For my fourth summer, I spent the last six weeks teaching with Kentucky’s Governor’s Scholars Program. I’ve written about my past summers in previous posts. (“Practicing Citizenship,” “Acting Like a Citizen,” “Being C3Minded…”). What makes this program special for a teacher is that it is a highly competitive academic program, but once accepted, the scholars and I are not beholden to grades. We are given the freedom to explore topics without the burden, and corresponding, pressures of maintaining one’s GPA or passing an exam.

This summer, one of my classes explored the compelling question: are we progressing? Using the Question Formulation Technique, students generated a list of questions. [See the Staging of this Inquiry for a walkthrough of this process]. This led to a thorough deconstruction of what questions should be asked concerning progress, including the metric one uses.

We next explored different philosophical perspectives concerning humanity’s progress. They read all the big names – Socrates, Nietzsche, Hegel, to name a few. They read and listened to portions of Also Sprach Zarathustra, followed by watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, which made them reconsider whether or not they wanted to use their iPhone’s Siri function…

Then, I screwed up. You see, our teaching is supposed to be very responsive to the needs of the students. Though I always begin the summer with an outline of questions, sources, and complimentary tasks, I know that I will adjust as I go along, so as to better serve my group of kids. My mistake came from losing sight of the principles of inquiry. I tried to put our class all in their hands. I thought, “these are highly capable kids. Let’s see what they do with this responsibility.” They are highly capable kids, but by giving them as much freedom as I did– “you want to learn more about that? Go do it!”—I didn’t give them the structures needed to explore the topic. I took for granted the pivotal role that teachers play in helping students construct knowledge—we are teaching them how to learn.

I did give them sources to read, but didn’t spend enough time reflecting on the best questions or tasks to pair with them to help unwrap their chosen topic. Essentially, I asked them to perform a document analysis, but expected an inquiry.

It reminds me of an analogy I heard made by Kathy Swan. Kentucky’s Department of Education slogan is “Unbridled Learning,” but as Dr. Swan noted in a keynote at the Kentucky Council for Social Studies conference, we should bridle learning. This isn’t meant to limit the educative endeavors of our students, but rather that teachers must guide students towards answering the big gnawing questions that they face – our expertise and guidance is what gets them to the finish line.

Inquiry-based learning, especially when framed with the IDM, is the bridle that helps students stay on course. The IDM structure helps to show the ways in which the three essential elements of inquiry—questions, tasks, and sources—work with each other. For the remainder of the summer, I was much more conscientious as to how these three elements needed to be working together to address the compelling question, while still finding flexibility to be responsive to my students. Thus, re-taking the reins did not mean I became the “sage on the stage,” but rather went back to being an effective “guide on the side.”

See more about questions, sources, and tasks in their recently published book: S.G. Grant, John Lee, and Kathy Swan, Inquiry-Based Practice in Social Studies Education: Understanding the Inquiry Design Model. (New York: Routledge, 2017).