Inquiry Based Learning: A Lesson in Letting Go

Inquiry Based Learning

inquiry based learningThe most recent cover story of WIRED magazine, Free Thinkers, featured a quote that speaks volumes.  “The bottom line is, if you’re not the one controlling your learning, you’re not going to learn as well.” Simplistic, yet potent.  I’ve often presented on the power of inquiry based learning and student-centered classrooms, but the story of 12-year old Paloma Noyola Bueno is the most compelling example I’ve come across.  The article tells of her life in Matamoros, Mexico, a bordertown plagued by violence, extreme poverty, and despair.  Paloma and her classmates learn in a cement-walled classroom located next to a mound of rotting trash.  As the article cites, “some people here call the school un lugar de castigo– ‘ a place of punishment.” In the past, while Paloma did her best in school and things actually came quite easily to her, she had no interest in learning or studying.

Yet, despite this grim setting, the children of Matamoros began flourishing last school year.  Thanks to their teacher, Sergio Juarez Correa, they became the masters of their own learning, searching for answers to questions they’ve posed.  They are researching, solving problems, working together, and most importantly, building their knowledge through inquiry based learning.

Last year, after stumbling across the work of Indian scientist and eduacator Sugata Mitra, Correa was inspired to restructure his entire instructional model.  Mitra found that children living in the slums of southern India could teach themselves an astounding amount of information when left with computers loaded with educational software.  No training.  No teachers.  Just trial and error and a thirst for knowledge.

Click here to read more about Mitra’s current project as the 2013 Ted Prize Winner, School in the Cloud.

With lessons learned from Mitra, Correa let go of the reigns and allowed his students to take control of their own learning. He encouraged them to work together to solve problems, to debate controversial issues, to ask big questions.  Within this environment, Paloma and her classmates thrived.  They were excited to learn.  They craved knowledge.  They began to view themselves as future doctors, politicians, and scientists.

At this point, you may ask yourself, this is all well and good, but did they actually learn anything useful, anything quantifiable?  Would there be evidence of learning on national achievement exams? The answer is an overwhelming yes.

Not only did theyimprove, they grew by leaps and bounds.  The class went from a 55% passing rate in math to 93%.  69% in Spanish to a 97%. And then there was Paloma, who scored 921 in math, the highest in the entire country.  WIRED contends that Paloma could be the next Steve Jobs. Who knows what her future holds, now that her potential has been unlocked.

To read more about Paloma, click here to access the WIRED article.

Despite this overwhelming success, this story of achievement has done little to change the way schools are organized in Mexico.  Many are still teacher-driven, “sit and get” institutions.  As an educator, I challenge you to reflect on how your classroom is structured. What’s more important: teaching the material or student learning?  Whose questions are valued– teacher or student?  Are you brave enough to take the leap, like Correa, and restructure the four walls of your own classrooms?

As teachers, we intrinsically know that student learning is the fundamental reason for our calling.  We just may need a little encouragement from a very brave teacher in Mexico, who let us know that it’s okay to give up some control. It’s okay to let the kids take charge of their own learning. To let true inquiry lead the way.

“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”

-Albert Einstein

Brain-Buster: Paloma solved this problem in just a few minutes.  Can you?

“What is the sum if you add every number between 1 and 100?” 

Persistence pays off….Click the article link and read the Free Thinkers by Joshua Davis for the answer!

Watch the free on-demand webinar presented by Jessica Bianculli, Inquiry Approach and the Common Core. 


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