Reinventing School From the Ground Up For Inquiry Learning

| September 11, 2013 | 18 Comments
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By Thom Markham

A grave miscalculation exists in the minds of many educators: That inquiry-based learning, project based learning, and 21st century competencies can flourish in industrial model schools. Under this world view, the inquiry goals of the Common Core State Standards are “strategies” to be added to the existing list of classroom techniques, while skills like collaboration, communication, or creativity can be taught despite 43-minute periods, desks in rows, and pacing guides set in stone.

In other words, reaching the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy is important, but less so than maintaining regimental order.

But what we know—from industry and neuroscience—is that organizational structure, environment, and human performance are deeply intertwined. It is inevitable that schools must be completely redesigned if society wants to tap the wellsprings of creativity and exploration that the industrial system subdues.

This redesign issue looms large. A small number of schools around the country that began life as charters or academies have developed successful inquiry-based systems. But spurred by the Common Core and the urgency to teach 21st century competencies, a huge wave of settlers is now trying to emulate the pioneers by becoming “inquiry-based” schools. By and large, this group is composed of well-performing K–12 schools—neighborhood schools with solid test scores, a traditional approach, and a winning formula that makes them resistant to change. To ramp up, they usually sponsor a few days of professional development in project-based learning or Common Core instruction, but don’t address the backbone of the school organization or culture. The results for project based learning have been predictable. High-quality, engaging project-based work has thrived in a few classrooms, but failed to establish itself and flourish. The breakthrough behaviors seen in the pioneering schools haven’t occurred. Teachers shrug, and carry on.

But a historical moment has arrived. Confusion over the Common Core and uncertainty about the role of standards in general, explosive technologies that have finally reached and overwhelmed brick-and-mortar processes in schools, and the panicky recognition that competency in today’s world requires skills and resiliency in addition to a degree—these and other factors have suddenly fractured the industrial model beyond repair.

For all of us, as citizens and educators, in this country and others, it’s way past time for school “improvement,” and high time to invent fresh organizations designed for inquiry— the ecosystem for inquiry, in which all elements of the environment act holistically to grow, nurture, and sustain the qualities of heart and mind necessary for students and teachers to learn to ask good questions instead of finding right answers. That’s a very high bar, but that’s the ultimate goal of 21st century learning.

How to develop this ecosystem? Only two qualities are required: Imagination and bravery. The first is the least difficult. Schools that facilitate brightness and joy in young people have solved the initial mysteries of organizing learning around inquiry. There are models to emulate. But transforming an entire system under the pressure of future shock takes collective courage and a powerful foundation of collaboration, trust, and openness. Machiavelli, despite a negative reputation, was an astute observer of his own era. “The times are too big for our brains,” he said. So it is now. Disruption is hard. To work your way through it requires many minds and a shared commitment.

Beyond that, the ecosystem metaphor works. Inquiry grows with the right combination of soil, sun, and water. You start with a seed, and remove every barrier on its path to a flower. This is the reverse, of course, of the usual school redesign process, in which the child must fit the system. The great shift in our own thinking, in this age of Google and breathtaking events, is that the system must be fitted to the child.

So bravery and imagination might need an ally: Deep inquiry of our own. In fact, if we as educators want deep learning, we’ll need to enter into the same process as students. What deep questions can we ask ourselves to start the process right? Here are a few ideas:

Are we moving towards personalized care for students? Debating the efficacy of the Common Core is a sidebar conversation. Deeper learning and inquiry happen in the presence of engagement, transcending lists of standards. Engagement is muted by teacher talk, disrespectful communications, too many “thou shall not” signs, classroom rules designed to enforce compliance rather than collaboration, a laundry list of outcomes, and a thousand other remnants of industrial herding. Experience in high-performing organizational cultures—and now neuroscience itself—tells us that fear and control limits the brain. Inquiry flows out of the frontal part of the brain—the place of wondering, questioning, and creativity—a part of the brain activated by the feeling of “connectedness” and stimulated by mentorship and communal care.

Are we empowering ourselves as teachers? In this day and age, change is peer-driven and crowd-sourced. Teachers need to see themselves as the leaders of change, not the tools of Superintendents or Departments of Education. This requires disruption on two levels. Conversations among teachers must range far beyond ordering new textbooks, deciding on a curriculum, or reviewing the tardy policy. Traditional structures, such as department meetings and grade-level teams, encourage this limited agenda. Professional Learning Networks offer a great structure, but must be energized by conversations oriented toward a meta-cognitive view of the organization rather than rearranging deck chairs. And, to make the collaboration deep and meaningful, the conversation must become more personal. Every teacher should be willing to share hopes and fears, examine biases, and reveal attitudes. This is the kind of ‘open space’ that develops the necessary momentum for shifting systems by linking people emotionally to a common mission.

