Inquiring Minds Want to Know?

Journal Reflection

As I learn more about inquiry-based learning and giving students more autonomy, I am awestruck at how much sense this pedagogy makes, yet how few schools are actuallyscreen-shot-2017-03-05-at-9-30-05-pm employing its principles. In their book Authentic Learning in the Digital Age, Pahomov and Seigel (2014) assert that “as the amount of information available to us explodes, as well as our access to it, what matters is not what students know but how they acquire that knowledge and what they can do with it.” (p. 1)

In higher education, it is often thought that faculty have considerable freedom and autonomy with what they teach and how they teach it. If faculty desire to redesign their courses and change the way teaching and learning take place in them, they need both autonomy and departmental support to make the necessary adjustments. It is assumed that student-centered, inquiry-based approaches help develop both teacher and student autonomy. However, at Colgate University both curricula and assessment systems are heavily prescribed to the point where teacher autonomy is limited.

Learner autonomy is described as the ability of learners to take control of their own learning. However, the same university curricula and assessment system curtails that autonomy considerably. The typical method of college level teaching is the traditional “chalk and talk” lecture with a passive audience of learners whose task is to record and memorize as much as possible. This dominant style of teaching results in rote learning to pass exams with little learner autonomy.

In teacher education courses leading to certification, an added complication is the large size of the classes, making lecturing the option of choice. Yet, this teaching method is not ideal because it doesn’t offer a inquiry-based model for the prospective teachers to emulate. The end goals are obtaining a degree and teacher certification based on exams that reward accurate recall, and these open the door to a teaching job.The limited opportunities for future teachers to learn inquiry-based methods is unfortunate.

The openness of Colgate faculty to introduce inquiry based learning with education majors faces many barriers. In order to consider such an approach it will take a department-wide reexamination of the ways courses are being taught. Who will initiate such a reexamination? It may have to come from a provost-level initiative in order to push tenured faculty out of their comfort zones. Interestingly one of the 13 goals of a Colgate education is to “continue learning beyond college: sustain a lifelong curiosity and grow in knowledge and wisdom.” This goal is to generate learners who can continue to develop their understanding and skills long after the degree is awarded.

Freedom to manage learning, freedom to develop the appropriate skills, and freedom to search out new understandings are all important, but they are stifled here where there is little autonomy for both teacher and learner. At Pahomov’s Science Leadership Academy screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-9-34-54-pm(SLA) an opportunity for students to do real-world research at the Monell Center offers freedom for students to meet the challenges of serious research in projects such as cloning the olfactory receptors; investigating flavor preferences in infants, children and the elderly; developing nonlethal repellents for agricultural pests; or studying the chemistry of air quality and how it influences people’s health perceptions. I am certain from this authentic experience many future scientists are born.

Another example of a school that is built on the principles of project-based learning is Tebld-profile-with-cnse-logo_400pxch Valley High School (TVHS) in Albany, NY.  Here students engage in hands-on projects based on authentic applications of New York state learning standards. Similar to SLA, TVHS collaborates with the Albany Nanotech Complex to give its students authentic professional opportunities in the field. TVHS is nationally-recognized and hosts educators from around the world for training in inquiry and project-based learning and the teaching of 21st century skills. They seem to be like a voice crying out in the wilderness, but because of the success they are having with this approach I hope other schools start to take notice and begin to change their mode of instruction to this inquiry based pedagogy.

After much asking around I discovered a Colgate professor that has found some success with student centered, inquiry-based learning. Her name is April Baptiste and she teaches a course in environmental justice. She offers her students the option to research a topic of their choice and then present their findings in a 5 minute video. Professor Baptiste has changed her former lecture-based teaching style into a something akin to a flipped classroom approach. When re-writing her curriculum, she asked how technology could transform her class? Classroom time is now spent less on lectures and more on guiding students in their research. She has intentionally built in time to model what good research methods look like and provides “ample and explicit instruction as she goes through new modes of instruction and assessment. (Pahomov & Seigel, 2014, p. 14)  Students are encouraged to publish their videos on Youtube and make them publicly available and open for comments. The videos are self-assessed with a rubric and also peer assessed by classmates. In this and most cases “students are already exploring and benefitting from the transformative properties of technology as they use it outside their classroom. As a result they are ahead of the game when it comes to personalizing their learning.” (Pahomov & Seigel, 2014, p. 4)

The concept of autonomy in terms of both teacher and learner is a common topic of discussion and debate in education. Learner autonomy refers to a student’s ability to set learning goals and take charge of their own learning. Autonomous learners are dependent upon teachers to create and maintain an environment that supports this. Teacher autonomy gives them the freedom to determine instructional strategies and curriculum.

