Keys to Learning: Inquiry & Creation

Think back to a time when you knew you were learning, when your experiences translated into deep understanding. What were the circumstances? What were you doing? What problem were you trying to solve?  Who was helping you?

My mind travels back to January when my wife and I welcomed a new baby into our home.  From the beginning, our son displayed different preferences and habits than his sister. So we had to adjust our methods while also helping his big sister adjust to a new family dynamic. Family routines were adjusted, readjusted and/or sometimes completely rewritten. We experimented, stumbled, learned from our missteps, and rejoiced in success – a pattern that will surely continue for the next few decades!

Just as you can’t really learn about parenting from a manual, a student’s best learning experiences will not come from a textbook.  Reference materials are wonderful guides, but deep understanding occurs when students apply what they have learned – when they experiment, stumble, and learn from their efforts.

Inquiry and creation are two important concepts that assist in this process.  Inquiry learning starts with a question and requires students to research, experiment, and generate further questions for study. Creation allows students to tangibly engage with concepts as they work to solve real problems and provide physical evidence of their understanding. Often, these terms go hand-in-hand. For example, students might start by inquiring, “What makes a hospitable habitat for birds?” Their answers might inspire them to build a birdhouse that matches their observations or their theory. Sound like fun?  That’s what Mr. Buck’s sixth grade art class is doing this month.

This approach to learning is happening throughout the middle school.  Why not join me on a virtual tour?  This month Mr. Buratto’s eighth graders explore the question: “How do great minds collaborate to address contemporary concerns?”  Students deconstruct West Side Story to discover how Bernstein, Sondheim, and Robbins worked with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to cast a light on social tensions. Over in the drama room, a group of seventh and eighth graders take the lead in producing this year’s mini-musical Cinderella Meets the Wolfman.  As Mrs. Carlson told me, “Not only do they run the club, they design the entire show themselves, complete with light and scenic design and costumes. They solve all sorts of problems and collaborate in the truest sense of the word.  It is joyful to watch them talk a sixth grader into a costume that he or she does not initially want to wear, or debate the intensity and color of light!”

In our language classrooms, eighth grade Latin students create their own Latin comic strips based on characters they have studied, while those taking Chinese develop movie scripts in teams. Both projects emphasize how language can be used as a tool to entertain and instruct an audience – a different skill than simply learning vocabulary words and declensions.

Walk into a few math and science rooms.  Watch as sixth graders construct “dichotomous keys” using shells of gastropods and bivalves that will allow other student scientists to examine the characteristics of a mollusk and determine its species. Watch fifth grade mathematicians explore how geometry influences design by creating geometrical towns. Watch eighth grade researchers investigate electricity through daily, inquiry-based challenges: Can you light a bulb with just a paper clip and a battery? Can you figure out how bathroom vanity lights were rewired by removing bulbs and observing how this affects brightness levels? Can you determine how various strands of Christmas lights are wired?

Across the hall, eighth grade humanities students prepare to assume the role of teacher. Each has chosen a subject for inquiry, with the sole stipulation that they must creatively communicate how this topic has influenced American society between 1940 and the present. Students are knee-deep in the world of coding, Disney animation, the space station program, the Guantanamo Bay prison controversy, the role of summer camps, the AFL/NFL merger, changes in the urban landscape, the evolution of Broadway, the rise of Apple, the impact of Title IX law on TCU athletics, the effects of 9/11 . . . and so on. The project allows them to follow their interests, apply their research skills, ask meaningful questions, and then create multi-modal presentations to share their findings.

Deep learning is never a passive activity. Whether the question is “How do I help my toddler transition to big-girl bed?” or “How does electrical wiring affect the holiday light display?” learning is the byproduct of active inquiry, and understanding is solidified through the act of creation – including finding creative solutions to everyday problems.

Not only is this good pedagogy, it makes learning more satisfying.  Sometimes it’s even a whole lot of fun. I laughed when Mr. Buck told me about his fifth grade artists: “Right now, they are designing a house in small teams in 3-D with paper, tape, glue and whatever other materials they come up with. Some will fail; some will surprise me.  More importantly, they will surprise themselves. As they get messy, I sometimes hear,  ‘Will this wash out?’ I sure hope so.”

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