Skip to content

6 Structures and Supports for the Inquiry Based Classroom

Human beings are born to question. We are born to ask why. Inquiry begins with acquiring data and information through interactions with our environment. Stimuli provide us with information, and we ask questions to make sense of it all.

Unfortunately, traditional educational offerings often work in ways that discourage inquiry and limit students’ innate curiosities. This stifling of a student’s need to know has served to shift the focus of today’s educational system from inquiry to assessment. The shift has manifested in classrooms filled with students less likely to ask questions and more likely to be told what to learn and what questions to answer. Memorizing facts to help answer questions is an important skill for students to master. Inquiry, however, is a skill that will lead students toward being prepared to enter a workforce that is placing increasing emphasis on creativity and problem-solving.

Inquiry implies a need to know. Further, it highlights a desire to find out, to determine, and to continue exploring a topic to arrive at a resolution that sufficiently quenches the student’s thirst for understanding.  Effective inquiry relies on the effective implementation of instructional practices weighted heavily in favor of student exploration. Structures that support student engagement, collaboration, open-ended questions, and teacher facilitation are just some of the tenets of inquiry-based learning.

Fostering Civic Responsibility

The C3 Framework was developed to provide states with voluntary suggestions to update and enhance social studies curriculum. Aligned with the Common Core through similar language and student outcomes, the focus of the C3 Framework is squarely on inquiry as the catalyst for deep student learning.  Using the Framework as a guide, teachers of social studies can begin the conversation with colleagues and administrators about how to ensure that the content facilitated by the teacher is rigorous and fosters civic engagement.  At no other time in America’s history has the importance of structuring social studies classes to not only provide historical perspectives on

At no other time in America’s history has it been more important to structure social studies classes not only to provide historical perspectives on events, but to also foster the development of a student’s deep understanding of civic responsibility.

Today’s social studies educators continue to strive to balance the demands of teaching the curriculum with a desire to move beyond it.  Teachers focused on the process of learning, rather than simply what is learned, serve to foster an inquiry-based learning environment in their classrooms. If the goal of an inquiry learning environment is clear, the steps for successfully implementing this type of instruction can be challenging. In order to have students think deeply, it’s important to provide them with content to think deeply about. So what steps can an educator take in order to create this type of learning environment? How can an educator move beyond what is required and allow

In order to have students think deeply, it’s important to provide them with content to think deeply about. So what steps can an educator take in order to create this type of learning environment? How can an educator move beyond what is required and allow inquiry to move students to what is possible?

1. Engage in Inquiry-Based Professional Development

Learning to think deeply, critically, and creatively requires that educators themselves receive the type of professional learning that facilitates inquiry-based learning for students. Teachers need to model, through their thinking, actions, and comments, what it means to read critically, think deliberately, and respond in an informed way. Deeper learning is the byproduct of intentional planning and deeper teaching. Inquiry-based learning demands hands-on learning experiences for those teachers whose responsibility it is to facilitate deep learning for students. When embarking down the inquiry path, consider professional learning options that offer the opportunity to learn how to support students in creating complex and incisive questions. Those types of questions serve as the backbone of inquiry-based learning and are essential to the success of an inquiry-based learning classroom.

2. Create a Community of Inquiry

To create a community that values opinions and thoughts of others, it’s imperative that teachers create structures that encourage students to share their opinions even if different from those of their classmates. Asking questions, developing opinions, and researching topics of interest must be standard practices in a community of inquiry. Discourse must be accepted and encouraged. Collaboration among students is at the focal point of an inquiry-based classroom. But to get to the point where students are comfortable sharing their ideas, it’s imperative that the teacher formulate rules, norms, and expectations for how students will interact with the content and with one another.

Class meetings where students have opportunities to discuss issues pertinent to the class or share a connection they have to a particular topic allow students to appreciate the uniqueness of their classmates while teaching them the importance of actively listening to one another. Establishing how the class will run and the important part each student will play in the success of the class will provide students with a model upon which to build their community.

3. Inquiry is not a ‘Special Activity’

Students need to fully understand that deep learning isn’t something that takes place in one classroom session. To learn about something deeply and to ask the questions needed to get students to that level takes time. Inquiry is not reserved for special times during the school year, nor is it an activity to be done once and then never revisited. In classrooms where inquiry thrives, students rely on the structures they’ve been taught as the framework to guide reflection and action. As Edutopia writer Andrew Miller states in his post Creating a Culture of Inquiry, it’s not enough for the teacher “to simply state that their classroom is inquiry based, and doing an occasional inquiry-based activity is not enough.” Every day needs to be focused on providing students with the type of learning that fosters their innate curiosity for inquiry to succeed.

