration and owning an experiment is totally necessary, but you do NOT want the backlash from leaving loose ends (seriously, watch the video, none of the rest of this will make any sense, if you don’t.):

Thank you Jennifer Whalen for sending me this link out of the blue.

Here’s the first verse:

I have been burned by vague lesson plans and a free-floating curriculum!
I like my rules, baby, etched in stone, ’cause you know I am going to stick to them!
Can I get a syllabus a little discipline? Judge me on a scale from A to F!
You wasted all my time learning how to rhyme, now let me hang it from a treble clef!

A few things of note from the video:

  1. Think Thank Thunk does not endorse the subtle racism about over-achieving, Indian-American students.
  2. Did you catch the first line? This is what inquiry can create in the wrong hands.
  3. The last line might be the most telling, as it indicates that things that are “fun” or otherwise ancillary are a waste of time.

Obviously this video is funny, and was designed for children who watch the Disney Channel. The character is somewhat ironic, given that the assumed behavior of most students is not like our singer, Baljeet.

What does it mean that this sentiment has enough buzz to be included in a Disney cartoon that is marketed to people whose most common life experience is school? It means there’s some really crappy inquiry going on out there. Jokes mask truth, people.

After listening to the song a few times, I had to take a moment and think back about the students I’ve put through the inquiry meat grinder. Were they confused about what we were learning? Was I waiving the flag of trendy pedagogy instead of the what’s-best-for-my-students flag? Perhaps, and yuck.

My solutions for maximizing inquiry’s effectiveness:

There are many models for inquiry, but I use the coupled-inquiry cycle. You should click that link and read the whole article. The author, Dunkhase, is a logistical genius.

The jist is this: Motivate and model to students what a good investigation looks like. Make it simple and to the point while teaching a content standard that must be seen by all. After seeing the model, the students are then let free to examine something that has piqued their interest during the modeled investigation. Finally, resolve the students’ efforts with direct instruction at the end, tying it all together. (assign homework at this point, but don’t grade it). The resolution can also contain a healthy portion of student reflection: have them make connections and claims about what they’ve seen, but do not leave them hanging, this will breed mutiny. Rinse and repeat for as many topics as possible.

The advantages of inquiry are unbelievable. The generation of context through inquiry is so powerful, and necessary, that it makes the resolution’s direction instruction almost a breeze. The kids want answers and are more than willing to sit through a lecture, PowerPoint, or whatever it is that you do. I would say that I spend 15% of my class time in direct instruction. The inquiry parts just provide me with so many hooks to hang content, that we don’t need much more time than that.
Finally, I’d like to leave you with the precipitation of my experiences with inquiry. Here’s when you know things are going wrong:

  • “We can’t think of anything to investigate” (guided investigation was not provoking/clear enough)
  • “I wish he’d explain the ideas more” (resolution is failing to connect experience to content)
  • Guided Investigation becomes recipe following (motivation for guided-investigation was not developed enough)

Things are going well when:

  • Students come up with content knowledge before you “teach” it
  • Students brim with their own question and investigation variations
  • Students ask for direct instruction

This may all sound like it’s too perfect or unattainable in your classroom. I assure you that I am no different than you. I just challenge myself during my morning commute by repeating: “Do whatever it takes to interest them, be fun, and avoid repeating what you’ve always done because it’s easy for you.”

Inquiry is so simple, because all you have to do is get kids interested in outcomes and relationships. They already want to know which kind of basketball shoe is the best, now you can just frame it into an investigation about friction, and the content falls into place.

Shawn Cornally • August 7, 2010


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