Teaching Everything Through Inquiry

Anything that jolts me out of the discomforts and monotony of flying is welcome to me these days; an extra bag of peanuts, an empty row, a surprise upgrade to first class (never happens). But nothing could have prepared me for this recent experience.

Seated right behind passengers in the exit rows, I could overhear the flight attendant’s instructions about their responsibilities in the unlikely event of an emergency landing. Upon listening to the flight attendant, each passenger usually affirms his or her understanding and commitment with a simple head nod. But this drill didn’t take place as I usually see it happen.

Instead, the flight attendant asked everyone to not just listen but follow along with the brochure (meaning, they were asked to hold one in their own hands). Then, they were asked to turn to the person sitting next to them and verbally share the plan. Finally, they were asked to shake hands on it. Wow! In the unlikely event of an emergency landing, I’d much rather have these folks springing into action.

Brain science is on this flight attendant’s side, too. Talking reinforces the learning. The cognitive demand of understanding the procedures were placed squarely on the shoulders of the passengers, not the flight attendant. The physical connection of a simple handshake fires up all sorts of neurons and establishes trust.

This flight attendant applied the most powerful teaching strategies in a non-classroom context. And it got me thinking:  If inquiry-based teaching is superior to traditional teaching, could or should it replace the way we teach everything to everyone? How would it change our communication style? Our hierarchies? Our relationships?

In inquiry teaching, the learner constructs meaning from new information (the brochure) and experiences (thinking through a scenario). This is not radical. This is actually how most people learn best. Traditional teaching, however, relies on the teacher constructing meaning and telling. Telling isn’t good teaching and yet it persists, like a stubborn habit. It is easy and efficient, but less effective.

Changing a habit requires baby steps and discipline. There are three simple steps any of us can implement right away, whether you teach physics, coach soccer, or instruct passengers in how to help out in the unlikely event of an emergency landing.

I.              Ask More; Talk Less

This is the golden rule of great teaching and Socrates was the master of this practice. At their best, great lectures capture the interest and imagination of the learners (usually in the form of stories). At their worst, they induce sleep or feel agonizing. Talking continuously without pausing for a reflection activity, to ask questions, or to solicit questions, misses important opportunities for the learner to integrate and deepen the learning. Ideally, the learners are the ones doing most of the talking, especially after absorbing new information through listening, reading, or experiencing something. By asking questions and periodically asking learners to turn and talk with a neighbor to answer these questions, we greatly increase the chances of the information sticking and being activated.

II.            Encourage Questions

We take much better care of our own cars than we do rentals. Why? Because they are ours, we own them. It’s the same with questions! When we are truly invested in something, we are more interested. What are the learners interested in? Ask and allow them to follow their interests. It’s important to give people a little information before asking for questions and some reflection time, however. A great way

III.          Connect the Learning

It’s not surprising that the mindfulness movement, standing consciously in the here and now, is a popular trend today. Our work in formal education settings is future-focused and imbalanced towards feeling like a chore rather than a pleasure. Learning is survival and joy! Mastering skills to enter the workforce is a survival skill. Translating letters to words and ideas on a page or coding something for the first time is joy. And often, they are one and the same. What is the purpose of the lesson or activity, besides a final grade or a test? How can we root our activities and learning in the present while connecting it also to the future? Every lesson provides ourselves with the opportunity to answer the big picture question: Why should we care and How does this connect with who and where I am right now?

Changing the way we instruct, whether it is in a formal setting like a classroom or an informal setting like the family dinner table, will take time before it takes hold. It will require a different set of skills on the part of the ‘teacher’ and a radical new set of expectations on the part of the learner. But it’s potential to improve teaching & learning, two sides of the same coin, is undeniable. 

Do I need to make friends to learn? By Guest Author: Amelia Hurd

On the first day of Kimberly’s class, Teaching as a Profession, I knew it was going to be good. I showed up five minutes early to a silent room of about thirty five students. Her Teaching Assistant, Kira, was also there early and broke the silence by making a joke about it, telling us that the class changed her life. I was excited to see what a ‘life-changing’ class would be like and quickly accepted the fact that I wasn’t going to relax in my chair this time while the teacher did all the intellectual work.

Kimberly sent a welcome message on Canvas the day before and there was a picture of her next to her name. I couldn’t really tell what she looked like, but for some reason, I didn’t picture her being that warm. She had a very straight back and looked very serious in the photo, standing behind a podium. But then she showed up, having been waiting outside with a bunch of other students, not aware that the last class had let out early. Her genuine kindness and energy radiated across the whole room. She seemed so happy to see us all. This kind of energy is not something a student forgets. She explained that everything she did as an instructor had a rationale behind it, pointing out techniques she employed that made it easier to form a classroom community that supports deep learning.  She let us know when she didn’t do anything to fill the silence when a question was asked to the class, and told us it was up to us to fill it. She stepped back often and put the leadership in our hands.  

