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?


Science (Teaching) is a Creative Process

There was an interesting “My Turn” essay in this week’s Newsweek entitled Lessons in Life (Science) by Sally G. Hoskins, who teaches undergraduate biology.  In the article, she informs us that one of major goals in the biology course she teaches is that her students leave the course with the idea that just like art of music, science is a creative process.  Having spent the past year working with Mike Dias rewriting our book, The Art of Teaching Science, I appreciated greatly her point of view.  One notion she emphasized in regard to teaching biology with this goal in mind was that teaching could be exasperating.

Hoskins indirectly stated that students construct their understanding of science.  She put it this way: “I’m old enough now to realize that I can’t really teach anyone anything; I can just try to create conditions that foster learning.  When students meet me half way, it sometimes works.” 

This is an underlying principle of the social constructivist theory of teaching.  In a sense we have to approach teaching and learning indirectly.  Learning does not necessarily occur when the teacher tells the student something.  It happens when the student uncovers a principle, makes sense of disparate ideas, comes to understand through personal construction.  It’s not a new idea.  John Dewey proposed learning from this framework, and that was near the end of the 19th Century.

One of the books that had a tremendous influence on me as a teacher was Carl Rogers’ Freedom to Learn.  One of the chapters in this interesting book is “Personal thoughts  on teaching and learning” (this link will bring to a page that includes most of the material in this chapter).  Rogers discusses the notion most of what is “taught” to another is relatively inconsequential.  I would add that much of what is taught is out of context, and does not provide the links needed to students’ lived experience for learning to be consequential.  Rogers goes on to suggest that the only learning which significantly influences behavior is “self-discovered.”  Although one might disagree with this from the social constructivist theory, the basic notion that we make meaning ourselves has relevance to the teaching of science process.  

What is your view?  Do you agree with Hoskins that as teachers we really can’t teach anyone anything? Or with Rogers that learning must be self-appropriated?

Why Cooperative Learning Should Be Natural in Science Teaching

One of the major pedagogical strategies used in schools is the didactic approach in which the teacher delivers the content for the students to learn. Yet, didactic strategies have raised more questions than the benefits of this direct teaching model. Instead, over the past 20 years this old model of teaching has been replaced by cognitive theories of teaching and learning, and at the center of these pedagogies is constructivism. And at the heart of constructivism is idea that learning, in classrooms, benefits greatly from an arrangement in which the teacher encourages and supports social interaction among students. We call this cooperative learning.

It may be that there is an evolutionary basis for why cooperative learning should be a natural pedagogical strategy in science (any any other subject) learning.

Time Magazine featured an article by Sharon Begley entitled Beyond Stones and Bones. Begley says that “by analyzing the DNA of today’s humans as well as chimps and other species, scientists are zeroing in on major turning points in evolution, suggesting there may have been several more lines in the human family tree than the one that moved from monkey to man.”

The article is based on a new exhibit at the new Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, in which DNA is as important as the fossils that we have about human origins. You can read the article, and go to the Museum website to explore human origins.

One of the pieces in the article that struck me was the revelation that early humans were not hunters, in the sense that we have viewed them. Rather they were the hunted—by saber tooth tigers, and other huge predators roaming the earth 7 million years ago, when the human origins story begins. Humans were prey, and as such had to figure out ways not to be lunch for a big predator. Thus being the hunted lead to the evolutionary leap to cooperate and live in groups.

In the article, Begley points out that there is a hormone in the brain called oxytocin, according to scientists promotes trust during interactions with other people, and thus to cooperative behavior. As Begley suggest, this means that people live together for the common good.

So deep into our evolutionary background is an underlying basis for humans working together in groups. Although I am not going to talk here about specific strategies that teachers might use in the classroom to promote cooperative behavior, I am suggesting that cooperative learning in the classroom should not be relegated as something to add or to do from time to time, but rather might form the basis for one’s approach in classroom learning. What do you think?

Small is Beautiful: A View from the Gates Foundation

In a recent issue of BusinessWeek magazine, an article appeared that is entitled Bill Gates Get Schooled. The article focuses on the struggle that Gates and educators working with funds from Gates Foundation experience as they try and reform high schools. The foundation is trying to find out what makes high schools work so that students from inner-city neighborhoods who traditionally have not done well in school—do well, and can advance into higher education. Have they been successful?

Since 2000 the Gates foundation has funded several hundred high schools, with a very large cluster of them being in New York City. As the article points out, the Foundation has raised the awareness that high schools need to be given the attention they deserve, given the horrendous drop-out problem this country faces.

One of the key approaches to high school reform is making high schools SMALLER (200-600) students. Researchers 30 years ago recommended this, but it was not implemented as high schools instead of getting smaller, increased in size. Anyway, the Gates schools have attempted to manipulate the school culture of high schools by making them smaller, and therefore more intimate. Students won’t fall through the cracks–they’ll be noticed, and involved.

