Sunday, September 23, 2007

What Inquiry isn't

It seems that when people --- parents, teachers, community members --- ask what inquiry based education is, they often hear "I can tell you what it isn't." While I think there is an affirmative answer, like inquiry itself, it must be discovered and uncovered rather than put forth as a definition.

One of the founders of our charter school does a wonderful job of showing inquiry. She leads the audience in a mini-lesson which begins with people calling out names of animals and moves through many other steps to illustrate how exploration can be used in all aspects of education. There is the sorting, which can be scientific and mathematical; then the wondering why we picked these animals, which can bring in social studies and self-discovery; then of course, reading about the animals... language arts. My description is clear as mud, I realize. Hmm, maybe we should say, "you have to see it to believe it."

One of the most common misunderstandings of inquiry are that it is dippy "let children do what they want because they are so wonderful who needs manners?" type of method. Some people who believe this actually want this for their children. Fortunately, this isn't what inquiry is. I'm all for conversing with children, listening to their unique view points and watching their little brains work as they are exposed to new ideas. There is something magical about a child carefully explaining some important point to an adult, mimicking his parents' checking strategy: "Do you hear me? What did I say?" But I'm also a big fan of civility. I don't think that a child's creativity or inquisitiveness are stifled by being expected to follow rules, listen to others, not hit other children in the privates.

In fact, inquiry demands a child have self-control (which the teacher helps to develop), independence, and ownership of his/her education process. They have to be responsible. If they are struggling, they need to ask for help. If they are "bored" (a word my children are not allowed to say), they must reach into their inner resources and make their learning experience richer, deeper, and wider. The teachers are there to help, but it is ultimately the child who will be the life-long learner. There will be a learning hum in a classroom, and good noise that means children are interacting and learning. However, respect for self, others, and the world around us are essential elements of our school. Everyone is entitled to a safe place to learn the way he/she learns best. Parents who believe that their child should not be guided to civility, while believing other people's children should bow to their little darlings' needs, are very disappointed. I have two words for them: Home School.

Another misguided view, I believe, is that inquiry is an end all and be all. A teacher of inquiry draws on children's natural curiosity and guides him/her toward discovery. However, the most important thing is that children learn well, and to do that, teachers need to draw on many methods and techniques. As an example, many people are convinced "phonics" is the way to teach reading. At some point, whole word became the darling of educators. The thing is, people learn to read using different methods and strategies. Both phonics and whole word are tools, but not the only tool. Similarly, inquiry is a philosophy, a background for teaching, but the teacher will use many tools to facilitate it. Educators should use what works, not get hung up on labels and fads. Flexibility is expected of children and should be encouraged in teachers.

The third notion of inquiry, that makes me really angry, is that inquiry is only appropriate for upper middle class children (probably white, but the critics won't say that.) All children, no matter what their background, are curious explorers. Some have it beaten (figuratively if not literally) out of them earlier than others, but all have the spark. Children can learn when they are a part of their education, are taught the way they learn, have relevant curriculum, and are respected as learners. And even when the spark has been smothered by years of factory-based education, it can be reignited by caring, patient, and respectful teachers. We have seen it happen.

Our school emphasized a child's role in his/her education. The students see themselves as writers, scientists, readers, social scientists, and citizens of the world. They have the tools to learn no matter where they go. Their strength comes from their rediscovered inner resources and not outside props. We are young and still learners ourselves. There is far to go, and mistakes have been made. But like rational, civilized people, we have learned from our mistakes and seek to improve. And like rational, healthy people, we recognize the strengths and great things that have happened and are continuing to happen.

Public education is extremely important to the health and well-being of our society. I believe it's important to have educated, rational, civilized innovators as our current and future citizens. And I believe inquiry-based education is the way to get that.

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