Have you ever been on a long car trip with an impatient driver? He's only thinking about the destination, and wants to end the trip as soon as possible. He resents it if people ask to stop, is irritated by excess traffic, and complains about the highway conditions, the cleanliness of the car, and the fact that they should have left two hours earlier, as he suggested.
With a broad set of curricular standards, it's easy for teachers to become like an impatient driver on a long trip. There are billboards (benchmarks) and mile markers (units) along the way, and a lot of traffic (educators) moving in the same direction that can make teachers anxious about arriving at the intended destination on time.
With inquiry, it's inherently inefficient. Students aren't climbing into optimized vehicles with perfect road conditions; they're heading toward a point of interest, and this can involve some wandering, some stumbling, and some backtracking. In our travel analogy, inquiry is like when you see a sign that says "Come See the World's Biggest Doughnut," and the driver says, "That sounds fascinating! Let's go check it out!"
As the driver takes the exit to see the world's biggest doughnut, someone in the car hops out to look at an unusual tree before they get to the doughnut. The driver continues on, knowing they'll meet up with her later. When they arrive at the point of interest, the travelers have more questions: How was it made? How could I make a bigger or better one? What about the biggest cupcake? Are bigger things necessarily better or more interesting? What is the doughnut's purpose? Could the resources used to make this doughnut have been spent in a more meaningful way? How do you put a value on something that inspires curiosity and wonder? What are other roadside attractions? What if there were a museum of unusual pastries?
The travelers talk about these things for a while and take plenty of pictures. Some of their questions are left hanging and some are pursued. The tree investigator arrives, updates them about her discoveries, and offers thoughts about the doughnut. Eventually, they get in the car and travel on.
When travelers look back on the journey, they don't take pictures of the highway or the billboards or the mile markers; these aren't memorable or inspiring. The driver might remember if the journey took less time than usual, but the rushed passengers will just remember a blur of roads.
Everyone remembers a giant doughnut.
We need to acknowledge that we have a finite amount of gas and daylight - and curricular minutes. We won't be able to stop at every exit, because we do, after all, have places to go.
However, we also have unexpected places to stop - and these places often lead us down the richest paths, if we let them. A continuing challenge for educators is to plan inquiry "detours" - side trips that are open to possibilities and interesting because they are not already scripted and plotted. These trips are created by the travelers, and agency is infinitely more powerful than plodding toward the inevitable.
An education that includes inquiry invites students to build, to collaborate, and to wonder. These are messy endeavors - prototypes get destroyed, disagreements arise, and some questions seem unanswerable. The pursuit of inquiry is difficult to measure, but we can't avoid all the unfamiliar roads we encounter because we aren't sure how long or bumpy they are. If we do, we will likely be reasonably safe and predictable - but we will not be surprised or inspired.
We want to prepare students for the future, and to that end, many people work long hours determining what concepts and skills students should learn, and at what age, and in what order. This is difficult work.
We also recognize, of course, that we live in the present, and our humanity craves wonder and meaning and autonomy. It is unreasonable to expect our students to spend a decade learning only what they are told to learn so that they can increase their chances of happiness in adulthood. Students deserve to be excited about learning experiences while they are happening. That excitement is much rarer if the teacher refuses to take a less-traveled road.
With a strong set of skills - interpersonal, problem-solving, communication, analysis and reflection - and multiple experiences with a variety of topics, students can travel anywhere. If they get lost, that will be okay, because they will have the tools to orient themselves, including the wisdom to pursue new paths.
Inquiry demands some discomfort and uncertainty. It requires reflection and inefficiency. It asks us to evaluate priorities:
"The years are going to pass, anyway. You can either rush through them at a harried pace, or you can spend them getting to know who you are and what you want out of life so your time can be used accordingly."
In the end, it's not really about a doughnut, but about recognizing delicious moments, and refusing to rush past them. Inquiry will take you places.
Image credits: Pixabay
I've had the privilege of working with hundreds of students and families in IA, CT, NC, MO, TX, and Canada.