I’ve been thinking a lot about inquiry and the role of questioning recently. I think it’s partially because I’m a new parent who wants to make sure I’m doing the best I can for my son, but I know that it’s also because I’m gearing up to lead a three-day workshop on inquiry being the root of differentiation.
I believe that questions drive most of what we do. Here’s a sampling of what’s been rattling around my brain in just this past week:
What should I make for dinner?
When is Jack coming home from work?
How should I cook these beets?
Where’s Sully’s hat?
Is waiting in this line worth it right now?
Do we call the doctor about this?
Are you folding the diapers, or am I?
Why am I getting sick again?
Why is American Airlines charging me an extra $70 because I am only able to fly one leg of a ticket I have already paid for?
There are some pretty inconsequential ones (e.g., who folds the diapers) and some existential ones (Why can’t I catch a break with being healthy?), but they’re all floating around in my head, and rare is the time that I don’t have at least a couple of things I’m wondering about.
This is true for folks in general. We’re constantly asking questions, even if it’s just of ourselves and even though many of these questions are never spoken aloud. There have been times in my adult life where others are very purposeful about making sure my questions are addressed, like when I’ve gotten married, seen a doctor, changed jobs, been pregnant—though many of the meatiest questions in these times haven’t had one definitive answer. In times of major change, we acknowledge uncertainty, curiosity, and wonder in a different way than for our everyday curiosities.
There are times in schools where we purposely ask kids what questions they have, too. When they’re about to take a standardized test, when we pass out an assignment, at the end of a lesson, when we look out on our classroom and see faces of confusion—these are all moments when we pause. But it isn’t frequent enough that we intentionally design our classrooms, our curriculum, and our instruction around the wonderings and curiosities of our students. There’s a lot of good reason for why teachers do this, like when state standards dictate our path or when our department has aligned curriculum/content very tightly. We do our best on behalf of our students. Teachers are resourceful and resilient, and we figure out how to pack a lot into 180 days. But that “a lot” doesn’t always account for the genuine wonderings of the 25 kids that we are charged with serving.
I think it’s beyond the time to pull back from measures of standardization. Kids are curious; they wonder about all manner of thing, and the learning they do is even more powerful when they are allowed to engage in inquiry.
In a classroom, inquiry can start in one of two places: the student or the teacher. Teachers can craft powerful Essential Questions to guide their year or unit of study and invite their students to play with answers. Teachers can delve into questions like:
What does it mean to be human?
Why do people make boundaries?
Is love ever bad?
How can reading alter our own lives?
These questions allow students to answer in different ways and provide a rationale that is about their own meaning-making.
Students can, and should, also be engage in inquiry. Their learning is the most central fixture in any school, though the path that each student takes is different. Even when we don’t think we can give them the room to ask meaningful and difficult questions, they’re doing it. One of the most important: Why are we learning this? I know this question can seem like it comes from an angsty teen who just doesn’t understand that there are some things you “have to know,” but I view this question very differently. Kids (because they’re people) want to know. They care deeply about what feels and is relevant to them, and this question is one way to gauge relevancy. When the answer to that question becomes something akin to, “You just have to,” kids tune out because it isn’t authentic. When a teacher can provide a genuine response about the usefulness or importance of the learning, students can build the relevance that they need to engage in the work.
And yes, sometimes students are obstinate or contrarian; developmentally, that’s appropriate. But even those students who resist engagement have areas of interest and passion. It should be the job of the teacher to help them cultivate their questions and their skills so that they are ready to do meaningful work in the world. Kids should be able to bring their full selves into learning.
At its heart, here’s why I think inquiry is essential: Democracy relies on each and every person living within it to ask questions. Regardless of race, sex, gender identity, age, ability, citizenship status, sexual orientation or other categorization, it is crucial that we know our voices are important and our questions deserve to be addressed. Every single person should have the experience of having their questions validated, raised up, and talked about, and one place it should be done? School.