 Are we probing our mission and values? Schools must fulfill their in loco parentis responsibilities and have orderly processes for managing the learning of hundreds of young people. But the combination of seat time, instructional minutes, five-minute passing periods, zero periods, and other encrusted structures more often resemble a well-designed holding pen than the open architecture that meshes mind and surroundings to create joyful inquiry. A good place to start is to examine, collaboratively and sincerely, the District mission and values statements. Most of the statements are actually quite good; it’s just that industrial education hasn’t taken them seriously. But start there and ask: If this is what we promise, how do we do it?

Are we making 21st century competencies the centerpiece of instruction? Often overlooked, even by experts in project based learning, is that inquiry isn’t designed to teach information; it’s designed to set up the conditions under which students become more skillful. That’s why it’s inherently student-centered. Successful inquiry requires skillful competencies, which are a deep amalgam of habits, personality, and an experiential knowledge base. Schools of the future will always be just plain teaching information, but it’s time for all schools to weave skills, subjects, and academic achievement into a seamless whole that defines expectations for students. How do schools begin to make skills central? Agree that every teacher, of every subject, shares equal responsibility for teaching and evaluating skills. Draw up standardized performance rubrics that gauge and reinforce the competencies in students. Make skills 60% of the grade. Those three steps alone will put any school on the path to creating an ecosystem for inquiry.

Thom Markham is a speaker, writer, psychologist, and internationally respected consultant in the critical areas of inquiry based education, project based learning, and creativity. Thom is the author of the best selling Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for innovation and inquiry for K-12 educators. Reach him through www.thommarkham.com or tweet him @thommarkham.

 

 

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  • Eve Tulbert-Diab

    Really good article–the thoughts and ideas are spot on. Can we transform the existing structure in side of the school walls that were built under the industrial model? I think the key is in turning the world around us into the laboratory and inquiry zone…Thanks!

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  • Brent Silby Maestro B

    Seems a little naive to me. The author makes the unsupported assumption that Inquiry learning is effective. It may well be, but there is no evidence offered to show that it works. The closest we get is a passing nod to neuro-science. But nothing specifically is referenced. What we do know from neuro-science is that the cognitive load required for pure Inquiry learning (i.e. the old style Discovery learning) is too high and renders the process ineffective (see: Sweller et al, “Cognitive Load Theory” and Clark et al, “Putting Students on the Path to Learning”). No-where in the article do they address criticisms that have been leveled against Inquiry learning (and there are a great many). The article contains emotive language, hyperbole, false dichotomies, and is more a piece of rhetoric than a rationally convincing argument. I strongly urge educators to demand a more robust argument.

    • Nathan Woods

      Good point, Brent. This article is not only imbalanced in that it does not acknowledge well-known criticisms, it is also contradictory. Educators should indeed demand more.

      A focus on skills development, or “competencies”, is not student-centered; it is society-centered. The 21st century skills and competencies aimed at are those valued by society not the learner. In a student/learner-centered approach the learner decides what is meaningful and is not required to achieve and display skills or competencies that are predetermined and valued by others. A defining characteristic of the student-centered ideology is that it does not view children as adults-in-the-making; it views the child as a whole person with immediate needs and interests and an innate desire to make sense out of his or her world.

      This article actually promotes a social-efficeny curriculum ideology – the very thing it also attacks. We really do need more informed, and balanced conversations about education than this.

    • Kym Fry

      How do we assess the effectiveness of inquiry when the assessment that is valued focuses on traditional-type teaching and on how accurately students can reproduce those taught ideas? The assessment that provides the evidence doesn’t measure what is learnt through inquiry! There is little research on how effective learning is in this classroom culture and more research is required if a rationally convincing argument can be put forward. I don’t think the author spoke at all about ‘the old style Discovery Learning’ so that comment is irrelevant. I agree that educators should demand a more robust argument rather than a tired one that we have heard for centuries past that does not support a 21st century learner. Top article.

      • Brent Silby Maestro B

        You say, “The assessment that provides the evidence doesn’t measure what is learnt through inquiry”. Hmmm. So there is no assessment that provides evidence of the success of Inquiry? Then how can you know that Inquiry is effective?