Middle school classrooms provide excellent settings for the introduction of inquiry as a tool to foster deep learning. Teachers who challenge students to develop their own questions centered around their desire to learn more about a topic help to create classrooms where inquiry thrives. Opportunities to teach with inquiry in mind occur throughout the recommended social studies curriculum in middle school. When considering a debate that will focus on the concepts of right versus wrong, for example, students can be provided with a setting for debate, mock trials, and role playing. These interwoven and connected learning opportunities become the norm, rather than the exception, in a classroom focused on inquiry.

4. Deep Learning Requires Connections and Relevance

Making learning relevant to today’s students requires that teachers help their students find connections to documents and historical events. Reviewing the Declaration of Independence, for example, and reimagining how the document would be different if it had been written by women or people of color, allows students to think deeply about the issues taking place during that time period from the perspectives of those not reflected in the document.

Students think outside the box in order to make personal and lasting connections with historical documents and time periods. In this way, learning becomes meaningful, powerful, and relevant.

5. Reflection on Practices

Even the most seasoned educator can struggle with the concept of facilitating, rather than directing, student learning. It’s important to set goals and outcomes regarding what you hope to achieve as a teacher in an inquiry-based classroom. The Inquiry Arc, found in the C3 Framework, helps students “develop a capacity for gathering and evaluating sources and then using evidence in disciplinary ways.” The Arc provides the structure for teaching and learning within a social studies classroom. It’s a set of actions that form the basis for what students should experience in an inquiry-based social studies classroom.

If, for example, the teacher’s goal for his or her students is that they understand the importance of reviewing more than one document to answer a question, the Arc would recommend that the teacher ensure that documents available to students allow them to effectively compare, evaluate, and find evidence to support their research. Reflecting on their own understanding of a document, it’s relevance in history, and the perspective these documents will provide to students are key actions of the teacher whose practices support, rather than direct, student learning.

6. It’s Not Just About the Question

Effective inquiry-based learning moves beyond just a well-thought-out question. It requires the teacher to consider the purpose of the questions posed and how student responses will help to facilitate student discussions. Inquiry-based learning demands that the teacher pose questions to students, elicit questions from them, and allow their responses to questions to be heard. In addition, the questions posed by students help to drive the content learned and the rigor with which it is understood by students. Inquiry encompasses the actions, thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of the learners in the classroom.

For this type of learning to succeed, students have to make the connection that their civic responsibility is inherently tied to their deep understanding of history and historical events.  Being well informed about the way our past has served to shape our future is essential for students to develop an appreciation for civic responsibility and participate actively in society. Simply asking questions of students in the hopes that an interest is sparked is not enough to reach a deep level of learning. Complex questions that help students create learning for themselves must be at the forefront in the inquiry-based classroom.

Establish a Culture of Inquiry

Students who ask questions, think critically and learn deeply become informed and responsible citizens who do the same. But without the creation of an emotionally, intellectually, and physically safe learning environment by the teacher, this type of learning cannot thrive.

Careful consideration should be given for the learning that must be undertaken by the teacher in order to effectively facilitate an inquiry-based classroom. To do so allows both students and teachers to learn not only in a deeper way but in a more meaningful way; a way in which both are prepared to meet the demands of an ever-changing civic landscape.

Posted in Teaching & LearningTagged , Leave a Comment on 6 Structures and Supports for the Inquiry Based Classroom

Helping Students Find Their Voice

When I attended college, some of my favorite classes were those in which I felt empowered in how I pursued my studies. When my professors provided options, valued my opinion, and shifted the responsibilities for learning over to me, my level of engagement increased dramatically.

That college student is now a middle school math teacher with her own room full of students, and I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of fostering student voice in my classroom.

Student Voice describes how students provide input into what happens in their school and their classroom.

One of my goals as a math teacher is to help my students see themselves, their ideas, and their thoughts reflected in the required curriculum. Student voice does not mean student takeover. To the contrary, the idea of students having a voice in what they learn, when they learn it, and how they learn it leads to collaborative opportunities to increase engagement and facilitate deeper student learning.

