Flickr/Kevin Harber
Flickr/Kevin Harber

Inquiry-based learning has been around in education circles for a long time, but many teachers and schools gradually moved away from it during the heyday of No Child Left Behind. The pendulum is beginning to swing back towards an inquiry-based approach to instruction thanks to standards such as Common Core State Standards for math and English Language Arts, the Next Generation Science Standards and the College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards. Transitioning to this style of teaching requires students to take a more active role and asks teachers to step back into a supportive position. It can be a tough transition for many students and their teachers, but turning to the school librarian for support could make the transition a little easier.

“This is so new for teachers, whereas librarians have been doing this for ten years,” said Paige Jaeger, a school librarian turned administrator and co-author of Think Tank Library: Brain-Based Learning Plans for New Standards. According to Jaeger, librarians were some of the first educators to realize that the Internet made finding information (their bread and butter) much easier. But they also recognized that kids would need help synthesizing and analyzing the vast amounts of information at their fingertips. This realization naturally led them to inquiry-based approaches. “The emphasis went away from being taught how to find it and went towards how to assess what you’re finding and what you’re going to do with it,” Jaeger said.

As grade level and content-specific teachers begin to incorporate inquiry-based approaches into their classrooms, they should look to collaborate on lesson planning with their librarian, Jaeger said. Jaeger and her co-author Mary Ratzer want to align teaching strategies to the research on how the brain learns best, which they believe fits perfectly with inquiry learning.

“The inquiry process is brain-based from beginning to end,” said Ratzer, a former teacher, current librarian and adjunct professor in an edWeb webinar. She and Jaeger are eager for educators to understand how the brain works and why traditional school tactics ignore what neuroscience teaches about how kids learn.

HOW THE BRAIN WORKS

“If your brain could talk it would say, ‘I’m lazy and I delete what’s not important,’” Ratzer said. “If the kid doesn’t have rigor and the ability to consolidate and hard wire ideas, he’ll revert to the lazy behavior. You want an essential question that immediately says: this is important.”

To snag students’ attention early, Jaeger and Ratzer suggest developing essential questions that connect the standards to the real world. Connecting learning to the experience of the learner makes it more relevant and allows students to manipulate and apply their learning in ways that they can see. This approach focuses students’ attention and immediately distinguishes the learning from a simple bureaucratic task that they just have to get through. “In this process, you have an active learner with an engaged brain,” Jaeger said.

After introducing an essential question, let students research, think alone, talk with others and use the information they’ve found to construct answers. “In the middle of this process, you’ve got a learner who will benefit from working with peers,” Ratzer said. The teacher’s job is to help make both learning and misperceptions visible, to coach when a student is stuck and provide formative assessment followed by suggestions. Teachers are invaluable at helping students to see connections between pieces of information and to scaffold their experience of building a big idea out of all the information they’ve gathered.

“He will not make a step towards synthesis until he has taken and successfully consolidated ideas into a schema of big ideas,” Ratzer said. At the end of the process Jaeger and Ratzer describe, the student should have created something new out of their learning that goes far beyond a teacher transferring knowledge to a student. The knowledge has become part of the learner, attached to their prior experiences and emotions, acting to reinforce the child’s sense of efficacy.

“We have a limited capacity for short term recall,” Ratzer said. “Swaying education towards an attempt to get kids to remember lots of stuff that is talked at them, doesn’t work.” In fact, she maintains that the average brain forgets most of what was learned in a rote fashion within two weeks. So cramming information into students’ heads that will be tested on Friday isn’t an effective way to ensure the learning sticks.

“A kid doesn’t just pick this up from the grass,” Ratzer said, “they have to learn to become expert thinkers.” She’s boiled this process down into a bit of formula, but cautions that connecting new information to emotions or prior experience is the crucial part of making meaning. That process can’t be codified since it will be different for every child.

The inquiry learning formula:

Authentic problem + compelling question + interesting text (all kinds) + thinking, conclusion and synthesis = deep, lasting learning.

WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE

Researching and writing state reports is a common assignment across the country. Usually students are asked to look up information like the state bird, flower, capital etc. A more inquiry-based approach would be to ask a question like, “How has your state contributed to the good of the country?” Jaeger and Ratzer argue this is a much more compelling question and while students will have to research the facts and issues pertaining to the state, they will also have to synthesize that information to create a reasoned argument based on fact.

“We really have a generation that’s almost out of touch with their ability to function in this way,” Ratzer said, “they’re waiting for you to fill in the blank.” In a time of easy access to information, teachers must focus on helping students evaluate and synthesize the facts throughout all levels of school. “We are underestimating very young children,” Ratzer said. “They really can do some pretty high-end thinking, some complex thought processes.” The problem is they often aren’t asked to do so and they go through their school careers without developing these important life skills.

  • Sara Kelly Johns

    Could Mary Ratzer’s name be corrected in this great piece? It’s not “Ratzen.” Thanks!

    • Katrina Schwartz

      Sara – Thank you for the catch. Mary Ratzer’s name has been corrected. I’m so sorry for the mistake. – Katrina

    • Katrina Schwartz

      Sara – Thank you for the catch! The correction has made been made and I am so sorry for the mistake. – Katrina

  • Larryalobo

    Librarians should be trained to be the centerpieces of learning and education – internet and library search, doing research, use of tech tools, brain ppls in learning, study skills, and train teachers, students and curriculum experts. They should keep up with the latest research on these and other areas.

    • Martha

      Hey, Larry,
      We are doing exactly that: in library schools, in professional learning communities, in our personal professional development, via social media and through workshops, conferences, professional journals and great books by people like Paige and Mary.

      • Larryalobo

        Martha – some librarians may be doing what I mentioned and more – and I applaud them for their work – but I also believe Libraries and librarians should be the HUB and central point of schools and librarians should be more in charge because of their skill sets and what they could do for the learning community of students – even in public and college libraries for the public, students, professors. They should be on the cutting edge of what’s going on in the arena of information and the technology for us all and be respected and paid as such

  • Things students will miss if they do not
    have a library: How to share information with others, how to self-assess their
    work, a recommendation for a book that is suited to
    their interest, a place to solve problems, a place to use their imagination, a place to
    visit that is open, friendly, attractive, and a safe haven, a knowledgeable,
    interested adult with whom to discuss books.

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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