This was a class full of interactions with other people. While I found that a little difficult, especially the task of finding my own partner or group, I really liked having that guidance and nudge. I took comfort in the expectation that we had to talk, because it wasn’t the talking I was uncomfortable with, but the initiating. Sometimes, I would show up to class feeling kind of down, not looking forward to the high energy discussions, but somehow I would always leave class in a good mood, feeling more connected to my classmates and validated by them, which was apparently what I needed to cure my bad mood.  

As much fun as I had in this class I avoided arriving at the classroom early, when it would have been more convenient, so I wouldn’t have to deal with the awkward silence of everyone being on their devices or just staring ahead. I also didn’t know how to talk to Kimberly, even though she was nicer than pretty much anyone I’d ever met. I didn’t realize before how much I planned every little part of my day to avoid awkwardness or any interaction that wasn’t being facilitated by someone else until I was in this situation where I had gotten to know my teacher and classmates quite well, liked them, and still avoided non-facilitated interaction with them.      

I knew I had some social anxiety problems before, but my experience in this class got me to see that it’s really not a preference of mine to be silent. Maybe it’s simply a discomfort or unwillingness to take on everything a new relationship entails; getting to know someone else, keeping up with said person, helping out when something comes up. Is this just a form of laziness disguised as social anxiety, or can it be both? 

Maybe it comes from a place of not knowing what the relationship is supposed to be, so avoidance is easier. I’m used to being separate from teachers; below them, the recipient of their knowledge, a spectator of their performance. My priority concerning teachers has always been get good grades from them, not to establish a relationship with them. I’m not remotely used to the idea of authority figures being anything like a friend to me, but I am realizing that I don’t need to see their role in grading as a form of control, but simply a measurement of my growth as a way to help me.  

In my College of Education courses, it’s been made clear to me that teacher/student relationships are one of the most important factors in successful learning. Relationships are important factors to success in life. The fact that I’ve kept my own head down in class, quietly ‘playing school’ by getting good grades is ironic. The habits that stem from this mindset are not easy to thwart. Learning and socializing have been taught as separate activities to me. I’m happy to finally found out that they’re not.  

Sadly, in all my undergrad experience, which involves two community colleges and two universities, Kimberly’s class has been the only one to feel like a community, so it has to be up to me to make my other classes feel that way, too. While I wish it could always be up to the teacher to make that happen, they more often prioritize content knowledge and lecture. Besides, I am an adult who is preparing to be a teacher, so making up for professors’ choices and cultivating my own community in each class will only benefit me. But just having that one dream, utopian class with Kimberly needed to happen. I needed to find out what being on the receiving end of good teaching felt like and it felt really good.

My goal for next quarter is to introduce myself to the professor at some point during the quarter. Usually, my obstacle is thinking that I don’t have any questions, so there’s no reason to talk to the professor. Now, I know to jot down questions in my notebook throughout class, so I have no excuse to back out when the time comes. Even just introducing myself for five seconds with nothing else planned is a heck of a start and a small, helpful goal that can help build the relationships I know are so crucial to learning.

 

 

 

A Student Reflects [inquiry in the university classroom] by: Cindy Mach

Cindy Mach and her facilitation team (Spring 2016) University of Washington

Cindy Mach and her facilitation team (Spring 2016) University of Washington

My name is Cindy Mach and I'm a Senior at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Throughout my school experience, I've sat in many classrooms and experienced a variety of classroom styles and techniques. None have come close to comparing with my experience with a recent class in curriculum and instruction, all conducted through a student-centered inquiry approach.

Upon first hearing about it, I was concerned because I never tend to work well with groups. I feel that oftentimes the assignments and projects gets dumped onto only one member (typically me) and the rest do little to nothing. This, however, was not the case.

Everyone in this class was asked to facilitate an entire class (start to finish) and we were all assigned to facilitation groups (no more than four people) throughout the quarter. In these small groups, we were expected to create a lesson plan based off of the previous night's homework (usually a text-based reading or video) and then execute it as a team, engaging our classmates in the process while the professor took notes on how we did. While we practiced a Socratic Seminar together as a class for the first couple of assignments, most groups designed other interactive ways to help deepen everyone's understanding and expansion of a topic or question.