Even though my classroom is primarily built upon structures that foster independence, it’s still a shift for me to scale back the responsibility for student learning from me as their teacher and place it with them as the learners. Over the years, I’ve made deliberate decisions about how to approach the content and ensure that it’s delivered through a student-centered lens. I’ve reflected about each decision and considered how the shift to a classroom culture that values and supports student voice has impacted the overall learning of my students.

While I don’t have any hard and fast rules, there are some guidelines that I follow to help ensure that student voice is at the forefront of my instructional decisions.

1. Create Classroom Norms Together

Norms and rules are not the same things. Rules help to establish the practices and procedures that allow tasks to be completed in classrooms. Norms provide teachers and students with shared agreements about how best to support one another and learn from and with one another, and they help create a culture of and for learning.Developing norms with my students has allowed them to have a voice in the structure of our classroom, which helps to contribute to a positive classroom culture.

As I began to infuse student ideas and suggestions into our classroom expectations, I began to see the value in co-creating these norms rather than creating them independent of my students.

Collaboratively creating norms helped me better understand what my students valued and what was important to them. During the creation of our class norms, it was apparent that students appreciated the chance to give their opinions and thrived on the opportunity to hear what their peers thought as well. These norms continue to provide the structure upon which our classroom culture was established. We review the norms periodically and add things when needed. Occasionally we adjust our norms in order to better meet the changing nature of our classroom.

To this end, our classroom culture depends on the students upholding the norms that we create together. When students interact with each other during collaborative problem solving, it’s an understood norm that each student will have a responsibility for contributing to the discussions during the group work. Further, my students understand that every voice in the group is important and will be valued.

I do get students who, from time to time, deviate from the norm. But because I’ve established with my students the expected behaviors, they are quick to reset the conversation and get back to the business at hand.

Norms don’t need to be elaborate. I’ve found that establishing a number of expectations regarding how students treat one another in class provides students with the opportunity to see and hear their voice reflected in our classroom practices. When I establish norms with my students, we focus on what language is and isn’t acceptable during classroom collaboration and discussion and the responsibility that each student has in contributing to their own learning and the learning of others. For example, my students understand that they are expected to be their own best advocates and ask questions accordingly. Their questions help me differentiate my instruction and enable me to reflect on my practices in order to better meet their needs. I expect my students to communicate with me and with one another, especially when things get challenging.

It’s also equally important that students learn to trust me and to trust their classmates. Our norms reflect my students’ deep desire to learn from one another and their willingness to take responsibility for their own learning.

Rules might govern student procedures in my classroom, but norms help to facilitate a classroom culture conducive to student responsibility and student learning.

2. Foster Feedback and Flexibility

Perhaps no other educator tool has the potential to elicit change and facilitate student responsibility more than feedback between teacher and student and between the students themselves. In our classroom, feedback is given carefully and always through the lens of improvement. We focus on what students are doing well and address specific steps students can take to continue to improve.

If there is a specific goal a student is working toward, students feel comfortable enough to ask for suggestions from their peers to help them reach that goal. Feedback becomes the structure through which students become more involved in their own learning and the learning of others.

In my classroom, it is not uncommon to hear students reflecting on the lesson and sharing their thoughts about the curriculum, objective, and math concepts learned. We talk about the culture in class that must be present for my students to grasp challenging concepts. Recently, when my students were working together to defend the strategies they used to solve a problem, several students thought it would be best if the groups were smaller than the 28 students in our classroom. Their theory was that the smaller groups would let each student ask questions about the strategies that were shared and not be rushed to hear everyone’s strategies. This was another example of the way in which my students began to take more ownership for their learning.

Hearing that my students valued the opportunity to learn from their peers reinforced the continued inclusion of student suggestions in my instruction.

We tried it, and the kids were right. The smaller groups did help to facilitate better discussion and more engaged student-to-student conversations. The feedback I shared with them about the difference that this small shift made for student learning allowed students to feel comfortable making suggestions at other times as well.

3. Embrace Student Voice to Drive Engagement

I knew that I was on the right path when students began showing up in my classroom during lunchtime. These students were looking for extra help or support. But their true motives were revealed to me when they began to talk about why they liked our math class, how they felt important and believed that I genuinely cared about them. I noticed the shift to “our math class around the same time I noticed an increase in lunchtime visitors. My students were deeply involved in their own learning. They knew their voice not only mattered but was truly valued. In turn, my connection with students has never been better.

