Every fall and spring, ISTP faculty participate in an all-day Teacher In-Service, allowing the faculty to dig deep into a topic, strategy, or issue and spend the day learning, discussing, reflecting, and planning. This past Monday, the entire faculty participated in an interactive workshop about inquiry-based teaching and learning, and came away inspired to give our students more opportunities to ask rich questions and work in a variety of ways to discover some of the answers. We were inspired to find more ways to allow our students to be not just learners, but philosophers and critical thinkers.
Inquiry in the classroom is a philosophy and a methodology. It is a shift from the traditional classroom where the teacher has been seen as the “sage on the stage” to a more democratic and student-influenced classroom where the teacher acts as a facilitator of learning, or a “guide on the side.” Students of all ages learn best when they construct their own meaning, and when they can interact with, discuss, try, and validate an experience. On Monday, the teachers were asked to reflect on their own learning, about when they learned the most, as well as what they feel makes excellent teaching. Real-life connections, active engagement, choice, and provocative questions were among the most common answers, and relevant throughout the life of a learner. ISTP teachers often take these approaches, but it is helpful to put ourselves in students’ shoes every now and then to inspire and reinvigorate our approaches to teaching.
In an inquiry-based approach, students engage in discussion around a particular concept, and develop questions they would like to answer. Concepts are broad, universal, and lifelong, allowing for interdisciplinary connections. The process of inquiry focuses on the journey of moving from question to deeper question in order to really wrestle with the answers. There is not a right or wrong answer, but instead reflection and wonder leading to a greater depth of knowledge and understanding. The teacher as facilitator asks guiding questions, and also asks students to think about how they “know” the answer, and how they could find out more information. Students share common knowledge and build upon what they know to engage with the topic at hand.
A structured unit of inquiry could be, for example, centered around the concept of endangered species and extinction, allowing students to investigate not just dinosaurs, but the broader topics of animal habitats, ecology, history of the earth, how people have impacted wild animal life throughout history, and so on. Aspects of inquiry can also be worked into more specific subjects, such as a study of the gold rush. This could entail students choosing particular topics within the gold rush that are most compelling to them, and researching those topics in a variety of ways, then sharing back with the group to answer overall questions generated in the beginning of the unit. One student or group might focus more on the technology or scientific aspect, while another might focus on the experience of a certain type of person.
There are many ways to encourage a philosophy of inquiry in the classroom and even in life outside of school. Taking time to wonder, observe, attempt to explain, to research and gain new perspectives, and revise one’s initial explanations can be done both in and out of school, on small or large scales. We continue to encourage building a culture of inquiry at ISTP within the classroom and hope this will spill over into the home life of our students as well. We can all invite our students to be curious as they make meaning of the world around them.