Inquiry-Driven Learning in Science

How are The White Mountain School’s teachers investing in inquiry learning this school year? At last week’s full faculty meeting, the science and sustainability studies teachers presented their work in building more student-directed inquiry learning into their classrooms, work that they hope will help prepare students to do major projects in authentic inquiry throughout their time at WMS.
Department Chair Gabe Boisseau said, “We had been favoring secondary research, looking at the research that others had already done, but now we’re moving towards supporting primary research.” Gabe indicated that some of the most notable challenges for students seem to be learning to slow down, learning that failure is a part of the scientific process, and learning how to structure their work to fit the time allotted for the course.

Chemistry and physics teacher, Renee Blacken talked about the challenge of engaging all of her sections of students in independent inquiry work at the same time. She worked hard to help them develop sound questions and build experiments around their ideas. Despite the extra work that it took to engage her students in this kind of learning, she found that in general students were really excited about it. The ones who found “success” with their experiments were even more excited. Renee said, “One student even decided to turn her inquiry project into her LASR project for the following school year.” She added, “They learned how to back up their research, and well. I looked into their bibliographies. I read into their sources. Some of them were surprised to see me follow up on their work like that, but it is good for them to learn to expect that.”

Biology and sustainability studies teacher, Lizzie Aldrich pointed to her efforts to remove some of the “cookie cutter” lab framework that she had been used to using. “We slowed down and asked students to think about what they were doing more.” Lizzie also added that her work this year has contributed to how she thinks about curriculum planning for inquiry learning across all of the school’s departments, and how our increased expectations for student work may influence students more broadly.

Gabe noted that they were all still working and talking about certain content standards and how the school’s class schedule can make work in inquiry learning challenging. But he also seemed proud of the time they were giving students to revise, not just their writing, but also the scientific process. Instead of starting a lab with a set of prescribed steps that would ultimately lead all students to the same answer, he asked them, “How can we collect data to support or disprove this statement?” This method has students thinking critically about the goals of their research and how they might create a more original means of finding answers. It is work that will help students when they are building their own LASR projects later on.

Thank you to the Science and Sustainability Studies Departments for sharing their work with students with the larger faculty group.

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