Monday, October 29, 2012

What “Inquiring Minds” Need to Know

There are many discussions happening about 21st Century teaching and learning. Lots of conversations about skills such as collaboration, adaptability, creativity, effective communication and the ability to analyze and synthesize information.

How do we help kids prepare for a world where knowledge is abundant and opportunities for learning are everywhere?

One strategy for bridging this gap is the use of an “Inquiry” or “Active Learning” lesson design. Although not exactly new, the use of inquiry is challenging for teachers, students and parents who are unfamiliar with it. Randall D. Knight at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo has compiled a list of research-based active learning strategies most suitable for teaching physics in his book, Five Easy Lessons: Strategies for Successful Physics Teaching (Addison Wesley, 2004). These strategies for active learning and inquiry can apply to any content area but have been used in science education for years.
Knight points out that active learning strategies have five traits, which are quoted here from his 2004 book:

   Students spend much of class time actively engaged in physics. The engagement consists of thinking, talking, and doing physics, not merely listening to someone else talk about physics.
   Students interact with their peers. Communication between and among individual students and groups is an important component of knowledge construction - developing, sharing, and evaluating ideas and processes.
   Students receive immediate feedback on their work. Students receive corrective feedback from their peers or the teacher as appropriate to the learning situation. Students must have a standard against which to measure their propositional and procedural knowledge.
   The instructor is more of a facilitator, less of a conveyor of knowledge. The saying, "The teacher should be a guide on the side, and not a sage on the stage" is a statement that helps make the point. Students should "construct" knowledge from observations and reflections whenever possible. This includes the development of concepts and laws from first-hand laboratory experiences.
   Students take responsibility for their knowledge. This includes student metacognition (knowing what one knows and doesn't know) and self regulation (bringing oneself into compliance with expectations).

Inquiry is more difficult than it may sound. It is a strategy that challenges many of our traditional ideas about how classrooms should be organized and what teachers should be doing. It feels “loosely constructed” and can be particularly hard for students who are most successful when they have very clear guidelines and feel most effective when given highly organized directions. Inquiry feels sloppy at times and requires a very different kind of thinking.

It is critical that students gain understanding and practice with inquiry-based lessons because they mimic many of the experiences that they will have when they participate in college coursework and the workplace. Employers continue to echo that they need talented young people who are able to find creative solutions to problems without needing a lot of direction. Successful people today are prepared to create their own jobs and not assume that they will one day be working for someone else.

Inquiry is important. We have to model it and help our kids have the “grit” to figure things out.

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