Making the Shift to Inquiry and Authentic Learning

How does one change a deeply established pattern or schema? If you have ever tried to change a habit in your life, you know that it takes time, awareness, commitment, and a steady patience as you fall back and forth between the new and the old you are trying to leave behind.
Science LabThe same is true for school culture, and the patterns of traditional schooling that are deeply rooted into our communities, memories, and expectations. For schools to actually make the shift into what is called the paradigm of 21st century schools, skilled educators are going to have to increase their awareness, expand their knowledge, and develop the steady patience necessary to weather the inevitable clashes that will occur between tradition’s hold on our schema, and on what science is now telling us about effective teaching.

The need to shift learning culture to students doing authentic learning and inquiry-based work around real questions is not new. But other forces, mostly in the name of high stakes accountability, have circumvented educators’ growth in practice. Since no one has come up with a better way to measure overall learning, we still hold schools accountable through multiple choice answers and formulaic writings.  Consequently, teachers use these same measures in the classroom, rarely taking the time to allow students to apply their learning in broader context, mirroring anything that resembles real life.  We know better than this, but we have not made the shift we need to make.

Teachers feel the pressure to instill knowledge in students and to do it quickly. Many also bring with them an outdated mode of measurement for themselves, which is that teaching means standing in the classroom and explaining things to students, and asking students questions that they then judge as answered correctly or not.   Such a vision of teaching is probably reinforced by well-intentioned initiatives that focus on what the teacher does on a daily basis.  For example, a professional development session will provide teachers with concrete ideas about how to weave college information into the classroom or how to provide specific feedback to students. When a principal conducts a walkthrough to look for these items, the easiest way to ensure that it’s documented is for the teacher to stand and deliver it.  Although this approach will earn a checkmark in the correct box, it does not ensure that students are learning.

Science BBThere is plenty of growing evidence that this type of teaching does not help students become independent learners and thinkers who are going to be able to navigate complex issues in life. Of course, teachers are the content experts in the classroom, but their job is to make students into content experts, not stand in front of students and, for example, tell them to “write this down because it is going to be on the test.”

We can start with what we know about human curiosity (Curiosity: It May Have Killed the Cat but It Helped Us Learn), which is closely linked to motivation, that long-held excuse for why more students don’t learn what we want them to learn. Research suggests that starting with student curiosity and building content learning around questions that students naturally wonder about is the way to ensure better engagement and learning.  A recent study suggested that not only did students learn the information better when their curiosity was tapped, but they learned other material better as well, just because they were stimulated by the thinking process (How Curiosity Changes the Brain to Enhance Learning).

If we can make the shift of teachers acting as “designers of learning”as opposed to teachers as “givers of facts and knowledge”, we will truly move into inquiry-based approaches, providing students with an authentic reason to attend school and engage in deeper learning (Schlechty Center on Engagement).

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