Did the students do well acadmically? Yes and No! They did well in English and reading. Not as well in math. I am not sure whether science was studied. But even when the writers of the article pursued the academic question, the evaluators of the Gates programs were not satisfied in this area. Simply making a school smaller, they say, will not result in increase academic performance. What needs to be done?

In their opinion, greater attention needs to be given the pedagogy implemented in the high schools. Although there was not much discussion of what pedagogies, the fact that this is addressed is important. My suspicion is that an inquiry-oriented, problem-based approach is needed. Students need to be involved with each other, and with the subjects that they are exploring. Didactic, text-book based environments are not the way to go. A constructivist philosophy, with cooperative learning fully implemented and understood by the teachers is essential.

I have first hand knowledge that more than 30 years ago a high school of more than 3800 students was divided into “units” of 300 students. Students had their own physical environment—classrooms, assembly area, lunch area. Teachers were organized by unit, so that within a unit there would be several English, mathematics, and social studies teachers. The science department had it own building, so students left their “unit” to take science, as well as art, music, and physical education. It was an experiment in making a large high school more intimate for students by dividing into several smaller schools. One of the differences in the Gates model is that in one case in NYC, an existing high school was divided into three schools within the building (separated only by a floor or two)—and each was a distinct and separate high school. That was not the case in the experiment I described from 30 years ago.

I recommend you check out the Gates article in BusinessWeek, and also the Gates Foundation.

How do you think high school education should be reformed? Let us hear from you.

Clergy’s Views on Teaching Evolution

As I reported in the previous posting, a recent study entitled Clergy views on evolution, creationism, science, and religion published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Volume: 43, Issue: 4, Pages: 419-442 reported very interesting findings that science teachers, parents, and students might benefit from.

The authors used qualitative (indepth interviews) and quantitative (a survey instrument) methods in their study. I am going to focus on the qualitative part of the study in this discussion.

This study was designed to inform the science education community about what clergy think regarding evolution and creationism. The authors ultimately sought to: (a) determine clergy views about evolution, creationism, science, and religion; and (b) acquire useful information that we could give to students or colleagues struggling with these issues.

They interviewed eight clergy and one religion professor for the pilot study. The following questions were used to structure the interviews:

1. What do you believe are the major ideas in the theory of evolution?
2. How would you counsel a parishioner who felt that accepting the tenets of the scientific theory of evolution meant giving up their belief in God or Christianity?
3. How do you respond when people say the Bible has been proven false by science?

As a result of the interviews with the clergy in their study, the authors ended up with the following patterns or categories of views.

1. The (Christian) Bible was not meant to be interpreted literally.
Interpreting the Bible literally is a stumbling block toward accepting evolution and other scientific conclusions. This category, perhaps as much as any of the following four, has created the most stress in the evolution/creationism debate over the past century in this country. I thought that the authors did a good job of differentiating among three views of creation—these views would help all of us understand people’s views of creationism, and why they might or might not object to evolution. They identify the three views as follows:

Young earth creationists: literal understanding of the Bible; earth about 10,000 years old; literally 7 day creation
Old earth creationists—share many beliefs as young earth creationists, but believe the earth much older than 10,000 years
Intelligent design—believe some structures are too complex to have been created by evolution; although they share the concept of evolution, they differ in thinking that some outside agent (intelligent designer) must have created complex structures

2. It is difficult to move from a concrete to a more abstract interpretation of the Bible.
This is an important concept—it brings the constructivist notion of learning into the debate. The authors reported that: “Although our interviewees never referred to Piaget, constructivism, or conceptual change, they nevertheless made frequent statements paralleling these general ideas. Rather than discuss changing preconceptions about evolution and adaptation, as science educators do, the clergy discussed changing from concrete or literal interpretation of the Bible toward more abstract understandings.”

3. God plays a role in nature and evolution.
Clergy reported views that touch on the concepts of theism and deism. A theistic view of God implied that God continues to act and affect the material world. A deistic view is that God created the world, set it motion, and then left it alone. The authors rightly point out that science can not answer the question, Does God play a role in nature and evolution. The answer is rightly in the domain of religion. It’s unfortunate that some scientists have used evolution as a means to claim that God does not play a role in nature. This in itself has created a motivation for the religious right to attack the teaching of evolution in the schools.

4. It is okay to ask questions and have doubts.
Certainly, as scientists, we encourage the asking of questions and to raise doubts about a theory or idea. Here the authors are reporting the clergy are stating that raising questions about faith are well intended. As one interviewee said, “Faith is a gift that grows because of doubts and because of questions.”

5. Science is limited in what it can understand.
As another interviewee said, “Science needs to acknowledge mystery beyond its proper sphere.” I think this is right on.

It would be very difficult for a science teacher to incorporate these categories and examples in a science curriculum. However, in discussions that biology teachers have with their students about evolution and faith, knowledge of these categories would be very helpful. It would be a very interesting experiment for a science teacher to work with a social studies teacher and plan a short unit of study in which students explored the concepts developed above. I realize that this would require some very careful planning, and explaining (to parents and school administrators), but I think it could serve to help students with the conflicts that they might have.

What do you think about this suggestion?