Last weekend, I was fortunate to be able to attend EduCon2.5. Educon is a conference and a conversation hosted by Science Leadership Academy (SLA) a progressive public high school in Philadelphia. The guiding principles behind EduCon, which resonate with many of our core LREI values, include the following:
- Our schools must be inquiry-driven, thoughtful and empowering for all members.
- Our schools must be about co-creating — together with our students — the 21st Century Citizen.
- Technology must serve pedagogy, not the other way around.
- Technology must enable students to research, create, communicate, and collaborate.
- Learning can — and must — be networked.
On Sunday, I attended a conversation hosted by SLA’s principal Chris Lehmann that aimed to dig deeply into the value of inquiry as an organizing principle for our work in schools and beyond. The conversation mined a rich vein of thought some of which is captured here in the #educoninquiry twitter hashtag. In reflecting on the various conversations that I had with a number of participants, the following are a few ideas that continue to resonate with me and that I hope will continue to inform the evolution of our program and learning community.
- Inquiry as a recursive questioning process
As I wander through classrooms and engage in conversations with students and teachers, I am always struck by the depth of engagement in our learning spaces when dialog is being driven by an assortment of “why,” “what if,” “could we” and “how about” questions. These questions move us past single nodes of understanding towards a web of interconnected ideas and possibilities. They are generative and force us to challenge assumptions; they move us into areas where we are not always so comfortable. At the same time, they also allow us a freedom to move towards learning that has personal and collective relevance As Grant Lichtman notes in the Falconer:
Questions are waypoints on the path of wisdom. each question leads to one or more new questions or answers. Sometimes answers are dead ends; they don’t lead anywhere. Questions are never dead ends. Every question has the inherent potential to lead to a new level of discovery, understanding, or creation, levels that can range from the trivial to the sublime.
One of our tasks then is helping students and ourselves to not only recognize the trivial from the sublime, but to use inquiry as a pathway towards the sublime and the significant.
- Inquiry as a tool to unpack meaning and open us to the wonder inspired by the world around us
Inquiry calls on us to be engaged with and in the world. It is not simply a pathway to knowledge acquisition; it is rather a pathway to experience from which real and lasting knowledge can be derived. Absent the authentic experience, what often gets called inquiry is really no more than the following of a set of pre-determined routines. These are routines that often leave little room for exploration and for bumping into the unexpected. As a faculty, we spend considerable time thinking about how to move beyond engagement that is grounded simply in activity. The goal is to develop engagement that is grounded first in a meaningful question or problem for which there may be multiple avenues for exploration and a variety of ways in which understanding can be demonstrated. A additional goal for us is to continue to find ways for this work and the related demonstrations of understanding to be shared beyond the walls of the classroom with a wider and more authentic audience so that the work of school becomes something more than just schoolwork.
- Inquiry as an incubator for our innate ability to be curious and to seek connections
As Ken Robinson observes:
What these things have in common is that kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. Am I right? They’re not frightened of being wrong. Now, I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original — if you’re not prepared to be wrong. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this, by the way.We stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems wheremistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities. Picasso once said this — he said that all children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. I believe this passionately, that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it.
Through inquiry, students are regularly challenged to be curious and to see beyond the artificial distinctions that separate subject matter. They work to identify connections within and between subjects, between individuals and their varied experiences and across time. Inquiry also makes the same demands on teachers as they work individually and collaboratively to structure the optimal conditions for learning.
- Inquiry as structure to help us to live in the uncomfortable space where we don’t know the answer
An orientation to inquiry demands and develops an ethic of hard work and values the disposition of resilience. It does this through the teacher’s purposeful structuring and scaffolding of the learning experience. The inquiry classroom is an intentional place; it is one where the student encounters a level of challenge that is just comfortably out of reach. It is as the psychologist Lev Vygotsky defined it in the zone of proximal development, which is:
the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.
The inquiry classroom’s essential character is iterative. Students move forward by navigating through, over and around obstacles that are both concrete and abstract. They fall down along the way, pick themselves up and/or are helped up by others, examine the causes of their stumble, chart new paths and try again. Sometimes the going forward is slow and in other moments the learner takes larger leaps forward, but always they are reflecting on how they got to where they are and where they need/want to be. All of this takes place alongside other learners so that insights, observations and understanding can be shared and woven together to create a richer and more detailed map of the learning journey.
- Inquiry as vehicle for transforming culture
When we open ourselves to inquiry in our schools, it’s impact is not limited just to the classroom. It works it’s way into the very culture of the place. It changes how we relate to each other and what we value as a community. A community that moves forward on the basis of asking questions is one that seeks to understand the diverse set of perspectives that its members represent. Itis no surprise then that is a key goal of our advisory program, which seeks to foster caring and advocacy through inquiry. Last week, we held our annual MLK Assembly and were joined by teacher and diversity trainer Rosetta Lee. Rosetta led us through a series of interactive experiences that challenged us to claim our various identities, learn about others, and commit to the inclusion of everyone, no matter who they are. She also invited us to explore how the middle school world mirrors the larger world and what students can do now to train ourselves to be the adults they want to become. For the adults in the room, it was also a chance for us to explore the same questions related to our only slightly longer journeys towards an understanding of ourselves and others.
I left Educon feeling energized about much of what we do at LREI, but also excited to explore how we can push this work ahead even further and with a clearer sense of purpose connected to our school’s longstanding vision for learning. What kinds of inquiry are you engaged in and how is it moving you forward as a learner?