Final Paper -- The Brain and Inquiry in Education Praxis, 2009
Brielle C. Stark, December 11, 2009
Discovering Inquiry in Education
Introduction and Background on Inquiry
In the early 1900s, the challenge of providing mass education was seen by many as equivalent to mass production in factories. This approach sorted the raw materials (the children) so that they could be treated as an assembly line. Teachers were viewed as workers whose job was to carry out directives. The factory model affected the design of curriculum, instruction, and assessment in schools (2). Much research has been done which has spawned ideas about new forms of education to alleviate this structured model, one of which is inquiry.
Inquiry can be loosely defined as a multi-faceted education approach which focuses on student exploration. Inquiry can include conversations, hands-on projects, experiments and many other classroom tools. In How Students Learn (2005), Bransford and Donovan set forth several concepts about learning that are critical to the inquiry process. The first concept is that students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works, and if their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom (1). Second, in order to develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must have a profound foundation of factual knowledge, be able to understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and be able to organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application (1). Finally, a “meta-cognitive” approach to instruction can help students understand how to take control of their own learning (1).
From the three concepts outlined above, it is obvious that there must be many interpretations of inquiry, as the concepts are quite vague. However, the overall focal point of inquiry, even with the vague concepts and many types of execution, seems to provide a successful learning environment. Educators understand the significance of the mentality that inquiry-based teaching is based upon: stressing the process of learning, rather than the conclusion. The world is not static and fixed, and therefore education should prepare students for such.
In areas such as science, where much of what is taught in class centers around ‘truths’ and ‘conclusions,’ educators find that inquiry is hard to implement. For inquiry to be successful, there must be an acceptance of the fact that the process of learning—that is, the overall steps it takes to reach an answer—must be what is ultimately appreciated by the students, more so than the answer that they received. A true inquiry-based process should understand that, while the answer is important, the utilization of the answer to feedback to the process is what is important. For example, educators could ask of the students: how was this answer achieved? Why is this answer applicable? To what situations is this answer not applicable? This offers as much of a benefit to the students of achieving an answer as it does to stress the process of how they got the answer in the first place.
This Praxis grew from a summer internship at the Summer Institute for K-12 Teachers with Paul Grobstein and Wilfred Franklin at Bryn Mawr College. Through this experienced, I was immersed in discussion with teachers about important ideas and criticisms about education. In the Brain and Behavior Institute, a segment of the Summer Institute, I found a deep desire to correlate the ‘looping’ process of education (that is, the acceptance of being ‘wrong,’ with no true ‘right’ answer) in a classroom setting (3). In the Inquiry Institute (4), another segment of the Institute, I found that the concept of inquiry had many facets and was understood differently by each teacher. Therefore, I endeavored to make more observations on these ideas and began an internship through the Praxis III program at Bryn Mawr College.
I was stationed at Lansdowne Friends School in Lansdowne, PA for a self-created internship to study how students experienced different types of inquiry. I was present one day a week to observe an inquiry-based lesson in a 5th and 6th grade class. During visitation, I would interact with the students during the project and also conduct interviews after. I always had a conversation with the teacher about the day’s events, and gathered many beneficial thoughts about inquiry from these discussions.
The Praxis also contained bi-weekly discussions with my two mentors, Paul Grobstein and Wilfred Franklin. These discussions were based on papers relevant to the Praxis, such as papers on risk-taking, how students learn and effective teaching. Several of my ideas that will be illustrated in this paper developed from these discussions, as well.
Types of Inquiry
Throughout this experience, I categorized several types of inquiry that I saw, discovered several key aspects that I thought were necessary to foster an environment for successful inquiry and, finally, discussed the implications of what I had observed with students.
In my specific Praxis location, students engaged in several types of inquiry. It seems to me that inquiry is a broad spectrum, with one side being more directed and the other being very open-ended. The types of inquiry that I noticed throughout my visitations spanned the spectrum.
First, there was what I would call ‘guided inquiry,’ which fell closer to the direction end of the spectrum. This guided inquiry centered on a specific set of instructions which dictated a procedure to the students which used information that the students had previously learned. I still deemed this to be inquiry because the procedures of the experiment were vague enough to allow different interpretations from the students. The students often would insert their own interests into the procedure. For example, during the Brain and Behavior unit, a set of instructions asked students to test depth perception by having a partner drop a ball into a cup. While the instructions did dictate how far a student should stand from the cup, students were interested enough to both complete what the instructions asked and to insert their own interests, like kneeling down, cocking their head or moving farther away from the cup.
