18 November 2010

Inquiry Based Learning and the Inquisition.

I've been in public education long enough to know that everything old will be new again. Once you've been in public schools for about 5 years, you've seen and heard about pretty much every educational innovation as long as you've managed to stay awake during inservices.

In the last inservice that my school hosted, we talked about inquiry based learning. To be honest, I didn't go, because I was recovering from riding on a bus with a marching band for 10 hours. If you're not familiar with Inquiry Based Learning, here's a brief synopsis.

For those of you too lazy to read through that fine website from some company who wants to sell you some thing, I'll summarize:

Advocates of Inquiry Based Learning say that by letting students investigate topics which are somewhat open, on their own. The theory goes that students investigating topics they like, and drawing their own conclusions are more engaged and are building more durable knowledge.

I don't disagree

I think that Inquiry Based Learning, or IBL as Dr. Dick Johncock would declare it, does all of those things. I even think that those things are important. I believe that a student who can't think critically in society is a far bigger failure than a student who can't pass a crummy standardized test.

So, why am I here, on my soapbox, ready to talk about IBL? Am I going to sing it's praises? Will this be the first positive post in the history of the BlazeBlog? In short; no. I'm on the BlazeBox because I think that IBL is dangerous.

Dangerous? Why?

It's dangerous for the same reason that people going to conferences are dangerous, because some people think that it will be a cure all. It won't be. And if schools force teachers to spend more and more time developing and teaching IBL strategies, teachers will spend less time on traditional learning strategies. And that would be fine, if the entire goal of schools was to "teach students to learn".

But that's not why schools exist. Indeed, schools exist for several historical reasons. Now, since I'm a history teacher, I feel qualified to explain those reasons to you.

Originally, public schools were financed in the Northwest Ordinance of 1785. This was because, in a fledgling democracy, the founders were very aware that schools were needed, because an uneducated populous would never work in the world's first modern democracy. If "the people" were to have a serious voice in government, "the people" needed at least to have basic skills so that they could make decisions on their own. So, the government financed some of the first truly "public" schools in the world. At this point, I'm tempted to rail against charter schools again, but that's a post for another day. Instead, I'll jump forward in history about 75 years to the second reason that public schools teach more than "how to learn"

In the mid 19th Century, as waves of immigrants moved into the crowded metropolises of the fledgling United States, the established citizens realized that those immigrants needed to be assimilated into the nation. It became clear that the easiest way to do this would be through their children. So, their children were taught hygiene, and the language, and a common U.S. History. This gave them, and by extension their parents, a common, shared history. This is why History stands still today as a core subject in the state standards of all 50 states. (in fact, U.S. History was the first set of national standards, which set off a fire-storm of controversy at the time)

History and English are taught because it is important that students have a common base of knowledge, so that all citizens are "singing from the same hymnbook," as it were. If we become to married to IBL, and letting students pick their own courses of study, instead of simply presenting some knowledge as non-negotiable, we produce students who are very good at reasoning their way out of a problem. However, they will often be arguing with false facts, and drawing conclusions which are false. Their arguments will make sense, unless you have knowledge of what they're saying; in which case you'll think of them as well-reasoned baboons. 

In short, they'll all be FoxNews anchors.

(See what I did with the last line and the title? I thought it was clever.) 

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