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Inquiry into Inquiry

September 21, 2011

As I’ve mentioned before, MTSU is a UTeach replication site, named MTeach. Among many things, MTeach offers two one-credit courses called “Step 1” and “Step 2”, where students get to dip their toes in the water of math and science teaching. In “step 1”, student pairs get to make several observations and co-teach several inquiry lessons in a local school as they are learning about inquiry teaching. What is nice is that they get to do so with the same teacher and classroom throughout the semester.

In “Step 1”, teachers choose from a list of maybe 30-40 possible lessons that the student pair will have to learn and then tweak to fit their class. Each pair gets several opportunities to practice teach their lessons and get feedback before going off to the school. With over  a hundred students in MTeach, their are many students to help. In the past week, I’ve had a chance to talk to several step1 and step 2 students about their lessons.

Their lessons are structured using 5E’s: Engage, explore, explain, elaborate, and evaluate. So far, my concern with the 5E’s is they seem (for students) to have little to do with student thinking and learning, so they easily get interpreted as “Get students’ attention with something cool”, “Get students to do something”, “Tell them what they should have learned”, “Have them practice what you told them”, “Give them a quiz”.

Here are what my steps might be:

(1) Inquire: Do something that will help you find the boundaries between what your students know and what they don’t know.

(2) Perplex: Usher students to that boundary in a way that engages both their ideas and curiosity

(3) Explore: Provide a structure for students to explore that boundary in a way relevant to your learning goal

(4) Listen: Listen and watch what your students do; structure an opportunity for students to share and discuss what they’ve found

(5) Connect: Help students make connections between their ideas and the formal concepts they are making contact with

(6) Solidify: Help students permanently stake out this new territory through elaboration, practice, extension, reflection, etc.

IPELCS is not as snazzy as the 5E’s, but at least it is about things we know are important, including formative assessment, prior knowledge, zones of proximal development, epistemic agency and authorship in the classroom, disciplinary ways of understanding, scaffolding, and meta-cognition.

Dont’ get me wrong. I am  absolutely certain that any attempts to teach “IPELCS” would be reinterpreted by many students as “give them a pre-quiz”, “show them an exciting demo”, “let them play with the demo”, “tell them what they demo is about”, and “give them a practice worksheet”. I’m not suggesting that we go out and teach students IPELCS, because, ultimately, the problem with trying to teach anything like IPELCS or the 5E’s comes from not following its own advice. The issue of how to best engage students’ ideas about inquiry teaching and to usher them to the boundary of their own understanding is not a simple one.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 13, 2011 3:38 pm

    Belated comment, but this post has been sitting in my mind since I first read it. We’ve struggled a lot with “which model/template” we should use to teach our teachers how to lesson plan. Traditionally, we’ve used the 5-step (Opening, Introduction to New Material, Guided Practice, Independent Practice, Closing), but it’s rather restrictive, clearly teacher-centered, and doesn’t really encourage any sort of inquiry, storytelling, etc. So for a while we tested the 5E, and found both the misinterpretation you described above and a general sense of frustration that I’d probably split into “this is brilliant– why didn’t you just teach me this the first time!” and “how in the world am I supposed to plan and execute an Explore?”

    Then we piloted a more flexible approach where we said “these are the essential components” (similar to the ones you described: formative assessment, activation of prior knowledge, scaffolding, debrief conversations, etc.) and you can integrate them however you want in whatever sequence makes logical sense, and ran into two problems. First, our teachers found it way too abstract and overwhelming, and second, our staff weren’t able to support them and many instead reverted back to the 5-step, which is how they’d been taught (yes, this raises many questions about our staffing model).

    The jury is still out, clearly. My current thinking is that brand new teachers need some type of structure that they can hang new ideas on, so they’re not totally lost, but that they also need to have explicit conversations about the flexibility in that structure (maybe not until they’re “ready” but before they’ve formed habits?), but I’m not convinced. Maybe we need to confront the ambiguity/discomfort head-on because real teaching is messy.

    Basically, whenever you ask questions I suspect you’re somehow reading my mind, but have developed a much clearer position on what the question is than I have 🙂


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