Among his many innovations, 19th-century educational reformer John Dewey urged schools to teach science as a process and a way of thinking, as opposed to a collection of facts to be memorized and regurgitated.
At Morgan Park Academy, we couldn’t agree more!
Teachers may be the classroom expert on a subject, but they aren’t the one and only source of information — not in a digital age where students have a world of information literally at their fingertips. In science class, we try to take advantage of that by using class time on investigating rather than mere information-gathering.
What’s more, the College Board feels the same way: It has completely revamped Advanced Placement science exams in recent years, shifting the focus for AP Biology, AP Chemistry, and AP Physics courses to what we call inquiry-based learning.
But inquiry-based learning requires a few key ingredients to work:
1. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable — at least at first
Students generally are accustomed to coming to class, sitting for 40 minutes, listening to a lecture, and taking notes. This will rarely happen in an inquiry-based classroom, because the information should have already been read the night before! Class time is dedicated to actually solving problems, collaborating with peers, and investigating alternate solutions. Students can find this uncomfortable if they are accustomed to succeeding by finding a prescribed “correct” answer.
Inquiry-based learning is about learning how to solve problems rather than being able to recite facts.
2. Guiding without providing the answers
The easiest classroom setup is to have all of the notes laid out for the students, with the teacher holding all of the answers. Plus, teachers want to help people. It can be hard to watch students struggle with a concept and tempting to just guide them to the right answer.
In an inquiry-based format, MPA teachers work on providing students with the tools that they will need to be able to solve problems that have no solution yet — or that we don’t even know are problems yet!
3. Staying current with the reading
Teachers in an inquiry-based classroom depend on students to do their parts at home: reading the text and learning the facts. They need to already have a strong foundation when they come to class, or else they will struggle with creative problem-solving in the lab.
4. Posing questions or problems
Students have to be given an opportunity to demonstrate that they have prepared for class. Questions should start off relatively easy and then culminate with a problem that requires application of the knowledge that they have retained, along with collaboration with their peers and guidance from the teachers.
It is truly amazing to see what students can create when given the chance, and it is not only new and exciting for the students, but the teachers as well. When students are given the opportunity to explore content in novel ways, teachers see the material from a different perspective as well, thus allowing teachers better ways to navigate through the material with the next group of students. It is a win-win situation where all parties are being challenged and learning at the same time.
By Emily Drown
Mrs. Drown teaches Upper School science and is Upper School assistant principal.