Reflections on being a student

Scenario: An instructor at a professional development conference provides each table with a jar full of buttons and a slip of paper with instructions. This is an exercise designed to illustrate a number of things: That inquiry-based learning can be used to draw out our students’ uniqueness (obviously each group is going to come up with something different); that this type of learning can come in many forms (every group has a slightly different task — some are more open-ended than others); that inquiry-based learning requires students to wonder.

It’s a fine exercise. We decide that we’re going to make a flower. Someone makes an abstract bee out of black and yellow buttons; another uses white buttons to form a cloud. Still, I’m annoyed that I have to “wonder” about what I can do with all of the buttons. I’m surrounded by 20 other education professionals from around Europe, and I’d rather spend this time sharing resources and strategies with them in a coffee-fueled brainstorming session.

During the “whole-class reflection,” the instructor references one session in which a group of teachers left the buttons in their jar and didn’t bother making anything. “What does this tell us about those students?” she asks.

The correct answer is that these students clearly lacked curiosity. Another answer, though, is that it’s really okay to not want to “wonder” about buttons; it’s possible that these seemingly lazy conference participants were simply braver than the rest of us who chose to dutifully play along.

My takeaway: Sometimes students genuinely need intellectual curiosity, and we need to find ways to teach this. However, sometimes inquiry-based learning doesn’t work as well as we’d like it to because our questions aren’t meaningful for our students.

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