Diagnosing inquiry

trust me... I'm a doctor

trust me... I'm a doctor

When we first begin the journey of leading students into inquiry, we discover that it’s messy.  People are uncomfortable being taught this way.   They want easy answers and quick resolution to their questions.  Students want the teacher to gift wrap everything for them.

When you make the choice to go to inquiry instruction, it’s important to go in with your eyes wide open.  The road will be bumpy and there will be awkward moments.  Just know that failure is an option.  If we never fail in the classroom, then we probably aren’t trying anything truly innovative.

I recently received an email from Barbara Gajda (@MsGajda), who blogs at Large Q Quality. Barbara is a first year teacher (and light years ahead of where I was as a first year teacher). She recently tried my whole class inquiry whirligig lesson. Unfortunately, it didn’t go the way she had hoped it would. My goal was to help her see how much she could learn from this experience.

Here are a few excerpts from her email and my responses (posted with her permission, of course):

As you mentioned in your post, it became an exercise in trial and error. I reminded them a couple times of the need for recording data. Students would make a couple different whirligigs but it didn’t occur to them right away to use a stopwatch to time the length of the fall. (I would attribute that to the lack of any scientific inquiry in the first 8 years of their education.)

This tells me that she just found out something very important about her students; they have done very little inquiry in the past and need more scaffolding to get there!

One of my big concerns is that certain students are being left out, so I was focussing on including them. I also had lots of little questions from students needing affirmation, or confirmation, or even just where supplies are – these kids seem to be quite dependent on a teacher.

Her students have had little experience in the past of collaborating effectively.  They also have had little experience with student-centered instruction (especially in math and science).  These are skills they need to learn but also experiences that they will take time to adjust to!

When it came to give me one class design, they kinda looked at me blankly. When I said that the class would have to decide on one design, one class didn’t say a peep. One student in the other class half-heartedly tried to get everyone talking, but he got the silent treatment too.

Again, this speaks to a lack of collaboration skills. It also tells me that these students have little experience with using data to inform next steps in an experiment. This is a common struggle for people (not just kids) who have never done true scientific inquiry!

I think the inexperience on both my part (with facilitating WCI) and the students’ part (with any type of inquiry or scientific activity) contributed to the whole class aspect not working out.

The funny thing about Barbara’s experience is that she seems to have felt like it was a failure on her part. I disagree with that assessment completely. She just learned a tremendous amount about her students and their needs in one class period! I can think of few more efficient ways to assess the requisite skills for effective scientific inquiry.

Not only that, but Barbara is a first year teacher. We’ve all been there. One of the biggest differences between a first year teacher and an experienced teacher, when it comes to inquiry, is the ability to assess student needs from a “failed” lesson. Every experience in the classroom gives you information about your students.

I commend Barbara for being a reflective educator and for asking such good questions. Are there things that she could have done differently? I’m sure there are – we all can always do better. However, we also shouldn’t assume that a “failed” inquiry activity is our fault – or a problem. The key is to learn from the activity and use it to inform future instruction. I think Barbara is well on her way to doing that!

Why does my opinion about inquiry matter? Because I’ve been failing at it for 5 years! Every time I do an inquiry lesson/ activity/ project I agonize over all of the many things I could or should have done differently. Every time, I learn from those mistakes so that I can try again and make new mistakes the next time.  I also make sure to learn about the kids, though. What do they need? How can I help them get it?

In the end, the key is being a reflective educator without beating yourself up. It’s a fine line.

Image used under cc license from the Flickr stream of caricaturas

Note: This post was cross-posted at my blog – Wisdom Begins with Wonder

This entry was posted in Inquiry. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Diagnosing inquiry

  1. whatedsaid says:

    Interesting to read Barbara’s perspective on the lesson and Tyler’s analysis. The thing is that in inquiry learning, teachers have to be willing to be inquirers too. Just as for the students, there isn’t a set path with an answer at the end… we too have to experiment and explore and learn from our mistakes.

    I agree that there’s lots of scaffolding required before students are ready to ‘go off and do their own thing’ in terms of learning. And more than that, I don’t think inquiry is something you can just ‘do’ one day. It takes time to build a culture of inquiry, where learners are used to asking questions, exploring, thinking, and reflecting on their own learning. We introduced inquiry as a stance about 5 years ago as part of the IB PYP (primary years program) … and we are STILL developing and deepening our understandings of how it works best.


  2. Tyler says:


    Such a great point about how you are still learning how to do inquiry best after 5 years. I am in exactly the same boat!

    The sooner a teacher starts really trying to do inquiry and reflecting on the results, the sooner they start their learning curve. I really think that I get better with facilitating inquiry each time I do an inquiry project, activity, or experiment. It’s a learned skill that now amount of pre-planning can prepare you for. You just have to dive in!

    This is also a reason why I think teacher training in America should be more of an apprenticeship, rather than a college course-based experience. What is the teacher training system like in Australia?


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