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K–12 teaching and learning · from the UNC School of Education

portrait of Kishia Moore

First-grade teacher Kishia Moore in her classroom at Greenlee Primary School in Mitchell County. (Photograph by the author. More about the photograph)

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There they go — Mitchell County teacher Kishia Moore and her class of seventeen first graders — up Gem Mountain not far from their school, Greenlee Primary, to pan for gemstones for use in their NC Standard Course of Study-mandated science unit on minerals.

And here the kids come, back down the hill, dirty, damp, and hauling impossibly heavy — for the kids’ size, that is — loads of rocks that during the next five to six weeks, they will study, sort, measure, weigh, scratch, break if possible, discuss, compare, draw pictures of, polish in noisy rock tumblers, and, ultimately, fashion into items of jewelry.

If Ms. Moore employed traditional teaching methods, her next tasks would be to explain the sorting and measuring processes and then direct her students through those processes. Ms. Moore, though, a member of the 2011 cohort of the Kenan Fellows Program for Curriculum and Leadership Development, prefers a more radical pedagogical approach — inquiry-based instruction — in which students learn by

  • observing or engaging in an event,
  • devising questions based on their observations,
  • developing hypotheses,
  • formulating strategies for testing their theories,
  • performing the tests,
  • analyzing and drawing conclusions from test results, and
  • communicating their findings to others.

The definition

Inquiry-based instruction, a teaching technique rooted in questioning — both students’ questions about the material under investigation and the interrogation of students by teachers to elicit understanding — is not new; its provenance may be traced back to John Dewey. Nor is its application to science lessons a recent development; it has been cited among the National Research Council’s National Science Education Standards since at least 1996. Its use with children as young as Ms. Moore’s students, though, is not widespread.

Ms. Moore understands the reluctance of many other teachers of early grade students to employ this method because it requires “unlearning” many of the lessons of traditional teacher-preparation programs. She must, she says, continually resist the temptation to lead her students through lessons. Although her natural inclination is “to help my students when they’re stumped or confused, I need constantly to remind myself that when I supply an answer or even suggest a method for finding an answer, I’m not truly helping.” In terms of the tenets of inquiry-based instruction, she explains, when she answers students’ questions straightforwardly instead of asking questions to help the students find the answers themselves, she’s actually interfering with the learning process.

The theory

students pan for gems

Ms. Moore’s students pan for gems at Gem Mountain Gemstone Mines. Photo by Kishia Moore.

How, it may be legitimately asked, can traditional teaching methods be characterized as obstructing learning?

Answers Ms. Moore, “Kids are not blank slates.” Even at age six or seven, she says, students have made up their minds about certain things, and often their conclusions are wrong. “As a traditional teacher, I may ‘correct’ these misconceptions and later the students may even be able to answer test questions on the subject properly.” But they may not — and, she contends, frequently do not — give up those misconceptions.

For example, common sense seems to dictate that a five-pound object dropped from a given height will fall faster than a five-ounce object dropped from the same height. A traditional teacher may tell her class that’s not true and the kids might remember the correct answer if subsequently quizzed, but in their hearts they may not believe it. If employed properly, though, Ms. Moore contends, inquiry-based instruction stands a better chance of demolishing the misconceptions — eliminating them completely — by encouraging and allowing students to discover fundamental principles on their own.

The method

Down from the mountain and back in the classroom, the kids dump their treasures on their tables and take out their science notebooks. Ms. Moore divides the class into groups of four or five students each, assigns each student a role within the group — e.g., reporter, spokesperson — and the inquiry process begins.

“The first thing we do is begin an ‘I see — I wonder’ exercise,” says Ms. Moore. This technique, a variation of KWL, not only allows the kids’ natural curiosity to emerge but also provides Ms. Moore with valuable insights into her students’ misconceptions. This information, she explains, helps her determine and design future paths of inquiry.

