What else will change if our pedagogy becomes more inquiry-driven... if it is authentic, does it live only in the classroom?The answer is no; but it’s also not that simple which might be the point. Inquiry isn’t how we learn in the 21st century classroom, it’s how learning is.
In a consumption driven economy, education conversation inevitably revolves around the insistence that the purpose of schooling is to prepare students for the ‘real world’. Why? Because everyone needs a car and a house and a reliable job that makes good money when they grow up, ask any kid in Calgary. Reliability is synonymous with dependability making inconstancy and ambiguity the enemy. We can’t prepare for what we can’t predict which terrifies us. So though living itself is chaotic by nature, we lose ourselves in the idea that we can, if bureaucratically diligent enough, assure a utopian future with no risk or uncertainty, no need for further thinking, negotiating or venture. “Just do your homework so you can get a good job and have a good life when you grow up.”
This attitude inescapably precedes the idea that a didactic fractured pedagogy is the best tool for cultivating competence, security and safety. It worked for Ford’s cars. Right? At least if it didn’t, the process was simple, measurable, easy to follow and creditably efficient. It also lends itself to the notion that we can get ahead simply by speeding up, adding time to a growing list of commodities we presume to possess. It is hardly unexpected that as we negotiate the system, we learn to account for every minute and live in fear of ‘wasting’ them. Our work becomes inexorably detached from fun because with the proverbial clock always ticking away in the corner we’re scared of losing this made-up race we’re in; and when our species feels embattled we try to tack things down. How often do we rationalize with ourselves or with our children that if “we just get down to it” we’ll have fun after work?
The irony is that while rushing to stay a step ahead of life’s impending chaos, boxing things neatly so they can’t escape us and driving a wedge between passion and education in the process, we have completely forgotten that the trivialization of joy in learning isn’t the real world. In our rush for scholarship and superficial memorization of out-of-context data, we unthinkingly absorb the message that this just is the way things are. It isn’t the way things are, it’s the way we’ve made them. History has handed us over to a way of living and learning that doesn’t allow us the opportunity to know things properly. We have been born into a world within which the prevalent impression is that “knowing” can be bottled giving it an end and that the first man to the destination wins, but we are not born with this perspective.
Our nature is inherently inquisitive. A child’s first instinct is to search for understanding by questioning and exploring the collective memory of what is. We are all familiar with a toddler’s search for meaning through which every seemingly simple object becomes worthy of investigation. They answer every statement with a “why” which almost inevitably leads to the eventual acknowledgement by a besieged adult that they “don’t know”. Then, conventional schooling tends to forego in-depth inquiry for the sake of broad ground cover because “OMG more and faster is totally better” (see curriculum in general) and as a result children eventually come to accept that questioning has an end. The great tragedy of our school system is that it fails to clarify that circumscribing knowledge does not make it finite.
What if instead of “because that’s just the way things are,” the prevailing response to the relentless “why” question became “because that’s how things have turned out, but I wonder...” I’d like to imagine that how we learn and how we live might be different if we were more often encouraged to consider that today’s realities are often but a consequence of decisions that have been perpetuated throughout human history. Imagine if we were to shift from talking about what things are or what they aren’t, to talking about how they appear. Instead of what and how, we would have to ask why, on who’s behalf, in relation to what, in support of what, using what language and from where? What if we were comfortable enough to allow the multiplicity of a thing’s appearance to count as what it is?
My experience with inquiry-driven pedagogy began with asking kids what they wanted to know and how their questions could be effectively investigated. As I listened to their ideas, the dawning realization that they were capable stole gradually into my conscience until I was increasingly aware of the ways in which nature was almost asking to be questioned by this next generation, provided I was willing to hold the door open for them. I found myself purposefully turning worlds of knowledge over to children, offering them an opportunity to call things like additive systems or the scientific method into question and their impassioned investigations led to heartfelt articulation and re-interpretation of ancient ideas.
When we allow kids to write something, to read something or to mathematize, we provide language or mathematics with a future. Students who have managed to grasp regrouping in addition as a procedural series of algorithms will never invest in a defense of place value with the passion and conviction of those who have become sure of it, not thanks to columns and alignment but thanks to a researched conceptual understanding of base ten, expanded notation and equivalence. They have re-constructed mathematical ideas and discovered their conjectures to be supported by century-old findings and in so doing, have breathed life back into the world of mathematics. This reality has vertigo. Kids will lean in.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.”
excerpt from To Be of Use
Marge Piercy (1973)