I had never been given an opportunity like this before. Most classes are led by someone speaking and others listening. By being asked to facilitate, however, I was required to sharpen new skills and become more interactive. I quickly found that when trying to come up with a lesson plan it requires every group member's participation. Everyone has a part and if you do not work together it shows during the facilitation process. 

All of the sudden, we are the ones who had to keep track of our hour to teach a lesson or complete an activity. No longer could we rely on the teacher for answers. We had to be quickly thinking of things to say if the room fell silent or nobody knew the answer to a question. We had to be able to come up with responses and build off of what was said by others. We had to actually listen...carefully.

Finally, we had to think of ways to stretch the students' thinking and learning experiences through discussion and activities rather than telling everyone what we thought. The process was incredibly interactive and it was so much fun. I enjoyed working with my group members tremendously and what's amazing is that through these activities, the class grew more comfortable with each other and we became a small, close-knit community.

I have never experienced a university classroom where I actually remembered everyone's name and they remembered mine. Just knowing one another's names inspired us to challenge each other. We knew we had a community supporting us as well as your group members while we facilitated class discussions. I learned so much in this class and hope that I can teach my students in the same way when I become a teacher.

I encourage all teachers to be more of a facilitator than a lecturer. Through facilitation, conversations can grow in depth and can students stretch beyond typical ideas and develop their creativity. It challenges you way more then you'll ever realize and it's crazy fun too!

 

 

Are You Still Happy in the Classroom?

Julia and I grabbed coffee together last weekend. We used to teach together at the same large urban middle school. Effervescent, enthusiastic and dedicated, I was immediately drawn into Julia's orbit. Her duct-taped 80’s-era boom box was the heartbeat of our school; playing funk mix tapes while she posted student work all over her classroom walls before and after school. Standing outside, rain or shine, she would shake hands with every student before they entered her classroom. 

Julia and I met at coffee shops on weekends to grade papers elbow to elbow and watched our students' baseball games in the Spring. The union rep and their issues seemed crazy to us. We passed notes at staff meetings to get one another to laugh. We were there for our students and brushed off the other stuff without much care. We felt like we could change the world.

That was twenty years ago. We may have influenced the lives of many of our students over those years, but we certainly didn't change the world. And we certainly didn't change that school. It continues to graduate the same number and kinds of students as it did years ago.

Julia is still teaching there. Like the vast majority of schools in the U.S., very little has changed at this school save a physical upgrade and additional demands on her time. Students come from even more impoverished homes than before. Everyone moves complacently through six periods a day; teacher-directed learning and standardized tests. Some teachers excite and others disappoint; a mixed bag of experiences in a disjointed day.

What's really changed is Julia. She has her own family now, so she rushes out of the building after the last bell rings. Rather than gush about her amazing students, she complains about them. She's now the school's union rep and fumes about district incompetence. She seems tired, frustrated, bitter. What happened?

I ask her this and she pauses. "I got sucked in..." she begins. "I got sucked into a culture of complaint, victimization, mistrust...bit by bit. I grew tired of the unspoken lack of respect, the empty toilet paper rolls, the extra hours outside of school, the demanding parents."

"So, how do we change this pattern?" I ask sheepishly.

She pauses. "I'm almost done; I'm just hunkering down until I can retire." And then she smiles. "Pathetic, huh?" I smile back. Who am I to judge? I got out early.  

"The entire profession needs to change," she finally admits. 

Wanting to interrogate this further, I turn to my journal instead of Julia. "The entire profession" rings in my brain. What questions do you think we should pursue more aggressively to improve the teaching profession?

·      Who should we target and encourage to go into the profession?
·      What messages should we emphasize as they consider it?
·      Should we raise the bar for teacher candidates, as they do in Finland?
·      Do we need to check for specific human characteristics (as they do in the Foreign Service)?
·      Should we make sure that they know how to have a loving relationship with another human being (as the authors of “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” assert)?
·      What should teacher training programs look like?
·      Should they all resemble medical residencies?
·      How can we offer significantly more time for planning and assessment (like in Japan)?
·      Would teachers take on a few more students in exchange for more collaboration and non-teaching time?
·      Would year-round schools help relieve fatigue?
·      Who should evaluate teacher performance and with what sets of measures?
·      How often should teachers receive growth-focused feedback?
What are your questions? What would you promote to improve the teaching profession?

