Good Inquiry=Good Content

 

marjh

GOOD INQUIRY AND GOOD CONTENT LEARNING GO HAND IN HAND

by Marjorie Henningsen, Grey Matters Education

I’ll begin this post by stating up front that I do believe that an inquiry approach to learning and teaching in which students are protagonists in defining their own learning agenda offers the best hope for schools to continue to have relevance in today’s world.  So when people talk about inquiry learning I often take notice.   A colleague was recently overheard making the following statement:

“I do believe in inquiry, but I also care about content.”

My colleague certainly has a right to her own beliefs and opinions and many people out there might find a great deal of resonance with that statement.  However—and I know this may sound harsh –I firmly believe the above sentiment is used consciously and unconsciously on a regular basis to justify complacency and cowardice or worse in education.

The underlying assumption in my colleague’s statement seems to be that inquiry lovers don’t care about content or that you cannot have strong content learned in the context of inquiry.  I must reject these assumptions wholeheartedly in either case.   I would actually argue that when anyone engages in an authentic inquiry learning experience that person is absolutely guaranteed to learn something of great value.  My colleague would probably agree as long as the content learned is what is supposed to be learned.   What IS supposed to be learned anyway?  And who gets to decide?

I believe we all care about content, but I’m just not sure that the content in question needs to be thought of in such a rigid way or whether it is even useful at all to think about curriculum in such terms anymore.   Hasn’t “what we need to know” become kind of a moving target these days?   Why should “what kids need to know” remain so unchanged or unchangeable through generations—as if frozen in time.   That doesn’t make any sense to me in today’s world.  I believe the obsession with defining and covering standardized “content” is a simple artifact of a living inside a system that has given over intellectual authority to the corporate textbook and testing industries, or some other centralized authority.   I am sure in the past I fell prey to the same obsession, but thank goodness I got over it.

Lilian Katz (2010) suggested that perhaps rather than content standards we should be more concerned about having Standards of Experience, a suggestion that I think is on the right track in terms of defining what we should be worrying about in schools.  The preponderance of evidence from educational research tells us that we really do need to be far more concerned with how kids are learning than with trying to pin down, define (or limit) what is being covered at a given point in time.  I believe we tend to gravitate toward the latter because it is much easier to deal with and can be talked about without actually ever getting involved in the messiness of a real life classroom.   The idea that we can just settle on a narrowed list of content objectives and hand them to teachers and then test the outcome later on to know what has (or more often has not) been learned is a seductive one to be sure.  But it’s a well-documented trap.  We cannot “student-proof” the curriculum (or “teacher-proof” it either!)  So why do we all keep falling into that trap over and over again?

Certainly we do have to acknowledge that even inquiry lovers are not all the same.  The two broad categories are those who believe the process ought to be determined more by the a priori curricular agenda (as understood by teachers and/or parents) versus those who believe students should primarily determine the inquiry agenda.  Not to be judgmental, but rather just to be realistic…I would argue that those in the first category ought to admit that they are control freaks and work harder at learning how to cope with the uncertainty and the need for  “on the spot” professional problem solving that comes from engaging with students in authentic student-led inquiry.  Because in the end, the truth is that the less say students have in their own learning agenda, the less relevant school is to their lives and there is no way around that truth.  We adults just kind of tacitly agree on a certain level of boredom and irrelevance kids must tolerate in order for us to “get our work done” or for the so-called greater good.

In the past 25 years I have observed an estimated 1200+ preK-12 classroom lessons in several different countries.  I used to be able to sit through an entire lesson taking copious field notes and collecting all sorts of data.  In fact I am highly skilled at that activity.  But lately, in the past couple of years I find myself barely able to sit still in most classrooms for the entire period as I try to imagine how the children are experiencing what I am observing.  In general it’s boring and uninspired at best and intellect and curiosity crushing at worst.   And it’s not because anyone wants it to be that way.  That’s just how it is.   It makes me profoundly sad to observe sometimes because I feel as if I can actually see the natural enthusiasm for learning literally oozing out of kids onto the floor to be mopped up by the end of the period and forever gone.  Of course I paint this bleak picture with all optimism that it doesn’t really have to be this way.  My dad always said that “if it matters to you, you’ll be there, you’ll do it—or at least you’ll give it your best shot.”

In other words, if it really matters to us, then maybe we have to have the courage to face the unknown and start making some new choices about what happens in school.


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