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Reinventing School From the Ground Up For Inquiry Learning

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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 or tweet him @thommarkham.




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