Inquiry Teaching: A Hallmark of Teaching in a Democratic Society

Teachers who instill as sense of inquiry in their classrooms are the educators who lead the rest of us out of the conservative and neoliberal paradigms that dominate education today.  These teachers know that teaching is not about skills, economic growth, job training and transmission of information.  To these teachers, classroom teaching is about equity, helping students learn to collaborate to learn, progressivism, and risk-taking.

Teachers who embody inquiry as a cornerstone in their philosophy of teaching are willing to cross into the unknown, and bring students along with them.  The teachers I have known who embrace this philosophy are courageous, imaginative, and creative.  Their method or pedagogy is influenced and based on a philosophy of inquiry in which they see their role as helping their students learn how to learn, as well as develop a love affair with learning.

Last month I published a little book entitled The Artistry of Teaching, that challenges the assumptions of present day reformers by showing that schooling is much more than teaching to the test, and that student learning should be encourage in a humanistic and experiential environment.  It’s about how teachers mingle art and science, as well theory and practice. It is about the artistry of teaching.

The fabric of teaching that emerges from teachers who practice inquiry is a mingling of art and science, theory and practice.

I put together a slide show that explores inquiry teaching based in part on The Artistry of Teaching.

There are many stories about inquiry teaching.  What are some of your ideas and beliefs about inquiry?

A Story of Global Inquiry in Action

Eighth Article in the Series, Artistry in Teaching

In this article I am going talk about a project that grew out of personal and professional relationships among teachers from different countries.  Through reciprocal exchanges among educators in U.S. (most of whom where from schools in Georgia) and Russia (most of whom were from Moscow, Pushchino and St. Petersburg) a project emerged from the ground up to creation of the Global Thinking Project, a project steeped in inquiry and humanistic education.

Fran Macy, Director of the first AHP-Soviet Exchange Project delegation in September 1983 standing in front of the Russian train, The Tolstoy.
Fran Macy, Director of the first AHP-Soviet Exchange Project delegation in September 1983 standing in front of the Russian train, The Tolstoy.

Thirty years ago, a Russian train left Helsinki for Moscow carrying psychologists and educators from North America who were participants in the first citizen diplomacy project sponsored by the Association for Humanistic Psychology (AHP).

That train trip was the start of a 20-year Track-II  Diplomacy Project (coined by Joseph Montville–non-officials engaging in dialog to resolve conflicts and solve problems), and evolved into a global teacher and student environmental activist project that brought together hundreds of teachers and students not only from the United States and the former Soviet Union, but colleagues and students in many other countries including Australia, the Czech Republic, and Spain.

The 1983 train trip changed my life, and the lives of countless science and social science teachers, school principals, researchers, students (ages 12 – 18) and their parents in several countries.

Citizen Science and Youth Activism

At the center of this environmental project was the idea that citizens from different countries could work together to solve problems by being open to using inquiry and humanistic thinking.  Dr. Jenny Springer, principal of Dunwoody High School, in DeKalb County, Georgia was clear about how this could happen in a speech at the Simpsonwood Conference Center, in Norcross, Georgia.
The conference was an environmental summit for teachers and students in the Georgia-Russia Student Exchange program.  Dr. Springer said:

We must be scholars and activists. It is simply not enough to be scientists–that is to measure and calculate, but rather we must be willing to dedicate ourselves to causes–to be activists who are willing to commit to environmental and humanitarian issues.

Teachers getting wet to learn how to involve their students in social-action projects.
Teachers getting wet to learn how to involve their students in social-action projects at a small stream in SW DeKalb County, Georgia

Citizen diplomacy, citizen science, and youth activism are not new ideas, but the forces that shape contemporary education around the globe are based on issues related to work and economics.  In our capitalist system, conservative and neoliberal policies are making it more and more difficult for educators to create environments that foster the kind of inquiry and freedom needed to engage in activist projects. Put to the side in the words of Henry Giroux (2011), “are questions of justice, social freedom, and the capacity for democratic agency, action, and change as well as the related issues of power.”

During the period of 1983 – 2002, a project rooted in citizen science, youth activism, and global collaboration emerged and developed into the Global Thinking Project (GTP), a kind of hands-across-the-globe program.  It became an environmental education program based on “education for the environment,” a model that embodies the principles of Deep Ecology (library copy).

Deep Ecology, coined by Arne Naess, is a deeper approach to the study of nature exemplified in the work of Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson (Devall and Sessions 1985). In this sense, teachers encourage their students to engage in projects that help them experience the connections between themselves and nature as well as advocating a holistic approach to looking at environmental topics.

Engaging students in ways that enable them to take actions and experience environmental science as education for the environment (Michel, 1996) is what Aikenhead (2006) define as humanistic science.  This definition of humanistic science was the core of the approach to teaching science that was discussed and argued among American and Russian science teachers.

The Global Thinking project was a citizen diplomacy project that integrated citizen science, Eco justice and activism, involving hundreds of teachers, researchers and students who believed it was important to work together with people in other cultures to try to take action on important environmental questions that are both local and global.

The Lessons Seen Around the World

Visiting schools is a common practice when foreigners want to learn about a nation’s schools.  But what would happen if instead of observing teachers and students, foreigners taught lessons in science, social studies, and ecology to students in schools they were visiting?
American teachers began demonstration teaching in School 710, Moscow, a school with about 800 students from pre-school through high school.

It made all the difference in the world.  Who would have guessed?

