Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville

Some teachers are skeptical about “student-driven learning,” suspecting that it’s really just another chance for unfocused social time. It can often be hard to see behind the jargon the careful planning and teacher support necessary to ensure that students not only stay focused, but also produce high-level work. Educators often wonder how students can all be working on different projects but acquiring the same skills. It may seem challenging to keep track of 30 kids investigating 30 different issues, but when inquiry-based teaching is done well, that chaotic swirl of ideas and needs is based on a strong foundation of planning.

Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia is known for its dedication to inquiry, practiced through project-based learning with public school students. As a magnet school, SLA does have an application process, but many students are not coming from schools where they experienced inquiry learning before.

An example of this approach can be seen in Joshua Block’s senior social studies class. Recently, his students put democracy through the wringer, investigating American democracy not as a static system developed hundreds of years ago by the founding fathers but as a living, breathing expression of citizenship today.

To do this, Block first introduced students to the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French political thinker who visited the United States in the mid-1800s and wrote about his observations of American democracy. With de Tocqueville’s primary text as a guide, Block asked his students to research and argue three perspectives on American democracy that aren’t common knowledge and that resonate with them personally.

Students chose diverse projects, including social movements like Black Lives Matter, the effect of stereotyping, whether the American Dream exists, how the food industry affects people’s lives, the intersection of poverty and education, even juvenile incarceration. They analyzed their topics in a paper, made a multimedia presentation related to the topic, and designed and built a personal website to display their work.

“It’s not just the typical, watered-down way of looking at race in America, but a combination of their own experience, their reading and interviews with people in their communities,” Block said.

He believes the project is successful because students have so much choice within the broad parameters he sets. That doesn’t mean they can pick an easy argument and be done quickly. Block’s job as a teacher in this environment is to continually push the student to think from new perspectives, to find more sources and to use them more skillfully to bolster the argument. To do this, he asks lots of questions that spark them to push in new directions.

Stereotypes and American Democracy from Marlyn Mooney on Vimeo.

“The students are so much more connected to their work and passionate about it that they’re actually doing work that’s higher quality than they’ve ever done before,” Block said. He attributes part of this to the fact that students are presenting their ideas both through writing and a creative multimedia project of their choice. The projects live on a public facing website. The authentic, worldwide audience — coupled with students’ passion for their topics — means that they are hoping to sway public opinion with their work.

“I felt really strongly about all of the topics I’m talking about, mostly about poverty and education,” said Liza Cohen. She investigated various aspects of socioeconomic disparities in educational opportunities. The experience has her fired up to go to college, where she sees it as her civic responsibility to get herself educated and work on these issues.

STANDARDS AND SUPPORT BEHIND THE SCENES

While students had lots of choice in what to research and the kinds of textual evidence they would use to support their arguments, Block doesn’t give them an assignment like this and expect them to come back two months later with perfect projects. Instead, he has built in deadlines, peer review and class work time, so he knows where students are at throughout the process.

“I’m just assisting them to create this thing that we’ve all agreed is an important thing to do,” Block said. “It’s like we’re on a shared mission together to produce the best product possible.” When students turn in rough drafts, Block sits down with them and asks what they know they need to improve on. Then he’ll give them feedback he sees. At other points, students review one another’s work. Block says that often students give the same critique he would have offered. Students said seeing one another’s work helped them see where their own was lacking.

“We had to edit other people’s papers and give feedback, and you read it and realize it’s amazing,” said Marlyn Mooney. She loved learning about the topics her classmates were working on and continuing the conversation around big ideas beyond class. One part of her project investigated the food industry and some of its unhealthy practices. The issue has become a personal passion for her that she shares with her friends, perhaps more than they would like.

Block says in a class period he will spend about five minutes reminding students about upcoming due dates and things to keep in mind as they work. The other 60 minutes he spends moving through the classroom, asking questions to push students farther in their thinking, checking in on students’ progress and giving feedback.

Democracy and Education from Amani Bey on Vimeo

“I want to give feedback as much as possible while it’s in process and give students a chance to work on skills they are still developing,” Block said. He sees it as a mentoring relationship, and is certain that if he gave just one deadline the quality of work would be dramatically lower.

“It takes a lot of trust and confidence,” Block said, acknowledging that most teachers didn’t grow up with this kind of education. “If people miss some of the steps, then it’s not successful and they think it’s a waste,” he said. But it takes time to grow as a teacher in this system, which is why Block believes teacher mentorship is so important. He and his colleagues are continually tweaking projects to reflect lessons learned.

STUDENTS TAKE PRIDE IN THEIR WORK

“I’m most proud that I thoughtfully completed this entire project, and I walked away knowing 10 times more than I did before and feeling 10 times more involved than I did before,” Cohen said. “I feel like mentally, emotionally and physically, I got something out of the project.” She says that beats any grade.

