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Special Issues: Inquiry Education   
By Jes Burns

Visit SPECIAL ISSUES: EDUCATION for photos and more information.

Yesterday, as part of KLCC’s Special Issues series on Education we heard how schools are taking creative measures to engage students in learning and close the achievement gap.  Today, we continue on that theme by looking at one particular teaching style – inquiry-based instruction - and how teachers all over Lane County are beginning to incorporate it into their classrooms.

KLCC’s Jes Burns reports.



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In Mrs. Livelybrooks’ 7th and 8th grade science class, one-third of students’ grades are based on independent projects.  Danica Shepherd is standing in front of her Crow Middle School classmates.  She’s wearing a white lab coat that’s a bit too big and she’s breaking spaghetti.


 “Well that one didn’t work


Danica is showing her class something she observed while –quote- “messing around” one day – when you hold the ends of a piece of spaghetti and bend it, it usually breaks into several different-sized pieces instead of just two. 


“I guess the way I understand it is like if you bend it, the piece that is shorter doesn’t flip back and break itself, it’s the piece that is broken bigger…”


When the explanation begins to flounder, teacher Lisa Livelybrooks swoops in and ties it to plate tectonics.


 “That’s sort of like what happens when you have the plates of the earth that are pushing against each other.  And they gather and gather, a lot, a lot, a lot of bending strength until it gets to the point they can’t stand it anymore.  Then they break apart from each other and move.” 


Livelybrooks is utilizing a teaching strategy called inquiry-based instruction – where teachers allow students to travel where their curiosity takes them.


“In my mind the gold standard is when a kid comes up with a question on their own that they are interested in learning about – self-generated and they’re passionate about it.  And they figure out and design an experiment that will give them maybe not the answer that they thought they were going to get, but it will bring knowledge to the table.  And likely knowledge that no body else had.”


With the middle schoolers in Crow, Livelybrooks is still in the process of building them up – holding their hands a bit – so that in the coming years, a purer form of self-directed inquiry will occur. A key is to engage kids with things they’re already interested in. 


“The ones that go fishing and hunting, I’ll say, Okay, if you want to do a study of what was in the gizzard.  What are you interested in?  Can you figure out how to age these things with their horns or their bones.  You mean that would count as a project?  Yes definitely.”


As a teaching method, inquiry solves a problem that students in the U-S often face, says Eastern Oregon University Education professor Miriam Munck.


“We in public schools often do the sit-n-get kind of instruction with kids, but then when we send them out into the big world, we expect them to be critical thinkers, solve problems, do all the things that inquiry requires.  That we really haven’t taught them how to be good inquirers.”  


Resourcefulness, creativity, innovation, persistence, risk taking – these are all qualities that describe entrepreneurs, some of the most highly regarded people in the country.  In the most harrowing days of the current recession, President Barack Obama said entrepreneurs would be key to helping the economy recover.  Inquiry education cultivates these same entrepreneurial qualities in students, and according to Professor Munck, teaching inquiry lessens the disconnect between what happens in schools and what happens in the world. 


While inquiry-based instruction opens students up to near limitless possibilities for learning, teachers often encounter an obstacle to using it in the classroom – assessment.  Currently almost all statewide achievement testing is done via multiple-choice that can be graded by computers in a matter of seconds. Jill Baxter, an Education Professor at the U of O, says the Oregon department of education has developed ways to measure student progress from inquiry-based lessons, but they’re time consuming and expensive.


“If we’re asking kids to do a science inquiry sample, that’s going to be some text, that’s going to be some drawings.  It’s not something you can just have processed by a computer in a matter of minutes.”


Grading these lessons requires an actual human being who is familiar with the content.


“So I think given the current funding crisis in education, assessing inquiry and problem solving is problematic at this point.  But that doesn’t mean, therefore, we shouldn’t be doing it.”


Many teachers in Oregon – including Mapleton High School science teacher Brian Buhl - are taking that message to heart. 


“The way it’s going to work is you’re going to have 15 minutes to go to your machines, put any final touches you need to do on it, make some adjustments, and then…”


Buhl’s freshmen are solving a self-generated problem using simple machines incorporated into a Rube Goldberg device.  Isaack Christiansen co-designed a device that would deposit a can into the recycling bin.


“I gotta’ pull on this string back here and it pulls on this pulley and then it pulls this wedge out from under that ball.  Then it rolls all the way down and then it hits that platform, which this tape is partially holding up so it won’t already fall down.  And then…” 


After students got their devices in working order, they tested and filmed them before the entire class – it’s quick, especially when it doesn’t work.


“Hey, hey!  We’re going to get it.”


Eventually every group achieves some level of success, and they convene to the school’s computer lab to complete the project.  Teacher Brian Buhl.


“Part of science inquiry is analysis, and so right now they’re looking at their video tapes, their cameras and thinking about how well their experiment worked and ways they can improve it and make it better.” 


The concept of inquiry-based instruction isn’t new – J Richard Suchman coined the term way back in the 1960s calling it “the way people learn when they’re left alone.”  Within the past decade more and more teachers are being trained to use it specifically in the classroom.  Because of the nature of science, teachers have been utilizing inquiry instruction in that subject for years.  But by 2003 Oregon state education standards included inquiry requirements in English language arts and social sciences as well.  The Oregon Department of Education says as standards continue to evolve, inquiry is becoming more front-and-center.


Despite this growing acceptance, there are still challenges… like budget issues slowing the adoption of new teaching materials.  Tight budgets also mean current teachers have fewer professional development days built into their school year where they can learn how to use inquiry in the classroom.    


But Professor Jill Baxter says her student teachers at the U of O are seeing a change in Lane County.


“For years, the students would come back to my class and say, ‘We never see anybody doing this stuff you’re talking about.’  And they’d be so discouraged.  But this year is the first year where I’ve had a number of students come to me and say, ‘This is so cool.  What’s going on here at the University is what I’m seeing out in my classroom.’”


This means K12 students in Oregon aren’t just being taught what to think.  They’re arguably being taught a much more important lesson: how to think critically and engage their world. 


Visit SPECIAL ISSUES: EDUCATION for photos and more information.

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