We had visited School 710 the previous year, and at that time, an agreement was reached with the teachers and school’s head, Mr. Vadim Zhudov, that the demonstrations would:

  • Establish classroom environments where students would learn through inquiry;
  • Enable students to explore science topics in earth science and physical science;
  • Create learning situations where students would work in collaborative and cooperative learning teams

We didn’t realize how significant it was for us to teach lessons in School 710.  Those that taught lessons were naturally nervous and hoped that things would go well.  Each room was packed with observers, teachers, the Director, and researchers.  The lessons involved hands on activities and demonstrations, and small group discussion, artwork, and a take home packet of materials and a booklet in Russian for the students to share with their parents.

Our goal in these demonstration lessons was to present an approach to teaching that involved inquiry, cooperative learning and hands-on experiences to create dialogue among American and Russian teachers.  In this case, we wanted the students to take part actively in learning, a practice that was not common in Russian schools (or in American schools, for that matter).

Over the next 15 years, there were many exchanges of teachers and students, and it became tradition to have teachers conduct lessons in schools they were visiting and working with in the Global Thinking Project. Many Russian teachers taught in schools in Metro-Atanta, the Walker County School District and schools in the Savannah region of the state.

Teaching in each other’s schools was one of the most important aspects of our exchanges.  By doing this we were willing to be vulnerable not only with our adult colleagues, but it opened our collaboration to students, as well.  This personalized our work.

It also built trust.  Trust that lead to a collaborative venture of designing and implementing inquiry-based environmental lessons and projects.

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Dr. Galina Manke and a student from School 710, Moscow
Dr. Galina Manke and a student from School 710, Moscow



The GTP fostered an inquiry approach to learning by involving students in problems in their own communities, and extended inquiry to include dialog using email, bulletin boards, and videoconferences—thanks to Dr. Wayne Robinson.  In each project, students were asked to wonder and to ask questions that were relevant to environmental issues and problems in their own communities.  The GTP focused on helping students to become capable citizen scientists, or in the words Dr. Galina Manke, biology teacher at School 710 and researcher at the Russian Academy of Education:

The ideals of humanistic psychology and education were put into practice by involving teachers and students in the development of the curriculum.  The context of the GTP was dialogue among teachers, students and researchers.  Although the project began with the exchanges of teachers, administrators, and researchers, by 1992, student exchanges had begun, and during 1995 – 1998, more than 300 students and more than 75 teachers were involved in exchanges between U.S. and Russian schools.

Fostering inquiry among students and teachers in different countries lead to a problem.  How could we engage kids in distant classrooms with each other?  Today, there is an easy answer: The Internet.

But in 1990?  What’s a group of teachers to do?

Using the Internet to Foster Collaboration

In 1990, the Internet, as we know it today, was primitive.  The World Wide Web in its present configuration did not exist.  But even more so, none of the schools in Russia were connected to the Internet.  Even worse, the only phone lines we could find in Russian schools were in the Director’s (Principal) office, often times more than 1000 feet from the science classrooms.
Our vision was to somehow set up a telecommunications network among the ten schools that were in the project by 1990 (5 American and 5 Russian).  With a telecommunications network we could link schools, and use communication technologies (e-mail and bulletin boards, we also experimented with freeze frame television, and later video conferencing).  But in 1990, we still had no computers, modems or printers on the Russian side.
Our view was that a telecom network would enable students to collaborate with each other.  They could ask questions.  They could tell stories about themselves.  They could share information, indeed they could share “data” that they had acquired through their own inquiries.
The teachers in the project had strong beliefs about the role of collaborative and cooperative learning.  The GTP curriculum (a series on environmental project-based units) was organized in such a way that teams of students in each class worked together to solve problems, and then shared their collective data with students in classes in other schools, and in other countries.
But still, we had no computers in Russia.  How would we get computers in their schools?  Here’s how we did it.
We took six of these Apple SE 20 Macintosh computers and installed them in five Russian schools.  Remember the floppy disc?  How about a HD of 20 MB!
Remember the floppy disc? How about an HD of 20 MB!

Phil Gang and I went to the local Apple Computer office (in Atlanta for us), and were accompanied by five Russian colleagues who were with a larger delegation of Russian educators, and explain to Apple executives that we had developed this “global” project, but we didn’t have computers in the any of the schools in Russia.  We asked if they could help.  They gave us six Macintosh SE 20 computers and printers!  But we also needed modems.  We made a phone call to the Hayes Micromodem Company in Norcross, GA, and told them the same story.  They gave us six very high-speed modems (2400 baud).  We were all set with the technology we needed to connect all the schools.

Two months later, ten Americans flew to Moscow with the computers, printers and modems in tow, and then set up the technology in five Russian schools (2 in Moscow and 3 in St. Petersburg).
At each school, Gary Lieber  (an engineer from Apple who accompanied us throughout Russia) set up the technology that would enable teachers and students to logon to a network to send email using AppleLink, as well as post and read messages on bulletin boards we set up in the Apple Global Education network.  Each computer and modem had to be programmed to connect with a service in Moscow, which connected to an interface in Western Europe and then to the U.S. through standard telephone lines.  Amazingly, we got the system to work in every school in Russia (only blowing out one printer, e.g 220), and by the end of the two-week trip in December 1989 we had established the first Global Thinking Project Network.
The Global Thinking Project first telecommunications network using networks in the Soviet Union, Western Europe and the U.S.  AppleLink accounts were set up on each Macintosh SE20 in the Soviet Union.  American schools were able to provide their own computers.  By December 1989, the GTP network was running.

