If kids can access information from sources other than school, and if school is no longer the only place where information lives, what, then happens to the role of this institution?

“Our whole reason for showing up for school has changed, but infrastructure has stayed behind,” said Diana Laufenberg, who taught history at the progressive public school Science Leadership Academy for many years. Laufenberg provided some insight into how she guided students to find their own learning paths at school, and enumerated some of these ideas at SXSWEdu last week.

The less educators try to control what kids learn, the more students’ voices will be heard and, eventually, their ability to drive their own learning. But that requires a flexible mindset on the part of the teacher. “That’s a scary proposition for teachers,” Laufenberg said. “‘What do you mean I’m going to have 60 kids doing 60 different projects,’ teachers might say. But that’s exactly the way for kids to do interesting, high-end work that they’re invested in.”

Laufenberg recalled a group of tenacious students who continued to ask permission to focus their video project on the subject of drugs, despite her repeated objections. She finally relented — with the caveat that they not resort to cliches. In turn, the students turned in one of the best video projects she’d ever seen: a well-produced, polished video about Americans’ dependence on pharmaceutical drugs that was dense with facts backed up by students’ research. “And I almost killed this project,” she said. “There are vastly creative minds that are capable of doing intensely wonderful things with their learning but often we don’t let that live and breathe. Thankfully I got out of their way and let them do the work they were capable of.”

Teachers always come up to Laufenberg wanting to learn more about her progressive pedagogy — and they invariably ask, “But when do you just tell them things? Don’t you have to just tell them sometimes?”

Laufenberg’s answer: Get them curious enough in the subject to do research on their own.
“Kids don’t come to class just burning to know about the War of 1812,” she said. “And you just saying they have to know the facts is not good enough. But here’s your chance to bring them along as a person and get them to learn about it.”

For example, in exploring the subject of American identity with her history students, Laufenberg asked them to come up with words that convey to them the abstract idea of America, or what it means to be American. Many of her students came up with the words “greedy” and “ignorant” — a trend she saw echoed throughout many of her classes during her years teaching at SLA. “I got a clear vision of where my students were,” she said.

She asked her students to find images that epitomized America, then asked them to talk about their ideas with their peers, studying data about immigration, taking the American citizenship test themselves (most received an average score of 3, across the board regardless of age), so they could understand the processes and become personally invested in the subject.

“Rather than saying, ‘We’re going to study immigration,’ I took them through a process where they become interested in it themselves,” she said.

“There are so many ways that kids can be active in their learning, beyond the standard call-and-respond business,” Laufenberg said. It may be hard to do with 140 students, but if you consider all the available tools at your disposal, ideas can start to take shape.

Example: Laufenberg asked her students to watch President Obama’s State of the Union address and respond to what they watched and heard. She gave her students the option to either post comments on Twitter (fully public), Facebook (semi-public), Moodle (walled garden) or for low-tech participants, play Bingo with key words the students anticipated they might hear.


Though some goofed around a bit with comments (“Our school is so cool, we’re tweeting the State of the Union”), at the end of the speech, students had posted a total of 438 tweets and 18 pages of Moodle chat. (Interestingly, no one went on Facebook, though she had set up a separate conversation on the school’s Facebook page.)

Laufenberg was not surprised with the high quality of responses she saw from her students. “Does Obama have the power to reform and adjust how the other branches work?” one student tweeted. “He’s not touching on Iran issue… not a good sign,” another posted. “High school dropout laws, rebuilding jobs in our country, and more equipment in schools… me gusta,” wrote yet another.

“I could have them face off against any pundit the next day,” she said. “They understood it. None of it went over their head — they were making meaning of it. They were offering their own opinions, participating in the conversation.”

Laufenberg used every tool she had at her disposal as a framework for her students to build their learning around.

As most teachers know, when students recognize that teachers are personally invested in their success, they do better, and that affirmation of students’ disposition can help students achieve more. “You can’t ask kids to take risks if they don’t trust that you care about them,” Laufenberg said.

During the weeks and months that led up to the election, Laufenberg’s students got into the neighborhoods and brought back stories from voters at the polls. Though they didn’t always feel comfortable asking strangers questions, they went ahead with their assignments anyway. “If none of it is ever real to them, if it’s only in books, it lacks interest,” she said. “They want to do real stuff, but we are perpetually underestimating what kids can do.”

Laufenberg made a point of defining the difference between “blameworthy” and “praiseworthy” failure. Blameworthy failure is when the student just decided not to participate in a project. But praiseworthy failure is quite different: kids take risks and experiments knowing that they might not get it right the first time.

