Modules 7 & 8
I would like to begin with the last article I read. With the last notes I wrote for this module because, while I came across these words last, they are what resonated most strongly with me in terms of the overarching reason behind the importance of developing cultures of inquiry in our schools. In his article “Questioning as Technology” Jamie McKenzie (2003) writes of the dangers of a society in which citizens do not question the status quo. “An unquestioning mind is condemned to ‘feeding’ on the ideas or solutions of others” whereas in a democratic society, where questioning is nurtured, citizens will be empowered to “challenge authority to do the most good for the most people” (McKenzie, 2003, para. 5-6). Furthermore, it is essential that the encouragement and nurturing of questioning minds begins at a young age as “questions enable the next generations to make changes in society, to invent new and better ways of doing things” (McKenzie, 2003, para. 8). While McKenzie wrote this article almost fifteen years ago, I believe that it is just as, if not more relevant, in today’s society. Inquiry, with questioning at the heart, will not only lead to more engaged learners but to more engaged and proactive citizens, something our world so desperately needs.
Evidently, questioning and inquiry is not a new phenomenon, older still than 15 years when McKenzie wrote his article. In Alberto Manguel’s (2015) book, Curiosity, he speaks of German philosopher, writer, and composer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and how he, in the 17th century, recognized the necessity that schools be places where “imagination and reflection were given free range” (p. 32). Without these components (so critical to inquiry), the education system would simply turn out jello mold citizens, one exactly the same as the next, citizens who, as said Rousseau, are prepared only to be “chained up by our institutions,” (as cited in Manguel, 2015, p.32) as opposed to proactive, innovative citizens who are capable of thinking for themselves.
As explained throughout this module, inquiry leads to greater engagement. Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana’s (2011) article, “Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions” emphasizes the fact that giving students the opportunity to ask their own questions will lead to meaningful ownership of their learning, a strengthening of comprehension, and will enable students to “make new connections and discoveries on their own” (para. 3). Questioning also serves as a tool that can deconstruct past ideas and, as Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (2005) write, good questions can lead us to “rethink what we thought we understood” (p. 107). Students are not empty vessels in need of being filled and school is not meant to be a place where one is spoon fed information to be memorized. On the contrary an effective education, is one in which students are encouraged to question, curiosity is nurtured, and students are taught to be critical thinkers and compassionate, active citizens in our world.
In order for inquiry to truly lead to greater engagement, however, it is vital that the
essential questions matters to students and connect with their lives. Obscure questions that are disconnected from students themselves will not lead to the benefits seen when students find deep connections with the questions themselves. The title of Jeffrey D. Wilhelm’s (2014) article, “Learning to Love the Questions” really does say it all. We want students to love questions. To become excited by the unknowns, to be comfortable with diving into the murkiness of possibility in order to come to their own truths. I was especially excited to see the title of Wilhelm’s article as it reminded me of a quote I came across back in December, at a time I happened to be facing many questions. I was on my way home from Salta, Argentina where I had been living for ten months and had a mind full of wonders as to what being ‘home’ again would bring. When I came across the work of poet, Ranier Maria Rilke I felt more at peace with the questions in my heart. He wrote, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves” (as cited in Popova, 2012, para. 3). For the rest of my blog entry, written from the airport in Buenos Aires back in December, see here: Learning to Live (and Love) the Questions.
I very much agree with Fontichiaro (2009) in terms of the fact that there is a “gap between knowing inquiry’s value and putting it into practice” (p. 17). I think it is safe to say that the majority of today’s teachers understand that inquiry is the direction we are headed (and for good reason!) but some are having difficulty taking the ‘plunge’ to change what they have always done in order to delve into what may seem somewhat foreign. Despite substantial professional development in this area there are still teachers who are hesitant and I believe that Fontichiaro’s suggestion of “nudging towards inquiry” would be very valuable for these individuals (p. 18). Creating a culture of inquiry in your classroom does not have to mean a huge monumental change in all that you do, it can begin small and it can be the teacher-librarians who help give the little nudge that may be needed. As Fontichiaro writes, once teachers begin to see the positive impact even a few small changes can make to the engagement of their students then they may be more willing to take another step in the inquiry direction (p. 18). I very much appreciate the table of ideas for nudging lessons towards inquiry that is included in Fontichiaro’s article as it illustrates some simple ways to tweak a unit from the more traditional research style to something with greater student involvement and engagement (p. 19). In order for a teacher-librarian to effectively help staff nudge towards inquiry it is essential that a relationship of trust is developed between the TL and his/her colleagues. It is from this relationship of trust that will arise a willingness to collaborate and try new things.