When the GTP began, we only had e-mail and bulletin boards to communicate with each other.  Over the next ten years we incorporated new technologies to include video conferencing, an interactive website, and software to enable students to post and retrieve data.

Over time, the GTP project, with no funding, expanded to other countries including Australia, Czech Republic, Argentina, Spain, Singapore, Japan, Canada, and others.

Online Projects Begin at Home

Screen Shot 2013-09-07 at 4.08.13 PMThe Global Thinking Project curriculum was organized into eight online project-based experiences designed for elementary through secondary schools.  The instructional materials are based on learning through inquiry and make use of cooperative learning as the core learning strategy.  The original GTP curriculum was published in English, Russian, Catalan, and Czech.

Three inquiry-based projects that are included here to give you an idea about the nature and instructional design of the GTP curriculum projects.  You are welcome to make use of the projects in any way you wish.  When you visit any one of the websites for these projects, you will find all the activities, as well as online forms to give you an idea how these activities work.

In these projects, students study a problem locally, and then use the Internet to share results with others.  The projects are online, and can be used by teachers and citizens around the world.
  • Project Green Classroom invites students to assess the environment of your classroom by examining and monitoring a variety of indoor parameters.
  • In Project Ozone, your students monitor ground-level ozone at your school, their home, or other designated sites.  They observe and make measurements of related variables such as temperature, humidity, and wind speed.
  • In Project River Watch, you and your students investigate the quality of the water in a local river, stream or body of water.

But what makes these projects interesting is that you can post your data on fillable webpages linked to the projects so that your data can be shared with others around the world.  You can also click on a link in each project to reach all the data, and download the data into Microsoft Excel, or other similar programs for data analysis.

Inquiry in the Service of Social Action

The three projects included here are examples of using an inquiry approach to teaching in service of involving students in action taking on science-related social issues.  We worked with students and teachers for nearly two decades engaging them in global thinking with face-to-face collaboration and online communication using a primitive Internet.

Today there are some  projects that use the same philosophy in which the Internet is used to foster inquiry and action-taking on the part of K-12 students.  Here are two projects that I highly recommend.

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Flat Classroom

The Flat Classroom Project was developed by teachers Vicki Davis, and Julie Lindsay.  The Flat Classroom supports and encourages global collaboration.  Davis and Lindsay are cutting edge educators who use Internet-based technologies to inspire global collaboration among teachers and students. Check it out.


iEarn is one of the most accomplished Internet systems promoting social action projects by bringing together schools around the world to work together on a wide range of teacher inspired projects which value communication among teachers and students. I think its worth visiting the iearn website.

There are many stories of inquiry-based Internet projects that have been developed by teachers.   What story would you like to share?



Is Inquiry The Magnum Principium of Teaching?

Seventh Article in the Series, The Artistry of Teaching

Is Inquiry the Magnum Principium of Teaching?  If it is, what is it and how does it help us understand teaching, especially if we want to explore artistry in teaching.

In our view inquiry is the sin qua non of experiential teaching and learning.  When teachers advocate inquiry, they are talking about a philosophy of teaching and learning that is rooted in social constructivism and humanism.  Inquiry evokes a sense of wonder, the subject of a book written by Rachel Carson, but published posthumously more than three decades ago.

A Sense of Wonder

humingbird.jpgBy the early 1950s, Rachel Carson was well-known and had a reputation as “poetic” writer based on the publication of Under the Sea Wind (her first book, 1941), Sea Around Us (1951) and The Edge of the Sea (1955).  In his book, The Gentle Subversive (public library), M.H. Lytle explored the book that we all know about by Rachel Carson, Silent Spring.  In that book, Lytle explores how Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring ignited the rise of the environmental movement.  At the time, the pesticide and bio-chemistry industry was furious with Carson, and used an early version of “junk science” to impugn her research on the relationships between DDT and other insecticides on ecosystems, and on human health.  Frenzied criticisms came from the these industries, but because of environmental activists, the U.S. Congress passed the legislation banning DDT, and later created the Environmental Protection Agency.

Perhaps one of the most important legacies of Rachel Carson is her life devoted to asking questions and exploring the natural world, and from that writing about science, wonder and children.  Because of the financial success of her “sea” trilogy, Carson was able to leave the her full-time job at the Fish and Wildlife Service, and become a full-time writer.  She had spent two decades conducting environmental research as well as writing and editing wildlife publications.  Now, she was able to focus on writing about environmental problems resulting in the publication of Silent Spring.

But the publication that is most relevant here is her book The Sense of Wonder (public library).  Carson epitomized  the child-like quality that science teachers hope to evoke out of their students each day and each new year of teaching.  Carson spent most of her life exploring the sea, especially the coast of Maine.  Her life was one of inquiry–an exploring of the world, and a life dedicated to writing about her inquiries.  In 1957, after a family tragedy in which one of her nieces died, Rachel Carson adopted a five-year old boy, Roger Christie, and instilled in him, the sense of wonder she experienced as a scientist.  Her book, The Sense of Wonder (which was dedicated to him), is full of her experiences with Roger as they explored the beaches and woods of Maine, and made inquiry a day-in and day-out experience.  Carson was a teacher through her writings, and it seems to me that she would side with those teachers who are swimming upstream and in the words of Mr. Ed Johnson, against the “disintegrative mandates and effects from, such as, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition, charter schools, Teach for America, and, yes, even corporate and philanthropic colonialists. (personal correspondence).

Emotions and Impressions

Carson wrote that “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.”  But Carson believed that all children a born with a sense of wonder.  She put it this way:

If a child is keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.