Student voice and student engagement are not, however, synonymous. While the first can lead to the latter, it’s rarely a straight path. To fully embrace the idea of student voice, teachers must be willing to do the work to ensure its continued existence in their classroom.

Just because my students offer their thoughts doesn’t mean they are deeply engaged in learning.

As I learn more about how to inject student voice into my instructional practices, I continue to seek out additional resources and ideas, such as those found on sites such as SoundOut and Teaching Channel.

4. Improve the Classroom Experience with Their Voice

The small things that I did over the years to establish a culture of student voice continue to pay dividends for my students and for me. I’ve continued to refine my practices to include student- developed assessments, choice seating, and more personalized approaches to student learning. I truly hope that by working collaboratively with my students, I am helping to provide them with opportunities to own their learning not only in my classroom but elsewhere as well.

As a school-based team, my colleagues and I have talked about opportunities to include more student-selected choices in our instruction. We’ve reviewed upcoming lessons and created learning menus for students to work with. Students will have the chance to choose from a variety of options related to the math problems they will solve or the data they will use to construct their own questions. Collectively, our team continues to discuss additional ways to foster student independence and responsibility through the inclusion of student voice and student choice.

It’s my hope that the norms established in my math class are those that students can use to enhance their experiences in other settings as well.  Ultimately, I want my former students to look back at their time in our classroom and feel that they not only made progress academically but also socially and emotionally. To this end, the continued inclusion of student voice in my daily instruction will serve to reach this goal.

Posted in Teaching & LearningTagged , , , Leave a Comment on Helping Students Find Their Voice

Helping Students Search for Truth in an Era of ‘Fake News’

“What is true and what is false?”

This reads like a driving question for a unit of study in social studies. But in the current political climate, many people are asking this question in their daily lives.

Fake news — the deliberate spread of misinformation or hoaxes across various media — is meant to mislead readers in order to gain financially, politically, or otherwise. The furor surrounding fake news has resulted in heightened skepticism of reports from the news media, and an escape route for those who struggle to accept the authenticity of information that does not align with their beliefs on important, divisive issues.

A recent report concluded that students may be among the most susceptible to the influx of false statements and the manipulation of facts. In a 2016 study by the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG), researchers found that youth have a hard time telling the difference between objective and sponsored online content. Young people are also susceptible to bias when politicians and organizations post messages on social media.

“Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there,” said Professor Sam Wineburg, author of the report and founder of SHEG. “Our work shows the opposite to be true.”

Searching for truth in an era of fake news needs to be a priority in education. This is not the responsibility of the social studies teacher or the English department alone. Every discipline should teach “media literacy,” defined by Heidi Hayes Jacobs as being able to “develop critical and creative capabilities to both receive and assess the quality of messages from all forms of media, and to generate and create quality media of their own.” This includes understanding that any communication has a purpose and an audience in mind.

Media literacy also addresses how people may leverage specific strategies to entertain, inform, or persuade in a variety of media.

There are specific strategies and skills educators can foster in students to ensure they develop a more nuanced and deeper understanding of the information available before forming their own opinions. Here are just a few:

1. Curate reliable feeds of information

Taking one person’s word as truth on any complex issue may lead to misinformation and misconceptions. Teachers can combat this by modeling for students how to create a reliable list of individuals and groups on social media. For example, a teacher can maintain a classroom Facebook page or Twitter account. The teacher would demonstrate how to evaluate who they might follow, discuss why they would read their posts, and ensure multiple perspectives are considered. Older students can be taught to maintain their own information feeds using digital curation tools such as Feedly and Flipboard.

2. Understand how people are persuaded

Merriam-Webster defines “fact” as “a piece of information presented as having objective reality”. This would be a good entry point for a study of what makes for effective persuasive writing. Connections with media literacy can be made by studying the techniques advertisers use. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and International Literacy Association (ILA) offer many teacher resources on this topic at ReadWriteThink.

3. Teach search strategies

Google’s revenue source comes primarily from businesses and organizations that want to have their websites on the first page for key search results. Using search engines designed for students, such as Sweet Search, will help ensure results are objective and appropriate. Students should also be taught how to use features within the advanced option for Google searches when doing research for a class project.

