As much as I love all my students, when I became a teacher, I quickly learned some of the necessary boundaries of that trust. It’s a “trust, but verify” approach. I want to see evidence that they mean what they say. Once a dog ate a student’s assignment and she brought in the remnants as proof. Whether it was true or not, I appreciated the commitment.
For major assignments submitted electronically, I started to write explicitly in the instructions that students better plan accordingly as I anticipated major internet outages at exactly the moment the assignment was due, striking only my students’ homes. It seemed to happen every time! What are the chances?!?
One area in which I still struggle concerning trusting my students relates to classroom instruction. I have always been highly organized – my lessons are well-blocked out, with an understanding of necessary pacing so that we cover the required material. Teaching history content is a zero sum game and I always want to get as close to the present as possible.
Exercising tight control over the classroom may make for efficient instruction, but it limits student engagement. It also communicates a lack of trust in their ability to propel learning. (And subsequently, this made my pedagogy more reflective of a benevolent dictatorship than a democracy). Integrating inquiry into one’s classroom can be quite a paradigm shift as it repositions the teacher as facilitator and not the sole purveyor of knowledge. Though direct instruction has its place, it doesn’t provide the space for students to grapple with questions, like those posited in inquiries.
One of the elements of teaching with inquiry is the importance of trust. S.G. Grant (2013), one of the writers of the C3 Framework, says trust matters:
“The Inquiry Arc reflects a level of trust between teachers and students that is not part of the traditional pattern of schooling. Good teachers know that students will blunder sometimes as they embrace the greater responsibilities an inquiry approach demands, but they also know that students will not become the kinds of life-long learners that we desire if they are not trusted to take an active role in their own education” (p. 351)
Students will make mistakes. They will go down rabbit holes teachers don’t anticipate. They will take more (or less) time on an exercise than anticipated. That may not be efficient teaching, but it is a more authentic way of learning.
This teacher-student trust is only one element of inquiry, but a necessary one. As Grant says, it challenges traditional modes of learning, but also communicates respect towards students’ abilities. It gives them the space to make mistakes, veer off course, and learn from that process.
One of my first blog posts for C3Teachers was a description of implementing my first inquiry. I was one of the teachers who piloted inquiries created with Library of Congress sources. At that time, I was not very familiar with inquiry learning beyond superficial generalities. I remember talking to John Lee, one of the authors of the C3 Framework about my reservations. Though not articulated as such, I did not trust my students to engage with the exercises in a meaningful way. These were not my most well-behaved classes and, as a US History course, I felt the pressure of content coverage. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Students were enthusiastically engaged in the content. Across the board, I saw application of content and themes in subsequent assignments, as they remembered not only the details of that inquiry (on Pearl Harbor), but also thought critically about the larger concepts emphasized, notably source analysis.
I hesitated trusting my students, but it ultimately paid off – we addressed important content and had more meaningful opportunities to apply disciplinary skills. My first foray into teaching with inquiry verified both students’ willingness and ability to take on more responsibility for their education.