Screen Shot 2012-05-26 at 7.05.40 PMCarson goes on to talk about the world and suggests that what the teacher (parent, sibling, friend) can do to guide her, it to remember that it is “not half so important to know as to feel.  She said,

If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused—a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity admiration or love—then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.  Carson, Rachel (2011-04-19). The Sense of Wonder (Kindle Locations 97-98). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

Inquiry, in this light, is the magnum principium of teaching because it is instills an attitude and emotional sense of wonder and investigation that does not depend on techniques (although they are important) or specific methods (also important), but a deep sense of purpose as a professional educator.

Two of my most inspirational teachers did not use hand-on strategies, but they exuded emotional and inspirational attitudes.  They both believed in their students, and that every student in their class could learn and understand the content of their courses.  One was a professor of meteorology, and I can tell you that he never used a declarative sentence.  Every utterance was a question and a smile (Paul Westmeyer at Bridgewater State University, MA).

The other was Dr. Tom Lippincott, who was Professor of Chemistry at The Ohio State University.  He was one of the most humanistic teachers that I ever met.  He would warmly invite any student to his office after to class if they didn’t understand or couldn’t teach another what he talked about in class.  They each exuded a sense of wonder for their subject, and created an environment of inquiry in which we were searching for understanding in the sciences of meteorology and chemistry.

Practicing What We Preach

For more than three decades I worked with a community of science educators not only at Georgia State University, but at other universities in the U.S., and other countries, especially Russia, Australia and Spain.  It was quite clear that many of these science educators have strong beliefs that inquiry should be the cornerstone of science teaching.  And for many of them, inquiry was the magnum principium of teaching.

Yet, there was a gap between what was taught about teaching at the university and what actually happened in K-12 classrooms.  Were we ignorant of the complexities of teaching, or did we think that teaching theories such as social constructivism and inquiry-based teaching could overcome issues and realities of the classroom?

It wasn’t that these science educators didn’t have relationships with teachers and schools.  Many of these professors worked with their students in clinical experiences, and indeed, much of the research in science education over the past thirty years was qualitative and experiential.  Research was done in the context to real classrooms.

But, could these science teacher educators teach real kids in real schools?

Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Teachers (public library) is a new book that tells the stories of 23 science educators who left the confines of the university, and stepped into positions in K-12 classrooms to teach elementary, middle and high school students. (Disclosure: I wrote the closing chapter of the book, and so read each account and became very familiar with each experience.  The editors of the book, Dr. Michael Dias, Dr. Charles Eich, and Dr. Lauri Brantley-Dias were graduate students at Georgia State University while I was professor there).

The book is an autobiographical collection of papers written by science teacher educators who describe their experiences of going back into the classroom to not only share their successes, but to highlight the conflicts that they met in real classrooms.  For some of them it was very much like the first year of teaching that all of us have experienced at one time or another.

One of the most important ideas that I take away from their narratives is how the professional images of these science educators changed because they were willing to take risks, and work in a culture that was very different from the one given by academia.  By crossing cultures from academia to public school and informal science settings, these professors put themselves in the environment of teachers, who in many ways were more knowledgeable about the practice of teaching science and how students learn, than they were.

Challenges to Inquiry–Standards and Test-Based Reform

Trying out inquiry-based teaching, and social constructivist approaches was a central goal of most of these teacher educators.  One of the valuable contributions of research of this nature is the descriptive honesty of the writers who were not afraid to admit that teaching was difficult, or that they simply were not ready to meet the challenges of high school teaching in an urban setting.  Inquiry-based and constructivist teaching is not neat and tidy.  It requires professional knowledge and experience that are years in the making.

For those policy makers who think that all we have to do is raise the assessment bar, offer online courses, and hold teachers accountable to tests results that are unreliable and simply not a valid measure of teaching, why not try a month, or 1/2 year, or for OMG, one year of teaching in a classroom in any school in the nation.  There is pretty good evidence that their views about reform will change, and they might wake up and listen to educators and teachers who’ve been doing it for years.

The authoritarian standards and test-based reforms that dominate education policy are a challenge to science teachers who embrace an experiential and inquiry-based philosophy of teaching science.  In the writings of these science educators, inquiry, constructivist learning, and problem-based teaching were high on their list of priorities, and they wanted to test their philosophies in science classrooms.  Assessment policies for implementing standards-based reform may present barriers to inquiry-based science teaching.  This is a continuing issue that challenges the science education research and practice community.

The interplay of standards-based reform coupled with high-stakes testing has created a conundrum for science teacher educators that advocate inquiry and problem-based learning, and those that would submit that students’ lived experiences ought to be the starting place for science learning.  This interplay was addressed by a some authors in this book. Carolyn S. Wallace, Professor of Science Education, Indiana State University, in her chapter on policy and the planned curriculum, chronicles how policies and the standards-based accountability system created conflicts for inquiry-oriented teachers.  Dr. Don Duggan-Hass, Senior Researcher at the Paleontological Research Institute, Ithaca, NY, in his chapter, The Nail in the Coffin, tells us how returning to the classroom actually killed his belief in schooling (but not public education).

