On Thursday I was invited to attend the first ever State College PDS student inquiry conference, which was held at various elementary schools around the District. It is conceptually similar to the annual PDS intern conference, except that it is the students who are presenting the results of their research, based on their personal wonderings.
Here are a few of the ‘wonderings’ of Houserville’s fourth-graders:
· Why do some people believe in mythical beings such as Spiderman?
· Why do marshmallows swell up when they are heated?
· How do we know which religion is true?
· What happens when you breed an aggressive dog with a docile one? Why?
· What does space sound like?
· Why do we exist?
In some cases pursuing the answers to those questions will bring these students a deep understanding of the very concepts that we are trying to ‘teach’ them. Some of these questions could well fuel life-long passions.
A recent study noted that the number of questions that children ask peaks at about age three, and declines steadily from there. One of our PDS alums wondered why that might be, and asked her students. A couple of their responses:
· If I ask too many questions, I’m afraid I will look dumb.
· I’m too busy to ask questions.
It’s hard to imagine that there’s not a relationship between this and another recent study that measured ‘student engagement’ and found that it peaked in kindergarten and went steadily downhill from there. To state the obvious, that can’t be acceptable.
Other studies have discovered that emotion, far from being a distraction, is an essential component of human learning. (It has to mean something.) Yet another recent study has shown that we’re far more likely to remember something that we’ve learned if we think we’re going to need it in the future.
In the words of one 2nd-grader, “if you don’t care about it, why would you do it?”
What if a portion of school time was set aside to allow students to pursue the questions that are most important to them? (Think the Google model.) Not just the ‘gifted’ student, but every student. What would that do to student engagement?
At Easterly Parkway we heard from a class of second-graders whose wonderings lead to research, which lead to proposed actions. One of those actions was a well-written letter to the school board, suggesting that we install solar panels in our schools. As the students explained their research, some of the words that I heard used correctly were anecdotal, paraphrasing and life-experience. I am not making this up.
At the end of the day the teachers shared what they had observed over the course of the day: students brainstorming ways to change the world; students consistently ‘on task’; a sense of community – students asking questions of and supporting one another; students working on things they believe will impact others; the experiential scientific process.
Some of the things they found most inspiring: teachers taking risks, empowered students, conversations with colleagues, student-driven learning.
One of the teachers’ wonderings: How does the Inquiry process connect to what ‘has’ to be taught? My answer: in every way imaginable.
These educators are building something powerful that could have an impact far beyond the boundaries of the State College Area School District.