Fontichiaro and Green’s (2010) suggest beginning with a book to jump start the inquiry process and I believe that this can be very effective. As they state using books serve to “awaken authentic questions related to the research topic” (Fontichiaro & Green, p. 22). It is important to remember that the book need not be non-fiction, a well chosen fiction picture book can be just as effective, if not more so. I appreciate Fontichiaro and Green’s discussion that in inquiry a final project is not always necessary. Sometimes the focus is on the process of “developing questions, seeking answers, and sharing what was learned” (Fontichiaro & Green, 2010, p. 23) as opposed to the development of a fancy final product. These steps are so important and need to be practised. Inquiry is, after all, so much more about this process than about the end result. I think that some teachers can become overwhelmed when they think of inquiry as they believe it needs to culminate in a big final show, this is not, however, what it is all about.
In terms of helping guide our students to ask deep questions I believe that the Question Formulation Technique, as laid out in Rothstein and Santana’s (2011) article, can be a very worthwhile strategy. As I was reading though the strategy I was reminded of an activity our staff engaged in at a recent professional development workshop we had with local teacher and author, Trevor MacKenzie. In this activity, MacKenzie had us work in groups with our colleagues to first come up with a topic, and then write down as many questions we could think of that were related. As written in the QFT strategy we did not stop to try and answer the questions as we wrote, nor did we judge a question in terms of whether it was a ‘good’ question or not. We simply brainstormed as a group and came up with a full page of questions. Following this activity we went into the discussion of closed vs. open questions, or thick vs. thin. We then practised changing some questions from one form to another, again, as outlined in the QFT. At this point we prioritized our questions. I found this strategy to be very effective. Sometimes the thought of coming up with the perfect essential question can be overwhelming but this practice, of starting out with as many questions as you can, gets your mind working and helps to lead you eventually to that one quality question that will become your focus.
Our world is changing, and, as such, the way we teach must change too. As Allison Zmuda (2013) writes, “many educators continue to train students to live in a predictable world” (p.10) and yet all we need to do is turn on the news or check our Twitter feeds to know that the world today is far from a predictable place. If we hope to prepare our students to live and thrive in today’s society, and moving forward, it is essential that we embrace the beautiful messiness of inquiry in our schools.
Fontichiaro, K. (2009). Nudging toward inquiry – Re-envisioning existing research projects. School Library Monthly 26(1): 17-19.
Fontichiaro, K. & Green, J. (2010). Jump-start inquiry: How students begin when they don’t know. School Library Monthly 26(5): 22-23.
Manguel, A. (2015). Curiosity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
McKenzie, Jamie. (2003). Questioning as Technology. FNO.ORG From Now On: The Educational Technology Journal 12(8).
Popova, M. (2012). Live the questions: Rilke on embracing uncertainty and doubt as a stabilizing force. Retrieved from https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/06/01/rilke-on-questions/
Rothstein, D. & Santana, L. (2011). Teaching students to ask their own questions: One small change can yield big results. Harvard Education Letter 27(5): 1-2. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Publishing.
Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Chapter 5, “Essential Questions: Doorways to Understanding?” Understanding by Design (pp. 105-125). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Wilhelm, J. D. (2014). Learning to love the questions. Knowledge Quest 42(5): 36-41.
Zmuda, A. (2013). CCSS (Common Core State Standards): A window and fresh air for learning. School Library Monthly 29(4): 9-12.