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Last fall, my principal kept preaching about Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and how the entire faculty should be changing our curriculum to fit this philosophy. Ineffectively for me, all of her examples were math and science related. Scouring the web didn’t inspire me either. My colleagues and I could not picture a way to completely rewrite a unit to fit PBL, let alone the entire curriculum. Honestly, I didn’t understand the point. English professors don’t solely use PBL, so why should I? Discouraged, I reached out to a friend who worked at a nationally acclaimed public high school, and what she showed me changed my approach: Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL).
When I visited her school, I observed three classes taught by different teachers. However, each classroom treated me the same. The students eagerly engaged me because they saw me, a complete stranger, as an additional resource. Even though the teachers taught the same unit, the classes were at different points. One class picked my brain during the brainstorming activity, and another class asked me to evaluate the first draft of the final product. When I left the school, I immediately called a colleague to relay my enthusiasm and to plan curriculum changes. Inquiry-Based Learning naturally challenges students to explore their world and to establish strong arguments for their findings.
My toddler daughter is in the “why” stage of life; as she discovers her world, she tries to understand it by asking the “experts” (her parents). Students asking questions is inherent in nature. As we grow older, we have the added responsibility to evaluate the answers to questions. IBL reinforces these life skills. In a nutshell, IBL uses an Essential Question as the center point of the curriculum. This Essential Question should be relevant to the students’ world and have no set “right answer.” After all, IBL focuses on the process, not the final product.
Throughout the curriculum, students are given the tools and the resources to answer the question. Unlike Problem-Based Learning and Project-Based Learning, Inquiry-Based Learning does not demand a product. As I planned my curriculum, I found flexibility with Inquiry that I didn’t find with the other acronyms. Not to say that PBL can’t be done in the English classroom, but for me, it was unnatural. What relevant problem is there to solve for To Kill a Mockingbird or American Transcendentalism that would engage the 21st-century student? However, transforming thematic ideas into Essential Questions came naturally. Furthermore, throughout the year repeating the process of formulating and defending an answer allowed me to refine specific skills (researching, thesis writing, outlining, integrating sources, editing, publishing, etc…). Instead of disjointed, the year felt unified. Most importantly, my students were more engaged than ever before because they knew I valued their opinions. This is the power of Inquiry.My students were more engaged than ever before because they knew I valued their opinions. Click To Tweet
When selecting a question or a short series of questions for a unit, consider a thematic framework. By doing this, I provide guidance for literary analysis while allowing students to personally connect to the work. For example, one of the thematic ideas of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is bravery. Throughout the novel, Lee defines bravery through a spectrum of illustrations. Therefore, my EQ for this unit is “What does it mean to be brave?” In addition to TKAM, my students researched social justice figures to help support their definitions. The final assignment required them to defend a thesis that answered the Essential Question by using TKAM and additional resources. For my American Romanticism Unit, our Essential Question is “What are aspects of a ‘great story?’” This question required students to define “great story” in addition to arguing aspects. Even though I incorporate traditional literary works, I make certain that the Essential Question is relevant to the 21st-century student. As best as possible, I select a topic that students already have an opinion about because it encourages engagement.
For each unit, I focus on a different skill that builds upon the previous unit’s skill. This approach allows me to re-teach when necessary and reinforces past skills. In the TKAM unit mentioned above, we spent more time researching and exploring school provided databases than we did during the drafting process. I didn’t expect excellent essays because I focused on the research steps. For the next unit, the research phase was completed independently, and therefore freed up time for us to target the drafting process. Before I started IBL, I felt pressured to cover each aspect equally, and for the most part, the final products were disappointing; I had spread my students too thin. However, once I prioritized the journey instead of the destination, my students exceeded expectations. And best of all, they enjoyed the ride.
I don’t like it when a student says, “What do you want me to write about?” I also don’t like it when my students are afraid to complete a task because they are worried they don’t have the “right answer.” Inquiry doesn’t demand a right answer; it asks for an explanation. I told my students that I cared more about how they argued their answers than what their answers were. By asking an apparent “simple” question, students can voice an initial opinion (leading to engagement and empowerment). The true learning experience happens when you ask, “Why?” When I visited my friend’s school, I asked the students if they had changed their minds throughout the unit, and all but one said, “Yes.” Surprisingly, each of them walked me through the process of their decision. Even the girl who didn’t alter her answer explained precisely why. None of them felt pressured to write or say something they didn’t believe in, and better yet, they eagerly wanted to discuss their answers because they valued their own opinions and others’ thoughts. IBL encourages collaboration and conversation more so than traditional teaching methods.Inquiry doesn’t demand a right answer; it asks for an explanation. Click To Tweet
Creating my first Inquiry Unit was exciting, terrifying, and challenging. By working IBL into my daily lesson plans and seeing student engagement increased, my confidence grew. I was transparent with my students when I explained my goals for the curriculum changes, and thankfully, they supported my attempts (even stayed after school to help me develop plans). It’s a paradigm shift. After that first Inquiry Unit, I felt a weight lifted from my shoulders because the curriculum was no longer suffocating my students and me.