If you have not heard about inquiry-based education, you will.
It’s becoming the new normal in teaching and learning and it represents a quantum shift from quantitative approaches to education – practices that centered on testing, standards, measured curriculum benchmarks and learning specific facts about very specific things. Practices that, by and large, have not proven to work too well.
By contrast, inquiry-based education is more free flowing, more student directed and encourages students to embrace the process of learning and exploring, following their own curiosities to find answers. It’s a rudimentary overview, but think of it as letting students learn how to find answers instead of telling them what those answers are.
Experts think highly of the approach. They say inquiry and exploration learning develop the skills that students really need, things such as creativity, persistence, iteration, teamwork and communication instead of just learning dates and dynasties and facts and formulae. When Alexa can tell you the answer to anything you want to know, learning how to appreciate learning, understanding the important questions to ask, may be the best possible outcome of learning.
But there are some prerequisites, some ground rules to making it work. Teachers have to learn how to teach kids in this new way, just turning kids loose to chase their ideas has real limitations.
For example, in Finland where they call it phenomenon-based learning, students pick what they want to learn and go off to explore and learn about it, preparing a final presentation or project that can be shared and/or graded. During Helsinki Education Week, I was able to visit a middle school which was one of the first schools to pilot the Finnish version of inquiry education. The principal there said that the first year they asked students what they wanted to explore, 65% of them submitted inquiry projects on Justin Bieber.
“We knew that was a problem,” she said. So, they began setting specific swim lanes. Teachers assigned broad topics such as “the Baltic Sea” or “the forest.” This year, the topic is “fairy tales.” But, the principal said, teachers soon realized that, while giving topic areas cut down on Biebermania, their students didn’t know much about the core subject to start — they did not really know what fairy tales are, they didn’t have exposure to many. So, they could not ask good questions about them.
Therefore, even before unleashing the students to find good questions, teachers had to spend time in old fashioned teaching. They had to set the floor on which the students could erect their towers of observation and deduction. Teachers had to learn when and how to nudge and suggest without simply answering or dictating.
That’s different, by design.
“Inquiry education isn’t just a new way of learning, it’s really is a new way of thinking about, approaching some of the core objectives of teaching,” said Shanti Elangovan, CEO and Founder of InquirED, a Chicago-based company that’s specializing in designing, delivering and training teachers to use new inquiry-based curriculum here in the US. They already have several districts using their programs to teach students and teachers alike in how to use an inquiry-based approach to social studies – a subject area in deep and ongoing need of reinvention and new practices.
“There are volumes of research about how and why inquiry-based education is better for students,” said Elangovan. “But here’s what we often miss: it’s also better for teachers, more effective, more rewarding.”
That’s a sentiment shared by the teachers who’ve been trying and learning with inquiry education for the past few years in Finland, which is, by the way, consistently considered to have the best education system in the world.
To some, simply being the best may not be a good enough reason to follow what they do – method of teaching or curriculum aside, the Finnish and American education systems have notable differences. In Finland, for example, teachers are social leaders with stature in their communities on par with doctors. In the U.S., we are certainly not there.
Even so, it should be clear that we need a few new approaches because the heavy-handed, testing-driven, top-down machinery we’ve built is not working. In fact, the headline on a recent New York Times article about American test scores was titled, “‘It Just Isn’t Working’: PISA Test Scores Cast Doubt on U.S. Education Efforts.” The article noted our international test scores have been stuck for twenty years.
We probably don’t need to set American curiosities free to obsess over Justin Bieber any more than they already are. No good will come of that. But we do need to set them free in general, to learn about learning, to be inquisitive, resourceful and entrepreneurial, and to help our teachers teach them how to be those things.