“One thing that I’ve learned about myself is that I can articulate how I feel in a very solid sense and that other people will listen,” said Ron Harper. “I finally realized I have a voice and I can use it. And that feels good.” He focused on juvenile incarceration, as well as the power of social movements like Black Lives Matter. Harper says the research he did on his own made him sad, but that he was motivated to keep reading because he cared about the topics he chose.

Other students expressed their appreciation for a project that let them examine society and their place in it. Many students struggled to condense all their research into cohesive, clear arguments, but they often expressed pride both in their writing and in their multimedia representations of issues.

In a reflection submitted to Block once the project was finished, Molly Olshin wrote: “Research, media, and writing is not that difficult when you have the freedom to write on the subject you want. I think it’s important to give students freedom on writing and reading, because it’s hard to enjoy a subject you’re forced to research, especially if you don’t [like] the subject.”

Another student, Darya Nemati wrote: “I obviously learned way more about the three topics I was investigating, but I think I also was able to dig deeper and learn about myself as a learner. I was able to investigate topics that were outside of my comfort zone and with each chapter I was able to delve just a little deeper into my research and analysis. “

Students weren’t shy about talking about their challenges as well. Amani Bey wrote: “I struggled with slimming my idea down and at the same time writing a bunch about it. I think it made me stronger. To be able to write on an extremely particular claim and to expand on it and all its nuances have made me a great thinker.”

BLOCK’S TAKEAWAYS ON INQUIRY

  • “This is not an assignment where there’s one right answer and where I have a specific vision of what the final product will look like,” Block said. “I give them the framework and students fill in the gaps. They do it through their own curiosity and creation.” That is a key takeaway for teachers interested in teaching with inquiry. If students are really allowed to bring themselves to their work, their final products won’t all come out in the same form. But that doesn’t mean they can’t all be evaluated using the same rubric and set of standards.
  • Block thinks about what standards he wants the project to hit first and then builds backward from that point. In this project, students are meeting literacy and research standards through extensive individual research, lots of writing, crafting arguments, interpreting texts from both primary and secondary sources, and using that evidence to support their claims. Whether the student is looking at racism in America or the plight of undocumented people, those standards are embedded.
  • Inquiry is based around the act of questioning. As the teacher, that means asking common questions like, “what is the main argument of your piece,” but it also means asking questions about students’ ideas and sources that push them to look behind what can often be a one-dimensional viewpoint.
  • Structure long-term projects with deadlines (research document with quotes, rough draft, final draft, multimedia project), lots of formative feedback both from peers and from the teacher, self-evaluations and reflection pieces so that students can look back at what they took away from the work.
  • Model good work throughout the process. That could mean holding up a student’s clear introductory paragraph or reading a de Tocqueville observation together as a class. “I’m breaking down the distinction between professional work and student work,” Block said. He wants students to feel that their voices are just as important as those they read in books. Reminding them that their work is part of a large conversation around these issues helps them see why their work deserves the time and effort they’re putting into it.
  • Teaching this way is exhausting, but also incredibly rewarding. “It’s very grueling, but it’s also incredibly stimulating,” Block said, “I’m excited about their ideas and their work.”

Block says it’s amazing to see what young people create when they are given freedom to choose. He’s also always impressed at how the questions of democracy leak out of the classroom and into everyday conversations. Students come in and talk to him about what they’ve been reading or he’ll hear them discussing popular songs in new ways. Investigating democracy has taught them to look at their own world in new ways.

  • Rob the Quiet

    OK, why is this remarkable? I would think that what is being described here is a routine course of study. It sounds like a set of skills such as reading comprehension and expository writing is being re-labeled as some esoteric teaching technique that espouses a soft-pedaled activism. I applaud any and all teachers who engage their students in discussing current events and relating concept to actuality, but I don’t get why this is considered some novel idea that hasn’t been around since education was invented.

    • Kelly Love

      It shouldn’t be remarkable –you have a point. Unfortunately in this day of teaching to the test (the amorphous, unknowable, damned test) many educators aren’t allowed to take risks of any kind, and unfortunately, this level of inquiry is a risk, and takes a lot of planning time. Maybe like The Enlightenment harkened back to the Renaissance, nothing is new, but needs fresh perspectives.

  • David Loertscher

    One needs to visit SLA in Philadelphia to understand how much different the results are vs. the current approach to cookie cutter education and scripted teaching mandated under a system of high stakes testing. What SLA lacks is a great teacher librarian and learning commons in thier school to pair with these great teachers of inquiry. I have recently published a study on such matters that readers might want to consult: https://sites.google.com/site/coteachingandcollaboration/

  • Michael

    As a History teacher myself, I appreciated this article. When one hears about inquiry-based learning, the question comes up regarding what the role of the teacher is once the assignment is given, but this gives practical ideas that can be used in the class. I liked how it describes the step-by-step process of inquiry-based learning and how it includes many tasks with due dates to keep students focused.

Author

Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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