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Paul Grobstein's picture

thinking more about open-ended inquiry in the classroom

A few notes for myself, and any one else interested, from last Friday's conversation, informed by, among other things, some questions about how open-ended inquiry might or might not work in humanities teaching (see also Inquiry and historical research in the literature classroom).

The starting point was the question of how to make students interested, how to engage them with the material of a course. The suggestion was to start with questions, not necessarily answerable ones but rather ones that are interesting to both students and teachers. This creates for students from the outset an atmosphere in which the can "feel for themselves" and "find out for themselves". It creates for teachers the opportunity both to rethink why they are interested in the material and to look forward themselves to the possibility of seeing it in a new way. The contrast is starting out with either foundational material or questions to which the teacher knows the answer. In either case, there is a risk of students being passive or trying to figure out what the teacher is trying to get to rather than fully engaging with the material themselves. And a risk of disinterest/a sense of obligation on the part of the teacher.

If one is going to work in terms of students' (and teachers') interests instead of a pre-existing content outline, the question arises of how long one persues a given topic. The intriguing suggestion was made that one stays with a topic until people get "bored", ie until it no longer is generating interesting new ideas and questions.

Would this suffice to assure "significant movement" as opposed to "just bullshitting"? Perhaps one can rely on the teacher's greater experience and familiarity with the material to tell when a collective inquiry is no longer generative, and to convey to students a commitment to the novel and distinctive. Zen education provides a possible model along these lines. Student responses to unanswerable questions are challenged by the teacher until the student comes up with an answer that the teacher hasn't yet thought about and so can't challenge. At that point, a new question is posed, and so on. In dealing with unanswerable questions, students are expected first to "surprise" themselves with an answer, and then to "surprise" the teacher, rather than to either know or discover the "right" answer.

What's in the way of such an approach? Teachers seem, in general, to be reluctant to "take risks", to do something without knowing where it may go. Th open-ended approach would, in this respect, seem to place an unreasonable burden on the teacher since there are so many ways things might go. An alternative is to recognize that the teacher is more familiar with the material than the students and needs only to know that there are some places it might go that can be productively challenged and others that will lead in interesting directions. That, the boredom criterion, and the teacher's own curiosity should provide enough support for risk taking.

An interesting test of this approach has to do with medicine, and one's expectations of doctors. Would one prefer to have them answer questions, or to be "informed inquirers", and work with patients? Should pre-med students want/expect to "have teachers teach me rather than explore it myself"? Which form of education seems likely to produce better doctors?

Perhaps in general one should evaluate the effectiveness of an educational experience not by how much someone knows after it but by whether they questions they ask after the experience are more sophisticated than the ones they asked at the outset.  This might apply to science, premedical curricula, and the humanities as well?

 

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