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 Perspectives​​: Learning to Question and Questioning to Learn

“Making and burning moonshine!” was what I overheard my conservation class telling the principal when he asked what they were working on. His interest was definitely piqued—the same as the students’ had been all week as we conducted experiments and read articles about ethanol and other types of alternative energy sources. 

Challenging students to think through problems, question what they are learning, and being a source of knowledge are the keys to inquiry-based learning, a method of teaching that will unlock the potential of your students and revolutionize your classroom.

Inquiry-based learning is the teaching method and philosophy I learned as a part of the National Agriscience Teacher Ambassador Academy (NATAA). This method changed not only the content of my curriculum, but also how I was teaching. By questioning my students and challenging them to think instead of standing in front of the classroom doing all of the talking, I have had fewer discipline problems and more students who are engaged throughout the class period.

The method begins before the bell rings with a writing prompt. This is a great way to introduce new subjects and determine the prior knowledge of students. The ethanol lesson began with an “empty your brain” prompt, where students brainstormed as many topics associated with the word “energy” as they could. Using a broad term allows students who may have no prior knowledge of ethanol to contribute because everyone knows something about energy. The exercise also establishes the inquiry portion because I challenge some the students to provide evidence as to why certain words fit, like “plants” or “electricity.” It can take some practice, but if you stick with it, the questions become easier. 

I started these prompts with my conservation class, where I felt the most comfortable with this method, but I soon found this was the way to get every class started in order to keep the students engaged throughout the lesson. Another advantage to using prompts is that they help build writing skills. The answers don’t have to be graded for grammar or punctuation, but it is a way to help students see that the ability to write is important, no matter what their intended career path may be.

The remainder of my inquiry-based learning was very hard to learn, both as a “student” at NATAA and then as a teacher in my classroom. The key is to assist your students in a way that encourages them to discover the answer. For example, when my ethanol/biofuel unit begins, the students construct various molecules in the combustion process: oxygen, water, ethanol, kerosene and carbon dioxide. For many of them, they have not had chemistry, so I do a short lesson on which elements bond and the number of bonds they can have. Teaching these science principals in the agriculture classroom is important to show students that science – just like writing and math – is important in many disciplines, including agriculture. When students go to make an oxygen molecule (O2), they are often confused as to how to double bond the atoms. Instead of just showing them, I keep asking them questions. This answering-a-question-with-a-question method goes back and forth, eventually leading the students to the correct solution. 

This method takes practice and requires continuous effort, but it does get easier for both the teacher and the student. There are times when the students get really frustrated and just want the answer, but this is when they are closest to learning the information!  As the teacher, you have to figure out how far you can push your students—when to give them an answer and when to keep questioning.
  

Many times, I have heard students comment that science makes more sense when they perform the agriculture exercises instead of just an abstract experiment in the science lab. They understand corn syrup versus table sugar, two of the sources for making ethanol. When they witnessed the table sugar making much more ethanol, they wanted to know why and why we produce ethanol out of corn instead of most of it coming from sugar cane. Now we have moved from a classroom activity to real world issues that they have evidence to debate and a curiosity to explore to find the answers to their questions.

Even though I started using this inquiry-based learning method with biofuels, I have found that teaching poultry reasons, beef reproduction, greenhouse fertilizer calculations, or even agricultural mechanics with this method works best in my classroom. This method has gone from being a method I learned at a conference to my way of teaching and viewing my students. Agricultural education must prepare students to think. Many of the lessons we teach may not be what our students go on to do in their careers, but the thinking skills we can help them develop will assist them throughout their lives. 

Whether you are making “moonshine” or just need a way to get your students to think more about the subject, try inquiry-based learning and make your classroom a place where true learning occurs.