Carolyn Wallace on Inquiry and Biology Teaching

In a courageous and compelling chapter in this book, Carolyn Wallace takes us on a journey that in my opinion is a realistic portrait of science teaching in an American high school.  Going through the hiring process, and then being assigned to teach biology at the high school level, Wallace gives us insight about the conflict between the desired goal of teaching by inquiry within the context of authoritarian science curriculum and high-stakes testing.  Using a progressive teaching style that included a learning community orientation, questioning, active collaboration and task engagement, Wallace was ready to carry out reform-minded science teaching.  However, her account details a different picture:

As I attempted to implement innovation in my classroom and engage in discourse with other teachers about innovation, I often felt that I was “up against a brick wall.” Constraints of the mandated curriculum and testing regimes, along with social pressure to conform to the school culture, proved to be much more profound than I had ever imagined as a university academic.

The analysis of her day-to-day teaching experience was profound.  According to the critical realist social theory that she used to look at and explain the various structures affecting schooling, she indicated that the social forces most affecting her life as a biology teacher included the power of the state legislature and the state Department of Education to decide what she could do in the classroom.

Wallace outlines the dilemma that exists between the science education community’s enduring belief that science should be taught using inquiry and problem-based approaches and teachers are held accountable to a planned curriculum that doesn’t allow for flexibility and adaptation.  Although not an easy task, she was successful in wading through state standards and testing barriers, and was able to engage students in inquiry-based activities, which she describes in her paper, but always with an eye on the fact that the students would have to pass end-of-course exams.

A major implication of her experience for me is what she learned and shared about how the political climate, which is centered on high-stakes standardized testing, affects the day-to-day lives of science teachers.  As she suggests, more research is needed in this area, and there needs to be efforts to democratize the participation of teachers in the use of standards by enabling more flexibility and plurality.  Teachers need to be empowered to make the decisions that will lead to more open-ended and inquiry learning. Perhaps the “common” implementation of standards along with the accountability movement abates innovation and flexibility, causing administrators to be unwilling to be open to teachers adopting and modifying standards to reach out to the needs of their own students.  Carolyn Wallace explains that instructional goals that encourage inquiry are in direct conflict with the authoritarian curriculum, which by its very nature is rigid, technical, and decontextualized.

One More Thing

Artistry in teaching, as in any other creative enterprise, is not clear when we look at products (or test scores) because it is a non-linear process.  Real science teaching, especially if it is based on inquiry and constructivism is not the idealized version that the authors of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) had in mind when the NGSS was published earlier this year.  The facts of science “command” the central place in this view of science education, and that is an unfortunate set of circumstances.

In a new and provocative book entitled Ignorance: How It Drives Science (library copy), Stuart Firestein offers a powerful rebuke to a static (standards based) view of science.  In Ignorance, a course taught by Dr. Firestein at Columbia University, the focus, according to the website focuses particularly on what we don’t know.  Dr. Firestein imagines ignorance as a creative force in science, and indeed, ignorance is that space of the unknown that leads to provocative questions.  Science educators who advocate inquiry-based teaching are working on this edge if you will, between the known and the unknown.

Indeed, Firestein says this about ignorance, inquiry and questions:

Questions are more relevant than answers. Questions are bigger than answers. One good question can give rise to several layers of answers, can inspire decades-long searches for solutions, can generate whole new fields of inquiry, and can prompt changes in entrenched thinking. Answers, on the other hand, often end the process. Firestein, Stuart (2012-03-26). Ignorance: How It Drives Science (p. 11). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

By working within this framework, teachers bring to students a new framework for understanding science, but as importantly, themselves.  How better to help teenagers than to let them in on little secrets such as this one from Dr. Firestein’s book:

Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt. There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.  Firestein, Stuart (2012-03-26). Ignorance: How It Drives Science (p. 17). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

What do you think about inquiry-based science teaching.  Is it the magnum principium of teaching?


The Conundrum of Adolescence, and the Middle School Science Curriculum

Sixth Article in the Series on The Artistry of Teaching

Does neoliberal education reform consider the nature of adolescence and the advances in our understanding of how humans learn?  Is it necessary for every American human adolescent to learn the same content, in the same order, and at the same time?  Why should every student be held accountable to policies and plans that don’t consider their needs and their interests?

These are some of the questions that many educators ask themselves every day as they open their doors to their students who come from homes where there might be not enough food on the table, their father is un-employed, their mother is fearful that she might be deported, or their neighborhood school was closed during the summer and now they are in a different school.

Five articles were recently published on The Artistry of Teaching.  Teachers know, but apparently policy makers don’t know, that teaching is not tidy. It involves a willingness to try multiple approaches, to collaborate with professional colleagues, and students to work through the realities of teaching and learning.  It requires a deep understanding of the nature of human learning, the needs and aspirations of children and youth, and a recognition that these students are living a life that is real and not-imagined, and school should be  experiential,  providing activities and projects that are meaningful, risky, and collaborative.

Teachers who do this practice a form of artistry.  Furthermore, artistry in teaching is practiced by educators who know how to mingle theory with practice. Teaching isn’t only the application of strategies or techniques, it’s an art form that involves high level thinking, on-the-spot decision-making, and creativity. As we have suggested on this blog, the magnum principium of teaching is inquiry, which is a democratic and humane approach to teaching and learning.

For more than thirty years I worked with teachers and students who wanted to teach at the middle school and high school levels in science, mathematics and other fields, but principally science.

One of the programs that we designed was TEEMS (Teacher Education Experiences in Mathematics and Science).  It is a four semester program for people who have a degree in engineering, mathematics, or science leading to initial teacher certification in Georgia.  Students also graduate from TEEMS with a Master’s Degree in Education.  The program mingled theory with practice, and was based on Vygotsky’s theory of social constructivism in which science and mathematics teacher education students were involved in a clinical and reflective program of deep understanding of educational theory and experiential learning in clinical experiences.The TEEMS program started in 1992 and is still the teacher education program to prepare all secondary teachers (English, mathematics, science, and social studies) at Georgia State University.

