Pedagogical Autobiography: Inquiry

Last spring I sat down at an open house for a graduate of the school. Near me was a parent who I recognized enough to know that I had his children in the past, but how long ago and what his children's names were I could not recall. I introduced myself and he said his name. We talked for a little while about what his kids were up to and how they were doing. Then he said to me, "you know we still use those speakers my son made in class, they sound great."

At the end of each year in physics I have a month and a half of open ended inquiry time. Independent research projects is what I call it. Students have to go and research some area of physics and come up with a product that represents their learning. I leave a lot of room for the students, but do have about 15 projects that have frames about them so that students are not left totally to their own devices. Constraints actually inspire creativity in many situations, so I do not feel bad giving students a topic or concept to explore, and they can always choose the last one, which is make your own project.

Inquiry is scary in this scenario, and it is on the surface doomed to fail. Seniors with six weeks of school left and all the pomp, circumstance and social traditions that distract them, are destined to not want to work hard. Yet some how when I give them room to fail they succeed to greater heights, for the most part. Every other year or so a student simply does nothing and fails. That is nothing compared to all the successes. A single student who wastes 6 weeks of 45 minutes, compared to lives changed, is a small price to pay.

When I say lives changed I mean it. When as a teacher you take a step of faith and allow kids to fail some will. Others will soar. I remember the day that a student had me sign a note saying he could miss class on Friday because of his physics project. I asked, "why are you going to be gone for a whole day?" He replied that he had set up a day to meet with archaeologists at the Field Museum in Chicago. I quickly signed the note. He is a geologist today, putting his physics skill to work on rocks around the world.

One day a student went to shadow an engineer. She had shared with me her struggle with where to go to school and what to do once she graduated. She explained that she felt she really wanted to go to a Christian college but that there were none near her house and she needed to live at home for financial reasons. I told her to pray about it, and that God had never denied me money when I needed it to do God's will. She came back from the job shadow and was so excited. While she was there the engineer had showed her a scholarship that he knew had no applicants that she qualified for. He also had a internship position in the lab he worked in that paid twice what she was making and he hired her. The money made up more than enough for her to go to the college of her dreams. It also confirmed for her that she was following the path that God had in store for her.

Two of my most popular projects started with a pair of students coming up after class and daring to ask if they could make up their own project. My only requirement for project like this is that there be a final product and that they produce a repeatable procedure for their project.  Therefore, if I like the project others can do it again. Now literally hundreds of students have done projects that other students had invented and I had nothing to do with the forming of those projects. Usually these projects are more involved than I would ever require them to on their own. All I had to do is set up and environment where students are allowed to develop intelligence by asking questions and having new, wonderful ideas about the material they gather to answer their questions. In the Having of Wonderful Ideas Duckworth says, "Knowing enough about things is one prerequisite for wonderful ideas." I try to set up the projects so that there is just enough to get the student started with the big questions of their topic and then they can move from there to the new wonderful ideas that they will find.

I also see this and being a direct implementation of the idea of teaching that Palmer presents in To Know As We Are Know. He says, "To teach is to create a space in which obedience to truth is practiced." I am not truth. I have some insight into truth, but make no claim to being truth. When I set my students free to explore they come up with so much more about the world and truth, than I could ever show them. When I give them to a subject and let the subject show them the way, they learn more than I could ever ask them to learn. In Griffith's book In The Borderlands of Teaching and Learning, he says, "We should help guide the ship, but not be its sole captain." (pg 40)  This is not the way I was taught or even taught to teach. He compares teaching to jazz and describes it this way, "The interaction between teachers and learners are experiments in fluidity with both trying to constuct meaning and forge understanding. The path is not linear, but is can be found."

Schools are not set up for this type of learning at all. We need to remedy this.  Here is a selection of links to projects that my students have done over the years.