The Vital Importance of Storytelling

We’re social animals and the empathic tie that binds me to you and you to one another is storytelling. It’s like a gossamer thread that we fling and we catch one and another and another’s imagination.
— Carmen Agra Deedy, 2011 National Book Festival (paraphrased)

Telling a Story to Develop Relationships

Mr. Hollingshead (“Mr. H”) was my 6th grade teacher at Whitworth Elementary School in Seattle, Washington. Tall with a bushy beard and round John Denver glasses, Mr. H drove a cherry red VW van up and down the hills of our city. He was my first male teacher. A creased poster hung on his classroom door with old tape that said "Keep on truckin." What I remember most about Mr. H is how I felt being a student in his classroom that year: emotionally connected. As students, we were emotionally connected to him, to one another, and to what we explored together whether it was pronouns, long division, or science experiments. How did he pull this off? Through storytelling.

Mr. H’s great passion in life was opera and he was determined to share this passion with every group of students he taught. Once the Seattle Opera season was announced, he would decide which one we would attend together. Months before the field trip, Mr. H would escort all 30 of us into the stairwell a couple times a week for an hour. There we would sit elbow to elbow on rows of dirty stairs - an echo chamber - with absolute giddy delight. Assembled like an audience, with full view of the stage below, we'd prop our heads onto our palms and listen to Mr. H tell the story.

Thanks to masterful storytelling, sixth grade for me was about revenge, love, murder and rumor threaded through the complex stories Mr. H shared and reflected in real life on the playground and my long bus ride home. Opera stories helped me tell my own stories and make sense of the world around me.

More than anything else, stories built a strong relationship bridge from me to my teacher. Like listening to Eye of the Tiger, Rita Pierson’s TED Talk from 2013, regenerates my spirit and gets my adrenalin pumping. At one point she asserts that “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like." While I nod my head when she said this, I have to admit that I've learned plenty from people I don't like. It's just much more enjoyable learning from people I do like. And I really liked Mr. H.

Telling a Story to Root Specific Content

“How is it that students can relate the entire plot of Harry Potter, and forget everything I say?” - A teacher once said

Jeff Butler teaches high school math. He loves his subject but is often challenged by, well, getting his students appreciate it as much as he does. A black & white poster of the 1968 Olympics Black Panther salute hangs on a wall along with some of his biking memorabilia. Aside from these clues on the wall, students don’t really know much about Mr. Butler. Jeff readily admits to being an "introvert" and hesitates sharing too much of his life with his students. As he sees it, his primary job is to get his students through Algebra and the clock is ticking. An unconscious belief sits in the back of his mind, too: He never needed much cajoling to focus on math in high school, why should they? Working with Jeff as an instructional coach is a wonderful challenge. He is open to trying something new but needs guidance and some support.

We started with adding a story to just one lesson. “What is inductive reasoning, anyway?” I asked him. He answered me with numbers and a factual definition. I prodded him to tell me a story instead. After thinking for a couple minutes, he began: “It’s like you have a bag that you cannot see through and then you pick out a few objects and, well, maybe everything you pick out are green apples and so you assume or infer or induce that it’s a bag filled entirely of green apples.” This was it! After creating and practicing this story to make it relate to something honest and true in his own life , Jeff tries it out with his students the next day.

Jeff's large hands form around an invisible apple as he tells the story, growing from one small apple to a bushel of them, his arms opening wide. He adds some personal notes about walking his dog to the neighbor's apple tree. I watch as students sit up, smile, and wonder about his dog and where he lives and what he does with the apples he receives. You can practically hear the question bubbles popping above their heads.

Jeff pauses at the end of his story dramatically. He's enjoying this more than he anticipated, clearly. “Take out the apples and replace them with numbers…and there's the math!” His eyes pop open and the students giggle. They are enthralled. They haven’t seen their teacher so passionate ever. For the first time, his exit tickets demonstrate 100% comprehension.

Telling a Story to Survive

“Fairy tales are tales of survival, first and foremost.” Fairy Tale Review Kate Bernheimer

How did the entire Moken community survive the devastating 2004 tsunami, when over 230,000 others perished? This Thai community credits their oral traditions and the power of a story told and retold over generations embedding a directive guiding the people to safety: When you see the sea recede, run for the hillsStories save lives. 

The same could be said for the stories written in the late 18th C by the Grimm brothers in Germany; horrific tales of children getting lost or being guided to their deaths by well-meaning strangers. We share stories with each other today warning against taking a particular road during a particular time of day; avoiding a restaurant where someone’s cousin got sick, and signing up for a new form of exercise that is sure to transform our lives and improve our health. Big and small, life-saving or pleasure-seeking…these are all stories.

My 15-year old is particularly adept at sharing stories with her 10-year old brother. The consequences of certain actions (or inactions) usually end in a horrifying way ("If you don't take the right bus home, you will be kidnapped and tortured."). They are effective, too.