Second, there was ‘open inquiry,’ which fell close to the middle of the spectrum. This open inquiry revolved around students creating their own experiments about information they had previously learned. The students utilized their own interests to set up the experiments. The students were the responsible figures in this process, as they had full reign over the lesson and what they desired to take way from it. For example, students were asked to determine which type of detergent created the ‘best’ bubble. First, students had to determine what they considered the ‘best’ bubble. One group in particular decided that height was the determinant of the ‘best’ bubble, then set about to test how many drops of the three differing detergents it took to create the tallest bubble. In another group, they thought that the widest bubble could be created by utilizing something stronger—glue, in this case—to mix with water.
Finally, there was what the teacher and I decided to call ‘discovery,’ a type of inquiry that fell in the open-ended region. Discovery was not based upon an experiment or on procedures. Discovery revolved around a simple exposure to the object(s) in question. For example, during a unit on physics and properties, students engaged with a substance known as Oobleck. Oobleck is liquid at given points and solid at others. The only objective that the students had was to describe Oobleck—literally, to ‘discover’ what it was.
All of these types of inquiry were appreciated by the students, who took special interests in being able to have hands-on experience. I questioned why this was, which lead to several realizations along the duration of my Praxis, both from conversations with my advisors, with the teacher and with the students. Thus, I have come to determine that there are several key factors that go into making a successful inquiry environment. These ideas are the culmination of the bi-weekly conversations with my advisors, as well as the interaction with the teacher and students at Lansdowne.
A Blame-Free Environment
First, I believe that a classroom should be 'blame-free.' This idea spawned out of one of the bi-weekly discussions during the Praxis duration, focused on chapter 6 “The Design of Learning Environments” from How People Learn (2). I interpret the concept of 'blame-free' as being an environment where students feel inclined to be particularly meta-cognitive and constructive. By meta-cognitive, I mean that the student thinks critically about his/her own learning process: what they feel they’ve successfully mastered, what they desire to learn more about and where their learning weaknesses and strengths lay. By constructive, I mean that the student engages with both peers and teachers in coming up with the best solution, even through conflict. To better understand this concept, compare this to an environment that is not blame-free, where students do not take responsibility for their learning and instead heap the ‘blame’ on another if they fall short and where students fail to come to the best answer for a situation because they refuse to engage in conflict with others.
It's necessary to bring up a concrete example in order to understand the obscure terms associated with a blame-free environment. I have been in non-blame-free environments in most of the classes where I have been a student. If a fellow student receives a bad grade on a test, the student places blame instantaneously upon the teacher, rather than upon herself. A phrase that I’ve heard used countless times throughout my student-career has been: 'the teacher didn't teach this well.’
Playing off of this revelation, I also believe that in an environment of blame, there is a lack of constructive conflict when it comes to objectives such as peer proofreading or even class discussions. First, I find that there is reluctance to peer editing because of fear of conflict. Second, I find that people often do not speak up in discussions because of fear of repercussions. Or, if they do speak up, they are personally hurt by arguments against their own thesis.
Contrast these ideas to a blame-free environment. In the Praxis class, a class discussion would almost always follow an inquiry activity. Open-ended questions that arose from their topic were asked of the teacher and their peers. For example, after a Brain and Behavior inquiry activity on senses, a student addressed the class, ‘I feel like I’m on autopilot. At lunch, I didn’t realize I was eating because I was talking. Do we always perceive what we are doing?’ In a blame-free environment, the student felt safe enough to address this concern to the class, and was able to engage in conflict about his statement when several other students questioned it.
Let’s journey back to my original description of a 'blame-free' environment, where I also stated that students must be meta-cognitive. I believe that this environment is necessary for inquiry because it fosters a sense of personal responsibility for one's learning. If a student feels as if he/she does not understand something as fully as he/she would like, or would like to discuss an idea, the student feels inclined to talk with another student or the teacher in the classroom without harboring a sense of guilt for his/her actions. Essentially, the student doesn’t place the blame upon someone else for his/her lack of understanding. Instead, the student is an active pursuer.
A great example that I saw in my Praxis location that highlighted this meta-cognitive understanding took place during the independent projects in the Brain and Behavior unit. A particular student was set on doing a project on a specific topic, but when he couldn’t find as much information as he felt would make a great project, he decided to pick another topic. He decided to switch because he felt that what he learned was not enough to create a satisfactory description of the topic, and he desired to be able to find a topic of which he could learn more about.
I have come to believe that a ‘blame-free’ environment is critical for inquiry because, without a blame-free environment, I believe that the entire process of learning gets overshadowed by the need for individual success. The process of learning is the critical component of a successful inquiry-based system. In an environment where blame is attached, the learning is overshadowed not only by the need for individual success, but also by an innate sense of competition that fosters a sense of superiority and need for success over other people. In a blame-free environment, there is a challenge to oneself. Students in this environment use their peers for help in understanding, but ultimately understand that it is their prerogative to learn as much as they desire for their own benefit.
Inquiry, as we’ve seen, revolves around growth as a person and an appreciation of the actual process of learning. I believe a blame-free environment is critical in order to ensure that a successful inquiry system is built in a classroom.