“No one talks about cancer research as blameworthy failure,” she said. “We don’t expect a five-year-old to be able to shoot free-throws immediately. It’s a process, and we value it in other things, but not when it comes to school. Kids are not coming in as perfect little products or machines — they’re human beings in the process of becoming.”

In the engineering industry, for example, there are “failure festivals” and “failure reports” during which engineers discuss the processes they’ve tried that didn’t work. “We need to have kids do that with their own learning,” she said. “Be self-aware enough to do something with that information.”

“I always told my kids, if I got boring, they should let me know, and if they got boring, I’d let them know,” Laufenberg said. But here’s the twist: kids may actually choose boring because it’s easier, it’s known, it’s quantifiable. “They know what they need to do to get a good score,” she said. When it’s not boring, when the answer is not predictable, that’s when kids are actually challenged more.

For a government history teacher, this last directive has been a tall order. But Laufenberg made a point of trying to create a space where her students were valued, where creativity was paramount, and their voices were allowed to shine through.

“It’s incredibly taxing work, but one of the most exciting and meaningful ways to create transformative spaces,” she said.

Above all, what she wants to instill in her students is a sense of self-sufficiency.

“If by the end of the year, they still need me, I haven’t done my job,” she said. “I’m not coming with them to college. They have to be self-driven, independent thinkers.”

Watch Laufenberg’s fascinating TED Talk “How to Learn? From Mistakes.”

Creating Classrooms We Need: 8 Ways Into Inquiry Learning 26 June,2013Tina Barseghian

  • Education to Save the World

    Love this list! Especially embrace failure! So important and so difficult. We were just saying that we should have an “International Risk Taking in Education Week” where everyone takes a risk and doesn’t worry about failing!


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  • I completely agree with this story. And I hope the educational system can create the teachers to implement it.

  • Dr. Hoo

    As long as we are forced into the teach-to-the-standardized-test mentality, there is little likelihood of inquiry learning taking root.

    • swann

      I disagree. I believe teachers are doing all they can to insure students are learning, engaged. This article will be in my peers hands.

    • James Malone

      New Common Core standards allow and encourage exactly this way of teaching. Drill and kill will no longer be rewarded. Students must be able to explain their thinking, not just know an answer.

  • Jeremy Bell

    I agree a lot of learning should be “fun”, but we are obsessed with this idea that it should “always” be fun. Any subject – any topic – has a point where you will hit a wall and the only way to get through is to grind through it. I still believe in the validity of discipline.

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  • chrischem

    This is a great idea if the students have the basics in reading, writing, and math. The problem is that many lack the basics so how do we make sure they learn what is necessary to be a literate person with appropriate math skills to graduate high school? Also, teachers are expected to teach to a state mandated curriculum with little wiggle room. There are departmental tests that the students must pass which require so much breadth and little depth. If teachers were given the freedom to be creative in their pedagogy without the restraints of state mandated tests and the expectations of being departmental clones, then perhaps inquiry based learning can work.

    • Danny Boy

      Sounds like you need a different school system. Where I work there are no departmental exams or even departmental reading lists and no common required textbooks. No one here pays much attention to the state frameworks and, instead, understands we are teaching early adolescents not subjects so much. As far as state testing goes, as my principal told us at the beginning of the year, “If you teach them well they will do fine on the state tests.” As far as I can tell she is absolutely correct. When I hear stories like yours I wonder how many other folks work for idiots or whether anyone actually does. IMHO too many of my teacher colleagues imagine there are rules they must follow and punishments that will happen of they don’t. These are the “Tin man” teachers who shudder should the principal walk into their classroom. Shudder when they are asked to take a risk and try teaching well. Plain old scaredy cats like you who complain kids don’t have the skills that would allow you teach them effectively and your mean old state test controls everything you do and your principal would hit you if you didn’t teach ineffectively and …. Basically, if there is a reason too few kids get effective lessons it is teachers like you who are not very expert at teaching, do not take much responsibility for teaching every child well and who blame all of their faults on someone else. Maybe you should try selling cars…

  • Yolymar Cruz

    I really loved this blog. We as teacher needs to be less rigid and give students the opportunity to think and create new things from what they already know. Sometimes we think is easier for them to do less work in the projects but sometimes what students really like is to have new experiences and routines.