This is a “slideshare” program based on one of the multimedia presentations designed for the TEEMS interns and that I want to share here.  I’ve included it in this sixth article on the Artistry of Teaching to show that teacher education students need not only backgrounds in science or mathematics, or history, or literature, but they need to embrace the content of the learning sciences.  The Learning Sciences (public library), which is an interdisciplinary field, involving among others cognitive science, educational psychology, anthropology and linguistics, is the kind of knowledge that teachers use to do the art of teaching.

Adolescence and Middle School Curriculum

This particular slide show, which I titled Adolescence and Middle School Science, is a critique of the middle school science curriculum in the context of the nature of adolescence.  There is a lot of content here, and when I used this in my course, the TEEMS interns had already spent a semester in clinical practice.  During the presentation, interns were organized into small cooperative teams, and throughout the slideshare, we would stop and explore the implications of and our knowledge of, the “content of adolescence” and application to science curriculum.

In this slideshare, we looked at the middle school science curriculum in the context of adolescent students.   In grades six through eight, no matter where you travel in the USA, kids are going to take a course each year in earth science, life science, or physical science.  I spent several years (in the 20th Century) teaching earth science at the ninth grade level in Lexington, MA.  The curriculum used then is not very different from the earth science curriculum of the 21st Century.

Is there a problem here?  I think there is.

Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 2.50.33 PMCurriculum tends to start with the content of science math, English/language arts or social studies, and not content of the lived experiences of students in class.  This is not a new dilemma.  It’s been around for a century.  But there have been educators, starting with people like John Dewey or Maria Montessori who believed that learning should not only be experiential, but that it should engage students in real problems and issues in their own lives.  Content should be in the service of students, not the other way round.

So, in the presentation, we face this conundrum, and suggest some ways that curriculum should be:

  • Structured more in terms of student interests
  • Social concerns
  • Human agenda
  • Human ecology

Science should be for people, and in that light, we suggest these directions:

  • Select those concepts and principles in science relevant to students’ daily life and adaptive needs
  • Do not based curriculum on preparing more scientists
  • Science must be put into the service for people and society
  • Connect students with today’s world
  • Develop life skills that improve the quality of living


Enjoy the presentation.  Teaching certainly isn’t tidy or easy.  But it is an art form practiced by lots of educators.

What are your ideas about the relationships among students, their needs and aspirations, and the curriculum? Are we moving in the right direction? What do you think?

Inquiry: The Cornerstone of Teaching–Part I

Fifth Article in the series on The Artistry of Teaching

Conservative and neoliberal paradigms dominate education, which have reduced teaching to skills, economic growth, job training, and transmission of information.

In spite of these authoritarian policies,  many K-12 teachers practice a different form of instruction based on principles of equity, social constructivism, progressivism, and informal learning.  The cornerstone of this approach is inquiry, and in this article, I’ll explore the nature of inquiry, and why it is the magnum principium of teaching.

Inquiry teaching requires that teachers take risks because the very nature of inquiry brings us into the unknown.  It is like crossing into a new environment.  Some researchers think of this as “crossing cultures,” and for a teacher embracing inquiry as the cornerstone of their approach to teaching, it means crossing into a classroom culture that is very different from the traditional classroom, that we are too familiar with.  For a teacher who is experimenting with their own willingness and courage to accommodate inquiry teaching, it is much like thinking about Lev Vygotsky’s (public library) theory of zones of proximal learning.  Embracing inquiry teaching requires courage and the close collaboration with trusted colleagues who are supportive and believe that in a social constructivist environment, teachers can push themselves into new zones of learning.

Normally, Vygotsky’s theories are applied in the context of K-12 student learning.  But in this article, I want to show that Vygotsky’s theory of social constructivism (which researchers suggest is similar to inquiry) can be applied to the artistry of teaching.

The Age of Inquiry

My story of inquiry teaching began in 1960s as a science teacher in a small community near Boston.  The 1960s was the “Golden Age” in science education in the sense that the National Science Foundation invested tens of millions of dollars in curriculum development and teacher education.  The school’s science program was an “Alphabet Soup Science” curriculum made up of BSCS Biology, CHEM Study Chemistry, CBA Chemistry, PSSC Physics, and HPP (Project Physics).  These courses were four of the nearly fifty curriculum projects that were developed between 1957 – 1977.  I was personally involved in four of them, ESCP Earth Science, ISCS (Intermediate Science Curriculum Study), PSSC Physics, ISIS (Individualized Science Instruction System) as a writer, field test coordinator, student, and researcher.

One of the characteristics of these programs was an approach to teaching unified by the word “inquiry.”  Inquiry teaching, with an emphasis on hands-on and minds on learning was integral to NSF programs developed in the 1960s, and has continued to the present day.

Screen Shot 2013-08-26 at 5.44.03 PMHowever, in 1960s, they concept of equity, multiculturalism, and urban education was not part of the research and development scene. Beginning in the 1970s, especially with educators such as Dr. Melvin Webb at Clark Atlanta University, research and development on issues of equity and multiculturalism in science education began to emerge in new programs, especially in the 1980s and 1990s.

