posted Aug 19, 2014, 2:58 PM by Kevin Roughton
Socrates was a genius. Questions are awesome.

Recently in an #sschat on Twitter the question was asked "How do you know inquiry is happening in your classroom?"  I really didn't know how to answer. I mean, I know it happens but I wasn't sure how to measure it or put it into words. Things are much clearer now.

Today my 8th graders did an inquiry-based lab where they tried to discover what happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke. I built the lesson over the summer and have been excited to try it since. It wasn't perfect but the beauty of inquiry is that it overcomes tons of other little mistakes. When you get to that end point and they are forming conclusions with evidence it really leaves you feeling "yep, this is what education ought to be."

When all was done I had my answer to the question. I know inquiry is happening when my students ask each other questions. So often students will just accept whatever answer their peers feed to them. You know how group work typically goes. One person finds the answer, the rest of the group just copies it. With this activity though I had students actively challenging one another on their conclusions. "Why would they live with the natives if they were fighting with them?!" "Yeah but then why weren't there any signs of violence?" It was beautiful and exactly what my history mystery are designed to do. They weren't interested in just getting done. They were interested in being right and were willing to ask questions to get there. That's inquiry!

Which leads me to how I introduce inquiry to my 7th graders. I'm very proud of how this lesson has built up over the years. It is now easily one of my highlights and one of those early year hooks that buys me a ton of engagement over the course of the year.

They start by imagining a new student has started school that day. They think this students is super cute (and I really sell it here, full on no-shame acting) and want to learn as much about them as possible. The problem is the student is so beyond gorgeous that if you tried to talk to them directly you'd just start drooling and stuttering like a crazy person (sell it!) so they brainstorm other ways they might learn about them.

After enough students are called on to share we inevitably end up with the three main ways historians learn about the past:
-through artifacts (look through their backpack)
-through experts (talk to their friends)
-through observation (stalk them!)

It is at this point that I let them in on the secret that as historians basically all we do is stalk dead people. Now there's a hook for you.

I then set the stage for the inquiry step. I have them imagine that they've managed to get the person's backpack and they are now going to start to dig through it. I show them one object and they then write what it tells them about the person.

I start with a fork. I get basic answers like "they probably bring their lunch" and much more thoughtful ones like "maybe they are a neat freak and afraid of germs" but I almost always get something logical. The inquiry works because this situation is both ridiculous and yet real. After some discussion we dig further and pull out a large wooden model of a sword. Maybe they love history, maybe they are scared of their first day or maybe they just like arts and crafts. This is a great time to point out the need for corroboration in history. This leads some to think back to the fork ("oh! maybe that was for self defense too!") and how they might connect the objects. The final item they pull out is an old gold necklace. Again, I get answers like "they are into fashion" or "they really like history" for the most part, but today I got a really impressive one. "Well, this is sad because it probably means he already has a girlfriend" one of my girls said. Now that's a connection!

It is incredible to watch the exponential growth of raised hands as we go from item to item. I almost always have to use my randomizer on the fork but by the time of the necklace I can't even get to all the volunteers. Like in the 8th grade situation, they want their ideas heard. They realize that inquiry is messy and there isn't a right (and therefore wrong) answer. That's freeing and powerful.

I close by showing them a short clip from The Little Mermaid where Scuttle describes a bunch of "human stuff" incorrectly. He calls a fork a dinglehopper and demonstrates how it is used to curl hair. I explain that though wrong he is being very logical and that as long as he can explain his reasoning his answer is valid. That's the beauty of inquiry. It takes away so much of the defensiveness associated with trivia and memorization. It allows for and even encourages risk taking because what really is the risk? If you have support your conclusion is valid.

In both lessons today students still wanted the "right" answer. I could gladly say I didn't have one. I explained the general consensus on Roanoke but made it clear that we don't really know. With the crush I explain that I randomly picked three items that I had lying around so there's no possible way it could represent a real person. There is no right (and again, therefore wrong) answer. They leave plenty satisfied and well prepared for when we take inquiry even further over the course of the year.

Inquiry gets my highest recommendation.