The Best Answer is a Question: Using Inquiry to Guide Learning

by Jennifer Kobrin on June 8, 2011

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Earlier this week I heard a radio segment on NPR’s All Things Considered about Sam Fuller, a sixteen year-old that is part of a small section of the home-schooling movement called un-schooling. Learning for an un-schooled child is driven entirely by his or her interests and motivations. For example, Sam did not learn to read until he began playing the card game Magic at the age of 10, which required being able to understand text written on the cards. While that may be scary for many parents and teachers out there, Sam’s mostly positive depiction of the life of an un-schooled kid is tight, compelling, and his monologue sounds a lot like a regular NPR reporter’s. It’s impressive.

Let’s be clear. While I believe traditional schooling is a better answer for most—if not all—kids, the idea behind un-schooling appeals to me. We know that lack of motivation on the part of students is one of the toughest challenges for teachers out there. For me, it seems as if giving kids more control over the things they are learning and the process in which those things are learned is really a no-brainer. Part of what makes us successful in school is how well we are able to construct a positive identity as a student—in other words, our perceived abilities in math or reading translate into actual achievement. Allowing a student to direct his or her own learning would build this positive identity by helping generate authentic academic interests. The real challenge is how to make a space and time for this kind of inquiry-based learning amidst the highly structured curriculum many districts use.

Yesterday I heard a great and practical idea that is working. A webinar hosted by the National Association for English Language Acquisition (NCELA) focused on a collaboration between the Sonoma Valley Unified School District and the San Francisco-based Exploratorium. This unique partnership uses parts of the scientific process—mostly inquiry and observation—as a catalyst for language acquisition. Science projects give EL kids motivation to practice English—and anyone who has learned another language knows that it often happens fastest when we have a compelling reason to speak and be understood.

From what I saw in the webinar, the initiative works like this: EL students are grouped by grade level several times a week, and then asked to observe a phenomena. The kids are encouraged to write down their observations and to talk about them. Later, an experiment is conducted based on what the kids are wondering post-observation. For example, kindergartners observe snails, wonder what snails eat, and then come up with a way to monitor and observe which foods snails choose among those students have picked (it could be anything from cheese curls to orange peels, it’s up to the kids).

In the words of Dr. Paula Hooper, who leads the project for the Exploratorium,“the best answer is a question.”

 The Exploratorium and Sonoma County USD won a $3 million I3 grant to pursue this initiative last year. To learn more, click here. To see a recorded version of the webinar, click here.

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