The Truth about Inquiry

The truth about inquiry is not all of your students will always get on board, and I think that’s okay. I don’t think it reflects anything on you as a teacher or your classroom.  Let me tell you a story.

I teach Christian Ethics 10.  Our theme is the life of Christ.  Most of the semester we’ve spent delving into aspects of Christ’s story, his parables & teachings, but mostly how he reacted to and treated others.  This class loves to talk, so rather than writing a lot, we have a lot of interesting discussions.

This past week, on Wednesday, report cards came out.  I told my students it’s time for us to assess our class.  Has it been what they wanted?  We spent a number of days at the beginning of the semester discussing how my classroom is different, that the process is as important as the product, and that their voices matter.

I asked if there was anything they wanted to change. They thought about it, and finally one student said, “I wish we could explore some of this stuff through the arts, like painting, or drama.”  We can.  The life of Christ has been explored through art for centuries, if not millenia.

So I asked them to talk about what that might look like, and kids began to get really excited. They brainstormed a whole list of ways they might bring these ideas together. After looking at the list I said, “Why don’t we create an exhibit on the life of Christ?”  We can do that? Yep.

The next day we had to decide on a theme.  This was the tough part.  My students came up with five solid ideas, but went back and forth between people of the bible and Jesus’ parables and couldn’t come to an agreement.  There were students who really wanted to learn about each area.

Finally, one student said, “Why don’t we do it on stories?  It could be the story of someone in the bible, or one of the parables, or even our stories and how they intersect with these. We can call it One Storyteller: Millions of Stories.”  Brilliant.

Except there were two students who weren’t buying in. I watched as my students went back and forth with them valiantly trying to find a topic they would be interested in, making as many concessions or trade-offs as they could to rouse interest.  I have never seen students do anything like this before, but this is a class that takes care of those in it.

Finally, after watching for a while, I looked at the two students and said, “I have a question.  Is there any theme that would make you happy?  Because if not, we should just move on. But if there is, you need to let us know.”  I didn’t say it rudely, condescendingly, or critically.  It was said as simply and kindly as I could.  Sometimes our students need to be asked hard, truthful questions.

They thought about it and came to the conclusion there wasn’t.  So we needed to move on.  This was the idea that the class had painstakingly cobbled together and was excited, for the most part, to bring to fruition.

The two students in question are at a really painful place in their lives. I get that. I understand why they might not want to have any part of it, and if they do come around, their part might express the anger & pain they feel; that in itself might be healing & life-giving.

Not all of your students need to buy-in for inquiry to be successful.  And it is entirely possible that these two students will catch the vision and excitement from their peers.  Throughout the process they will continually be invited into what is going on, to wonder how their story fits, or to help others express theirs.

I think one of the skills our students need to learn is how to learn.  Another is learning it’s not okay to stop the learning and excitement of others because you’re not happy, but instead learning how to interact and be with others during this process.

While in a traditional classroom you might be able to ignore these problems, in an inquiry classroom you can’t.  They become part of the fabric you work with, something you need to thoughtfully and sensitively respond to.  That’s what makes inquiry both incredibly difficult and life-giving.

photo courtesy of cc flickr: N.MAKCNM

About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. Furthermore, I am Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member
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1 Response to The Truth about Inquiry

  1. hzugman says:

    As with all your posts so far, the discussion(s) in your classroom about his project sound very interesting and carry some importance outside of your classroom. With regard to the works of art portion of the discussion, I suggest that for non-live viewing of items of art throughout the world that you consider using the Google Art Project ( as a resource. I continue to be fascinated by your approach to education. Please keep up the fine work.

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