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Saturday, October 29, 2011

I Wonder...

"I wonder...," is a statement that should resonate throughout every school. The phrase echoes an oft quoted declaration regarding education being a window rather than a mirror. Teaching and learning should encourage expanded views and perspectives, new vistas and unimagined possibilities.

Yesterday I attended a conference on Inquiry Based Learning held at Hudson Valley Community College. A small contingent of our teachers was invited to deliver a presentation offering an example of this learning strategy. The aim of the approach is to engender active, engaged participation among all class members as they research answers to essential questions formed around a general objective. In this manner, each individual learner is able to pursue a specific area of interest to them rather than join together with their peers and plod along on a path not of their choice. Don't misunderstand; this isn't a "do your own thing" project. Instead, the teacher establishes the parameters of expectations and standards of performance involved with an objective embedded within the curriculum. The difference is that the individuals can elect which path they take toward attaining that goal. That is, the ends of the lesson, or command and direction, are cast by the teacher as leader. Then, the teacher relinquishes control and becomes a resourceful facilitator. The teacher enables the learner to determine how they wish to research the subject and what medium of technology to employ as tool. The key leverage point is that the learner chooses what issue or subject to examine. This decision allows the individual to assert their interests in a certain area and likely raises the motivation and relevance for the task.

The Heatly School was one of several schools featured in sharing their examples of this practice. The three representatives proved to be skilled in coordinating and presenting the project. They were excellent representatives of our district.

The framework of the conference aroused a concern about the bigger picture, if you will. This teaching and learning strategy by itself clearly appears practical and productive. However, like almost any new idea or practice, no matter how well intentioned and supported by research, Inquiry Based Learning is a single element that must adapt and survive along with other ideas in a complex environment in which many elements compete for scarce resources of time, value, space, money, and, most importantly - institutional accommodation.

Let's imagine an individual teacher, well trained in the technique. It's surely possible that the teacher can successfully implement the strategy within his/her own classroom. The extent of assimilation is impacted to varying degrees by whether the overall school environment or culture will host the practice. Let me explain further.

"I wonder...," tends to be the starting point for Inquiry Based Learning." But, even if each and every instructor harbors a deep interest in Inquiry Based Learning, if they themselves exist and work in a school culture in which they are not encouraged to "wonder," then their efforts may be muted and dulled to an extent. Organizational culture, best and most easily defined as, "the way we do things around here" (from Terry Deal in his classic, Corporate Culture) then it may be foolhardy for school leaders to expect teachers to engage in Inquiry when the teachers are not so unfettered and able to indulge in Inquiry as professionals. It would be like the classic disconnect of the days when a college professor would "lecture" to an entire class of fifty would be teachers on the virtues and values of individualized instruction. The irony is not lost on others. Similarly, years ago in response to an invitation from the New York State Department of Education to author an essay on the benefits of Cooperative Learning as an instructional practice, I prepared a paper on the subject that was published in The Possibilities Catalog (1992). In that work I explained the dissonance that emerges when school leaders unilaterally direct a teaching staff to use Cooperative Learning. Telling professionals what to do, absent a dialogue and social-psychological support hardly qualifies itself as an example of cooperation. 

Noted expert on the principalship, Dr. Roland Barth, once cautioned leaders - "Don't lead where you won't go." In other words, leaders have to walk the talk. Don't direct people to cooperate if their work climate is not cooperative. Don't expect Inquiry Based Learning to be used effectively if the school culture does not advocate and support inquiry among the staff - as in inquiring why we do this, or why we do that. The atmosphere of the school has to encourage and allow people to question practices, people, and programs.

Wonderful schools are often tagged with that term as a result of high performance standards on state tests. That's fine and well deserved. But, I believe schools should be "wonderfull" as in full of wonder - a learning environment that promotes inquiry and permits individuals, young and old, to pursue universally and institutionally accepted goals (the curriculum, Common Core Learning Standards, expected achievement levels,...) within established parameters while following a pace and orientation reflective of their ability and interest - like the way Inquiry Based Learning is designed to be exercised in a classroom.

I wonder.... how many school leaders understand, or even care, about the potential obstacle they might place in the path of change and success with the dissonance and philosophical incongruity that arise between what they say and what they do? I'm sure that I've been guilty of violating this credo over the years. I trust that such lapses have been through unknowing omission rather than conscious commission. I expect to be called out for any such infraction because it damages my integrity as a leader and undermines my capacity to lead effectively.

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