Chicago. My introduction to inquiry teaching and learning was enhanced by participating in an NSF eight-week summer institute at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago on the PSSC Physics course.  For eight hours a day, five days a week, and for eight weeks, 35 teachers participated in laboratory sessions, lectures, and films on the PSSC physics program, the first of the NSF courses for American schools.  A team of teachers, including a professor of physics, a graduate student in physics, and a high school physics teacher taught the course. The PSSC course emphasized science laboratory work and hands-on investigations.  We did every laboratory activity in the PSSC text that summer, but more importantly we discussed how to integrate the idea of inquiry learning into our own teaching.  The three faculty in our program encouraged us to be activists, to ask questions about the science curriculum and the instructional approaches being used in high school science, and to encourage new approaches and ideas.

Nearly all the teachers, who were from 30 different states, were there because they were going to teach PSSC Physics in their school in the fall.  Not me.  I had taken a new job in a different town in Massachusetts (Lexington) and would be teaching earth science (I earned a B.S. in earth science in undergraduate school and really wanted to teach E.S.).  Later in the year I realized how important this intense study of physics would affect the way I taught earth science.  I adopted many of the labs in physics for the earth science course I was teaching, and began to adapt the activities in the text we used so that students were engaged in inquiry and problem solving.

Lexington. All the ninth grade teachers moved to a brand new high school science building the next year, and two of my colleagues in earth science  “piloted” a new NSF funded earth science project, ESCP (Earth Science Curriculum Project).  ESCP was a hands-on inquiry oriented program, different from the earth science program that was part of the high school curriculum.  I teamed up with one of the pilot teachers (Dr. Bob Champlain–Emeritus professor, Fitchberg State University) and planned a research study comparing the ESCP approach to the traditional earth science approach.  As it happened, Bob and I were working on our Masters degrees in science education at Boston University, and thus the study became our thesis study.  We didn’t find any significant differences (on a content test we administered), but qualitatively we saw many differences in terms of how students felt about learning science in the two contexts.  Students were naturally attracted to working with teammates in group activities, and enjoyed trying to solve problems that involved messing about, and trying different methods and techniques.

Columbus. I left Lexington in 1966, and moved to Columbus, Ohio to attend the National Science Foundation Academic Year Institute at The Ohio State University.  I joined with 40 other teachers of science and mathematics to take part in a one-year program of study in science and science education.  Several science courses designed for Institute participants integrated some aspects of inquiry, and were different from many of the other science courses we took.  There were nearly 20 full-time doctoral students in science education, and over the next three years we explored and studied the pedagogy and philosophy of science teaching  After three years of study, I finished my work on the Ph.D., and headed to Atlanta, Georgia, to take a job as an Assistant Professor of Science Education at Georgia State University.

College Park, MD. Before going to Atlanta, I made a three-week stop in College Park.  My induction into what inquiry was all about, however, took place three weeks before arriving in Atlanta to begin my new job.  At the University of Maryland, Professor Marjorie Gardner, one of the leaders in science education in the U.S. then, invited me to a member of a team of three science educators from Atlanta, even though I hadn’t arrived in Georgia.  Each team that the attended the Leadership Institute at UMD was composed of a science teacher, a science supervisor, and a university professor.  Twelve teams from around the country participated in the first Earth Science Leadership Institute directed by Dr. Gardner.  The institute was designed as a total immersion in the ESCP Curriculum with special emphasis on inquiry teaching and learning.  Each day we did two to three hands-on activities from the ESCP program, participated in lecture/discussions with scientists who were brought in to focus on specialty topics in the ESCP, e.g., astronomy, paleontology, mineralogy, physical geology, meteorology, geology, oceanography, space science).  We also were involved in micro-teaching.  Each of us had to teach several “inquiry” lessons to groups of middle school students.  Lessons were video taped, and then in collaboration with other participants, each lesson was discussed from the point of view of our goal to carry out an inquiry activity.  Suggestions were made to change the lesson, which we then re-taught to a different group of students.  The important aspect here is that collaboration with colleagues was essential in moving each us into new conceptions and zones of activity.

A Cornerstone

Atlanta. Inquiry teaching became the cornerstone of my teaching at Georgia State University for the next thirty-two years.  Through collaboration with colleagues in science education, the sciences, educational psychology and philosophy, inquiry and experiential learning became fundamental characteristics of courses and programs we designed.

When I began teaching at GSU, half of my assignment was to teach courses in the geology department, but specifically to teach geology courses for teachers.  My first course, which was taught off campus at a professional development center in Griffin, GA, was an introductory geology course for middle school teachers.  Using only laboratory and experiential activities, teachers learned geology by inquiry and problem solving.  For the next two years, I taught courses in geology in Griffin, and an opportunity to explore the nature of inquiry teaching with professional educators.

One of the most important learnings that I took away from these early experiences teaching geology was
the joy that I saw in the eyes and minds of these teachers.  A few years later, I began to study the work of Rollo May, an American humanistic psychologist.  In his book The Courage to Create (public library), he speaks to us about what the artist or creative scientist feels.  It is not anxiety or fear; it is joy.  He explains that the artist (or scientist or teacher) at the moment of creating does not experience gratification or satisfaction.  Although he didn’t talk specifically here about teaching, later he does, and it is important to make a connection and bring teachers into the conversation.  This is how I see it.  The teacher, like the artist or scientist, uses creativity to create an environment of learning, much like an artist creates a painting, or a scientist advances a theory.  All are personal.  But May adds another dimension that I think is powerful.  He says this about the moment of creating for artist, scientist or teacher.

Rather, it is joy, joy defined as the emotion that goes with heightened consciousness, the mood that accompanies the experience of actualizing one’s own potentialities (May, R., The Courage to Create, 1975, p.45).

