Inquiry-based Instruction, Here I Come

Last week, I referred to Dan Meyer’s talk “Math Class Needs a Makeover,” and I mentioned how I was rethinking my government course as a result of some of what he said in that talk. I’ve never been particularly happy with my government curriculum, but while I’ve tweaked things here and there, I’ve never really done a complete overhaul, and by the middle of the term, I often fall back on old ways of doing things. Until now. Yep, I finally decided that, if I was going to make a major change, now was the time to do it. Going 1:1 is going to allow me a lot of flexibility this year in how I tackle my government course, and I might as well take advantage of it.

Putting it succinctly, I’m redesigning the curriculum away from an information-based curriculum with me as the disseminator of that information towards an inquiry-based curriculum with the students asking and answering the questions. If school continues to be primarily about disseminating information, it will eventually become irrelevant. Our students no longer live in a world where they have to go to school to get information; it’s all around them. And guess what? Students are well aware of this. The problem for our students is figuring out how to process that information, how to ask questions of that information, how to find out what’s relevant and valid information, and what to do with that information once they’ve got it.

Before I go any further, let me be clear about something. I’m not suggesting students no longer need direct instruction (usually in the form of a lecture) from time to time, and I’m not suggesting there isn’t information that students need to have in their brains (i.e. memorized) rather than in their computers. This will become clear, I think, as I explain how I’m redesigning things, but just in case there’s any misunderstanding, I wanted to lay this out from the get-go.

Government is a difficult course for me because I’m first and foremost a history teacher and was trained as such. Therefore, I still am using my government textbook as a guide to how to chunk up my units of study. Each unit of study will begin and end with a complex, overarching question that forces students to grapple with information and solve problems.* For instance, my first unit is always on the foundations of American government.** This year, I’m starting the unit off with a quotation from Winston Churchill. “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Then, I’m asking students this question: To what extent is democracy the best form of government? The whole unit then becomes about understanding this question, finding information to answer this question, and communicating an effective argument in response to this question. And notice that the question asks about extent, meaning it’s not a black-and-white, yes-or-no question.

Like any complex question, to effectively respond, the original question must be broken down into smaller questions. The students, as opposed to me, will be responsible for doing this. My job is to steer them in the right direction should they go too far off course. Some of the subsidiary questions might include the following:

  • What is a government, a state, and a nation? How are they alike, and how are they different?
  • Where does government come from?
  • What kinds of government exist?
  • Historically, what problems does each kind of government have to solve?
  • What are the benefits to each kind of government?

This part is going to be messy and uncomfortable because students aren’t going to come up with these questions as neatly and organized as I’ve just done. They may veer off course, but they may also come up with some important questions of which I’ve not thought. But again, it’s important that the students learn how to ask meaningful questions.

Once the subsidiary questions have been asked, it’s time to give students the chance to gather information that might be useful and relevant to answering these smaller questions and the larger question with which we started. The difficulty is not to answer the questions myself but to let the students mull over the information independently, stepping in and providing guidance only when necessary. Some activities I have planned include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Lecture over foundations of government to provide grounding in vocabulary
  • Hobbes v. Locke activity
  • Primary document analysis of excerpts from de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and The Federalist Papers (particularly #10)
  • Country comparison mini-research activity (one autocracy, one oligarchy, one democracy)

Notice that I still have a lecture in there. Some direct instruction is necessary. Students have to have knowledge of the basic vocabulary and concepts in order to understand the ideas embedded in the questions and communicate their thoughts effectively.

Once we’ve done all these activities, the student must put it all in perspective, relate it back to the original question, and communicate his or her findings. This will take the form of a letter from the student to Winston Churchill, explaining in what ways the student agrees and in what ways he or she disagrees with Churchill’s remark about democracy. The letter will be based on evidence that the student has gathered throughout the unit’s activities. Without going into too much detail here, I will lay out detailed instructions and requirements in the form of a rubric for the students so they know what is expected of them in order to receive a certain grade. The letter will serve as the major assessment for the unit. (FYI – I chose a writing assessment because this is the first unit of the year, and I want to get to know where my students are in terms of their writing abilities. Future units might be assessed using iMovies, podcasts, ePubs, brochures, etc.)

“But,” I hear you saying, “students just need to know what a democracy is as opposed to an oligarchy, for instance. They can’t look up every little thing for the rest of their lives. Some things they just need to know and have in their brains.”

To which I respond, “I am in absolute agreement with you.” But if we are being really honest with ourselves, the amount of information that students need to memorize to be productive, responsible, educated citizens is probably a lot smaller than a traditional information-based curriculum would have us believe. Just think for a moment about all the information in all the courses you took in high school that you had to memorize (and have since forgotten) that you really didn’t need to know to be an intelligent, productive member of society. Furthermore, I will still have my students take objective quizzes throughout the semester on information related to the basic concepts and vocabulary of government. Obviously, this is the stuff that students will need to put in their brains rather than on their computers, and this is the stuff that students need to “just know” in order to understand a newspaper article or participate intelligently in a conversation with a colleague in the future. However, it is true, the amount of this kind of information to be memorized is considerably less than I’ve required in the past. Finally, I would argue that students will learn just as much if not more from this kind of instruction and curriculum than they would from a traditional one. Just because I’m not asking students to memorize the information for a traditional test does not mean they won’t learn it along the way as a result of the activities we are doing in the classroom.

*Other questions for future units include the following: Is Congress an effective branch of government? Is the modern presidency too powerful? Should the Courts seek the original meaning of the U.S. Constitution?

**Here’s a graphic layout of my current thinking about my first unit of the year. Ideas for Unit 1



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