Why Inquiry Learning is Worth the Trouble

Visualization of SLA principal Chris Lehmann's talk about guiding kids toward thinking about how they think.
Visualization of SLA principal Chris Lehmann's 2011 talk: guiding kids' to thinking about how they think.

Nearly seven years after first opening its doors, the Science Leadership Academy public magnet high school* in Philadelphia and its inquiry-based approach to learning have become a national model for the kinds of reforms educators strive towards.

But in a talk this past weekend at EduCon 2.5, the school’s sixth-annual conference devoted to sharing its story and spreading its techniques, Founding Principal Chris Lehmann insisted that replicating his schools approach required difficult tradeoffs.

“This is not easy. This is not perfect,” Lehmann told a crowd of devotees stuffed inside one of the Center City school’s second-floor science classrooms on Sunday. “There are really challenging pieces of this, and we should be OK with this.”

Lehmann’s 90-minute question-and-answer session tackled coming to terms with the impact of a shift to inquiry-driven learning by defining three steps: the enigmatic meaning of inquiry-based learning; the visible changes that signal a shift to that approach; and the potential drawbacks that shift may surface.

INQUIRING ABOUT INQUIRY

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Lehmann said it’s important to question whether alleged “personalized,” “project-based,” or “collaborative” learning efforts are actually helping students and teachers to “hold ourselves in a state of questioning."

For example, adaptive software that leads students through English/language arts or mathematics on a pace set by their own abilities fails to force students to ask questions about that material, contextualize it in real life, or communicate about the concepts with others, Lehmann said. The same is true of collaborative projects where restrictive guidelines result in several, nearly-identical finished products across student groups.

In a true inquiry-based model, how learning happens isn’t as important as whether that learning encourages students to try to learn even more. Lehmann compared the scenario to the plight of a two-year-old child who has graduated from “yes” and “no” and proceeded onto an endless string of “why's.”

“To me it comes down to process,” Lehmann said. “Inquiry means living in the soup. Inquiry means living in that uncomfortable space where we don’t know the answer.”

SIGNS YOU’RE ON THE RIGHT TRACK

Although nailing down inquiry-based learning is a bit like trying to define the human soul, there are some indicators Lehmann and his audience both agreed signaled progress down the right path.

To paraphrase one teacher, a classroom where students are empowered to direct and control their own learning is one sign. Feeling tension between the direction of a course and the material covered on a standardized final examination may be another, said a second teacher.

“Oh God, yeah,” Lehmann said in response to the latter teacher. “There’s a reason we don’t offer [Advanced Placement] Classes here. If we are a truly inquiry-based school, why would our highest-level classes end in a test?”

Increased collaboration between students and increasing student scrutiny of educational content were two other signs Lehmann and the group said signaled the right approach, even if they clashed with classroom norms. For example, collaboration can often lead to tricky discussions about what part of a students’ work are his or her own and what part is recycled.

Lastly, good inquiry-based learning should include a means for publication and communication, whether through blogs, printed reports, multimedia packages, etc. But Lehmann also said, in some cases, students should have the right to decide whether to publish their work.

“One of the scariest things about inquiry-based learning is the blank page,” Lehmann said. “When you’re toying with the ideas at first, sometimes your ideas don’t have to be social to the world.”

ACCEPTING THE DRAWBACKS

Inquiry-based education should improve student engagement, critical thinking skills, and cross-disciplinary opportunities, Lehmann said. But it may also hinder lesson planning, covering content benchmarks, and assessing student progress.

In a school that asks students to seize some autonomy over the course of their studies, the teachers most comfortable at the Science Leadership Academy are often the teachers most capable of improvising and deviating from a lesson plan, or even entering a class period without a lesson plan at all.

Further, while Lehmann believes the approach leaves students with the analytical tools they need to succeed on English/language arts standardized tests, he acknowledges that both teaching mathematics in general, and teaching it so students succeed on state and national benchmarks, is harder to do in an inquiry-driven fashion.

“Math is a little harder, and I own that,” said Lehmann.

Creating teacher-administered assessments that accurately measure progress, in an environment where the path is often long and winding, is also difficult.

“That could probably be 10 sessions of EduCon,” Lehmann quipped. “’What are we authentically assessing when we assess?’”

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*[CLARIFICATION: Science Leadership Academy is a public magnet school, not a charter, as previously written.]

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