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?



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?


On the Practice of Science Inquiry

Science As Inquiry, a construct developed in a recent publication, weaves together ideas about science teaching and inquiry that were developed over many years of work with practicing science teachers in the context of seminars conducted around the U.S.A, in school district staff development seminars, and courses that I taught at Georgia State University.

A Webly Map of Science as Inquiry

Science As Inquiry provides the practical tools, based on theory and research, that science teachers use in their classrooms to involve their students in inquiry learning, including hands-on investigations, project-based activities, Internet- based learning experiences, and science activities in which students are guided to construct meaning and develop ideas about science and how it relates to them and their community.

Humanistic Quest

Inquiry science teaching by its very nature is a humanistic quest. It puts at the center of learning not only the students, but also how science relates to their lived experiences, and issues and concepts that connect to their lives. Doing science in the classroom that is inquiry- based relies on teachers and administrators who are willing to confront the current trend that advocates a standards-based and high stakes testing paradigm.

The dominant reason for teaching science is embedded in an “economic” argument that is rooted in the nation’s perception of how it compares to other nations in science, technology, and engineering. This led to the development of new science curricula, but it also led to the wide scale use of student achievement scores in measuring learning. Student achievement, as measured on “bubble tests,” has become the method to measure effectiveness of school systems, schools, and teachers, not to mention the students.

Disconnect with Standards & High-Stakes Testing

Although the organizations that have developed the science standards (National Research Council) advocate science teaching as an active process, and suggest that students should be involved in scientific inquiry, there is a disconnect between the standards approach and the implementation of an inquiry-based approach to science teaching.

We need to pull back on the drive to create a single set of standards and complementary set of assessments, and move instead toward a system of education that is rooted locally, driven by professional teachers who view learning as more personalized, and conducted in accord with democratic principles, constructivist and inquiry learning, and cultural principles that relate the curriculum to the nature and needs of the students.

Effects of Inquiry

Science education researchers have reported that inquiry-based instructional practices are more likely to increase conceptual understanding than are strategies that rely on more passive techniques, and in the current environment emphasizing a standardized-assessment approach, teachers will tend to rely on more traditional and passive teaching techniques.

Inquiry-based teaching is often characterized as actively engaging students in hands-on and minds-on learning experiences.

Inquiry-based teaching also is seen as giving students more responsibility for learning. Given that the evidence is somewhat supportive of inquiry-based science, our current scheme of national science standards emphasizing a broad array of concepts to be tested would tend to undermine an inquiry approach.

Teachers who advocate and implement an inquiry philosophy of learning do so because they want to inspire and encourage a love of learning among their students. They see the purpose of schooling as inspiring students, by engaging them in creative and innovative activities and projects.

Science As Inquiry embraces 21st century teaching in which inquiry becomes the center and heart of learning. Science As Inquiry provides a pathway to make your current approach to teaching more inquiry-oriented, and to embrace the digital world that is ubiquitous to our students.


Can Inquiry Continue to be a Primary Goal of Science Teaching?

Can science as inquiry continue to be a primary goal of science teaching in the burgeoning culture of common standards, and high-stakes testing?

This is a question that I raised about a year and half ago. I am returning to the question now since the National Research Council released its report entitled A Framework for K-12 Science Education. The question is not “should we have standards.” Instead, the question and concern is that the development of standards appears to be driven by high-stakes assessments, resulting in an educational system monitored by test makers and data analysts.

We live in a liberal democracy, and as such, education is a fundamental aspect of helping citizens become literate in not only language and reading, but in mathematics, social studies, art, music, and science. Our society is a diverse, and multicultural, and the recent movement to move American education toward a one-size-fits-all system seems to be the antithesis of education in a democracy.

In a liberal democracy we need an educational system that is decentralized, and that puts into the hands of educators at the local level the responsibility to choose and develop curriculum and methods of teaching by able professional teachers. One of the hallmarks of liberal democracy has been the freedom accorded citizens to develop and express widely varying ideas and inventions. At the heart of this is creativity, and the development of life long aspirations for inquiry.

Admit or not, we have a real problem here.  Science teaching should encourage messing about, handling equipment and materials, measuring and estimating, wondering and hypothesizing, and asking all sorts of questions.   Could these attribute eventually be lost to science teaching because of the collateral effect of high stakes testing in which teachers are almost forced to teach to the test?

Tweakers and Tinkerers 

In a recent article in the New Yorker, entitled The Tweaker: The Real Genius of Steve Jobs, Malcomb Gladwell explores whether Steve Jobs was large-scale visionary and inventor, or a tweaker.  According Walter Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs was more of tweaker, although he clearly created a large-scale visionary company.  He was a tweaker in the sense that Malcolm says that Jobs tweaked technologies that existed, like the mouse and icons on the screen, and created the Macintosh Computer.  His genius, according to Malcolm and Isaacson was his editorial ability, not inventive ability.  He worked with what was in front of him, critiqued it, played with it, and refined it.

Science teachers have historically tried to provide opportunities for students to be “tweakers.”  Years ago teachers referred to this as messing about in science class. Students were given materials and equipment-things-and were encouraged to construct, test, probe, and experiment without superimposed questions or instructions. In today’s constructivist model of science learning, “messing about” is integrated across several phases of learning.

In his article, Gladwell asks why the industrial revolution began in England rather than in other countries such as France or Germany. He suggests that in 18th Century Britain there was a large population of skilled engineers and artisans, resourceful and creative persons:

who took the signature inventions of the industrial age and tweaked them—refined and perfected them, and made them work (Gladwell, 2011).

