The Inquiry Dilemma in Our Schools

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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  • […] for inquiry in your classroom. We all learn best when we are invested in the subject […]

  • Paul says:

    Hi AJ – I think you hit the nail on the head and clearly identified where I see many teachers struggling with accepting the challenge of inquiry learning / inquiry teaching. I would like to share your post with my staff and challenge them to find themselves in the Teacher A vs. Teacher B analogy. Fortunately, I work in a great school with many great teachers and I think they are ready to explore inquiry learning.

    Paul Clemens
    Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks Paul. I do think it is a challenge, but often due to our lack of research and mindset. It takes a little courage to step out and bring inquiry back into the classroom, but the benefits are amazing. Kudos to you for sharing with your staff!

  • […] spending time on twitter this week (which really has become an obsession of mine) I came across and link to an article by A J Juliana where he described what he called, “The I…The two reason he gives for teachers not jumping into inquiry are the curricular demands I already […]

  • […] “The Inquiry Dilemma in Our Schools” is an important post about why teachers resist implementing changes that are supported by research. […]

  • Leslie says:

    I think it’s interesting that there is substantive research on inquiry from the information science field that has only filtered into the education system through school librarians. Kuhlthau is prof. emerita of Rutgers who has researched people doing research for 30 years. Out of that work came a process that people information users go through. This is research that could have a HUGE impact on learning through inquiry. It is unfortunate that we don’t cross pollinate between fields often enough. The Kuhlthau research (internationally renown) has been translated into a process for learning through inquiry in schools. Please see the books Guided Inquiry: Learning in the 21st Century and Guided Inquiry Design: A Framework for inquiry in your school. I’d be interested to hear your connections to this work related to what you are doing and your passions! I’d be interested in reading your upcoming book as well. Thanks!

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Spot on Leslie. This research is really important for educators, students, and parents. What’s interesting is that we still have this weird resistance to seeking out best practices and applicable research unless we are forced to do so. I’m hoping that with the emergence of our digital age, real time research will be much more prevalent in school systems than it has been in the past.

  • […] reason. I’m someone who strives to connect the “reason for learning” to an “intrinsic motivation“…yet there is often an extrinsic motivation tied to what students do in […]

  • Jody Velde says:

    I enjoy reading your posts very much! I am a lover of technology integration, but I too believe technology must be used not just for the purpose of using technology. Inquiry-based learning in the classroom is the purpose, and technology is a vehicle. I am also a follower of Jim Burke. Thanks for sharing!

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