Teachers as experts in . . . inquiry?

A study just published in Science magazine sure makes one think twice about how we deliver “content knowledge” the classroom. The method by which a course is taught, it indicates, may be even more important than the instructor’s background.

In a college physics class, listening to a lecture by a highly experienced and respected professor yielded far less learning than an inquiry-focused class conducted by less “qualified” instructors, the study found. Students gave positive reviews to the lecturer, but when they took weekly tests on the material, they faltered. The reseachers themselves were surprised at how little the students had learned, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

In contrast, a control group performed more than twice as well when their teachers—a research associate and a graduate student—used discussions, active learning, and assignments in which students had to grapple with both new and old information.

The secret? These students had time to synthesize and incorporate new ideas from the lecture into their prior knowledge and experiences.

The teachers less credentialed in physics had been coached in a teaching method based on “deliberate practice,” which combined in-class practice and frequent formative assessments (such as pretests) with an emphasis on real-world applications. (For more on deliberate practice, check out our Resources section.)

It made me think of my visit last week to the NYC iSchool, an extraordinary public high school in New York City that regards its teachers as generalists, not content specialists. The school has taken its technology-rich environment as an opportunity to deepen the deliberate practice of inquiry across the content areas.

Students get through the required state Regents exams as quickly as possible—often in ninth and tenth grades—largely by taking online courses in core curriculum areas. The rest of the curriculum consists of inquiry-based projects, often extending across the years.

One science class I visited, for example, was designing a “green roof” for the school. The teacher was no landscape architect, but she sure knew how to get students asking questions. Every stage of the project had kids figuring out how to find out information, whether that meant parsing city safety regulations or observing the angle of the noonday sun on the roof. Students’ design sketches covered the classroom walls; an architect would soon visit the class to lend advice.

Learning to teach like this requires a lot of coaching, and iSchool teachers get it via regular collegial observations and debriefings of their practice. The focus is on facilitating active learning among these very diverse students and on closely following their individual progress.

Nobody was pontificating from the front of the room in the science class I watched. Everybody had to think very hard together about the things they needed to learn more about. The teacher offered a prime model for asking good questions.

Who wants to do the study on how these kids will do in college and later life?


One thought on “Teachers as experts in . . . inquiry?

  1. Mike Zoetewey on said:

    Interesting post…I’m a high school coach and PE teacher and can see how this type of teaching would be effective. As a PE teacher our classes learn mainly by practicing physical activities after general guidance by us and wonder if there are additional ways in which I can promote the learning and mastery of motor skills aside from just practicing. I’m looking forward to learning about more about this. Thank you.

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