Jackie Purcell's Journey to Inquiry

There’s a famous line that many people use when they describe teaching. “Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I’ll remember, involve me and I’ll understand.” I’ve always loved that quotation. I’ve tried to base my teaching style on it, like most teacher’s I’ve met or worked with have as well. But it wasn’t until recently that I actually knew what that meant. Or how powerful it can be.

My impression of student knowledge was slightly wrong in the past. I thought that they needed to be taught every step of the way, that they needed to know every possible way of finding the answer and that every answer needed to be reviewed step by step so that they could feel confident about their answers. But often students can figure things out on their own or in groups with minimal help and guidance from the teacher. It seems unreal, yet the results are inspiring.

My name is Jackie Purcell and I teach 6th grade math at Bellamy Middle School in Chicopee, Massachusetts. This is my 5th year as a teacher, and my third year in a row teaching 6th grade mathematics. Our school is in a 75% poverty district with students from all different types of backgrounds. I have two inclusion classrooms with an inclusion-interventionist teacher and two regular education classrooms. I teach core mathematics to those four classes every day at the same time. It has its moments, but for the most part, I love my job.

How Inquiry Based Learning has impacted my teaching style:

In January, I started taking a class on using Inquiry Based Learning to teach mathematics. It was something that I always thought I was using, but the more I learned about it, I realized that I wasn’t doing it at all. Or rather, I was doing it all wrong. It’s not just about asking the right questions to get the students to think what you want them to think. It’s about understanding WHAT they are thinking and WHY. No wonder my kids were losing interest-- I was doing all their thinking for them!

During this class, we read a book titled Taking Action: Implementing Effective Mathematics Teaching Practices (Smith, Steele, Raith, 2017) and throughout the pages, I started to realize how much I was NOT teaching. As a teacher, your first instinct is to help a struggling student. Give them a clue, guide them in the way you solve the problem, et cetera. However, what I learned throughout the journey of this class and this book is that is exactly what we do not want to be doing for our kids.

Inquiry Based Learning is about letting your students take ownership over their own learning and to grow their brain in ways that cannot come from lecturing or constant recitations of skills and facts. It comes from struggling with a situation or topic, working through the material and learning a skill by actually using it to solve a problem. So often, as teachers, we assume we are helping by stopping a student mid-work and helping them get back on track. But when we do that, we interrupt their thinking and try to get them to do it our way and they end up getting lost.
Inquiry Based Learning allows a student to struggle productively and learn from mistakes and progress until they reach a solution to the problem, hence taking ownership of learning that skill without being taught a strategy or formula. Rather, they have created their own strategy just by challenging themselves and finding their own answers.

Taking this class required me to do one of my favorite things: taking risks. I was so intrigued by this style, that, of course, I had to try it for myself. So I literally threw out my lesson plans for the next day and I decided to give it a shot. It was tough, I’ll admit. But I was blown away by how much they could do. I gave them very little information about a topic, asked a couple of questions and the discussions, comments, questions, opinions and interest that unfolded blew me away. They were talking to each other about math and actually seemed interested. Interested in MATH! Eureka! Instead of me guiding them through a lesson, I let them take the reins on said lesson and take it away on their own. And when I asked questions that tested their understanding of that skill, they were right on track. All because I let them challenge themselves and try it on their own. How is it that I hadn’t tried this before?

After that epiphany, I started using Inquiry all the time (even at home with my significant other!). I realized quickly that it gave me amazing insight on what my students were thinking. I was able to get them on their own path to the correct answer. This, of course, was not easy. It took me a while to get used to how it all works. I really had to think about the questions I was asking. I had to think about why I was asking the question and what answers I was looking for. Did I want them to say the answer that I was thinking my head and if so, how can I get them there without asking questions that are too guided. That was my biggest issue. I’m so eager to help and guide in so many ways that sitting back and watching the students struggle is very difficult for me. But that’s what they need. They need to struggle to learn and move forward. They need to learn from their mistakes. One of the points that Taking Action dwells on is that students need to have what they call “productive struggle” which is something that is extremely valuable to them. It gets them thinking about so many different ways to solve a problem and eventually come to a conclusion.

When I first tried inquiry based learning, I saw participation from students who I rarely see participate. When you want them to participate in call and response skills and answers, not many want to offer their answer because they are not confident in it. When it becomes a discussion, students want to weigh in. When you give students the opportunity the agree or disagree about something, they want to share with you. And when you ask them why, they want to share their thinking and how they solved it because they are proud of their accomplishments. Call and response questions don’t affect them as much as open ended ones. They want to participate because it’s just a conversation, it’s just commenting on something that’s already been said or sharing your ideas. And from those ideas, we get even more agreements and disagreements (and disagreements are the most exciting!).

