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Demystifying Inquiry

May , 2007

Inquiry-based learning is about more than moving desks out of those neat rows and avoiding lecture and recitation, says Jeff Wilhelm in his newest book, Engaging Readers & Writers With Inquiry (Scholastic 2007). In its May/June issue, Instructor previewed the book. Here are some highlights. 

When we tell—imparting only information—students tend to forget much of it within two weeks and practically all of it within two years. But when we teach students how in a meaningful context, they have the motivation to use the conceptual material. Through doing, they learn more deeply and retain what they learn.

Here’s an example from a real classroom. Third-grade teacher Heather Bauer began the study of number theory by asking her class the question: “What do you know about numbers?” Groups of students brainstormed what they knew and wished they knew. Several groups asked a variant of, “Where do numbers end?” Since this was a question of general interest, Heather decided to start a discussion of the concept of infinity. She asked the class: “What do you already know about infinity? How would you define it in words?” One student answered, “I think it’s like a container for numbers, except the container doesn’t have any sides.” Heather then gave students strips of paper and asked them: “What could you do with this paper to show infinity?” Three students made a Möbius strip without knowing what it was. The unit continued with students studying Fibonacci cubes and sequences and theorizing about patterns—all the subjects she was required to cover in the unit. Simply by asking questions, Heather was able to support lively discussions that promoted deep understanding.

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