In a story last year about Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap, they quote him as saying, "The culture of schooling as we know it is radically at odds with the culture of learning that produces innovators." We can tell you the kinds of environments where we know kids are excited, enthusiastic, and open to inquiry and discovery - it happens naturally for young children almost anytime they are given a little freedom to explore, experiment, and create. However, the structures we set up in school, many ingrained in us from preservice texts, and even before (anticipatory set anyone?), often have schools doing things that take away those very opportunities.
How do I use this in my classroom?
A couple of years ago, I started to simply turn my social studies lessons upside down so we could practice inquiry. My 8th graders had not had much practice. At the beginning of a lesson, I'd show them something - usually a picture, a piece of art, an article, a short video, an illustrated map - something. I'd tell them what it was, as in naming it, and maybe giving it a little context, and then they had 5 minutes to write down all of the questions they had about it. Initially, this was a difficult exercise for them - they would not have many questions. When we talked about some of their questions, sometimes another student would shout an answer, even though none was obvious. There was one boy who I knew was very sharp, but routinely would only write down about 3 questions. After the 3rd time we did it, I asked him why he had so few questions in 5 minutes. He said he didn't want to write down very many because he was just waiting for me to assign an essay paper on all of them if he had a bunch! What an eye opener for me! Apparently, without any ill-intent to squash inquiry, I had done just that!
Depending on the unit we are studying, the students share their favorite questions (according to them) in a Google spreadsheet. We collect questions here over the course of a unit. At some point, students decide which one (or more) they really want to pursue, and we make an initial plan of attack. At varying points, through reflective journaling, concept maps, and more questioning, they continue to plot and re-plot their plans as their studies unfold.
I've continued to use, refine, adapt, and modify this process ever since, and I have to say, by the end of the year - even mid-year - my students are extremely good at asking questions. They also learn to categorize questions. Level one questions are those to which it will be relatively easy to find an answer - a couple of Google searches. Level 2 questions are a little more complex - there is an answer, but it will require some further research in order to get more context and bring together a variety of sources. Level 3 questions don't lend themselves to just one answer, or to easy answers. They are questions that often people have opinions about, rather than answers.
By learning to get comfortable with questioning, and then with analyzing their inquiry, this makes approaching their discovery process a lot easier to tackle.
Have I quit assigning essays? No! However, instead of saying at the beginning that everyone will write one, I now wait and see where their inquiry goes. If they are culminating in something that really lends itself to an essay, I'll suggest it, and they very often can see the sense in presenting their findings this way by that stage. But I'm also open to other ideas for presenting. Teaching this way has the added benefit of being much more interesting for me - it's common during an initial inquiry session that I get as much into the questioning and discussion as they do!