Inquiry Learning Vs. Standardized Content: Can They Coexist?

| May 20, 2013 | 28 Comments
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By Thom Markham

As Common Core State Standards are incorporated from school to school across the country, educators are discussing their value. It may seem that educators are arguing over whether the CCSS will roll out as a substitute No Child Left Behind curriculum or as an innovative guide to encourage inquiry rather than rote learning. In reality, as time will prove, we’re arguing over whether content standards are still appropriate.

Everyday there is less standardization of information, making it nearly impossible to decide what a tenth-grader should know. Beyond the core literacies of reading, writing, computation, and research, the world-wide culture of innovation, discovery, multi-polarity, interdisciplinary thinking, and rapid change depends on the explosive potential of the human mind, not entombed truths from the past. Increasingly, any standards-based curriculum is at odds with the outside world.

There is only one resolution to the debate. Sooner or later, inquiry-standards will take precedence over content-based standards. Education’s core task is to prepare young people to generate new ideas, filter them through a net of critical analysis and reflection, and move the ideas through a design process to create a quality product, either as an idea or a material object. Students need information, facts, and specific knowledge for a successful outcome. But that information must be gathered during the process of creation, in a usable, just-in-time format not found in “subjects.”

If you’re a teacher in tune with the needs of your students, you sense the disconnect between the curriculum and reality. You’d like the freedom to respond more directly to student needs, but standardized information and testing remains a barrier to innovative teaching.

So how can you, as a teacher, help move the dialogue forward? First, you can focus on becoming a highly-effective project based learning (PBL) teacher. When done well, PBL is the most effective method education has at the moment to introduce and practice inquiry-based education.

But PBL is the near-term solution. The ultimate destination is to align education with the requirements of a process-based world. This means we need to invent and agree on a set of clearly prescribed methods that promote inquiry, permeate the learning environment, and become as embedded in education as the current content standards. The move to integrate 21st century skills into the curriculum is a start. But to really advance the cause, the following ideas will need to take root.

REDEFINE RIGOR. As the Google-age fully blossoms, the fundamental shift is from information to attitude. The instant, ubiquitous availability of knowledge puts enormous responsibility on the individual, as they try to sift through, discern, apply, and share information. This is not a simple cognitive exercise. Success in this environment requires a mix of self-awareness, empathy, and collaborative skills, as well as grit and self-direction. Eventually, the measure of student performance will be the demonstrated ability to use personal strengths to move gracefully through a connected world. We’ve started along this path, by the way. Portfolios measure personal growth and achievement; the best collaboration and teamwork rubrics assess empathy; many PBL teachers have found work ethic rubrics to be a great tool for measuring attitude and productivity.
BLEND CRITICAL THINKING, SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING, AND OTHER VALUABLE SKILLS. In the search for better inquiry methods, the gaming industry has much to teach education. A case in point is a recent article by Mark Prensky, a leading games and learning advocate, who suggests reorganizing the curriculum into four areas that blend inquiry and performance. Let’s call these the 4 E’s: Effective Accomplishment, including portfolios, content mastery, tests, and assessment; Effective Action, including goal setting, persistence, and work ethic; Effective Relationships, including communication, teamwork, and empathy; and Effective Thinking, including critical thinking, creativity, and content acquisition. There are several advantages to developing this framework, chief of which it recognizes that the foundation for today’s skills is emotional balance and self-awareness, and it integrates valuable skills into the curriculum core, rather than extending their current status as an add on to academic work.

TEACH INQUIRY SKILLS. Creativity, problem-solving, design thinking, and critical analysis are learnable skills that benefit from intentional instruction. The options are many, starting with exercises in creativity and brainstorming, regular use of protocols to practice sharing and giving feedback on divergent ideas; and consistent assessment of the inquiry process using high quality performance rubrics for problem solving, design or creativity. We’ve also made inroads here. The eight Mathematical Practices accompanying the CCSS math sequence is an impressive guide to inquiry skills. But so far it’s been difficult to locate a missing link: A performance rubric for students that defines their level of performance on each practice.

MAKE COHORTS AND TEAMS THE PRACTICE, NOT THE EXCEPTION. Probably the most deeply embedded norm of industrial education, originating from the 15th century, is the ideal of the individual scholar. The default mode is to aim teaching at a single student, and assess and recognize accomplishments gained through individual performance. But we must shift this towards

team learning. The collaborative world succeeds through interaction and exchange, and it’s important to move towards deep, peer-driven learning and performance. A supportive team that meets regularly during the course of a unit will provide feedback and help each student produce a better individual product. In an inquiry-based classroom, this should be standard practice.

SEE THE BALANCE BETWEEN INQUIRY AND CONTENT AS A DYNAMIC. This dilemma—<Should I teach content or turn students loose to figure out things on their own?—is at the heart of the debate over teacher preparation for the CCSS. Knowing when to teach directly, or allow for problem solving, is a high art. But that is what inquiry-based education demands. For some content, the best choice is <just teach it. Other topics can’t be taught, but must be learned through discovery, trial and error, or prototyping—all of which require more time. In an inquiry-based world, lesson design allows for fluidity, mini-lessons, and ample time for process. Success relies on whether teachers have the ability—and give themselves permission—to move back and forth between content and process.

THE CIRCLE OF CONTROL. The chief obstacle to an inquiry-based system is us. To give up a content-based curriculum, with its deep traditions, proven techniques for controlling behavior and outcomes, and dominating, standardized regimen, feels like giving a 14-year old the keys to the car and a full tank of gas. It’s scary. The shift into the next, non-industrial phase of schooling is a psychological issue, not just a logistical one. The world that is opening up requires faith that something new, and better, is being born, but in the short term, it can feel like it’s falling apart. But I’ll leave you with two thoughts. First, it’s happening, whether we agree or not. Second, we’ll need good minds to figure it out, meaning more of those young people in your classroom who have been well trained in the art and skill of inquiry.