Over the course of my career, I worked with hundreds of teachers, professors, scientists, and researchers with whom we constructed our knowledge of inquiry in particular, and teaching in general.  We teamed to create projects that brought together not only for adults, but students and their families.

The GTP Telecommunications Network linking schools in the USA and the Soviet Union, c. 1991
The GTP Telecommunications Network linking schools in the USA and the Soviet Union, c. 1991

Moscow & Leningrad. The activity that epitomized the essence of inquiry while I was at GSU was the design and implementation of The Global Thinking Project (GTP), a hands-across-the-globe inquiry-based environmental science project. Utilizing very primitive Internet technologies and face-to-face meetings, teachers from Atlanta and other areas of Georgia forged cross-cultural partnerships with colleagues in the Soviet Union (1983 – 2002).   In 1991 the GTP was implemented in 10 schools in the U.S. & the Soviet Union, after we transported 6 MacIntosh SE 20 computers, printers and modems, and installed them in six schools in the Soviet Union.

In the Global Thinking Project teachers from different cultures came together to develop a curriculum was inquiry-based and involved students in solving local problems, as well thinking globally about these problems by participating in a global community of practice.  Inquiry was at the heart of the project.  By working with a range of teachers and students, the project developed an inquiry-based philosophy that emerged from years of collaboration among American and Russian teachers that was rooted in humanistic psychology.

Inquiry teaching was envisioned as a humanistic endeavor by American and Russian participants.  They believed that students should work collaboratively & cooperatively, not only in their own classrooms, but they should use the Internet  to develop interpersonal relationships, share local findings, and try to interpret each others ideas.

For more than ten years, collaboration took place among hundreds of teachers and students, not only in the United States (led by Dr. Julie Weisberg) and Russia (led by Dr. Galena Manke), but including significant work with colleagues in Spain (in the Barcelona Region under the directorship of Mr. Narcis Vives), Australia (under the leadership of Roger Cross), and further collaboration with the Czech Republic, Botswana, New Zealand, Scotland, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, Singapore, and Canada.  With their work in the GTP, the following principles of inquiry emerged:

  • Innovative, flexible thinking
  • Cooperative–students work collaboratively in small teams to think and act together
  • Interdependence–a synergic system is established in groups within a classroom, and within global communities of practice.
  • Right-to-choose–students are involved in choice-making including problem and topic choice, as well as solutions; reflects the action processes of grassroots organizations
  • A new literacy insofar as “knowledge” relates to human needs, the needs of the environment and the social needs of the earth’s population and other living species
  • Emphasis on anticipation and participation; learning how to learn, and how to ask questions
  • Learning encourages creative thinking, and is holistic and intuitive

Inquiry as Magnum Principium

Inquiry is the sin qua non of experiential teaching and learning.  A method?  No.  It’s a foundational principle that is integral to democratic and humane environments that was espoused more than a hundred years ago by John Dewey.  In Dewey’s mind, this question must be asked when considering the way learning should occur in schools:

Can we find any reason that does not ultimately come down to the belief that democratic social arrangements promote a better quality of human experience, on which is more widely accessible and enjoyed, than do non-democratic and anti-democratic forms of social life? In Dewey, J., 1938. Experience & Education, p. 34. (public library)

At a deeper level, classrooms organized as democratic spaces encourage imagination, and it with free inquiry that teachers show themselves as Freiean “cultural workers.”  Freire says:

Teachers must give creative wings to their imaginations, obviously in disciplined fashion.  From the very first day of class, they must demonstrate to students the importance of imagination for life.  Imagination helps curiosity and inventiveness, just as it enhances adventure, with which we cannot create.  I speak here of imagination that is naturally free, flying, walking, or running freely.  Such imagination should be present in every movement of our bodies, in dance, in rhythm, in drawing, and in writing, even in the early stages when writing is in fact prewriting–scribbling.  It should be part of speech, present in the telling and retelling of stories produced within the learners’ culture. In Freire, P.,Teachers as Cultural Workers,  p. 51. (public library)

Becoming an inquiry teacher is a life-long phenomenon that emerges from the craft of teaching in the context of classrooms and schools that advocate professional collaboration and a pursuit of wisdom in teaching.  This is not ivory tower thinking purported by an emeritus professor of education.  It’s going on now in schools across the country.  Working together from the ground up, rather the top down, Chris Thinnes says on his blog how he and his colleagues work together to “formulate, analyze, prioritize, and activate driving questions that democratically identify the intersections of individual interest and shared priorities.”  You can go to Chris Thinnes blog, and read the kinds of questions he and his colleagues asked at their first meeting which focused on how a teacher creates an environment and climate conducive to learning.  It is this kind of democratically organized work that leads to teachers growing into cultural workers, inquiry teachers, and artists in their own right.

As way of introduction, here is what Chris said about the in-school meeting among all the staff to explore ways to improve teaching:

For a variety of reasons, I have been inspired for a number of years by the idea that our teachers’ professional learning and collaboration should be governed by the same principles and objectives as our students‘ learning and collaboration. To that end, each of six domains from the framework of our Goals for Learning (Create – Understand – Reflect – Transmit – Include – Strive) will be invoked as we establish language to articulate our core commitments to effective teaching practice; design driving questions that will facilitate further inquiry among our teams; identify teaching practices that should be visible to teachers, learners, and observers; explore resources drawing on a wide range of expertise outside our community; and create our own rubrics for self-assessment, reflection, goal-setting, peer observation, instructional coaching, and administrative evaluation.

Is inquiry the cornerstone of teaching?  What do you think?  What would you add to this conversation?