The Educator's PLN

The personal learning network for educators

Here in Jasmin Ramzinsky’s   3rd  grade class at Parkside Elementary School in Austin is why education can be turned around on a time by simply challenging students to assume more control of their own learning.


How do they do this?  By being encouraged to ask good questions about the content they are studying and then pursuing what International Baccalaureate calls “purposeful investigations.”


And how do we encourage students to get interested and excited enough to pose questions about a subject we have to teach?


One successful way is to introduce what we call a provocation or a problematic scenario.


Jasmin had her students read a short book and within this story might have been the following challenge:


You are members of an expedition of scientists who must explore the distant planets for possible living environments.  Our planet earth is becoming overcrowded and resources are scarce.  Select your planet, identify what you know about it and what you need to know in order to prepare for such an expedition.  You will present your findings to a community group of concerned scientists and demonstrate your understanding of planetary rotations, orbits, atmospheres and opportunity for sustaining life.


Before Jasmin adopted this inquiry-based approach, she had assigned students’ questions; they then conducted the research and write a one or two page paper.


After completion of this solar system unit, Jasmin asked her students to comment on this new approach.  Here are some of their comments:


"Mrs. Ram, that doesn't make any sense. Why would you ask questions about my planet. You weren't doing the research, I was."      
 "Mrs. Ram, I bet your kids kinda got bored with finding the answers to your questions."      
 "Mrs. Ram, How did you know what your kids wanted to research? Did you ask each kid before you wrote the list of questions?"     


Indeed, why do we teachers assume we can dream up the kinds of questions our students would be intrigued by?  Why would we assume that the old approach would generate interest and engagement in the topic?


But we have made and continue to make these assumptions throughout our educational system.


Teachers who afford students an opportunity to pose their own questions related to the designated content report these advantages.  Students become:


1.   More engaged intellectually and emotionally

2.    More in control of their own learning and, thereby, more responsible for achievement


There are many, many Jasmins across this country who know the benefits and wisdom of challenging students to pose meaningful questions and conduct purposeful investigations.


Inquiry that leads problem solving and critical thinking are all so-called 21st century skills (as they were last century and the ones before that dating back to Socrates!)


One of the questions to pose and answer is How do we know they’re getting better at these 21st century skills?


We do have evidence.


More later.

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Comment by John Barell on April 29, 2011 at 9:28am


I know what you mean by constricting nature of standards.  In our inquiry work, we make certain that during the unit planning process we not only brainstorm ideas/concepts within a unit, but then ensure that we've aligned with the standards, or by supplementing them.  I know this will differ from subject to subject, but the teachers with whom I've worked have been able to follow this model, so that they've provided ample time to observe, think and question and then, perhaps, engage students in a problem-based scenario.  You might consider the fourth grade videos from Austin using this approach:



Comment by Tommy Wandrum on April 29, 2011 at 9:05am
Thanks for sharing this John.  This is a solid example of how to engage kids with Inquiry Based teaching methods.  I try to do this as well.  Sometimes I feel stifled by the standards that I'm required to teach.   


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