    • Costa Mrema

      I strongly believe that education is taking a new dimension by moving away from traditional ways of instruction by teachers who are required to have information to impart to students. Currently there are many ways to collect and gather information through technology. Nevertheless this privilege is not found in some places around the world with limited advance in technology. The teachers are required to be knowledgeable in the key subject areas. Their knowledge will help students to gain understanding to make application with the little information gathered from teachers. Therefore I still advocate the role played by teachers as source of information but not to teach to the test, and for teachers to help students with different styles of learning during their observations in the classrooms.

  • Any tips for balancing “Let them choose” with “They choose boring because it’s easy”?

  • Anne Jolly

    I love that list. I might add a 9th idea to the list . . . Persevere. For the many teachers who struggle to foster inquiry-based learning in their classrooms – hold the course! If you are a teacher who is changing the way he/she teaches, this is an especially important trait. It’s easy to be discouraged, given the lack of built-in school support structures for this way of teaching. (Think about lack of class time, materials and supplies, class size for example.) The longer you persevere the more natural this way of teaching becomes until you will find yourself using inquiry techniques without consciously reminding yourself. Lessons take longer to plan and implement, but pay huge dividends in the long run. So . . persevere!

  • fiaraz

    As learning progresses down a path where pleasure is related to an interesting activity, it will deviate from deeper learning that can only be built on skills acquired with the end in mind. If the aforementioned pedagogy and its jouvenile counterparts are so succeful at driving education then why is the USA and the UK falling further and further behind china,, Japan and other Asian countries??? one only has to look at TIMMS or listen to Richard Feynman

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  • Kimberly Jarman

    ideas for experiential learning are great. Kids do learn better when allowed to engage in their own problem solving strategies and have the ability to gather and organize their own resources. It is a very much needed skill considering that we as educators are responsible to prepare our students to enter a work force that is characterized by global mindedness, diversity, multi-tasking and rapidly advancing technology. However, as a teacher with over 15 years experience teaching a wide variety of students from various backgrounds, learning abilities, experiences, resources ect, I know that there are some logistics to consider. Telling students to go out into real spaces, for example. How will they get there? Do parents provide transportation? What about kids from lower socio-economic neighborhoods with families that don’t have cars? What about safety? Who will supervise the kids and make sure they are safe. Pedophiles do exist! Another example is “identify someone in your own world who…”. Okay, great for kids who come from two parent intact families with plenty of resources in a well off community full of like minded professionals. What about kids who come from homes where one or both parents have been to prison? What about kids who are in foster care or residential facilities? These kids don’t have anyone to identify unless you are talking about armed robbery, drug abuse, domestic violence. These underpriviledged kids need structure and support in finding answers because they have never had the opportunity to develop problem solving skills. They have never had a stimulating environment that allows them to develop many different learning strategies. They have not had effective communication skills role modeled to them. Your ideas are great if every kid came from a background with plenty. The others have to have structure, routine, predictability and Yes ANSWERS to questions are they are LOST.

  • Newlo

    So easy to say why things can’t match these ideas … why it won’t work…think about the principles and make them fit to the context you work in…#4 Teachers teach kids….

  • Kaleb Rogers

    I think it is very interesting that inquiry learning is most always coupled with project based learning. It is not enough to just lead to a discovery. Students must put their hands on the material and get dirty with it. They must create the content for themselves. This is higher level thinking.

  • Karla

    I believe that students should have the opportunity to “think outside the box”, but as a teacher, it can be hard to allow that to take place in today’s society. Learning is not always going to be FUN; there are always those things that they MUST learn that just simply can’t be made to learn in a FUN or ENTERTAINING way. I am aware that it takes more these days to grab students attention, but some ways are better than others. Simply by adding in some technology and hands on manipulatives, you can turn an activity into a “not-boring” one! As long as they are aware that it cant ALWAYS be done that way.

    All teachers are flexible…some more than others. It is hard for some of us to be flexible, as we have been in the classroom for a while and know how to run things and how smoothly they should go. We aren’t trying to control what they learn, we are trying to help them learn what they need to know in order to become a productive citizen in the world outside of school. I do personally give my students options many times throughout the school year.

    I teach elementary school, therefore my students are more loving and nurture-needing than most older students. I love what i chose to do for a living. Teachers do not get the credit they deserve for doing what we do. I spend more of my week with the 24 children in my classroom than i get to spend with my 2 own children. I love and nurture a total of 26! The students in my class are like my children for 10 months out of the year. I want them to know from the very beginning of the school year that they can trust me, confide in me, tell me when I am wrong, ask me when they don’t understand something we have been doing in class. I want us to have that trusting relationship like I had with all of my teachers while I was growing up.

