“What does the sun look like from other planets?” This question from Jasmin Ramzinsky’s 3rd grade class at Parkside Elementary School in Austin reflects how education can be turned around almost on a dime by simply challenging students to assume more control of their own learning.
How do they do this? By being encouraged to ask good questions about the content they are studying and then pursuing what International Baccalaureate calls “purposeful investigations.”
And how do we encourage students to get interested and excited enough to pose questions about a subject we have to teach?
First of all, teachers must be willing to model their own curiosities about the subjects we teach. If we aren’t curious, why would our students be? Modeling tells our students that we are inquisitive, that we don’t know everything and that asking good questions and searching for answers is very exciting! And this is what we do throughout life.
Second, we need to share with students subjects that are intriguing, sometimes full of mystery and puzzles to figure out.
For this unit Jasmin’s students read a short book and she wondered, “Why is Pluto no longer considered a planet? What is a `dwarf planet’?” These questions led off the unit with the guiding question Is Earth the only planet with life?
These teacher wonderings sparked other curiosities from students:
“How did the sun get into space?
How many galaxies are there?
What’s a nebula?
How big do asteroids get?
How many seasons are there in space?
Is it legul [sic] to color with markers on the moon?
And, my favorite, “What does the sun look like from other planets?”
Sometimes it takes a younger person’s questions to present us with entirely different perspectives on what we think we know a lot about, like the sun and the planets.
From these questions Jasmin helped her students find answers.
You can imagine their excitement, total engagement and purposefulness as they researched questions they wanted answers to.
Before Jasmin adopted this inquiry-based approach, she would assign students’ questions; they would then conduct the research and write a one or two page paper.
After completion of this solar system unit, Jasmin asked her students to
comment on how this new approach compared with what they did previously, answer questions she posed for them. Here are some of their comments:
"Mrs. Ram, that doesn't make any sense. Why would you ask questions about my planet. You weren't doing the research, I was."
"Mrs. Ram, I bet your kids kinda got bored with finding the answers to your questions."
"Mrs. Ram, How did you know what your kids wanted to research? Did you ask each kid before you wrote the list of questions?"
Indeed, why do we assume we can dream up the kinds of questions our students would be intrigued by? (Because we have stuff to teach, to “cover”?)
Why would we assume that the old approach would generate interest and engagement in the topic? (Because that’s what we’re used to?)
We have made and continue to make these assumptions throughout our educational system.
Teachers who afford students an opportunity to pose their own questions related to the designated content report that students become:
1. More highly motivated.
2. More engaged intellectually and emotionally.
3. More in control of their own learning and, thereby, more responsible for achievement.
As a matter of fact this problem-based/question-based approach led one student to tell her mom that now she was “in charge” of her own learning.
There are many, many Jasmins across this country who know the benefits and wisdom of challenging students to pose meaningful questions and conduct purposeful investigations about content that matters.
Inquiry that leads to problem solving and critical thinking are all so-called 21st century skills (as they were last century and the ones before that dating back to Socrates!)
One of the questions to pose and answer is “How do we know they’re getting better at these 21st century skills?”
Jasmin can see the growth of her students’ questioning in science, math and in reading dating back to November. All because she’s put a priority on changing the classroom dynamic from one in which the adult asks all the questions to one wherein both teachers and students are asking good questions, searching for answers and learning together.