Our job as teachers to really implement an effective inquiry based classroom is solidify the difference between directed guided and probing guidance. We don’t want to damper their thinking process, we want to encourage and embellish it. Directed guidance is when the teacher tries to ask questions that get the student to think like the teacher. But probing guidance is when teachers ask questions about the students thinking and how they can use that thinking to find the answers. Often, it helps both teacher and student to better understand the situation. We as teachers want to embrace the students way of thinking and use it as a basis for finding the right answer. Just because it isn’t what the teacher would do doesn’t mean it won’t work.

Now I started this inquiry based learning process in mid-January, and saw amazing results just having started halfway through the year. I can’t even imagine what type of results I will see when I start teaching this way from the start of the year. Because I’ll admit, it took some time for them to get used to what the process was. I was no longer giving them direct hints, or reminding them of skills. My responses started to become more generic, like, “What do you think it’s supposed to be?” or “Why are you thinking you should do that?” or “How does that work for you?” At first, they seemed annoyed at my new teaching style because I wasn’t getting them to the answer quick enough. And this kind of reaction was proving to myself that I wasn’t really helping them at all. I was hindering them by getting them to the right answer so quickly because they weren’t even trying hard enough. They would struggle for a minute or two and then call me over to help them out. But soon they started to catch on and realize that with my new strategies, they should really work it out as much as they can before they asked me for help, because they knew they weren’t going to get much of it. Eventually, they seemed to enjoy that ownership and they started to take pride in their hard work.

Another reason that I love inquiry based learning is for all the productive mistakes I see. In my classroom, even before I started inquiry, we embraced mistakes. Carol Dweck taught us well and we instilled a growth mindset within our classrooms and schools. But inquiry makes that process (with math, anyway) so much better!

When I check student work now, instead of saying something like “Hey, double check number 7,” or “Keep working on this one, it’s not quite right yet”, I say things like, “Hey, I’m seeing good effort here. Explain your thinking here for me.” And often, they will go back and explain it to me and then go, “Oohhhhhh I messed up here!” or “I see my mistake!” Often times, as soon as I ask them what they were thinking, they start erasing their work. So I’ve learned to ask the question in a way that I’m just curious, and I’ll even say that. “I’m curious about your thinking here, can you explain to me your process for solving this?” I do this for both incorrect and correct answers. It’s extremely helpful to know how your students got their answers so that you can help them in the long run with what types of interventions they need.

When my students work in groups now, I no longer have just one person report on their process, I ask one student a question, and then ask another student what they did next. And if they cannot do this, I tell the whole group something like, “Everyone in the group should be able to explain this process. I want you to make sure that everyone is understanding the process and are on the same page. I’ll check back in a few minutes” and that usually leads to them conversing about the topic further and making sure everyone has a clear understanding. And I’ve seen extremely exciting results. Students who don’t usually “lead” the discussion, start leading and helping. It’s really wonderful.

I also never knew how to respond to a student that was called on that gives an incorrect answer. My go to phrase was, “That’s the answer to a different question!” But I found that that wasn’t very helpful to the student because they would either get embarrassed or shut down. Then I would try and call on another student and have the first student repeat the correct answer. Which is fine, but it doesn't help the first students brain to grow.

So I started something new: Whenever a student provided an answer that was incorrect (either in whole group or small group) I would say to them “Prove it. Prove that that is the right answer” and I would walk away and leave them to their productive struggling. And they would usually find their mistake by the time I came back to their group and it would be correct.

Now it isn’t always sunny days with inquiry. Sometimes it doesn’t go right, sometimes behavior issues arise and sometimes the task really is too challenging (which is usually what leads to those behavior issues). But that is vital information. That is still helpful to you. Now you know what you do need to teach and perhaps give them a task that is less complex to see where the gaps are full. You can use this information to construct your learning groups and how to pair individual students based on their knowledge of that particular skill. I usually base my groups heterogeneously, with a strong learner in each group to keep the motivation moving along. So far, this has been working out well for me. I usually just do an extra check in with my lower kids to make sure that they actually do understand. I also have a large number of high flyers and I usually give them the option to be a “math leader” and help out other struggling groups, or I give them some sort of enrichment activity that challenges their brain.

When I don’t use inquiry based teaching, I feel like I haven’t helped my students learn. There is so much more than just reciting formulas and drilling skills into their brains. What are they learning from just following a set of instructions and hoping they get the right answer? It’s more than that. They have to own their learning. When they discover it for themselves, they feel a sense of accomplishment and ownership over their own learning. And there is something really wonderful you see in them after they’ve learned on their own. It’s confidence. They become more confident in themselves with this type of learning. It’s absolutely remarkable.

Inquiry based teaching is a new teaching style and that can be scary sometimes. But, I promise you, the outcome is totally worth it. Not just for you as a teacher, but for your students as well. You won’t regret it.