Visualization of SLA principal Chris Lehmann's talk about guiding kids toward thinking about how they think.
Visualization of SLA principal Chris Lehmann's 2011 talk: guiding kids' to thinking about how they think.

Nearly seven years after first opening its doors, the Science Leadership Academy public magnet high school* in Philadelphia and its inquiry-based approach to learning have become a national model for the kinds of reforms educators strive towards.

But in a talk this past weekend at EduCon 2.5, the school’s sixth-annual conference devoted to sharing its story and spreading its techniques, Founding Principal Chris Lehmann insisted that replicating his schools approach required difficult tradeoffs.

“This is not easy. This is not perfect,” Lehmann told a crowd of devotees stuffed inside one of the Center City school’s second-floor science classrooms on Sunday. “There are really challenging pieces of this, and we should be OK with this.”

Lehmann’s 90-minute question-and-answer session tackled coming to terms with the impact of a shift to inquiry-driven learning by defining three steps: the enigmatic meaning of inquiry-based learning; the visible changes that signal a shift to that approach; and the potential drawbacks that shift may surface.


Lehmann said it’s important to question whether alleged “personalized,” “project-based,” or “collaborative” learning efforts are actually helping students and teachers to “hold ourselves in a state of questioning.”

For example, adaptive software that leads students through English/language arts or mathematics on a pace set by their own abilities fails to force students to ask questions about that material, contextualize it in real life, or communicate about the concepts with others, Lehmann said. The same is true of collaborative projects where restrictive guidelines result in several, nearly-identical finished products across student groups.

In a true inquiry-based model, how learning happens isn’t as important as whether that learning encourages students to try to learn even more. Lehmann compared the scenario to the plight of a two-year-old child who has graduated from “yes” and “no” and proceeded onto an endless string of “why’s.”

“To me it comes down to process,” Lehmann said. “Inquiry means living in the soup. Inquiry means living in that uncomfortable space where we don’t know the answer.”


Although nailing down inquiry-based learning is a bit like trying to define the human soul, there are some indicators Lehmann and his audience both agreed signaled progress down the right path.

To paraphrase one teacher, a classroom where students are empowered to direct and control their own learning is one sign. Feeling tension between the direction of a course and the material covered on a standardized final examination may be another, said a second teacher.

“Oh God, yeah,” Lehmann said in response to the latter teacher. “There’s a reason we don’t offer [Advanced Placement] Classes here. If we are a truly inquiry-based school, why would our highest-level classes end in a test?”

Increased collaboration between students and increasing student scrutiny of educational content were two other signs Lehmann and the group said signaled the right approach, even if they clashed with classroom norms. For example, collaboration can often lead to tricky discussions about what part of a students’ work are his or her own and what part is recycled.

Lastly, good inquiry-based learning should include a means for publication and communication, whether through blogs, printed reports, multimedia packages, etc. But Lehmann also said, in some cases, students should have the right to decide whether to publish their work.

“One of the scariest things about inquiry-based learning is the blank page,” Lehmann said. “When you’re toying with the ideas at first, sometimes your ideas don’t have to be social to the world.”


Inquiry-based education should improve student engagement, critical thinking skills, and cross-disciplinary opportunities, Lehmann said. But it may also hinder lesson planning, covering content benchmarks, and assessing student progress.

In a school that asks students to seize some autonomy over the course of their studies, the teachers most comfortable at the Science Leadership Academy are often the teachers most capable of improvising and deviating from a lesson plan, or even entering a class period without a lesson plan at all.

Further, while Lehmann believes the approach leaves students with the analytical tools they need to succeed on English/language arts standardized tests, he acknowledges that both teaching mathematics in general, and teaching it so students succeed on state and national benchmarks, is harder to do in an inquiry-driven fashion.

“Math is a little harder, and I own that,” said Lehmann.

Creating teacher-administered assessments that accurately measure progress, in an environment where the path is often long and winding, is also difficult.

“That could probably be 10 sessions of EduCon,” Lehmann quipped. “’What are we authentically assessing when we assess?’”

*[CLARIFICATION: Science Leadership Academy is a public magnet school, not a charter, as previously written.]

Why Inquiry Learning is Worth the Trouble 26 June,2013Ian Quillen

  • I do believe it was the 5th annual Educon.