  • will reed

    In math, there is a ton of problems worked that include failure. Embracing that failure by understanding that it is a process and not just an answer is a great point that we should try to get kids to understand.

  • Lola Russo

    The generation that we just taught in public schools believe that if
    it isn’t “fun” then it isn’t worth anything. We, the adults, the
    teachers, the parents, instilled in that generation that everything has
    to be fun. It seemed that this was the key for getting kids’ attention
    and learning by rote as well.

    For example, if you were of the
    generation that saw Sesame St for the first time in the late 60’s, you
    saw entertainment and the principles of marketing, selling, advertising
    being used to teach kids about the alphabet, etc. Quick ad-like
    presentations by people we all knew and loved (Bill Cosby for one),
    would be the “star” in the educational output on a TV. It was great. We
    all loved it and were happy that at last there was something of value
    on that wasteland called television.

    Fast forward – have you
    seen “Bourne Ultimatum” or any of the Bourne movies? The photography
    could give you a headache because it is no more than a few seconds on
    each “scene.” Try counting how long a shot lasts on some of our present
    day movies and advertisements. This is what our kids have learned and-
    how to learn. We created this monster.

    Now we have
    to uncreate the monster and get kids to focus and learn to use their
    skill of inquiry to learn. And this is what the legislators who think
    they know about education and want to quantify everything with a
    standardized test, fail to see. They are stuck in the education pedagogy
    of the 1940’s and 1950’s where rote learning was the way to go. If it
    was good enough for me…it is good enough for my children – the
    philosophy of the people who make our laws.

    As for
    discipline – that should have been the parents’ responsibility from day
    one but for some reason (and I’m sure we could list a bunch), it has
    fallen on the shoulders of the teachers. Classroom discipline is one of
    the toughest things to accomplish in today’s classroom. Academic
    discipline on the other hand can only be accomplished by an inquiry
    method that will involve the total child in the learning process.

    we need to answer the question – is it better to learn with information
    being told to us, or if we can learn it ourselves? Is it better to have
    someone say, “Read this and learn it” or better to give the student the
    tools, show them how to use them and then set them free?

    We have so much to learn.

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  • Pat

    I agree with Dr. Hoo, as long as we are forced into the teach-to -the -standardized-test mentality there is little likelihood of inquiry learning taking root. Teachers are being forced to teach to the test , and students are learning fixed mind set by basing their intelligence on test scores that fail to reflect the actual knowledge they may be able to acquire if given the tools and time to explore various ideas to actually gain in depth understanding. I know a lot of great student that make good grades , but bomb every test they take that requires any level of comprehension beyond memorizing material that’s been presented in a classroom. When asked to explain an idea or mental process used to choose a correct answer many can offer little more explain their answer than to say, ” I did it like the teacher said.”

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    In these well a different school system and the ratio of project based
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  • hannah

    the point number 6 EMBRACE FAILURE is the most cricial to think about. EssayAvenue.co.uk

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  • DavidS

    How does inquiry learning go over with students who may have learning disabilities? I’d like to think that it may help them grasp the subject more readily than a more “traditional” teaching method. Does anyone have experience in this? My only worry, which was touched upon in the article, is that this style gives students a huge amount of freedom. And, if not used to this, students may feel that they are free to do whatever they want (ie NOT the subject at hand).

  • Sarah Quigg

    Inquiry based teaching is really the direction our schools need to go, but it is a huge undertaking. To do it justice, the entire course should use this technique, otherwise the kids see it as just another teaching strategy where the teacher is being lazy and making them teach themselves. Think about it. It would be really hard to buy into an inquiry lesson if all year your teacher used structured rubrics and cookbook labs that told you what to look for and then one day walked in wanted you to be curious, ask your own questions, and create your own understanding. I agree that inquiry does require a lot more flexibility which can be especially challenging with academic kids who want to know exactly what they need to do to get the “A” and parents who want to know where their children’s grades came from. In general, it also can be challenging to grade the learning process too. Overall though, it is something teachers need to make a priority, especially in the science field. Because inquiry lessons take longer, I think it really makes us boil down our content to the most important ideas and skills.

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  • Karin

    Next time someone asks me what I teach, I will answer with “kids”!

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  • Pawan Kumar

    There are so many ways that kids can be active in their learning, beyond the standard call-and-respond business

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  • Bertha Floris

    The less educators try to control what kids learn, the more students’
    voices will be heard and, eventually. that is true. but i guess teachers are doing all they can. if a kid doesn’t want to learn then teacher can’t do a thing about it.
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