Ms. Moore asks her students to pick up their rocks, study them, and say, out loud, what they see. Then she asks the same question again and again, continuing as long as the children offer observations. She also asks them to record what they see in their notebooks. Although the writing skills of first graders — those who have writing skills at all — are rudimentary, everyone can draw pictures.

Next, Ms. Moore asks the students what they wonder about their specimens. At this juncture, she explains, she knows which aspects of the material the Standard Course of Study requires her to cover and admits to becoming anxious if the students do not focus on them quickly. This is when her trust in the inquiry process is tested, when she must practice patience and restraint. She contends, though, based on personal experience, that if given time and allowed the freedom to follow their own inclinations, students will eventually address the critical issues — even difficult ones, like the relative hardness of rocks.

Classroom activity

During these activities the children participate both individually and in groups. As important to Ms. Moore as ensuring that children learn lessons is ensuring that children learn to communicate and collaborate. Not only is science in the adult world a collaborative process, she emphasizes, but also the ability to collaborate is an essential 21st century skill. “Everything I do should contribute to students’ success outside of class,” she says, “and it’s never too early for kids to learn how to get along in the world.”

During this first instructional phase, noise and activity levels sometimes reach eardrum-piercing levels and, Ms. Moore admits, visitors to her classroom during these exercises might assume the children are “just playing.” Play, she acknowledges, is — and must be — a component of what’s occurring but, she insists, the kids are not “just” playing; they’re applying the scientific method, which is often an untidy business.

After completing “I see — I wonder,” the children “do science.” Throughout the remainder of the unit, they theorize, test, analyze, experiment, and share and review results at various work stations Ms. Moore establishes in the classroom. They also receive visits from and ask questions of representatives from some of the many local businesses engaged in mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction in the mountains in and around Mitchell County.

“I especially like to invite women who are executives or scientists at the local companies,” says Ms. Moore, “because I feel it’s important for young girls to see that science isn’t for guys only.”

At the end of the unit, each of her students has not only a strong basic understanding of rocks and minerals, which is useful knowledge in a North Carolina county named for a geology and mineralogy professor, but also a unique item of jewelry — a broach or ring — featuring a gemstone he or she found and fashioned on his or her own.

Thinking maps

A modern educational tool Ms. Moore considers indispensable for effective inquiry-based instruction is the set of graphic organizers known as Thinking Maps, which help children categorize information in visually coherent ways. “Many teachers mistakenly assume kids know how to think,” she says. In most cases, though, children — many adults, too — experience thought as Zen masters describe it: a drunken monkey swinging haphazardly in a mind-forest, from thought-branch to thought-branch and idea-tree to idea-tree. Thinking Maps, she explains, help students gain control of the process by offering them eight distinct ways to organize their inquiries — a circle map for defining in context, for example, or a bubble map for describing with adjectives, etc. Thinking Maps, she continues, introduce students to the notion of thinking about thinking — of conceptualizing the thought process objectively, perceiving it as a tool they may manipulate as they would, for example, a magnifying lens, rather than as a mysterious process in which they are inevitably enveloped and to which they are uncontrollably subject.

If a student attacks a problem in one way — using, for example, a “double bubble” Thinking Map for comparing and contrasting — and the information does not cohere, he or she can discard that approach and try another way. “When kids use Thinking Maps, they tend not to become frustrated when things don’t work out immediately,” says Ms. Moore.

Although the notion of thinking about thinking may seem difficult, “I’ve been surprised at how quickly the kids grasp it,” says Ms. Moore. “I introduce one Thinking Map per week during the first eight weeks of the school year and by the end of the semester I don’t even need to refer to them any more because the kids create them on their own.”

The bottom line

The key to truly understanding and thus wholeheartedly embracing inquiry-based instruction, Ms. Moore emphasizes, is for teachers to keep at the forefront of their minds that any given Standard Course of Study objective is simply a means to achieving the more profound educational goal of “helping children gain active control over the process of thinking so they learn how to learn, which will serve them well throughout their lives.”

If you would like to quiz Ms. Moore about how to implement inquiry-based instruction in your classroom, send her an email.