When adults observe children outside of school—playing, exploring, interacting—few of us recognize their behaviors as evidence of powerful learning. Yet in a moment, children's silliness can turn serious. Hooked by their own curiosity, children will intently examine found "stuff," focus on clues, and together compare what they are seeing with what they already know. They become oblivious to everything but their learning.
Genuine inquiry builds on natural curiosity. It draws on strategies that most good learners use in nonschool settings: experimenting, questioning, thinking and rethinking, and communicating. It's also the kind of learning that is largely swept aside in schools.
Many educators have argued for developing curriculum around students' questions (Clyde & Condon, 2000; Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, 1998; Laman, 2006; Mills, O'Keefe, & Jennings, 2004; Vasquez, 2004). But given the current narrow emphasis on standards and accountability, teachers wonder whether inquiry is feasible.
In late February 2007, we came together to answer that question. Angela, a 5th grade teacher at Crestwood Elementary School in Kentucky, was keen on making curriculum more relevant to kids. Jean Anne, a university professor, had engaged young children in inquiry and was eager to do so with older students. We intended to devote an hour or two daily to inquiry. But a few days later, we abandoned that plan and began living the inquiry process from the time kids arrived at school until buses left each day.
Arranging for inquiry learning to take over a 5th grade classroom is not for the faint of heart. Full-tilt inquiry can be messy, nonlinear, and ever changing as teachers and students abandon literal questions and predictable answers to enter the world of higher-order thinking. Shifting from "book-report-with-diorama" thinking to practicing strategies that adult social scientists use is a significant departure from school as we know it. Taking this step required a leap of faith—in our students, ourselves, and the process.
One Question … and Off We Go!
We began our inquiry with a single essential question (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998): How has Oldham County—where the school is located—changed over time? We displayed a table showing changes in our county's population from 1830 to 2000 and invited students to jot down questions: Within 10 minutes, they generated more than 100.
During the next three months, inquiry transformed students and teachers alike into thoughtful researchers. We spent the days searching for answers and generating new questions. We researched on the Internet, devised and administered surveys, interviewed community historians, and recorded observations during field trips.
Critical thinking was the heartbeat of our project. Gathering information from so many types of resources—texts, survey and interview data, artifacts, and even their own thinking—required our 5th graders to make thoughtful inferences and draw informed conclusions.
As we accumulated questions, e-mails, census information, and other data, students displayed both questions and data on the classroom bulletin board. That board became a thinking tool for sharing, moving, and organizing information.
Photo courtesy of Jean Anne Clyde
On a visit to the county's history society, students take charge of documenting their discoveries.
Gradually, Angela's planning book contained more white space. Her plans became the
class's plans as we cocreated daily to-do charts. These charts provided an efficient way to review completed work, identify remaining tasks, and add new information or ideas. As students volunteered for tasks, we recorded their assignments on these charts, which enabled us to hold eager but untried researchers accountable. Angela's role was to participate in the exploration and boost students' research and organizational skills. Both Angela and Jean Anne recorded reflections that identified emerging leaders and students who needed help.
Daily learning now connected to a common pursuit. We threaded minilessons throughout the inquiry. For instance, as kids got excited about interviewing guests, we demonstrated how to conduct an interview. During the mock interview, students observed that Jean Anne had only asked one of her prepared questions, but had added others. They realized she was listening closely to Angela's responses and shifting her questions as she went.
The students quickly became intolerant of lessons not related to the inquiry. For instance, students had created a chart depicting changes in the racial makeup of Oldham County's population over time. Angela realized that a line graph would make this data more accessible and address the curriculum requirement of learning graphing skills. She asked kids to vote on their favorite restaurant so she could review how to create a bar graph before moving on to line graphs. One look around revealed a range of emotions, from ambivalence to near outrage. Finally, one boy dejectedly raised his hand: "I just don't get it. Why are we talking about restaurants when we have real numbers to graph?"
We soon saw that the core content and skills required by Kentucky's learning standards could be naturally integrated into this project. We worked essential competencies in whenever possible. Literacy was everywhere as students read, studied artifacts, listened, discussed, and wrote reflections to clarify their thinking. Math skills came to the fore through graphing, averaging, and calculating percentages to make sense of data.
We returned again and again to the idea of change over time and probed the effects of geography and transportation on communities and civil rights. These 5th graders were creating and revising theories; their work was shaped by a growing sense of audience and purpose.
Our students approached this research with great seriousness. "I feel so important," Tressa reflected one day, and the more the project grew, the more this feeling echoed throughout the room.
Students pursued many smaller inquiries within our larger inquiry, from the history of bicycles to the significance of a late-19th-century school for black students. One question centering around an intriguing historical photo caught several students' interest and moved our inquiry beyond school walls as learners relentlessly pursued clues to find what role a building identified only as the Little Vine Church had played in local history (see "Looking for Little Vine").
Facing an Authentic Audience
Students' sense that their work mattered was validated when Crestwood's principal invited us to share our activities with the school board. We decided this was the kids' story to tell. Students debated how they wanted to share with the board and finally authored Investigation Station, a 70-page picture book created with RealeWriter software that described what they saw as key elements of the inquiry process. We gave a printed copy to each board member. Students incorporated selected elements of their process into a student-narrated "photo story."