A Risk-Taking Environment
Another key concept that I’ve experienced as critical is something educators call ‘risk-taking.’ During the bi-weekly discussions, the concept of risk-taking was a prevalent topic. Beghetto (5) defines intellectual risk-taking as engaging in adaptive learning behaviors (sharing tentative ideas, asking questions, attempting to do and learn new things) that place the learner at risk of making mistakes or appearing less competent than others. Personally, I believe that risk-taking is also the ability of a student to challenge oneself beyond their normal boundaries and is an intricate part of the learning process. Concretely, students need to be able to explore their own ideas, to take risks in order to determine a solution, to accept that other answers may be more suitable for a specific context and to ultimately be able to engage in conflict with others. It takes a special environment to be a ‘safe space’ for risk-taking. As might be obvious, I find that conflict with others can breed a specifically injurious situation for most learners. If conflict is not reinforced on both sides—that is, if students don’t contribute to the situation and aren’t willing to learn from the other’s suggestions—then conflict loses its overall benefit. Likewise, if students don’t have a safe space to explore their own ideas, to make mistakes or to challenge accepted theories, there isn’t a successful environment based on experience.
In my Praxis location, I interviewed several children after they had completed open-ended inquiry lessons. Of each student, I asked them if and why they enjoyed these open, exploratory lessons where they got to test their own hypotheses. The answer of enjoyment was shared by each student, all for different reasons. One student told me that he enjoyed the lessons because he felt a sense of responsibility and really enjoyed feeling that accomplishment. Another told me that she discovered that she learns and remembers more when she is allowed to explore things hands-on. Another student indicated that he really enjoyed the actual process of creating experiments without the parameters that most experiments have because he could use his own ideas, rather than someone else’s. This same student told me, during the Brain and Behavior unit, that he was excited to explore the topic because he was ‘very interested in psychology.’ Altogether, the students seemed to thrive in this safe space for risk-taking because they understood—implicitly—that they learned ‘better’ in these situations. Each student had a different reason for why they enjoyed the lessons, but each student also indicated to me that they felt they learned more.
In terms of conflict at the Praxis location, the teacher and I discussed a certain ‘paradigm of learning’ that accompanied the conflict process. For example, through the proofreading segments that they do throughout the year, there are obvious age differences and stages of the paradigm. When the students first entered the teacher’s class as 5th graders, the teacher indicated that, when asked to proofread another classmate’s paper, they would simply read it and tell the other student that there was no problem with it. Likewise, if they received a paper back from another student that had suggestions on it, the younger student would instantly make those corrections without engaging in conflict. As the student experienced more time in the classroom, there was a shift: the student began to focus on grammar corrections in proofreading, but still lacked the overall content suggestions. However, the student did feel more apt to give his or her own opinion here. Likewise, when they received a corrected paper from a peer, there was a bit more exchange over the corrections. Finally, there was another shift to the latter stage of the paradigm: students began to feel confident in both making suggestions and also engaging in conflict with the other student over their suggestions in order to come to the best solution for their writing. As an example of this stage, the critiquing student may argue that their idea was not clearly stated in a particular sentence; the receiving student would then explain their idea, argue why they wanted it that way, and so forth. I noticed this more amongst the older, 6th grade students in the class.
Thus, for all of these risk-taking behaviors to occur, the classroom must be a safe space that fosters a sense of security in taking those risks. In inquiry, I find this especially important because inquiry more-so stresses the process rather than the conclusion. Therefore, as students engage in risk-taking skills such as those afore-mentioned, they are making full use of the process and actually beginning to understand the process of learning, rather than constantly focusing on the conclusion.
In conclusion, the experience at Lansdowne Friends School opened my eyes to several types of inquiry and offered me a view from the eyes of students. In the classroom, I saw three types of inquiry constantly in use: guided, open and discovery. A combination of the types of inquiry seemed to be very beneficial to students, who were constantly engaged with the projects. I discovered that there were several key concepts that I felt should accompany inquiry: a blame-free environment and safe space for risk-taking. These concepts were reinforced by the interviews with the students, who expressed differing viewpoints about their experiences, but all of which focused on their enjoyment of the inquiry lessons and the fact that they all felt that they learned ‘more’ through these lesson days.
1. Donovan, S. M., & Bransford, J. D. (2005). How Students learn: history, mathematics and science in the classroom. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences.
2. Dovovan, S. M., Bransford, J.D. & Cocking, R. (2000). How People learn. (2000). National Academies Press.
3. Grobstein, P. (2009, September 9). The Brain and education: three loops and conflict resolution. Retrieved from http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/4824
4. Franklin, W. (2009, July). Inquiry institute 2009. Retrieved from http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/wfrankli/ii09
5. Beghetto, R. (2008). Correlates of intellectual risk taking in elementary school science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46(2), Retrieved from http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/121585065/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0