Thom Markham is a speaker, writer, psychologist, school redesign consultant, and the author of the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for inquiry and innovation for K-12 educators. To download the tools for inquiry, go to the PBL tools page on www.thommarkham.com.

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  • http://twitter.com/mzteachuh Melanie Taylor, M.Ed

    Dynamic ideas–but everything hinges on the staff.

    • Rebecca Dovi

      Or the autonomy of the staff. We are under enormous pressure to standardize instruction. Often this type of teaching has to be clandestine

      • briecee

        Yes, like the author of this piece, saying we must prescribe one “effective” method of instruction instead of letting teachers as professionals discover when to use which techniques for what student. Let’s prescribe rather than differentiate. That’s a great plan.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sabine.thompson1 Sabine Thompson

    A lot of it hinges on the students, too, such as their developmental age and ability to self monitor & stay on task. Maybe we need to start with mindfulness training.

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  • Jillbie

    By all means, let’s have students create knowledge using their vastly superior peer-mediated electronically constructed reality. What do old people know anyway? Parlez-vous francais? The circumference of a circle? A cubic yard? The Magna Carta? Heck, the Constitution? Gravity? A sonnet? H2O? Go look it up. Knowledge is as close as your latest electronic device.

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    • Bruce_William_Smith

      Pretty shallow people are going to emerge from the kind of pure enquiry-based schools described — if they go to schools at all, instead of merely logging on to their educations from home. Granted, 21st-century life has raised the value of some of the skills and attitudes Mr. Markham describes; but not to the extent where all of the other activities, knowledge, and traditions that education has built up over time have become useless, to be consigned to some trash heap.

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  • DearTeacherLT

    Thank you so much for the food for thought! As a Title I teacher, I have learned that teaching the process of learning and problem solving far outweighs the content…though the more you can mix both, the better students will do on standardized tests. I do think that I need to do a better job of preparing my students for the world they will enter as adults. Thanks for writing this article!

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  • http://www.lmslogin.org/ L.M.S

    So here is a though, what about creating schools that get everyone together (like a traditional college) but the curriculum are based on the free online classes offord from MIT, Harvard, Standford, etc… the student get top notch knowledge, a guide in the form of a teacher that further explains the online teachers course and the comradery at the same time for cheap.

    L.M.S

  • Ellen

    I teach grades 5 through 8 and yes, most of my male students are serious gamers and they amaze me at what they can do, figure out and apply but they lack real knowledge in so many subjects, if they had to interview for a job, most of these students would blow the interview. They can speak techy language but are lacking in social skills, general knowledge in both applied and practical areas. Alot of my students cant even hold a conversation. Breadth of knowledge is missing, or very weak. I am proposing we keep the content and just and go process when the topic calls for that approach. But let’s not make it an either/or learning proposition. Divergent thinking is a higher order cognitive skill that students can learn to do but not at the expense of real content knowledge.

  • Ellen

    Here’s a thought…teachers should always introduce a topic with a content lesson, so that specific common knowledge is handed down, then teachers should present an inquiry-base lesson on this same topic. This is simple…teach one topic in two distinct ways, that way students who differ in cognitive abilities can learn utilizing thsir strength an minimizing their weaknesses.

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  • Pat

    For many years I have felt that to some extent students’ educations have suffered due to core standards that did not encourage interesting and inventive teaching strategies. While I recognize the importance of having core standards as a guide to educating students, I also know that encouraging students to figure things out instead of just giving them information to memorize in order to pass a test is more supportive of neurological activity necessary for greater understanding that is more readily retained because of stimulation and connection of synapse in the brain. Allowing students to explore various methods to gain true understanding through project based learning makes information more accessible than that which is simply memorized and soon forgotten. Core standards that restrict teachers with time restraints to cover a set amount of material rarely allows enough time for teachers and students to do project based learning activities and explore ideas to actually gain true understanding of a subject. Students are being passed through classes based on test scores that may or may not reflect their comprehension of topic as long as they have made an attempt to memorize information that’s been presented. Unfortunately, many students’ ability to access information seems to be lost when weeks later they are tested using a different format that requires that they apply the knowledge they’ve acquired. I fully support project based learning, but I also know that it is unreasonable to consider that teachers in public schools have ample time to use this approach when they must cover all the material stipulated in core standards for a certain grade level with a specific amount of time allotted to do so. I think in a perfect world all teachers would be allowed to take as much time as students may need to gain full comprehension of information presented through project based learning, but as unfortunate as it may be, school systems must have some set standards to ensure that any public education is available, so I don’t foresee changes to time restraints set by core standards to support project based learning as it should be done anytime soon.

  • Susan

    The problem is in introducing theses abstract approaches at developmentally inappropriate times. Big mistake! Every musician needs to learn the rote rudiments of music before he or she can compose a creative song. You are expecting songs without teaching the notes! We will have a big mess in 20 years thanks to the application of inquiry based learning implemented at ages when kids need the basics. This approach is costing parents millions in tutoring fees and worst of all, costing our kids the joy of learning. Shame on you people carrying this approach out!

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  • bimna

    Just letting you know you have a typo in the headline!
    راهبنددرب اتوماتیک شیشه ای

  • diama

    Childhood education is very important … کرکره برقی

  • webmaster403

    REDEFINE RIGOR. As the Google-age fully blossoms, the fundamental shift is from information to attitude.

  • webmaster403

    REDEFINE RIGOR. As the Google-age fully blossoms, the fundamental shift is from information to attitude.
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