Information isn’t the goal

Amid the half-digested ideas churning in my brain this week, the word connections has kept floating to the top.

One of the posts I read this week was “10 Tips For Launching An Inquiry-Based Classroom” by Katrina Schwartz on MindShift.

Schwartz synthesized the 10 tips from comments by Diana Laufenberg, recognized leader in the Inquiry Schools model. (Whether the comments were made in a personal interview or some other forum is not specified.)

The point of inquiry learning (I’m hopelessly oversimplifying here) is to increase students’ learning by getting them to ask questions and investigate the answers.

What struck me as I read the post was how often the terms information and content were mentioned. My gut instinct tells me that Laufenberg probably doesn’t use those terms to mean facts, or specific bits of data.

I’m pretty sure the focus of inquiry learning is concepts and applications, the levels at which learning gives structure to those little bits and begins to make the learning useful in other contexts than the one in which it was acquired.

In my view, helping students make connections between something they are studying at the moment and other lessons, other subjects, and especially to non-school activities is the point of getting students to seek answers.

I suspect Laufenberg thinks so, too, but just didn’t have time enough to say more on the subject.

I suggest you read the post at MindShift and see what questions it suggests to you.

Comparison thinking prepares students for new horizons

We cannot prepare students to work in the world they’ll encounter 10 or 20 years from now.

2025 calendarWe can, however, enable them to learn the information and skills they will need in tomorrow’s workplace.

One of the most common ways to learn something new is by comparing it to something already known.  The value of the comparison is not in a side-by-side list of features, but in the question(s) that can be answered by such parallel lists.

To teach students the value of comparison thinking, begin by teaching students to consider what they can learn about their world using comparisons.

You could show some side-by-side photos (use of images plants the notion that comparisons are tasks ordinary people do outside the classroom), and ask students what questions could be answered by comparing the two objects.

For example, what kind of questions could be answered by comparing  these two objects?

Two windows, one with a box fan in it, the other with an air conditioner

If students look bewildered, you can ask who might need to compare the two objects. What reason might that person have for needing to compare them?

Other comparisons that are easy to present visually include such things as:

  • Two food items
  • The school football team and an NFL team
  • A laundromat washing machine and a home washer
  • A newspaper and an online news website
  • A laptop computer and a smartphone

It doesn’t take students long to see that comparisons are routinely used to guide decisions, particularly buying decisions.

Students also soon realize that many times there may be several feasible reasons for comparing any two items.  For example, two food items might be compared to answer such questions as

  • Which is a healthier choice?
  • Which is better to take on a picnic?
  • Which is easier for an inexperienced cook to make?
  • Which is cheaper per serving?
  • Which is more appealing to elementary school students?

The more plausible, specific questions students can suggest that could be answered by a comparison, the better.

After students understand what comparisons can do in out-of-school situations, give them some opportunities to do the same exercise with school topics, such as:

  • Compare algebra to geometry.
  • Compare tennis to soccer.
  • Compare a spreadsheet to a database.
  • Compare historical research methods to scientific research methods
  • Compare learning computer coding to learning Spanish.

Some of the questions students develop through this comparison activity might become the basis for:

  •  An original experiment
  • An essay or research paper
  • An oral presentation
  • A video or podcast
  • An infographic

As I write this, the New Horizons spacecraft is sending back data about Pluto to scientists who have long lists of questions they hope to answer by comparing the data about Pluto with data about earth.

Students who can figure out what questions they want answered and what comparisons are likely to yield those answers will be positioned to learn in 2025 and beyond.

WebQuest based on Sophocles’ Antigone

Antigone is probably my favorite of the Greek tragedies, which is only one reason I’ve hung on for two years to a link to a Web Quest based on the play.

The web quest was designed by Jennifer Thomas for 10th grade English class at Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, New York.

The quest uses an artificial set-up (students pretend to be researching a presentation to the school board), but there is nothing artificial about either the activities or the issues students are to investigate.

Thomas has students work in three-person teams to investigate three issues raised in the drama: gender bias, suicide, and capital punishment.  After a team picks one of the three issues to investigate, team members act as historian, sociologist, and political scientist. They prepare oral presentations on their findings. Each student also writes an individual essay.

The sources and aids Thomas provides would enable other teachers to do a similar activity in their classrooms.

Free Rural Schools Innovations Webinar

The efforts of  innovative network of rural schools in New England  to improve student success through use of inquiry learning will be the topic of a free webinar on Wednesday, March 11 at 2 pm EST.

The webinar will be hosted by Doris Terry Williams, executive director of the Rural School and Community Trust. Participants will be from three New Hampshire schools that particpate  in the network:

  • Teacher Chris Geraghty from Kearsarge High School.
  • Principal Steve Beals from Laconia High School.
  • Superintendent John Freeman, from Pittsfield.

Use the Add to Cart button to register in advance. Sign in information and a PDF will be emailed to registrants the day prior to the webinar.

My thanks to Nancy Blair (twitter name: @blairteach), school improvement consultant in Atlanta, Ga., for sharing information about this webinar.

[Broken links removed 2/26/14]