In Britain, during this time, the culture supported the kind of thinking and doing that led to inventions and modifications that improved upon existing technologies. A kind of tinkering, or messing about in attempts to improve upon existing technologies.

Steve Jobs created an environment in Apple in which tinkering was his way of making new products that changed people’s lives.  This kind of thinking was not done in isolation, but was done in teams who had responsibility for solving problems and creating new devices.

In the same way, science teachers believe that hands-on and inquiry teaching are crucial in helping students understand the nature of science.  Hands-on activities provide the opportunity for students to work together in small teams to explore, invent, construct, and yes, learn to be tweakers and tinkerers.

Is the high-stakes testing environment being fostered in America’s schools today conducive to students and teacherswho might be tweakers and tinkerers?

The New Science Standards

I know you realize that nearly all of the states have embraced and adopted the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts and mathematics. These standards also include specific Literacy Standards in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.  The Common Core Standards were written by Achieve, a company that was created by the National Governors Conference, and funded by private benefactors such as the Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Broad Foundations.

Last year the Carnegie Foundation provided funds to the National Research Council to create a new framework for K-12 science education. The framework was published last summer, and it is being used to write a new set of science standards for American schools, K-12. Guess who will write these standards? You’re correct–Achieve!

You are probably thinking that I am a conspiracy theorist. Actually, I am not, but it seems to me that the fact that one not-for-profit company has such power in developing standards for American schools has to make you wonder.

The Next Generation of Science Standards have not been written. But the process has begun. Achieve announced that they have already recruited writers, and are going to work with the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). NSTA appears to be working hand-in-hand with Achieve, and their website provides updates on the new framework, and summary of the key ideas of the new framework. There is no evidence suggesting that NSTA has questions about the new framework.

Can Inquiry Flourish?

Can inquiry flourish in an environment in which singular sets of standards in the content areas will be written and then adopted by every state? Will the various states adopt the standards as they have in English/literacy and mathematics? Most likely they will. They will because not only is there pressure from groups like Achieve, and the National Governors Association, but the U.S. Department of Education. You probably know that when the Race to the Top  Request for Proposals was released, states were encouraged to adopt the Common Core State Standards. If they didn’t their proposal would not fare as well—they would lose points on the evaluation of their proposal.

The problem with a single set of standards in a diverse culture such as ours, is the eminent development of a common set of high-stakes science assessments that will be created. Funds are already available for the development of national assessment high-stakes tests.

And this is the problem.

Some educators think that the standards movement is part of the assessment movement in which student achievement scores will be used to evaluate not just the students, but more dangerously the effectiveness of teachers and schools. Data analysts have convinced corporate and government leaders that they can indeed measure teacher effectiveness using the so called “value added” approach in which they can nail down how much student achievement progress from beginning to end of year can be attributed to their teacher.

[Science] teachers will have to continue to navigate through this maize of new standards and assessments. They will have to prepare their students for bubble tests, but they will also want to instill in their students a sense of wonder, and help their students understand how science can influence their lives.

Science teaching needs to focus on the lived experiences of students, and engage them in inquiry and experimental ways of knowing that relate to their personal lives. Allowing common standards to determine what is taught, and how, is quite the opposite of a liberalizing and democratic approach to education.



Gladwell, Malcolm, The Tweaker: The Real Genius of Steve Jobs, The New Yorker, November 14, 2011.

Why Science Educators Need to Oppose High-Stakes Testing

There are many reasons that we can site to oppose the use of high-stakes testing in American schools.  Yesterday, I reported on a case in Florida in which several middle school teachers decided not to do hands-on, inquiry-based activities with their students.  These science teachers decided that a more direct instruction approach was called for, and indeed, they found that their student’s test scores improved on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).  This is sounds like a very good decision on the part of these teachers, and indeed, it may be.

However, the behavior of teachers in this case represents a disturbing collateral effect of high-stakes testing.   Here is an example how high-stakes testing is threatening the “ideals and purposes of American education.” And in this case the nature of science teaching.  Are we to be convinced that using inquiry and hands-on activities in the curriculum is a waste of time because the goals of science teaching that attributed to inquiry-oriented teaching are not measured on high-stakes tests such as the FCAT?

This is one example of the logic used by our test possessed education system that was put into action by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  As Nichols and Berliner state in their book Collateral Damage, the NCLB has created a system of “threats and incentives tied to test performance that will energize teachers and their students to work harder and more effectively.”

As they point out, this is a factory model that was used to manage workers who were doing difficult labor intense tasks.  But today, most businesses depend on the knowledge or intellectual abilities of their “workers” and surely, using punishment and reward, as we have seen imparted on our public schools, is not a part of the model business world.

We are corrupting the nature of (science) teaching by continuing to use high-stakes testing as the only indicator of student achievement and teacher effectiveness.  What would happen if we were to eliminate high-stakes testing immediately from being used as a determinant of a student’s grade in a course, or whether the student moves on to another grade?

The first thing to happen would be the enormous release of pressure on students and their parents who have been convinced that the only way to know if their child is successful is how he or she does on a 40 – 50 item test, that may or not be related to what went on in their classroom.   Pressure would also be released to allow teachers and administrators to act professionally and create environments that are conducive to learning by all students, regardless of where they live.

Another result would be the freeing up of the curriculum enabling teachers to make professional decisions about content and pedagogy, and relate the curriculum to the needs and aspirations of its students.  Now, because of the Common Core State Standards movement combined with high-stakes testing, most of the decision making about content is not in the hands of the professional that know what is best for their students.

Nichols and Berliner, in their book Collateral Damage, issue a warning that American education is suffering because of high-stakes testing, and that we should heed the warning and do something about this.