Cultivating a community of inquisitive learners

By Berkeley Gadbaw,
Middle School Science Teacher

In science, inquiry has long been established as a way to describe the process of scientists asking and answering questions. There is often a prescribed process for doing this. We generate testable questions, design an investigation with controlled variables, collect and analyze data, and draw conclusions. But what about the “spirit of inquiry”?

What is our responsibility as educators to instill in the next generation the confidence and motivation to pursue their own questions while also connecting their learning to the larger world? How does one create a classroom culture where asking questions is valued equally with finding the right answer?

In a society challenged with the gratification of instant answers, how does one allow students a space to wonder about the world? More specifically, what does this look like in a science classroom at an institution such as Catlin Gabel with the “spirit of inquiry” as a pillar for learning?  

In my classroom I strive to create a physical and emotional space where my students’ curiosity about their world is front and center. This area in my room is called the Driving Question Board. At the beginning of each unit students are presented with a phenomenon of which to make sense. The phenomenon should be complex enough to motivate every student, no matter their level of scientific knowledge, to wonder.

Why Do I Look the Way I Do?” is a question I might pose to students at the beginning of our genetics and natural selection unit. We begin this inquiry with a large mirror at the front of the classroom and a sacred time to generate questions surrounding this phenomenon. Students quickly begin to write down inquiries: “Why am I shorter than my younger brother?” “Why does skin color vary?” “Are humans still evolving?” “What exactly is DNA?” By writing these down and posting them in our room we keep them visible during our entire course of study. Furthermore, the purpose of our daily work, such as readings, labs, and investigations, can be connected back to their original wonderings. The “spirit of inquiry” is made both a physical and intellectual priority.  

The process of sharing our questions is equally as important as the questions themselves. When we vocalize our questions as a community of inquisitive 8th graders, there is a certain routine that fosters community in our classroom. I task students with not only being brave enough to make their wonderings public, but also with the job of intently listening to their peers in order to connect their query to that of someone else in the room. For example, a student might say “My question is similar to Sarah’s because I was also wondering…?” In this way we build a community of inquisitive learners. For less confident individuals, this process can reassure them that their question is not too silly or irrelevant, and just as important as another student’s question. We see patterns in our questions and begin to cluster similar ideas together. The “spirit of inquiry” is built into our collaborative, community culture.  

Our next step is to use the questions we generate to help us figure out the path for our investigations. By asking, “What do we need to do in order to answer these questions?,” students can be the decision makers for how we go about exploring their questions. Together we might make a plan to analyze our family trees, look for patterns in pedigrees, model human inheritance in plants, read about DNA, examine fossils, and compare our anatomy to other species. We can discuss which questions are most important or need to be answered first, and how we should go about doing this. Students are more invested in the curriculum and are equal partners in the inquiry process.  

The Driving Question Board is an interactive board; it is a place to post empirical evidence of our learning and make our thinking visible, and a spot to capture new and rich questions that arise from the process of inquiry. Students need to know their questions are valued and will be explored during our learning process. We add photos of our work as evidence of our new understandings, and before ending a unit we make sure all of our questions are revisited. This process inspires young thinkers to ask questions publicly, wonder about the world around them, and seek more learning.  

As future scientifically-literate citizens, our graduates will be called on to solve complex problems facing the world, such as “How can we reduce our impact on the environment?” They will need the “spirit of inquiry” and a strong practical experience with how scientists do their work. In the science classrooms of Catlin Gabel, this spirit is very much alive.