4. Create content for an audience

In the search for truth, everyone can have a voice with the advent of the Internet and digital applications. Students need opportunities to apply their media literacy skills in new contexts. Teachers can use creation tools, such as  learning management systems, or LMSs, provide safe online spaces for students to interact with peers.  Students can post their work and their ideas for feedback. Their finished products, which may include a mix of audio, images, and video in addition to text, can be published on a blog, website, or video channel.

Old Challenges, New Strategies

Dealing with fake news is not a new phenomenon. Mathew Ingram of Fortune Magazine points out that historical figures such as John Adams and Benjamin Franklin wrestled with these very same issues. The good news, Ingram reports, is that “we arguably have much better tools to fight it than we have ever had before.” Social media and content development tools, along with the right strategies, put every student in better control of what they consume and create.

 

Posted in K-12 TrendsTagged , , Leave a Comment on Helping Students Search for Truth in an Era of ‘Fake News’

3 Ways ESSA Gets Computer Science Education Right

If you’re an educator, you’re probably already familiar with The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). But questions abound regarding the status of this federal renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act. What education programs will or will not lose funding, and to what degree? Will more federal dollars be allocated for vouchers and school choice? How will these changes improve student outcomes?

The answers to some of these questions could take years, but some should begin emanating from Washington shortly, as federal budget deliberations proceed. However, one tenet of ESSA’s guidelines is unlikely to waver — an enhanced focus on computer science.

Since its inception in 2015, ESSA has signaled a shift in authority regarding educational programming from the federal to the state level. In addition to this increase in autonomy, there are now more consistent expectations for all U.S. students regarding computer science instruction in schools. Its instruction is no longer viewed as an elective.

Computer science was included with other core subjects, such as writing, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, in ESSA’s definition of a “well-rounded education.”

Computer science instruction has become an essential part of the core curriculum for many school districts, and with the ESSA’s urging, many others will begin ramping up efforts to get students ahead of a massive projected  job shortage. This shortfall had already presented itself as of 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics:

Here are three things the ESSA gets right with its approach to computer science education:

1. Increases Access to Digital Resources

President Obama allocated $4 billion to states to increase access to computer science coursework . Called the “Computer Science for All” plan, this financial commitment supports the ESSA requirement that all students receive high-quality instruction in order to be college and career ready.

A number of partnerships between organizations have been fostered to support this initiative. For example, the National Science Foundation has collaborated with the Department of Defense to develop an effective computer science curriculum for children of military families. These students may frequently move due to one or both parents’ assignments. Having a reliable computer science curriculum will help to ensure that educators working with military families can provide high-quality instruction wherever the families may go.

2. Encourages a More Integrated Approach to Computer Science

Teaching technology in isolation can decrease the relevance of the knowledge and skills gained. Students may fail to make the connection between computer science and how it might be applied in the real world.

With ESSA, educators are expected to integrate computer science with many areas of instruction. For instance, the STEM subjects offer obvious opportunities for integration. Programming a robot to perform simple tasks can happen as early as elementary school. Older students can write code to create applications for gathering and sharing data about the environmental health of the planet. These efforts of citizen scientists make crowdsourcing through technology a necessary part of academic studies.

Integrating computer science can be just as important in the arts and humanities. As an example, graphic design is a skill regularly employed in advanced secondary courses such as journalism and business education. Most teachers, when they take a step back, will realize that computer science is already a tacit part of their curriculum and instruction. With a little forethought, entry points can be found or created to facilitate this integration at a deeper level.

3. Expects Student Learning Results with Increased Funding

The Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund makes ESSA dollars available for new instructional approaches. Awarded projects are expected to foster tangible, positive outcomes in student learning. Results matter as much as the efforts.

One example involves an Arizona State University program called CompuGirls. It aims to improve computer literacy for girls living in high-needs rural and urban areas. The focus of these efforts is to improve non-cognitive skills such as self-efficacy and resilience through computer-related coursework. Resources that are allocated through competitive ESSA programs such as i3 are based on measurable outcomes. This will help ensure funds are used effectively. The findings from these projects are to be shared widely with other educators.

Like any government policy, funding and guidance are only as effective as how well they are implemented at the classroom level. Teachers and students will need the resources, training, and support from building- and district-level leadership in order to make the federal promise of computer science for all a reality.

Posted in K-12 TrendsTagged , , Leave a Comment on 3 Ways ESSA Gets Computer Science Education Right