I've seen schools utilize survival stories with great impact in bonding upperclassmen with new students ("Surviving Freshman Year") and coaches sharing inspiring stories of pushing through challenge to survive a tournament. 

The best arguments for storytelling come from cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham who explains the importance of creating emotional bonds through storytelling. Still one of the most powerful vehicles for communicating information, storytelling is sadly not a skill intentionally taught in most teacher education programs. But it should be. Whether to build relationships, root challenging content, or to save lives (physically and metaphorically), the power of stories remains one of our best teaching tools.

What stories are you telling?

Lessons from a Kid Party by Guest Author: Lara Lyons

buzzers.png
How can our son and his friends “seek knowledge” and engage in questioning and experimenting if there is a set, pre-determined activity?
— Lara Lyons

Many of the child party places in the Netherlands have a pre-packaged plan. Whether it be indoor trampoline arenas, Lego building, baking themed places or, of course, Little Gym, (is it not everywhere in the world?), they usually have a set recipe for how the kid party will run. Kids come, they jump/build/bake/play, then the place provides some pannenkoeken (Dutch pancakes) with copious amounts of syrup, marshmallows or crisps as their snack, kids eat cake, then bounce home on their sugar high. Given our almost four years of birthday party experience here, we were not prepared for the intro to the new science-themed place we checked out when planning the celebration for our son’s seventh birthday.

Located in an old school where there are multiple businesses housed, finding the right buzzer to this place proved challenging (see photo).

But once we entered the room it was more like walking into Sci-Fi land, with odd and fascinating structures involving wires, pulleys, gears, light bulbs, and propellers…every gadget you can imagine to make something work. And they were all organized in a series of little drawers which reminded me of the nail and screw section at Home Depot. Inside what the place calls the ‘Inventor Workshop’ there were long wooden worktables lined up with all sorts of contraptions created from these assorted odds and ends. There were motorized cardboard structures, tiny flying contraptions that looked like early Wright Brothers inventions, and unbelievably functional folding draw-bridges created from cardboard, straws and brads, to name a few.

Going on past experience, I started by asking the owner what a typical birthday party would entail. She said, “I can’t answer that until we see what your son is interested in.”  

“Our son is turning seven, do you have some ideas of what type of activity six and seven year olds would find successful?” I persisted, while glancing at our son playing with a complicated-looking motorized wire vehicle and thinking that perhaps our son’s young age would determine the activity.

She looked at me over her glasses as if I didn’t hear her the first time. Then she repeated, “Let’s see what your son is interested in. Let him walk around and see what he’s drawn to.  We’ll make anything work but let’s learn about your child’s imagination first.”

Then I realized that this woman had nailed it. Although I’ve been an educator for over twenty years, have spent time in hundreds of classrooms as a teacher, principal and principal coach, and hold dearly an education ethos that centers on fostering student ownership of learning through inquiry, I had to sheepishly admit that I had not followed my own ideal. I had made an assumption that there would be a set “inquiry-based” activity that would allow the kids to leave with a fun completed project. Instead, the owner modeled just what inquiry is. As one definition states, inquiry is “a seeking or request for truth, information, or knowledge.” How can our son and his friends “seek knowledge” and engage in questioning and experimenting if there is a set, pre-determined activity?   

I listened to the owner ask our son questions while he perused all sorts of building materials housed in those fun little drawers. I noticed that she didn’t negate even one of his enthusiastic ideas (such as the “worm mobile” vehicle), but sometimes asked a question to have him think through the possibility of it, and I couldn’t help but think about the parallels to teaching. This is exactly what masterful teachers do so well. Although they have a destination in mind (learning objective) they let their students engage authentically in the learning process to get there. They do this through their facilitation of questions, the use of manipulatives, the opportunity for students to talk and think with one another, and the ability to know when to guide and when to let the students explore. It’s a sincere belief that students will gain knowledge and skills as a result of the process they’re engaged in to achieve the end goal. 

In the end, our son thought it would be fun for the partygoers to make something motorized to take home. As he excitedly talked about the endless possibilities, the owner said to me, “By the way, I don’t provide snacks (marshmallows), and the kids won’t have much time for the cake (because they’re going to want to spend their time working 'In the ‘Inventor Workshop’, I thought, as I looked around at the worktables laden with assorted creations). In fact, maybe someone will make that worm automobile here after all.

Lara Lyons is a parent and educator with over 20 years of classroom and school leadership experience. Originally from the Pacific NW, she and her family currently live in The Hague, Netherlands.