Capturing the Power of Inquiry… for All

Students of all abilities require opportunities to question, grapple, and wonder. I don’t think we often do this, give the floor to the students, let them ask questions, and more importantly, let those questions live in the room. That’s what is so powerful about establishing a routine where questions become the fuel for inquiry, an essential of Project-based Learning. Special educators recognize that risk-free inquiry is necessary for all students. As a PBL coach, I visit special education classrooms, and I watch as teachers analyze tasks and scaffold inquiry with their students. They realize that a questioning culture needs to be planted and nurtured. There is a shared understanding that their students, perhaps even more than others need to ask questions, and what safer place to engage in supported inquiry than in the classroom? One particular teacher decided to first facilitate a culture of inquiry before embarking on an extensive PBL experience. Given her students’ notable cognitive delays, she chose an accessible text that provided an engaging opportunity for them to wonder. They are reading Henry’s Freedom Box, by Ellen Levine, and while the class was charting their “need to knows”, this teacher noticed that when she opened the floor for questioning, interest grew. Because they owned the questions, students had a reason for reading, and even better, began researching other sources beyond the text to find answers. Also, by utilizing a text that students could comfortably access, more emphasis could be placed on supporting students to ask varied questions.

Gold Standard Project-based Learning promotes sustained inquiry as an opportunity to “seek information or to investigate.”   This can be done by all kids, no matter where they fall developmentally. Perhaps, this iterative process, or spiraling nature of knowledge gathering serves struggling students because they can gather and seek to understand information without being pushed rapidly through content. While engaged in inquiry, students and teachers break away from the text, with the understanding that information can be found in a variety of sources. I had the pleasure of sitting in class while special education teacher Christine Wood’s students at Liverpool High School (New York) were interviewing an employee from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. As part of their research, the students asked a NASA employee prepared questions, such as “What makes up a galaxy?” and “How many stars are in space?” When scaffolding was necessary, the teacher or assistants were present to support the formulation or communication of questions. But most of the time, they tried to stand back and allow for interaction between the students and NASA educator. As I watched the students ask, then wait expectantly for answers, engagement was evident in the way they leaned forward and seemed to hang on to every word the specialist said. This “field-based interview” brought an authenticity that moved students beyond articles and text books, laying the groundwork for a culture of inquiry as they move on to more project-based learning experiences. Crafting a list of “need to knows” will become second nature, expected really. And these students will be ready for that, because their teachers are facilitating the learning by opening the door to inquiry and by assuring them that every question holds value. Students with special needs desire to know that what they say, or in this case, what they ask, is valued so they might continue to approach the world around them as active, engaged self-advocates.

And, just in case you are wondering, there are 2 hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone… I learned that from the NASA expert today.

Downs_Randi_WEB_1409Randi Downs
Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES

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