Sherry Kinzel is a contributing author to Responsive Literacy: A Comprehensive Framework.
There’s nothing like a summer camping trip in the cathedral of the great outdoors that brings on a flood of questions about the world. When my three boys were little, they had a million questions every time we went camping: What makes fire burn? Where do the fish sleep at night? Can you make it stop raining? It was like a switch had been flipped, and they became seekers of ALL knowledge. They were in a natural state of curiosity and in a rich environment. What a combination! The more they discovered, the more seeking they did. This inquisitive process was a sight to behold (and, as every parent knows, it was a bit exhausting trying to field all those questions—some of which I had no clue how to answer; so we agreed to ask a park ranger or find another resource to help answer their wonderings when we got home). Those memories led me to wondering “why aren’t our classrooms more like that?” and “what can be done to generate more authentic inquiry experiences for students?”
Why aren’t more classrooms inquiry-based?
Perhaps part of the answer to that question has to do with how teachers view their role in the classroom. The public educational system for the United States began during the Industrial Revolution, so at that time we were preparing our youth to enter a workforce that would lead them to working in factories that were mass-producing products. Input in…output out. Little to no inquiry or creativity required. Is it possible that that process was translated into the field of education? Teacher delivers content. Students commit content to rote memory and recall content when prompted to do so. Could this be the reason so many of us as students sat passively through lecture-style teaching year after year during our own education? Do teachers today still view themselves as keepers of the knowledge?
I don’t think teachers do that on purpose. However, I think we often unintentionally send that message to our students. How? Teachers are predominately the ones asking the questions or telling students what questions need to be answered. According to Dictionary.com, inquiry is “a seeking or request for truth, information, or knowledge.” Our classrooms need to be spaces where children and teachers are seekers of truth, information, and knowledge. They should be places where everyone’s thinking and curiosity are valued, and it is okay for teachers to ask questions that they don’t know the answer to. Consider posing this authentic question: What does inquiry look and sound like in my school? Have each teacher reflect on their own classroom experiences and then build a conversation with each other.
What can be done to generate more authentic inquiry experiences for students?
Bottom line…we do what we value. Therefore, inquiry has to be valued. I don’t know a teacher worth her salt that intentionally tries to make her students dependent on her for learning. Inquiry has to be viewed as authentic learning. It has to be understood as a way of helping students become independent in their thinking and their pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Remember, we are preparing children for their future, not our past. Valuing inquiry means we are supporting their ability to become problem-solvers right now and in the future.
How do we do that? By modeling, of course! This means teachers have to pose questions they don’t know the answers to during an interactive read-aloud, science experiment, or shared reading of a historical document. Teachers need to get comfortable with sharing what they are wondering about aloud with students. It might sound like, “That makes me wonder about…” Then pause to give others time to respond. They also need to develop the habit of “honoring” the thinking of others by saying things such as, “Oh my gosh! I’ve never thought about it like that! Gavin, thank you for sharing your thinking. Do you see how Gavin’s thinking pushed our thinking deeper?”
This might mean that instead of saying, “Tomorrow we are going to begin a unit on weather,” we say “What are some things you’ve always wondered about weather? For example, why do weather forecasters say there’s a slight chance of rain and then it rains all day? Let’s make a list of our wonderings.” Students will follow our lead to wonder about the world when they feel safe to share their thinking and feel the reward of discovery.