As the students shared reflections about the inquiry process with powerful adults in their community, they seemed confident in what their work had produced and in the gravity of their task. They were eloquent and seemed to view themselves as advocates for real-world engagement in schools.
Speaking to the school board also confirmed for us that all members of our classroom could be involved with this project. We had worried that students who were labeled at-risk or gifted would not find the pace of the group inquiry comfortable. After the presentation, the district's coordinator of special services stopped Phyllis, Crestwood's special education teacher, to ask if any of "her" kids had been among those speaking. "They're all here," Phyllis told her. "Oh!" the coordinator said, clearly surprised. "Which ones are they?" When Phyllis invited her to guess, she could not.
Imagine how many isolated lessons it would have taken to accomplish what our students—and we ourselves—learned through this three-month inquiry. By year's end, kids were arranging field trips, asking the school bookkeeper to "cut a check" for expenses, and creating celebratory T-shirts. Our inquiry process had become like a well-oiled machine, generating productive interdependence.
What kind of thinkers and problem solvers could young people become if they discovered at the age of 10 that each of them is essential to the workings of the classroom—and can productively contribute to the local community? And, conversely, who do children become when everything about their schooling conveys that what matters is getting the "right" answers? Bringing inquiry to schools to spur resourcefulness and careful thinking is not only possible in our current milieu, but also essential.
Clyde, J. A., & Condon, M. W. F. (2000). Get real: Bringing kids' learning lives into your classroom. York, ME: Stenhouse.
Edwards, C., Gandini, L., & Forman, G. (1998). The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia Approach—Advanced reflections. Westport, CT: Ablex.
Laman, T. (2006). Changing our minds/Changing the world: The power of a question. Language Arts, 83(3), 203–214.
Mills, H., O'Keefe, T., & Jennings, L. (2004). Looking closely and listening carefully: Learning literacy through inquiry. Urbana, IL: NCTE.
Vasquez, V. (2004). Negotiating critical literacies with young children. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Looking for Little Vine
During our trip to the Oldham County History Center, we found an intriguing old photo labeled "Little Vine Church." We could glean no details other than that this church had been linked to the black community. The caption revealed that the church was located in Skylight. Three interested girls—Madison, Susannah, and Grayson—located Skylight on a county map. It was close to the Ohio River, prompting us to speculate whether the church had played a role in the Underground Railroad.
Our first efforts to learn more yielded little. Unskilled at sophisticated Internet searches, students turned up no leads. Angela queried fellow teachers. No luck there either. But one day, Jean Anne found an address for the church; it was just 10 miles away. Off we teachers went. We videotaped this on-the-road inquiry to share with the students the next day.
We stopped at the Skylight fire station and asked, "Anybody heard of the Little Vine Church?" One firefighter had a vague idea that it was near the Nay Farm. "Go to the general store," he advised. "There's an old man down there who knows a lot about the history of this area."
Heading for the store, we saw a sign for the Joe Nay Farm. Two hundred yards beyond the farm fence sat a small white structure. "Could that be it?" we wondered aloud. With camera rolling, we continued to the store where two employees speculated with us on the identity of the old church. The "historian" had gone home, but an employee phoned him from the store. Although unsure where this church had once congregated, he too mentioned the Nay Farm.
Photo courtesy of Jean Anne Clyde
Students share their findings on the historic Little Vine Church.
The next day, Angela played the videotape for the kids. "I can't believe you did that!" they exclaimed. They recognized that Jean Anne had enjoyed the experience and Angela had been nervous; this represented real risk taking for her. They were intrigued that our adventure had generated excitement and more questions, but little information.
The three girls were tireless in their efforts to learn more. Madison made a connection between a photo caption about the Nay Farm and our virtual field trip. The girls were eager to contact the Nays. A little sleuthing found the most geographically likely Nay listing in the phone book.
The girls' phone call led them to Mrs. Tinnell, the Nay family historian. After several attempts, the girls scheduled a phone interview. They prepared and rehearsed questions. Although visibly nervous, once into the interview, they sounded polite and professional. Mrs. Tinnell shared that the Nay family had donated land to former slaves soon after the Civil War to build a church, and Nay family members were working to establish the Little Vine Church as a historic landmark. She promised to mail some information.
One afternoon Madison, Susannah, and Grayson popped into the teachers' mailroom, where they found a large envelope addressed to them full of newspaper clippings telling the story of the church and its closing in the 1980s. The effect on them was obvious as they perused the new information and shared it with the class. In the end, the girls shared information with the executive director at the Oldham County History Center. She remarked,
They really added to the knowledge of what we have here in our archives. … People come here from all over the United States looking for family members, looking for questions about different places. What [the girls] gave me went into an archival file for people to look up.
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Jean Anne Clyde is Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Louisville; 303 Sprite Road, Louisville, KY 40207; 502-291-8943. Angela Hicks teaches 5th grade at Crestwood Elementary School; 8206 Highview Court, Crestwood, KY 40014; 502-930-2024.
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