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?


About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University