Building the Inquiryweb-a way to bring questions to the center of the classroom
Throughout last semester, I truly enjoyed reading Brian Frank and Mylene discuss their approaches to teaching full on inquiry based science classes. Unlike the small forays my classes make into inquiry, Brian and Mylene embrace inquiry as an almost extended science safari, with very little initial idea of where it might take the class. Students drive the class with their questions and investigations.
Some of the more inspiring posts I’ve read from their blogs include:
From Shifting Phases
- Inquiry: the birth of a model
- Inquiry: Nuts and Bolts (or, how data analysis can create community)
- Baby Steps to Inquiry
From Teach Brian Teach
- Color Theories and Assessing Ideas
- The benefit of not knowing
- Inquiry Group Exams
- Inquiry into Inquiry
As I think of it, short of a true research class for advanced undergraduates, Brian and Mylene’s inquiry classes are mimicking the modern research group, where a community of scientists (at many different levels of experience and understanding) set out to investigate a particular phenomenon (light or electricity) and then work together to devise the questions, experiments and models they will use to increase their understanding of this topic.
I find these courses fascinating. The one year I did try this, devoting a full year to teaching only a couple of units in Physics by Inquiry, I found great value in what we were doing, but was somewhat disappointed by the lack of transfer to other skills, and of course, was a bit embarrassed to admit to other physics teachers I’d spent an entire year studying balancing, sinking/floating, and Newton’s laws.
Another time when I told myself we’d devote more class time to students answering their own questions, I had every student write down a question they had about science on a piece of paper, and I then typed those up and put them on a bulletin board with the intention of regularly revisiting the board to think of ways we could answer these questions, but my good intentions got lost in the grind of trying to work through 20 chapters of the textbook. All I ended up doing was some “project” in the spring semester where students had to write short papers answering their own questions.
But I would love to get back bringing inquiry fully into my classroom. At the same time, Brian Frank’s recent visit to my class has left me wanting to do much more to honor student questions in our classroom, and help students to see how they are central to our understanding.
That’s when I started thinking about how one could really keep track of all the questions that pop un in class discussion in a way that would encourage students to revisit them and devise ways to answer them on their own.
Then Mylene wrote this post:Inquiry: keeping track of who’s curious about what, which got me thinking and led to me writing this comment, which I want to elaborate on here.
Mylene presents the great idea that she often finds herself acting as the class secretary, recording the questions and ideas raised in class discussions, and tracking them in an excel spreadsheet. I like this idea, because I too often find myself over-interjecting myself into conversation, and it would often be far more productive for me to focus on writing down the key points of the conversation rather than jumping on every misconception that gets presented.
Then, as I often do, I thought how could technology enhance this, and then I thought of Inquiryweb, an application that would simplify the process of tracking and following up on student generation questions and at the same time help students to see the links between individual questions and develop a better picture of the complete framework of understanding the class is constructing.
Inquiryweb—an app to see the manage the process of authentic science inquiry in the classroom
Here’s what I envision. Inquiryweb is a web-based application that at its most basic level, keeps track of questions asked in class. Questions can be categorized with tags,and linked to other questions as possible follow ups. Inquiryweb would also track who asked the question and tracks questions by date. In addition to questions, the program would allow you to track observations—any student could add an observation, and categorize it with tags. Observations could be as simple as “I noticed that I have to keep pushing on the desk to keep it moving,” or more complex—a collection of data and graphs. The application would also keep track of answers, in the form of explanations and models, which could bring together multiple observations and evidence. The application should allow for photos, videos, and web resources to easily be added via web link. Finally, the application should allow students to vote of questions, observation and answers so that the most important questions are voted up for greater class attention. As answers get voted up on a particular question, it should also be possible for the class to decide a question is has been sufficiently answered to be marked as closed.
This application would always be accessible to students as a sort of classroom encyclopedia, searchable by date, topic, author or question status, and browse-able as a knowledge map. As long as I’m writing out the design doc for the crack software design team in my head, I’d love for an tablet/smartphone version to allow the capture of questions and evidence from the field, a screensaver mode to simply cycle through questions and bits of evidence on the smartboard when it is idle, and a notetaking mode that would make is quick and easy to generate questions and evidence from my a set of typewritten notes.
So what do you think? I’ve got to say I’m in love with the idea primarily because it fits with my weakness for thinking that there’s a technological answer to every problem, and some overly romantic ideas of wanting to spend my free time as running the next great education startup. In reality, I have nowhere near the skill necessary to pull something like this off.
This makes me wish that somehow teachers everywhere had access to great coders who could build custom apps like this on demand, which is why I think every school IT department should employ at least one individual who has at least a decent knowledge of how to write software (a fantasy, I know). Education Hack Day, a very cool collaboration between teachers and coders in Baltimore is a very cool step in this direction. It would be better if there were enough students studying computer science in schools to serve an in-house design team for projects like this. It would be best of all if everyone, including teachers, had the understanding and software development were at a stage to make something like this easy to do.
I’d love to know what you think of this idea. I’ve worked my way through two lessons on Django, a very interesting web-framwork for designing apps that seems to make all the PHP I had been playing with seem clunky, and with enough encouragement and help, I may try to make this brainstorm a reality.