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An attempt to articulate what I (try to) do…

September 9, 2011

One of the hardest things is describing how I teach (and make instructional decisions) in my inquiry course for future elementary teachers. It’s something like this:

I offer some situation that will hopefully create a diversity of ideas and invested persons. I listen to what my students have to say, and encourage them to say more. I help them to listen and to try to understand each other. I model what it means to listen, understand, and empathize. I also model what it means to ask questions as a honest listener and to probe people to say more because you are interested. I model what it means to be interested and help shed light on why they should be interested, too. I point out distinctions I am hearing, and similarities and differences between ideas, in order to model what it means to not to just listen to ideas but across ideas. I ask them if they think the ideas they are hearing are similar or different than their own, and in what way.

I ask students to write about those ideas–both their own and others’ ideas. I make them read each others’ writings. This is both to learn about others’ ideas and to learn about how to write and respond to others’ ideas. I respond to their ideas and to their responses to others’ ideas. Sometimes I summarize their ideas. Sometimes I ask if they mean ABC or XYZ. Sometimes I ask for elaboration. Sometimes I press for specificity or examples. Sometimes, I tell them that it’s clear to me they didn’t really put in any effort toward expressing their ideas. Sometimes I ask questions. Sometimes, usually later, I start offering critical questions, critiques, or counter examples, or ideas of my own.

Based on their ideas, both in discussion and in their writing, I think long and hard about their relationships to disciplinary understanding and practices. Sometimes those relationships are simple, and other times they are complex. I then ponder over where and how to next press upon those ideas: It might be offering another situation. It might be by pitting one or more ideas against each other. I may ask students to think about what questions they have, and let those questions be the guide. I might completely let students decide what to do. I might, but usually not until later, offer up ideas myself. Sometimes I press them in directions of normative scientific conceptions. Sometimes I press them in directions of mature scientific practice. Sometimes I press them in directions that are epistemologically authentic. Sometimes I press them in directions that are about aesthetic experience. Sometimes I press them in directions of enhanced personal agency, and others in the direction of external accountability. Sometimes these different aims are in conflict with each other, and sometimes they are reinforcing of one another.

I usually have in mind the horizon we are aiming for, but not the exact heading along that horizon. I don’t mind taking detours. I don’t mind if we head a little farther north or a little farther south. I know that there will always be horizons to move toward, no matter how far get or which way we head. It is the pursuit that matters in the end.

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