    • tbarseghian

      Thanks for noting that David. It’s actually the sixth year and we fixed it in the article.

      • Whoops. Pot calling kettle I suppose. 😉

        Typed by my thumbs.

        • tbarseghian

          Thanks for keeping us on our toes 🙂

  • Tom Hoffman

    SLA is not a charter. It is a Philadelphia district magnet.

  • gericar

    Really, this is what you can come up with for comments?
    “This is not easy. This is not perfect,” Lehmann told a crowd” How about this…. let’s comment on the fact that all educational approaches whatever they are and whenever they happen are not easy and not perfect…remember the “free school” movements of the 1970s, memorization of the 1920s, ability grouping in the 1950s, the dawn of technology and…. god help us…the break out groups of the 1990s Let’s face it. No one really knows how any individual learns. That’s why we keep trying different approaches and some work for some of us and some things work for others. If we think…. this is one more trick to add to the teacher’s bag… instead of Ah Ha.. this is the best way, and we support the teacher’s expertise and allow him or her to do what they are trained to do, instead of beating them into submission… we might have better results. Education has always been full of “fads” because we don’t really know what we want as an outcome or when we do at least temporatily identify that, we are only guessing at how we can get there. The target keeps moving and the arrows are all different. This doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to figure this out. but it does means that given the uncertainty of what comes through the door of the 21st centruy school, what comes out of our American schools is truly amazingly good.

    • Thanks gericar, fantastic analogy of the moving target and varied arrows. We as educators are always stretching the boundaries of learning using the different approaches that are thrust upon us. Knowing that the ability to learn is in all of use but the way, pace and outcomes are as varied as the population. We don’t need another model we need to see new technical tools that are used to enhance individual critical thinking to create engaged citizens for the 21st century. As educators we are capable of identifing the tool that work best for ourselves and our students as long as we stay progressive are classroom will be creative hubs of real learning.

    • Nuschler

      “No one really knows how any individual learns.” This is NOT true. We DO know how humans learn. Some can only learn by working with one’s hands…nurses, surgeons, physical therapists. Some learn by reading with associated guide questions. The human mind is incredible in the multiple ways it can receive data (auditory, visual, olfactory, kinesthetic, touch, muscle memory). Unfortunately how do we provide each special mind with its best way to learn. Is that even possible? As of the 2010-2011 census we have 77 MILLION adults and children K-college.

      We know what doesn’t work…kids sitting at desks listening to teachers present facts on the whiteboard and then giving them 6 hours of homework with standard testing at the end.
      We are tied down with legislators slashing public education budgets (Some want to get rid of public schools completely and go to charter schools–privatize.) A legislator in Utah simply wanted to get rid of the senior year in high school! (“I didn’t learn nothing that last year. Me and my buddies were busy skipping school and hunting.) Res ipsa loquitur.

      Teachers’ unions are a blessing and a disgrace. It can take up to 3 and 1/2 years to fire a really bad teacher. Unfortunately professional unions concentrate only on tenure, salary, and benefits instead of continuing education.

      Education reminds me of 17th century medicine. Experimenting with blood letting, herbs, toxins. Until we learn how the mind works, how to set up individual programs for students we are screwed.

  • J.P. Barbour

    If you haven’t read the book, “Collaborating for Inquiry-Based Learning: School Librarians and Teachers,” I would strongly recommend this book . Wallace & Husid (2011) share their expertise in the field for inquiry-based learning and the importance for librarians and teachers to work together to implement the model successfully. When reading the article by Principal Lehmann, I couldn’t help but think of Wallace and Husid’s book for additional insight and techniques. Thanks for sharing this article.

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  • alice

    In these well a different school system and the ratio of project based
    learning is increasing because students and educators who are taking
    interests in cloud learning inspired by the new education technology

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  • Lavada

    One simple strategy that teachers can add to their toolkit in inquiry based learning and other modes of teaching and learning is the Question Formulation Technique (developed by the Right Question Institute) where students learn by asking their own questions and refining their questions.

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  • Della Palacios

    Standards measure student achievement with a binary bar. Measuring student achievement with a binary bar does not work. Learning is a process and is way more complex than a binary sort. This conclusion took twelve years to resolve and reflects experience, questioning and learning in the field. Read more “Why Standards Cannot Measure Student Achievement: The Binary Bar of Proficiency”

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