        What precisely is a “21st century learner”? Sounds like a buzzword to me. What centuries old argument are you referring to? Is something not valuable simply because of its age? What evidence do you have that a so-called “21st century learner” learns better through Inquiry learning than through traditional teaching?

        If you’re looking for evidence that learning is effective in a classroom culture, then look at all the postgrads at University. Look at the people who designed and built all the technology we use. Look at the people who are currently promoting Inquiry learning. Look at the scientists, the doctors, the philosophers. These people are all products of the classroom – traditional teaching. Their success indicates a level of success.

        In addition, check Schwerdt and Wuppermann “Is Traditional Teaching Really All That Bad?”, Kirschner “Do Learners Really Know Best”, Hirsch “A Wealth of Words”, Rata “The Politics of Knowledge in Education”, and Young “Curriculum for a Knowledge Society”. There’s some evidence there for you. Go forth, research!

        • http://bitbyteyum.com/ Brian Anderson

          “…look at all the postgrads at University. Look at the people who designed and built all the technology we use. Look at the people who are currently promoting Inquiry learning. Look at the scientists, the doctors, the philosophers. These people are all products of the classroom – traditional teaching. Their success indicates a level of success.”

          Brent, I agree that there are some buzzwords in this article that have little tangible meaning. But your statement here is unsubstantiated. Nearly everyone goes through some level of “traditional teaching” it is unavoidable in the United States, that does not mean that the classroom learning was what produced these great technologies, companies or philosophers. There are some SmartPeople(tm) that have brought disruption to their field who did not thrive in the classroom. My concern is that if we say “look what the past has produced” we’ll continue to look backward and not forward toward new innovative ways of education.

          • Brent Silby Maestro B

            “Nearly everyone goes through some level of “traditional teaching” it is unavoidable”

            That is sort of my overall point. Our history of science, thought, and technological achievement was built on the back of traditional teaching.

            “that does not mean that the classroom learning was what produced these great technologies”

            Sure, but so far no-one has produced any evidence to show otherwise. It has certainly played a part in the process and has certainly not prevented these accomplishments.

            “My concern is that … we’ll continue to look backward and not forward toward new innovative ways of education”

            But if traditional methods work, then why the huge shift to look for something new? Now, I’m not saying education shouldn’t evolve. What I am saying is that we shouldn’t ditch traditional methods simply because they are old. We shouldn’t ditch what has been shown to work? We shouldn’t ditch anything simply because a group of ideologists have sold something to us on the basis of emotive reasoning and buzzwords rather than evidence. No-one has shown me any evidence that the ideas presented in the above article are more effective than traditional teaching methods. The burden of proof sits with those who present these new ideas.

            We seem to be being told that we have to jump onto an all or nothing bandwagon. Where is the balance? Paradigm shifts should only occur if the previous paradigm has failed. But no-one has yet convinced me that it has failed. Kids still go through school, go to university, and get jobs and careers. It seems to work nicely.

    • erika761

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    • paul moss

      seems pretty simple to me – do you want students who question things, or just follow what’s presented to them? The fact that you answer this question proves it’s the former.

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  • MikeSadofsky

    These remarks seem to still consider “learning” as derivative from “instruction”. For an effective approach to inquiry based learning, see the process embraced by the Sudbury Valley School as articulated at http://www.sudval.org and in their printed literature.

    • Brent Silby Maestro B

      I’d rather read something independent, e.g. peer reviewed research. Going to the website of a school that supports a certain approach is more like looking at an advertisement. It has bias written all over it.

      What I want to read is a critical analysis of the strengths and limitations of this approach.

  • JohnFaig

    I was confused by the article. The title was very ambitious, but the content did sync with the title. There is no doubt that “inquiry-based learning, project based learning, and 21st century competencies” will NOT be able to “flourish in industrial model schools.” Said differently, we do not support “the ecosystem for inquiry, in which … students and teachers to learn to ask good questions instead of finding right answers.” Teachers and students need to be inquisitive and ask better questions of each other. Learning should be cooperative. I don’t see much of this cooperation. Project-based learning and inquiry-based learning are interrelated, but Inquiry-based learning will fall prey to the same shortcomings of project-based learning. “the results for project based learning have been predictable. High-quality, engaging project-based work has thrived in a few classrooms, but failed to establish itself and flourish.”

    I have NO idea why a discussion of pedagogy would involve Common Core standards. One of the last sentences hit the nail on the head, “inquiry isn’t designed to teach information; it’s designed to set up the conditions under which students become more skillful.” Why didn’t you spend more time discussing this – it was the eye-catching title :-(

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