By Jeri Mattics Omernik
“Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.”
One of the things that sets apart career and technical education, in general, and agricultural education, specifically, from other segments of education is the way teachers work to engage students through hands-on application. Simply put, students learn by doing and gain understanding through involvement.
Many agriculture teachers were trained in the problem-solving approach to learning. Today’s hot educational technique – inquiry-based learning – is a close cousin to the problem-solving method and can yield significant results in the agriculture classroom.
With the world’s exponentially expanding knowledge base, educators must understand that they need to teach students more than just existing data. Memorizing facts and information is not the most important skill in today’s world. Yes, there are basic skills in reading, writing, science and math that are fundamental; however, beyond those basics, memorizing data isn’t all that helpful, with the Internet making most information readily available.
Mrs. Kempen, a teacher and FFA Advisor at James Madison High School in San Antonio, Texas, discusses the parts of a plant.
What students need is to develop an understanding of how to get and make sense of the mass of data available. In short, teachers need to nurture inquiring attitudes that will enable their students to continue the quest for knowledge long after they leave the classroom.
So what does inquiry-based learning look like? Imagine observing a classroom where the teacher sets the lesson’s context, then the students pose questions, design experiments, collect data and analyze the data to determine answers. Sound too good to be true?
Donna Parker, a science teacher at Dublin Coffman High School in Dublin, Ohio, has been working with the National FFA Agriscience Ambassadors for the past several years on inquiry-based techniques. She says it takes time and effort to become comfortable implementing these teaching techniques but that the effort pays great dividends.
“I always knew how I wanted to teach, but I never felt satisfied with the cookbook approach I learned in college,” Parker says. “Several years ago, I was fortunate to attend a workshop where guided inquiry was modeled through active learning. An alarm sounded in my head. I knew this was how I wanted to teach.”
Parker continues, “Inquiry-based learning requires a different approach to classroom management than many of us are taught in our college methods courses, so we have to get out of our comfort zones to try these techniques.”
Young people are naturally curious, but many of today’s teaching methods don’t build on that natural curiosity. If teachers relied solely on “chalk and talk” or “read the book, answer the questions” teaching methods, they may stifle their students’ curiosity. Educators need to implement a variety of teaching methods – exploring, lecturing, labs, activities, big groups, small groups, individual work, etc. Using a balanced approach will ensure that a variety of learning styles are addressed and will encourage students to use that natural curiosity.
Teachers who attempt to engage their students through inquiry-based approaches need to be aware that they will often have to overcome the barriers placed by the “listen and regurgitate” habits students have developed. Even our best students may resist at first because they don’t have the comfort of knowing “what’s going to be on the test.”
So what is inquiry?
The term “inquiry” is defined as “a seeking for truth, information or knowledge; seeking information by questioning.” Humans carry on the process of inquiry from the time we are born until we die. This is true even though we might not – in fact, we usually don’t - reflect upon the process.
One of the best questions to use in an inquiry-based lesson is the simple word, “WHY.” These three letters take the learner from a passive storage bank, holding information solely for the purpose of accessing at a later time for use on a test, to an analyzer of data. The mere step of taking that question from the end of the information delivery to the start of the process engages students even more. Instead of presenting the information and then asking why, ask why before you present the information. This is a simple step you can use with your existing lessons and labs, easily converting what you already have into excellent guided inquiry activities where students are prompted to explain why and defend their decisions based on evidence they acquire.
When students formulate questions and then attempt to answer those questions based upon their current knowledge, they have ownership of the information. As they are presented with more information, either through experimentation or through discussion, they are actively applying that information to the questions and answers they formulated at the start. Everyone wants to prove themselves right. The interest generated by this process not only increases their understanding, but it also greatly increases the connections created in the brain to that knowledge. It is these connections that enable the students to recall knowledge and apply it at a later time. This increase in learner engagement and the increased understanding and retention of the knowledge is what makes inquiry-based learning so valuable.
To learn more about inquiry-based learning, take a look at the resources below or, better yet, become engaged in the process by applying for the Agriscience Teacher Ambassador program. Applications are online now at the Educators Workroom page. Look for the Ambassador application.
• Click here for a good explanation of inquiry-based learning, along with sample facilitation plans and videos of the techniques in action.
• Visit the Exploratorium for additional information and ideas.