Start Teaching Through an Inquiry Stance

Making in SchoolsThis is the third in a six-part series titled Making in Schools.

“Better learning will not come from finding better ways for the teacher to instruct, but from giving the learner better opportunities to construct.” — Seymour Papert

student centered learning board

If student agency and empowerment is at the core of maker-centered learning, then the role of the teacher is to create an environment that supports students to construct their own meaning. To do this, teachers need to cultivate our own inquiry stance to support student-centered learning.

An inquiry stance is our underlying approach to teaching; it favors questions over directions, student voice over teacher voice, and process over outcome. It’s about thoughtful structure, intentionally choosing where students explore openly, and where there are limits and scaffolds. This doesn’t mean, however, that students have complete autonomy as the teacher sits back and watches.

Four Subtle Shifts

Adopting an inquiry stance is not something that happens overnight. Luckily, there are some subtle, small shifts that you can use to begin to make your practice more student centered.

1. Using the “Final Project” to Drive Learning

Start (rather than end) with the project, experience, or research, and then weave it into other experiences, making it the means through which students explore and learn.

In many physics classes, students build a mousetrap car as a final project, after they’ve learned about motion and forces. At Lighthouse, however, students build the car at the beginning of the unit and use it as a tool for learning. After students build their initial model, they test the cars and identify common issues they need to “fix.” The teacher is a resource for them, helping students dig deeper on topics that emerge — friction, for example — and students then apply what they learn to improve their cars. Due to the nature of this project, students will learn the same science content, but at the same time they’ll be immersed in the scientific process.

When teachers adopt an inquiry stance and allow students to be involved in choosing their own learning path, it heightens student interest in the content and builds student agency.

teacher leading group of students

2. Materials

Choose materials that let students build their own understanding of an idea, or lets them discover something for themselves. For example, you could use a set of primary documents, circuit blocks, pattern blocks — anything that allows students to start discovering concepts on their own.

Our 5th graders start their study of cartesian coordinates by learning to program in Turtle Art. They learn to program by drawing shapes, which also deepens their understanding of geometry and angles. After this initial exploration, students are asked to duplicate a shape of their choice around their screen, tapping into the cartesian coordinates built into Turtle Art. This is their introduction to the coordinate system and is followed up with practice, both using Turtle Art and other tools. This choice of “material” allows students to explore programming, geometry, and eventually the coordinate system, independently. Throughout the experience, teachers practice their inquiry stance by allowing students to experiment with programming and asking questions, instead of providing answers.

3. Prompts that Invite Choice

Frame questions in ways that open up several paths, instead of leading students down a single path.

Our middle school students were asked to “create a robot that interacts with people” that would be part of a Robot Petting Zoo. The results were diverse: we had a penguin, a zombie dog, a low-rider, and a Jack the skull head (with wings). Though the final products were varied, each student learned to use inputs and outputs, write a program, construct a robot, and plan a project for audience impact.

students displaying projects

4. Real World Connections

Ground learning in the real world: use data students collect themselves, interview people with pertinent experiences, and work together on community needs.

Are cars speeding on Hegenberger Road? Our students ventured out to the busy roadside and measured the time it took for cars to travel from starting to ending points in increments of ten meters. Working out the kinks of this project and collecting real data together created excitement when it was time to analyze the data, and it even sparked math debates! Check out A Den of Inquiry for more modeling activities for math and physics.

Laying the Groundwork for an Inquiry Stance

As you shift your stance, student learning will deepen, but it will also become more messy. Synthesis and sharing of learning is key to making sure all students are deepening their learning equitably. Synthesis can at times be personal — recorded in a journal, for example — but it also needs to be shared publicly to support each individual’s construction of knowledge.

Questioning is at the heart of an inquiry stance. Plan the questions you’ll ask individuals, small groups, and the class, ahead of time. Questions can be differentiated to push students further and ensure that they don’t become disheartened.

When I started teaching, I would write “Less me… More them…” in each lesson plan. These small steps have resulted in the development of my own inquiry stance. Remember, just as it takes us a while to change our teaching practice, it will take students a while to get used to thinking in new ways. Be ready to explain to students why you’re doing it this way when they get frustrated, and expect it to take time to see the thinking you want. The result of a more student-centered experience will be the agency and empowerment developed by maker education.

Get Started Today!

Many activities you already do could easily become more student centered by applying the ideas discussed above. Here are some quick suggestions to help you get started:

  • Introduce the final project earlier and develop a way for students to record their thinking about the project over time. You can also try giving students primary source documents to grapple with before they learn about the context, and come back to them throughout the unit to see how their interpretation changes.
  • Change your prompts to allow for multiple answers. To see if you’re really allowing for multiple answers, try answering the prompt yourself in multiple ways.
  • Help students make their thinking visible using thinking routines. When writing follow-up questions to an activity, ask a few general questions rather than many specific ones; this will allow students to express their understanding.

Aaron Vanderwerff is passionate about engaging students in making and independent inquiry in the classroom, particularly students underrepresented in STEM fields. Aaron currently oversees design and making programs at Lighthouse Community Charter School, which includes coaching teachers and facilitating professional development. This effort came out of his making class, which culminates in students exhibiting their independent projects at Maker Faire. Aaron has taught high school science in the Bay Area for over ten years. Before joining Lighthouse, he taught ninth-grade physics and was science department chair at San Lorenzo High School, and taught math in the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso. Connect with Aaron on Twitter: @aVndrwrff


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