The Inquiry Dilemma in Our Schools

By AJ Juliani, 10 comments

I’m writing a book on inquiry and innovation in the classroom. The research is fascinating (I cite some of it here), but even more interesting is the lack of knowledge we educators have of this research. Which led me to think: Who is responsible for bringing recent and applicable research into the hands of our teachers?

Is it the teacher? The Principal? The Director of Curriculum and Instruction? Do any of these people in your school/district bring relevant research into your hands?

When I ask teachers why they aren’t bringing inquiry into their classroom, I usually get one of two responses:

1. I don’t have enough time with my current curriculum.

2. I really have to focus on the standards. How is that going to help my students on the state tests?

 I’m not even kidding with that second answer.

So, the dilemma usually unfolds like this: Teacher A wants to bring inquiry in the classroom, but feels they don’t have the time in their current curriculum for inquiry, especially when it might take away from instruction tailored to the test. Teacher A also usually worries about the “hoops” they’ll need to jump through in order to bring inquiry into their classroom. Do they have to run the idea past their Principal, through the curriculum office, present it to parents? When Teacher A thinks about the benefits versus the pain of doing this type of learning, it’s easy to see why they choose to teach the curriculum from the textbook and keep their class moving forward.

On the other side of the hallway Teacher B has been reading some interesting research about the effectiveness of inquiry and project-based learning in the classroom. They stumble across a post from Edutopia that explains the benefits of inquiry-based learning:

Research shows that such inquiry-based teaching is not so much about seeking the right answer but about developing inquiring minds, and it can yield significant benefits. For example, in the 1995 School Restructuring Study, conducted at the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools by Fred Newmann and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, 2,128 students in twenty-three schools were found to have significantly higher achievement on challenging tasks when they were taught with inquiry-based teaching, showing that involvement leads to understanding. These practices were found to have a more significant impact on student performance than any other variable, including student background and prior achievement.

Teacher B realized they must begin to implement this type of learning in their classroom for students to succeed right now, and in the future. They take a look at which remote memorization tasks and homework they can replace (not eliminate) from their current curriculum with project-based assessments. They share this information with other colleagues and when their Principal asks questions, the offer up examples of best practices and research.

A growing body of research has shown the following:

-Students learn more deeply when they can apply classroom-gathered knowledge to real-world problems, and when they take part in projects that require sustained engagement and collaboration.
-Active-learning practices have a more significant impact on student performance than any other variable, including student background and prior achievement.
-Students are most successful when they are taught how to learn as well as what to learn.

Let’s first understand that the inquiry dilemma in our schools often has to do with lack of research, and a misunderstanding about the benefits of inquiry-based learning. Genius Hour, 20% Time, and Passion Projects aren’t just “fancy” titles for “feel good” school projects. They are real world learning experiences that lead to a strong conceptual understanding of difficult topics and information.

Do you know any Teacher A’s that you can enlighten? Are you almost a Teacher B, but are on the edge of getting inquiry started in your classroom? Reach out to those educators that are doing it with students right now in public, private, and charter schools. Join the inquiry movement…because we really can’t afford not to.


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