Archived — Inquiring Minds Want to Know

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Curiosity is a natural human trait, but pursuing something because you are curious is not the same thing as carrying out an academic inquiry. A perennial challenge in education is connecting students' own experiences and the things that puzzle them to the subjects they are studying.

Consider a vintage math problem. A man steps out the door and sees the bus pulling away from the stop in front of his house accelerating at a given rate. He begins to run towards the bus at a certain velocity. Does he catch the bus?

This type of problem tests students' ability to translate a description in ordinary language into a mathematical equation. But does anyone running to catch a bus ever think of it this way.

Our schools are very good at giving students questions that have predefined answers, says Shirley Turner, but not so good at teaching them to connect the questions that come up in their lives with what they are learning. Students need to learn how to ask questions they don't know how to answer yet and then learn how and where to begin looking for answers.

Some teachers inspire students to ask questions by setting a project that requires them to do sustained work towards complex goal. Rather than attacking a series of set problems, Dan Buchanan's students take on a big project or inquiry—a project that they have to break down into individual questions to ask and answer. With his guidance, they create elaborate websites that describe imaginary voyages across the country as if they were real.

In contrast, Jean-Pierre Frigon's approach to the history curriculum is to have his students interview real people who lived through real-life events, the Second World War in particular. "If you really want to understand the significance of events that changed the world," he says, "you need to study the people who lived through them."

Marrying inquiry and curriculum objectives is also key for Steven Van Zoost. He developed an approach to inquiry that gives students plenty of background to work from and encourages them to go out and pursue individual questions. He then works with them to find a way to make those inquiries fit into the curriculum objectives so they can satisfy their curiosity and learn the skills they need to graduate.

All of these teachers prepare students for a lifetime of questioning and investigating. No matter where they go, these students will be equipped to be independent learners.

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