I am skeptical this will become the norm anytime soon, at least in the New York State K-12 classroom where the Common Core has teachers spending the vast majority of their time teaching a standardized curriculum. In the college classroom where faculty have a bit more leeway with what and how they teach, there are many barriers to autonomy (obtaining tenure, resistance to change, time constraints). In the work world some companies are starting to pay attention to this concept and are moving in the direction of employee autonomy.  In 2012 the CEO of the software company, Meddius launched an experiment in autonomy by turning it into a ROWE – results only work environment. (Pink, 2012, p. 84)  I am fascinated by this concept!  In a ROWE workplace people don’t have schedules and don’t have to be in the office at an specified time. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it, and where they do it is up to them. (p.84) I think it’s a brilliant concept and love how the employer considers the workers as partners, able to direct their own lives. This mirrors learner autonomy in that the individual gets to call the shots. This sense of autonomy is certainly empowering to both teacher, learner and employee.

According to behavioral science studies, autonomous motivation promotes greater conceptual understanding, better grades, enhanced persistence at school and sports, higher productivity, less burnout, and greater levels of psychological well-being. (p. 89)  The best known company to embrace this is Google, which has long encouraged engineers to spend one day a week working on a side project. (p.94) I had heard of this and know they’ve had much success with the outcomes of the creative projects coming out of this 20 percent. Google is perhaps one of the best companies to work for because of their loose work environment and benefits. They’ve learned that worker autonomy pays off in the long run for both employee and employer. I would love to work in this kind of environment but I don’t see this ever happening in higher ed where it employs a highly structured work day.


As I learn more about inquiry-based instruction it becomes clear to me how big a need there is for this method of teaching in undergraduate education. It has not been adopted in place of traditional “cookbook” instruction, especially in the sciences, where students follow lab manuals to answer questions. I believe that a big issue is insufficient time and resources for faculty to try new ways of teaching when they are under pressure to do research. Through researching this issue I have created an example that combines an inquiry-based course with faculty research.

Example Class: Biology 101 (Introductory Biology with lab)

Topics and Learning Goals:  

  1. Flowering Plants. Learn about the interactions among different species of flowering plants
  2. Insects that pollinate plants. Learn about what kinds of insects and how insects pollinate plants
  3. Microorganisms that grow inside the nectar. Learn about these microorganisms and how the grow and move from flower to flower by hitchhiking.

Historically these lessons have been taught by 2 (2 hour) classroom lectures per week via Powerpoint slides, supplemented by readings drawn from the Bio101 textbook. A one hour lab is required where student follow a lab manual and answer questions.

Moving away from the lecture and towards a more learner-centered practice will require much more time spent in the field studying the plant interactions which will allow the students to practice the same approaches taken by professional biologists. The primary goal is to develop understanding of how experiments are designed and how data can be interpreted. This will give students a higher level of scientific literacy.

The course structure will be changed to a 1-hour discussion-based lecture and a 4-hour field session each week. Each field session is guided by the instructor at our field site, located 5 min from campus. The students visit the site twice a week by a university van during the course.

Students are introduced to the plant interactions. They use peer-reviewed journals used as a guide. After that, each pair of students formulates two testable hypotheses of their choice. Students collect a set of data. Each team is taught ways to analyze their data, while encouraged to discuss their project with other groups. At the end of the course, each pair presents results in a multimedia project of their choice. Throughout, step-by-step guidance is given on how to frame scientific questions, analyze data, and create a presentation in a format appropriate for publication.

Pahomov, L., & Siegel, D. (2014). Authentic learning in the digital age: engaging students through inquiry. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Pink, D. H. (2012). Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books.


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